Q: Iain Finlayson! Pleeeeased to meet you, as awesome Grace Jones sings in a song. I see an outfit called Atrium Editions is bringing out ‘Blood Month’ as an e-book for our Kindles. Did your agent set up this deal? – you are, after all, the acclaimed author of biographies of James Boswell, Robert Browning and a grouping of sundry others in Romney Marsh; and you know a lot about Tangier and Denim, it appears… surely you discussed this book over a long lunch with your agent, She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named ….
There was a lunch. It was long. It was a little fraught. My agent, the doyenne of agents, the ne plus ultra of agents, She-Whom-I-Would-Prefer-Not-To-Name (here, at least), was invited to attend. For several months she had been ‘resisting’ (her word) reading ‘Blood Month’, a novel of crime. She was probably, understandably but exasperatingly, resisting my capricious whim to write fiction. At this point, let me introduce my co-author and collaborator in crime, Simon Burt, who was also with us at The Electric Cinema Café in Portobello Road. Together, Simon and I are one. We are as one, I mean, in the being of Matthew McAllister, who is the author of ‘Blood Month’. Simon can answer for himself (as of course can my agent), since this recollection of the lunch is my own version. I take some of the blame: while trying to persuade my agent to read and represent ‘Blood Month’, I used the words ‘genre’, ‘product’ and ‘collaboration’.
These, in the ears of a literary agent of great renown, sound neither pretty nor positive. Nobody should (or can, I discover: even hacks can only do their best) sit down deliberately to write pulp fiction. That was not Matthew McAllister’s intention. His aim was to write as good a crime novel as possible, with any luck have some fun in the process, and with a little further luck make a decent financial return from the effort. After a futile while, we started talking about dogs, and high-end, aristocratic dog mating, which went on for longer than any high-flown or down-‘n’-dirty talk about books; and at the finish, Matthew McAllister paid the bill for lunch.
That came as a little surprise, perhaps, but basically he had fucked himself right from the start with three words that are as bad in publishing terms as uttering expletives in front of the Queen. A long while after the derailment at the Electric, I came across my agent at a lunchtime publishing launch and said to the friend I was with, "She has at least two reasons for not reading my novel.""Only two?" she said with a smile. And I laughed, because by then I’d given up giving a good goddam whether she, or anybody else at the agency, could be the hell bothered to read the manuscript. Simon and I had already decided to take Matthew McAllister on his first trip down the digital highway.
Q: I am astonished! You mean to say, an acclaimed author such as yourself, with a confirmed literary pedigree, who is the books editor of bestselling Saga magazine and a regular non-fiction reviewer on the Saturday Times, has had to resort to self-publishing? Still you’re not alone….
Sweet of you to evince such astonishment, but let’s not get too high-flown here, Madame. Reputation is a puffball. It is a hard-on. It can be blown. Publishing has very abruptly and unexpectedly been stood on its head and it is still disoriented. About time too. The blood is rushing from its head to its balls. It had forgotten it had those and it needs to start playing with them again.
Traditional publishing is still prestigious and sought-after, of course. The hardback book will not die, but publishers and bookshops are on the critical list. There are many authors out there who find it difficult to place a book – let’s say a volume of short stories or a novel that is a departure from what is expected of them. I can think of half a dozen, just among my own friends, who are preparing, by reasoned choice (and sometimes even on the advice of agents), to bypass the traditional publishing process and go straight to digital.
These are writers with a serious track record of publication, a reputation for quality, and a living to earn. Either they go straight to Kindle (and Nook, Kobo, Sony or any other platform) or they invite subscriptions for a book on the Unbound website and deliver bound copies to the list of subscribers. Now, that is a modern version of a previous publishing practice. So, as well as new mediums for publishing, some ancient and venerable modes are being revived.
Best of all, if your book goes viral, like ’50 Shades of Goo’, publishers come banging on your door to publish it in hard copy, whereas you might have spent years pounding on theirs and becoming more and more dispirited and demoralised. Depressed, even.
Q: Isn’t it sexy to be master of your own publication process and not have to deal with Oxbridge 20-somethings wearing Alice bands who know fuck-all about anything? – perhaps you’ll e-publish other authors in time and beat orthodox corporate publishers at their own game.
Soooo sexy! Matthew McAllister is very hard-on about the adventure! He has seen the future and it is e. This is so different from vanity publishing, which was always looked upon de haut en bas, regarded as second best, and a personal indulgence. Digital publishing is a medium, merely. A book is a book is a book, no matter whether it exists electronically or as 350 grams of paper and ink clapped between hard covers. And it is democratic – anyone can put up a book, diary, essay, article on a digital platform. It is out there and can be instantly accessed at very little cost. You don’t have to order 500 or 5000 hard copies from a vanity publisher and stack them in your garage. No overheads.
Atrium Editions (see above) will first publish Matthew McAllister. It will also, in due course, publish the back list of Iain Finlayson and Simon Burt. It will then publish the work of friends and associates, accomplished writers, if they choose to come under the umbrella of Atrium Editions which will operate pretty much as a publishing company but without all the trappings of pusillanimous power and vaunting vainglory.
Q: Now, ‘Blood Month’. It’s a commercial fiction in the detective genre, set in London, with much red stuff redecorating precincts, and humour of noir hue for colour contrast. Its opening line intrigues: ‘So, in the end, Caroline Muirhead said, it wasn’t you who died.’ Raymond Chandler meets Martin Amis most foul?
Simon Burt and I have read literary fiction with the same attention we’ve given to hard-boiled and soft-poached crime fiction, and that seemed to be the trouble with ‘Blood Month’. It was well, even enthusiastically, received by several high-end publishers as a classy piece of work that extended the boundaries of the conventional crime novel. They then turned it down on the ground that it "crossed genres" and so, I suppose, could not easily be niche-marketed either as genre fiction or as a literary novel. I still don’t understand this. No wonder publishing is in trouble if it recognises quality fiction when it sees it, but doesn’t know how to sell it. So, obviously, I have to do it myself. Yes, ‘Blood Month’ is dirty writing. But stylish. It is noir, it is bleakly funny, it is morally ambiguous, it has characters who go from bad to worse, and closure solves nothing. Indeed, it opens up the plots of the second novel and the third.
Q: Blood Month is pacy, more-ish, terse, tense and immediate, not ‘literary’ – yet you’re thought of as a literary writer. Did you harbour closeted, faintly kinky commercial longings for decades? A need to be read for visceral, moist reasons? Or did the mood come upon you recently? In other words, are you now a money-grubbing words-tart?
Langue de vipère! How cruel, how pejorative you make such words sound! When A. S. Byatt won The Booker Prize and declared that the money would come in handy to build a swimming pool, there was a gnashing of teeth in outermost literary circles where a plastic bird bath, far less a duck pond, in the back garden would be a luxury. I don’t grudge anyone prizes – I have won some small ones myself, but they went to pay bills. I take your meaning, though.
Truth to tell, Simon Burt and I were broke and bored. His career as a literary novelist (‘Floral Street’, The Summer of the White Peacock’, ‘Just Like Eddie’, published by Faber) had stalled. I didn’t want to write another literary biography. Both of us wanted to do something different, have some fun with writing and, with any luck, make some money. Certainly, we wished to be read. Sold at airports! So, I said, "Let’s write a crime novel. How hard can it be?" All I want to say now, is that it is just as difficult as writing any other novel. We plotted the novels together, whereupon Simon wrote a fast first draft. I edited the text and the tropes rigorously. We discussed again. There were rewrites. And what emerged from the collaborative process was the voice and style of Matthew McAllister which is neither purely mine nor purely Simon’s.
The process was entered into with reason and was concluded in rapture! Not cynically, as a money machine. Whether it will pay off – chissa? The thing is done. It will take its chances out there with the punters and the competition.
Q: Did you research e-publishing before setting up Atrium? I mean, how many books get sold by e-self-publishing? Will people of the future laugh when told that once upon a time writers posted off their manuscript to a Snipcock in an office who, if inclined, got round to publishing it 18 months later?
I researched quite intensively. I went every day to the London Book Fair earlier this year and I talked face to face with the big guys of Kindle and Kobo. I talked to Kerry Wilkinson, the poster boy of e-publishing, a young BBC sports journalist, who has now written three novels, all straight-to-Kindle, all mega-sellers, who is now deservedly rich, charmingly funny and sweetly modest. I learned a lot just from talking. But I’d already primed myself by reading articles about the sudden publishing panic in ‘The Bookseller’ every week, browsing self-publishing websites, even reading – ironic, this – hard copy books about the e-revolution. The hardback book will survive better than the paperback – which has come as a surprise to publishers, who expected quite the opposite. E-book sales now outstrip paperback sales, and of course e-books can be more competitively priced (though publishers still like to try to match the price of an e-book to the hard copy on sale in bookshops.)
And yes, you’re right – the elderly tweedy (and even the young trendy) Snipcocks of publishing are busted. They need new business models that haven’t yet been fully developed. They sound positive, optimistic even, but they know it’s over. Conversely, this is the beginning of new opportunities for authors. What is a free-floating author to do? First find an agent, which can take as long as finding a publisher. And once he/she does, he may be lucky and find a brilliant editor. But chances are, he/she won’t. The process of publishing takes, say, nine months from final manuscript to finished copy. The shelf life of that finished copy, if it is a novel, is six months maximum. Then it goes to paperback after about a year. Even readers, far less authors, can become mad with impatience at this leisurely pace. Who can be the fuck bothered in this age of the short attention span and immediate gratification?
So – cut through all of this: Kindle or Kobo, any or all of them, whichever you choose – and you are free to be promiscuous – will immediately digitise your text at no initial cost, stick whatever artwork you provide on it as a cover, and put it up for sale on the appropriate website at whatever price you think is right. And then it is all up to you in terms of marketing strategies. It’s your book, baby. Hope it has a nice life…
Q: Would you ever write a porn novel? I suppose the challenge would be to take the genre in a new direction, now that porn vids are freely viewable all over the internet. I always switch off at the first b-j.
No. Absolutely not. Nobody ever gets sex scenes right in a novel. Best for a writer to pass over them in silence. Close the bedroom door at the first sign of sexual arousal. Quite the opposite, of course, applies to porno vids which are like novels in one respect: once you’ve read a novel, you rarely go back to it. Porno palls quite quickly too, except for turn-on moments you bookmark mentally and replay to get your rocks off. The next big thing should be the interactive novel, a story that the author constantly rewrites at the demands and desires of the readership.
The death of the book you’re worried about? The death of the author – the auteur – more like it. But I don’t mind that. Art in any medium is becoming interactive. Popular novels, like blockbuster films, are now being rewritten, re-edited, after being shown at sneak previews to focus groups who give market reactions. Classic children’s stories, too, are being doctored to tone down anachronistic racist, sexist and other attitudes. And what are we to make of ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ as role models for young, modern women? ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ kicks back for them, gets revenge. What, indeed, to make of a play (and film) like ‘The Boys in the Band’ as characteristic of gay life? We make a secular saint of Armistead Maupin instead, and honour Michael Mouse as a post-modern, liberated sexual hero.
Q: You’re a leading UK books reviewer – give us a glimpse of a day in the life of. Do publishers try to bribe you for positive critiques? Has any author you’ve slagged off threatened you with circumcision?
None of the above. I am sea-green incorruptible. I lead a blameless literary life. Just as William Burroughs declared "there is no such thing as a bad boy", so there is no such thing as a bad book. I will spare you a lengthy defence of that statement. Another time, another place – or perhaps, if you run fast enough, never. Just don’t ask me to take a look at your unpublished manuscript. I am very severe.
Q: Complete this sentence. ‘The Man Booker Prize is…’
… not as much fun as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. But there is more bitching and blood on the carpet.
Q: And finally, After ‘Blood Month’, what’s next in your literary and publishing career?
‘Blood Month’ is the first novel of a projected trilogy. They will all be stand-alone novels, but they can properly be read in sequence. The second novel, ‘The Benevolence of the Butcher’, is in production, currently in a late stage of progress. It’s being written, I mean. The third, ‘No Go’, is in development. It has been plotted in outline and, as a skeleton, awaits its fleshy dressing. Matthew McAllister is pretty confident that he knows what happens next, but he can’t wait to find out what actually happens next because the characters in the novel are more surprising than he knows. That’s the fun of it. Otherwise there would be no point.
It’s good. We go on as we go on. Like Mehitabel the cat, whose raggedy arse has seen better days, our mantra is "jamais triste, archie, toujours gai!"
Iain Finlayson! Thank you so much. Good luck with Blood Month, which I heartily recommend.
Blood Month by Matthew McAllister See: