Monday, July 28, 2008

Volume control

Back in the 1940’s Aldous Huxley pointed out that the volume of the world had been turned up. He was speaking of radio.
We now have daytime TV, DVDs, PVRs, iPods, polyphonic phones, Wii consoles, Nintendos, X Boxes and Guitar Hero on the PS3, to name but a few.

It’s a well documented fact than ten-year olds have an innate, atavistic understanding of arcane DVD and game console functions, what they don’t seem to be able to grasp are the basic volume controls.

If you rely on the sound of silence to write, you’re a bit stuffed these days. Especially round my house where, with two young boys, we must endure all of the above, all at the same time.

Over the years I’ve conditioned myself to work to a sound-track. At school I shared a study with a compulsive guitar plucker. He was, I think, rather good at it and, after a while, I found myself unable to concentrate without a little fingerstyle.

I still write to music; hammering away at the keyboard to an eclectic, possibly deranged, mix of hip-hop, crunk, garage, post-punk and synth-pop with a little indie rock on the side. And when I say hammer, I’m not kidding. I’ve just got the old Dell laptop back from the computer doctor who reports that the keyboard has been pounded into a dyslexic silicon pulp: the caps lock key is missing, as are the ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘K’. It’ll cost me $1500 (about five hundred quid) to have it put right. I’ve e-mailed him to fu off.

Of course, I blame Eminem. For the violence and the language.

In truth I use my iPod as much to mask the electronic farts, bleeps and shrieks of this Brave New World, as for pleasure. The squeals of my kids failing to get past level seven on Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, can be easily and happily exchanged for the Mick Jones-engineered post-punk-revival brilliance of The Libertines' Time for Heroes (Up the Bracket). What my iPod emphatically won’t do is obliterate the auditory shenanigans of my next-door neighbour - a sonic plague of international airport/cargo-handling proportions.

There are a few disagreeable noises capable of cutting through my Sennheisser ambient-sound-suppressing head-phones; these also happen to be the ones which drive me to distraction: cordless impact drill, rivet gun, leaf-blower, cement-mixer, tile-cutter, cordless hammer, cordless heavy-duty Impact wrench, biscuit Mitre saw, and compound Mitre saw. For some reason, repeated sneezing also converts me to a wordless rage.

My neighbour specializes in all of the above alarming machinery and more.

You see, I live in New Zealand. Good old tranquil, bucolic, green, clean New Zealand. Every summer, the citizens of Auckland undertake a household project involving eight or more power tools. The more screechingly sociopathic machines you can bring to bear, the more impressive the project. Mostly, they just like to make a racket, just so the neighbours know they exist.

Site-work starts officially at 7.30 a.m. Unofficially, 6.45. Which means, turn a blind eye to 6.15. So, when I emerge in my undercrackers on a Saturday morning to remonstrate with my neighbour, who’s still sneezing badly from builder’s dust - about the fact that he’s drilling up paving in his driveway at 6.30 in the morning - I’m a difficult, antisocial Pommy git.

I stumbled accidentally into a New Zealand DIY Mega-store and there are at least six aisles devoted to power-tools. I’m reasonably certain there’s also an entire shelf devoted to General Noisemaking Machines: items like the Decibel 8000, whose only function is to spin around at speed producing the kind of high-pitched whine that makes everyone in the vicinity think of Condor-talons and blackboards. Then there’s the Thumper 760VX, which produces a kind of pointless sub-sonic boom and is understood to be unsurpassed for waking up babies.

My first novel (not published) was entirely written in New Zealand to the shrieking, lumping soundtrack of the Decibel 8000 and the Thumper 760VX. I could barely hear myself think.

The Sleepwalker’s Introduction to Flight was mostly written in Singapore, to the gentle thrum of banknotes wafting in the breeze, the tropical rustle of palm leaves and the tinkle of ice. I don’t know, but I suspect the universe may be having a quiet word in my ear here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Photo call
(Midgets & Widgets)

Wired guru Chris Anderson has identified what he calls ‘The Long Tail’ phenomenon which suggests that our culture and economy are shifting from the steep curve of over-hyped big hit products to a long tail of niche products - lots and lots of them.
Charlie Brooker describes pretty much the same thing when he calls this ‘an age of dazzling consumer choice in which the customer is routinely indulged like a spoilt medieval prince’.

Driving the change is the rise of the internet and a corresponding increase in the time people spend in front of their computers. The PC is the new goggle-box, or rather, Google-box.

It’s all a bit scary for paunchy middle-aged ad agency types who are being forced to reinvent themselves: remembering to wear their baseball caps backwards and learning to speak techno as the world lurches from traditional aggregated media to a more fragmented landscape.

For everyone else it’s enormous fun as we become aficionados of midget Jello-wrestling and discover our very own Pentonville handles at (Harry Hung Horse, in case you were wondering). There’s a site for everyone. And his dog (

In many ways the online space is the perfect environment for products like books and CDs - bands like the Arctic Monkeys established a huge fan-base through online file sharing, Suze Orman’s publishers shrewdly allowed a million or so copies of her new book to be downloaded for free through Oprah’s website generating massive buzz. In theory well-marketed niche products can now punch well above their weight without requiring an advertising budget the size of Lichtenstein’s GNP. In theory.

The problem is, the Long Tail. There’s just so much stuff out there.

Authors have been quick to take advantage of the cyberspace opportunity with some excellent websites and blogs. But the question remains, how do we channel potential readers to our little asteroids in the first place?

In truth consumers are actually behaving more like the Princes of Serendip than aristocratic medieval brats - not so much lounging back on veleveteen cushions waiting for the world to pop a sugared comfit into their slack jaws, as active, engaged and square-jawed as Dan Dare. They’re out in cyberspace looking for new stuff to trip over.

And this is an important distinction. Consumers prefer to believe that there’s an element of serendipity to their latest discovery. The new generation has become quite resistant to the traditional push dynamic. The trick is making potential readers feel that they’ve found you as a consequence of good fortune and their own sagacity. And what’s more, they’re one of a select and discerning few.

In cyberspace everybody wants to be Neil Armstrong.
Nobody wants to be…whatever his name was.

For the launch of The Sleepwalker's Introduction to Flight I’m preparing two websites: one for the novel, the other for one of my characters.

One of the tools I’m planning to use to tempt potential readers is a thing called a QR (Quick Response) Code. It’s basically a 2D bar-code for your mobile phone. If you’re on a 3G network and a groovy young thing you simply point your camera lens at a weird square object and your phone instantly gratifies you by converting it into interesting information.

In my case one of two things can happen: your WAP-enabled phone pops up the url for my novel – or your phone automatically links to a WAP page featuring my first chapter.

The reader now can now bask in that Eureka Moment; ululating with savage joy at being one of the few who have genuinely discovered something wonderful, before rushing to buy my book. Or they can admit to being a numbskull with no taste.

I suppose I ought to point out a third possibility: you’re a sad old technophobe, you point your phone at one these devices. Nothing happens until you remember that your crappy old phone doesn’t actually have a camera. You limp away, shaking your fist at happy young people and smelling horrible.

If all this sounds a bit overly techno, it’s not. A QR Code is simply a machine link between print and online media, or if you prefer, a printed device which enables people in the real world to dip in and out of cyberspace using their phones. It’s a glorified barcode, albeit one which contains about 300 times more information than the stripy things in Tescos.

QR Codes are de rigeur in Japan, almost mundane. They hit the UK around August 2007. The first big promo to use them was the film premier of 28 Days Later where they erected a gigantic QR Code billboard. Underneath was a printed url for their website, which is more or less a classic example of belt and braces.

But just so you know that I’m not mad, the Beeb is using QR Codes for programming right now so they’re good for early adopters. Personally I think there’s still enough intrigue attached to make them worthwhile for us first-time authors to engage with a young-ish target audience. They can be printed up as stickers, leaflets, T-shirts, scarves, underpants, temporary tattoos, anything you want really.

My launch will take place at the wonderful Goldsboro Books in Covent Garden in May. I shall have all of these things available, including QR-tattooed maidens and studs.

I’ll be the guy whose phone doesn’t work.

This post also appears on the Picador blog. See links.