At some point, Poison Panic will be available on Amazon. How very exciting. Because I had a couple of minutes in which my brain demanded something to do and because it had no better idea, I searched for my name on Amazon. I wasn’t surprised that it queried if I’d spelled “Barrell” correctly, suggesting I was looking for a Helen of Troy barrel hot brush – but I was surprised that it returned a result for Lament for a Trapped Spy. It’s a novella I wrote as a teen and self-published like a fanzine, some stapled-together photocopied pages. I sent it through the post for a couple of quid, and about 50 were ever produced; it’s been out of print for years. How on earth did it get on Amazon?
Self-publishing is all the rage these days – for one thing, it’s a lot easier than in the past, what with ebooks, print-on-demand, and social media promotion. Back when I was a teen, self-publishing meant fanzines and lots of photocopying, and fliers. I wrote a fanzine which reflected my fondness for 1960s music and style, and indie stuff. I haven’t seen a copy for years and would no doubt be overcome by the horrors of my youthful twaddle if I did. “OH GOD I REALLY WROTE THAT! WHAT WAS I THINKING???” etc. The temptation to go through each copy, editing with a mean red pen, would be overwhelming.
For some reason, I decided it was a good idea to self-publish my novella in the same way as I did my fanzine. It seemed fairly sensible – I knew other zine writers who would review it and pimp out my fliers, so why not? The novella was set in the 1960s anyway so it seemed like there was a potential readership out there.
Lament for a Trapped Spy followed me reading all of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, on top of Beowulf and Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. The result is just as bizarre as you might expect from such a… erm… varied diet of reading materials. It’s an espionage version of Billy Liar (although I was yet to read it or see the film) which comes true in the end. Bernard Hadley is a teenage mod in early-mid-60s London. He has a boring job and an over-active imagination, and an unquenchable thirst for spy fiction. When a rather nice young lady moves in across the road, they strike up a friendship which leads poor Bernard into a real Cold War spying mission. It partly came about when I found out that some mods were big fans of Fleming’s novels, using them as a gentleman’s lifestyle guide – the usefulness of a styptic pencil, the trick of wearing a short-sleeved shirt under a jacket to avoid awkward cuffs, the importance of spreading Tiptree strawberry jam on your morning toast. Ironic, given the films being mocked for their intense product placement.
A couple of years ago, again when I had nothing better to do, I decided to google Lament for a Trapped Spy, and there discovered the quite bizarre fact that someone once included my Bernard in a Bond fanfic.((The website declares that “Daniel Craig is not Bond” but I have to disagree with them there.)) I felt incredibly humbled by this and went about grinning inanely for a couple of days – and wondered at writers like Anne Rice who erupt into fury when their characters appear in fanfic. To have a reader take your character so far into their imagination that they come out again in a fic is really quite a marvellous thing. It was like receiving an unexpected bouquet of flowers.
That said, I haven’t read Lament for a Trapped Spy for years. I can’t remember if it’s good or not. At the time, I clearly thought it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of producing it. But what would I think now? There’s a copy on the shelf above my desk, and although I can see its pale, stapled spine nudged up between a book on vintage hairstyles and the screenplay of terrible 1946 Brontë biopic Devotion (“Good morning, Mr Dickens,” “Good morning, Mr Thackeray”) I’m actually scared of it.
So imagine my horror when I saw it turning up on Amazon. The fact that it says “unavailable” made me wonder if someone had at one point listed a second-hand copy for sale. But another idea suggested itself to me.
When looking for old books in the course of my research, I often find myself linked to Amazon, where I stare at the same “unavailable” screen. But then I check the British Library catalogue, and lo-and-behold, the book is there. Now – all I can find out is that at one point, the British Library catalogue had an Amazon link on it, and people (especially Waterstones, unsurprisingly) got upset so it was taken down. But does an arrangement still persist between Amazon and BL? Could it be that Amazon sucks across records from the BL to populate its own catalogue? Lament does appear on the BL catalogue, but only because I was sent a rather frightening letter about Legal Deposit, demanding a copy of each thing I’d published. It’s the most plausible explanation I can think of, given the many out-of-print books I find listed as “unavailable” on there, and which must also be at the BL.
But then the cogs in my brain whirred again, the gears clanked and sent me in a slightly different direction. If Lament for a Trapped Spy is listed on Amazon as “unavailable”, what would it take to make it “available”? Would someone who enjoys Poison Panic wonder what else I’ve written and think, “Well, the Victorian poisoners were fun, what I need now is a Cold War thriller set in suburbia.”
As I said, these days self-publishing is much easier than it was; I could bring Lament out as an ebook. I could scan it, in such a way that the text becomes editable, neaten up words which haven’t scanned clearly, bung it into Scrivener and out pops an ebook at the other end. What could be easier?
However, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. I might think of Lament with a confused sensation of fondness and horror, but to everyone else, it might just be bloody awful. Would I resist the temptation to spend months honing it before unleashing it, robbing it of its awkward teenage charm?
Maybe it’s best left as it is: unavailable.