With novels such as Inverted World, The Islanders and The Prestige (adapted into a 2006 film starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), Christopher Priest has been one of Britain’s most interesting and acclaimed writers for many years. In this interview, he talks about his views on digital publishing, the future of the book and how “printed books are going to have to shift their expectations”.
A few years ago you released Ersatz Wines, a collection of your earlier, “instructive short stories”. You said you wrote them while you were “learning how to be a writer”. Were you conscious, when you originally wrote them, that you were still “learning” to be a writer? Or did you only realise that later, looking back?
I’m still learning now. When I was a teenager, and starting out with those stories that are now in Ersatz Wines, it seemed to me that the writers I saw being published were probably naturally gifted. I believed I was not, but I also thought it might be possible to learn how to pass myself off as naturally gifted. So I applied myself to it. It’s a continuous process: every book or story I write is a learning experience.
In one way, it’s easier for new writers today. They can self-publish on Amazon. They don’t have to submit their work to magazines, editors or agents. There’s almost no need to get rejected any more. But do you think there’s something in that early process of submission and inevitable rejection that helps a writer to develop?
Does anyone read the self-published Amazon writers? This is not a rhetorical question: I actually don’t know anyone who has downloaded one of those books. Maybe someone does, but I can’t think who they might be, or why they would do it. Mums and dads, perhaps?
I think the opposite to you – I believe it is much harder for new writers today. It’s always been difficult, but at the moment we are going through a slow, negative revolution in the book world. It is changing shape, and also believed to be shrinking. I don’t entirely go along with that, but it means publishers are being more cautious than ever about risking their money.
Ersatz Wines is one of the books you’ve published through your GrimGrin Studio, for “second stream” titles. Why did you decide to set up this imprint, and how do you define a “second stream” title?
It’s an opportunity to put into print the kind of book publishers really don’t want to bring out. Ersatz Wines is a good example. It’s neither a short story collection, an autobiographical fragment nor a critical essay. It’s all three, though, and people who have read it have remarked how much they have appreciated it. But I still can’t think of a trade publisher who would want it. I have also published a book of essays (the sort of book that makes publishers go on unlimited leave), and a book about the filming of The Prestige. Perhaps some writers, in the aftermath of a great success, might be able to talk a publisher into doing something like that, but I don’t think I’m one of them and I didn’t try after the first book was turned down by my usual publishers.
Would you ever abandon traditional publishers completely and self-publish all your work?
No, but I’ve enjoyed the technical challenge of producing the books. I also enjoy the conceit that at the moment it’s quite difficult selling these books (because I have no distributor, no publicity, etc.) but in a few years’ time people will be trying to collect them, and probably at stupid prices. They could have them now for a few quid, if only they knew …
Digital books can now contain video, audio, embedded software, and there are even plans for a new generation of books that release certain smells on command. Does that kind of thing interest you, either as a reader or as a writer, or do you see it as bad gimmickry?
Yes, it’s interesting … but all that is irrelevant to the particular pleasure of reading a book. Remember that old joke about the pictures being better on the radio than they are on television? People don’t read books now as a stopgap, waiting for a digital experience. They read books because they love them, because the pleasure you can get from a book is a unique one. I don’t see why a new technology has to replace an existing one. It should add to our range of pleasures. (Returning to the radio analogy: isn’t is significant that at a time when television viewing figures are declining, the listening figures for BBC Radio 4 increase every year?)
Similarly, some people believe that what readers want is an interactive narrative experience, that they want to be able to make decisions for characters and interact with them almost as if the book is a kind of game. Like a kind of ‘make your own adventure’ book. Do you think readers really want to ‘play’ with their books like this?
No. Video games do that sort of thing infinitely better.
Do you think ebooks and digital publishing threaten the survival of the traditional printed paper book? Or are they so different, they can co-exist without any problems?
They can co-exist, but printed books are going to have to shift their expectations. I’ve long argued that an industry that seeks to support itself on temporary best-selling popularity is turning its back on the core market. The core market in this case is good books by good writers, bought and read by good readers. The quest by some publishers for instant popular success is a red herring: it seeks to pitch books against other mass entertainments (like TV shows), and makes very poor economic sense. Best-selling books are expensive to produce, distribute and publicize, and most of them have to be sold at huge discounts. Twenty years ago a publisher could survive financially on one best-selling book every five years or so, but now they have to find four or five best-sellers a year, just to stay in business.
In the future, fewer printed books will be published, but each one will be aimed at the selective (or ‘niche’) market best suited to it. That will probably mean the price of printed books will have to increase, but then so too does the price of everything else. Most hardbacks now cost at least £15 or £16 … my first novel was published in hardback at 28s … or £1.40 in decimal. But postage in those long-ago days cost 3d (that’s three old pence), and now a first-class stamp costs 60p. In raw terms, it means that novels now cost about 11 times what they used to, but a postage stamp is 48 times more expensive. Books are terrific value.
You were recently fairly uncomplimentary about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, saying that the judges failed, that they went with what they saw as safe, and that “the overall quality of the fiction in the year in question was poor”. Do you think this is a one-off failure, or do you think there’s a danger of the same thing happening again next year?
No idea about next year, or any year, or even past years. I was interested only in the current batch. And I wasn’t ‘fairly’ uncomplimentary: I think the shortlist has too many mediocre books, and I said so.
To select a number of books from any one period, such as a year, is to take a snapshot of what’s going on. Having looked carefully at the list of 60 titles which were submitted to the Clarke Award by publishers, it struck me how many were simply rehashes of existing models, stuff held back creatively by being too subservient to the perceived genre. You know, all the corny stuff that the people who sneer at science fiction think it is. Sometimes, those detractors are unfortunately right.
However, the saving grace of science fiction has always been the books at the edge of the genre, or at the top, the one-offs, the unpredictables, the odd, the unexpected, the experimental books. You get a few of those every years, but this year (i.e. 2011) there were fewer than ever. Rather than seeking to grab this problem and making something of it by coming up with a shortlist of probably imperfect but still adventurous, ambitious and interesting works, the judges played dead safe and chose mostly books that they thought were unchallenging, conservative and, within their own modest ambitions, achieved. But this misses the point, that safe, unadventurous science fiction is imperfect in uninteresting ways.
What the Clarke Award needs is a strong shortlist: varied, perhaps eccentric, but well written, well imagined, perhaps demanding. When a winner is finally selected, the message sent out from such a shortlist is that the winning book has been thought about, argued about, that a properly structured decision has been made, that the book has emerged as the first among equals, that its victory was hard-won and well deserved. With this year’s lot you have four mediocre genre novels, one semi-mainstream novel that is good but modest, and one overlong and over-praised story about an encounter with weird aliens. I can’t imagine that the eventual winner will feel any sense of pleasure in having been chosen as the ‘best’ of such a dodgy list of books. Unless, that is, the feeling of being the least mediocre of a mediocre shortlist is what it’s all about.
One of the big issues with ebooks is piracy. People swap digital copies of ebooks quite freely and openly. Do you worry about people pirating your books?
Yes. It’s a constant problem, and one worsened by what appears to be a persistent internet belief that copyright somehow infringes liberty. A published book is a personal matter to the writer, and if someone rips you off it feels the same as if someone has broken into your house and stolen your property.
Books, after all, are not expensive, as I’ve argued above. Even new hardcovers bought over the counter in a shop are cheaper than (say) a couple of hamburgers and a bottle of beer. Digital books are even cheaper. They both last a lot longer than hamburgers and beer, and don’t make you fat. But somehow these people who claim an obstinate ‘right’ to download anything they please do not realize how arrogant and mean-spirited they are.
What advice would you give to a new writer? Would you suggest self-publishing their work, or should they try to go the traditional route and get an agent and a publisher?
Advice: do it the hard way. Always write to the top of your ability, never compromise your talent. If you’re any good, the system that exists will inevitably find you. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s OK.
I read that you wrote a script adaptation of Thank You, Girls. It would be great to see that, is there any chance of it getting made?
Not that I know of! Would be nice, but it’s a bit old-hat now.
Finally, what do you have planned for 2012? I saw that you have a new book, The Adjacent, coming out at some point. Can you tell me anything about that?
I plan to finish and deliver The Adjacent in 2012, but I’m not exactly sure when that will be. It means it probably won’t be out until 2013 or 2014. After that I have two more novels in mind, and I’ll get to them as soon as I can. I also have a stage play in pre-production: it will be cast later this year, goes on a UK provincial tour in 2013, and should be in London at the end of the tour. There is a strong likelihood of a movie being made of The Glamour – I am collaborating with the director Gerald McMorrow at present. In the shorter term, a group of talented and ingenious film-makers in Hollywood are about to make a short film based on my story “The Stooge”.