This letter is alarming for me. I have discovered secret and hitherto unknown skills.
It all started early this year, I suppose. I had the delightful job of looking for a new theme for my book 32, because my editor wanted to have a rough idea about what on earth I was going to write about. I know, editors can be so unfair! There I was, hoping for a good lunch, involving multiple bottles of one sort or another, and instead, I was given a task to achieve.
Seriously enjoyable lunches aren't part of the author/publisher relationship anymore. Publishers have forgotten how to wine and dine.
So, off home I toddled and sat down to concentrate. And the first thing I considered was, writing about Baldwin's earlier days. What was it that made him the kind of guy he was, I wondered. How did he get his world view, his loathing of the papacy and politics, but still retain his religious outlook?
The idea came to me that I should write a prequel or two to the series. And so book 32, codenamed "Acre" was born.
I had entertained thoughts of travelling out to the Middle East to look at the city. After all, there is so much history to look at. First I'd have to see Tripoli (the town in northern Lebanon, not the capital of Libya) and Lattakieh, but also Acre. Except, as I understand it, there is very little of medieval Acre left. The Mameluks demolished the old buildings, including the Temple. Where the ancient city walls once stood, now there are suburbs and Muslim buildings. So beautiful, worth a visit, but pointless from the perspective of a writer looking into the past.
Which was, actually, rather lucky.
Because the sudden changes which have come about in recent months would have made my journey unpleasant.
And it is these which alarm me.
You see, I've been concentrating on the Middle East as it was in the last years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. And those days were exciting - very exciting. There was the uprising in Sicily, known through history as the Sicilian Vespers, when the downtrodden and bullied populace finally rose up and slaughtered their French masters. That action had far reaching consequences, because Charles of Anjou's Mediterranean kingdom had, until then, been thought of as the major power of the region. Seeing him humbled meant that his key enemies (Mameluk and Christian) could fight for the pickings left behind. One of those was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which Charles had been trying to grab for ages, and which now he lost while he tried to scrabble men together to protect his remaining holdings.
Others could make their grabs instead.
There were bickering fights all along the coast as the great sea-going nations took to supporting one ally or another: Venice, Pisa and Genoa all had different aims. When it looked as though Genoa was taking over all of Tripoli as their sphere of influence, Venice was jealous and sent ambassadors to Egypt to demand that their interests be protected. With the rather unfortunate (and presumably unforseen) result that the Mameluk armies advanced on the coast. In short order Lattakieh and Tripoli were taken. Tripoli in particular was razed to the ground.
Then there were two years of peace. But not easy peace. After one year, Acre had riots in the streets. An army of Lombards, Tuscans and others arrived in the city to help protect it from future Muslim attack, so that it couldn't fall as quickly as Tripoli. Which was fine, except a lot of these enthusiastic crusaders discovered strange, bearded types walking the streets. Clearly these were the enemy, so words were exchanged, closely followed by stabbings and outright riot.
When Qalawun (or Qala'un, Kalawun, or any other permutation you may choose!) heard, he was angry enough to raise an army. Or pleased enough, depending on your degree of realpolitik cynicism!
Now, get this: I started thinking about the change of rule of the Middle East early this year. Within weeks the Middle East was in flames, and Egypt's ruler overthrown, with many other countries very anxious. I began writing about Tripoli and Syria - the war is still going on. Two weeks ago I took up my keyboard and wrote about the mass riots in Acre - and after a week, London followed my plot.
This writing lark is looking a little hazardous!
So far the book is proving very enjoyable - which is good because we can't afford a holiday this year. Sadly my last publishers want me to give up ebook rights without any advance, which will not happen, so it's going to be a while before they can be moved to the internet.
However, there are still some new departures which may bear fruit.
First, I have finished the modern thriller, which I have hopes for. With luck it will be accepted before too long. I hope it is, because it reads very well to me, and I have had very positive comments from all readers (mostly professionals, not friends who would always be polite!).
I am also considering an anthology of short stories that I could put out on the internet. I have rights to all my own works still, so the idea of putting them out on Kindle as a tester is very appealing. If you'd be interested in a Kindle version, do please let me know. It is a new medium to me, of course, and any ideas you have would be gratefully received.
Talking about Kindle and ebooks, I guess I should explain why I don't have most of my series available yet. These are testing times for published authors. In the past, authors would get paid a set percentage of the price of the book. That was good. A hardback would pay ten percent to the author, and a paperback seven and a half.
With the advent of massive discounting, publishers negotiated different models. Suddenly we were into royalties paid on net receipts - so if Amazon demanded seventy percent discount, the author was paid on ten percent, say, of the thirty percent the publisher took. At the same time, the publisher demanded more rights to the work.
Once, only twenty years ago, an author could look on a backlist as his pension. If a series remained in stock and in print, the author could hope to make a little money from each title each year. With luck, a new book every year would mean that he could survive into senility without problems.
This isn't the case any more. Now, often the publisher will own all rights to the book for the author's lifetime, and for seventy years afterwards. If the book were to go out of print, the author could recover his rights and resell the books.
But with ebooks, in theory the books will never go out of print. Some publishers are demanding ebook rights free of charge, so that they can take over all rights and prevent the author regaining any of them.
Now, perhaps this sounds fair and dandy. But consider: an author's entire income is dependent upon those books he's written. It is, as I said, his pension. If the rights are lost, it means a publisher can keep the books on the backlist, and perhaps selling one or two a year. It benefits the author not at all. But for the publisher, it means a large catalogue of books that inflates the publisher's stock value.
Publishers do not invest in marketing. The author is expected to do that himself - generally by Twitter, Facebook, blogs and shop visits. So an author cannot hope to see increasing sales from the backlist. They will be held in the netherworld of the catalogue, seen by very few people.
And fewer authors will be able to survive as writers.
In fact, real books are dangerous too. In Britain today, the biggest bookseller is not necessarily Amazon. In recent times, it has become ebay, with their vast range of second hand books - for which, of course, the author earns nothing. A short while ago there were moves to ensure that for art, ie paintings, sculptures and some of the weirder stuff manufactured by individuals, there should be a second-hand tax. That way, as artists grew in fame and their works gained in value, they would still earn something from their backlist. Nice idea - especially if it could be done for authors too.
Right, that's enough depression for one letter.
There are plenty of good events coming up. I've been asked to join in on the History in the Court event on 29th September in the evening, at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, London. The two owners are keen enthusiasts for books, and that is the sort of character I like to support. If you can get there, do! It'd be good to meet some readers.
It's been a bad week for booksellers down here in Devon. Yet another little independent has closed the doors for the last time. The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth was always a lovely little shop to drop in to. Small, but imaginative, with a small publishing house attached so that more obscure books could be published, as well as the mainstream titles which were sold through the main shop. Sadly, because of the discounting structures in England, this seventy year old shop has gone.
However, some good news is that Waterstone's does appear to be fighting back. In stores recently while signing stock, staff have been much more upbeat and enthusiastic. The new boss has made them all a lot happier - their first pay rise in several years has helped, but it's the general atmosphere. All staff were told, during the riots, that if it was worrying or dangerous, they should stay at home. Book sales weren't as important as their staff. That, for Waterstone's in recent years, is a startling announcement. I hope the mood continues, because it is such an important chain of stores. They are our only High Street bookshop, in effect. All the others have gone.
Now, I guess, it's time to get back to work. Sorry this newsletter has been a bit disjointed. Writing one while writing a book is not easy.
And finally - just one more set of reminders: if you are keen on more regular newsflashes, do please sign up to my Twitter feed at @michaeljecks, also, keep an eye on Facebook.com/Michael.Jecks.author and register for my writerly witterings at Wordpress.com.
Yes. It doesn't matter where you try to escape me, you'll find me there somewhere!
Hope you're having a great summer, and do keep in touch.