There are independent readers. They buy online. They do not spend a lot of money with Amazon. If they buy from Amazon it will most like be a kindle. They are comfortable reading eBooks. They will only buy a kindle only if it is significantly cheaper than the alternative or if the book they want is only available as a kindle and there are no alternatives. They have a preference for print. They may only recently have given up reading printed newspapers once in a while.

While they don’t buy from Amazon they buy on Amazon. They use the huge network of second-hand dealers. They may occasionally resort to Abe Books for something that is difficult to get, to a specialist for a foreign-language book or to a dealer who is off the network for something genuinely rare. Abe Books is of course now owned by Amazon. Mostly however when it comes to the time to buy independent readers find the edition they want on Amazon and click on ‘used and new’ to find the dealers they want.

Amazon is so big that like eBay and one or two others it isn’t really an online company any more. It is part of the web. That has a number of advantages for the reader. Most obviously, all the regular publishers whatever their reservations about Amazon think they have to be on it. Because of that you can get everything that’s in print. Since Amazon also makes it very easy for second-hand booksellers and discount dealers to use the network you can get almost everything that’s out of print as well. Additionally Amazon provides a high level of consumer protection. They are good on refunds and returns for example and set quite strict limits for delivery charges.

Amazon is hugely dominant in the book market and any company which has that sort of dominant position in the market will behave in some ways like a monopoly. In principle that’s dangerous. If you want choice you don’t have a choice. You go to Amazon. In the meantime readers and book-buyers are very well served. Publishers complain. If their own practices were more competitive one might have more sympathy.

Independent readers make use of recommendations on Amazon. Amazon don’t sell their recommendations to publishers. Independent readers may make use of recommendations on Goodreads as well. Goodreads is of course owned by Amazon.

Independent readers screen their recommendations. They may download samples even if they have no intention of buying the eBook. The facility of downloading a sample is another and no doubt unintended way in which eBooks benefit the reader. Independent readers look up books on Google. They may search on Google for a wider topic, the literature of a period for example, and then search for a particular title or writer. It has never been so easy to find a book and it has never been so easy to find out about books.

Independent readers buy the backlist. They buy translations. They buy classics. They read books that found their way into print in a time or a place when publishing was less aggressively commercial. They do not buy new books from regular publishers. They do not trust publishers. They do not even look for books from independent writers. There are so many books being published that good new books are hard to find.

Independent readers of the kind I am describing are the kind of reader that independent writers want. Some independent writers at least are probably also the kind of independent reader I am describing. They would get along.

Under current conditions it is very difficult for them to find each other.


I want to contact other writers. I find this difficult. I strongly dislike online forums. I have been to a couple of neighbourhood writers groups. I have never attended a creative writing class and I never would. I have been to a couple of literary events in the past. The idea of conferences and festivals fills me with horror.

That just about eliminates all the obvious, traditionally recommended ways of meeting other writers.

I don’t need to meet a lot of other writers. I certainly don’t need to be superficially acquainted with a lot of other writers. I need to find a couple of other writers. And I need to get to know them well.

I am an introvert. I do not like crowds and noise. I like being quiet. I like the company of one other person. I like to do things on my own.

Traditionally writers have been seen as introverts. Writers used to be sensitive and solitary. I am aware that this is becoming a less fashionable view. Writers are entrepreneurial now.

I am not motivated by money. I think that seeing writing as a business degrades the concept.

As it happens, I am not motivated by prestige either. I think I am quite fortunate. The idea of literature, to me, is simply snobbish.

I do not want feedback. I do not want comments on unfinished manuscripts. I do not want helpful tips on technique and style. I am conservative. I do not show anybody what I am doing until it is done.

I want to find contemporary writing that I like. That is quite hard. There are far too many writers and far too many books. The literary publications and the literary pages, in print and online, do not help. They are doing PR for the industry.

It is easy to find good books on the backlist. There is a great deal of information on the internet. There are a great many second-hand dealers online. It is very easy to be an independent reader.

I do not expect to find good books on the lists of regular publishers. Self-publishers are motivated mostly by money and occasionally by prestige. They would not know a good book if they found one. They would certainly not publish it.

There are quite possibly self-publishers producing good books. I am a self-publisher. I produce good books. We are swamped by the mountains of crap that the other self-publishers turn out. Self-published books are slightly worse than regularly published books, which are already quite bad enough.

I want to meet writers who write books that I want to read.

I am looking for authenticity. I accept that is a term which is difficult to define. I also accept that it is difficult to make a claim for authenticity. Nevertheless I want it.

I want writers who are capable of tackling the horrors of the twenty-first century. I want writers who can deal with the inevitability that civilisation will collapse.

I want writers who have found their own form and their own style, and do not need a mentor. I want writers who are no more motivated by money and prestige than I am.

I want to discuss aesthetics. I want to talk about the world.


Photo via <a href=””>Visual Hunt</a>


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, amongst other things, a post-apocalyptic novel. The holocaust has already happened. It is referred to in a flashback. ‘The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ We never learn exactly what caused the disaster. All government and all communication have ceased. There is no-one left to communicate explanations. There does not even appear to be anyone to figure out what the explanations might be.

From other flashbacks and from the state of the world we learn what happened after the holocaust. The world burned. The trees burned.

The earth is covered with ash. Ash clogs the rivers and hides the sun. The air is laden with ash. It is difficult to breathe and often impossible to see. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His head rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked towards the east for any light but there was none.’

Nothing resembling civilisation survives. There are one or two references to communes. There is no community. ‘The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and the buildings by the roadside.’

There are two protagonists, a man and a boy. They are father and son. They do not have names. They are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’. This creates a certain universality.

The man is coughing. He is going to die. ‘… he crawled coughing and he coughed for a long time.’ Sometimes he coughs blood. The man carries on until the end.

The boy’s mother has committed suicide. ‘We’re not survivors,’ she says. ‘We’re the walking dead in a horror movie.’

The boy was born after the holocaust. ‘A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing.’

The boy has known no other world. ‘…to the boy [the man] was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed.’

When he boy sees himself reflected in the glass of a window the thinks it is another little boy. ‘A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsize wool coat with the sleeves turned back.’

In the burned world there is nothing living except a few humans. There are fewer humans now than there were. ‘In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing.’

All the plants have been either burned or choked by ash. There is nothing for the birds and animals to live on. They have disappeared. ‘Do you think there might be crows somewhere?’ The world is dead.

Some of the humans scavenge. They depend on finding canned goods. ‘He sorted through the cans and went back [to the boy] and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their crackers and a tin of sausage.’

The rest have resorted to cannibalism. The cannibals are violent and cruel. ‘Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous…. Help us, they whispered. Please help.

The cannibals are also frightening. ‘They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe…. Quick, he whispered. Quick…. The boy was frozen with fear. We have to run.’

Some of the cannibals have elaborated a social organisation. They are not just gangs. ‘He woke… in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. …all wearing red scarves at their necks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances…. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves… and after that the women… and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites….’

After the holocaust there was something perhaps worse. The man remembers. ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.’

The homicidal madness seems to be exhausted. ‘No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the blood cults must have all consumed one another.’ All that is left now is an urge to survive that has lost all the humanity that might make sense of the need.

The man and the boy are travelling. The man pushes their few possessions in a grocery cart. ‘They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.’

The world is not safe. They must assume that any other human beings are either cannibals or thieves. They must always take precautions. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road.’

It is not clear what they are moving for. This is not a world where anything seems to be of much value. It is ‘barren, silent, godless.’ There is a simple, binary ethical distinction. ‘They’re going to kill those people, aren’t they? There going to eat them, aren’t they? And we couldnt help them because they’d eat us too. We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?  Even if we were starving? Because we’re the good guys.’

It is, I think, though the point is not made explicitly, something close to a vision of hell.

In a New York Review of Books article, the author Michael Chabon described the novel as ‘a lyrical epic of horror’. Leaving aside the slightly dubious claim about a book, particularly a prose work, being simultaneously an epic and a lyric, I think Chabon is wrong.

Horror, as a genre, has something of the Gothic about it. It requires an element of the supernatural. Horror, as a feeling, is a reaction to an experience which violates deeply-held norms so completely that it is psychologically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to accept that what is happening is real. The focus of horror in the world of The Road is the cannibalism. Yet in the world of The Road, the cannibalism is real. The people doing it are – or once were – human.

Chabon also claims that ‘the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms… structures the narrative’. This is also I think not true. Action, in the adventure story, derives from the interaction of the personality of the protagonists – the hero, in particular – and the events to which the hero is exposed. The outcome is the mastery of events through the actions of the hero. There is a logic to it.

In The Road, there is no logic. Events are random. The man and the boy encounter marauders. Sometimes they shoot. Usually they run. Always they hide. The outcome of one chance encounter has no influence on the nature of the next. They manage to escape. They find somewhere temporarily safe. They master nothing. They just keep running.

The man and the boy search the buildings that are not too far from the road. Usually they find nothing. Sometimes they come upon a cache of canned food.’ Crate upon crate of canned goods.’ This is equally random.

The personality of the protagonists has little influence on events. It is not quite clear that the man has a personality any more. His interiority is restricted.

He dreams, more often than he would wish. ‘In his dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white.’

He is suspicious of such dreams. ‘He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.’

He remembers. ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.’ He appears to have no other subjective life.

The man is practical. It is not clear whether he was always practical or whether he has become so since the catastrophe. There is simply no point in character analysis of that literary sort in a world that has been burned.

Like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, the protagonists of the novels of the quintessentially protestant petty-bourgeois Daniel Defoe, the man constantly reviews his stock of goods. ‘He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a tin of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fore and they sat watching the labels char and curl.’ Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were also survivors.

The man is practical. The shifts he makes to survive are frequent and described in great detail. ‘He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.’ Practicality is often a characteristic of the protagonists of post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonists of Walter Miller’s stories Dumb Waiter and Dark Benediction are practical to a degree.

The novel is narrated consistently from the point of view of the man. The boy creates interiority by silence. ‘So when are you going to talk to me again? I’m talking now. Are you sure?’

The boy has two other personality traits. He is ferociously attached to his father. ‘Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry. No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa.’

The boy also gets upset when they are unable to help someone they encounter. ‘There’s nothing we could have done. [The boy] didn’t answer. He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too. I know.’

In the same way that personality has been reduced to the minimum, emotion is also restricted. The vocabulary of feeling is reduced to one word. ‘The boy was very scared.’ The only other emotion is occasional anger. We can tell when the man has been angry because when has been impatient with the boy he apologises. ‘The boy didn’t answer. [The man] was close to losing his temper with him and then he realised he was shaking head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.’

Apart from fear and anger the world of ash and night is numb. It is traumatised. It is not post-traumatic, despite the need for hyper-vigilance. The trauma has not ended. It seems unlikely that it will ever end.

Like personality and emotion, language is restricted. What appear to be sentences – they have initial capitals and are provided with a full stop, a period, at the end – are often not sentences at all. They lack main verbs. ‘The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.’

Sometimes there are participial phrases. They have, as the term implies, a participle. They lack the auxiliary verb that is needed – though the phrase can be understood without it – to make it grammatically complete. ‘Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.’

There are nominal clauses. ‘He studied what he could see.’ They look deceptively like a relative.

There are compound sentences. The connections between the clauses are made by conjunctions. ‘He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.’

Where there are relative clauses they are not used to express relationships between concepts. They make precise statements about location and place. ‘The shore was lined with birch trees that stood bare pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond.’

This is technically ‘parataxis’. It is language without syntax. Relationships of hierarchy and subordination have gone. Statements are simply juxtaposed.

Parataxis is more typical of speech than writing. Writing, in The Road, consists of old newspapers and a few rain-sodden books.

Parataxis has a primitive quality. That is appropriate. This is a primitive world. The only appropriate feelings here are the primitive feelings. Most behaviours are primitive too. They concern survival.

Abstract, Latinate words – the language of formal writing – have also largely disappeared. Where Latinate terms occur they are words such as ‘glaucoma’ that describe tangible things and have entered colloquial speech.

‘At evening a dull sulphur light from the flames. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the current. Charred bits of wood.’

The Latinate terms here are ‘sulphur’, ‘mountains’ and ‘concrete’. The words that convey the meaning are ‘dull’, ‘black’, ‘shroud’, ‘skein’, ‘ash’, ‘slurry’ and ‘charred’. They are Anglo-Saxon words. They are suggestive, deathly, and menacing.

There is one question that inescapably arises. Why carry on?

The man’s over-riding motivation is his attachment to boy. ‘My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.’ The attachment is passionate and spiritual. ‘He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

At other times the references to God are more ambivalent. ‘Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? O God, he whispered. Oh God.’

The wife of the man who finds the boy at the end seems to believe in God. [She]… would talk to him sometimes about God.’ For the boy this is difficult. ‘He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father….’

It does not appear to be religion that motivates the man to carry on. It is something perhaps more primitive; it is survival. ‘This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.’

It is not clear that there is a purpose to survival. At one point the boy asks his father, ‘What are our long term goals?’ He startles the man with the sophistication of his language. He startles him also, perhaps, with the content of the question.

There is no answer. They carry on until they can go no further and do no more.

The Road is an allegory. It is not, I think, an adventure story as such or a horror story in the usual sense. It certainly is a post-apocalyptic story, but at the same time it is more than that. It is in fact a rather complex allegory.

There is an endless journey. There are random dangers. There is a need for constant vigilance. There are occasional windfalls. Without the windfalls they would not survive.

This is an allegory of life. This is how, for something like 120,000 years, homo sapiens sapiens survived.

The man cares. The boy learns to care from him.

This is an allegory of humanity. One of the things that human beings do that makes us different from the other primates is that we care.

The man finds food. He takes care of the boy. When necessary, he kills.

The man protects and provides. This is an allegory of love.

The man and the boy carry on. They carry on in a ruined world when there is nothing to live for any more. This is an allegory of trauma and survival.

I am sure of the literary value of this novel. It is consistent, vivid, plausible and fully imagined.

I am less sure of the philosophical value. I am bothered by the nihilism. I understand that human beings are cruel, and capable of regression. McCarthy’s imagined world, however, is so self-contained – so complete – that I do not know how to map his dark vision onto the world I am more familiar with.

I need to create a context. I can only do that by reading some more of McCarthy’s books.

Photo credit: afevrier via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

The Diminishing Returns of Civilisation

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter, 1988

Originally published in 1988, Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies remains, nearly thirty years later, one of the definitive works on the collapse of civilisation. It’s often cited in conjunction with Jared Diamond’s more succinctly-titled Collapse.

Tainter avoids the term ‘civilisation’ as a non-scientific value judgement, and prefers the term ‘complex society’. This is an example of two of the qualities that give Tainter’s work its special merit: his care for language, and his logic.

In a classic application of the scholarly method, Tainter reviews and criticises the compendious literature on the subject. He then proposes a new and, he argues, better hypothesis. He also shows, as he is required to do, that his chosen subject is ‘non-trivial.’

As Tainter points out, the interest in collapse is stimulated partly by the fall of Rome, but also by contemporary events. If civilisation has collapsed once, it can collapse again. ‘To some historians of the early twentieth century the twilight of Rome seemed almost a page of contemporary history.’

As a scholar and a scientist, Tainter defines collapse. He insists that it is a political process, and that it is ‘…a general process that is not restricted to any type of society or level of complexity’. Tainter’s general definition of collapse works well in the context of this study: ‘A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.’ It is about process as well as outcome.

Tainter pursues a general explanation. One of his objections to the theories current at the time that he wrote is that they are ad hoc. He also feels that they are simply inadequate as theories. ‘… [they] have suffered in common from a number of conceptual and logical failings’.

Tainter provides an overview of instances of collapse. The general reader will be aware of the Minoan civilisation, the Mycenaeans, the Western Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and the Lowland Classic Maya. It is historians who are more likely to have heard of the Harappan civilisation or the Hittites. Other examples – such as the Chacoans of the Southwest desert, the Hopewell culture of the Northeast and the Midwest, the Huari and Tiahunanco empires of pre-Inca Peru – would tend to be known rather to anthropologists and archaeologists. One of the incidental benefits of this book for some readers, I think, would be in providing pointers to unfamiliar aspects of ancient history and prehistory that they might wish to explore.

Tainter accepts that the picture in popular fiction and films of life after the collapse of industrial civilisation contains elements that are known historically from collapses in the past. He instances the breakdown of authority and law, squatting, a loss of population and a regression to local self-sufficiency. The possibility would be, as Tainter points out, catastrophic.

Tainter, as a scientist and a scholar, defines complex society. He points out that complexity, historically, is an anomaly. Most societies have been small, simple and kinship based. Complex societies are unequal and heterogeneous. Many of the characteristics of complex societies are in fact features of states: these would include such things as a concern with territorial integrity, and with maintaining legitimacy. Tainter discusses, and rejects, the idea of a ‘Great Divide’ between states and non-state societies. Societies which are not fully fledged states can be quite complex.

Tainter discusses the evolution of complex societies. There have been a number of theories. Tainter gives six examples of ‘primary’ states, those which have evolved independently: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Indus River Valley, Mexico and Peru. Bruce Trigger, in Understanding Early Civilisation, also cites Benin. In this discussion Tainter emphasises that states are problem-solving organisations. It is a reminder that it is difficult to understand the later history of states without identifying the problem they were originally intended to solve.

Tainter describes and analyses the literature of collapse in detail. This is the heart of his criticism of earlier theories. He is very thorough. He identifies eleven separate theories. These include resource depletion, catastrophe, invaders, mysticism and economics. Of these Tainter has most time for economics. These explanations are, in his eyes, logically preferable as they describe specific mechanisms or formulate a causal chain. Economic theories of collapse are thus open to criticism and can be tested and revised.

Catastrophe is one of the most popular explanations of collapse. Tainter sees it as among the weakest. Catastrophe theories invoke earthquakes in the Caribbean, volcanic eruptions in the Aegean and malaria or plague in Rome. The logical difficulty is that complex societies quite often experience catastrophe, and routinely – according to Tainter – do so without collapsing. As Tainter says: ‘It is doubtful if any large society has ever succumbed to a single-event catastrophe’.

Invaders are another very popular explanation. The Harappan civilisation, apparently, was destroyed by Aryans with chariots. Mesopotamia was overwhelmed by Gutians, Amorites and Elamites. The Hittites were brought down by the Sea Peoples. The Minoans were over-run by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans in turn were destroyed by the Dorian branch of the Greeks.

Tainter’s criticism is that a recurrent event, collapse, is here being explained by a random variable. The overthrow of a dominant state by a weaker people is not an explanation. If it does occur, it is a phenomenon which needs in itself to be explained. Tainter also points out that there is remarkably little archaeological evidence.

Tainter has great fun with the mystical explanations. There have been records of mystical explanations of collapse ever since there were civilisations to collapse and other civilisations to record them. They include ‘decadence’, Christianity, the disappearance of great men and the abandonment of ancient manners. Tainter dismisses them for their reliance on analogies with biological growth, their use of value judgements and their reliance on intangibles. In Tainter’s opinion, Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West, which had a powerful impact in Europe in the 20s and 30s, was ‘supremely mystical’.

Tainter’s new theory is at the heart of the book. To develop a general explanation Tainter draws on a concept from economics, that of ‘marginal productivity’ or ‘marginal return on investment’. Marginal cost, or marginal investment, means an increase expenditure or investment beyond the current level. Economists and cost accountants are very well aware that as expenditure and investment are increased, the marginal productivity – the output that results from extra investment – will decline. Eventually it will decline to nothing.

Tainter sees human societies as requiring investment and expenditure for their maintenance. Society has costs. Complex societies, he argues – and this I think is entirely reasonable – have greater costs per capita. Tainter’s thesis is that the benefits of investment in complexity characteristically, not occasionally, reach a point where they begin to decline. It is an elegant, not to say a sophisticated, point of view.

Tainter cites a number of instances. He asserts that farming, when it began, was a response to population growth. Many pre-historians would disagree with that. The origins of farming are quite difficult to explain. They would however almost to a man agree with his assertion that the marginal return on subsistence agriculture declines with every additional unit of labour that is added.

Tainter also uses the example of fuel. He points out that a ‘rationally-acting human population’ first uses the reserves that are easiest, and cheapest, to exploit. When it is necessary to use less easily-obtained resources, productivity automatically declines.

More sophisticated examples are the declining productivity of R & D and education. The decreasing effectiveness of R & D is very well documented. Tainter’s arguments for the declining productivity of increasing participation in education, and extending the years of education, are quite startling.

Tainter believes that additional costs will increasingly be seen as bringing no benefit to the population. Complexity will increasingly be perceived as a burden. Sections of society will resist, or attempt to break away.

Technological innovation, in Tainter’s eyes, is unusual in human history. The best way of maintaining growth and complexity is to find a new what he calls an ‘energy subsidy’ such as fossil fuels or nuclear energy, or – more traditionally – territorial expansion.

Having set up his theory, Tainter is now obliged to show that it is helpful in understanding collapse in particular cases. To do so, he analyses in detail three historical instances of collapse; the Western Roman Empire, the Classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands, and the Chacoan society of the American Southwest. The Chacoans are the people sometimes known as the Anasazi. According to Wikipedia, contemporary Pueblans do not like the latter term, and do not want it to be used.

The main costs of the Western Roman Empire were the army and the civil service. Under the Republic, the empire was self-financing. Conquests paid for themselves, in plunder, and more than paid for themselves. It was possible to reduce the tax liabilities of the citizenry quite dramatically.

Augustus, the first Emperor, terminated the policy of expansion. Trajan attempted foreign wars. Most Emperors followed Augustus policy. Without the loot of successful foreign wars, the imperial exchequer was hard pressed to meet the expenses of the state. Nero, in 64 A.D., debased the coinage. It was a stratagem that future emperors frequently resorted to. Plague, wars with Germanic tribes and inflation weakened the Empire. In the third century the Empire nearly broke up.

Diocletian (284-305) created an authoritarian regime designed to ensure the survival of the state. Government was large and the military was increased in size. There was coercion, conscription and regulation. The costs fell on a depleted population. Agricultural land was abandoned, further reducing the tax base and the revenue. In 476, the last Emperor was deposed by a Germanic king.

As Tainter says, ‘… the [Classic] Maya [of the Southern Lowlands] are … a people whose greatest mystery is their abrupt departure from the stage of world history….’ The Southern Lowlands society collapsed between 790 and 890 A.D. While the Mayans had a script, which is increasingly well understood, much remains to be deciphered. The evidence of archaeology is therefore very important in understanding Mayan collapse.

As Maya civilisation evolved, there was a shift to more intensive agriculture, accompanied by deforestation. Fortifications were erected. The monumental public buildings, for which the ruins of the Maya cities are justly celebrated, were put up. There was social differentiation. Mayan civilisation was costly in human labour. The Mayan cities competed amongst themselves for increasingly scarce resources.

Collapse was swift. Complexity disappeared. Temples were neither built nor maintained. Stelae were no longer erected. Luxury items disappeared. Writing stopped. There was a major loss of population. As Tainter says, the nature of the final ‘push’ is not clear. That is important. What is clear is that the costs of complexity fell entirely on the agricultural population, and could no longer be sustained. There may in fact have been a short-term gain for the peasants – the surviving peasants, at least – when the cities fell.

‘Chacoan society of the San Juan Basin of north-western New Mexico…’ had no writing. It ‘…is known only from its archaeological remains.’ The region is arid, and surrounded by mountains. Chaco Canyon is its main feature. The canyon is ‘… an island of topographic relief and environmental variety….’ Its main advantage is tributary drainage. However the soil is poor, and the growing seasons are short. There is little permanent water. Drought is common.

It is a marginal environment. Around 900 A.D. complex regional system developed, designed to even out fluctuations in agricultural productivity. There is no parallel in this area of America in prehistoric times.

The distinctive attribute of Chacoan society is the ‘Great Houses’. They were large, and connected by roads. They had several hundred rooms, on multiple storeys, with elaborate masonry. The rooms were large and high-ceilinged with timber roofs. The Great Houses have a large number of storage rooms relative to their size. Their residents were people of higher status, while the bulk of the population lived in small pueblos.

The population grew to several thousand. Marginal land was cultivated. Building stopped in 1132 A.D. ‘By mid-to-late twelfth, or early thirteenth, century the Chacoan system had essentially collapsed…. After 1300 A.D. the region was essentially abandoned by agricultural peoples.’ The system had become costly and there were decreasing returns. The outlying Great Houses withdrew from the network. A severe, prolonged drought from 1134 to 1181 may have been the ‘final blow’.

All these three cases show that the costs of complexity increased. In the Maya Lowlands and Chaco Canyon there was a late surge of building. In the Western Roman Empire, it was the expansion of the army and the increase in size of the bureaucracy that imposed the costs. The population of all three societies, at the end, was declining or stagnant. In the case of the Mayans and the Chacoans, the abandonment of territory suggests environmental degradation.

Tainter says that collapse can be economical and rational. Simpler forms of organisation can be cheaper and more productive. He also points out that there is likely to be a considerable loss of population. The historical evidence is that those who survive are likely to be directly engaged in agricultural production. That has implications for a modern recurrence.

Tainter accepts that there is no ‘formal, quantitative test’ for his theory. Even in the relatively well-documented case of the Western Roman Empire, there is insufficient data. The theory does, however, appear to have explanatory value. Apart from anything else, it enables one historical case of collapse to be compared with another. I am not aware how widely it has been accepted in anthropology, archaeology and ancient history.

What gives me pause is that in cases like the Southern Lowland Maya and the Chacoans we do not know what was the ‘final push’ or the ‘final blow’. Without that, any evaluation of the theory must remain provisional.

This is one of the definitive treatments of a very important historical process, which many think is critically important to contemporary society. It impresses, above all its other merits, by its remorseless logic.

Photo credit: These * Are * My * Photons via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Cycle of Destruction

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter J Miller, Jr

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most important English-language books of the second half of the twentieth century. It is science fiction. It is as good as anything that was written in the ‘mainstream’ at that time.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about the nuclear Holocaust. It is alternative history. Miller imagines that nuclear war broke out in the 1960s, shortly after his novel was written, and that civilisation was destroyed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is amongst other things a post-apocalyptic novel.

Miller’s history is based on the intellectual history of Europe after the fall of Rome. Miller’s concept of history is cyclical. A very similar intellectual sequence is repeated in the former United States, after the nuclear Holocaust. It is also a pessimistic history, even perhaps fatalistic. After two thousand years the Holocaust happens again.

The novel is in three parts, divided from each other by several hundred years. A Dark Age occurs six hundred years after the Holocaust. Six hundred years later, there is a scientific renaissance, and dynastic states are emerging from the chaos. After another six hundred years, an industrial state emerges. It is sophisticated enough to develop nuclear weapons, and launch another nuclear war.

The action of the novel centres on the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The Albertian order, to my mind, is a wonderful invention of Miller’s. It is a celibate order, modelled rather closely on the Benedictines. Its abbey is in the South-western desert, on the road to ‘Old El Paso’. The members of the order are Bookleggers or Memorisers. They are tasked with preserving the fragments of the scientific knowledge of the ancient ‘Euro-American’ civilisation. They dutifully conserve and copy; they understand very little of the scientific legacy.

Almost all the action takes place in and around the Abbey of the order. Abbots change and the abbey evolves, but the location of the action in the abbey is consistent. It is one of the devices that unites the three parts of the novel.

Much of the record of the ancient culture has been destroyed. The Simplification was a wave of bloody and destructive lynchings and book-burnings that followed the Holocaust – the ‘Flame Deluge’, as Miller dubs it in a passage of biblical pastiche. One of the martyrs of the Simplification is the eponymous founder of the Order, Leibowitz himself.

Leibowitz was a weapons engineer who lost his wife in the Holocaust. He joined the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictines, and became a priest. After some years he was permitted to found his order and preserve the ‘Memorabilia’, as the fragmentary manuscripts are known. ‘Memorabilia’, I think, is another wonderful invention of Miller’s. Albertus Magnus, the patron saint of the order, was a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian who was very much involved in the revival of science.

The action of the first part of the novel turns on the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz. It is finally successful, and Leibowitz becomes a saint. In the Dark Ages of the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is the miraculous that matters. At the beginning of the novel the simple novice, Francis, encounters an enigmatic, cynical pilgrim in the desert. The pilgrim, in an illiterate age, knows not only Latin but Hebrew. The pilgrim sets off a chain of events which result in Brother Francis discovering relics of the Blessed Leibowitz. The reader, though not Francis, soon realises that the pilgrim is in fact Leibowitz – six hundred years after his death. This concealing of information from the characters while it is revealed to the reader is an example of the irony that pervades the novel.

Leibowitz is a mysterious, subversive and thoroughly delightful figure. He is the most complex of the characters, to call them that, in the novel. He survives, by some no doubt miraculous means which Miller never explains, his very public martyrdom and death. He is the pilgrim in the first part of the novel and the ‘hermit’ in the second. In the third and final part, he becomes the old beggar. He is, of course, a Catholic priest, a Catholic martyr and finally a Catholic saint. Notwithstanding his emphatically endorsed Catholicism, he is also a Jew.

Leibowitz is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of Medieval legend. He waits for a Messiah. The Messiah never comes. In the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is no hope of salvation. Christ the Redeemer is not present in the novel. Miller, who for several years after World War Two was a Catholic, had lapsed.

In the second part of the novel there is a revival of interest in science. Pfardentrott, a rather mad scientist from the newly emerging state of Texarkana, has heard of the documents. He wants them sent to Texarkana so that his collegium can examine them. Finally he accepts that he has to go to the abbey.

Pfardentrott is shocked. He is shocked because some of the monks have managed to build a primitive dynamo which powers an arc light. He is also shocked because the texts he finds in the abbey are of great value, and no-one other than the monks knew of their existence.

Pfardentrott and the abbot try to be civil. Finally they clash. Pfardentrott believes that religion is superstition. The abbot believes that scientific curiosity is Original Sin. He believes it led to the Flame Deluge, and that the revival of science will lead to another holocaust.

The monks dismantle the dynamo. They take down the arc light and put the crucifix back. Pfardentrott leaves. It is a hollow victory. At the beginning of the third and last part of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Holocaust is already impending.

The Order has acquired a spaceship. It has been busily recruiting spacers as monks. Its role is to take the memorabilia on microfilm and ensure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church on the colony planets among the stars. The idea of a medieval order of monks with a spaceship is rather wonderful.

Someone starts the nuclear war. The monks give shelter of refugees, many of them sick and injured. An organisation called Green Star relief sets up a Mercy Camp down the road. It offers legalised euthanasia to the incurable. The abbot rows with the doctor who is testing the refugees for radiation. The doctor argues that pain is the only form of evil he can deal with. The abbot responds that in the eyes of the church euthanasia is evil.

This is an argument between the values of humanism and the need for obedience to God’s will. The orthodox interpretation of Original Sin is that it is rebellion against God. It could hardly be more serious.

It is not clear who wins. The doctor leaves. The abbot is nearly arrested for picketing the Mercy Camp. He tries to persuade a very sick woman to refuse euthanasia for her child. He fails.

The small party of monks leave for the stars. The abbot is convinced that human beings will display exactly the same self-destructive tendencies on a new planet. This may be survival, in some sense. It is not salvation.

One of the most mysterious and puzzling stories in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the story of Mrs Grales. Mrs Grales is a tomato seller. She suffers from genetic damage as a result of the Flame Deluge. She has a second head growing from her shoulder. She calls the head Rachel, and wants it baptised.

At the end of the novel there is another nuclear strike. The abbot is dying. Mrs Grales has died, but her second head lives on. The abbot tries to baptise her. Rachel refuses. She is preternaturally innocent. She was not born in sin.

The abbot takes Rachel’s innocence as hope for salvation. It is more ambiguous than that. Rachel is innocent, but she is also a mutant. It is not quite clear that she is human. Is Miller suggesting that humanity can only be saved if it evolves into something else?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is saturated with Catholic images. The theology may be heretical. Miller uses it to make his novel deeply coherent intellectually. A Canticle for Leibowitz prophesies nuclear war. It is prophetic in another sense. It is a fundamentally serious tract for the times.

As a young airman Miller participated in a raid on the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the original house of the Benedictine order. As a young husband, the detonation of a nuclear device over Hiroshima spared Miller being posted to the Pacific theatre to risk his life again. Miller’s reflections on these experiences clearly contribute to the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz won a Hugo. The year before, Miller had won his first Hugo for his short novel, The Darfsteller. In The Darfsteller Miller announces his decision to quit science fiction, and his intention of writing ‘one last great’ before he does so. He also predicts that he will not know what to do with the rest of his life.

The ‘one last great’ was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller was thirty-seven when it was published. He lived for more than another thirty years. He wrote and published very little. After the death of his wife he committed suicide.

He never did figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Photo credit: RA.AZ via / CC BY

Money and self-publishing

Financial advice for self-publishers

The only writer on self-publishing who gives financial advice is Mark Coker, the CEO of Smashwords. It’s in Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, which is available on Smashwords or from Amazon. It’s free.

There is plenty of good advice on marketing. The advice on publishing is sometimes contradictory, but it’s there. You can work it out.

What’s missing is basic, sound advice on finance and business. In this article I am going to cover some of the basics that everybody – self-publisher or not – needs to know when they set up their own business.

I am also going to point out some of the problems with the standard business advice that self-publishers are being given – particularly over editing and cover design.

Self-publishing is a business

Writing, to many people, is a serious, spare-time leisure activity. However much you dream of success, it isn’t the way you make a living. It’s a hobby.

When, these days, you finish the book, you probably think about self-publishing. That can feel like a hobby as well.

Beware the Inland Revenue

HMRC – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – don’t agree. If you are offering goods or services for sale you are trading.

The same applies, for example, to selling goods on Ebay or renting out a spare room. It’s a business.

If you are running a business you are required by law to do two things that involve HMRC.

Register for Tax

You are required to register your business with HMRC, even though you are almost certainly already paying PAYE. You can do this online.

The best option for most self-publishers is to register as a sole trader. This simply means you are in business for yourself, and you are not in a partnership or involved with a company.

You will need to get a Government Gateway password. At the end of the process you will get a unique taxpayer ID.

Your unique taxpayer ID enables you to register with the United States Internal Revenue Service on Smashwords to avoid having 30% of your US earnings withheld against tax. You can complete the same declaration on Amazon using your NI number.

Completing a Tax Return

You will need to complete a tax return even if you don’t make a profit. This may seem illogical. It’s the law.

Self-publishing, as a business, is pretty simple. Completing a tax return as a self-publisher is correspondingly simple. It helps if you have a basic idea of book-keeping.

You have at least one other important legal obligation.

Keeping Accurate Financial Records

The law obliges you to keep accurate financial records for your business. This means you must record every separate sum of money received, and every single payment that you make.

What none of the self-publishing manuals tells you to do is something very elementary. You should identify your overhead costs.


The direct costs of a business are the costs of manufacturing and distribution. All the other costs are overheads.

The inescapable overheads of running a small business are things like postage, phone, stationery and computer costs. If you feel you need to identify your business telephone costs you will probably have to buy a separate phone. They are pretty cheap.

If you are writing non-fiction you are very likely to have research costs. This may be travel, or it might be buying books or magazines.

A self-publisher will have some publishing costs. Unless you choose to publish Print on Demand paperbacks they will be minimal.

If you publish paperbacks you will need ISBNs. Services such as CreateSpace will sell you single ISBNs. It will be their prefix. If you want to buy your own a block of ten numbers (these are UK prices) costs £149.

Business Accounts

It’s not a legal requirement, but pretty much everybody will tell you to get a separate business account. You will find if you do that, keeping track is much simpler – and if you don’t, it’s very easy to get in a complete mess.


Book-keeping is easy. You don’t have to do double-entry.

You don’t need to hurt your head with such things as accruals. You don’t need to distinguish between cash flow and profit and loss.

All you need is a cashbook.

You don’t need to buy printed stationery from Rymans. You can do everything you need in an Excel spreadsheet.

If you have not done book-keeping before you will probably need to buy something on Amazon. The problem is that even the simplest recommendations are more complex than self-publishers probably need.

If you like you can try something like this.

Date Payee Item Income Total Stationery Computer Publishing
B/forward 56.27 457.93 140.18 177.71 150.35
1/1/2017 Rymans Paper 4.99 4.99
8/1/2017 Hosting 1&1 3.59 3.59
15/1/2017 Nielsen ISBNs 149.00 149.00
22/1/2017 Sale 8.99 J. Doe
This month 8.99 157.58 4.99 3.59 149.00
C/forward 65.26 615.51 145.17 181.30 299.35

Note that you have in effect two totals at the bottom of the sheet.

‘This month’ excludes the ‘Brought forward’ total from the previous month. ‘Carried forward’ is ‘Brought forward’ plus ‘This month’.

You can add columns for post, phone, research, advertising and so forth.

You may want to add a column for ‘Capital’ to the left of income to record the money you put in. This is unorthodox but it will work.

At the end of the financial year you set up a sheet with the same column headings and a row for each month.

The totals will enable you to complete your tax return for the HMRC.

Your total expenses minus total income is your profit or loss for the year.

It really is quite easy!


Self-publishing is a slightly misleading term. It covers a number of approaches which are related but not identical.

What all the approaches have in common is ownership and risk. The writer retains copyright. The book is published under the author’s name, or the name of an imprint that the author has registered.

The writer of a self-published book finances publication, retains any profit and has to finance any loss.

The difference is who does the work.

Artisan self-publishing

There is a group of authors who like to do everything themselves. They format their eBook files, lay out the pages for their print on demand paperbacks and – despite the propaganda – create their own covers.

They need time, which not everybody has. They will need to learn new skills.

Time, of course, has a cost. If you have to pay the rent and feed the kids you might be advised to work out the ‘opportunity cost’ of self-publishing: how much would you have earned if you worked the same hours in your usual trade?

If you do everything yourself your only costs are your overheads. Print on demand books and eBooks are free to produce. That is a quite extraordinary fact which has transformed the economics of publishing.

It is quite easy for an artisan publisher to publish a book in both electronic and PoD editions for £300-£400. If you are careful and cut corners you can do it for £200-£300.

Managing self-publishers

There are another group of authors who like to get things done by working with other people. They are – though they may not realise it – managers by temperament.

What I am calling ‘managing self-publishers’ are often known as ‘author entrepreneurs’ or simply ‘independent authors’. This approach won’t work financially unless you are writing for the market.

Managing self-publishers will typically hire a designer and an editor. This is a completely different level of cost.

Writers who adopt this strategy are competing in the marketplace with trade publishers.

Costs for entrepreneurs

Ed Peppitt in How to Self Publish: A Guardian Masterclass gives the following costs.

Editing: £350-£1,250

Proof-reading: £250

Design: £50-£750

Mr Peppitt doesn’t give a figure for overheads, but I think we should: say£300.

The low-end cost of producing a book by this method would be £950. The high-end estimate is £2,550. It’s a considerable difference.

The costs given by Joanna Penn in Successful Self-Publishing for editing, formatting and design are $400 at low end and $2,500 at the high end. At the post-Brexit rate of exchange that gives £325 to £2,025; with overheads, £625 to £2,325.

The difference between the high-end figures are not an order of magnitude. I am going to use Mr Peppitt’s figures, as they are British and more recent.

Sales and prices

Mr Peppitt suggests that most self-published authors will sell less than 300 copies. I have heard other figures, but for the sake of argument I will go with Mr Peppitt’s.

The ‘sweet spot’ for eBook pricing is probably £1.99 or £2.99. I am going to disregard Print on Demand sales.

If you publish with KDP and sell 300 copies at £2.99 you will receive 70% of the net, or £627.90. If you keep your publication costs to the low end of Mr Peppit’s estimate, you will lose £322.10; at the high end, £1,922.10.

If you sell 300 copies at £1.99 – a price you presumably chose to encourage sales – you will make only 35%: £208.95. If you keep your costs right down you will lose £741.05.

Budding entrepreneurs are fairly unlikely to make a profit on their first book. Hobbyists, however, may make a few hundred pounds.

Sound advice

Mark Coker points out some basics. ‘Now, a reality check: Just as most new businesses fail; most authors will fail to become commercial successes because most books don’t sell well …your book is unlikely to sell as well as you expect, or as quickly as you expect, or as well as you think it deserves… It’s difficult to control or predict consumer behaviour.’

Most new business fail in the eighteen months after the first twelve months. They fail when the owner’s savings run out. They don’t fail because the owner doesn’t understand their trade. They fail because they get the finance and the marketing wrong.

Mr Coker’s most important piece of advice is I think this. Wait for the cash to come in before you start spending it. Print on Demand books and eBooks are very easy to upgrade.


Intending self-publishers need to be honest with themselves. They need to predict their costs as carefully as possible.

They need to make assumptions about sales.  One assumption should be that there will be no sales. Your sales projection will then tell you what you will lose in the worst case.

If the worst case is what happens, how are you going to finance the loss?

There’s an even more fundamental question that may be difficult to answer at the beginning. The further you go the more important it becomes.

Are you self-publishing to make money? Or are you doing it for some other reason?

Photo via <a href=”″>Visual Hunt</a>

All you need to format your ebook

 Six books and three programmes

If you want to format your own file as an eBook, you need just four books. You also need three pieces of software.

Those are the two main ways of formatting an eBook.

You can format the file yourself as an Epub or Mobi file – the two most common Ebook formats – and upload the file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords. That gives you control of the formatting and, most importantly, of the appearance of your book.

Alternatively, you can clean up your Word manuscript – or your Libre Office file, or whatever wordprocessing software you use – and let Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords and let them convert the file to an eBook.

This saves time and effort. You don’t have to learn new software. And it doesn’t cost anything extra.

If you want to use this method, and upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords, relax. Each company makes a manual available.

This isn’t really the place for a thorough discussion of the respective merits of the different approaches. What it is important to realise is that people tend to be partisan. You rarely find a fair account of both alternatives in the same book or post.

People who advocate formatting the file yourself are very deprecatory about uploading the wordprocessing file. They say the publishers often make a horrible mess. They tend not to give examples.

People who recommend uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords don’t usually mention the possibility of doing it yourself. It’s as if the other way doesn’t exist.

The best-sellers sometimes dismiss the writers who format their own books as hobbyists. I think they are artisans. It’s a question of personality.

I would not recommend online conversion services. You don’t know what software they are using and you don’t know what the results are like.

Some word processing packages enable you to output an Epub or Mobi file. Don’t. Guido Henkel is emphatic on this point: ‘…word processors‌—‌ and that includes “Scrivener”‌—‌are not very good at what eBooks do, and are therefore the wrong tools for the job when the time comes to create an eBook from your finished manuscript.’

Scrivener is designed for drafting long documents. I don’t think it’s even very good at word processing. I certainly wouldn’t use it to output an Epub or a Mobi file.

I would not recommend paying anyone else to turn your word-processing your file into an eBook for you. Even if you are very rich and very busy, I suggest that you find out what would be involved in the other methods first.

The books


This books is exactly what it says. It takes you through the rather limited amount of HTML and CSS you need to format an eBook and shows you how to do it. You can use EBOOKS 901 as an introduction, but it is designed as a manual. I have it open when I do more formatting, and I toggle back and forth.

Ana Jevtic Kos, Teo’s wife, is an artist and designer. Together they run First Ink Studios, an eBook design and formatting service. Teo Kos is also a writer. He knows the business from both sides.

Mr Kos writes science fiction as Viktor Kowalski. Apparently this means ‘John Smith’ in Polish.

If you can explain to me why a respectable Croatian professional calls himself ‘John Smith’ in Polish when he writes science fiction, I will award a small prize. A copy of my first novel as an eBook, perhaps?

It’s £1.99 on Kindle. You can go directly to the product page on Amazon by clicking here.

2. ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTINGGuido Henkel, 2015

Mr Henkel is vastly experienced. He formats his own books and has vast hordes of customers for his fomatting service. His great strength as an author is that he doesn’t just know eBooks and the web. He also knows print.

Mr Henkel makes the differences between print and eBooks very clear. He is also very good at explaining why we format eBooks the way we do. He explains concepts like reflowable in simple terms.

I would recommend this very highly as an introduction. Mr Henkel does not write solely for beginners and his advice is sometimes quite sophisticated. It was from Mr Henkel’s book for example that I learned how to insert a clickable link. I love inserting clickable links.

Mr Kos’s book and Mr Henkel’s complement each other very well.

ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTING costs £3.77 on Kindle. The direct link to the Amazon product page is here.

Mr Henkel’s email, which I am sure he will not mind me publishing for the millions, is To visit his website, click here.

3. HOW TO MAKE AN E-BOOK COVER for non-designers, Kate Harper, 2012

The manuals of self-publishing, the how to books and the guides all agree on one thing: you can’t design and create the covers for your own eBook.

Oh yes, you can. And Ms Harper is going to explain how.

If you’re doing down-market genre fiction and selling large quantities, a professionally designed cover will make a measurable difference. If you haven’t yet got any money coming in from sales, you need to look a cheaper options.

Creating your own cover can be one of those options. And it’s fun.

Ms Harper covers finding and editing images, as well as laying out type, colour, integrating the different elements, formatting and uploading.

My only disagreement is over software. Ms Harper recommends either Word, which is limited, or Adobe Photoshop, which is expensive.

She suggests using a free thirty-day download of Photoshop, or accessing it in a public library. My hair curls.

I recommend Gimp. See below.

HOW TO MAKE AN EBOOK COVER is £2.10 on Kindle. The Amazon product page is here.

4. HOW TO GIMP: The Gnu Image Manipulation Program for Complete Beginners, Katherine Landreth, 2013

Kat Landreth’s HOW TO GIMP is the essential complement to Kate Harper’s book. HOW TO GIMP is a compehensive, step by step guide to Gimp, the powerful software package of choice if you want to create covers.

You can use Gimp (more details below, under software) to create cover images for print layout programmes like Scribus. You can also use it to create eBook covers for upload to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords.

You can contact Ms Landreth via the publishers, Three Dots Press, who are at 3126 Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221.

£7.78 on Amazon here.


All the software I am recommending here is open source. It has been developed collectively, and it is free.


Sigil is a text editor like Notepad. It is designed specifically for eBooks. It allows you to toggle from a ‘code view’ to a ‘book view’, which is very useful. It will generate an automatic table of contents. It won’t let you save your work unless it is a well-formed HTML file. It’s very much the software of choice.


Calibre can be used to organise a library of eBooks, and as a reader. Its main use in self-publishing is to convert a file from one format to another.

The industry standard for eBooks was originally a protocol called Epub. Some people still need files in this format, and this is what Sigil outputs.

Kindle uses a protocol called Mobi. Amazon can’t use the industry standard.

Calibre converts your Sigil file from Epub to Mobi while you wait.  Use the Save to Disc command to save the converted file in a folder.

The conversion is easy. Mobi is in fact based on Epub. One wonders why Amazon…. No. We know why Amazon.

You will see separate icons for each format. You can then upload the Mobi file to Kindle.

If you think the name Mobi is weird, it is. Amazon bought the software from a French firm called Mobipocket, who sold – guess what? – pocket mobile phones.


Make your images, including cover images, and create eBook covers. Gimp is the open source equivalent of Photoshop.

It has powerful resources, most of which you probably won’t need. It can do pretty much everything you want.

NB: I have seen very positive remarks on line from people who make their own covers using a design programme called Canva. I haven’t used it myself.

The Manuals

If you upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords you will need to clean it up or it won’t format properly.

You have to strip out the page numbers and the running heads, and any tabs or carriage returns you have used to create paragraph and page breaks, and extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Use the formatting commands on the menu bar.

By the time you have written your first novel you will probably be able to find your way around your wordprocessing package fairly easily. If you can’t, consider asking a fourteen-year-old nephew. Fourteen-year-old nephews understand about these things.

Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have thoughtfully provided manuals. You only need one.

5. BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE, Kindle Direct Publishing

It’s free and it’s here.


Smashwords now convert to a range of formats. They prefer you to upload  a properly prepared wordprocessing file, rather than an Epub.

Mr Coker’s author page on Smashwords is here. His Facebook URL is this.

You can of course get the STYLE GUIDE from Smashwords. For completeness – since I have given the Amazon product page link for every other book in this post – you can also get it here.


You can see details of the latest book I did with this software and using these books here. It’s not bad.

Photo credit: pyramidtextsonline via Visual hunt / CC BY

Man Booker Short List and Popular Books

Photo credit: Cockburn Libraries via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The novels on the 2016 Man Booker short list don’t have many reviews on They are not really popular books.

I realised this while I was doing something completely different. I was trawling through I was looking for email addresses of reviewers. It’s about time I tried to get some reviews.

I am an independent writer. I have two novels and a novella up on line, each in three editions. And I haven’t done a thing about marketing and publicity.

My novels are certainly not popular books. I don’t yet have a single review on

I came across A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner. I downloaded the free sample of  A Brief History of Seven Killings to my Kindle app some time ago. I didn’t finish it. For my taste there was too much research and not enough imagination.

Marlon James has attracted 372 reviews. That’s more than many of the household names in British literary fiction tend to get. It’s well up in the lower reaches of the mass market.

James is doing quite well. Yet A Brief History of Seven Killings isn’t a truly popular book. Truly popular books attract a lot more reviews than that.

Truly Popular Books

Photo credit: symphony of love via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

The examples I am going to give are completely random. They are books I happened to stumble across while I was looking for email addresses. All the figures I give are for February 25, 2017.

The Martian by Andy Weir, what you might call a ‘last contact’ story about an abandoned astronaut, has 4,662 reviews on That’s popular. Remember these are just the readers who took the trouble to review.

Ready Player One, a ‘gamerpunk’ young adult novel, is also popular. It has 1,180 reader reviews on

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story about the importance of theatre and music to civilisation which sounds quite sophisticated. It won amongst other prizes the Arthur C Clarke award. It is by Emily St John Mandel, who denies it is science fiction. Ms Mandel has attracted 783 reviews.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is about a group of young men, one of whom has a history of childhood abuse. That’s a story which would be too difficult for a lot readers. Nevertheless Ms Yanagihara has attracted 613 reviews.

These are popular books. They are not trivial books. Anyone who tried to dismiss them by using, for instance, some binary notion of a distinction between culture and entertainment, would be doing something silly.

Three of the four books are in one way or another speculative fiction. That is probably why Ms Mandel can win the Arthur C Clarke award, but not even be shortlisted for the Booker.

Reviews, sales and interest

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Reviews are not the same as sales. I don’t really know how reviews convert into sales. What online reader reviews indicate is interest. A popular book attracts reviews.

We have to be careful about interpreting community reviews on sites like Amazon. Sub-genres like syberpunk have fans. Writers have follows. That distorts the figures.

Using reviews as a measure of interest is rough and ready. The very great merit of interest as a category is that it enables us to bridge the apparent gap between a notion of academic quality, seen as elitist, and a commercialism that is seen as crude.

Mr James’ 372 reviews, despite the distinction of A Brief History of Seven Killings and Mr James’ eminence as a Man Booker winner, has 8% of the reviews of Mr Weir. And Ms Yanagahira, despite not being a household name in the UK, has 165% of the reviews of Mr James.

This does not suggest that the book that won the Man Booker in 2016 is a book that interests the reading public very much. And I think it is possible that the readers who post reviews on line are the committed readers. Their view counts.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a popular book in a way. It just isn’t as popular as some other books.

Not a very interesting list

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The writers on the 2016 Man Booker short list are, in descending order of the number of reviews they have received on, Graeme Macrae Barnet, David Beatty, Ottessa Moshfegh, Deborah Levy, David Szalay and Madeleine Thien.

Don’t know these names? Neither do I. They haven’t written a lot of very popular books.

The books have received an average of 119 reader reviews on That isn’t bad. But, for what are supposed to be the best six books of the year, it isn’t very good.

Beatty and Moshfegh are American. Thien is Canadian. Levy is a prolific British author of whom I have never heard.

The first surprise – although it probably shouldn’t be – is that it is not the winner that attracted the most reviews.

David Beatty

The winner was David Beatty’s The Sellout, billed as a satire about race. It has 189 reader reviews on

It is in the same league as Genesis, by Karen Slaughter, with 193 raeder reviews, or Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land with 196 reviews on

Genesis is a medico-legal thriller, a rather specialised sub-genre. It is number three in the Will Trent series. Writers of genre are advised to write series. It is said to be good for sales.

Good Me, Bad Me is about a woman in a protection programme whose mother is a serial killer. I say no more.

These are books that are bumping around the bottom of the mass market. This is the company that The Sellout is keeping. They are not very popular books.

Graeme Macrae Barnet

Graeme Macrae Barnet’s His Bloody Project, by contrast, has 288 votes. It is as if Barnet won the Nova, and Beatty won the Hugo.

His Bloody Project is probably a bit rough and tough for nice people who run the Man Booker. It is about whether the murderer is mad.

His Bloody Project sounds like what is sometimes known as a contemporary novel, rather than literary fiction. Contemporary fiction is often driven by an idea, rather than character. Contemporary novels tend to be more popular books than literary fiction.

Barnet has 6% of the reviews of Andy Weir, and 24% of those of Ernest Cline, the authors of really popular books.. He has however 152% of the votes of David Beatty, the winner.

Barnet is garnering the same order of reviews as Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks or Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Love and Those who Stay. 

A Boy Made of Blocks is apparently a best seller. Best sellers are of course about rank order, not quantity. I do not wish to mention the subject of A Boy Made of Blocks. I would get a reputation for hardness and cynicism, which would to some extent be justified.

Elena Ferranta has written other popular books about the same characters. There has been quite a lot of publicity. And the publishers always put pictures of pretty girls on the cover.

Mr Barnet is in commercially very respectable company.

Otessa Moshfegh

The next shortlisted book in the rank order is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. It is a thriller.

Ms Moshfegh has garnered 123 reader reviews on, 43% of the number that Barnet managed. It is a bit of a drop-off. Eileen is not obviously unpopular. It’s just not a very popular book.

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, for comparison, has 120 reviews and Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has 111. Ms Moshfegh is keeping company with the worthy and the dull.

The Edge of the Cliff

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The big drop-off comes half-way through the list. There is a long tail. Half the books on the short list have less than fifty reviews. It’s quite striking.

Fifty reviews isn’t bad. There are independent authors who would feel they were on the point of breaking through if they had fifty reviews.

These aren’t independent authors. They are authors who have been shortlisted for the premier international prize in their genre.

No-one, apart from the judges, appears to be very interested in them. These really are not popular books.

Deborah Levy

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, has 47 reader reviews. That is 16.3% of the number of reviews that Barnet has. Hot Milk is apparently a family saga.

Hot Milk sounds very healthy. Who, after all, would want to buy and read a family saga called Strong Coffee?

For comparison Homegoing, by Yaa Gyaasi, got 48 votes and Lies: The Gripping Psychological Thriller that will Take Your Breath Away, by T M Logan, has 52.

Homegoing is apparently also a bestseller. Homegoing is also a family saga. It stretches over two continents and three generations. You get a lot more family and a lot more saga for your £8.99. Having read the very long subtitle, I do not feel I require any more information about Mr Logan’s book.

I think that these writers would like to have popular books on the market. I don’t really think that they’ve managed it.

David Szalay

David Szalay’s All That Man is has 39 reviews, 14% of those that Barnet got. All That Man is consists of nine unrelated stories about men.

This sounds self-consciously literary. It is probably meant for professors. iterary fiction, by contrast, is a genre among others. It is meant for the carriage trade.

I wondered if Mr Szalay had an MFA and went on line to check. I found no evidence either way. But he did go to Oxford.

Mr Szalay. I also learned, has been the recipient of both the Betty Trask Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I do not have the faintest idea of what either of these distinguished awards are, and I have no real desire to find out.

Mr Szalay, I rather suspect, would rather be admired than write a popular book.

Mr Szalay, commercially, is not in very distinguished company. In Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen has 40 reviews. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, has 41. I do not want to know what A Gentleman in Moscow is about.

Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We have Nothing is about a Chinese refugee who tells the story of the Cultural Revolution to her hosts in Canada. It has 30 reviews, 10% of those gained by Barnet.

It is difficult for Mainland Chinese writers, as they are known, to tackle the Cultural Revolution. Since the partial reforms under Deng Xiaoping they have been able to write about such matters as the ‘sent-down youth’. They are not allowed deal with the violence. If they try their books are banned.

The Cultural Revolution is even more difficult for writers in the Chinese diaspora. They are not close to their own history. They are no closer, really, than the white folk are.

Ms Thien is in the same league with The Lost Daughter of India, by Sharon Maas with 27 votes and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time with 33.

The Daughter of India has a dreadful cover. Ms Smith has perhaps been oversold as well as overvalued. She has written more popular books before.

The Man Booker Prize

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The Booker Prize attracts massive publicity. The contestants appear on the evening news looking awkward in black tie and cocktail frocks. They have slots for a week on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. They read extracts from their books in quiet, meaningful voices and answer bland questions from John Humphries.

This is quite leaving out the leaks, the quarrels and the scandals. There is also money involved. The industry loves it.

The practical consequences are not that obvious. Hilary Mantel’s publisher got excited when she won. He thought it would attract more sales. To underline his point he said he was going to order another thousand copies.

Another thousand copies? For the winner of the premier international literary prize? That’s ridiculous.

The administrators spend more time explaining the rules than what the prize is supposed to be about. It has been going for so long that the public – or at least that relatively small section of  who are interested in such things – have their own ideas about what the Man Booker Prize is about.

The public think the prize is about literary fiction. The public also think that the Booker Prize is about finding the best book published in the country in that year, and now of course in the world.

The novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 were not all, or even mainly, literary fiction. One novel, His Dark Materials, is contemporary. Eileen is a thriller and Hot Milk, as a family saga, is a subtype of romance. All that Man is is literary, but not literary fiction. It smells of the library. Only two novels, Beatty’s and Thien’s, were recognisably literary fiction in the ordinary sense. So that’s not true.

The public, I think, assumes that books are on the shortlist because they have a chance of winning. That is what we reasonably think the fuss is all about. That’s not true either.

Four of the novels on the Man Booker short list in 2016 were not contenders. They were not going to win. Why in that case were they on the short list? Was it a consolation prize? Or were they just makeweights?

With the greatest possible respect to Mr Beatty and Mr Barnet, while their books have readers and admirers it is very hard to think they were the best books in the world that year. There is no reason to assume that 2016 was a particularly bad year.

There are some organisational problems. Publishers are allowed to nominate directly and the jury, which is not always obviously well qualified, change every year. A ballot, and revolving three-year terms, might make a lot of difference.

While I write this right-thinking aesthetes everywhere are in despair. La La Land is about to sweep the Oscars.

OK, I admit it. The Man Booker is merely silly, and pretentious. The Oscars are are truly awful.

The difference is that film criticism is robust, aimed at cinema-goers and done by qualified people. We know that Moonlight is a better movie.

Literary journalism in this country is in decline, even in terms of column centimetres. It’s not even really about books or for readers. It’s about literary London, for literary London and by literary London.

Readers don’t pay any attention to literary journalism. The people they trust are the community reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon.

If the Booker Prize wanted to renew itself, it would have to involve committed readers. The problem is not the reading public.

It would also be a good idea if it stopped excluding speculative fiction. Those are some of the best books.


To read Andrew Ravensdale’s earlier post Literary fiction, cult and popularity click here

For more details of Andrew Ravensdale’s novel In the Night the Men Come please click this one

For the official website of the Man Booker prize please click here


Science fiction club

The science fiction club meets in the Artillery Arms in Bunhill Row. Bunhill Row is in Islington, on the edge of the City and Hoxton. The Artillery Arms is across the road from Bunhill Fields, the old Dissenter burying ground.

In the sixteenth century the London Trained Bands used to practice their archery here after Church on Sunday. Hence artillery.

The science fiction club is more properly the monthly meeting of the British Science Fiction Association. BSFA have been holding the meetings for a while.

You don’t have to be a member of BSFA to go to the science fiction club. You do have to know that the meetings are advertised on the BSFA website.

I had to change at King’s Cross in the peak evening travel period. I didn’t like the crowds.

There has been a pub on the site since the eighteenth century. I would hesitate to date the current building. Downstairs it has exposed wood and bare brick. Upstairs the function room, where we met, is pleasant.

With latecomers, there were about thirty members of the science fiction club that evening. Most were over forty. There was a young couple in the corner near me who looked about thirty-nine.

The largest sub-group were my generation. They were in their sixties. The fans are getting old. Dying out, perhaps?

A lot of people knew each other. They were on first name terms. They had presumably met at other meetings and conventions. The science fiction club is very clubbable.

There were a lot of writers and editors. The members of the science fiction club have a lot invested.

The star turn was Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is best known for a ten novel fantasy series. He has also done stand alone science fiction.

He was being interviewed by Ian Whates, who is a writer, a publisher and an officer of BFSA. Whates and Tchaikovsky have clearly known each other for some time.

The interview is a format that the science fiction club likes. Interviews appear in their magazines. There are books of criticism that feature mainly interviews.

The meeting was well run. It started on time. There were fifty minutes of questions from Whates, and ten minutes for the floor.

The questions, I have to say, were bland. This was publicity for Tchaikovsky. Nothing more. I found it rather dull.

The science fiction club were well-disciplined. They clapped and cheered at all the right places.

At the end Tchaikovsky signed books. I fled.

This fits with an impression I have that in the science fiction club, once they are established, writers are extravagantly praised for very little. It’s unfortunate.

There are science fiction writers who deserve recognition outside the club, in the mainstream. This isn’t the way they are going to get it.

Meagre harvest

I have harvested just under sixty email addresses of reviewers from Amazon and just over fifty web addresses of book blogs. I am really surprised. I thought I would be able to get about three times that and I thought I would get them quite easily. I am also surprised – although perhaps I shouldn’t be – at the amount of trash there is on Amazon.

I should say straight away that part of the difficulty is the restrictions I am imposing. If I’m looking for reviewers and bloggers who might like my books I have to limit my search to books I think I might like. That eliminates an awful lot of respectable writers.

I reaped the harvest manually. It wasn’t as difficult as being out in the fields in August with a scythe. But it was quite difficult.

I selected categories to search. That was the only way to narrow down the field. The best results – even though I’m not a science fiction fan or a science fiction writer – were from dystopian and cyberpunk. Literary fiction was a surprisingly infertile field.

I started on the left of the Amazon page. I scrolled through the icons the way I might scan down a menu in a restaurant.

I started by looking at titles. That’s what I normally do. The title is what will normally make me decide to click on a thumbnail and look at the description.

Sometimes I looked at covers. The cover will very often put me off. I don’t like drippy covers and I don’t like crude ones. Covers never make me buy. From which you can probably tell that I am not a genre fiction fan.

Then I looked at the right of the menu.

When was it published? If a book has been published much before 2015, the reviews are not going to be recent and the addresses may not be up to date.

How many stars has it got? If a reviewer has been positive about another book, there’s some chance they will be positive about mine. I found I really wanted a minimum of four stars. I preferred four and a half.

And finally, how many people had reviewed it? I found that to make it worth my while – to help with the harvest – I need a minimum of a hundred. That eliminated an awful lot of interesting-looking books.

This is perhaps the time to point out that I have three books on Amazon, and none of them have any reviews at all. That is why I am undertaking this exercise.

When I clicked on a book I went to ‘See all customer reviews’ and then ‘See all positive reviews’. I scrolled though until I found the longer reviews; the ones that filled my laptop screen. I also looked for reviewers in the Top 500 or Top 1000 rankings, and reviewers who were on the Vine Voice programme. I still don’t know what that is.

I don’t write many reviews and I don’t write long ones. My reviewer ranking on Amazon is about 12,000,000. I don’t think long reviews by a popular reviewer are necessarily better. What I did find quite quickly is that popular reviewers who write long reviews were more likely to publish their email address or the web address of their blog on their website. And that’s what I needed.

I found that I got a lot of my results from a few very popular books, like The Martian or Ready Player One. If they weren’t science fiction they were often books like The Mandibles or The Bone Clocks with an element of that. I write speculative fiction, so that’s not surprising.

What I was not prepared for, although perhaps I should have been, was the vast amounts of trash that there are on Amazon, and the contrast between a few very popular books and a mass of pretty much neglected ones.

I scrolled through many pages, if not most, without clicking on a single icon. Very often if I clicked on an icon I hit the back arrow straight away. Sometimes, for example it’s only obvious from the description that a book is being marketed to ‘young adults’. We used to call them children, back in the day. And sometimes it’s only obvious from the description that a book is a drippy romance.

I was aware of series. I have heard for example that writing series is one way that commercial writers improve sales. I wasn’t prepared for how many series there were in sub-genres like dystopian and post-apocalyptic. The interesting, current, stand alone books would turn up in the first few pages. The other pages might have a paperback re-release of a classic of the genre from time to time – everything else seemed to be series.

Literary fiction if anything was worse. I know literary fiction is bad. I know about pretentious. I was not prepared for quite how much rubbish there was.

Some of it was quite clearly an error, almost certainly by Amazon staff. Or maybe they were joking? I can accept that The Interpretation of Dreams and Investment in Shares for Dummies are fictional. I would however query their literary properties.

What I was most surprised by, I suppose, was the sheer unpopularity of most of the stuff on the site. Now I am not talking de haut en bas. Even if I do know what the French means. I have sold eight units of three books in ten months. I did meet someone the other night who said he would probably read one of my books. But he didn’t say he would buy it.

Most books had less than twenty reviews. Many had less than ten. A lot had none. They weren’t all new releases.

Some of the books with less than twenty reviews had been shortlisted for the Booker. There were a couple of Booker winners. They both had less than fifty.

Now I know this is impressionistic. Hard sales figures might give a different picture. But we all know how hard it is to get a publisher’s contract. We know about the intrusive editing and the constant re-writing. We know how hard the sales and marketing people push for the top slots.

Can it really be the case that most of the stuff that publishers are pumping out just doesn’t sell?

I honestly think it can.

I didn’t learn much about independent authors. It’s quite clear that reviewers get free books from publishers. Some of them talk openly about Netgalley, for instance. They also talk about requests for review. One or two were quite snotty, but only one or two.

It wasn’t clear how many of the requests or the freebies were from independent authors. That interests me.

Perhaps that is something I shall find out more about in the next stage?

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