In May of last year, Amazon announced that it sold more e-books than printed books.  Specifically, it said that it was selling 105 e-books for every 100 printed versions.  Moreover, Amazon sold 8 million Kindles last year.  That amounted to 5% of its book sales.  Amazon is estimated to have a 58% share of the US e-book market.  (Barnes & Noble has 27%; Apple 9% and others 6%.)

Interestingly, in the UK, 92 our of every 100 books is a printed version.

But, clearly, the e-book is becoming very important indeed.

From an author’s perspective, one has to publish in e-book format as well as in the  printed version.  If only a printed version is available, one can lose out on sales.  When Fishing in Foreign Seas was first published in a hard back, printed version in 2009, I didn’t see the need for an e-book version.  E-books were available then, but not such a big chunk of the market.  So, earlier this month, I’ve changed my mind and the e-book version of Fishing in Foreign Seas is available.  Sin & Contrition (published last year) is available in electronic and printed versions, and I expect my future novels will be available in both versions.

The royalties for an author on an e-book are typically in the range of $1 -$2 per copy.  For a printed version royalties can be about 3 – 4 times as much.  When one looks at it that way, e-books are not so attractive for an author.  But international sales of e-book titles are considerably higher than printed titles: shipping is next to nothing for an e-book sold overseas.  I also wonder whether it isn’t easier to make the decision to buy an e-book than to buy a printed copy.  Generally, a printed book will cost about twice as much as an e-book, when shipping is  included.  So, I’m inclined to think that when a serious reader is shopping, s/he will buy 2-3 e-books instead of 1-2 printed books.  And if s/he decides s/he doesn’t like the e-book, s/he’ll just delete it.  (Instantaneous recycling!)

Some of the advantages of e-books are:

  • they take up a negligible amount of space
  • they are readable in low light or even total darkness
  • text-to-speech software will mean that the book can be read aloud
  • there is the possibility of translation, via software, into another language
  • printing of e-books does not consume paper and ink
  • additional software permits searching the text, and looking up definitions

Some of the advantages of printed books are:

  • they have the traditional, comforting feel of a real book
  • they are tangible and easy to give as a present
  • books with large pictures (such as childrens’ books) are more suitable in a printed version
  • because of data rights management it may not be legal to sell or lend an e-book to a third party
  • the content of a printed book may be taken more seriously, while there may be a temptation to skim an e-book or to use it for reference material

A few days ago, it was reported in the British press that Waterstones (the UK equivalent of Barnes & Noble) had signed an “e-book deal with ‘devil’ Amazon”!  The deal is that Waterstones will sell Amazon Kindles in their shops, and permit their customers to purchase e-books in their stores via WIFI.  This made news because, unlike Barnes & Noble, Waterstones had no ability to sell e-books.  2000 bookstores in the UK have closed in the past 6 years, but that trend has nothing to do with e-books.  It’s to do with the Internet being the perfect place to shop for books.

The Novelist as Historian?

Can a novelist also be an historian?  There are plenty of historical novels published every year, and some of them are very popular.  Some of them may even be quite accurate in representing the events, the culture, lifestyle, technology, and even the key personalities of the subject time frame.

I very much enjoyed reading the Sharpe series of novels by Bernard Cornwell.  Richard Sharpe was a fictional soldier, then an officer, in the British Army from about 1790 to 1810.  The novels follow his progress from raw recruit (his mother was a woman of easy virtue in East London) until he is a lieutenant colonel at the  Battle of Waterloo.  He overcomes many obstacles (military, romantic and social) on and off the battlefields in India, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium.  I didn’t read the novels as history, although the descriptions of the battles are said to be very accurate, and that Cornwell carefully researched his material.  What I enjoyed about the novels were Sharpe’s talent for surviving  in difficult situations and Cornwell’s array of good and bad characters.

I also enjoyed the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brien.  Captain Jack Aubrey had command of a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and Stephen Maturin was the ship’s surgeon and Aubrey’s good friend.  The 2003 film Master and Commander: the Far Side of the  World  with Russell Crowe as Captain Aubrey drew material from several of O’Brien’s novels.  Most of these novels reached the New York Times best seller list, and were acclaimed internationally.  Again, I didn’t read these novels for their historic content; I enjoyed reading how Aubrey and Maturin would triumph in the face of adversity.  My impression is that the descriptions of life aboard Royal Navy ships in 1800 is quite accurate as far as it goes.  Winston Churchill once described shipboard life at the time as “rum, sodomy and the lash”.  There was undoubtedly more to it than that brief, brutal summary.  O’Brien does mention the daily (and coveted) ration of grog (rum) issued to the crew, and there are several passages dealing with floggings (which neither Aubrey nor O’Brien, apparently, liked.)  But sodomy is never mentioned, and it must have been prevalent among all male crews from poor, illiterate backgrounds who were cooped up on board ship for years at a time.  In fact, the scene which O’Brien paints is of a very hard but somewhat romantic life.  That’s fair enough; would we be anxious to read about the true brutality of the life?  For example, falls from the rigging were quite common on sailing men of war.  The consequences of such falls were usually severe if the sailor landed on the deck below, and almost always fatal if he fell into the water: rescuing a man overboard was not the norm.

As an author, I have occasionally inserted historic material into my novels.  For example, there are LaMarr’s tours of Vietnam and Somalia as an enlisted man and an officer in Sin & Contrition.  But these passages are not intended to be read as history, but rather as the setting for events in the life of a character.

On the Institute of Historical Research website there is this commentary:

“The relationship between academic history and historical fiction is a subject of great interest to historians. Major academic conferences . . . have included papers and sessions on the subject, and they are proving among the most lively and well attended. There are numerous examples of historians who have successfully moved into the sphere of fiction, and conversely of authors whose fiction is underpinned by rigorous research. The large and growing public interest in history in Britain takes in both historical fact and historical fiction. And it is clear that many historians were at least in part inspired to pursue historical research by novels that they had read, or indeed are currently either planning to write or are writing their own works of fiction.”

It goes on to raise the following questions:

  • “Why have historical novels become ‘respectable’, and why anecdotally are historians being encouraged to write them?
  • What is the difference between historical fiction and academic history, and how rigid are the boundaries between the two?
  • How good are readers at differentiating between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and how much does it matter if they don’t?
  • Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history, and what can literary authors and academics learn from each other?”

Perhaps I am a purist, but I believe it is very important to distinguish fact from fiction.  Some of the most egregious examples of fiction parading as fact are the history text books for children in communist states.  These text books of ‘history’ inflate the government’s successes, and, if they deal with failings of the state at all, the picture is rosy and sugar-coated.  How are we (and, more particularly our children) to learn right from wrong if we are intentionally told lies with a smiling face?

The Novelist as Philsopher?

Should a novelist also be a philosopher?  Just to be clear about the point, Wikipedia defines philosophy as “the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language.”  It goes on to say that ‘philosophy’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘love of knowledge’.  Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were among the first Western philosophers.  More recent  philosophers have included Sarte, Camus and Malraux, and all three were also novelists.   Most living philosophers today teach at large universities, and I can think of no one who is both a well-known author and a prominent philosopher.  Interestingly, Ernest Hemingway wrote a number of novels and short stories in which deeply philosophical issues are addressed, but Hemingway certainly would not have considered himself a philosopher.  Rather, he was a writer who had tremendous skill in presenting the fundamental issues surrounding what it is to be human.

Clearly, most novels which are published today have little, if any philosophical content.  This is largely true of  romances, detective stories, science fiction, spy stories, thrillers, and books for children and teen-agers.  Biographical fiction, war stories, political fiction, and historical novels may only touch on philosophical issues.  Does it matter?

I think we have to  ask ourselves why there appears to be a convergence of these two trends.  One of these trends is the absence of a modern philosopher of stature – a man or woman who regularlycaptures the  interest and attention of educated people.  The second trend is the apparent reluctance of philosophers to venture outside the university or outside the professional society meeting to write interesting novels with real philosophical content.  Neither trend, it seems to me, is caused be a shortage of professional philosophers.  While the American Philosophical Association does not publish information on the number of its members, I have the impression that there are at least 25,000 members.   Has the ‘market’ for philosophical discussion dried up (except among college students who are pursuing a liberal education)?  This, I think, may be the answer, and the key word is ‘discussion’.  It has become unfashionable (except, again, among college students) to discuss the key philosophical questions, such as:

  • what is the nature of man in the universe?
  • in the context of the universe and eternity, why is man’s existence so short and his power so small?
  • ultimately, what is the purpose of man’s existence?
  • what is the nature of faith?  of reason?
  • what is the nature of the relationship between man and God (if He exists)?
  • what is the relationship between good and evil?
  • what is more important: knowing or doing?

Various commentators have suggested that our culture of mass understanding of technological, social and psychological issues has insulated us from the assault of these questions.  We are deluged with information of all kinds by the media, much of the information is presented as ‘true’ or as ‘most people believe that . . .”  Our values have become propped up by commonly held assumptions which define our comfort zones.  We have become reluctant to consider, thoughtfully, questions like these because we are afraid of losing our comfortable props, and having to confront what may seem like (and which may in fact be) a terrifying void.

Art, it seems to me, is somewhat ahead of literature is dealing with philosophical issues.  On 3 May 2012, Edvard Munch’s pastel The Scream was sold by Sothebys for just under $120 million to a private buyer.

 The Scream

This pastel cries out with philosophical significance.  It expresses man’s anxiety about his existence in the universe.  The artist said this about the inspiration to do the work: “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.  My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”  In fact, much of modern art represents a commentary on philosophical issues, representing in various ways, the broken world, lost or shattered man, curious values, jumbled communications, and so on.

While the artist may be very good at raising philosophical questions (as The Scream does); it is much more difficult for the artist to provide answers to these questions (as Sarte, Camus and Malraux did in the existential philosophies they presented in their writings).  It is relatively easy for the writer to ask (or to raise) philosophical questions in a novel, as Dickens did and as John Irving does currently.

Of course, it is difficult to paint or to sculpt – to depict – the answer to a philosophical question.  And to an extent, it is difficult to a writer to present his or her answers to philosophical questions in a novel.  The difficulty for the artist is how to communicate, visually, an answer to an abstract question: the viewer may be moved in some way by the depiction, but he may have difficulty understanding.  The problem for the writer is different.  He can set forth his answer quite clearly.  But having the reader take an interest in the answer depends on whether the reader feels any real urgency about the question.  Or is s/he oblivious to the question and insulated from it?

The fact that a simple, but colourful and expressive, pastel commanded a price of $120 million suggests to me that, on at least a subconscious level, people are attuned to philosophical questions.  The challenge is to use one’s artistic skill to raise philosophical issues to the conscious level, and to do so in a way that the reader (or viewer) is intellectually and emotionally captivated.


The place, or setting, where a novel takes place can be quite important to the reader.  It might be a place s/he always wanted to visit, and about which s/he wants to read.  Or,  it could be a location where the reader used to live; perhaps it has sentimental value.  Maybe it’s a mysterious, or even sinister, place.  The setting can have an effect on the characters’ behaviour or attitudes, because a place can have a distinctive culture.  And, of course, the setting can influence the plot.

My first two novels are set in locations with which I’m familiar.  Fishing in Foreign Seas takes place in Sicily and in three other US cities where the principal characters live.  My wife and I have a summer home in Sicily; we’ve been going there for many years, and some of its beauty, history and amazing culture are on display in the novel.  Caterina, a young Sicilian woman from a traditional background is very different from Jamie, an American man from a well-to-do, northeastern family.  Nonetheless, they fall in love, marry, and she moves with him to the States.  Boston (where I’ve visited many times) and Philadelphia (where I grew up) are their first two destinations.  Boston and Philadelphia are very different than Palermo, near which Caterina grew up.  But these ‘old’ American cities have enough of an ‘old world’ feeling and culture about them that Caterina does not feel entirely out of place.  It’s when they move to Atlanta that the trouble starts.  To be fair to Atlanta, the troubles have more to do with Jamie’s constant business travel than they do with the location.  But Atlanta is a modern city, and Caterina, as a foreigner, did not always feel welcome there.  My older daughter went to university in Atlanta, and her younger sister used to live there.  Neither of them felt out of place in Atlanta, but neither of them grew up in rural Sicily near Palermo.

Sin & Contritionis set primarily in Pittsburgh, and some of the characters move to New York City and Washington DC.  I’ve lived in all three cities: they’re very different in their styles and cultures.  In fact, Aspinwall, which was home to four of the characters and Fox Chapel, home to two of the characters, are neighbouring suburbs of Pittsburgh.   I’ve lived in  both communities.  Aspinwall is a working class area, while Fox Chapel is a well-to-do neighbourhood.  Yet all six of the characters attend the  same schools.  In fact, Pittsburgh is a kind of social melting pot.  New York City, where the two characters from Fox Chapel end up living, represents – for many people – the pinnacle of financial success.  And it’s Washington DC, where Gary, the poor boy from Aspinwall makes his mark as a US Congressman.

Efraim’s Eye,my third novel, which will be out this summer, follows a slightly different pattern.  It is a terrorist thriller with a romance between two of the central characters.  It is set in London (where I’m living now), and where the act of terrorism is to be carried out with great loss of life planned.  Londoners remember ‘7/7’, the day in 2005 when four suicide bombers attacked the London transport system, killing 52 and injuring over 700.  Much of the story takes place in Morocco, which my wife and I visited on holiday several years ago.  Morocco is a magical, mystical place – home to a mixture of Islamic and ancient north African culture.  It is in Marrakesh where a charity is being swindled to finance the act of terrorism and where the lovers make their discovery.  But to add to the tension of the plot, the terrorist travels to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya to gather his bomb-making materials.  I have been to none of those countries, and I’ve had to do considerable research about each place to make it real and to demonstrate the effects each place has on the characters.

(Efraim’s Eye has been published 24 September 2012.)

Some of my readers say that I am too detailed in my descriptions of places in my novels.  I understand their point, and  I try not to ‘guild the lily’ in my descriptive passages, but I think it’s important to the reader to feel that s/he is actually there!

For more information about my novels see www.williampeace.net.

Subscriptions to the Blog – RSS – Comments

Some of my readers have complained that the RSS (by means of which you can be advised of new posts) is not working.  I have had my IT consultant check, and he has reported that the RSS is working. He has suggested the following for using the RSS:

To subscribe to a feed (RSS) Using Internet Explorer  

  1. Launch Internet Explorer 
  2. Go to  http://williampeace.bookblogworld.com/
  3. Click on RSS 2.0 in the right hand panel under Meta>>.
  4. Click Subscribe to this Feed. 
  5. Type a name for the feed and select the folder to create the feed in. 
  6. Click Subscribe.

To add a feed to the Favorites bar

To add a feed to the Favorites bar, subscribe to the feed, and then select the Add to Favorites Bar check box in the Subscribe to this Feed dialog box. If you’ve already subscribed to the feed, you can click the Add to Favorites Bar button to add the feed to the Favorites bar.

To subscribe to a feed (RSS) using Mozilla Firefox 

  1. Launch Mozilla Firefox 
  2. Go to  http://williampeace.bookblogworld.com/
  3. Click on RSS 2.0 in the right hand panel under Meta>>. 
  4. Click Subscribe to this Feed.

 Regarding Comments: I am now subscribing to Askimet which will automatically delete most spam comments so that they don’t get near the website.  In addition, I will delete, in bulk, all comments which make it to my spam queue.  I also delete, without reading, any comments in my pending queue which show a URL.  So, the get a comment published on the website, I suggest:

  • that you do not list a URL on your comment
  • I would like to see more, specific comments about a point or an opinion I’ve expressed in a particular post.  Critical, specific comments are also welcome. 
  • Please keep your comment brief and to the point.  I don’t think my readers are interested in a long wheeze posted by someone else. 
  • Please don’t include quotations from somebody famous in your comments.  I want to hear your opinions, not the ideas of the famous person. 
  • Some of my readers are not proficient in written English.  That is OK.  But I will delete comments that don’t make sense. 
  • Sweeping, thoughtless or malicious comments will not be posted, but as I’ve said above, thoughtful, specific and critical comments are welcome. 
  • Please feel free to suggest any new topics you would like to see me address.
  • I will try to respond to specific questions about my writing or my views on writing.