The Voyage of the Whale Ship Esk in 1816

ESKebookFor several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.

This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.

Simon Nash News

Back in 2012 I began digitising the five detective novels of Simon Nash, all of which were published in the 1960s. I still have three more to finish off (the third one won’t be long I hope), but recently there has been a flurry of interest in this forgotten writer. In March 2014 CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) magazine published a great piece by John Cooper on Simon Nash in issue 67. CADS doesn’t seem to have a website, but it’s published by Geoff Bradley, who can be contacted at Geoffcads [AT] The magazine has an old-style fanzine look about it, but the content seems very good indeed.

Elsewhere, I published a short guest post about Simon Nash on the blog of crime fiction writer Martin Edwards, who I met at, of all places, a James Ellroy conference organised by Dr. Steven Powell of Venetian Vase fame.

The two Simon Nash ebooks (available for Kindle and all other e-readers) I’ve republished so far are Dead of a Counterplot and Killed by Scandal.

Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers–Kindle Edition

For some time now one of the most popular essays on this site as been ‘Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers’ so I have decided offer a Kindle version. The free web version is not going away, but you can buy it for your Kindle now from Amazon (UK store and the US store). If there is some demand for this, I’ll do the same for other essays, and add epub versions as well.

Epilogue: The Future of Print

This short documentary is about the future of printed books, and their practical and aesthetic differences from electronic books. It is beautifully done, to the extent that it makes me want to go immediately to an antiquarian bookshop. I agree with the conclusion that the two formats can–and should–co-exist, but it is interesting that not one of the advocates of print appears to be under the age of thirty.

Clouds Gathering

So the summer is almost over and I thought it might be useful to put down, in public, what I’m planning to get done this autumn. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so deep breath:

  • Finish off writing entries for the 100 American Crime Writers and 100 British Crime Writers books which I handed over to Steven Powell and Esme Miskimmin when I was at a low ebb late in 2009. Steve has put a lot of work into the Venetian Vase blog, and it’s becoming quite a nice thing.
  • Teaching–among other things–a course on the History of American Ideas (up to about 1865) at the University of Liverpool.
  • Overseeing English courses in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool.
  • Once the crime fiction pieces are done I’m planning to get back to the Scoresby project, finish off my outline, and start writing. Very excited about this.
  • I’m also going to revisit my PhD thesis on Raymond Chandler. I think there’s a book in there somewhere, and dammit I aim to find it.
  • Put together some teaching materials in the form of a series of short non-fiction e-books. This is partly because I need to get the material together, and partly because I want a trial run to see how e-books work from a production point of view. I’m probably going to begin with a short annotated and introduced collection of Edgar Allan Poe Tales, to go with my Poe lecture. There will be Melville and Thoreau material coming along too, if all goes well.
  • Start working on a series of short pieces on researching and writing essays and articles, to go with a study skills/composition course.
  • And somewhere, somehow, I need to think about what happens when my contract at Liverpool ends in January. There will be some occasional teaching, but I’ll need more work. A return to freelancing? We’ll see.

No promises, but those are the plans. There are a lot of ‘starts’ there, so it will be interesting to see which ones work out.

Digitisation, Copyright, and the British PhD Thesis

In the autumn of 1997 I submitted a PhD thesis, with the snappy title Modernity and Identity in the Detective Novels of Raymond Chandler, for assessment at Newcastle University. Some time later, after it had been examined, copies were deposited in the university library in Newcastle, and at the British Library. In the days of paper and hard covers nobody gave a second thought to handing them over. Now though there is a plan to digitise and make available online every British PhD thesis written since the 1600s. I am happy to be included in the scheme, but I have misgivings.

The vast majority of PhDs–mine included no doubt–lie unopened and unread in one of the British Library’s vast warehouses. In truth, few are worth reading in their raw form, though many are later rewritten as books. PhD theses are pedantic and technical, written for the examiners to prove the writer’s ability to corral a set of knowledge and sustain an argument. Books are written for their audience, whoever that may be, but PhD theses are no fun at all. They are written to meet a set of academic requirements, not for wide public consumption or the all-seeing eyes of Google and Bing.

It is natural to be a little bit afraid of having such a stunted, constrained, and raw piece of work on display, but the real issue here is one of choice. What I find irksome is the assumption that everyone will be happy to have work published online even though it was never intended for publication. This is work some writers may no longer endorse, or feel comfortable about. There is a way to opt out, but it depends on authors knowing they are involved in the first place, and university libraries do not seem to feel obliged to tell them. There is also the question of whether the choice needs to be a binary one. Why have PhD authors not been given the chance to license their work, allowing different levels of freedom to share and copy, rather than just the option to remove their work from the digitisation scheme?

The current copyright system clearly doesn’t work well with this new environment in which vast quantities of data are being made public, and the Library’s attempts to reassure with talk of copyright agreements, and tracking the recipients of downloads, miss the point entirely. Since most authors have not granted permission for this kind of distribution it is possible that the participating libraries themselves are the primary copyright abusers, but in any case, hard-line copyright statements are not really in the spirit of open access.

The expectation of wide availability will change the nature of the PhD thesis, and that is probably a good thing. In an open access environment there needs to be a reconsideration of who this work is for. But before that can happen we need to find a more sensible way of licensing this material, perhaps using Creative Commons licenses on all new PhDs as a matter of course. Trying to ignore the issue (and the rights holders), and hoping for the best, as the British Library seems to be doing, is not good enough. Like most people in this situation I don’t mind my thesis being part of the process, and I will be glad to get hold of an electronic copy when it becomes freely available. Even so, it would have been nice to be asked first.

Reasons For Self-Publishing: Lessons from History

… Owing to my having been my own publisher and thereby displeasing all London bookseller/proprieters of reviews I am to be most severely handled in the Quarterly, Westminster, Monthly Lit. Gazette &c–but how Edin. will treat me I do not know. You will, however, be glad to learn that I have the consolation that I have 7,000 subscribers amounting to no less than £7,000!–My first object in being my own publisher was to get the book up so as to be a credit to the nation and all concerned, my 2nd object was to give it to the public cheaper, and to show thereby how the booksellers impose on both the authors and the public–and lastly that I might keep the property in my own hands.

–From a letter by Sir John Ross to William Scoresby, 28th April 1835. Quoted in Tom and Cordelia Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist (1976).

Apple’s new old ways of doing things

In December 2008 I wrote a short blog post here suggesting that more by accident than anything else Apple had built a device that was a competitor for the Kindle. Back then Steve Jobs was in denial about the popularity of books so it took applications like Stanza to make reading possible on Apple’s handhelds. It worked, and continues to work, very well.

But now the fabled iPad has arrived and it has book reading built in, complete with support for the open ePub format. Of course that pleases those of us who like to read books from Project Gutenberg and Google Books on our iPods, but Apple has done something very strange with the look and feel. Having read books on my iPod Touch for a year and a half now I’ve broken free of the need for pages that look like pages. When I’m reading a book that’s all text, all I need is text. It’s certainly an improvement for books with pictures, but I can’t help thinking Apple’s iBooks look a little cheesy with their flippy-over paper-like pages.

Books though are not the most exciting thing about this device; it offers real possibilities for creating new categories of publication. As this post at Snarkmarket argues:

For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.

What the iPad offers is a frame, and one with well-defined limitations. I’ve been arguing something similar, though less concisely, over at shiftinglandscapeofmagazines. Here is a spur to create new forms of content and perhaps also to persuade people to pay for it. That will please Rupert Murdoch of course, but the real revolution could be for smaller players; it could be a lifeline for struggling literary magazines and a new outlet for authors who want to self-publish and get paid. Writers essentially become app developers.

If the iPad doesn’t do it for you, there are lots of alternatives.

Edited 29/1/10 because WordPress originally exposed a draft. Probably my fault in some way.

Magazines of the Future

I love magazines and I buy more of them now than I ever have. I love the feel of them, the shiny pages and the big glossy images. I like the way good design and good writing work together to create something that feels made or intended. I don’t get those experiences from the Web, though the vast majority of my reading is now done online. Magazines are like an icecream sculpture in a fancy restaurant; the Web, by comparison, is an unstable snowfield on the brink of avalanche.

But I have hope. Firstly iPhone apps such as McSweeney’s show what can be done in terms of delivering nicely produced, good-looking content on a small device. McSweeney’s has proper typesetting and feels good to read even given the constraints of a tiny screen. Secondly Apple’s attempt to revive the album through iTunes LP shows what can be done when the constraints of the devices involved can be tightly controlled. Interestingly, given the current hype surrounding ‘content in the cloud’, neither of these examples is truly an ‘online’ experience, since the content is downloaded to a device. The result is that it is tightly controlled and not subject to bandwidth issues. Apple does something similar with its Apple TV, storing content on the device, rather than streaming it on demand across the network like other media players. In terms of magazines the following remarkable video shows what might be possible.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.