As regular readers have known, around two years ago I got into producing e-books. Not only did I self-publish the novels I had been writing over the past thirty years but I also made use of blog postings to create essay collections on alternate history. These latter were very popular, especially those concerning the Second World War. However, as time passed they began to be criticised, as is typical for many e-books, on the basis of minute points and people simply disagreeing with the content or the style and labelling it with a one-star review. The worst being a review that complained that a 1940s pastiche novel was a 1940s pastiche novel and as the review said 'no-one wants that', so the critic felt it was down to him to remove it from circulation. A one-star review means the book is no longer picked up by search engines and basically sales cease. I have kept the book on sale for want of knowing what else to do with it.
Self-published e-books have brought other trends beyond the absolute power of a single reviewer to destroy a book. One that is discussed in 'The Guardian' newspaper last weekend by Philip Hensher: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/01/philip-hensher-why-short-is-sweet as if it had suddenly just appeared, is that such an approach allows the publication and sale of short stories in a way that has probably not been feasible for a century, maybe even longer. I think Hensher would be pushed to sell a short story at £2.29 on Amazon as he suggests, but maybe someone like Zadie Smith who he focuses on, has sufficient standing to achieve that price.
Hensher seems to be oblivious to the fact that this trend has been going on for five years or so. I guess he still reads books he buys in WH Smiths rather than traipsing through the online Kindle listings on Amazon on a Friday afternoon or clicking through from a blog to an author's stories sold on Smashwords. Certainly he should have been aware of 'Shetl Days' by Harry Turtledove, an established if no literary author, published only online as a short e-book for 99p back in April 2011. Hensher is write to praise the ability to produce and get out to the public books of very varied lengths. Ironically, or perhaps logically, on Amazon the best-selling genre of short-story seem to be 4,000-word erotic e-books; I guess because people are not looking for much character or plot development in such stories!
This year with my books being torn apart for representing Finland in the 1940s in a way which people disapproved of, apparently using too many online as opposed to paper sources and having 'too much history' in my alternate history e-books, I took many of them down. They were not making any money and it was soul-destroying just to be sitting there being slagged off in a whole host of ways. These days, one minor typographical error is enough to have the entire book condemned as useless. I guess that is a characteristic of our indignant societies; people are angry that their authors can actually be human and cannot afford to employ editors, even though most publishing houses do not bother with them these days anyway. Conversely, people I meet want to see my books, but if they even read them, they never bother to include a review, leading me to think I indeed must be so bad and they are simply too embarrassed to say.
Some constructive criticism is what all authors need, such as suggestions on style or level of detail. In this world it is all or nothing, either the reviewer condemns your work as needing to be removed for causing offence due to minor errors or the person is too embarrassed to say anything about what they did not like in the book. The former simply want you gone out of the way of the 'proper' authors they admire so much more. The latter, well, I do not know what they want, perhaps simply proof that when you say you are an author you actually are, maybe they hope to catch you out in confessing you are lying and the evidence simply ruins that game so they have nothing else to say.
Anyway, you get the picture. However, these set-backs have not doused the ideas that I have bubbling away in my head. Sometimes I have to simply write a story to get it out of my head otherwise it bubbles around in there getting in the way of other thoughts and indeed preventing me from sleeping. One reason why the 10th-12th of the Braucher stories were written so fast was that they had been planned some years before but never written and reflecting on them kept me awake, I simply had to get them out and finished to get enough sleep and maintain my health. This brings me to 'Against the Devil's Men' which is an e-book just under 9,000 words in length that I started writing on the evening of Saturday, 2nd November 2013, as a result of the weather meaning the wireless reception where I am staying was too poor to allow me to continue my game of 'Rome II Total War'. I wrote the remaining 7,300 words of the book throughout 3rd November. I edited it after work on 4th November, having created most of the front cover and the synopsis over my lunch break. I put it up for sale that evening and by the morning of 4th November, had sold one copy.
Of course, the ideas had been around for a long time. The book is set in western Normandy in 1272 in an alternate world in which rather than retreating from Europe in the 1240s the Mongols have remained to continue their conquests and destruction. The ideas go back to me reading 'The Devil's Horsemen' by James Chambers (1979) in 2007, playing 'Medieval II Total War' and subsequently producing a chapter on this blog and then in my e-book of alternate histories of the Middle Ages 'On Other Fields' (2012). The story is told from the perspective of a cardinal charged with inspecting the frontline in the bocage country of Normandy. I worry that it is too dense because the cardinal engages in religious thoughts and controversies. I was also conscious of avoiding anachronisms, so he refers to the Mongols as 'Tartars' a mix up with the Tatars another steppe people; for centuries 'Mongol' meant a group of nomads rather than their ethnicity. In addition, being seen as coming from the Devil, this was a reference to Tartarus, a hellish region of the underworld in Ancient Greek mythology. He also refers to the Folban, the German term at the time for the people we now call the Cumans, another nomadic steppe tribe but one which fled in front of the Mongols and converted to Christianity in the 1220s.
My short stories have never sold as well as my longer books. However, I have enjoyed being able to produce and sell a book within three days. In the 1930s books on political events were often overtaken by a change in the global situation before they had been published. In these days not only can you blog about such events but you can get a book out while events are still running; indeed with an e-book you can update as they change. Perhaps Philip Hensher should catch up with the rest of the world and reflect on that new slant on writing and publishing.
I realised that I should have updated this posting in June 2014. That month I stopped selling 'Against the Devil's Men' in large part because it was criticised as juvenile for taking the French rather than the Mongol perspective on the Mongol invasion of Europe. Given how inhumane and brutal the Mongol invaders were to Christians and Muslims alike, destroying many aspects of civilisation where they attacked and killing people in particularly cruel ways, I would be very worried if I could write from the Mongol perspective on these things. I did include the story in 'Déviation: What If? Stories of the French' (2014) where it seems to have attracted less attention.