The Pigeonhole is a made-for-mobile digital book club. Its books are delivered in instalments straight to a reader’s virtual bookshelf on The Pigeonhole website or iOS app. Here, The Pigeonhole’s commissioning editor Sarah Ream talks about the challenges and joys of serialising a novel.
Though I never imagined I’d work in a tech start-up, I’m now a year into my role as commissioning editor at The Pigeonhole, a made-for-mobile digital book club. I started my career in traditional publishing, and when I took a job in 2008 as an editor of a poetry website, I assumed it would be a temporary break from print. Even back then, despite happily editing poetry online, I didn’t give digital books much thought – I only found out what a Kindle was years after I should have done, and I didn’t read a book on a smartphone until 2012. (For the record, it was a PDF of an ineffectual how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep book; no nifty app involved. There was no nifty app to be had.)
When I began at The Pigeonhole, I naively thought that there wouldn’t be much contrast between print and digital publishing in terms of commissioning, developing and editing books. Surely it was just the end format that differed?
But I soon learnt that approaches differ from the outset when editing books for a mobile readership. The Pigeonhole strives to curate dynamic, real-time, collective reading experiences. Synchronising readers by drip-feeding them a book is key to this; we serialise all our books in instalments (which we call staves) that are delivered straight to our readers’ phones, tablets or laptops via our app or website. We let readers to talk to each other – and the author – via an in-text comments function, and we also pepper the text with mixed-media extra content (think interviews with the author, artwork, videos, links and playlists). So we don’t simply judge the success of a title on how many subscribers it attracts; we also care deeply about how readers interact with it.
When deciding which titles to serialise, and how to serialise them, I give careful consideration to how a book will be read. It’s not just about whether the book is good or not – will serialisation actually benefit the text and its readers? Are there natural stave breaks or cliffhangers to build tension? Will the book spark discussion? Is the author keen to chat to readers? What extra content will best enhance the text? How long should the staves be and how often should readers receive them? Dickens’ readers may have been willing to wait for monthly instalments of The Pickwick Papers, but we’ve seen that daily staves – particularly for novels – are more likely to spur conversation and lead to higher completion rates than staves delivered weekly. Yet that doesn’t mean that readers only want swift, easy reads: we’ve had swathes of people committing a month to reading hefty titles such as Moby-Dick and Middlemarch in short daily instalments.
One of the thrills of my job is working with other publishers to serialise their books on our platform. It’s a fantastic way for them to find a new readership for their authors, breathe new life into a backlist title or boost the buzz around the launch of a print edition. We particularly love helping to launch debut authors, so we’re very excited about our upcoming serialisation of The Sacred Combe, Thomas Maloney’s first novel, which was published in hardcover by Scribe UK in May. The publishers’ pitch hooked me – the story centres around Samuel Browne, a young Londoner who, after his wife leaves him, finds a strange job advert tucked inside a volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and soon takes up a post in the library of a remote manor house, Combe Hall. There he is tasked with a seemingly hopeless and rather nebulous quest, and he begins to uncover the secrets and troubled family history of the Hall’s residents.
The novel is a gift of a book for The Pigeonhole. It divides elegantly into twelve, well-paced staves – each around twenty minutes’ worth of reading, with plenty of revealed mysteries and the odd cliffhanger. It also lends itself wonderfully to speculation and discussion. Jim Perrin has called the book ‘a bibliophile’s delight’, and it is, with gorgeous descriptions of old books and frequent nods to other literature. (The title itself is taken from John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.) When I first read the book, I noticed a number of these allusions and quotations – some obvious, others embedded more quietly, and I particularly loved the parallels with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (a copy of it appears in the book, in fact). But I was sure I was missing other references, and I was excited by the idea of having multiple readers enjoying the book together, noting sections that reminded them of other books, discussing the twists and turns of the plot and having the author weighing in on their thoughts.
If the book was a gift, so was the author; within a day or two of meeting Thomas Maloney, he had sent me over a long list of suggested extras that were spot-on. Without giving too much away, they range from sketches through to snippets of birdsong, from photographs that inspired the setting to notes and links about paintings, books and poems alluded to in the text. As I suspected, there were plenty of allusions I hadn’t picked up on my first read. But we were careful not to be over-explanatory, and we didn’t aim to comprehensively annotate the book. Rather, we hope the extras will sound as echoing notes, drawing readers further in to the beguiling, beautiful world of The Sacred Combe – and encouraging them to talk about it with each other.
The 12-part Pigeonhole serialisation of The Sacred Combe begins on 2 June. Subscribe at www.thepigeonhole.com/books/the-sacred-combe for just £2.99. The first ten Pigeonhole readers to send us a link to their Goodreads review of the book after the serialisation will receive a Cocoa Runners gift box.
The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney is published by Scribe (£14.99).
When I set out to write The City of Shadows, the first of a series of historical crime novels set in Ireland before and during the Second World War, the aim was first to tell a good tale, hopefully, but also to explore that time, to look at Ireland’s often compromised ‘neutrality’ and to ‘visit’ some other cities that played a role in the war. In The City of Shadows that city was German Danzig in 1935 (now Polish Gdańsk, a change that tells its own tale!) and now in the latest Stefan Gillespie story, The City of Strangers, it is New York, where Stefan finds the looming war in Europe already being fought in the streets.
Telling a good story and exploring ‘the times’ in ways that take you off the beaten track is what historical crime fiction is all about. And they were strange times, as British and German spies sat at adjacent table in Dublin bars, and Ireland’s odd neutrality was best summed up by the fact that German aircrew landing in Ireland were interned for the duration of the war, while Allied aircrew were given a pint and put on the train to Belfast! But creating the sense of those times is a bit like writing about a foreign country. It’s not big things that really tell you what it feels like to be there, it’s the small things. To find a sense of history, you need a real sense of place, whether that place is Dublin and the mountains of West Wicklow, the dark alleyways of Danzig, or the towers of New York.
And although Stefan Gillespie’s investigations take him far from home, it is always in the grey streets of Dublin and the green lanes of West Wicklow that the stories have their heart. A sense of place and a real sense of the past went hand in hand when I was writing, partly because the stories often involve, behind the bodies and the action that is the stuff of crime fiction, a search for memory and belonging, in an Ireland still struggling to find out, as a newly independent nation, exactly what kind of country it really wanted to be.
In both The City of Strangers and The City of Shadows, I wanted Dublin in the 1930s to be real, a place you could see and feel. A place you could even find your way around. The first book starts with a man walking along the Liffey at night. Close to the end, on another night, Stefan Gillespie walks down O’Connell Street and over the Liffey too. The city is everywhere in between. In The City of Strangers Stefan finds himself looking at the bloody evidence of a murder in Herbert Place. Later he walks through the city from Bewley’s in Grafton Street to the Four Courts Hotel that once stood by the river. Dublin and its surroundings play a major part in the books that is almost that of a character. Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston), Clanbrassil Street, Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park, the Shelbourne, Harold’s Cross, Corbawn Lane in suburban Shankill, the Gate Theatre, Neary’s in Chatham Street, Merrion Square, the CID offices at Dublin Castle, Dorset Street, the Four Courts, Henrietta Street. Already a long list, but it’s really much longer.
In the process of writing about these places I have taken pleasure in making sure that much of the time shops and pubs that are mentioned are the ones that were really there, using the extraordinary door-stop-size book that is Thom’s Directory of Ireland. It doesn’t matter to the story, but it matters to the spirit of the story. One of the things I quickly found about writing historical fiction is that you can’t play with the past the way you can with the present. Readers expect historical fiction to be, well, historical! If you’re going to ‘stretch’ that history you need to be sure the facts behind it all will stand up.
Part of what I have written about Dublin, as about West Wicklow and the hills above Baltinglass, is unashamedly a celebration of places that matter to me, places I love. But it was only really when I started writing my second book, The City of Strangers, that I realised that the strange familiarity I felt with the streets of Dublin in the first half of the twentieth century, went deeper than I had remembered. I realised that my own sense of ‘knowing’ those dark, often rainy, foggy streets, had been left in my head, generally forgotten for most of my life, by my grandmother. She was born in Moville at the very end of the nineteenth century and lived through both the War of Independence and the Civil War in Ireland, before emigrating to England in search of work in the late 1920s.
When I was very young she told me stories about Ireland, about Donegal and Armagh and about the years she worked in Dublin. They were stories that often involved ‘the echo of the Thompson gun’ and assassinations, Black and Tans and Volunteers, gruesome deaths and miraculous escapes, black streets it was dangerous to walk at night. There were few of my childhood friends in England whose grandparents’ stories could compete with the murder and mayhem of mine! But it was a long time ago, and they had slipped to the back of my mind, even when I found myself living in Ireland and raising my children there. But they hadn’t gone away. And when I walked the dark streets of old Dublin with Stefan Gillespie… well, I think my grandmother was probably there to show us the way.
I hope The City of Strangers is, above all, a tale to give readers who like ‘mystery’ and ‘history’ enjoyment. A body on an Irish beach; a brutal murder in middle-class Dublin; a man falling from thirty storeys from a Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park; a woman running for her life. But it is also a celebration of two great cities at a fascinating time in their history, Dublin and New York in 1939. New York was, of course, the third largest ‘Irish’ city in the world at that time, but then New York is another story…
Written by Chris Allen, author of Defender and Hunter.
Growing up, I was always drawn to shows on TV and the big screen that were international in some way, whether it be a mixture of the cast or more specifically, an agency or groups working together on a global scale. I can’t explain why, although it could be because I have a diverse family heritage and grew up on stories of my Welsh grandfather and uncles – one of whom served on Russian trawlers in the Atlantic, or the uncle who was a US marine – both in WWII. These stories and many others stimulated a natural curiosity in me about the world out there, so I guess I was never going to grow up holding onto a local mindset. Considering I grew up in a sleepy riverside suburb in Perth during the 1970’s – it’s no wonder my youthful imagination was enticed further afield.
A couple of the shows I liked very early in life included The Thunderbirds, the whole International Rescue element really appealed to me; and later, the live action series called UFO – which was also created by Gerry Anderson (the creator of The Thunderbirds). UFO featured the international agency SHADO, with everyone aligned to fight the alien invaders! It’s inevitable that when I got older and started putting my thoughts towards creating something, it was going to be at its core international.
When I began writing, I knew my creation would inevitably be influenced by actual events that were occurring at the time and my particular take on how that might influence the context of my stories. I started writing drafts of Defender in the extended aftermath of Sept 11, 2001 – a time when I was in high demand professionally and probably needed a creative outlet. I didn’t want the context of my stories to be military in nature, so I steered away from the obvious choice – the UN and intervention forces – and looked more towards the actual criminal activity so often hidden behind idealistic rhetoric and excuses for terror.
Having decided upon that course of action, but still wanting to unite nation-states together in the grand narrative, I opted to have the UN Security Council approach Interpol so as to join those entities in a fictional sense, despite their quite disparate responsibilities in real life. I achieved this through the creation of Intrepid: Interpol’s black-ops Intelligence, Recovery, Protection and Infiltration Division – raised at the behest of the United Nations.
Having had both military and law enforcement experience and a wide network of friends and colleagues reflecting similar career streams, it hasn’t been a stretch to embed fact within my fiction. The characters I’ve created and am developing for future volumes are all in some way the literary embodiment of those same people with whom I’ve shared professional experiences over past years, and many are a composite of people I’ve served and worked with. The agents are international in flavour – from the Austrian ex-GSG9 character The Key, to the former US Navy Seal Dave Sutherland, to the New Zealand born Chief of Intrepid himself, General Davenport. Of course, Alex Morgan reflects my own heritage in that he’s born of a Welsh father and Australian mother, with service across a number of Commonwealth armies.
My observations of how these various agencies work is that they can both help and hinder co-operation, often with best efforts frustrated by the corruption of misinformation and bureaucracy (my pet hates). I can draw on my own interactions with agencies as much as observations I’ve made or even stories relayed to me by others, combined with my own experiences in the field. At the core of it all, nothing begins without some form of dialogue. The scene must be set and the operational parameters must be established before the agents embark upon their missions. So, I try to provide the reader with some sense of either the orders process – as in General Davenport tasking his agents (Defender), or the process of defining jurisdictional boundaries – as in sorting out ‘who will do what when’ type issues before the agents deploy (Hunter).
When the time comes to create each fictional story, I will draw on an overarching real life issue, such as human trafficking in Avenger – war criminals in Hunter – or gunrunning in Defender, and interlace the fictional plot with real experiences in a way that should, hopefully, enhance the adventure for the reader. I guess they call it writing escapist thrillers for realists. I’m not interested in creating the doomsday catastrophe stories where the world is going to end via destruction on a mass scale, nor am I going to target one particular race or faith through my writing. History consistently shows us that the world is a lot more complicated than that.
So while an agency like Intrepid wouldn’t happen in real life, where the UN sets the agenda for Interpol – all for the greater good – well, that is the entire point. Intrepid is supposed to be escapist, it’s supposed to be fictional and ultimately, it’s supposed to be cool.
About the author:
Before penning his Alex Morgan espionage series, Chris saw the world from under a parachute; made a difference in East Timor; protected Sydney’s iconic sails post 9/11; and most recently, held one of the most historic offices in Australia. Since self-publishing and being signed by Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital imprint Momentum for a two-book deal, Defender and Hunter have wowed readers worldwide, with Avenger due out end-2013 and a film franchise underway. Chris dreams of one day spending extended periods of time enjoying an English country cottage in Surrey, preferably one in walking distance from the local pub.
Chris blogs about all things thriller as well as indulging his love of cult TV shows and movies from his youth at www.intrepidallen.com/blog. Or you can say g’day on Facebook at facebook.com/intrepidallen.
Olympics for all? ……By Richard Pierce
I’ve not always loved sport. As a fat child, I viewed it with a certain amount of disdain, I think, regarding reading alone in my bedroom as a much more important pastime than getting sweaty or even wasting time watching other people get sweaty for no good reason. And then, as I grew a little older, though not thinner, my dad started to let me stay up late on European football nights, and I grew to love that time we spent together watching what looked to me like old men suddenly growing young and twinkle-toed and doing things with a ball that I could never have dreamed of doing. That’s when sport became a thing of beauty to me.
By 1972, I was totally given up to the watching of sport, and lapped up the Sapporo Winter Olympics, and then the Munich Olympics – and was totally and utterly distraught by the massacre there, having by this time also moved on in my reading to the Greek classics. In 1974, just before we left Germany to move back to England, I was asked by a friend of my father’s to go to watch Scotland play Brazil in the World Cup at the Frankfurt Waldstadion. Time has blurred many of the images from that day, but one thing I recall clearly is Billy Bremner, with his white wristbands on, missing a sitter from about 3 yards out, putting it a foot wide of the Brazilian post, with the keeper nowhere.
Wind forwards almost 40 years, and here we are, in an Olympic year, the Olympics in the UK for the first time in my life time, and me thinner and more active than I was when I was 14, and as obsessed by watching and playing sport as I ever was.
I’ve been lucky enough to be at three Olympic events so far, all of them poles apart as far as the watching environment’s concerned. The first, Olympic Ladies Football in Coventry (free tickets thanks to the local primary school, high up in the windy North Stand); the second Ladies’ table tennis in the cheap (but excellent) seats in the Excel; the third a hospitality area right by the finishing line at Eton Dorney for the rowing, with free food and drink (and this last one thanks to the enduring generosity of one of my oldest and dearest friends).
At some point at Eton Dorney, I sat down with my glass of fizz and started to wonder about the intellectual integrity, not just of me sat there supping fizz, but of the Olympic Games as a whole. And I don’t mean to start banging on about politics or corruption or doping here. My mind was focused on something different altogether, leaving rational thinking about economics to one side. I don’t do rational very well.
My interpretation of the Olympics has always been that they were started by the ancient Greeks to replace war, to stop from happening again the tragedies and losses of the Trojan War, to allow the peoples of Greece to live in peace with each other, and having their named champions fight bloodless games in the name of their states in the shadow of Mount Olympus. That these were games played by the people for the people, that anyone who wanted to watch could watch, that anyone who wanted to take part would be considered, and the best chosen from those who vied for a place.
Extend that now into modern times, and the ideal is all but destroyed. We live in times of war; we have lived with almost continuous wars since the end of the 19th century. This is a bloody age we live in, with conflict worldwide, with threats of conflict where no conflict is now. And we also live in a greedy world, a place where everyone is motivated by selfish gains, not by selfless pursuit, where gamesmanship commonplace on and off the field, and where those in poverty are placed under even greater strain by those who live in luxury.
These thoughts naturally confused me, and still do, especially in that privileged position at Eton Dorney. However, they didn’t stop me from wondering how the Olympics could have been made accessible to all, how a mechanism could be devised by which attendance at every Olympic event could have been made free of charge, how governments should, in a true Olympian spirit, make financial contributions towards this mechanism, directly depriving their machines of war of the oxygen of money and aggression. These funds could be generated by supertaxes on the super-rich and on the banks. Spectators would take part in ballots to see who could go to watch and where. There would be no competing for where the Olympics would be held, because we would have a rota hundreds of years ahead determined by referendums held worldwide. And this, naturally, as a precursor to yet another one of my Utopian dreams – a world government, one world currency, and one global system of taxation.
Is it really too much to ask and to hope for that we should return to true amateurism when it comes to taking part in the Games, whether competing or watching? Is it too much to dream of that the true darkness of the human spirit could be suppressed for a fortnight every four years to allow the beauty of sporting efforts and achievements to shine through? I wish it weren’t.