The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

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The Casual Journalist

The Register has a short piece on the ebook formatting problems of JK Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy. It’s a shame the quality control wasn’t up to much for what would undoubtedly be a highly popular ebook.

But what really irks me in the article is this comment:

But as some have noted, the steep cost of the ebook shouldn’t be blamed on Rowling: It’s the taxman’s fault in Brussels.

Many publications, including printed books, maps and charts, magazines and newspapers, are zero-rated, but ebooks are classified differently because they are subjected to VAT.

Let’s pick this apart.

First, as one of the commenters on the article said, ebooks aren’t classified differently because they’re subject to VAT: they’re subject to VAT because they’re classified differently. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly, in my view) ebooks aren’t classified the same as printed books, which are exempt from VAT. This wrinkle can legitimately be blamed on the hypothetical Brussels taxman.

OK, so how much of the £11.99 Amazon currently charges for the book is VAT?

Amazon’s European tentacle is registered in Luxembourg, which means Amazon charges customers Luxembourg’s VAT rates. For ebooks, this is 3%. When I self-publish through Amazon I set the price excluding VAT: I poke at a calculator to work out how to make the number displayed by Amazon, which includes VAT, be the price I actually want people to pay.

Without the dastardly taxman in Brussels imposing VAT, The Register’s correspondent would have to pay the significantly cheaper price of… £11.64. Why, with that 35p saving he could buy almost… something.

And even setting aside the VAT issue, you couldn’t blame the ebook’s high price on Rowling. She’s not the publisher. I dare say the contract she has with her publisher is more to her favour than most traditionally published writers enjoy — I wonder if she receives a better royalty rate than the standard miserly amount? — but I don’t believe she’s allowed to set the price of her books.

Incidentally, Amazon is currently discounting the hardback version of The Casual Vacancy from £20.00 to £9.00. The ebook version currently costs £2.99 more than the hardback.

That’s what The Register should be complaining about.

Out now: The Pink and the Grey

It’s done. The Pink and the Grey has been published for the Kindle, for Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and as a DRM-free ePub from Lulu.

I’ve created a page where you can read the blurb and find links to the book. I’ll update that as more formats come onstream, as a stereotype in braces would probably say.

Stats fiends: it’s 81,867 words long. In a standard 5in by 8in paperback format that’s about 280 pages. And yes, I am planning to release it in print form if you’d prefer an actual paper copy for your groaning bookshelf.

Hey, why not buy the ebook in all its formats and the print version? Why not buy a dozen copies to give to your friends? It makes an ideal Christmas present. Look, just buy it, will you?

I love the cover, which shows a shield not unlike that of St Paul’s College in the story. It’s designed by Mike Smith, creator of the excellent Blogshank blog. (He also writes and illustrates children’s books, so while you’re book shopping you should buy his Edward Hopper and the Carrot Crunch too — available for iPads and iPhones.)

Mike has also produced a new cover for Till Undeath Do Us Part in the same style. None of the story has changed but if you want to buy another copy I shan’t stand in your way. The new cover shows a detail from the stained glass of the west window of King’s College chapel, the magnificent medieval building that plays a part in the story. I simply cannot stop looking at the two faces. Wonderful, expressive — and very appropriate to the story, I think. (As I write, Amazon is still showing the old cover. I imagine there’s some caching somewhere. I twiddled all the necessary bits, I think.)

I guess I now have a brand. All I need are some sales…