Wednesday 29 December 2010

Understanding The Singularity

One of the greatest benefits of earning a living from writing is that you are constantly stumbling across new things and people from worlds you had no idea existed.

In the course of writing "The Change Agent - How to Create a Wonderful World", the story of futurologist James Martin, I was introduced to the concept of "The Singularity" - the name given to the fast-approaching moment when the powers of technology and artificial intelligence will come together to overtake the powers of the human brain.

All who work in publishing should be deeply interested in The Singularity and its inevitable ramifications on everything to do with knowledge, learning, writing and reading because soon the shiny IPads and Kindles we were all given for Christmas will seem as primitive as words engraved on stone.

A guy who goes by the name of Socrates is providing a website which does a good job of explaining at least some of what is going on - - have a look around it and see what you think. The revolution is upon us.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Ghostwriter - Film Star

The first cut of a short film made about me by a particularly charming and professional group of students from Farnham University of the Creative Arts is now on view at

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Cover Designers the Unsung Heroes of Publishing

I'm wondering if it is cover designers who are the greatest unsung heroes of the publishing world.

I have two new books out this month from the fabulous young publishing house, Tonto Books, (see illustrations above), and both have had their covers designed by Elliot Thomson from in Newcastle.
Obviously I'm biased, but is seems to me that work of this calibre should make Elliot extremely famous.

Friday 13 August 2010

My Brave Losing Face

Hang on a minute - a little while ago I was blogging kindly about a certain Dr. Andrew Sharp and his wonderful book "The Ghosts of Eden". I was cheerily passing on the news that the book had won the Waverton Good Read Award (

Blow me down if I haven't now discovered that my own recent novel "The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride" ( was also nominated for the same award!

I feel that should make me like Dr. Sharp and his book a great deal less, but annoyingly it doesn't. Still would have liked to have beaten the b***** though.

Must remember all those brave losers at the Oscars and similar ceremonies, applauding wildly as their opponents walk off with plaudits and statuettes which they all know should rightfully be theirs.

clap ... clap ... clap ... crap.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

I am now a Merchant of Culture

Just completed a first class degree course in trade publishing and the “making of a bestseller” – at least I feel like I have after reading an advance copy of “Merchants of Culture”, by John B. Thompson, which is due out next month from Polity Press.

Don’t be fooled by the everyman sound of his name, this is an author with some seriously heavyweight credentials – a sociology professor at Cambridge, a fellow of Jesus College … a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry is enough to assure you that this is a man who does his research very thoroughly indeed and knows a thing or two about communicating the complicated stuff that’s in his head to the rest of us.

Brilliant title apart from anything else; I really like the idea of being a “merchant of culture”. I don’t know if the Prof came up with it himself or whether it was the result of a brainstorming session at Polity Press, but I bet it was one of those joyous “eureka” moments either way.

From now on whenever anyone asks me how they can get published or get a job in publishing I’m going to tell them to buy this book because it is simply perfect at summing up how the whole messy business works and explaining why it very frequently doesn’t work. I guess it is going to have to be updated fairly regularly, (the edition I received must have been sent to the printers too early to be able to mention the arrival of the iPad for instance), but even once it is a year or two out of date it will still teach a careful reader as much as any three year degree course on the subject.

Monday 5 July 2010

Green Shoots in Publishing Landscape

Due to visit Uganda for the first time, I wanted to do some background reading. On Amazon I typed in the word “Uganda” and the great machine suggested a number of titles that I had not heard of. I did a little more googling on each title that looked possible and made a selection. I did not have particularly high hopes, which is why it was all the more wonderful to find I had accidentally ordered a masterpiece.

“The Ghosts of Eden” is a novel by Andrew J.H. Sharp. A doctor who obviously knows the country and its people extraordinarily well. It is a beautifully written, life-affirming, thought provoking story and if only it had fallen on Richard and Judy’s doorstep instead of mine Dr. Sharp would by now have a best-seller on his hands.

A little further googling found his website ( ) and I emailed him a fan letter while still only half way through the book.

His path to publication, it seems, is a classic one. Unable to get any agents interested he read an article about a new young publisher, Picnic Publishing. He sent the book directly to them and they accepted it.

This is the second time I have heard someone speaking highly of Picnic. They recently published “Empires Apart” by Brian Landers, an intriguing study of the historic parallels between the American and Russian empires, which has now been picked up in the US by Penguin. Brian had also been unable to get an agent to take him on and so went directly to Picnic.

I relay this story because it seems encouraging in a number of ways. Firstly it shows that it is possible to stumble upon something new and brilliant on Amazon in much the same way as one might once have hoped to in an old fashioned book shop. Secondly it shows that an enthusiastic reader can make contact with an author almost instantaneously and thirdly it demonstrates that there are young publishing companies out there that are actually reading the manuscripts sent to them and then publishing them for no other reason than they like them and want to share them with the world.

During the course of our emailing, Dr. Sharp heard that he had won the Waverton Good Read Award ( for best British debut novel of the previous twelve months. Probably not in Richard and Judy’s class when it comes to generating sales, I grant you, but another sign that there are always green shoots to be found if you hunt for long enough in the rubble.

Monday 28 June 2010

Gatsbys Arriving like Buses

Damn! Having used my Gatsby analogy for Peter James’s Brighton Pier party I now can’t think of another one for the party John Blake threw on Saturday to celebrate twenty years in the publishing business. Is it really only twenty years? What a torrent of water has been under the bridge in those two short decades.

So, how to describe a champagne party held on the riverside lawns of the Blake Mansion which included a Rolling Stones tribute band, a barbecue for hundreds and fireworks at midnight. The crowd was a glorious mix of the villainous, the glamorous and the downright mysterious with the great circus master himself at the centre.

You see what I mean about the ‘Gatsby thing’- Mr. Fitzgerald knew a thing or two when he created that character.

Friday 4 June 2010

Brighton's Own Gatsby

Peter James is a phenomenon.

He threw a launch party for his latest detective novel, “Dead Like You”, at the end of Brighton Pier the other night and during the speeches his publisher announced that the book had gone straight into the hardback charts at number one.

Record numbers of translations and foreign sales and other mind-boggling statistics were also being bandied about. In an age when everyone is bemoaning the state of publishing and the decline of the book Peter is glowing evidence that people still want to read well told stories if they are marketed to them with enough energy and enthusiasm.

The most extraordinary aspect of that warm summer’s evening was that despite Peter’s enviable success, not one of the several hundred guests could be heard breathing the slightest criticism of the man himself. No one, it seems, ever has a bad word to say of this extraordinarily kind, amiable, generous and talented man. He simply defies cynicism. Anyone who has ever helped him on his way, right back to the English master who inspired him at school and up to the man who is going on Mastermind with Peter’s detective, Roy Grace, as his specialist subject, had been included in the celebration.

Twenty years ago Peter was one of the few people actively prophesying the inevitable approach of electronic readers. He was the first serious author I know of who actually produced a book on disc and became involved in the launch of an internet server. Since then he has produced films, raced cars, become a virtual member of the Brighton police force as well as visiting others all round the world. He is the Jay Gatsby of our time.

Monday 24 May 2010

The Holy Grail of Word-of-Mouth

The British publishers of “Sold”, which I wrote for Zana Muhsen some twenty years ago and which has sold around four million copies worldwide, have just re-designed the book's cover. The image of the sad, beautiful and frightened girl’s eyes peering out of the burka remains but there is more black in the surround which, coupled with the new red lettering, brings to mind the vampire books which have come to dominate the shelves of book shops in recent years.

I have an enormous affection for “Sold”, partly because it was one of the first books I ghosted and partly because hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive at least one email from a reader. Sometimes they start by saying it is their favourite book of all time, (always an endearing thing for any writer to read), and that it has left them unbearably moved. They all then go on to say that they feel an overwhelming need to know what happened to Zana and her sister, Nadia, after the close of this book, and its sequel “A Promise to Nadia”, which we wrote about ten years later.
As far as I know the book has never been advertised or reviewed in any media, apart from readers’ comments on sites like Amazon. So its steady sales of around 200,000 copies a year must be solely down to word- of-mouth. People simply like Zana’s story and tell their friends about it.

Zana and Nadia were two Birmingham sisters who thought they were going on holiday to Yemen when they were fourteen and fifteen but found once they got there that their father had sold them into virtual slavery as child brides. “Sold” is the tale of how Zana managed to escape after eight years and then started a campaign to free her sister and their children. The main platform of her campaign was the writing of the book.

It is wonderful to see a refreshed cover coming out in the country where the whole thing started twenty years ago.

Friday 21 May 2010

Putting a Story on Facebook

Having been inspired by a talk from the internet marketing guru, Miles Galliford, at a recent meeting of United Authors, I decided to take the bull by the horns and try using Facebook to disseminate a story to the world.

It looked like being a bit of a long plod up yet another steep learning curve, but I got the hang of websites and blogging so surely this can’t be too hard. Miles certainly made it all sound very simple indeed.

The hook is the announcement of the autumn publication of my book “The Change Agent – How to Create a Wonderful World” by Tonto Books.

The story behind the book is that I received an urgent invitation to a mysterious private island in Bermuda from a man who has just donated £100-million to Oxford University.

The island gradually revealed its labyrinthine secrets as the host, futurist James Martin, explained the choice that faces us all: to create the greatest Utopia ever, or plunge ourselves back into the Dark Ages, maybe even destroying Homo sapiens completely.

At the same time he explained how a shy boy from a poor family in Ashby-de-la-Zouche had come to be Oxford University’s biggest ever donor and the founder of the extraordinary James Martin 21st Century School.

Given the nature of the story, it seems appropriate that we use all the most futuristic methods of marketing available, especially as Tonto have created a cracking cover, complete with a quote from Bill Gates.

The scary thing about the whole Facebook thing is that once you have pressed the button things happen very fast indeed and within a few seconds the bull’s deceptively greasy horns had slipped from my grip. So, can I take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who might have emailed me many years ago and is now wondering why they are suddenly being greeted as my very best friend in the world and encouraged to “look at my photos”.

I will, I promise, get this demented bull sedated as quickly as possible before it flattens the whole china shop, and then I can return to being as cool about the whole “future” business as Miles Galliford – and indeed James Martin himself - seem to be.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Books Written for Strictly Private Consumption

Just back from a week-long editorial meeting in the mountains of Tuscany with a distinguished international investment banker, who is now a resident of Monte Carlo.

The banker is writing his memoirs but, unlike most memoirists, he has no desire whatsoever to see his book on the bestseller lists. This is a strictly private affair, just a few copies to be produced for his grandson and other descendants to stumble across and pore over in the future. It is the literary equivalent of having a portrait painted for posterity.

With so many of us currently obsessed with tracing our family histories I’m guessing this is a trend which will grow. I have an Ancestry Addict in the family and I can imagine just how excited she would be to stumble across a privately published book of this nature commissioned by one of her ancestors a century or two ago. A full length book can go into a far greater level of detail than virtually any other accessible medium, while providing a thing of beauty to look at and hold in the future.

The grandson in question was also in the mountains with us and, unsurprisingly at eighteen months of age, showed no interest whatsoever in tales of his illustrious ancestors. In forty or fifty years time, however, the book will still be in his library and available to enlighten him on his colourful family past.

Friday 30 April 2010

Billionaires Put Their Money into Searching for Answers

Last year, as I started work on my book about the futurologist James Martin, he had just pledged to give another $50-million of his own money to the school he had founded at Oxford University, The James Martin 21st Century School, if other benefactors would be willing to match the money. He had already given the school $100-million to get them started.

There were many who were sceptical that he would be able to find enough people willing to take up the challenge and match his offer during a time of apparent economic meltdown.

A couple of nights ago I went to hear him give The Commonwealth Lecture in the Faraday Theatre at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street and found him bubbling with even more enthusiasm than usual. The pledges were all in and other donors, including such mighty names as George Soros and Bill Gates, had come up with an astonishing $90-million to add to Jim’s promise of $50-million.

The aim of the school is to “foster innovative thinking, deep scholarship and collaborative activity to address the pressing risks and create new opportunities for the 21st Century”.

It’s grand to know that so many people are willing to put their cheque books where their mouths are when it comes to sorting out the problems of the future – if only we could find some political leaders cut from the same cloth.

My book about Jim – currently entitled “The Change Agent – How to Create a Wonderful World” is scheduled for publication by Tonto Books in October.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Dinner With Zippy

People complain about the corporatisation of modern publishing and at the London Book Fair smooth be-suited purveyors of digital wonders did seem to outnumber the traditional tweeds, bow ties and boxes of remaindered titles.

Stuart Wheatman of Tonto Books, however, shines like a beacon of hope for those who like their publishers to be mischievous and eccentric, happier following their own hunches and enthusiasms than attending sales and marketing meetings.

The estimable Wheatman has bought a couple of titles off me and so we arranged to meet for supper in the Earls Court Road after the show had closed its doors, along with his editor in chief, Jill Morris.

Flushed and panting, Wheatman exploded through the crowd of new arrivals waiting around the door a couple of minutes late, lugging what looked like a school trunk, which he dropped beside the table as he sank gratefully into his chair, struggling for breath.

‘It’s Zippy,’ he said, gesturing to the trunk. ‘From Rainbow. I’ve got to guard him for the night and get him back to Soho in the morning.’

Zippy’s alter-ego, puppeteer Ronnie le Drew, is doing a book with Stuart and he and Zippy had been making a personal appearance at the Fair.

This seems a good start towards Stuart’s professed ambition to build a list of ‘quirky left-field lives’ in the style of John Blake. The wisdom of this ambition was born out by the news from the Book Fair that John Blake himself would not be able to attend this year as he was ‘trapped on his yacht in Turkey’ by the volcanic dust crisis.

The following evening I was back in a crowded Earls Court pub with Stuart, who was sandwiched between one of my clients, the colourful rock and country impresario, Mervyn Conn, and one of the pub’s regulars, a mighty seven foot transvestite of African descent.

What a wonderful and varied world book publishing still is.

Friday 16 April 2010

A Despised and Secretive Breed

Feeling crushed today upon reading in the Daily Mail that Chris Tookey, the esteemed newspaper’s film and theatre critic, believes ghostwriters are “a despised and secretive breed”.

It must be wonderful to belong to two breeds as adored as theatre critics and Daily Mail journalists. Note to self, must try harder to break into a more revered circle of folk.

Wednesday 31 March 2010

How the Fabulous Dreams of Melissa Bell Came True

Tomorrow sees the publication of Heart and Soul, a book I have helped Melissa Bell to write.

Melissa is a singer, a kidney dialysis patient and campaigner, and the mother of X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke.

The story takes flight when, as a shy, plump ten year-old, Melissa sees Lena Zavaroni winning Opportunity Knocks and dreams of one day doing the same herself.

Many years later she gets to see her daughter become an overnight star and fulfil all the dreams she herself was chasing so passionately, but by that time she is confined to a kidney dialysis machine for a large part of her life.

It is a story that anyone who has dreamed of being a star, or who has harboured wild ambitions for their children, will understand.

Heart and Soul is being published by John Blake.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Ghostwriter as Scurfy Recluse

Oh, the hubris of it all. In the very same week that the great Horace Bent celebrates the sex appeal of the ghostwriting fraternity in the equally great trade organ, The Bookseller, Terence Blacker writes in The Author that in publishing now scurfy recluses "put the words on paper", while well-scrubbed celebrities "appear on the cover and do the chat show circuit". From “sexy” to “scurfy”, how mortifying.

The eminent Blacker, however, goes on to provide a chink of light by predicting that within a year ghostwriters will be forming their own trade association, Ghostwriters of Britain (GOB), and will be powerful enough to “cripple the book trade for several months” by withdrawing their labour. The revenge of the scurfy recluses; it seems our day of power is nigh.

Saturday 27 March 2010

“Ain’t Ghostwriters Sexy?”

Not my words, obviously, heaven forfend, but those of Horace Bent, éminence grise of the Bookseller magazine, and himself a strangely attractive man. I feel I must thank him, not only on behalf of myself but on behalf of all my fellow literary wall flowers as we shuffle awkwardly in the shadows of the great literary prom dance, too shy and unsure of ourselves to step out into the spotlight. Mr Bent, you see, has also been to a preview of “The Ghost” and has had his heartbeat quickened by the performance of "dapper" Ewan McGregor, our representative in the limelight.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

A Viewing Room in Soho

An email out of the blue invites me to a preview of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost”, in a viewing room behind a discreet Soho door and up dark, creaking wooden stairs.

No sign of the email sender when I arrive, just a tiny cinema sparsely populated with professionals. There can be no sign of Polanski during this launch either, or course, because he is under house arrest in Switzerland for crimes too old and too famous to be regurgitated here, except that his fate strangely mirrors that of Pierce Brosnan’s character in the film, an ex British Prime Minister holed up in a rich man’s heavily guarded beach house. Once swept to power on a wave of adoration he is now wanted for war crimes and the publishers who have paid out millions for his memoirs are demanding speedy delivery of a manuscript that will recoup their outlay.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the promotional machine for Tony Blair’s forthcoming memoir is kicking into life with suggestions of publication in the autumn. No one has bothered to make any secret of the fact that Pierce Brosnan’s character was modelled by its creator, novelist Robert Harris, on Blair himself. Blair and Harris used to be friends but, one imagines, not any more.

When Harris’s book, “The Ghost”, was published, bearing quotes from my own book, “Ghostwriting” at the opening of every chapter, I was just starting work on a book for the mysterious futurologist and educationalist, Jim Martin. As I travelled out to his private island in Bermuda the parallels seemed uncanny. But whereas the secret tunnels, fantastical buildings and gardens that riddle Jim Martin’s island are drenched in sunshine, Polanski’s wind and rain-swept landscapes are altogether bleaker and darker, the violent sea grey and menacing rather than brilliant blue and sparkling. In Polanski and Harris’s world there is a body on the beach rather than the sails of millionaires’ yachts bobbing cheerfully off shore.

The ghost of the title is played by Ewan McGregor, a Chandleresque protagonist suddenly transported into a closed, dangerous, mysterious world. Initially, as with many ghostwriting projects in the real world, virtually nothing going on around him makes sense. But then slowly, as he grows familiar with his story and the characters, he sees the terrible truth materialise out of the lies and secrets.

As the film ended and the lights came back on there was still no sign of the e-mail sender who had assured me he was so looking forward to meeting me, and in the bright sunlight of Old Compton Street the darkness and menace of the film begins to fade. But actually Polanski and Harris’s world is all around us. Polanski himself is still under house arrest, Blair’s publishers still have a memoir they have to sell, there is still talk of possible war crimes accusations hanging in the air and still no one can really explain what madness drove us to go to war in Iraq with the Americans. There are conspiracy theories circulating on the internet as to why the authorities should have chosen the moment when Blair was running for European President to resurrect the case against Polanski after so many decades of indifference.

Nothing, as always, is quite as safe as it seems as I head with my wife to Little Italy in Frith Street for a late lunch.

Friday 12 February 2010

Slumdog Star to Play The Little Hero

I was excited to read in yesterday’s Hindustan Times that the hero of my book “The Little Hero”, Iqbal Masih, a bonded child labourer in Lahore, is to be played by Ayush Khedeker, who shot to global fame by playing the youngest Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire so vibrantly.

Reading "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid the other day vividly reminded me of my research trip to Lahore with Riff Khan-Hinton, the producer of the film, (we were even staying in the same hotel as one of the book's two protagonists). Mohsin Hamid completely captures the atmosphere of this dangerous city, seething with so many varied experiences, stories and emotions and I’m sure the team Riff has put together will do the same with Iqbal's moving tale – little Ayush is perfect casting for the part.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Fantastic Ghost Writer Film Trailer

As the launch or Roman Polanski's filmed version of Robert Harris' "The Ghost" starring Ewan Mcgregor, Pierce Brosnan and Kim Cattrall, draws closer some fantastic trailers are starting to appear on the Internet. The US trailer is up on and it looks stunning. The film seems now to be called "The Ghost Writer" - let's hope the cinema-loving public can overlook Polanski's current personal difficulties and just sit back to enjoy the ride - this is just what ghostwriters' lives are like, honest!

Wednesday 10 February 2010

“You Have Written a Masterpiece – But You Are Not a Name”.

Interesting piece in the Telegraph today about Alexandre Dumas, author of 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo', and his ghost writer, or ‘nègre’ as folks like me are sweetly referred to over there, Auguste Jules Maquet.

“In the 1830s,” the piece claims, “Maquet, a novelist and playwright, had tried to have his works published but was told: ‘You have written a masterpiece, but you’re not a name and we only want names’.”

Plus ça change is all I can say.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Dark Glamour of Haiti

I was drawn to Haiti as a naïve young travel writer 30 years ago because in The Comedians Graham Greene had made it seem a darkly glamorous and dangerous place. Greene was there during Papa Doc’s reign of terror and by the time I arrived it was his son, Baby Doc, who was ensconced in the white folly of a palace which now lies in ruins, as uninhabitable as the rest of city around it.

The fabulous, exotic Grand Hotel Oloffson, where Greene had set his story, still stood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and one of Greene’s original characters, (the gossip columnist, Petit Pierre, in the book), Aubelin Jolicoeur still propped up the bar.

‘He has made himself one of the country’s leading characters,’ I wrote at the time, ‘affecting cane, monocle, cravat and a theatrically camp manner which makes many unaware of just how much influence he has at the presidential palace and in ministerial offices.’

In one of those ministerial offices I met the island’s then director of tourism, ‘a Gucci-clad minister by the name of Theo Duval’.

‘Why do we travel?’ he mused. ‘To feel in a pleasant way, to make a loop in the straight line of our existence, escaping into timelessness, a dreamlike state in which we are not reminded of our servitude.’

It was the first truly poor place I had ever visited and I was shocked to see how close to the brink of chaos people can survive, and frightened to see how fragile a veneer civilisation actually is.

If I remember rightly The Comedians ends with one of the departing characters throwing a handful of coins from a car window, causing a dangerous riot amongst the scrabbling horde of street children – an image which we are now seeing magnified and repeated nightly on the news.

‘When people come to Haiti,’ Aubelin Jolicoeur told me, ‘they always try to make the story funny. They never take it seriously. All through the centuries we have been ostracised by the world because we were the first black republic. Always we are misunderstood and misinterpreted. There is a bad spell on Haiti.’

Well, I guess no one is laughing now.