James Smythe

James Smythe

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AN OPEN LETTER TO NEW AND WOULD-BE WRITERS

Dear all,

Re: expected sales of your debut novel (and probably most novels after that)

So, a few days ago, Robert Galbraith - author of The Cuckoo's Callling, seller of 470ish copies of that novel in hardback - was exposed as being JK Rowling, who obviously has sold a lot more copies of books than Mr. Galbraith did. And then people began discussing why this happened; why the pseudonym that Rowling had created was exposed, and so quickly. It must have been, seemed the collective response, because of Galbraith's sales. 470 copies was a dreadful number, sales so low that the book was a failure. It must have been, so the publishers and editors and writer and shops and everybody thought it better to leak the news and bolster those sales figures.

Thing is, that's rubbish. Three months in, a debut hardback? 470 copies is fine. It's not setting the world alight, sure, but it's absolutely fine. UK only? That's okay. It's on shop shelves (or it was, until people panic-bought the novel upon the reveal) and one could get it on Kindle and whatever. 470 copies is absolutely fine. It's a ground to build upon.

Have you sold 470 copies of your book? Awesome. Be proud of that.

I frequently hear it being said now that hardbacks are for reviews and blurbs, and the paperback is where the sales are. This is true. Hardbacks, unless you're Kate Atkinson or Stephen King, aren't meant to sell tremendous numbers. It's nice if they do, of course, but they're just not. They're meant to sell, over their lifetime, 1000 or so copies. That's when people (read: publishers) feel satisfied, because that's a base to build upon.

People talk about publishing being short-tail nowadays - if you don't sell, you're done - but that's not true, not unless you're cashing in or something, or you're in this for the right reasons. For the writer and publisher both, this still is about time, and audience, and nurturing - of both you, and your writing. And that's how you have to treat this: as something that isn't going to stop mattering to you. It won't because it can't, no matter how many copies you sell, or how that number is perceived by people who haven't even read the book.

A personal story: earlier this year - a week before The Cuckoo's Calling, in fact - a novel that I wrote called The Machine was published by HarperCollins in the UK. It's my best book, I think - I hope - and I spent a long time working on it, trying to make it exactly what I felt it could be. I - quite literally - broke my heart writing it, and I worked harder on it than any other book I've written. Multiple rewrites from the ground up; so many hateful days where the words just wouldn't come; hating it completely, and then realising that hating it was important. I worked hard.

In fact, everybody associated with the novel did. My agent did, reading multiple drafts of it; my editor did, working with me to get the book to be the best that it could be; my amazing HarperCollins publicist did, trying to get reviews in newspapers for it; the tireless, exceptional HarperCollins sales team did, trying to get it into stores so that you - other readers - could, in theory, buy it. We had great blurbs from other authors, an amazing cover that felt and looks expensive, and great initial word of mouth on the internet.

Only… Well, I can't really find the book in many bookshops now. It didn't get front of store in any, aside from the few stores that loved and worked the hell out of my previous books. It only got a couple of press reviews, and none from the broadsheet literary sections. Not many people have heard of it, really. On Amazon, Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling held a higher sales rank than The Machine did throughout its life to this point; I don't know my sales figures, and I don't really want to know (though I have been told that it's the worst selling of my three novels). I'm guessing it'll break my heart all over again were I to find out an exact number. The book has 11 5* reviews on Amazon, hasn't had a single bad review on blogs, has lovely mentions on Twitter... and yet.

This won't suddenly get easier, either. No reviews means no quotes from newspapers for the paperback cover; they mean no exposure, no paperback roundups (which are mostly abridged reprints of the HB reviews); and I've been told that some outlets don't want to include The Machine in Summer Book roundups etc, because they want big name novels that readers have heard of, not new things.

Publishing is just like any other media business: you promote something, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a success. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we're resigned to praying for miracles, or relying on blind luck.

So we graft, and we work, and we graft again. And we go back to the grindstone, and we try. This isn't an industry where sales actually mean anything, other than that the machine is working; they are not representative of the quality of your work. I have to believe that, and so do you. Because, as a writer, it's an absolute fucking treat to be published. To have your work on a shelf, somewhere. That has got to be the only goal, not some arbitrary sales figure or chart ranking. That's soulless. That's ripping the heart out of this business, and totally opposed to the reasons that - I would sincerely hope - you got into this in the first place.

You got into this to write. I tell myself that, when I am feeling sad about this - and I do, frequently, I won't lie - but you got into this to tell the best story that you can, in the best way possible. You got into this to push yourself, and to try to affect people. 470 sales of The Cuckoo's Calling; and I'll bet every single one of those means more to Rowling than any of the people giving it 5* on Amazon just because it was written by her. I'll bet she wasn't even disappointed. So I can't be. I reckon The Machine has sold around that number as well (and that's my third or fourth novel, depending on how you count these things). All I really hope is that the readers who bought the book liked the book. I hope that it affected them.

That's what you need to cling to. Getting into this was never about money. We've always known that. It's not about advances, it's not about film rights, it's not about sales. It's about writing the best book that you can, and then crossing your fingers. So while I get sad - The Machine has all but disappeared from your shelves, nothing to be done until the paperback is released in January and I get to try this all over again - I can't be disappointed. Everybody involved has worked harder on it than they're paid to, because they believe in it. I have to believe in it as well. I have a publisher who believes in me, the support of an amazing community of bloggers who get and like my books, and I'm still writing, every single day. I'm still trying to get better at this.

And you, ambiguous writer, have to believe in whatever it is you've written, because that's all that matters. Make it the best it can be, put your heart into it. That's what matters. Heart doesn't sell books - luck and money sells books - but heart means you'll be proud of it, and that you can stand by it. The Machine is my best book so far, I think, and I am really, really proud of it. Selling what I have (or haven't) sold doesn't change that one iota.

So, really, this letter is to tell you to ignore the people who treated Galbraith's 470 copies as something to be ashamed of. It's a great number. It's something to build on, to be proud of. Any number sold is, frankly.

This isn't about sales; it's about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bullshit.

Yours etc,

James

Open the doors, here’s all the people: on Broadchurch.

[It should go without saying that there are spoilers ahead.]

Broadchurch seemed rather inauspicious when it was announced. I assumed – and correctly – that it would be ITV’s attempt to recreate some of the tension found in The Killing. A town, a murder, a family torn apart: it all looked fairly rote, on paper. And you know what? It was. But that’s not a criticism. It was pretty well written, well acted, well made. I saw some people mocking the slow-motion shots used, but I loved them. It made excellent use of the stunning scenery, and had some quite incredible use of light in it. Incredibly well made. No idea what the budget was, but it looked expensive, and what was there was put to good use. I really enjoyed it.

There is a however. There’s always a however.

The killer of the kid in the show was Joe, the husband of Olivia Colman’s detective character. (And she was, as has been shouted from every rooftop, excellent. Really, a superb performance.) I knew that it was Joe from early on in the show’s episode count. Most people did. My mother did, after two episodes. The narrative threw red herrings at us, and it tried to lead us down dark alleys, but it always kept coming back to Joe.

But why did that happen? What made it so obvious? The actual reveal – and this was disappointing, I won’t lie – came from nowhere, a reveal that we couldn’t have worked out, zero evidence presented until the final episode. (Spoiler for The Killing: the same thing happened there. We went around a ridiculous but enjoyable series of suspects before ending up with the killer being somebody we could never have ascertained. It’s like a detective story with no detection required, and is quite annoying. Regardless.) So we didn’t have any hints regarding Joe’s true personality. Instead, we had nothing at all. My mother said to me that she felt it was him because he was empty, like there was nothing there. Nail on the head. It was Joe because he was utterly underwritten. He had no personality, serving to only be in scenes with Olivia Colman where he did nice, good-husband things. He cooked a meal or looked after the baby or took his kid skateboarding. He had lots of screentime but no personality, or story. Everybody else was given motives and motivations – affairs or drugs or parent issues or trapping dogs in vans and pointing crossbows at them – but Joe stayed a void, smiling and just being there. Sometimes he got angry or defensive, but for no reason. Empty void, ergo killer.

So it wasn’t a surprise when he was revealed to be the killer, because that was his character. All along, that was, I suspect, deemed to be enough: that at the end we would see that he harboured secret tendencies, and that he was in love with a teenage boy, and that he killed said boy. That’s character! It comes out in monologue in the last episode – surely that’s enough? But it’s not enough. Because come the end of the show, there was a slight and gentle collapse of the narrative. Here’s the killer, and you could never have called it, because you – the viewer – had no evidence; but you all called it, because it was obvious. Evidence was given to other characaters for no reason. So, Pauline Quirke took the skateboard from the beach. Why? It made no sense, but it suddenly put her in the picture and gave us a reason for her story. It wasn't neat, but it was something. And it's something that Joe didn't have.

We want to be able to solve mysteries. Not to actually solve them, I should stress; but to be able to. The chance to essentially reveal how clever the creator has been, and how clever we could have been; that's been a must in detective fiction since year dot. You couldn't do that in Broadchurch, as you couldn't in The Killing. When something's sold as a murder mystery, I want that, I think. 

It sounds as if I’m being hard on it, and I likely am. I really enjoyed it. I think it’s one of the best things that ITV have made in years, and Chris Chibnall did a great job writing and plotting it. It was hugely enjoyable, and I anticipate season 2. But it’s worth remembering, I think, that a final reveal isn’t a replacement for good character development; and that we, as an audience, like to feel clever. It’s great when we work something out; even better when we think we have, and are blindsided. But it’s deflating to work something out based on no evidence than a lack of character; it feels, at every stage, like an accident.

Categorized: review, thinkings

THE MACHINE is out; here’s what some people have said.

Like it says on the tin. The hardback edition is absolutely beautiful - there's a lovely tactile torn effect on the cover - but there's also a digital edition from all of your usual digital places.

It's been getting some lovely reviews. Here are some links, should you wish to chase them down:

Tor.com: "Harrowing as it is, his latest is simply unmissable."

Words Of Mercury: "Smythe is improving with each book he writes, the voice becoming simultaneously more distilled and yet more complex."

Dog Ear Discs: "After a few days the memories of The Machine were burning... I realised that this is James’ best book yet." 

For Winter's Nights: "A highlight of the year I am sure."

Quicksilver Reads: "The Machine is staggering."

Curiosity Killed The Bookworm: "Serves up the best of what the genre has to offer; contemplating how far science should go and the meaning of existence."

There's also some blurbs from lovely writers (Will Wiles, Matt Haig, Nikesh Shukla, Sam Byers) if you click here to the dedicated MACHINE page

Let me know if you read it...

50 Essential SF Novels Part 2

Here's the second half of the list of what I see being the 50 Essential SF novels you probably should read. 

Arguments? Let's take this to Twitter.

Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984) Because without this, cyberpunk (such as it is) would be nothing, really.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985) I prefer Oryx And Crake - I think Atwood only gets better and better - but I cannot deny that this is more essential. Still pertinent; still - maybe even more than it was - terrifying.

Blood Music, Greg Bear (1985) Where so much SF looks outward, this went back inside, small scale, with far-reaching consequences.

Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1986) Utterly essential. Where superheroes are past of the SF canon, so this fucks with them, presenting both the ultimate story, and the full-stop to it.

In The Country Of Last Things, Paul Auster (1987) The collapse of a future world told through the collapse of memories and language both.

Mindplayers, Pat Cadigan (1987) The psychological effects of a cyberpunk world; a great counterpoint to Neuromancer.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989) What's not to love about taking the Canterbury Tales and adding spaceships and time travel and multiple framing narratives with their own distinct styles?

Use Of Weapons, Iain M. Banks  (1990) The best Culture novel? Probably.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992) If you're going to be ballsy enough to give a character that name, and then talk about your brain having a BIOS, you deserve to be read.

The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992) Time travel + medieval weirdness + future viruses.

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993) Nobody does colonisation like KSR. At points, it feels like this could be what actually will happen.

Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993) Expect to feel pleasure. Knowledge is sexy. Expect to feel pain. Knowledge is torture.

Girl In Landscape, Jonathan Lethem (1998) Things I want to read about: genderless terraforming aliens; invisible pet deer; bizarre inter-species sexual tension. Ticks all three boxes.

Ark Baby, Liz Jensen (1999) The world becomes barren. People start breeding with monkeys. Satirical dystiopia shouldn't seem this effortless. (Also, it's Liz Jensen. More people need to read more Liz Jensen.)

Thy Kingdom Come, Simon Morden  (2002) I had this on CD-ROM, back when The Internet was the future of literature. It was the best post-apocalyptic narrative I had ever read. Still right up there.

Black Hole, Charles Burns  (2005) A PSA: Don't have unprotected sex unless you want to turn into a weird alien mutant.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) I've seen arguments that this isn't SF. Bullshit. It's a near-perfect and devastatingly sad vision of an alternate life we might have had, were it not for our own morals regarding cloning.

Air, Geoff Ryman (2005) Take a tiny Chinese village. Give them a psychic version of the internet. Watch the results.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy  (2006) Our world, destroyed. Some of the best writing I have read, or will ever read.

Glasshouse, Charles Stross (2006) A 27th century version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and dealing with notions of the self in a way that few other books have.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon (2007) My favourite alternate history. Subtle, but far reaching. And it's funny! Actually funny!

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010) Another one that causes SF-genre arguments. Another one where I couldn't give a damn: it's pretty much a perfect alt-future bit of brilliance.

Embassytown, China Mieville (2011) Again - I've said this before - you blend aliens and the concept of language, and I am entirely sold. That and, the writing in this novel is just extraordinarily good.

Jack Glass, Adam Roberts (2012) No less than three superb SF narratives wrapped up in three superb locked-room mystery stories. It feels like truly original writing, and it's rare to be able to say that.

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway (2012) Gonzo, in every sense of the word. (Which is ironic, as it was Harkaway's previous novel that featured a character with that name.) SF-spy-fantasy-thriller brilliance.

Here's Jared's.

And here's Ian's.

50 Essential SF Novels Part 1

A few weeks back, AbeBooks published their 50 Essential SF Novels. This made Jared at Pornokitsch, Ian Sales and myself decide to post our 50 favourites, to compare. Here's the first 25 of mine, along with weak justification comments.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, (1818) Blah blah blah but really it's so, so good.

Flatland, Edwin Abbot  (1884) All I know is this: I cannot fathom how mind-blowing this must have been when it was first released. It's still that now.

The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel (1901) The most overwritten book I have ever read. Somehow, what with all the city-burning and madness, I don't really mind.

Iron Heel, Jack London (1908) The Brotherhood Of Man.

Fury, Henry Kuttner (1947) It's your classic underwater Venusian revenge story: thanks to a childhood of saturdays in a library for discovering this.

1984George Orwell (1949) Room 101 for me: I nearly forgot this. No idea how.

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (1950) I loved this style of SF when I was younger: where the science meant nothing, fucked-around with for the sake of the narrative.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951) I want an Apple-branded Prime Radiant for teaching purposes please.

The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl & Cyril M Cornbluth (1952) It's completely insane. (I am reliably informed that I will adore Gateway, incidentally, though I haven't read it yet.)

Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke (1953) First alien invasion book I ever read. 

The Paradox Men, Charles Harness (1953) An idiotic amount of fun. And they visit the sun! 

The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955) Religion and the apocalypse: what's not to love?

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (1956) Gully Foyle is directly responsible for The Explorer.

A Case Of Conscience, James Blish (1958) I love the bridge between religion and alien life: the questions it raises, about both faith and morality.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter Miller (1959) Because I love a good post-apocalyptic monk.

The Sirens Of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut (1959) So it goes: I didn't choose S5.

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (1961) I won't lie: I read this because I loved the Tarkovsky film. But the book is just as good, or better. It's philosophical in a way that I can't be; and the concept of communication being different with different races is one that I adore to this day. (See also: Embassytown.)

The Drowned World, J G Ballard (1962) Because Kerans' journey is one of my favourites in literature.

The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle (1964) I have only very recently read this. I adored it, and found it very relevant to my current interests.

Ubik, Philip K Dick (1969) It was this or Flow My Tears, but I thought I'd have a (tiny, insignificant) riot if I went with that.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969) Oh my god I want a brainship.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979) I read this because everybody in school did. Didn't mean I loved it any less for the hype.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1979) A proper library find: one of those books I took out because it had amazing spaceships on the cover, and was blown away by how powerful the story was to my teenage mind.

Riddley Walker, Russel Hoban (1980) The woal thing fealt jus that littl bit genius.

Lanark, Alasdair Grey (1981) Unthank remains my favourite alt-city I've ever read.

And here is Jared's list.

And here is Ian's list.

The second half of this tomorrow!