Saturday, 30 June 2012

Biography Bashing

Fact: I spend far too much time on social media.

Today's post is an attempt to use my blog to focus my mind on work.

Currently, I'm nailing together a business plan for my new publishing venture. As with any good strategy, you need to know some basic facts about the market you're entering into. Doing that in publishing is pretty difficult when you're working on a shoestring budget.

Luckily, I have Excel.

For a couple of days I've been trying to find statistics on what percentage of the market is celeb-biographies, and what is non-celeb. You would have thought this would be an easy Ask Jeeves issue by now. But, after consulting Twitter, Wiki and  a 9k strong writing forum, I was none the wiser.

So, I rolled up my sleeves and tried hard to remember the one post-graduate quantitative research lecture I managed to stay awake through.

I thought that if I blogged my progress it would: 

  1. Push me to continue making progress and 
  2. Add something to the online knowledge base

First problem - where to source data? Especially when I'm not about to fork out to access any of the big boy databases. They talk in silly money, and my bank account is only wee.

Word association sometimes helps:

Think books -

- think Amazon.

So, off I trundled and, sure enough, they categorise their biography section:

(click to enlarge)

Each time you click on a category, it tells you how many books are listed with that label.

A quick break down of current stock works out like this:

(click to enlarge)

There's nothing in row 1 - that's just me being messy. The number at the very bottom right is the total number of labels: 845,062.

But it's really important to remember that this is the number of labels, not books - as a book might have more than one label. That's why 'general' has a 260% increase on any other label, because books categorised as 'historical' or 'religious' biographies are often also given a 'general' rating. Books on the Holocaust would also come under War & Espionage.

This makes things a bit tricky, so I ignored the 'general' label and this brought the total labels down to: 471,204.

I then decided to go for a trusty visual aid. To try and tidy things up a bit, I cut out everything with a 0% share of the market: any label that's percent of the market is below 0.45% - thus rounded down to 0% rather than up to 1%.

If you're not so familiar with 'rounding', 5 > (Five or more '>') is usually rounded up, whereas 4 < (4 or less '<') is rounded down. So, with 0.45 you round five up, which rounds 4 up to 5, which rounds 5 up to 1.0 which is 1%. Whereas with 0.44 you round 4 down to 0, which also rounds the next 4 down to 0, which leaves you with 0.0, which is 0%

See how the wonders of maths can cause entire stock piles to magically disappear?

Yes, yes, *yawn*, I know. So, anyway, this means we sadly have to wave goodbye to 'reference' biographies (compilations and photo collections, that sort of thing), 'tragic life stories' (thank heavens for that!) and 'artists, architects and photographers'. British Royalty barely scrapes through with 0.47% of the bookshelf - I'm being generous.

(click to enlarge)

I'm working from as my business is British, and I'm lazy. If anyone would like to throw me a US or EU comparison, that'd be great.

So, as of 30th June 2012, the biggest biography label by far in the UK is Historical (22%), followed a long way behind by Politics (11%) with Religion and Social & Health Issues battling it out for 3rd place (9%).

A few things surprised me. I expected Holocaust (1%) to rank a little higher, with all the interest in war memorabilia. Also with History having such a large share of the market. I also thought Sport (3%) would do better, given the number of sports fanatics and big names - but then I had to ask myself whether sports fans are also big readers...?

Multi-label data isn't the best to use, it's far from clean, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Still, that's the easy part. The hard part, and the question that started all this, is getting a sense of the celeb-biog proportion of the market verses the non-celeb - Joe on the Street - section. Are people mostly interested in reading about big names, or is there a market for everyday people with interesting life stories?

A quick glance at the biography bestseller list is quite encouraging (relatively speaking):
  1. Slave Girl - Sarah Forsyth
  2. Secret Diary of a Sex Addict - Amber Stephens
  3. Against All Odds - Paul Connolly
  4. I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron
  5. Open - Aundre Agassi
  6. Confessions of a GP - Benjamin Daniels
  7. How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
  8. Life...on a High - Nick Spalding
  9. Diary of a Menopausal Woman - Cheryl Reid, Toby Williams, Lizzi Eastburn
  10. The Sugar Girls - Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi

If you class a 'celeb-biog' as one written either by or about a celebrity, then it's not looking as bad as I thought it would. Roughly a 70/30 split in favour of the Average Joe.

But it is difficult. Where do you draw the line on celebrity? How famous do you have to be? Well, for my calculations 'pretty famous'. Preferably a household name, living or dead. You certainly need a Wiki entry. But then, what if a celeb writes a book about the history of Norwich? Is it the content or the author that's important for celeb-rating? I say it's still a celeb-biog because sales will increase off the back of the name of the author.

Not easy, huh? The rules need to be clear.

Next question, though - does this statistic hold true through the categories?

Method: choose three random pages from the 'most popular' category in each listing, count the number of celeb/non-celeb titles. Total sample number each category: 36 (12 per page).

Good: Random sample groups
Bad: Not proportionately representative of size of category (why? I just haven't got the time)

I decided to knock out the Royalty section as it was a bit unfairly skewed (100% celebrity) for such a small slice of the market. Thought it would be more interesting to concentrate on the slightly ambiguous labels.  As I suspected, there were quite a few repeat titles between categories.

At first glance, the gap wasn't as big as I'd expected it to be. Though it was a lot smaller than the bestsellers list led us to believe: 45% celeb, 55% non-celeb.

I had this image of biographies, and the biographical market, as being swamped by celebrity culture with no room for anything that didn't take place in Hollywood or involve a dead bard. I wasn't expecting to see a higher average per category for non-celeb biogs.

Little bit of visual magic might assist:

(click to enlarge)

And on that helpful histogram, I can conclude that it's fairly evenly matched, except in the obvious categories you'd expect celebs to dominate: Theatre & Performance Arts and Film, Television & Music. Whereas non-celebs appear to be cornering the expert markets such as Medical, Legal & Social Sciences and the more ethereal realms of Religion.

It's only a small data set, and you'd need to clarify the definition of celebrity a bit - but it's an interesting indication.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


Sixth Series Ad from IMDB
Opened The Guide the other day and notices an announcement for the sixth series of Dexter!

In honour, I'm resurrecting these two posts from a previously defunct blog:

It's hard to believe how popular Dexter Morgan has become. He first appeared in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter in 2004, with Jeff Lindsay picking up the Dilys Award for mystery fiction a year later. The very next year, Dexter spawned his own hit TV series which is now in its fifth run.

I first saw the show in Sierra Leone where I was spending Christmas 2008. I hadn't seen TV in a long time, so I was fixated by all the moving pictures. Dexter was instantly engaging. It played on all of those baser instincts you have on days when you just really want to kill someone. But you don't. Because that would be very wrong. Plus you don't really mean it, you just think you do at the time.

But Dexter does. He really does.

For anyone who's been living in a box (or Central Africa) for the past few years, Dexter is a serial killer who only kills serial killers.

What's interesting is that, like Howl's Moving Castle, there's both the books, and the moving picture version. They're both very good, but very different.

The difference isn't in theme or in style, but in characters mostly. The ones who live and the ones who die. But I won't go into that because I don't want to spoil anything. One thing I will say, having read up to book four and watched season four, is that Dexter is a lot closer to his step children Cody and Astor in the books, for deliciously dark reasons.

As a writer, I have to say I'm in awe of Jeff Lindsay on this one. The boy done good. Not only did he come up with an extremely original idea, but he well and truly made it fly. Accepting the opinion that there is 'no such thing as an original idea' (and therefore someone is bound to crawl out of the woodwork at some point and try to sue him), this was a lightning bolt of sheer innovation.

You know it's good because, for the first half of the first book, the TV series hardly deviates. Even the lines are straight from the page. Which means it's very good.

Entertaining, atmospheric, appealing and just a little bit challenging on occasions, Dexter is one of those stories that you welcome into the world.

As most people are more familiar with the TV show, and as I'm all about books, I thought I'd copy the blurbs to tempt you to rush out to your local independent Watersone's and get reading:

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: A serial killer with a grateful it's not yours. Dexter Morgan appears to be the perfect gentleman. He leads a normal, quiet life working as a forensic officer for the Miami Police. He has a nice, shy girlfriend and is liked by her young children. But Dexter has a secret hobby. He's an accomplished serial killer.

So far he's killed dozens of people and has never been caught, because he knows exactly how to dispose of the evidence. And there are those who would rather he wasn't caught at all, because Dexter is a serial killer with a difference. He only kills the city's bad guys.

Then Dexter's well-organised life is thrown into chaos. Another serial killer is invading his territory - and he wants Dexter to come out and play...

Dearly Devoted Dexter: Serial killer or family man...or both? A charming monster. A macabre hero. The serial killer who only kills bad people is back on the prowl - at least he would if he could shake off his permanent shadow. Ever since their paths first crossed, the handsome, charming homicidal maniac Dexter Morgan has been pursued by Sergent Doakes. Dexter may well be a Miami PD blood-spatter analyst, but Doakes has a pretty good idea of how Dex likes to spend his free time, and he's determined to catch him in the act.

Then a body turns up, horribly mutilated and barely breathing. To trap the torturer, Doakes and Dexter will have to work together - and one of them will have to be the bait...

Dexter in the Dark: No place for the wicked. Dexter Morgan, Miami PD blood-spatter analyst, is accustomed to seeing evil deeds - he occasionally enjoys committing them himself. Guided by his Dark Passenger - the voice that helps stalk his prey - he lives his outwardly normal life according to one simple rule: he kills only very bad people.

But everything changes when Dexter attends a gruesome double homicide. Dex realises he's dealing with someone a lot more sinister than he is, and it sends the Dark Passenger into hiding. And if the Dark Passenger is scared, it has to be serious...

Dexter by Design: Bad blood runs deep. Married life seems to agree with Dexter Morgan: he's devoted to his bride, his stomach is full and his homicidal hobbies seem nicely under control. But old habits die hard and Dexter's work as a blood-spatter analyst never fails to offer new temptations that appeal to his offbeat sense of justice...

Luckily for Dex, there's someone out there with particularly twisted tastes. Dexter may have never been a big fan of art - but the discovery of an artfully displayed corpse naturally piques his curiosity. Dexter is back in business.

Just be aware that the plot and course of the two mediums take rather different paths. Attack them with the intention of loving both in their separate, yet wonderful, ways. The third Dexter novel goes deeper into what the Dark Passenger is, and where it may have originated from.

I actually came in halfway through the second series and kept watching largely because it involved Jaime Murray, who played the slightly deranged Lila Tournay, but whom British viewers might be more familiar with from Hustle.

 Jaime Murray

Off-stage appeared to unravel several dramas of its own, including the news that lead actor Michael C. Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and eloped with co-star Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Deborah Morgan, Dexter's sister.

As a fan of the show, the books, and the entire concept, let's hope for many more stories of heartfelt butchery in the name of entertainment.

Jennifer Carpenter & Michael C. Hall 


The other week, the Guardian's Guide included some interesting facts, which I thought I'd pass on.

Name: Dexter Morgan
Age: Five Seasons
Famous For: Serial Killing, Blood, Pork Sandwiches

Opening lines of the first episode: Tonight's the night. It's going to happen again and again.

Approximate amount of fake blood used in season five
: 25 gallons.

Michael C Hall's salary per episode: $350,000
Salary of a blood splatter analyst: $65,000

IMDB's top rated episodes:

  1. The Getaway
  2. Hello Dexter
  3. Born Free


#1 Most illegally downloaded TV show of 2010
#30 Ranking in Empire's list of greatest TV shows of all time
#7 Best TV title sequence
4 Emmys

Number of times Dexter has dispatched a victim using a:

16 - Knife
4 - Drill
4 - Cleaver
2 - Hammer
2 - Hands
2 - Rope
1 - Poison
1 - Chainsaw
1 - Explosives

Most likely to hear from his Dark Passenger whilst:

10% - Eating
10% - Driving
20% - Walking
60% - Driving & Eating at the same time

Body Count:

Season 1: 11 kills avenging 28 deaths.
Season 2: 10 kills avenging 19 deaths.
Season 3: 10 kills avenging 12 deaths.
Season 4: 10 kills avenging 10 deaths.

[Data: Johnny Dee. Sources: TV Guide, IMDB, MSNBC, EmpireOnline, TorrentFreak, AP, DexterWiki, FXUK, CelebrityNetWorth]

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Tim Minchin

Had a fantastic day today.

Headed to Malvern Theatre to see one of my all-time favourite performers, Tim Minchin.

He was playing there as part of the piano festival, and there was the sexiest red piano in the foyer, a Yamaha Elton John special edition. It even played itself! Oh, dear gods, it was beautiful.

The gig itself was unbelievable. The Cont song was pure genius, complimented by all the greats: Prejudice, Dark Side and the Boob Song (Confessions).

Full standing ovation - the whole building was rocking with stamping feet and clapping. Wonderfully deserved. Ended on a very calm encore called Beauty

It took a while to realise it wasn't a punchline song. Sort of hypnotic. Perfect song to stem a repeat encore, because it left everyone thoughtful. Sort of sad, a little. "As you fell for her, she stole from you." Hmm. 

Totally excellent day.