‘I only ever buy free books’ said one lady in the library, actually several ladies have said this in the library on various days over the last few years with not even a wink at the linguistics of it. Another confessed ‘I’ve got 250 books on my kindle and they were all free.”
‘I only ever buy free books’. Hm.
Free books. Hm.
Several of my own outpourings have been free this week because sand in my head is shifting and forming dunes and just recently I’ve decided to go with its soft but seismic flow.
Free books are not a new thing. Libraries were invented for the free sharing of this epic luxury item. The Book. The repository of secrets, knowledge, story. People coveted them. People wrote them out with illuminated letters as a means to share the ephemera that is thought. ‘I think and believe this’ they thought and believed, ‘and if I scratch it onto parchment and draw a dragon round the first letter you might read what I have written and think about it too.’ Or you might not.
Books were few and far between, in those days, O Best Beloved (Kipling credit here) books were like diamonds, rare because they had to be painstakingly hand written and back then people did proper handwriting or ‘calligraphy’ to give its correct title and this took ‘some time’. I know this for a fact because my mum, not a monk or abbess, just an enthusiast, did some calligraphy as a hobby including illuminated stuff for our church and it took a lot of time and effort and considerable squinting through reading glasses. It involved inky fingers and Winsor & Newton and cartridge paper and vellum.
We think it is bad now when books fell forests in a welter of papermaking, at least these days the sheep are sighing in relief. “For a minute there I thought I was going to be Parchment.” and instead they are simply sheared into jumpers.
Back in those days you might be privileged enough to be able to read. You could share in a library if a local nobleman or abbey let you in through the hallowed and creaking doors. Rebels and revolutionaries grew hoarse trying to spread their words of anarchy and misrule and so something had to be thought up.They began to clutch at the idea of teaching everyone to read, to empower people through words.
So, we moved onto printing with a press and all the monks could take a breather and go and tend the fish pond or brew mead for a bit before being Reformationed the hell out of here.
Hm. Books. Something quite good that these religious bods did, some thought. Other people began to put their ideas onto paper using Mr Caxton’s patented Potato Press. You could have any font you liked from the ones on offer then: Maris Piper, Pentland Javelin, Arran Pilot, Sarpon Axona.
Public Libraries became a thing, starting with circulating libraries and the gradual pushing of that most illustrous of drugs, that greatest high, the rushiest rush, STORY. People joined libraries so that they could share in the bounty of the word. They could glean knowledge and follow the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel or find out about sharks. Other heroes and vertebrates were and are available.
Books were still pretty pricey to purchase though until the advent of the Paperback book, the book for everyone, that they could carry in their pocket. Now you literally could carry dreams in your pocket, straight from the head of DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Dorothy L Sayers.
Libraries hung on in there because there is always room for free bookage. When I used to take my two scamps to Storytime we often borrowed books which we then loved so much we (well mainly me, the scamps were too wee and didn’t have bank cards) felt compelled to purchase, ‘Avocado Baby’ by John Burningham ‘Horace and Maurice’ by Dick King-Smith, ‘Not Now Bernard’ by David McKee to name but three. That was the key. We loved them and needed them to be within reaching distance. There is no point banging on the window of the library at half past two in the morning because you’ve woken from a bad dream and are in dire need of Preston Pig (thank you thank you Colin McNaughton).
Of course, there is no point banging on the window of half the libraries in Britain any longer, at any time of day at all. You can squidge your desperate story-deprived face up against the glass and dislodge some of the dust that is gathering on this palace of language and communication. The voice of the library, the citadel of the free book, is being choked into silence. Where cuts are to be made the library is seen as whipped cream, fattening to the brain and unnecessary, not like paying councillors extra bonus cash for attending various committees of their choosing.
So now we have the digital age where sad sacks like myself can throw our witterings into the wind. I know people have despised ‘self-publishing’ but there is a long and proud history to it. Virginia Woolf was, essentially, self-published. James Joyce got a group fund thing going on with Shakespeare and Company. When people cite the ‘gatekeepers’ who are editors and publishers they often neglect to mention the man who passed on Harry Potter.
I could write several blogs about publishing and its vagaries and adventures and they would all be written with blood and smudged with sweat. I love writing and I’ve sold enough books to know that some people, somewhere, like what I write. I’ve been to writer events where these people have turned up to have a chat so I know that they are not just in my imagination.
So. Free books. My latest books ‘The Witch Ways’ are published by Ipso Books, an offshoot of my agency PFD who decided to jump on the bandwagon that many recently redundant authors discovered. Why not cut out the middle man and DIY? I’d already done this for myself and was happy to join in when Ipso started up.
Digital books are not expensive to produce in material terms. In physical and mental terms they take up exactly the same amount of my life, the same days and breaths, the same heartbeats and yawns, the same man hours crunched up at my little garden table, Parker pen clutched in my hand.
But, because they are not something that requires a tree to be felled or a printer to painstakingly set into blocks they are like a kind of magical book. They can be free. Lots of people, some of my colleagues at the library included, brag about the sheer quantity of free books they have amassed. There are lots of websites that promote freebooks and how to obtain them, endlessly until the twelfth of Never.
In order to lure people into the world of The Witch Ways, you can, with a couple of clicks and an exchange of email addresses, obtain for yourself a freebie copy of ‘The Ice King’ one of the ‘Whispers’ the short form side order books of the series. The idea is, if we give you this, you might want to taste more. I hope so. I have enjoyed writing The Witch Ways tremendously.
One lady emailed my website and said how much she had enjoyed the book but that it ‘vexed’ her that it was free. She said that it had been ‘crafted’ and therefore it wasn’t right that it was just given away and this was made worse for her by the fact that she had enjoyed it so much. Needless to say I wrote straight back and thanked her, not least for her use of that wonderful word ‘vex’.
Just last week however, another lady wanted confirmation that the book on offer would be ‘a real book, not one I have to read on a computer’ and that if it were not paper and glue then she wasn’t interested.
I wrote back to say that sadly the book is a digital one, I did not waffle on at all about the difference in costs of giving away ‘real’ books. I thought about what she had written for a long time this week.
As a result of this and my gradual fury at the world in general, at austerity and inequality and Brexit, I’ve had an epiphany, one that says that I no longer care whether I make a living as a writer, I just care that my books get out there and, in these harsh times, I’m going to be giving them away when I can (Amazon allow 5 days out of 90 to be free promotions). It remains to be seen whether the free for all leads to further sales when the price clicks back. I have no problem with my digital books being 99p either. They are not made of paper, they are just made of my brain and my heart and my soul, those less tangible commodities.
I just ask that when you are busy scooping up your hoard of ‘free’ books spare a thought for the author behind them, for the time they spent in their heads, forging the story that you have loved and enjoyed. Just a brief moment, the one in the middle where you gasp and turn the page.
They gave you that gasp, they turned up the beat on your heart. And all for 99p.
Try it out. If it helps, the Ice King is one of my favourites. https://www.helenslavin.com/signup/
I’ve been thinking about skills lately for The Witch Ways, my new series of books. I’ve been working out what skills each of the Way sisters will have and as a consequence I’ve been assessing what my own skills might be and reliving the horror of all those terrible jobsearch terms like ‘transferable skills’ and ‘skillset’.
Skillset? Do you have one? Depends, I suppose, on your definition of skillset? I mean some might require an ability to pull off a recordbreaking amount of keepy uppys; others might treasure data projection or horse husbandry.
If you’re after coding and data analysis then I’m probably not your person (equal opportunities apply). I’m afraid that my skillset tends to have a more well, historical bent.
I could, if you like, and subject to the relevant planning permissions, help you with the construction of a wattle and daub dwelling. I can do the wattling bit and the daubing bit. I am a dab foot with a bucket of water and a pile of chalk chunks. This is a skill learnt from my time as a volunteer with the Education Team at Stonehenge. As part of the training I also learnt to grind grain, make a Neolithic pitta and lay a fire. The other skill I learnt was how to make rope out of reed and bramble stalks. This, I have to warn you is a seriously addictive skill. On one afternoon I managed to make enough cordage to tow a small barge.
I doubt these skills will feature on my CV anytime soon as no one really appreciates them in this particular timezone. I feel my skillset is only transferable within a timetravelling framework.
So, should I ever trip over and tumble down a wormhole I do have some usable skills. I imagine finding myself in a castle in this scenario, or possibly, a bit further back, a hill fort and I foresee that I will be able to fit in and be useful.
I can bake bread and cook food using raw ingredients and simple implements called pans and fire, so I am made for the kitchens and bakery in this castle. If pushed I could probably tell a tale or two by a crackling fire, oh, and I can knit. A bit. A lot actually, I tend to get carried away. That is how all the medieval knights ended up with all that chain mail. Big needles, later used for jousting.
You might have noticed that my time travel fantasies don’t run to a galaxy far far away. If I am catapulted forwards I will be lost. I can’t erect flat pack furniture. I can’t operate a satnav unless Brian Blessed is shouting instructions to me and I do not look good in one piece lycra jumpsuiting. I think the sound of a microwave pinging is the most dismal sound on earth.
In our household I am considered the impractical one, head in the clouds as I make stuff up for a living, hands in the clouds of flour as I bake stuff up for eating. I hold the opinion that I’m actually very practical; as an example; One of my husband’s colleagues had a ‘contact’ at a Scottish salmon fishery and said he’d bring us a lovely bit of salmon. When this ‘lovely bit of salmon’ arrived it was about a foot and a half in length and weighed 14 pounds. Undaunted I scaled and gutted the beast with help from a library book and a set of Sabatier knives I had as a wedding present while my then infant son boinged up and down gleefully in his doorframe baby bouncer.
Today’s skills, the ones my offspring are so hot to trot about, are rather more ethereal than magic. Texting with your thumbs for example and the frightening fact that information is stored, like dreams, in clouds. Hackers aren’t anything to do with coppicing a wood, instead they are cyber wizards intent upon storming data strongholds. People create codes to make machines think but I warn you that what machines chiefly need is electricity.
So should an apocalypse occur ( I’m imagining a minor Ragnarok here, where Fenrir doesn’t actually eat the sun and kill Odin, rather he just runs around a bit and unplugs stuff. The lights go out, the power goes off, the internet is down) I will be in the back garden. I will be raking out my woodfired oven and checking the proving of my dough. While the bread bakes I’ll knit you a jumper from ivy tangles. See you there. Chain mail optional.
Lake Lore was the heralded title for my new full length Witch Ways book, the first in the central spine of stories concerning the fates of the three Way sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz.
“It’s the wrong title.” the word pixies whispered. Lake Lore was the title I’d worked with and so it settled at the edge of my head. There are many things settled at the edge of my head; mostly it is litter and roadkill but occasionally there is a hoard of Roman gold in there or a bronze sword.
So then Witch Wake bubbled to the surface. I liked it. It was alliterative and contained an abundance of ‘W’ one of my favourite letters. My other favourite is ‘Z’ but I couldn’t work that in. I, and my merry band of editors trolled along with ‘Witch Wake’ for a time.
“It’s still not right.” the word pixies whispered, more insistently “That’s not a title, ‘The Witch Ways; Witch Wake’ is a bit of a tongue twister.”
Titles are notoriously hard to think up. Few people know that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was actually titled ‘Cathy Come Home’ until Charlotte pointed out to Emily that there were in fact two Cathys and she didn’t come home.
There were fisticuffs at the Parsonage that evening. Both sisters were skilled in hand to hand combat from the many times they had been called upon to rescue Branwell from a brawl at the Lord Nelson or other local hostelry. Anne, it was claimed, had a double headed penny so that when it came to the toss as to who had to head into the Haworth affray on any given evening, she would shout tails and so either Charlotte or Emily would have to perform this sisterly task. For this particular title bout, Anne stood as referee.
Charlotte was fleeter of foot but Emily possessed the superior uppercut combined with a blistering and ambidextrous jab that often left her opponent with small sparrows tweetling around their head.
As the two siblings windmilled and widowmakered their way around the mahogany table in the back room, a sudden violent squall blew up outside. Rain and wind hammered at the window and Anne, taking her eye off the contretemps, glanced out and declared,
“Imagine being up on the moor tonight! It must be wuthering at the heights.”
Emily halted abruptly.
“What? Wait, what did you just say?”
Charlotte, at this juncture, was unable to retract a speedy cross, punching a hole in Emily’s bodice and winding her. In light of this Anne declared the fight void. The novel’s title was decided upon and the hole in the bodice was easily mended, Charlotte having famously tiny hands.
Sometimes, to decide a title, I play a kind of lexicographical poker. I write keywords on scraps of paper and then deal them out. I arrange. Rearrange. Stick and Twist. I did this for Lake Lore/Witch Wake/Mongrel Offspring as it began to be called in my head.
Very soon my head was spinning. I resorted, as I always do, to tea, that well known cure-all, and headed into the garden.
I sat back in the chair beneath the shade of the sycamore, apple and hazel trees. The hazel is particularly splendid having been grown from an actual hazelnut, buried and forgotten by one of the squirrels. It was cool beneath the leaves and the sunlight blistered through here and there. I noticed how many apples there are on the apple tree this year and looked forward to the crumbles before a bee drew my eye. Then a bronze dragonfly, bigger than a wren, zig-zagged his way across the shade. My mind wandered with him.
“Oh, look at the light…” I thought in a daydream fashion “Look at the crooked daylight of the branches.”
Wait. Crooked Daylight.
Suddenly, I was in Havoc Wood. My heroines, Anna, Charlie and Emz, walking a few steps in front of me, halted their usual gamekeeping patrol to turn and look at me. There was a brief exchange of nods before I followed them, down to Pike Lake.