What a strange new world we live in.
On Friday night there I was, sitting at a table in a Luxembourgish village with a bunch of people – my wife, two old friends from Scotland, and a gaggle of Luxembourgers (I’m not sure what the collective noun is for Luxembourgers, but after a few bottles of the local wine ‘gaggle’ seems appropriate). My fantastic wife / marketing manager was doing one of her usual excellent pitches for Amsterdam Rampant, while I mumbled embarrassedly with the pathological self-deprecation that comes as second nature to most Scots. One of the Luxembourgers, a rather cool fifty-something professor (let’s preserve his anonymity and call him Mr G) decided to buy the novel on the spot. He whipped out his iPhone, logged on to Amazon, and seconds later, Amsterdam Rampant was downloading.
I sat at the table and stared at his phone. The dinner party continued – chatter, the clink of glasses, cheese bubbling under the raclette grill – and still I stared at the iPhone, where underneath a tiny thumbnail of Amsterdam Rampant’s cover art, a blue bar crept stealthily rightwards as the novel materialised out of the ether. And then – ping! – Rampant had loaded (my 70th sale) and Mr G tapped on his phone and read aloud the Joseph Brodsky quote at the start of the novel. And for the umpteenth time since starting my epublishing adventure, I marvelled at the revolution we are living through.
When I think back to my late teens, living in a small village in Fife on Scotland’s east coast, I would sit in my bedroom on dark rain-lashed nights fantasising about (steady now reader, you have a filthy mind) writing fiction. And not just fiction – literature. I always remember taking a particular book off my shelf and turning it over in my hands, flicking through the pages, feeling its weight and shape, and imagining having my name on the cover. The book was New Writing Scotland 6, an annual anthology of new writing. Getting a short story published in this slim volume, would, I imagined, be the equivalent of joining the canon. The literary equivalent of having my name blazing in lights on Scottish literature’s rainy and windblown boulevard of dreams, a gilt-edged membership card in my pocket to the same exclusive club as Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Iain Banks.
And when I did finally fulfil that dream – New Writing Scotland 21, with my story as the title piece no less – I did imagine that I was within touching distance of that sort of recognition. Years and years of writing away, firstly scrawling in biro in A4 pads, then finger-typing on an old Mac with a juddery dot matrix printer, onwards with a PC, and onwards again with two laptops, the technology evolving along with my writing. And all that time throwing myself again and again against the fortified gates of the Scottish literary canon, awaiting approval before my work could find readers.
Imagine if I could transport myself back to visit teenage Neil in 1989, appearing in the corner of the room and terrifying him as he fantasised about (calm yourself reader, steady now) a printed novel. And my ghostly apparition would, after a brief pang of grief upon seeing Young Neil with a full head of hair, say in a spooky voice:
“Woooooooo! [Ghosty noise] Fear not, Young Neil! You shall become a novelist in your distant future. It won’t be a physical book however. People will be able to read it on their phones. Yes, their phones. What else? Well, a Scottish tennis player will win Wimbledon. And there will be a bit of a problem with pirates. No, listen, I’m telling the truth. And you shall work in the field of shipping whisky to Chinese people, and marry a Polish hottie… yes, I’m telling the truth… honest… wooooooooooo!”
So just to recap…
Print book – two-year process to get to readers, numerous hurdles and cronyism and nepotism to negotiate, fate in the hands of others.
Ebook – two-week process to get to readers, cool Luxembourgish professor Mr G downloads it on iPhone and starts to read it instantly.
I rest my case.