Drugs?… ‘It’s the economy stupid’

Some years back there were many who advocated both a change in the classification of drugs and an open debate on decriminalisation. Once again the issue is raising its head, but don’t be too surprised that along with many current ‘first world’ leaders, David Cameron is reluctant to give the debate a proper airing…. now, why should this be? Like many a policy, the bottom line might be finance…

Though various governments have toyed with classification of certain controlled substances, most have done little more than pay lip service to the ‘debate’. Indeed, recently, and notably since the onset of difficult financial times, there seems to have been a dampening down of the issue as a whole.

I hesitate to constantly call it a ‘debate’ as some voices have been given credence whilst others seem to have been either repressed or ridiculed. There’s certainly been a fair degree of shuffling and backtracking over the issue of decriminalisation.

Initially drug legislation was brought in as a valiant attempt to save the vulnerable from addiction and society as a whole from instability. It’s unlikely that the authorities at the time could have imagined a scenario where the illicit profit from controlled drugs would become so vast, and the network of laundered money arising from it so sophisticated, that the economy itself might be jeopardised by a reversal of that legislation.

The ultimate irony is that legislation to outlaw certain drugs has provided easy pickings for shady venture capitalists. It’s doubtful that so many would ever have had contact with drugs had they not been promoted by prohibition. There are many substances widely and legally available that create similar highs, and lows, to controlled substances. Some are readily available over the internet, others, perhaps in the guise as chemicals for household purposes, can be found on our supermarket shelves… yet you are unlikely to find a queue of buyers lining up in the car park.

However, prohibit the same substance by law, and place a tenacious dealer in a tower block stairwell, or on a street corner, and you’d think they were salesman of the year.

There will always be the vulnerable, the gullible and the curious. A certain percentage will dabble, a certain percentage may become addicted, but those figures might pale into insignificance if the same substances weren’t being pushed by dealers…. dealers who are part of a funded network. A young person on their way home from college can walk straight past their local mini-mart, but they might struggle to avoid the pushy dealer lurking outside…

In the book ‘Kiss and Tell’, lawyer Jill Shadow becomes aware of a possible link between certain high profile supporters of the anti-decriminalisation lobby and major drug barons. Like many who might hear this for the first time it makes her uncomfortable, and she is reluctant to believe it. Surely those people are merely trying to protect society, or as they like to put it ‘protect our children’s future’. But what if there’s an awful reality, that some have an alternative motivation… to protect something far more valuable to themselves… their own continued profit.

Whether we realise it or not the decision taken many years ago to label certain substances as ‘controlled’ has had an influence on us all.

Such is the mess we have created, with ill thought out legislation, that precious finance is now dovetailed into the legitimate economy, with a voice all of its own. The major problem we now have is that this voice is likely to be disguised, with its part played by an actor, to conceal their true identity.

In precarious financial times such as these, it’s doubtful that the authorities will be brave enough to tackle the problem head on, if at all. As the sporting world has invariably shown us, drug tests often fail, because those with money, power and know-how have already developed sophisticated means of concealing the truth…

‘Kiss and Tell has only recently launched via the Amazon Kindle Store but I’d like to thank those who have already given feedback on the ‘drugs debate’ angle, which smoulders throughout the book. I’ve had some very interesting comments from a wide range of folk, including ex addicts, a senior police officer and an academic, all keen to talk about the issues raised.

Kiss and Tell by TJ Cooke, is available via the Amazon Kindle Store http://amzn.to/WZbNPp


Agents/Writers… and the shifting sands of change…

Recently, I’ve been asked to comment on the role of literary agents, especially given the changes currently taking place in the modern book publishing world.

I’m happy to share my own experience with others, particularly budding authors, because I know where the minefields are scattered on the road to publication.

I get the sense that agents too are suffering. There was a time when a respected literary agent backing you for success was a major stepping stone towards publication. It still can be of course, but I’m not sure it holds quite the same sway it once did.

It has always been hard for writers to get good representation. I was flattered to have two highly respected agents supporting me, and it was deflating to find out that none of the commissioning editors in place at the time were willing to share their enthusiasm. It just might have been plain old bad luck…. wrong person, wrong time etc, but it may also be indicative of the changes taking place.

It is difficult to get precise facts and figures but I’m told that many less publishing deals were offered to new writers in the last five years than in the years between 2002 and 2007. The financial crisis started to hit hard from 2008 and is inevitably a key factor.

My own agent commented on how jittery some commissioning editors had become. ‘Woe betide those who back the wrong horse in increasingly precarious times,’ he said.

Rather like the banks being increasingly prudent over whom they offered loans to, publishing houses were setting more rigid parameters to writers. Those who largely remained unaffected were previously successful authors [though some did suffer] and the ubiquitous celebrities of the day. What is beyond dispute though is that new writers, as a group, suffered the most.

Of course ‘new writers’, almost by definition, possess a risk factor. Everyone by now knows the JK Rowling story… I think the last count was thirteen previous rejections, but it strikes me that something else has happened, something which goes beyond the ‘hit and miss’ culture.

So, what role do agents now have in the direct publishing and digital age? I know other writers are starting to question exactly what their role might, or should be.

When you decide to go down the direct publishing route, it’s difficult at first glance to see how they can help. Book promotion is vital, and if you have the support of a major publishing house it is taken care of. Many writers now have to do this themselves, which eats up precious ‘writing time’, but could agents end up filling this role?

In previous times an agent backed you because they saw a better than even chance of getting a decent percentage of your advance and sales. Of course it was nice to hear that they shared your passions and visions as a writer but let’s not pretend that isn’t the bottom line.

It may be that in the future, if direct publishing becomes the norm, they will have to adapt and offer writers a fresh role… we’ll see. Perhaps agents will, like before, back their own judgement as to who is likely to succeed with their books, but rather than invest their time in trying to convince editors that they have a great client and a great book etc they will spend time trying to convince the public to buy their client’s work direct?

What I have noticed is an increasing number of folk who are offering themselves as ‘book promoters’ on the internet, many via Twitter. They offer to publicise you and your book, for a fee of course. I’m sure there are good ones and bad ones out there. A good one could be a real asset, a bad one just a waste of money… It would be good to know what experiences other writers have had… In any event, might these people occupy the territory that agents could fight for themselves?

My own view is that their involvement would be most welcome. I think the buying public would benefit too. Readers would then know that a new writer who is publishing direct has good agency support, ie that their book has been read and reviewed by professionals in the industry. So when those writers and their agents market their books the readers have more of a clue as to its merits.

If we leave the field totally open to fee based promoters,  many of whom may just be cashing in on a chance to earn a quick buck, readers will may remain unaware of the actual quality of their online purchase. A skilful marketeer can ship out a roll of paper before anyone realises there’s actually no writing on it…

…Of course, eventually, word of mouth will spread, and good quality novels will surface, but with agent interjection at an early stage the buying public would at least have a helpful guide.

At the moment, I guess technically, I am unrepresented. If a publisher was to approach me now I’d probably still feel the need to have an agent, as, like many writers I’m sure, I don’t feel particularly adept at negotiating, finance, contracts etc. I’m pretty sure that if I called my previous agent in these circumstances they’d be happy to represent me, but unless that approach is forthcoming there’s not much more they can do.

My own supporters in the agent world were Peter Straus and Broo Doherty. I have nothing but the highest regard for them and they did everything they could. I could tell quite clearly that they were just as deflated as I was, and unable to offer any rational explanation, certainly one that went beyond the subjective.

I only really had two choices, one was to wait for a better financial environment [2018 on the government’s latest forecast], and/or wait until some new commissioning editors took over at certain publishing houses [how long is a piece of string?]. The other option was to publish direct via Amazon etc… It was ‘Hobson’s choice’ really.

So, for Defending Elton, my next crime fiction offering, there seems little point in me securing representation, either old or new. I may as well get my work out there and let it be seen by one and all. If a publisher then becomes aware of it, and thinks it deserving of their backing, then no doubt they’d get in touch. In turn I’d get in touch with my agent… but it seems like an odd state of affairs, and a strange reversal… perhaps indicative of those shifting sands of change?

This is a dilemma that many writers must be currently considering. It would be good to have some feedback from you… any experiences from or about agents, publishers, book promoters etc are all welcome….


Strong Women Characters in Crime Fiction…

A very interesting thread on the ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ blog has prompted a lot of discussion about the issue of graphic violence in crime fiction, notably violence against women.

Also, perhaps as an antidote to the concerns, a positive thread about strong women in crime fiction has run alongside it… both interesting threads and relevant to my own novel Kiss and Tell.

I am really grateful to Mrs P for including Jill Shadow in her approved list of strong women in crime fiction. Jill would be chuffed I’m sure to sit neatly between Lisbeth Salander and Vera Stanhope.

It made me reflect over the inspiration behind Jill’s character, as well as reconsider my own take on the issue of violence.

Starting with the latter – although my recent background has been in television script writing, I had previously spent some time working in the law. The issue of violence against women resonates from those times.

It was in the era when the police would often fail to properly investigate what they might flippantly refer to as ‘domestics’. Violence against women, particularly in the home, wasn’t considered to be a serious matter by the authorities. In response some of the more progressive lawyers took a stance where they would only represent women in domestic violence proceedings, often because they had no other support and their claims hadn’t been properly investigated.

The resulting injunctions, mostly of the non-molestation and curfew variety, with a power of arrest attached, was often the only way of bringing the offenders to court.  Magistrates and Family Court judges would wonder why such violence had previously gone unchallenged, and on some occasions the police were actually shamed into taking criminal action against such violent offenders themselves.

These cases started to bring the matter more into the public spotlight, and with the help of many campaigning groups the authorities were eventually forced to deal with the issues more seriously, and professionally.

The other issue which divided many in the criminal law field was that of rape. The way both victims and witnesses were treated was often as disgraceful as it was woeful. I’m told there have been vast improvements, but it is still somewhat alarming to hear of the tales told by victims of abuse arising from recent high profile enquiries. Many claim they are not believed in the first instance. What chance have they got of bringing the matter to court when the authority which is supposed to support the prosecution doubts their story from the start?

So, how did all this affect me a writer?

I had read many crime novels where a notably savage antagonist commits graphically portrayed violence, often against women. It was a familiar theme and a tempting starting point for anyone contemplating their first crime fiction novel. However, despite proving successful for some, it was something I was keen to avoid.

Some posts on Mrs P’s blog suggest that some, albeit perhaps few, readers of crime fiction novels, may have a darker motive, in that they get their kicks from the depiction of such graphic violence. I cannot say this was a reason for me avoiding that aspect of the genre but it is an interesting point.

Perhaps a stronger point for me was that of sheer overload. We all know that such awful serial killer crimes do take place, but surely the ubiquitous misogynist serial killer, as portrayed in many a crime fiction novel, is way out of proportion to the prevalence of such events in the real world… maybe it’s this which adds to an unhealthy prurience?

Without doubt there are some well known crime fiction writers who have got the art of the serial killer saga finely tuned. They write such stories with amazing skill and dexterity and shouldn’t be blamed for their choice of storyline… but maybe some others came along and jumped on the bandwagon?

In the same way that magazine proprietors know that sex sells, and often violence too, perhaps some writers have thought ‘that’ll do me’ and used a similar template? Much as the ‘copy cat’ killer can be an awkward issue in crime fiction narrative perhaps ‘copy cat’ writers have fuelled the fire of this particular debate?

In any event, it wasn’t something I had any urge to write about, and with the introduction of Jill Shadow in Kiss and Tell I have tried to approach the genre from a different angle.

I had always been interested in the investigations which failed, which didn’t get their man, which were tainted with prejudice and corruption… and interested too in what happens when the guilty remain at large and unpunished, or when the innocent are unfairly convicted? Jill is there to take these cases on, particularly ones the police and other authorities would rather leave well alone…

Jill Shadow is not your archetypal lawyer, far from it. She fought her way to the top via a most challenging route. Jill worked her way up from secretary, to clerk, to legal executive and to eventually becoming a fully qualified lawyer.

She was an eighteen year old single mum from a London council estate when she joined a law firm as a secretary. Her ex [the baby’s father] had just left her courtesy of a long prison sentence for drug trafficking, a fact he had kept concealed. In turn, Jill kept the truth concealed from the firm’s partners. Not only that but as her daughter got older she kept the truth concealed from her too, making up a story to fit the facts of her father’s sudden disappearance.

In ‘Kiss and Tell’, Jill finds herself having to confront her past, as well as unwittingly being ensnared in what has colloquially become known as ‘the drug debate’… the issue of decriminalisation and classification of controlled drugs. She discovers that some powerful people are lobbying behind the scenes… It’s one of many issues Jill will tackle head on.

The previous post on this blog deals with how we are all suffering as a result of ill thought out legislation. This is the one of the issues of the day, and one yet to be properly addressed. Some years back Jill would have been at the vanguard of change in battling for the rights of women in domestic violence proceedings, or in changing the procedure in rape trials…. but not because she has an overtly political background. She is simply there for the underdog, for the man or woman in the street… because essentially that’s who she is.