A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett (mini-review)

Get it on Amazon!

 

I just finished reading Ken Follett’s mammoth historical novel, A Column of Fire.

The novel opens in 1558, just as the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary is coming to an end. Mary has reversed England’s Protestant shift, which began when her father, Henry VIII, decided that he couldn’t make due with one wife and a mistress.

Mary, who is also known to history as “Bloody Mary”, occasionally burned Protestant dissenters, and this is depicted in one of the opening chapters of A Column of Fire. Hence the name of the book.

This is the opening historical backdrop. The hero of the novel is Ned Willard, who is a young man in love as the story opens. The object of Ned’s affections is Margery Fitzgerald. Ned’s affections are returned, but—of course—there is a problem.

Margery hails from a devoutly Catholic family that has prospered under the reign of Mary. Through the connivances of Margery’s fanatically papist brother, Ned loses Margery to Bart, a member of the local Catholic nobility.

And so Margery enters into a loveless marriage with Bart (who is an uncouth, insensitive, and blundering brute), while Ned goes off, forlorn, to seek his fortune in London.

Ned is a lukewarm Protestant who abhors the intolerance of Mary’s reign. Ned longs for a monarch who will allow the British people to worship freely (or as freely as possible, according to 16th-century standards of “freedom”.)

Just as Ned is reeling from the loss of Margery, Mary dies. Elizabeth takes the throne. A chance connection to Sir Francis Walsingham (principal secretary to Elizabeth) enables Ned to enter the service of the Crown. Ned is greatly impressed with the young queen. With the option of a married life with Margery closed off, Ned devotes himself to the service of Queen Elizabeth I, and the implementation of her (initially) tolerant ideals.

There is a lot more to A Column of Fire, of course. This is a 900-page book, after all. There is also a storyline set in France, where Protestants are a minority in an officially Catholic country. Still another set of characters has adventures in Spain and the New World. (All of the storylines converge before the end of the book.)

The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the religious strife that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. As noted above, the story opens with anti-Protestant burnings in England. Follett later weaves into his plot the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The book covers around half a century. (Ned Willard is in his eighties in the final chapter.)

I loved this book. I have read almost everything that Ken Follett has written to this point, and A Column of Fire is hands-down my favorite.

I like stories with complex twists and turns, and physical threats; and A Column of Fire has all that in spades. There are sea battles, and opposing rings of Catholic and Protestant spies.

The majority of readers seem to agree with me. A Column of Fire is highly rated both on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even a really good book has its flaws. Most of the criticisms of A Column of Fire come from one of two angles, which I’ll address briefly.

Ken Follett seems to harbor a secret desire to be an author of Harlequin romance novels. Almost every movie, novel, and television series has a love interest (or multiple love interests), and I’m not suggesting that this, in itself, is in any way a drawback.

Follett, however, tends to go overboard on his sex scenes.

Now, before you ask, I’m no prude. I’m a fifty-year-old, very heterosexual man with right-leaning libertarian tendencies. I have an equal loathing for leftwing political correctness, and anything that smacks of goody-two-shoes censorship.

That said, there is only so much detail that I need when an author describes a romantic coupling. To be blunt about it: Once the author has described the male protagonist’s erect penis, or the heroine’s moist nether regions, the author has given me more detail than I actually need.

Follett does this on multiple occasions (and in more than a few of his novels). There are some lacunae that an author should trust readers to fill in for themselves.

Secondly, A Column of Fire has something of an anti-Catholic bias. Almost every Catholic character is portrayed as a bloodthirsty fanatic, an amoral schemer, or a deluded simpleton.

(This may be a thing with baby boomer British authors who write historical fiction, as I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the historical novels of Bernard Cornwell.)

These flaws, however, are minor ones. On balance, A Column of Fire is a great read.

A final word before I end: You’ll appreciate A Column of Fire far more if you already have a basic knowledge of European history in general, and the Protestant Reformation in particular. But then, if you don’t already have some interest in history, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be strongly attracted to this book.

Remembering those Burger Chef ‘Star Wars’ posters of 1977

Star Wars Authentics

I was part of the original Star Wars generation.

I remember being nine years old in the summer of 1977, sitting with my dad in the cinema, watching that first epic Star Wars opening crawl.

I became a total fanatic for Star Wars. And yes, that meant Star Wars action figures, Star Wars trading cards, and much else. During that first two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I wasn’t thinking about stagflation or the energy crisis, or Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”. I was thinking about Star Wars.

Among my favorite Star Wars memorabilia of that era were the four Star Wars posters issued by Burger Chef. (Burger Chef was a once popular fast food chain that went out of business in 1996.)

I had all four posters, and they were hung all around my bedroom. (I can still recall the exact placement of each one, in fact.)

These are now collectors’ items, of course. But they were just delightful children’s bric-a-brac in 1977.

There is only so much money within the indie authorspace

There is a predictable evolution that can be seen in all online communities.

I’ve witnessed it over the last fifteen years, in at least four online communities that I’ve been a part of.

At first, the online community is comprised of a small group of individuals who have gathered to share their enthusiasm for a specific topic. They freely exchange advice.

And then the community reaches maturity.

The numbers grow, and people inevitably start marketing books, courses, etc. to other members of the same online community.

We’ve definitely reached this point in the indie authorspace. (We reached it several years ago, in fact.)




 

Let me say, first of all, that I see nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. I’m a proud capitalist, after all.

Moreover, I’ve benefited from a handful of these courses and books myself.  I’ve especially benefited from the work and advice of Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I am also a weekly listener of several indie author podcasts, including: the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, The Creative Penn, The Sell More Books Show, Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, and—most recently—The Career Author Podcast.

These are all great sources of information, and I recommend them highly.

 

 

But the indie authorspace is—to put it bluntly—overcrowded, and the market is oversaturated. (Even Joanna Penn, once endlessly optimistic that “there could never be too many books”, has belatedly recognized this.)

There are now over 3.4 million books in the Kindle ebook store. 

Ten years ago, the challenge for indie authors was to prove (to themselves and to others) that indie publishing is a legitimate alternative to a reliance on the New York-based legacy publishers.

Much has changed over the past decade. We’ve seen the big-time success of Andy Weir, Mark Dawson, Blake Crouch, JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and numerous other indie publishers.

Meanwhile, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores has made New York’s stranglehold on traditional methods of distribution less significant.

We also see the rise of the so-called “hybrid author”. More traditionally published authors are either self-publishing, or going with small, entrepreneurial presses. (This is especially prevalent in genre fiction, as the New York publishers are systematically jettisoning any title that doesn’t have the mass-market appeal of the latest John Grisham or James Patterson thriller.)


 

Okay, so self-publishing is no longer a stigma. (And for what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an impassioned argument on either side of that debate. The fundamental legitimacy of self-publishing appears to be a settled question.)

But if obtaining the permission and resources to publish is no longer a problem, discoverability is now a massive challenge, in a market that can only be described as over-saturated.

Discoverability still isn’t a major problem if you write ultra-niche fiction. I recently learned that there is actually a category called “billionaire reverse-harem romance”. The (exclusively female) readers for these novels congregate in online communities dedicated to this topic, and they’re easy enough to find.

But this doesn’t describe the situation of most indie authors.  Suppose you write generic legal thrillers, in the tradition of John Grisham. Your online reader community is far more difficult to locate.

 

All indie authors, however, are aware of one concentrated, relentlessly passionate online community: the indie authorspace. 

If you go onto Twitter and identify yourself as an indie author, you will immediately be followed by other indie authors whom you’ve never heard of. (And they’ve never heard of you, either.) There are Kboards, 20Booksto50K on Facebook, Authortube on YouTube.

Lots of author communities. Easy to find online. We all know where they are.




 

This is what makes it so tempting to say, Hey, I’ve learned a lot about self-publishing. Maybe I could monetize that knowledge! 

And so you write a nonfiction book for authors. (Whenever a fiction author talks about “branching out into nonfiction”, you can bet that the author is talking about writing a nonfiction book about some facet of self-publishing.)

Or maybe you start yet another podcast. Or you attempt to host your own convention for indie authors, as many of the established podcasters are now doing.

And if you’re really business-minded, you bill yourself as a consultant to other authors. This seems to be the latest trend. As newbie authors become increasingly desperate for any leg up in the crowded marketplace, more and more second- and first-tier indie authors are hanging out their shingles as fee-based marketing consultants.

 

I reiterate: I am a capitalist. I therefore have no moral or ethical objection to any of this. I would much rather see indie authors coming up with innovative business models, versus petitioning the government for subsidies.

At the same time, though, there is a fundamental economic constraint to keep in mind: There is only so much money in the indie authospace. This is not a community of stockbrokers and heart surgeons. This is a community of artists, most of whom are making less than what an ambitious Walmart employee could make.

 

I interpret this trend of authors scrambling to sell their books/advice/services to other authors as a sign that the indie author community is due for a major shakeout. A shakeout is the inevitable consequence in any market that is oversupplied, vis-a-vis the demand.

If you’re an indie author (and I suspect that you are, if you have read this far), I’m not going to attempt to play dictator here, and tell you that you can’t become the next Chris Fox, Joanna Penn, or Dean Wesley Smith by rebranding yourself as a writing advice guru.

I would, however, suggest that you do some soul-searching before you go this route. As a fiction writer, your focus should be on readers, not other writers. Let’s not forget that Stephen King had been a best-selling author for twenty-five years before he wrote On Writing.

Furthermore, you may already be too late. It is only a matter of time before the marketplace of authors selling expertise to other authors becomes oversaturated, too. I repeat: There is only so much money within the indie author space.

Amazon earnings and indie authors

Today Amazon missed it’s earning estimates, leading to a fall in share prices.

Many indie authors are entirely reliant on Amazon. They are Amazon-exclusive, placing all of their titles in KDP. (Amazon makes this tempting, by dangling various cookies.)

I’m not anti-Amazon. On the contrary: I love Amazon–both as a reader and as an author. And under the current structure of the market, it would be virtually impossible to avoid any reliance on The Zon.

Nevertheless, as today’s news demonstrates, Amazon–just like any other company–has its ups and downs.

Amazon has also been known to make abrupt policy changes.

This is yet one more argument for “going wide”–or for making one’s titles available across multiple retailers.