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What do authors really look like?

A new guest post today from Ferdinand Page asks what, exactly, authors look like? Ferdinand lurked around doing everything to books except write them until the writer’s digestive tract kicked in. An urban fantasy, scripts and short stories are now poised, waiting to re-write the world. Read Ferdinand’s blog and follow @ferdinandpage

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What do authors look really like? Countless moodily-lit faces, arranged against a background of bookshelves or graffitied brickwork, have failed to convince the public that they are looking at somebody who writes for a living. Or doesn’t. Authors’ photos are the tip of the iceberg. The problem is capturing what makes a writer a writer, and not just somebody in need of a makeover.

The only accurate visual representation of an author appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the eighties. Krang, one of the best, and certainly the grossest character to emerge from TMNT is, in every way that matters, a writer. From the midriff of his robotic body, the disembodied brain of Krang peers at the world from its sealed capsule. Krang’s urges, the standard-issue drive of evil alien warlords everywhere, are to emerge into a world reconstructed in his own image.

In eerie replication, the writer takes the raw stuff of real life and turns it into stories. The writer’s brain is located, not in the head as commonly assumed, but in the stomach. Writing is, a digestive rather than an intellectual process, peering out at the world it will re-make according to the perceptions and capacities of each individual imagination.

We are doomed to turn everything around us into story, however well or badly we write it down. Writing is a skill but the urge to write is driven by an alien digestion. J. G. Ballard coupled skill with a powerful imagination that took the disturbing reality of his experience and made it even more disturbing. Interviewed by Thomas Frick for The Paris Review, Ballard identified why writing is so essential to our proper digestion of life.

“I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality … I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.”

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Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

When I re-started my writer’s stomach recently, I was surprised at the demands of this dream-digestion process. In a small but Damascene moment on the Northern Line, I had the choice to write down a plot resolution or check I was on the right line. The writer’s stomach won. It took 40 minutes to get to where I should’ve been.

Fortunately we’re not looking for world domination, although a bigger share of the readership would be nice. But the process of the writer’s dream-digestion is powerful, and it doesn’t show on the outside. As Thomas Frick describes visiting Ballard in Shepperton:

“… It is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself … two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminium lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household.”

The outside of a writer, how they appear to the human eye, tells you little or nothing about their interior world. The silver palm trees don’t tell you about the writer’s alien digestive tract. They don’t tell you

we are Krang.

 

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I have a copy of the magnificent Sci-Fi Chronicles to give away

One of the side projects I managed to slot in last year were some entries for the rather magnificent Sci-Fi Chronicles. I can now claim to have literally written the book on Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K Le Guin and a bunch of other SF novelists. The Sci-Fi Chronicle is a visually sumptuous book, the kind of thing you can spend many hours flicking through, soaking in decades of amazing imagery from sci-fi in film, books and TV. It also has intriguing timelines so you can see exactly how the big events of SF tie together. Oh yes, and there are words!

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Sci-Fi Chronicles

However, as I’m travelling at the moment, a weighty encyclopaedia of sci-fi isn’t something I can easily add to my baggage. So, my contributor copy is therefore up for grabs. All you need do for a chance to score this lovely prize is answer the question below in an email. You’ll also need a postal address and a phone number so the publisher can arrange delivery to your door.

QUESTION?

Which sci-fi author would you like to write the book on? And why?

Answers on a Self Addressed Email to : damiengwalter@gmail.com

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Brene Brown on how the scientific study of stories can help us live a wholehearted life

Brene Browne is a scientist of human stories. As an academic and researcher she has interviewed thousands of people about their life experiences, and from this data she draws insights about human behaviour and emotions. In 2012 she became famous for her research on shame – the powerful emotion that leads us to “close down”, to switch off our emotions, and to close our hearts.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

In her book Daring Greatly : How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead Brown expands her insights on shame, vulnerability and courage in to a philosophy of wholeheartedness. Wholehearted people, Brown argues, have learned strategies to deal with the hard events and emotions of life without closing down their hearts. She summarises these strategies as 10 guideposts for wholehearted living, behaviours that her research has identified as common between the wholehearted, and that we can all cultivate in ourselves.

AUTHENTICITY – it’s too easy to make what other people think the measure of our value. But this can lead us to very inauthentic behaviour, from copying fashions to going along with the mob even when they are wrong. The wholehearted are authentic and true to themselves.

SELF-COMPASSION – nothing and no one is perfect, so constantly striving for perfection can lead us in to punishing and self-destructive behaviour, that rarely if ever actually yields better results. Wholehearted people have compassion for their own self.

RESILIENT SPIRIT – modern life is full of ways to numb difficult emotions, from shopping and television to alcohol, anti-depressants and hard drugs. But we can’t numb life selectively, and killing our emotions makes us powerless. We have to cultivate a resilient spirit by facing and dealing with hard events and emotions instead of numbing out.

GRATITUDE AND JOY – is that glass half-empty or half-full? We’re a glass half-empy culture, however much we have, scarcity thinking means we think we need more. To be wholehearted we need to spend time being grateful for what we have, and feeling the joy that comes from just having enough and not needing more.

INTUITION AND FAITH – we chase after certainty, but life is not certain. The irony is that the more we try to feel safe and secure, the more damaging and self-destructive our behaviour becomes. Your life will be more certain if you never leave the house, but it won’t be much fun. Wholehearted folks tend to have faith that things will work out, and trust their intution to guide them.

“Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.”

CREATIVITY – it’s beautiful to play music, or tell stories, or make art. But when we start to compare what we create to the creations of others, we stop being creative and start to be competitive and ambitious. Letting go of comparisions is a powerful way the wholehearted become more creative.

REST AND PLAY – this is my favourite of Brene Browne’s 10 guideposts. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and as much as possible loafing around doing nothing. Too often in our work we make exhaustion a status symbol, “oh I’m so tired I was working all night” and measure self-worth via our productivity. The wholehearted take plenty of time to rest, and treat work like play.

CALMNESS AND STILLNESS – how easy do you find it to just do nothing? It’s hard, right? Humans are anxious creatures, but there’s rarely cause for such anxiety in modern life. One step to being more wholehearted is to put time aside for activities like meditation that help us to become calm instead of anxious.

MEANINGFUL WORK – wholehearted people tend to find meaningful work to do. We all want meaningful work, but sometimes we miss opportunities to get it by believing there are things we are “supposed to” do instead. For instance, if you are “supposed to” make $250,000 a year at work, there’s every chance you’ll miss lower paid but much more meaningful opportunities.

LAUGHTER, SONG AND DANCE – here’s a secret – cool people aren’t cool. In fact often they are very uptight, closed off, and unhappy. If you can’t dance, sing and have fun because you’re so concerned about what people will think of you, then you’re likely suffering from exactly the shame and emotional numbness Brown is taking about. Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.

I find it fascinating just how closely Brene Brown’s empirical, scientific studies of human stories mirror the insights revealed by religion and art. These 10 guideposts for the whole hearted have much in common with the 5 spiritual principles taught by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh or the subtle insights in to human suffering explored by Haruki Murakami in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Daring Greatly is a wonderful introduction to Brene Brown’s work, and is also complimented well by the Power of Vulnerability, a series of seminars recorded by brown with a live workshop audience. Essential listening.

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Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh on the five spiritual principles that lead to true power

Power is an inescapable aspect of modern life. Our work places, social lives and even families are often made harder by the struggle for power, status, money and control. Everyone hates “office politics” but we all get sucked in to the dynamics of human power far more often than we would like.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most respected teachers of Buddhism. A Vietnamese monk who was exiled from his country because of his activism during the American war, he has since gone on to found monasteries and teach Buddhism to millions around the world. Hanh’s work in the Zen Buddhist tradition is deceptively simple, focusing on every day tasks like walking, or washing the dishes, as gateways in to the present moment.

The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh

In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh puts forward a radically different definition of power. To be powerful is not to have a big house or car, is not to control armies, lead a Fortune 500 corporation, or be a billionaire. We pursue these things only because we believe – quite falsely – that once we have them we will be happy. But it is happiness itself that is true power.

“When you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money that you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.”

The five spiritual powers that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches are at the core of Buddhism, but expressed in such simple and down to earth ways that even the most most skeptical atheist can likely find some guidance in these spiritual principles:

ONE – Have faith in happiness. Unless you have some faith that you can be happy, and that being happy can come before having money, fame and status, you’ll never stop believing that money, fame or status need to come first. You have to take a leap of faith, and trust that your own happiness will catch you.

TWO – Be diligent in cultivating happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you keep doing things that make you unhappy. Gambling, drinking, arguing, negativity of all kinds, is addictive. While positive actions like eating well, exercising or growing friendships can feel much harder. But if you’re diligent in pursuing happiness, it will grow.

THREE – Be in the here and now. Mindfulness – being present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts of past or future – is central to Buddhism, and increasingly widely understood beyond Buddhist teachings. But it’s hard! It’s only in the present moment that we can notice our thoughts, and sense our bodies, to really see the causes of our unhappiness – and our happiness.

FOUR – Get concentrating. The more time we spend in present awareness, the better we are able to concentrate on specific tasks. Anything from drinking a cup of tea, to performing a violin concerto. The better we concentrate, the better we do our tasks, and the happier we are.

FIVE – Insight is the goal. Faith, diligence, mindfulness and concentration build on one another to help us arrive at insights. These can be personal – realising that a relationship has become bad and needs to be fixed. Or they can be more universal – understanding a complex idea like interbeing. It’s these insights that make our happiness long term and lasting, far beyond the transitory “happiness” we assign to wealth or great fame.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas as I have described them are simple, and he continues to expand up them in The Art of Power. The full book is a short but tremendously valuable read. It is well accompanied by his early text Peace Is In Every Step, and the excellent After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.

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On the internet, hate pays

In the desperate contest for online attention, hate is a tempting weapon. But it comes at a cost.

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Do we use the word hate too lightly today? I hate this book, we say of the discarded paperback. Being a less than compelling story seems a minor crime to punish with hatred. Hate comes tattooed on the knuckle beside love. Unfaithful friends. Cheating partners. The colleague who achieves the ambition you are still dreaming of. However hard we shout our denial of the fact, the things we truly hate are also the things we truly love.

It’s because we love them dearly that books so frequently become an arena for hatred. Introverted souls are drawn to the peace and solitude that escape in to a good book offers. But those who go on to create books find themselves drawn in to the cacophonous, sharp elbowed contest to be heard in a world filled with far, far too many writers. There’s only so much attention to go around, and what writers will do to get it sometimes beggars belief.

“if they are hateful enough, a smart writer can climb the online status hierarchy with the attention such reviews gain.”

Take #HaleGate for example. Novelist and confessional journalist Kathleen Hale scooped up a huge serving of attention this week when she detailed the obsessive relationship with her “number one critic”, Goodreads book reviewer Blythe Harris. Hale’s tale tells of a savage campaign of hatred conducted against her debut novel, painting Blythe as part of a culture of intensely hateful critics who perform for a a hooting mob of online haters. Blythe’s defenders, many of them members of that hooting mob, respond that she was merely an innocent consumer. Her negative book review was no different from downrating your local McDonalds on Tripadvisor, Hale’s vengeful behaviour the equivalent of finding an armed attack team of Ronald McDonald’s on your stoop.

Alternatively, both Hale and Blythe are participants in the endless war for limited human attention being waged online. Blythe’s hateful book reviews garnered her a loyal following on Goodreads. Reading an entire book is a hard sell in this age of diminishing attention spans. But a venous review of the same book can make a delicious snack between checking your Facebook status and that next crazy cat video. If published authors are the aristocrats of Goodreads, then hateful reviewers are the voice of the mob baying for their blood. And if they are hateful enough, a smart writer can climb the online status hierarchy with the attention such reviews gain.

Scale Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew


The aptly pseudonymous hate reviewer Requires Hate did just that, before apparently disappearing from the community of sci-fi and fantasy writers she had so brutally critiqued. To call the RH reviews scathing would be to downplay their sheer vindictiveness. Their favourite target were white, male authors of “grimdark” fantasy, whose general incompetence at writing female characters, and frequent dependence on sexual violence to power their plot lines, made them sitting ducks. When I wrote at the time that this kind of aggressive reviewing was here to stay, precisely because it was a guaranteed way of grabbing attention, I didn’t know precisely how accurate I was.

“I suspect those most deeply hurt by such hatred will still be harbouring hate of their own.”

The short stories of Benjanun Sriduangkaew began finding publication and widespread acclaim in 2012. This year Sriduangkaew was nominated for the prestigious John W Campbell award for Best New Writer of SF and Fantasy given at the World Science Fiction Convention. After many rumours it was recently confirmed that Sriduangskaew was none other than the author behind Requires Hate, who had dropped from public sight just as Sriduangkaew appeared. Would Sriduangkaew have climbed to such rapid attention without first courting the clique of writers and editors who also loudly cheered her hateful reviews? Readers will no doubt judge the merits of her writing for themselves.

Of course, hate as a publicity strategy has some rather profound consequences. It does, after all, beget more hate. Rightly or wrongly, Blythe’s hateful reviews were ultimately turned to the advantage of one of their targets. Hale’s adept exploitation of her haters has in turn made her the target of intense outrage online. And Requires Hate / Benjanun Sriduangkaew this week issued not just one but two public apologies for her hate filled reviews. I certainly hope that’s enough for a young writer to be allowed to get on with their career, but I suspect those most deeply hurt by such hatred will still be harbouring hate of their own.

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Transrealism : the first major literary movement of the 21st century?

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Ethical publishing – now wouldn’t that be something?

UPDATE : Ghostwoods Books hit their target with 9 hours to spare. Woo-hoo!

Contrary to rumour I don’t hate publishers. I understand that publishers are businesses, and as such they operate in their own best interests. The flip side of that is I feel it’s not just fair, but essential, to point out when the business interests of a publisher work against the interests of the writer. Which is often.

Ghostwoods Books are arguing – I think rightly – that there is a role in publishing for the ideal of fair trade.

That doesn’t mean writers are better off without publishers. The indie publishing scene is amazing, and the Amazon Kindle store now provides a superb new income stream for new and established writers alike. But the bottom line is that writers need time to write, and at some point that means handing over to someone else the numerous other tasks needed to publish a book. Division of labour and economies of scale dictate that writers will always need publishers – or something very much like publishers. What would an ethical publisher look like? This might be the most important question writers can ask at the moment. How would we re-shape the publishing model to ensure that, in this digital era of such great change, publishers continue to support writers instead of startling to exploit them? Across the entire publishing industry, the only people I see putting forward a serious answer to this question are London based indie publisher Ghostwoods Books. What does it mean to be a “fair-trade publisher”? You’ve probably seen Fair Trade stamps on tea, chocolate or other goods from the developing world. How could this possibly apply to a publisher working with writers? Fair trade companies are profit making businesses. But they recognise that their position in the supply-demand chain gives them far greater power than their suppliers. So while these businesses have the power to force down the prices of their suppliers in the short term, they choose to pay a much higher price in order to ensure the well being of their suppliers. They choose to trade fairly.

The Bone Clocks is the brilliant new novel from David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas.

Ghostwoods Books are arguing – I think rightly – that there is a role in publishing for the ideal of fair trade. Major publishers, as businesses, pay as little as possible for books. They spend as little as possible on editing and marketing, and only enough to maximise their return. Great for publishers, much less good for writers. Ghostwoods Books aren’t alone in thinking there is a better way, with writers like Chuck Wendig, Seanan McGuire, Warren Ellis and many others putting their support behind the idea. Ghostswoods Books are turning to readers for the second stage of their development, with a mid-size Kickstarter coming in to it’s last 48 hours as I type this. That Kickstarter will fund a year of work for the publishing industries only fair trade publisher. I think that’s a goal worth supporting. And I have a feeling, you will too.

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The last days of #GamerGate …actually it’s dead now

UPDATE: #GamerGate was in its last days when I wrote this. Today it died. Or was put out of its misery by Anita Sarkeesian on The Colbert Report. That’s right…#GamerGate set out to silence a feminist games critic. Two months later she is on one of the world’s most watched television programmes. Well done! Here it is.

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For those yet unaware, #GamerGate is an online campaign run by some fans of video games, a campaign directing a lot of anger at people who criticise video games for being violent and sexist. #GamerGate has been rumbling along on social media, Twitter being at the eye of the storm, for some weeks now. But today #GamerGate entered its final phase.

Is #GamerGate anything more than a pointless online squabble? I believe it is, yes. The real question at the heart of #GamerGate is this – are video games essentially an adolescent distraction, packed with sex and violence to capture a predominantly young, predominantly male audience? Or can video games, after four decades of development, become a mature art form? Just as novels, movies, tv and other kinds of mass media art exist to serve many kinds of audience, so should video games.


In it’s early days video gaming was part of the children’s toy industry. Consoles and other early gaming platforms like the Sinclair Spectrum were marketed to children, and games were largely focused on on kids. As those kids grew in to adolescents and young people, the games became increasingly violent and sexualised, simply because these are easy ways to capture the young male demographic many game producers see as their core audience.

So when Anita Sarkeesian points all of this out in her Feminist Frequency podcasts, or when Leigh Alexander explains that the audience for games is now much broader than just young adolescent males, and that the old “gamer culture” that exclusively served them is therefore dead, they are ENTIRELY CORRECT. And also doing video gaming a great service by helping it move on, and develop its full potential.

The #GamerGate backlash was entirely predictable, but its venom and nastiness was even greater than many expected. Of course there are people – some young adolescent males, some older men who haven’t grown up emotionally, and some developers dedicated to serving them – who feel threatened by all this. And they make a lot of noise. People looking at #GamerGate in recent weeks can be forgiven for thinking it represents what the majority of gamers think. But like many radicalised movements, it represents a small minority who make far more noise and attract far more attention than they deserve.

For anyone who wants to to see video games fulfil their potential, the last days of #GamerGate can’t come too soon.

And also like other radical factions, #GamerGate crossed some serious lines to gain attention for its lost cause. Members of #GamerGate issued bomb threats, not the first we should note, leading to the cancellation of a public event by guest speaker Anita Sarkeesian. In short, #GamerGate became such a hysterical overreaction to the issue of video games that its members HAVE ACTUALLY TAKEN UP DOMESTIC TERRORISM. In response, the vast majority of the gaming community have come out against #GamerGate, making the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag trend worldwide.

If you’re still in any doubt about which “side” is in the right in #GamerGate, ask yourself what happens if one side or the other wins? If #GamerGate wins, video games continue as a highly violent, highly sexualised distraction for adolescents. If everyone other sane rational human with an interest in video games is heard, then gaming has the space to grow in to something much more creative and valuable. #GamerGate suits the interests of a few game producers who can’t see beyond the quick buck they make selling sex and violence to teenagers, and a minority of gamers who are happy with that limited idea of gaming. For anyone who wants to to see video games fulfil their potential, the last days of #GamerGate can’t come too soon.

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Art feasts upon its maker – is writing bad for you?

“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.”

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the most rewarding parts of helping other writers is what you learn in exchange. One of my clients, the fascinating David Dakan Allison, sent me the quote above from David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I’m in the midst of an email interview with Mitchell at the moment, and tempted to ask him about the idea of art feasting on its maker. It makes me think of the opposing quote from Stephen King, that art exists to support life IE the writer writes a book to get paid so he can live a good life.

I’ve wondered before if King’s On Writing is so popular with aspiring writers because it argues that writing can be all gain and no give. Mitchell’s position is less easy to hear – writing is a gift to the reader because it sucks something essential out of the writer. It’s hard, and possibly bad for us. But then don’t writers just love to mythologise, and what better way to self-mythologise than to claim our art is killing us!

Two great writers arguing two very different opinions on the issue of art. I suspect the one we prefer says as much about ourselves as it does about the argument.

Think more about advice for writers with these 5 indispensable guides for writing.

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Science fiction’s utopias are built out of wilful ignorance

Project Hieroglyph challenges SF writers to move away from dystopian stories, but while the optimism is refreshing, real-world questions go unanswered

Science fiction, for most of the 20th century, celebrated the idea that a competent man could build better machines to help make a better world. In recent years that prediction seems to have come true. Stories that once sounded like sci-fi are now a regular part of everyday life. Popular scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku proclaim how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives, while non-fiction bestseller The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee presents a convincing argument that sci-fi ideas like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and robot workers are now very real.

There are few critics left who would argue against the idea that science fiction has played an integral part in the emergence of this new machine age, in the process transforming itself from pulp fiction into one of the most influential cultural forms of the 21st century. But the influence that sci-fi wields has grown darker since its golden age. The once optimistic vision of competent men tinkering with the universe has been replaced with science gone awry – killer viruses, robot uprisings and technocratic dystopias revelling in the worst of our possible futures.

Read more – The Guardian

Digital Publishing – a thought experiment

Rewind your imagination less than a decade to late 2007. Amazon are making final preparations to launch the Kindle e-reader and the ebook store that would, in just a few short years, come to dominate digital publishing. Now imagine, in true sci-fi alternate history style, that the major publishers had actually taken up the baton of innovation and pre-empted Amazon with an ebook platform of their own. Over the next few years the publishers, with the massive advantage that they own all the books, push Amazon out of digital publishing and preserve their business for the future.

Hurrah! Right?

Let’s ask a few questions of this scenario. Would the publishers ebook platform provide affordable ebooks to readers all around the world? Would the publishers ebook platform be open, free of charge, for any writer to publish their work? Would the publishers ebook platform pay writers a 70% royalty?

Now tell me again, why is Amazon the bad guy?

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Writer. Guardian columnist. Writing a book.

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