Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Five Reasons People Like Owning Slaves.

1.      Slaves make you rich. Without them you can’t build pyramids, railways across Burma, skyscrapers in the desert or very cheap clothes because the wage bills would be too high.
2.      Slaves make you feel important because you can force them to suck up to you, even if everyone else thinks you are a complete plonker.
3.      Slaves make life very comfortable for you because they can be forced to do all the most unpleasant jobs around the house while you loll on the sofa.
4.      Slaves have to have sex with you even when no one else in the world would touch you with a barge-pole.
5.      Slaves allow you to be true to yourself because they can never turn round and tell you that you are just a bully and a loser.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Ten Most Heroic Professions in Thrillers and Dramas

Virtually all the central protagonists in great thrillers and popular dramas tend to belong to the same handful of professions.

The most notable exceptions are those heroes with “special powers”, although of course some of them, like Clark Kent himself, have professional day jobs. (For Clark it is being a “mild-mannered reporter”, which has always struck me as a contradiction in terms).

So, if we take out those with “special powers”, from Batman to the Six Million Dollar Man, what would be the ten most frequently used professions for the heroes and heroines of thrillers and dramas?

Policemen and women inevitably get a good showing because they inhabit exactly the right terrain, dealing with baddies on an hourly basis and solving crimes like the rest of us solve Sudoku puzzles. From the Scandi Noirs to the mean streets of NYC and downtown LA, the dreaming spires of Oxford to the golf club in Midsommer, the principles are the same. The cops are in at the beginning of a drama and stay to the end.

Doctors. They have always been a trusty mainstay. They are the ones who have to deal with the murder victims as well as the critically ill, inevitably becoming involved in the personal crises of other characters.

Soldiers. Obviously, from Flashman to Biggles, they get centre stage in any war drama or thriller, but then there are all the peace-keeping tensions for them to sort out too, from Ireland to the Middle East.

Amateur and Private Detectives. From Philip Marlowe to Sherlock Holmes, from Miss Marple to Monsieur Poirot, they have all the skills of the professionals but the dramatic advantage of leading lives more like our own – sort of.

Lawyers. From solicitors to judges they have the same access to crime and dramatic tales of conflict and justice as the police and the doctors, plus they can wear smart suits and funny wigs.

Secret Service Operators. From Bond to Bauer, the Man from Uncle to John le Carre and Homeland, they get to run the biggest, scariest plots in town, (apart from the superheroes of course).

Medical Experts. These are all the folks who inhabit the same dramatic landscape of sickness, violence and death but aren’t doctors. They are the nurses and midwives, pathologists, criminal psychologists and forensic experts.

Reporters and Journalists. Almost by definition they have access to the best stories and they get to go where the action is; plus they have the added drama of looming deadlines.

Wealthy businessmen and women. These are the guys who run big corporations, (think Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and, of course, Christian Grey in 50 Shades). They fly around in private planes and run dysfunctional families in places like Dallas and in shoulder pads like Joan Collins. They are mostly morally dubious but they get to wear even better suits than the lawyers.

Authors and Ghostwriters. Here’s where I get to confess a personal interest.

I happen to think that ghostwriters are in a similarly fortuitous position to many of the above when it comes to being at the centre of thrillers and dramas. Like all the above their lives tend to be episodic; they receive a commission; they are led into some strange and interesting world that they previously knew nothing about. 

The ultimate tale with the ghostwriter as protagonist must be The Ghost by Robert Harris, later turned into a film by Roman Polanski, with Ewan McGregor at the centre of the plot. I have used the same device myself. In Secrets of the Italian Gardener the narrator is a ghostwriter who finds himself trapped inside the palace of a Middle Eastern dictator as a revolution brews outside the walls. In Pretty Little Packages, recently published by Thistle Publishing, the ghostwriter is drawn into the worlds of people-trafficking and modern slavery when a girl called Doris asks him to write her story because “someone has stolen her beautiful new breasts”.

I guess it is partly the lure of all these fictional adventures which attracts so many of us to follow paths into the professions. Then, when real life turns out not to be quite as exciting as the authors and dramatists led us to believe, we have the books and films to escape back to once we get home from the office.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Pretty Little Packages" from Thistle Publishing

Fifteen years ago I was ghostwriting books for the most disenfranchised members of the global community; victims of enforced marriages, sex workers, orphans, victims of crimes, bonded labourers and abused children. Out of those experiences I wrote a novel, (initially entitled “Maisie’s Amazing Maids”, and now re-launched by Thistle Publishing as a sumptuous paperback and e-book entitled “Pretty Little Packages”).

Thistle is an enormously successful imprint set up by London agents Andrew Lownie and David Haviland to keep books alive and available when the more traditional publishing organisations are no longer willing or able to do so. While there have been some grumblings in the industry about the possible ethical problems of agents acting as publishers, and the Society of Authors recommends careful scrutiny of the contracts, Thistle has shown exactly how an agent/publisher can fill this gaping hole in the market, providing another potential stream of revenue for authors.

Electronic developments mean that publishers like Thistle can operate with minimal capital outlay, able to be nimble and responsive to the demands of both authors and readers in ways that are impossible for organisations that have invested in vast, glass, riverside tower blocks and mighty wage bills.

Until a book or author becomes a phenomenon, (step forward J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, Patterson, Donaldson, Walliams, Paddington et al), we authors are really more suited to the cottage industry style of production and marketing than the corporate. A book that can provide a good living to an individual author and an individual agent/publisher is often hard pushed to make any significant contribution to the bottom line of one of the mighty glass tower corporations.

Joe Tye, the ghostwriter protagonist at the heart of Pretty Little Packages, is definitely working at the “cottage industry” end of the business when he is approached by a girl called Doris, who informs him that someone has “stolen her beautiful new breasts” and asks for his help. Responding to her plea plunges him into the dark and dangerous worlds of people trafficking and modern slavery – his discoveries making the glass tower publishers suddenly eager to open their cheque books to him.

At the same time as dealing with the amorous advances of the sixteen year-old daughter of a gangster, who also happens to be his client, and navigating his way through drug dens and backstreet clinics from Brighton to Manila, Joe is trying to be a responsible, newly divorced father to a young son who constantly does the unexpected – and then things turn really ugly.

At the heart of everything sits Maisie, and her network of “Amazing Maids” – all called Doris and all having their breasts stolen. But behind Maisie lie much more powerful and sinister forces. People for whom other people’s lives are entirely expendable. People who do not want Joe telling stories.

Back in the real world; the more publishing companies there are like Thistle the more chance that stories will be told which the denizens of the glass tower blocks would otherwise allow to disappear – stories like Pretty Little Packages.   

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Greatest F***ing Love Story

“How about ‘The Greatest F***ing Love Story?” the publisher suggested as we brainstormed possible titles for an erotic love story that I had ghostwritten for an anonymous European lady, hereafter known simply as “Penny”.

The book had worked out well and one of the biggest agents in London had agreed to take it round the publishers for us. The reactions were dramatic. Some were shocked by the contents and thought it too strong for the general trade market, others were worried that the general public wouldn’t like the fact that it was non-fiction rather than fiction, (they were all at that stage scrambling over one another to find the “next 50 Shades of Grey”). We received some offers but they didn’t seem to reflect the value which we believed the book could have. The advances on offer weren’t dramatic enough to distract us from the paltry percentages we would earn in royalties.

Penny and James, (her lover), decided we should take control of the project ourselves by working with the new and dynamic selective partnership publisher, Red Door, which is the baby of Clare Christian, an editor whose previous venture was The Friday Project, (now part of HarperCollins). We also felt we needed to address the “discoverability” side of the challenge right from the beginning. To that end we hired Midas, probably the country’s best known publishing PR and marketing consultancy, and they worked with Clare on the design and packaging of the book right from the start. We now had all the elements of a traditional publisher in place, but without the overheads of a huge Thames-side building and everything that is required to support such an edifice.

The marketing gurus within Midas liked the idea of “The Greatest F***ing Love Story” as well – it did after all sum the story up at several levels – but were fearful that, even with the asterisks, it would frighten off too many of the potential retailers. More titles were bandied around until we settled on “Chances”.

With the book due to be published in February the mighty Midas marketing machine fired into action as soon as Christmas was out of the way and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 Arts Show.
Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether or not they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film Night”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants and hangers on? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. She opened by caressing the book lovingly, purring with pleasure at the production job Red Door had done on it, and continued in much the same vein from then on. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Chances is the true story of the most erotic of love affairs, of the most intense and rewarding relationship possible between a man and woman – a relationship that blossomed out of heartbreak.

“What” the cover asks “if your first love was your soulmate and perfect sexual partner but you made the mistake of letting them go? What if you were reunited with that first love after fifteen years of unhappiness and you were then able to fulfil every romantic and erotic dream you had ever had?”   

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Cover image of "Confessions of a Ghostwriter" by Andrew Crofts, due out from HarperCollins in August.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Christina Foyle - Queen of the London Bookshops

When I arrived in London in 1970, a wide-eyed seventeen year-old, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Edward Heath was taking over from Harold Wilson in Downing Street, the Beatles were breaking up and Foyles was the pre-eminent London bookshop by far.

It was huge, rambling and scruffy and so old fashioned Dickens would not have looked out of place in any of its shambolic departments. The shortest route between floors was via a bare concrete stairwell which surrounded a clanking lift shaft. It had the most ridiculous payment system ever invented, involving queuing two or even three times at different counters, and a reputation for treating its employees as virtual, if willing, slaves.

Hovering over all this was a penthouse, the London home of the fragrant Christina Foyle, (she had a fantastic, peacock strewn country house as well), who had been working in the shop since 1928. Her father had opened the store in 1904. Her biggest claim to fame was the founding of the “Foyles Literary Lunches”; vast, glittering affairs held in the grandest hotel ballrooms of Park Lane, bringing “writers and thinkers” together with their readers. Virtually all the most famous names of the twentieth century ended up at one of these lunches eventually, either as performers or as guests on Miss Foyle’s high table.

A few years later I was commissioned by a magazine to do a series of profiles of interesting London figures. Having just published my first novel, (the publisher was a magnificently eccentric Nigerian by the name of Dillibe Onyeama, who had shot to fame with his own autobiography controversially entitled “Nigger at Eton”), I had personal reasons for wanting to meet this woman who ruled London’s literary landscape. I made tentative enquiries to the bookshop staff, who were obviously puzzled by the very concept of something as vulgar as press relations but promised to pass my request on.

Eventually summoned to a conservatory in the penthouse for tea, I met a woman who seemed to me to be exactly as the Queen herself would be in such circumstances. Later, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, I realised I could also see elements of the same steely, handbag style of charm. It was like being granted an audience with a very grand great aunt, the sort of tea-party conversation I had watched my mother indulging in throughout my childhood. We sat amongst the palms, gazing out across the rooftops of Soho, sipping from wafer thin china cups. She asked me gracious questions about my novel and politely assured me she would make sure it was well stocked in the shop. The interview ended and I wrote the piece.

A few months later an impressively stiff invitation arrived at my bed-sit in Earls Court, inviting me to sit on the high table at the next Foyles Literary Lunch. The format of these lunches was always the same. There would be one or two main speakers, who were usually people with potentially bestselling books to promote, and the rest of their long table would be filled with invited guests who tended to be people who Miss Foyle knew or who she was grooming for future events. All the other tables were filled with the paying customers, who came to eat, listen, buy books and have them signed. The people on the high table would all sit along one side and in my memory they were raised slightly higher than the rest to afford better visibility to the masses- but my memory may have become confused by artists’ depictions of the Last Supper.

All of the denizens of the high table were famous and all of them were, conservatively speaking, at least three times my age. High table invitees were assembled in an anteroom first in order to be greeted and introduced and we made more polite small talk before being wheeled out to the adoring paying public. It was glorious, like stepping into the teachers’ common room at Hogwarts; part of the last great hurrah for publishing elitism before the much-needed tidal wave of democratisation hit books and education and life in general. The age of deference was teetering on the brink of extinction, although it would prove to be a long, drawn out demise, and a whole new world was arriving through the doors which had been thrown open by the pioneers of the sixties.

I received several more such invitations from Miss Foyle and I confess I accepted every one of them because it was a magical kingdom to visit, albeit a suffocating one to live in as a young man trying to break into what seemed like a closed and elite world.

Nearly forty years later my wife and I received an invitation to one of the Queen’s summer garden parties at Buckingham Palace.

“This’ll be a bit of a test for all your wishy-washy republican opinions,” she said when I showed her the invitation.

I didn’t bother to struggle with my conscience for long. For so many years I had been forced to walk all the way round the giant slab of a building and its walled gardens whenever I wanted to get between Victoria Station and the West End that the temptation to see inside the walls was too much to resist, as it has been in any of the other palaces I have managed to infiltrate around the world over the decades.

As the Queen and her family descended the palace steps to mingle with the guests on the lawns I was struck by the fact that she was still dressed pretty much as Miss Foyle had been that day at tea. It was like being transported to a pleasantly landscaped time capsule, rolling green lawns filled with top hats, brass bands, tea tents, officers and bishops. Maybe not as much has changed as I would like to think.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Future of the Book is Authors

The Spring issue of The Author, the invaluable house journal of The Society of Authors, is out and the opening article – “The future of the book is you” – is by Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at the Random House Group.

Being unquestionably one of the leading thinkers in digital publishing, Franklin admits that he occasionally gets asked to comment on “the future of the book”.

“The answer is simple,” he says, “The future of the book is authors. Or rather, the future of the book is whatever authors want it to be: ‘the writer leads, (s)he doesn’t follow'.”

He ends the article concluding that he sees a space continuing to open up in which publishers can play “an important part”, although he doesn't know exactly what it will be.

He puts a key question to authors. “Where do you want to go, and what experiences do you want to create? And,” he continues, “can I come with you, to help you get there?”

Is that the politest and most respectful request any publisher has ever proffered to the writing profession? I would certainly like to hear if anyone has heard anything more heartwarming.