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Essay

There's gold in that there bullshit

A quest towards self-publication: entry 3

Frank Ryan 17 December 2006

www.lablit.com/article/186

Frank Ryan

Editor's note: LabLit.com is pleased to continue our weekly blog from Frank Ryan, a scientist, doctor and best-selling author who is currently attempting to publish and promote his latest novel (written in the lab lit genre) via an untraditional route.

Okay – so we want to know more about this Google Partner business, and what it has to offer writers proposing to self-publish science-in-fiction. But before we get down to examining this in detail, we should also ask ourselves what writers hope to achieve in liberating their individual dragons. This is not as obvious as it first appears. Why, in other words, do ostensibly sane and intelligent people sit down, all alone, and conjure up worlds that do not exist other than in their own imaginations? And, key to this entire endeavour, why this yearning desire to tell others about it – why invite the entire world to share the experience and meet your imaginary offspring?

There is a bridge in Rome called the Ponte Milvio which, in addition to being the oldest – it was built in 109 BC – is adorned with two electric lampposts. There is nothing special about these lampposts. But Rome’s lovers visit the bridge in droves and fix padlocks and chains around the lampposts and throw the keys into the River Tiber. I have a picture of one of the lampposts buried under a veritable mountain of ironwork. They do this to show the world their everlasting love for each other. They should dedicate a lamppost to this on every university campus, lab precinct and hospital entrance to see if it will convince those of my hard-nosed colleagues who tell me fiction is bullshit. Indeed, whether or not I want to know their opinion – and I customarily do not ask for it – they tell me, frankly, that it is criminally reprehensible to expect decent folk to pay good money to be entertained by such bullshit. I, physician and scientist that I am, need to get my head examined. Well, okay – maybe I will go consult an expert.

Harry Frankfurt is a grey-bearded emeritus professor of moral philosophy, based at Princeton. But in the wider world he has become famous as the author of a slim volume that goes by the title, On Bullshit The Princeton University Press struggled to keep pace when, six weeks after first publication, it sold some 100,000 copies. It would appear that bullshit is readily transmutable to gold. The book is intended to be a serious investigation of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, and what function it serves. What could be more apt or timely! In the author’s own words, ‘We almost can’t resist bullshitting. For one thing it creates a fog that makes you a more difficult target for all the other bullshitters!’

Amen, Professor! Let it be done – the first lamppost dedicated to bullshit will immediately be set up within the sanctified grounds of Princeton.

I’m diverging now, but who cares – I’m on a roll. Pity the unfortunate Andrew Motion, the United Kingdom’s own Poet Laureate, who has a very restricted choice in what he writes about. No shaking paws with dragons! But he too must battle in an arena in which Laureate-baiting is a popular blood sport. There are perks, to be sure. Ted Hughes, when asked if he fancied the job, reflected that it would allow him to get in some terrific fishing. Should we not also pity poor old Nick Hornby, in his haunted landscape of solitary male angst and Arsenal Football Club? On second thought, pity me – I support Sheffield Wednesday. But seriously, is it any more comfortable to inhabit the cynical arena of drug-laced gonzo journalism, Wild Turkey bourbon, guns and the Rocky Mountains that inspired Hunter S. Thompson? The truth is I don’t give a damn. I don’t care if you write because you madly fancy the vicar, or you have a barely suppressible urge to murder the boss. But I would take up arms and fight for your right to liberate your dragons. Ah, yes, you see we always get back to dragons!

After penning Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – a book that drove the women of my acquaintance to envy-provoking extremes of ecstasy – Louis de Bernières took a ten-year break during which he learned to play the oboe to Grade B and restored a Georgian three-storey rectory in Norfolk. Good for you, Louis! The Irish playwright, Brian Friel, made much in his imaginary landscape of the fact he has two different birthdates and real memories of things that just couldn’t possibly have happened. Stanislaw Lem used science fiction to avoid communist censorship while addressing philosophical issues. Micky Spillane gave up a blossoming career as stock-car-racer, parachutist, shark-hunter, treasure-seeker and circus trampoline artist for the prodigal pleasure of selling 180 million pulp detective novels. Eoin Colfer, a schoolteacher in Wexford, was paid the biggest advance ever to an unknown writer for his children’s novel, Artemis Fowl, which, in the best traditions of dangerous books for boys, tells the story of a 12-year old criminal mastermind and his adventures with pixies and leprechauns.

To these fellow bullshitters, I add Homer, Tolstoy, Balzac, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Henry James, and my good friend, Will Shakespeare. You see, it really is all about dragons, a family within the super-phylum of the supernaturalia, and which embraces a very diverse range of species, yet all born with that single taxon-defining characteristic in common – the irrepressible yearning to be free.

Brigid! O – heavenly muse! Come back! I have purchased another bottle of the peaty elixir we might share.

**********

Okay – okay! So here it is, what you’ve all been waiting for...

Google Book Search: The Story

By Jens Redmer

Who, you might ask, is this interesting fellow dragon liberator, Jens Redmer? I’d better do some digging…

Jens Redmer…born 1967, studied computer science and medicine at Kiel University, Germany. Directed various projects in the fields of interactive media within the Axel Springer Publishing Group...Other spells as internet service provider for a Bertelsmann/Springer/ WAZ joint venture...At present responsible for the Strategic Partner Development for Google Book Search in Europe.

Partner! That beguiling word again! I discover an author dedication: to book lovers the world over

So, fellow book lovers, what does Jens have to say to us, as prospective self-published authors?

There is an introduction, stuff about Gutenberg, six centuries ago. It would appear that the invention of the printing press didn’t make Gutenberg a rich man – but it did dramatically increase folk’s access to information. It goes on to describe how digitisation offers similar opportunities today. Breaking down barriers...organising information...making it possible to search all those trillions of books out there…

The old mind back-pedalling...It didn’t even make him rich!

The invention of the printing press might not have made old Gutenberg rich – but it sure as hell did the trick for other people. Look at J.K Rowling – and Jeffrey Archer. Didn’t I read somewhere that JK’s first print run was about 7 books – okay, maybe it was more like 700. Nobody could accuse her of writing for money, but she made it. Everybody could accuse Jeffrey of writing for money – because he has confessed how he wrote his first blockbuster to escape financial disaster. He made it too. And so did Anthony Burgess – who, if I am not mistaken, wrote A Clockwork Orange thinking he had a brain tumour and his wife was not adequately provisioned for the event (mistakenly as it happened) of his imminent demise? Old Sam Johnson would surely have approved.

Okay – so some people set free dragons in the hope of making truckloads of money. Good luck to them. But think of the books you most admire, those most beloved of novels resting on that special shelf, to be returned to again and again. How likely is it that these were written with fame or riches in mind? Bruce Chatwin is reputed to have fled the country in despair when his beautiful novel, The Songlines, entered the Sunday Times bestseller list. The Australian-born Irish-associated poet and novelist, Francis Stuart, wrote imaginative fiction of Kafkaesque darkness in which he deliberately flouted popularity and convention, to end up writing scripts for Lord Haw Haw in Hitler’s Germany. He only abandoned his mission when his compadres spent the hard-raised revolutionary cash on champagne and flowers for Russian dancers. Carol Shields, the acclaimed Canadian writer, wife and mother of five children, began her career writing books about the mundanity of ordinary life, stories of women, family loyalties...stories about ‘people like me’. Her first books were published by a tiny ramshackle outfit in Canada. She did not aspire to becoming rich and famous. But in time she did, through keeping true to her integrity and her depth of vision. My favourite among the fiction I’ve written is a darkly humorous contemporary novel set in a psychiatric ward, Taking Care of Harry, which received no reviews except from poets and sold, through sweating blood, a mere two hardcover print runs. But it is still the book people most like me to read from at seminars. And let me confess that I still feel a delight and comfort just to be able to hold it in my hand and look at it, and rejoice. I always will.

**********

I read on, and discover the name for it – Google Book Search – and the fact it is split into two distinct parts, The Partner Programme and The Library Project. The latter appears to be aimed at making hard-to-access books, such as those out-of-print more universally available. Laudable! But it’s The Partner Programme that primarily interests me. I focus down...

Partners (typically publishers) give us their books to digitise and put online…

To do what with, methinks?

Users are then shown a strictly limited number of book pages...enough to give them a rough idea of what the book is about...If it’s of interest, the user can then click through to the publisher’s website, or an online retailer, and buy it.

Okay – this is getting interesting. For a published author, for a bookseller, for any publisher large or small, this should help to sell books that are already in print. I’m still wondering – what’s it going to cost me?

Google scans these books for free...and it doesn’t charge when users buy books.

Where’s the catch?

Publishers decide whether to show adverts on these pages and keep most of the advertising revenue where they are shown.

Well – it’s unknown territory for me, but I can’t see a problem. What about authors rights to their own books?

If authors own the copyright to their books, or the rights have reverted to them, they can join the Partner Programme.

Okay! I’m getting a little excited. It’s looking kinda promising. But what if you want to publish a new e-book title online? How about a self-publishing author hitting the ether with an e-book he or she wants to sell through Google?

On the last page I find the lines...

In response to demand from our publishing partners, we have just introduced a tool that will eventually enable our partners to sell online access to their titles for viewing on the internet.

Eventually? What does that mean?

Customers cannot yet buy online access to books. We are working to make this feature available…

Ah-hah!

(In two weeks, after a well-deserved holiday break, we meet Dragon Liberator – the weapon of power.)