Whatever Next?

Amazon pay-per-page? A wake up call for lazy writers

From James Joyce to Thomas Piketty, writers have been getting away with books no one reads for too long

Online retail giant Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos
What about books people aren't entirely sure they want to read? Photo: AFP

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Amazon has announced that it is going to pay authors, not for every book that gets bought, but for every page that gets read. To begin with this will affect some self-published writers for the Kindle e-reader, but, frankly, it is high time the scheme is adopted across the board.
How much snappier would Ulysses have been, for example, had James Joyce been on a pay-per-page deal? And who reads all the way through Moby Dick or The Golden Bowl? No one, that’s who. Herman Melville and Henry James just had no incentive to trim the fictional flab.
Who really reads Ulysses?
Now, happily, such literary incontinence is over. And while Melville or James have escaped the new reality by dint of being dead, others are not so lucky. For you, Thomas Piketty – author of 696 page-long, bestselling but surely universally unread Capital in the Twenty-First Century – justified penury awaits. There is a certain irony about that. You write a book about the dysfunctions of capitalism, and then along comes the most brutal market mechanism imaginable to ensure that you don’t get paid. Ha! Take that, pinko.
Thomas Piketty and his bestseller. Anyone finished it?
Not that it’s only the prolix who are finally having to face the facts. Think of Stephen Hawking, irresponsibly composing books such as A Brief History of Time without a thought for the reader. Now, A Brief History of Time really is brief. But as we all found out when we rushed to buy a copy, it’s hardly a page-turner. Or at least, not beyond page nine.
Thank goodness this has come to an end. There we were, distractedly buying books because we liked the look of them, or thought we might read them at some time in the future. There we were, paying the full price, regardless of whether we planned to, or ended up, reading the whole book. What idiots!
Hawking. He will never make a writer. Turns out he has a second job as a theoretical physicist
I thought I was satisfied with this system, imagining somehow that it was an expression of what I wanted to do, even the kind of person I wanted to be (or at least pretend to be). In this I was obviously not alone, for time and again, smash hit books stormed the bestseller lists, despite the fact that the first thing we did when we got home was put those books on a table and never look at them again.
I now realise that I – we – have been utterly exploited by these author types, who are clearly just in the writing game for the cash. None of us ever needed to pay for the privilege of owning an entire book when it was likely that we might want to skip a bit, just flash the cover around to impress our friends, or simply turn to the last page to find out who the killer is.
What a con! What needless expense. Thank you Amazon, for stepping in, as the world’s biggest online retailer, and at a stroke reconstituting the indulgent financial model that has allowed writers to get away with these baggy books that are structured as a whole – you know, with the descriptive bits and the establishment of character and the like.
Beethoven. Bangs on a bit, doesn't he? Can i just pay for the first movement?
What we readers have been lacking all this time are books with the fun-filled, life-affirming qualities of the crack-pipe: fiction filled with endless hooks and twists that drive a boundless craving for more. Meanwhile, the stuff that you have to work at, put down, plan to get back to later but never do – that stuff like Ulysses, Moby Dick and The Golden Bowl – that’s out.
Now, if only we could apply the same model to music. I mean, I know that no one has to buy whole albums any more, but we do still have to buy entire tracks. Outrageous. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example. I like the Dah-dah-dah-DAAAH bit at the beginning. But you have to admit it flounders a bit after that. So next time it’s on at the Festival Hall, I’d like a ticket. But only for the first minute please. Shall we say 35p?

Whooba! There's the cover of my book displayed on the mighty Amazon and I'm being advised, quite heavily, to get reviews. So I purchase a dozen copies from the publishers and send them to friends. Your friends aren't going to say your book stinks -well some of mine might, that's why they're friends - and after a few weeks I have some good, and honest, reviews. That's when I start looking at other people who have recently published and notice the subtle distinction Amazon makes by stating the review is either from a 'verified purchase' reviewer or it isn't. To me this means my friends reviews are slightly discredited. I then notice that while I get reviews on Amazon.UK they don't show up on Amazon.com. I am, of course, puzzled by this. I can't ask friends to write two reviews but I need them on both sites.

I join Twitter. I join Facebook. I join writer's circles. I plug my book. Suddenly I start getting a lot of emails from companies offering to review my book, favourably, for a small fee -25 euros a pop and it occurs to me that there's a market out there made up of anxious writers who want to see their book survive, maybe even succeed. In fact there are legions of websites and companies offering to help struggling writers. None of this has got anything to do with writing. It's about how to succeed and success is measured by sales. It doesn't matter what your product is, if it doesn't sell it's a failure. Best Seller means what it says. It has nothing to do with quality.

I didn't write my book with the thought of making money. I wrote it because I wanted to write it and write it the best way I could. When finished, and only then, did I decide to publish. Since taking that decision bits of my life have changed into something I don't really like...an involvement in.the dubious world of self-promotion.


Almost three months ago I self-published a book. Here you go -

I'm pleased with the book and I don't want it to get lost in the million or so titles that will be published this year alone. Now I'm not sat here with the intention of writing about how to succeed in self-publishing because I know nothing about it. If anything I will be writing about being a writer, which you might find more interesting.

Self-publishing has blown away most of the limitations of getting published. A writer no longer has to be accepted by the traditional houses. A floodgate has been opened and anybody can publish anything they like regardless of quality.

Some twenty years ago I was considered to be a professional writer inasmuch as I had more than a dozen credits for TV and radio plays. I was writing for money and I was miserable. TV directors and radio producers know what they want and they get it from the writer more or less regardless of his opinion on the matter. I wrote a play for a male lead. We like your play, they said. Could you re-write it for a female lead?
Instead of sticking up for my version I agreed because I needed the money. Everybody was happy except me and the critics. I got so fed up with similar incidents that I stopped writing.

Now I'm getting old. I don't have to succeed at anything. I can sit with the codgers outside the bar in my pueblo and talk about tomatoes. Nobody expects anything from me. All this adds up to a peaceful life so why, I am wondering, have I complicated things by writing a book that I want to see do well? Mostly because I want to write another book, a better book. Art is a never-ending learning curve.


Shoppers 'duped' by millions of fake online reviews

Half of the the population use online review websites such as Amazon, Tripadvisor, Expedia and Checkatrade - but can you trust everything you read?

Internet shopping
An investigation will now commence and firms found to be acting illegally will be fined and their bosses may face prison Photo: Alamy

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Shoppers who use the internet to research hotels, books, electronics and other purchases are being misled by millions of "fake" reviews orchestrated by companies to trick potential customers, the consumer watchdog warns today as it begins an inquiry.
More than half of the adults in Britain, around 25 million people, use online review websites such as AmazonTripadvisorExpedia and Checkatradeto find the best deals.
But their impressions are "distorted" by the growth of a "clandestine" market for fake reviews, the Competition and Market Authority has discovered.
It found some companies were breaking the law by writing flattering posts about themselves to boost their rankings.
Others were offering money, free product samples or other "rewards" to people who write positive reviews or give five-star ratings.
In some cases, rival firms were posting disparaging remarks each other to cloud the judgement of by potential customers. And some review websites were hiding negative reviews because they had commercial arrangements with the companies facing criticism.
The scale of the issue is unknown because fake reviews are difficult to spot, the CMA said. However, it expressed concern that abuse could be widespread. Although some websites told the regulator just 2 per cent of their reviews were spurious, other sources claimed the proportion was "much higher", the watchdog said.
"Given the clandestine nature of the fake reviews, it would almost impossible to arrive at a credible figure," its report said.
An investigation will now commence and firms found to be acting illegally will be fined and their bosses may face prison.
Consumer groups welcomed the move. Which? said the inquiry was "critical" because research showed around £23 billion of purchases a year were influenced by online reviews.
Guy Anker, a director of consumer advice experts MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "It is utterly appalling that companies are engaging in practices where they are duping potential customers who just want an honest appraisal of their services."
"Review websites are a vital part of people's research, whether that's booking a hotel or buying a product, and so visitors need to be able to trust them."
Online reviews have grown into big and influential businesses in Britain. Nisha Arora, consumer director of the CMA, said they were "important information tools" that customers found "valuable".
One of the best-known specialist sites is Tripadvisor, which hosts hundreds of millions of reviews written by and for holidaymakers. Booking agents such as Expedia and retailers such as Amazon also provide reviews aloongside their primary function of selling a product or service. Checkatrade has 1.8 million reviews of electricians, plumbers, builders and other tradesmen, while Reevoo and Feefo collect and manage reviews on behalf of clients.
Many of these are free to use with revenues coming advertising, paid-for links, payments or commissions from the companies listed or the provision of "reputation management" services to these firms.
Some sites have developed systems to detect and verify fake reviews, but others had not, the CMA said.
It warned that websites were in some cases "selectively ordering" reviews so that positive ones came to the front. "Hiding" negative reviews is against the law, it said.
The different commercial arrangements that might influence the reviews and the way they were obtained was not always clear to users.
Customers were also trying to abuse the system by "blackmailing" companies by threatening to leave a negative review.

Where Have The Vultures Gone?

One of the familiar sights in the blue skies of Aragon is that of the vultures circling effortlessly on the thermals.  Ungainly on the ground these birds are the largest living freely in Europe and it's a beautiful sight to see them gliding along in their search for food. A vulture can fly up to three hundred kilometers a day.  Sadly this is because it is close to starvation.

This used not to be the case.  However, in 2005 a new, and extremely stupid, law made it impossible to dispose of dead livestock at the 'Muladares' which were the traditional places around the pueblos where dead animals were eaten by vultures and other scavengers.  In 2000 there were at least two hundred muladares in regular use.  Why the Government of Aragon suddenly stopped this essential source of food for the Griffon vultures is difficult to understand, but that is often the case with governmental decisions made by people who live in the cities and know little about the ecological workings of the countryside.

To make matters worse for the vultures the Minister of Agriculture for Aragon decided that 'no dead animals at all may be left in the fields.'  This is contrary to the findings of the European Commission which state clearly that scavenging birds are a legal method for the destruction of dead livestock.

Since then the Aragonese Government has introduced some ten artificial feeding sites.  The new muladares are supplied with the toxic garbage from the industrial slaughter-houses servicing the meat counters of Spain's supermarkets.

Not the best solution since the government in Madrid will not rescind the approval of the veterinary drug 'Diclofenac' which is used to treat inflammation and pain in livestock.  'Diclofenac' has already killed off 99% of India's vultures.  It deposits uric acid crystals in the kidneys and it is kidney failure that kills the birds.
The missing vultures in India have left a hole in the ecology that is being filled by the feral dog population and thus spreading rabies.

In the last year I have seen almost no vultures circling in the blue sky above Aragon.