Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Generation War - Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter

I found the recent TV series Generation War both moving, and surprising. From a British perspective, it was compelling to follow a wartime story that invited me to care about a group of young Germans, rather than simply seeing them as "the enemy".

Predictably, there's been a lot of protest about it. The events of World War II are still too close, and too terrible, for anyone to be entirely neutral, and the BBC was forced to air a debate between several dissatisfied parties and the show's producer. There were several key issues:
  • The series was too sympathetic to Germans
  • The unsympathetic portrayal of East European partisans
  • The unlikely friendship between non-Jews and a Jew
Over and over again, the commentators argued that this or that wasn’t typical, and therefore it gave the wrong impression; that it was wrong to show partisans mistreating Jews, because not all partisans mistreated Jews; that it was inaccurate to show Germans disagreeing with the war, because not all Germans disagreed with the war. All too often, we heard people objecting to something because it didn't align with their particular point of view. They implied that the series was somehow "wrong" because it didn't include the things that they wanted it to include.

In a media-savvy age, where everything needs to be a metaphor, it seems there is no room for a story about five wartime friends, unless that story is a perfect microcosm of everyone’s wartime experiences.

That, of course, would have been impossible to achieve. Even the dissenting experts broadly agreed that Generation War was a brilliant and moving drama series. But clearly it wouldn't have been if it had tried to be all things to all people.

Perhaps, when we look at something like this, we need to be a little more generous, and a little less prejudiced. After all, if we can't be patient with someone else expressing a subjective account, there's no reason to expect a patient response to personal views of our own.

Friday, 4 April 2014

If App Developers made Books

After spending millions of dollars training a generation NOT to pay for content, the app industry has discovered that it really needs to understand (and adapt to) its audience if it wants to get any more money from them. In less than six years, a global media sector has been turned on its head – pivoting from Paid to Free, in one irreversible step.
The new business models rely on in-app-purchases (IAP) and adverts for their revenue, but this means they need a much deeper, much longer engagement with their audience if they want to break even. There are many innovative methods employed to achieve this… but what if these approaches were applied to other digital media? What if app developers made ebooks?

It might start simply – a banner ad across the bottom of your Kindle screen, plus a few seconds of streaming video ads, every other chapter. At first, these ads would be fairly generic, but after a while you'd start to notice things. You're enjoying an Inspector Morse novel and the banner ads just happen to include one for London Pride beer and another for a new recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle. You might also find that ads were being delayed, so they'd be less obvious. After all, if you read The Silence Of The Lambs, it's reasonable to expect a few ads for L`Air du Temps… but not today.
From midway through any novel, eerily accurate recommendations for other books would start popping up. Reading on, the ad frequency would steadily increase as you approached the pivotal chapters, culminating in a blizzard of banners and a timely [Pay to Remove Ads] button.

In-Book Purchases (IBP)
Removing Ads has always been a popular in-app purchase and its applicability to all kinds of content ensures its inclusion here. But what else might readers pay for?
Paywalls certainly aren't new – and you could argue that Amazon's "Try a sample" button is effectively just that: giving a few pages for free followed by the option to purchase the rest. But imagine if the book's publisher could set multiple paywalls, wherever they wanted in the text. Rather than appearing after an arbitrary number of pages, the paywalls would be exquisitely placed at twists and cliff-hangers, creating the strongest possible emotional need in the audience before asking them for their money.
If the above seems a bit… well, manipulative, then how about a Pay Per Chapter (PPC) model instead? Readers would be able to audition new books and, effectively, pay an amount commensurate with their enjoyment. If they finish the book, they pay full price; if they can't get into the story, they pay a tiny fraction.
Of course, this approach relies on the book chiming with as many readers as possible. Are there perhaps ways to broaden a book's appeal?

Adaptive Content
Again, it could begin with something simple. You might think it's just a coincidence that it's raining outside while you read the opening chapter with the hero trudging through a sudden downpour… but is it? Context sensitive narrative might easily cross-reference the Kindle's location with weather services, modifying the displayed text to build resonance between the reader and the protagonist. But that's not the only thing that could adapt.
If a book contained multiple versions of the text, then subtle cues (quietly mined from social data) could shift the protagonist's age, gender, religion or ethnicity, to be more compatible with that of the reader.
Authors and editors could watch the behaviour of early readers – identifying where people seemed to lose interest and stop reading. The problem chapters could be tweaked or replaced, with updated versions of the book downloaded automatically. But why stop there?
Using a process called A/B Testing, it's possible to split an audience and measure how each segment responds to something. So at any given time, 10% of readers reading the same book might be presented with a slightly different plot – and whichever version showed the highest completion ratio, or received the best reviews, would become the new "standard edition" of the book.

Social Reach
Last but not least, it's worth considering how a book's social reach might be extended through digital techniques. There was a time when audiences went looking for content but now, increasingly, content has to go looking for an audience. We're seeing more and more innovative methods of publicising titles and it's not hard to predict a time when the amount you pay for a book could be reduced by the number of friends you tell about it. After all, everyone knows the importance of studying the algorithms that drive the digital stores and recommendation pages. But app developers also know that people are busy, that people are forgetful. So perhaps ebooks will start reaching out to readers if they've been gone for a while – a friendly nudge via push-notifications or social media, complete with a one-page reminder of the story so far. Re-engaging the audience is so important… especially if there's a Pay Per Chapter model on the horizon.

Thankfully, the fact that you can do something doesn't always mean that you should do it. True, the above ideas are all based on real techniques from the apps business, but there's no reason to assume that this is the future for ebooks. Although, now that I think about it, the Pay Per Chapter approach might just work, especially for a series crime author like myself. Perhaps even digital clouds have silver linings.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014


Plotting. Planning. Researching. This must be how a lot of criminals are caught. Because it wasn't until I'd done a fair amount of prep work on a crime of my own that I noticed just how incriminating my actions were. And the murder I had in mind wasn't even a real one.

I'd been mulling over some ideas for a new novella. The subject had come up during a meeting at Hodder, and my initial thought was to use one of the novel concepts I'd been making notes on for a while. But the more I considered this, the less suitable it seemed. My books always seem to give a lot of narrative (sometimes most of it) to the villain. This is okay for a full-length novel, where there's enough time to develop satisfying emotional links with multiple protagonists, but in a shorter story I felt it could prove difficult to connect with my detective and another principle character. I needed to come up with something different.

So I got a new idea. And, because I always try to base my stories in reality wherever possible, I started doing my research. As usual, there was plenty to do – articles to read, things to check on Google, a day in Bristol to walk the routes and visit the scenes…

…and that's when I started to get that eerie, uncomfortable feeling. Much of what I was doing was what my villain might do in preparation for their crime. If a real investigation were launched, my own internet history would have left an obvious digital trail for the police to follow. My movements around the city would have been extremely suspicious, and I'm sure I must have been caught loitering on any number of CCTV cameras. I could just imagine a grey-haired solicitor peering at me over his glasses and sighing, "I believe you, Mr McNeill, but I'm afraid it doesn't look good."

Of course, I'm not a criminal. But I couldn't help wondering, how long would it be before circumstances aligned to drop some poor writer in it? How long before some unhappy coincidence led to an author being detained by the police for a real crime, similar to the one they were researching? In that position, how would you counter the dreadful burden of circumstantial evidence?

I suppose you just have to make sure you always have an alibi… and maybe write a blog-post like this one, to undermine the prosecution's case!

Monday, 24 March 2014

If You Love Books, Don't Set Them Free

I hope there will always be physical books. They’re one of the world's most enduring forms of media, and one that still works well today, even in direct sunlight. However, more and more, people are choosing to read ebooks and this trend isn't going to go away. As reading shifts from physical towards digital, there will be enormous challenges and tough times for everyone – authors, publishers, and retailers. But how tough do those times need to be?

As a series crime author, published by Hodder & Stoughton, I follow the fortunes of the book market with great interest. But my day job is running a successful app developer, working with a range of digital publishers. The games/apps business is a new market that moves extremely fast. Compared to books and music, it's the youngest, but it's evolved at a frightening rate, overtaking more established media with an explosion of innovation (and considerable collateral damage to the people and businesses that work in the space).

The good news is that the older, more established media can look at the parallels and, if they choose to, learn from the mistakes and successes of their younger counterpart. As someone with a foot in both camps, it's fascinating to watch, but I sincerely hope that the book industry won't slavishly tread on all the same landmines that the app industry has.

Let’s start with an (ironically) obvious issue: discovery. Going digital brings more choice, but almost everything is harder to find. Previously, publishers fought to get their physical products into traditional retailers where it was tough to stand out, surrounded by hundreds of competing products. But now, as the physical shop becomes an online store, each product is swamped by millions of others. These virtual shelves are never cleared; they just get longer and longer as thousands of new titles are published every week. And with no shopkeepers to curate the content on offer, and self-publishing offering a way to sidestep the publisher’s quality-threshold, much of the content is mediocre.

So if your title is swamped by a deluge of other stuff, how do you make it stand out? Surely, if it’s good enough, it will rise to the surface. Isn’t that the point of all those reviews, ratings, and charts?

Sadly, the answer is no. When I stated that the apps business was innovative, I wasn’t kidding. There’s now a whole sub-industry, dedicated to “gaming the app-stores” – artificially inflating chart positions and sales by manipulating the algorithms that drive them. And if you thought sock-puppeting was scandalous in the world of books, you should draw the curtains and hide under the bed, because in the app world there are stories of “incentivised” review campaigns that would make your pages curl.

Which leads us to the final solution: price. With no other way to differentiate themselves, many app publishers lowered their prices as a way to attract attention and grab market-share. The theory behind it was simple enough – yes, you’d make less money on each sale, but you’d sell many more titles, and end up making more money overall. It was a winning strategy...
...except when everyone did it.
Very, very quickly, the majority of apps dropped to £0.69, the lowest available Apple pricepoint at the time. It was a desperate race-to-the-bottom but, as it turned out, 69p wasn’t the bottom, and prices kept going down. Some titles – big titles, with five or even six-figure development budgets – hit zero. And once they were free, everyone else had to follow suit, or risk being left behind in the tumbleweed of the Paid Apps section.
But zero wasn’t the bottom either.
Soon, digital publishers were incentivising people to download their apps, handing out vouchers and in-game rewards to try and bribe people into playing their free titles. Propped up by investment funding, businesses are now discussing “new user acquisition costs” of $1 to $2 per person – meaning the price of a free app is actually minus $1 or minus $2.

So what about book pricing? A few years ago, £2 or £3 felt cheap for a mainstream novel, but not now when the Kindle Daily Deal offers amazing titles for just 99p. There are definite signs that ebook pricing is following the same downward trajectory as apps. Some will say that it’s just progress, that it might even be a good thing. Lower prices for everyone and more sales overall… and it’s kind of working for the apps business isn’t it?

This is where it gets dangerous. Because, unlike books, games and apps are not fixed, linear content – with a predefined beginning, middle and end. They’re built to adapt, to mould themselves to each individual user in increasingly subtle ways. Games may be “free”, but they employ a huge arsenal of psychological techniques to create a need in their audience… then sell them something that addresses that need.
"Oh, you were almost at the end of the level… do you want to buy another try?"
"Oh, it's taking ages for your virtual crops to grow… do you want to buy fertiliser?"
"Oh, your virtual kitten is sad because it’s hungry… do you want to buy it some food?"
Within this ruthlessly-optimised ecosystem, audience-behaviour is tracked and studied in real time, with apps adapting their sales approach automatically to monetise better. After all, modern games and apps are never finished; they are on-going services, constantly evolving in the pursuit of revenue.

This is why the book industry should be extremely wary of following the apps model, especially on pricepoint. Unless we want pay-walls between chapters, invasive advertising, or other consumable content to drive in-book-purchases (IBP), how will publishers and authors make enough money to cover their costs? And as we've seen in the app industry (which has spent millions of dollars training its audience not to pay for content) once you go free, you can never go back. There was a time when 69p was a small price to pay for a game, but now it's a ridiculous demand by "greedy" publishers.

So why does this situation continue? The answer is simple: because it works for the channel.
Whatever the pricepoint, some people still pay for some content. And whatever they pay, channels like Apple or Amazon will take a 30% cut, which is completely fair when you remember that many physical retailers demanded more than 50% in their day. Of course, Apple and Amazon can afford to be generous – their marketplace now covers the entire planet, and there’s a good chance they sold you the device you’re buying the content for too. Crucially, if they are taking 30% of a whole industry’s revenue, they aren’t worried about whether individual content creators and publishers are breaking even or not. But this isn’t a criticism of Apple or Amazon – they don’t set the prices, the content providers do.

Which begs the question, if so many of them are making a loss, why don’t the content providers do something about it? Why don’t they starve the machine rather than keep feeding it? In the apps business, the blunt answer is that there will always more content coming along, because there will always be new people prepared to give their content away in return for exposure. The overwhelming majority of apps make a loss, and the app-stores are gorged with games from developers who have (or will) go bust. But what about books?

Anyone with a Word document can get their novel on the Kindle store, but it’s not just self-publishing that’s bulking up the virtual shelves. Traditional print publishers all have rich back catalogues and, because digital stock doesn’t take up any space, they are naturally uploading old titles as well as new ones. An unimaginable wealth of content, constantly growing, always on sale whether anyone buys it or not… it’s hard to put the brakes on a machine with that sort of momentum behind it.

This is probably the point where I should insert a fluffy, upbeat conclusion, to dispel some of the gloom above. But rather than glibly suggesting that everything will be all right, I think it’s more reassuring to remember that everything wasn’t all right before. The “good old days” of physical products and physical distribution were beset with problems, and the rise of digital brings a host of positive opportunities, not just challenges. There’s growing talk (and investment) around the areas of content sharing and social discovery, which is very exciting.

But I do think there’s a bullet to be dodged here. Let’s just hope that the book industry reads all the way to the end, before it decides to follow other digital media too closely. Because unlike games and apps and music, books haven’t given away their pricepoint yet. And so long as they don’t train their audience to believe that digital content has no cash value, there will always be hope for non-digital content. Like physical books. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Two Words

Writing can be tough. You’ve got to find a great concept, plot out the story, then carefully unfold the whole thing across several hundred pages. Some days it goes well, some days it doesn’t, but you press on towards that exhilarating point where the book takes on a life of its own, where it starts to feel real, and the chapters fuse together into a whole…

And then comes the really gruelling bit: thinking of a title.

Strictly speaking, it’s not just thinking of a title, it’s thinking of a good title that hasn’t been used recently. I got lucky with my first book – “Eye Contact” had the right feel, and it had been a few years since anyone else had used the name. For the sequel it took longer, with a large number of emails going back and forth before my editor suggested “Knife Edge”, which fitted the story perfectly.

And so to Book Three, whose name has been an ongoing source of debate and head-scratching for months. There have been email exchanges, word-lists, and phone-calls. Every time I thought we had something, a quick check on Amazon would reveal a recent book with the same title, and my hopes were cruelly dashed. Were all the good titles taken?

In the midst of such despair, it was a truly great moment when, over cookies and coffee at Hodder, my agent Eve White came up with two words that everyone agreed on: “Cut Out”. It’s certainly a huge relief to me, and the book feels more complete, now it has its own identity.

So there you have it – writing really can be tough. The first ninety thousand words might be straightforward enough*, but the last two can be a right pain.

CUT OUT will be published in August 2014, with paperback the following January.

 *Actually, not straightforward at all.    

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Importance of being Edited

Someone once said “The only thing worse than being edited, is not being edited.”

I forget who it was, but they made a very decent point. The process of taking a draft manuscript and turning it into something ready for reading is a critical stage of any book. Whenever I hear people squabbling about the merits of self-publishing versus the merits of traditional publishing, I’m surprised how infrequently the role of the editor is raised.

When I talk about editing, I’m not really thinking about the spelling and the grammar – that’s copy editing which, though absolutely vital, is a different process, usually done by a different person. No, what I’m referring to is that bigger-picture job – looking at the story as a whole, identifying what works and what doesn’t, and finding ways to improve it.

A good editor can empower the author, instilling them with the confidence to change those passages that had previously seemed to be set in stone, or giving them permission to delete a precious chapter that no longer fits. Like a crystal ball, they can offer glimpses into the future, predicting the reactions of the readers and the questions they will ask, giving the author time to hone a narrative response (and appear clever in the process).

In some respects, editing is a little like special effects in a film; when it’s done well, you don’t even notice it, yet it makes the whole production much, much better. So, with all these obvious benefits, it would seem sensible for every novel to go through the process, right?

It depends on who the editor is.

We all check and change our own writing to some degree, but the idea of editing – really editing – my own work is nonsensical to me. I don’t believe it’s possible to take a truly objective view of something I’ve spent months slaving over. Even if I embraced the task and got the book to the point where I was completely happy with it, I’d know it hadn’t been fully tested, and the idea of dumping that job on the reader seems a little disrespectful.

So what about freelance editors? I’ve not had the opportunity to use one, but they certainly exist, and I’m sure there are many excellent people doing this job. My only concern with this approach is that the author needs to think carefully how the writer/editor relationship works. Let me give you an example:

When I completed a relatively solid draft of a recent novel, I was naturally nervous (as I always am) but broadly pleased with what I’d achieved. I had a few nagging doubts that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I sent the manuscript off to my publisher and waited for their response. In due course, I sat down with my editor to work through her initial feedback and, although she liked the story, she had a number of points for discussion.

To be clear, this wasn’t the important little details, like line-edits, tweaking a phrase, or tightening a paragraph. This was about the structure of the story – looking at the pace and the shape of things, and reflecting on how the reader would feel about each character’s journey. My editor highlighted several things, which seemed innocuous enough in themselves… but it wasn’t until I began addressing those changes that I appreciated their importance. The changes weren’t huge – most of the scenes remained the same, with subtle tweaks at key points…

…but it made a big difference to how the story felt, and to how I felt about the story. I was enormously relieved that her feedback forced me to revisit those areas that I might otherwise have left alone.

And this is the issue. I’d be a little uneasy about an editor working for me because (in my case, at least) I don’t think that’s the right structure. I much prefer having an editor who works for the publisher – because then her allegiance is to the story and its readers, not to me.

I know it’s not for everyone, and I know it requires an editor who shares your vision for the book, but I like our collaborative approach. For me, it’s great having someone who “keeps me honest” and pushes me as a writer. And when we sit there, and she suggests something brilliant, and I groan “I wish I’d written that,” she can smile at me calmly and say “You will, Fergus. You will.”

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Apple Tree Yard

Let's get this out of the way, right at the start – Apple Tree Yard is wonderfully written. From its brilliant opening, it held me throughout, and I was completely absorbed by the story. If you haven't read it yet, forget about this post as it may contain some spoilers, and I wouldn't want to lessen your enjoyment of a really good book.
For those of you who have read it, I've no problem with the novel itself, but when I finished it, there was a sense of something not quite right, something missing. For me the issue was simply this: I didn't like Yvonne Carmichael. I didn't particularly like any of the principle characters – nor should I need to in order to enjoy a book – but the more time I spent in Yvonne's head, the more I felt that she wasn't as nice a person as she thought she was.
To be clear, I'm not referring to the horrible crime – and for the record, I was grimly pleased about what happened to Craddock – but rather to Yvonne's thoughts regarding her family.
Perhaps it's because I simply can't empathise with a parent who harbours resentment towards their own children. Although it's beautifully subtle, there's a sense that Yvonne feels somehow unrewarded by her family. She's worked the hardest, sacrificed the most, and put her career second (even though it's apparent that she's reached the top in her field anyway). While the relationship with her husband is more ambiguous, she does appear to have alienated her children – in fact, almost everyone in the story seems able to get along better without her on the scene.
She's not a stupid character – far from it – and she has a good insight into most people she encounters. And yet, when she describes her relationship with her children, there's a selfish undertone in the way she spins certain situations for sympathy.
None of this is a criticism of the book. It's a testament to the writing that I felt I was uncovering things about a real person. And of course, whenever we form opinions of other people, such opinions are subjective.
It simply made me wonder… how important is it that we actively like characters? When I think back over books I've enjoyed the most, there is usually a strong character that I like, or like to hate. Yvonne didn't elicit either feeling.
Perhaps other readers don't need such a particular emotional connection to their characters. Or perhaps it's just that I lack the life experience to appreciate or empathise with a character like Yvonne. In any event, it's something I'll be thinking about in whatever I read next.