Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Is Crime Fiction Too Sadistic?

There's an interesting debate going on over at The Bookseller. The reviewer Jessica Mann was reported as saying she was giving up reviewing the genre because she was fed up with "outpourings of sadistic misogyny" that now characterises so many crime thrillers - although, in fairness, Jessica points out out later on that she is only giving up on those kinds of books, not the entire category.

Still, it's a debate worth having, and one that authors should take seriously. At some point in the last decade, the crime genre seems to have transformed itself into a 'serial killer' genre. A lot of the poster campaigns you see for books these days appear to be designed to be as gruesome as possible, and may well be putting off as many people from the genre as they attract.

I don't have anything against violence in books myself - and I don't suppose that someone who has written a book called 'Death Force' is in any position to complain about it. It has always been a big part of the crime and thriller genre, and there are good reasons for that. We are all fascinated by death. And, of course, it is only life and death situations that really create the necessary drama and tension that writers are seeking to create.

There are two problems, however.

Much of the crime genre appears to have slipped into a kind of torture porn. The crimes get more and more horrific, much of it dircted against women and children. I'm not convinced that is either healthy or wise.

Next, it isn't really very realistic either. Unless I've missed something, this country has hardly any serial killlers. The US has a few more, but not that many. At yet the bookshelves are groaning with serial killer stories. They aren't reflecting the world around them.

I wouldn't want to dictate what people should write about. But I can't help feeling that Mann is onto something when she complains that the genre is disappearing into a ghetto which, while it may do something for a minority of readres, alienates the mainstream audience.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Looming Inflation...

In Money Week this week I have been writing about how the soaring price of luxury goods is a sign of inflation on the horizon. Here's a taster....

Sixty thousand pounds, or 726,000 Hong Kong dollars, is a lot to spend on a bottle of wine, even if it is 1982 Chateau Petrus, and even if the bottle is question contained six litres rather than just one. Still, that was the price fetched at a recent Hong Kong auction, a record price for that wine.
And it was far from alone. Right around the world, the prices of rare, luxury and collectible items are starting to soar again. There is an interesting message in that for anyone trying to gage the state of the world economy – and what is likely to happen next to asset prices. Fearful of inflation, the rich are moving their money into the few assets that are likely to survive it. And they may well be right.
There are plenty of signs for of life returning to the market for luxury goods. A rare Ming dynasty Chenghua bowl sold this month for $4.7 million, whilst a large blue-and-white Qianlong moon flask went for $5.1 million. An 8.74-carat blue diamond just fetched $5.7 million, a record for a stone of that type. Classic cars are soaring in value: prices have risen by 60 percent since 2006, beating most other investments. In August, a 1938 Bugati sold for $1.3 million, and more than 15 classic cars have fetched more than $1m so far this year, according to figures compiled by the auctioneers Bonham’s.
Meanwhile, the prices of top-end London houses, a market now largely the exclusive preserve of the world’s super –rich, are starting to look lively once again. Prices in central London have now gone above their 2007 peak, according to the agents Rightmove. That upward surge is being led by buyers right at the very top end of the market, drawn in by the cheapness in the pound.
But just about anything with any kind of scarcity value or collect ability seems to be soaring in price right now. A clump of Elvis Presley’s hair, believed to have been shorn from the singer’s head he joined the Army in 1958, just sold for $15,000. Barbra Streisand just raised $600,000 for her charitable foundation by auctioning off memorabilia from her singing career. Even the art market has recovered its verve. After going through a bubble as intense as anything that the banking industry experienced it froze completely after Lehman Brothers collapsed, with sales down almost 80%, but has started recovering in the last few weeks.
So what is all that telling is about the state of the world economy?
What the rich are doing with their cash is always instructive. After all, they are clever with money: if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been able to accumulate so much of the stuff in the first place.
There are three big signals in the way the luxury market is starting to boom again.
First, there is a lot of spare money splashing around the place (much of it in China, which is where the really fancy prices are being paid). In a world where people are paying a million dollars for an old car there has to be. The programmes of quantitative easing, or what used to be known as printing money, implemented by most of the world’s main central banks may not have done very much to boost bank lending or economic activity. But they have created a lot of spare cash that is now swirling around the financial system. The way the luxury market is now booming again tells us that most of that newly-minted money is likely to go into creating a series of mini-bubbles in asset prices – and very little of it is likely to go into reviving economies, saving jobs, or creating new industries.
Next, the rich foresee inflation. With interest rates at record lows, the stock markets recovering strongly, and the banking bonus system back to its old ways, it is not just that there is plenty of money around. Inflation is certain to be making a return as well. The gold price is one clue to that. But gold – whatever its armies of devoted fans will tell you – isn’t much of a hedge against inflation any more and hasn’t been for the last three decades. Real assets are the one really safe place to park cash that you fear will be eroded by rising prices. Your money in the bank may gradually lose its value. Your investments in gold may never respond to rising prices. But the bottles of fine wine in the cellar or the Chinese antiquities on display in the hallway will go up along with the general price level – and probably even faster. They are growing any more 1982 Bordeaux’s and they aren’t making any more Ming vases. Like farmland, they are one of the few investments where the supply is completely fixed: the only thing that varies is the demand. And those assets survive inflation.
Lastly, it tells us that the rich don’t have much faith in productive assets. They could be putting their money into new companies or venture funds seeding the industries of the future. Instead, they are bidding up the value of items whose only real worth is their scarcity value. The world is awash with idle factories. Real wages are stagnant in most of the developed world, and consumers are over-indebted. Share prices might be rising for now, but is going to be very hard for corporate earnings to keep pace with the expectations markets are now putting on them. The luxury boom is suggests that the rich don’t think there is much money to be made from stocks in the next few years, and don’t want to tie up too much of their cash in them.
Indeed, if you wanted to think of the perfect investment for a world characterised by rising inflation and low growth, you’d probably decide it was luxury, collectible items. The rich have already figured that out. They are almost certainly right – and heck, if they are wrong, they’ll still have some decent wine for the cellar, and some fine antiques to admire in the hallway.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Authors websites

I've just been getting the Matt Lynn website re-designed. Fire Force is out next February in hardback, then in paperback in May, and I wanted it to be re-done to reflect the fact there were now two books in the series to promote. And, of course, is has to be flexible enough to incorporate the two more books in the series that are scheduled for 2011 and 2012.

But it set me thinking to what author's websites should be trying to do.

I don't really share the general gloom about the books business. People have loved stories for thousands of years and aren't going to stop now. Unlike newspapers, which are in serious trouble because the internet has taken apart their whole way of delivering news, electronic books don't offer any real advantages over the traditional printed sort. But that doesn't mean we don't need to change.

The web is changing the relationships writers have with readers, and our websites need to reflect that.

We need to be a lot closer to our readers, and allow them to talk to us. We need to provide more details of the story, extra information such as research materials, background on the characters, maybe free short stories. We also need to unpeel what we are doing, so that readers can take a look at how the books gets put together, and comment or criticise if they want to.

What we don't want to do is just put up marketing blub, or expect people to download and read extracts. The web is all about conversations, not broadcasting.

So far my website is pretty standard. But over time I want to expand it and develop it, so that it fits in as part of whole experience of reading the Death Force books. Our websites will be the main way we get closer to our readers, and make them part of a community, and that is the way we'll stay in business.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The ITV Saga....

There are endless stories in the papers about the search for a new CEO at ITV. But there is very little questioning of whether it really needs a big name. I've been addressing that in my Money Week column this week....

ITV is providing more entertainment off-screen than it is on – and certainly more laughs. For the last few months, the broadcaster has been keeping the City amused with a search for a new chief executive and chairman that has more plot twists than Emmerdale, more failed auditions than the X-Factor – and now seems to have been running for longer than Coronation Street.
Last Monday, the broadcaster announced that John Cresswell, currently its chief operating officer, would become its interim chief executive, although he would leave as soon as someone was found to fill the job permanently.
At the same time, Michael Bishop, the founder of the British Midland airline, said that he wasn’t interested in becoming chairman of the company, as did Sir Crispin Davies, the widely respected former chairman of Reed-Elsevier.
The executive chairman, Michael Grade, has already said he will leave the company, and ITV has spent the last few months embarrassingly courting a series of high-profile successors. Tony Ball, the former boss of the BSkyB, was in the front-runner for a while, until his demands for a multi-million pound compensation package became too much for the board to stomach. Names such as Sir Christopher Gent, the former Vodafone boss, and Sir Christopher Bland, the former BT chairman, have been linked to the chairmanship.
And yet, for all the apparent chaos, ITV may well be doing the stock market a big favour. In the last decade, British companies, and the shareholders that at least nominally run them, have become enthralled to the myth of the heroic CEO. They have allowed themselves to be bamboozled into believing that a single person can make a huge impact on the future of the business, and that it is worth paying tens of millions to secure the right man or women.
What they may learn from the ITV debacle is that it doesn’t matter that much who you appoint as CEO. In most cases, it would be far better to make a competent internal appointment, pay them modestly, and let them get on with the job.
ITV certainly has more than its fair share of problems. It called the development of digital, multi-channel television wrong, and made a hash of its own attempts to get into pay-TV. What was once accurately described as a license to print money has been turned into permission to lose it. The cost of making the new dramas and sitcoms, and acquiring the rights to sporting events, that will pull in the viewers escalates all the time. But it no longer has a monopoly on television advertising, and a deep recession has hit the ad market hard, leaving ITV squeezed on all sides. In 2008, the company lost £2.5 billion.
Even so, it is a mistake to imagine that a single chief executive can sort that out overnight --- and it is mistake that too many big companies now routinely make.
Whenever a company gets into trouble, the cry goes up from shareholders, the bankers, and of course the media, for a new CEO to be drafted in. The head-hunters get to work, and a new boss is found, usually at vast expense – we’ve seen it as Sainsbury’s, at Marks & Spencer and at countless other companies. Indeed, we saw it last time around at ITV, when they drafted in Michael Grade from the BBC. It is one of the reasons why CEOs are now routinely so well paid – the average FTSE boss is now paid more than £5 million a year, and the FTSE boards in total cost more than £1 billion collectively every year.
And yet, they are very rarely worth the money. Most companies face a fairly constrained set of circumstances. Their immediate outlook is determined by the nature of the product they sell, the state of competition, and the state of the economy. All of those are a given: a new CEO can no more change them than he can change the weather. Very rarely is there some big strategic move that will suddenly transform its prospects. Nor is there some whizzy change of direction that can turn a failing organisation into a successful one. Indeed, the attempt will often do more harm than good. What most companies need is an intense concentration on detail, and the patience to develop new products and markets: you don’t get that from a big name looking to make an instant impact.
ITV is a prime example. Its business has been overtaken by technology, and the ferocity of the competition from Sky. There is, however, nothing much that can be done about that now. There is probably a good business in there somewhere, although it will be a smaller and less profitable one than the old business. You don’t need to spend £40 million on a new CEO to discover that – you’d be better off paying £1 million to a competent insider, and spending the rest of the money on a couple of decent dramas.
Pretending that there is some magic wand that can be waved is a useful move for the CEOs themselves. It allows them to justify their huge pay packets: after all, to collect superstar wages you have to be a star. It is good for the headhunting industry, allowing it to justify monstrous fees. And it is good for the media and the City, which can use the speculation to whip up some interest in the shares.
But it is very rarely good for the company itself. Examine it closely, and probably the only FTSE chief executive of the last decade who could be argued to have made a real difference to his company was Lord Browne at BP: he pulled off some big acquisitions when the oil price looked bombed out for a generation. Most of the rest could have been safely swapped with someone else without anyone apart from their secretaries really noticing.
In truth, of the £1 billion paid to FTSE boards every year, at least £900 million could more usefully be paid back to shareholders in higher dividends. They simply aren’t worth the money – and ITV may well be company that finally drives that point home to shareholders.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Generation Recession

In The Spectator today I've been writing about Generation Recession, looking at how the global downtown is going to impact on the age group between 18 and 23 whose opinions and views will be formed by the financial collapse. It's still too early to say, of course, but I suspect they'll be suspicious of markers, debt, and paticularly hacked off with all the debts left for them by the generations above them. I think its a big topic, and it will be interesting to see if other writers pick up on the debate.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Fact and Fiction

I was interested to read this story in the Telegraph this morning, about how well-financed the Taliban is from the opium trade in Afghanistan, because it touches on the plot of my thriller Death Force, which is about the attempt by some Army officers and mercenaries to make the Taliban a bit poorer by robbing their money.

But it also started me thinking about the lines between fact and fiction and how thriller writers should handle them.

One of the things that I've also liked about the genre is the way it draws on real-life, taking stories from the military, from science, from finance or from politics. Of all the fictional genres, it is the most 'newsy'. Indeed, the best thrillers give you the same sense of immediacy and being close to the action that you get from reading a newspaper.

But, of course, it also creates problems.

A newspaper or website is real-time. A book is on a two to four year time cycle. If I start thinking about a plot right now, it will take a year for me to write it, and another year for it to come out, then a few more months before it comes out in paperback. Then you hope it survives on the shelves for at least two or three years. So someone could be reading it five years after you thought about it, and it has to still seem bang up to date and relevant.

Right now, I'm writing the third in the 'Death Force' series. It's called 'Shadow Force' and involves the unit of mercenaries taking on the pirates in Somalia. I had a discussion with my editor at Headline about whether pirates would still be in the news in 2011 when the book comes out. I reckon they will be, and I talked to a few experts to find out. The pirates, I reckon, will be in and out of the news for years to come (and it would be great if they could take a really big boat the month the book comes out).

But, of course, I can't be sure of that. People might have lost interest by then.

It's really a matter of guesswork - and also trying to figure out what conflicts or stories will be topical for several years, and which are just transitory.

Monday, 12 October 2009

House Prices Won't Rescue The British Economy

In my Money Week column this week, I've been looking at house prices, and why they won't dig the British economy out of the hole it is in. Here's a taster....

Estate agents have a glint in their eyes again, the property sections are back in business, and even mortgage lending is picking itself up from the floor. The worst of the housing crash appears to be over.
And it is not just in Britain. The far larger, and far more important, US housing market has crawled out of the intensive care ward as well.
But does that mean the economy is about to recover as well?
Since it was the collapse in property prices around the world that plunged the financial system into chaos, and started the recession, it might seem reasonable to suppose that it will. The stock market certainly seems to think so. Every time the house price indexes tick up another point, equities rally on the news.
It’s reasonable, but wrong.
In truth, the property market isn’t going to be able to re-boot the global economy. It may have led the last boom upwards, but it won’t lead the next one. There is too much supply on the market, too little fresh demand, too many burnt fingers, and too little cheap financing available. Whatever leads the next boom, it won’t be property.
Still, that doesn’t mean the signs of recovery aren’t real.
Last week, the Nationwide Building Society reported that British house prices rose for the fifth month in a row. This week, Halifax reported a 1.6% monthly rise. Prices are now back to the same level they were a year ago, at the same time that the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a global panic. They aren’t quite back to their peak, but they aren’t too far off it.
Mortgage lending is steadily picking up, and, even if volumes are thin, properties are shifting. It may be a while before the TV schedules are packed out again with shows on how to make a quick million from tarting up a semi in Wrexham, but the market looks a lot healthier than it did six months ago. By historical standards, 2008/9 was not so much as crash as a slight correction.
Much the same is true in the US. American house prices notched up their biggest monthly gain in four year in July. They rose 1.6%, the third consecutive monthly rise. Of the 20 largest US cities, 18 reported price rises. With prices a third off their 2006 peak, it will take a long time to recover all the losses. Even so, the trend clearly looks to be upwards.
Of course, we can question how durable that recovery will prove. Interest rates remain exceptionally low. With base rates at less than 1%, most people can afford to at least pay the interest on their mortgage. When rates start getting back to normal, as they surely must at some point, then monthly mortgage bills will soar. A lot more people will be repossessed, pushing more properties onto the market at fire sale prices.
And, of course, we may well be only half way through a double-dip recession. There could well be plenty of economic pain ahead. None of that will be good for the housing market.
The more interesting question, however, is whether hosing markets can kick-start the global economy.
It will help.
The banking system is critically dependent on property prices. A property – either commercial or residential - is the collateral for most loans. As prices recover, the banking system will start to look a lot healthier, and that will strengthen the economy.
Consumers will be feeling more confident as well. As their houses are worth more, and particularly if they claw their way of negative equity, they will start spending more. There may not be a recovery in mortgage equity withdrawal. But there will be a tick-up in sentiment.
That said, it would be a big mistake to expect a house price recovery to spark another boom.
First, there is too much supply on the market. The decade-long bubble in property prices led to construction booms in the US, Spain, Ireland and to a lesser extent the UK. The Spanish coast is cluttered with new apartments and villas. Old industrial cities like Leeds and Newcastle are full of smart new blocks of flats, most of them empty. It will take a long time to clear all that surplus stock – and until that happens, prices aren’t going to rise much further.
There won’t be much fresh demand either. A big part of the housing boom was demographic change. As populations rose, and waves of immigrants moved into booming countries, demand soared. But in the next couple of decades, those trends go into reverse. Low birth rates mean static or falling populations. And migrants are not going to be moving to countries where stagnant economies are not creating many new jobs.
The financing isn’t going to be available either. Over the last decade, mortgage lenders gradually loosened their criteria for handing out loans. They decided not to worry too much about whether you had a job, or a deposit, or indeed showed much inclination to pay off your debts. Some of that was justified – there was never much point in excluding the self-employed from the mortgage market, for example. But it went too far. And it’s going to be a long-time before the 125%-self-cert loan is back on the market.
Lastly, there are too many burnt fingers. True, bankers and investors have notoriously short memories. But not that short. The bankers aren’t going to pile into mortgage lending again in a hurry. And home-owners will go back to thinking about their homes as a place to live, rather than an extension of their bank account. As a rough rule of thumb, it takes the financial markets about 20 years to forget everything – so it will be 2030 before we’ve erased all memory of the credit crunch, and the housing bubble that led into it.
The global economy will start booming again at some point. It always does. But it won’t be the housing market that re-boots it. And there is no point in looking at those indexes for signs of a global recovery.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Are The Public Fed Up With Rubbish Yet

Maybe this is wishful thinking, but there are signs that the reading public may be getting fed up with some of the pap the publishers have been pushing at them in the last few years.

The Bookseller reports, via The Sun, that bookshops are a little reluctant to stock the new Katie Price book, her fourth in five years.

Even if you accept that Price is worth one memoir, maybe even two, four is probably pushing it a bit, even by the standards of Random House.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure the James Patterson word factory is quite the Toyota-style paragon of efficiency it should be either. Alex Cross's Trial drops back from 2 to 7 in the hardback charts this week, according to The Times.

Patterson has some talent, but by churning out formulaic, ghost-written thrillers he isn't doing anyone any favours. Least of all himself.

One of the purposes of The Curzon Group is to promote quality popular fiction - our own, obviously, but also other people's. It's encouraging to think that the reading public is fed up with cynical, ghost-written pap. We might even be on to something.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Devaluation?. Blessing or Curse?

In my Money Week column this week, I've been examing the devaluation of sterling. Lots of people seem to think that is part of policy mix that will eventually lead to the recovery of the UK economy. I diagree, as I explain in this piece.

How low can the pound sink?
At the start of this decade, a pound bought 1.70 euros. At the start of this week, it would buy only 1.08. Parity with the euro, an outcome that would have looked unimaginable when the single currency was launched, now looks inevitable at some point in the next few months.
Right now, British economic policy is to welcome that. The government looks on with benign neglect. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, even appears to be talking the currency down. Devaluation is seen as part of the policy mix, along with printing money, that will eventually lead to recovery.
That is playing with fire – and it is the UK economy that is likely to be burned. In reality, it is a sterling crisis that remains the most likely catalyst for turning a nasty recession into a full-blown crisis. The benefits of devaluation have been massively over-sold. And if confidence in sterling collapses completely, as it well might, then the government and the Bank will have no choice but to step in and defend the currency with interest rate hikes that will plunge the economy into depression.
The markets have certainly latched onto sterling as the new whipping boy of the trading floors. Its weakness against the dollar has been masked, to a degree, by the fragility of the American currency, but it is against the euro, the currency in which most of Britain’s trade is carried out, that reveals how friendless sterling has become. It has been falling steadily against the single currency for most of this year. After recovering slightly from the all-time low of 1.02 at the height of the financial crisis, it has resumed its decline. Parity with the euro now looks a certain bet.
In many ways, that is a rational response to the dismal economic outlook the UK now faces. Whilst France and Germany were badly hit by the crisis, their economies are starting to recover. Their public sector deficits, while serious, are nothing like as bad as the UK’s. Their economies weren’t anything like so dependent on the bubbles in property and financial service. And the European Central Bank has proved a far sturdier defender of monetary stability than the Bank of England. It is little surprise that investors are selling sterling.
More surprising is the tacit encouragement from the Bank of England. In a newspaper interview last week, King described the fall in the value of the pound as ‘helpful’. Not surprisingly, currency traders, who still fret about the cost of finding themselves on the wrong side of a fight with a central bank, took note, and gave the pound another shove downwards.
In fairness, King was only expressing the mainstream view among policy-makers and the economic establishment. A cheaper pound, so it is said, will revive manufacturing and kick-start a more general rebalancing of the British economy.
That is nonsense – and dangerous nonsense as well.
Comparisons are regularly made with the early 1990s, when Britain’s humiliating ejection from the European exchange-rate mechanism, and the big fall in the pound that followed, helped trigger the long upswing of the 1990s.
But the comparison is bonkers. The pound then had been fixed at too high a rate against the German deutschemark. The UK had a structurally reformed economy held back by an over-valued currency. That certainly isn’t true now. There is no reason to suppose the pound was over-valued a year ago. And as for the fundamentals of our economy, let’s not even go there. This looks much more like an old-fashioned sterling collapse, of the sort the UK witnessed repeatedly throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. And they never heralded any sort of revival – they were part of the problem.
To imagine that a developed, service based economy such as the UK can devalue its way out of trouble is nonsensical. Britain is barely a manufacturing economy anymore, and certainly not one that can compete with Eastern European or Asian factories on price. It is an exporter of high-value, intellectual property: financial services, insurance, legal advice, media and science. What manufactured goods it does export are high-tech and design-intensive. They aren’t being sold on price: if they were, there wouldn’t be any orders at all. All you do when you devalue the currency is reduce the income of those sectors to the extent they price their work in sterling. That makes the country poorer, not richer. Too imagine that Britain is suddenly going to become a low-cost manufacturing centre implies a savage reduction in living standards – and that presumably isn’t what the advocates of devaluation want.
In the meantime, the government and the Bank of England should be keeping a far closer eye on sterling. If there is a serious collapse of confidence in the UK, and if the International Monetary Fund does have to bail the country out, it will be the currency markets that pull the trigger.
Britain is critically depended on foreign capital. It is running a trade deficit of £6.5 billion a month, close to record levels. There is no sign of it closing despite the massive fall in the value of the pound.
Worse, the UK is critically dependent on foreigners to finance its yawning budget deficit. Savings are so low that there is no way the British can buy £200 billion of government debt a year – even before the crisis, foreigners accounted for a third of all gilt sales. Whilst the Bank buys up gilts with freshly minted money, that might not matter. When it stops, as it must soon, then there won’t be many buyers for all the debt in a depreciating currency.
The big risk remains a sudden collapse of confidence in sterling. If that happens, the Bank would have to hike interest rates sharply to defend the currency. And the government would have to slash spending immediately to restore faith in the markets. Either would turn a recession into a full-blown depression. Both together would be a catastrophe.
In truth, talk of a lower pound being part of the solution is fanciful. Just like printing money, it is part of a strategy of debauching the currency. It is part of the problem – and if it gets out of hand, could yet provoke a real crisis.

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Credit Card Crunch

In The Spectator, I've been writing about the credit card crunch. In many ways, that is the nub of what the credit crunch was all about: lending too much money to people who couldn't really afford it, then hiding all the loans deep in the financial system via complex instruments.