Writing Plans For The Coming Year

This is partly here so people know what will be coming up on this blog, but mostly so I have an aide memoire I can refer to myself. These are the projects I’m working on at the moment or planning to do this year:

Finish proposal for a traditionally-published novel in a series in someone else’s world. May or may not ever get past the proposal stage. If it doesn’t, I’m going to rework the ideas into a new novel of my own.

Get PEP! 3 out the door – possibly as early as next week, if all goes to plan. (I know I’ve said that before)

Finish the Kinks book. Probably by March
Finish How We Know What We Know – hopefully by the end of next month
Finish Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years – before Xmas.
Finish Bigger On The Outside – some time in the next few months.
Finish Time Detective to novella length

Write books two and three of the Beach Boys series, and if necessary a second edition of book one – waiting for details on the reissues and new albim before I do anything definite.
Book on Cerebus. I’m scrapping what I did last year, and restarting this in the style of my Seven Soldiers book.

A second and third Doctor Watson Investigates, to make enough of them to fill an omnibus paperback.

Possibly a second Time Detective novella if people like the first one enough.

More short stories.

I also want to write more political stuff, but I don’t think I could do a book on that. Politics is too depressing right now, all things considered. I’m actually more politically active now than in a long time, but have very little to say…

On Ebook Pricing And Promotion

This post will really only be of interest to other people who self-publish or plan to. The rest of you can ignore it. It’s a little addendum to the post I made last week.

There is nothing more likely to get arguments raging on self-publishing discussion boards than the question of pricing one’s book (and it’s almost always ‘book’ singular. Very few of the people involved have written more than one). One group insist that the right thing to do is to publish books at 99 cents – or give them away for free – for ‘exposure’. The other group think their work is too valuable to give away at such a low price – “my book is worth more than a chocolate bar.”

Both sides are, ultimately, arguing from a lack of evidence. The first side can point to the occasional success story – writer X whose first novel sold 100,000 copies, and she sold it for only 99 cents – while the other side can say “the major publishers don’t sell anything for under $10. If I sell mine for $5 that’s still only half their price.” But basically they’re going from instinct.

My case is a little different from many of these people. I write entirely for pleasure. But I publish for business. This is why I post almost all my writing to my blog first and let people read it for free if they want to. But if they want to have a physical copy or an ebook of it, then they need to pay me for the time and effort I put in for cover design, typesetting, formatting, uploading and so on, because unlike the actual writing that stuff is hard, tedious work that I don’t enjoy and am not very good at. So I’m looking at pricing entirely from the point of view of what will maximise revenue.

The tactic most often endorsed by self-publishers is to write a book, put it out cheap, for ninety-nine cents, and promote the hell out of it on all the social networks for as long as you can, and only then start writing your next book.

Now, this tactic would be painful for me, because I find it almost impossible *not* to write. I can’t always write the thing I intend to write (I’ve got my half-finished MindlessWho post that should have been up a week ago as proof of that), but the only time I’m not writing something is when I’m physically incapable of doing so. But imagine that I could.

So you have your ninety-nine cent book and you spam everyone about it. Let’s imagine a best case scenario here, and say that you don’t get blocked by everyone on Twitter and Facebook. We’ll further imagine that pricing at ninety-nine cents is actually an effective way of getting noticed at this point (it isn’t, because literally millions of people are doing the same thing now). So let’s be optimistic and say that your book sells a thousand copies a month for the year you’re promoting it.

Many of those sales will be to people who won’t particularly enjoy it, and will give it bad reviews. The sales are mostly coming from social networking, so once you stop that to write the next book (if you ever do), sales drop to zero or close. So we can take the first year’s income from that single book as being a year’s income from writing. 12,000 ebooks at ninety-nine cents, at a 35% royalty, comes to $4200.

So write a single book a year, sell it for ninety-nine cents, spend the rest of the year promoting it, you can get $4200 a year, in an ideal world.

Now let’s look at what I do.

I wrote five full-length books last year, for which I’ve priced the ebooks at $5. I did essentially no promotion for any of these – one blog post, a tweet and a facebook post is about it. I did do a couple of guest blogs promoting my fourth book, but that’s all. I spent the time writing instead.

Now, none of them are selling anything like a thousand copies a month. But this month, between them they sold 87 books as ebooks alone (not counting for the moment either paper copies or revenues from stores like Apple which haven’t reported for this month yet). Admittedly, this is one of my better months, but also I write stuff for *incredibly* niche audiences in most part. And those books sold that much without any additional promotion on my part. I used that time to write instead.

Eighty-seven books at five dollars a pop, at a seventy percent royalty (actually some are at a higher royalty because Smashwords pays better, but let’s keep this simple and stick to Kindle royalty figures) is $304.50 . The single-book author who’s promoting rather than writing makes $350 from her single book.

I’ll actually surpass what she makes with her thousand downloads, because I’ve also got a couple of short stories up for ninety-nine cents and a longer story up for three dollars (I’m not saying never to price something at ninety-nine cents – I use the price if the ‘book’ I’m selling is under ten thousand words or so, because it would be cheating the readers to charge more), and I’m selling paper books (most of the ninety-nine centers don’t) but even if we take that figure as all I’ll make, I know I can write at least five more books this year. (In fact I’ve got at least eight that are either in the planning stage or partly written, most of which should come out this year, along with a few more short stories and novellas. I’m aiming to get *something* at least e-published every fortnight this year).

So next year, assuming the average sales stay the same and I do another five full-length ebooks, I’ll be on $609 a month from ebook sales. The year after, $913.50 . Meanwhile, the natural audience for the ninety-nine cent book by the one-book-a-year (or less) author has already been exhausted, and that author is essentially starting from scratch with the next one.

Now, not everyone can write as fast as me – I’m lucky in that I write extremely clean copy, and I’m very good at structure, so I don’t need to rewrite much, and I think very, very fast. My books are also mostly on the short side (my natural medium is the essay or the short story, rather than the novel or series, though I think my two best books are the ones where the essays build and reflect on each other in a novelistic structure). And these numbers obviously don’t apply to everyone. But I think this shows that there is certainly a *very good case* for the best strategy for self-publishers to pursue being to charge a relatively high amount, but to write a lot, and let the promotion take care of itself.

Opinions?

Linkblogging for 30/01/12

Sorry for the lack of proper posting – I know I’m behind again on MindlessWho, but I’m practically dead of exhaustion. Have some links instead.

Can’t believe I’d not heard of this before yesterday (via Andrew Ducker), but Daily Science Fiction is a site where each day they post a new science fiction story. The quality varies, but free stories every day can only be a good thing.

Debi continues her series on Buddhism with a post on right action.

Lib Dems led by Shirley Williams have managed to get even more concessions made in the NHS Bill.

A speech Neil Gaiman gave on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton.

Slacktivist on how so-called Biblical literalists have actually rewritten the Bible to remove mention of a female priest from Paul’s letters
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And while the NHS Bill is slowly being improved, the Welfare Reform Bill still needs a great deal of work to become acceptable. Here’s Caron Lindsay’s letter to Lib Dem MPs on the subject.

The Shakespeare Code: A Short Story

I had to have a nap earlier because of a headache, and I woke up giggling to myself with this story almost fully formed. One bit took some work (you’ll see which). If you like it, you can buy it for 99 cents at Smashwords, Kindle (US) or Kindle (UK), but you can, of course, just read it for free here.

The Shakespeare Code

I hated the theatre sometimes. I didn’t even know why my dad had given his patronage to that bunch of prancing ninnies, but at least when he had it had been for his own pleasure. I, on the other hand, got lumbered with them at the reading of the will. “Congratulations! You have inherited the baronetcy, the houses, the money, oh, and a bunch of players.”

It was, frankly, the least welcome gift I’d received since that wench gave me the pox. Bad enough that on his deathbed he turned down being made Earl of Wiltshire – all very romantic, all that “as you did not count me worthy of this honour in life, then I shall account myself not worthy of it in death” stuff, but what about accounting me worthy of it? – but to land me with the patronage of a, frankly, third rate bunch of actors was going too far.

It wasn’t even as if they showed me any respect. Oh, they called me “my Lord” to my face and were deferential enough, but behind my back they called me ‘the youth’. Youth! I was forty-nine years old! But in this, like in so much else, I could not step out of the shadow of my father. Why he had to tarry until he was seventy before dying I shall never know, but now I was finally able to run my own affairs he kept haunting me.

Of course, I didn’t actually have to run the day-to-day affairs of my players, just lend them my name (and how they griped when they found I would not automatically become Lord Chamberlain as my father was. “Lord Hunsdon’s Men just doesn’t have the same ring to it”, they complained) but even that was a burden. My dad didn’t mind having his name associated with these scum, but personally I think anyone who spends that much time dressing up in women’s clothes has something wrong with them. I wanted to make something of myself, not spend my time worrying that some foppish actor was going to drag my name through the mud.

Nonetheless, one has obligations, and so I called for these men to perform for me. They did competently enough, I suppose, though I am no great judge of these things. They did a play called King John, which they said was new, but I could have sworn I’d seen it, or one much like it, only a few years earlier. Nonetheless, they were adequate enough, with one exception – a hopeless bearded oaf with a West Country accent so thick he was barely comprehensible.

I spoke with the actors afterward, and asked Kempe, the funny one, why they’d allowed the provincial dullard to remain with their troupe.

“Well, my Lord, it’s a funny thing, but he’s tremendously well-connected. He knows all sorts of people. Writers, mostly.”

“Writers? How do you mean?”

“Well, he knows Francis Bacon, and he used to be good friends with Kit Marlowe.”

“What good does that do anyone?”

“Well, he gets them to write plays for us, doesn’t he? Every few weeks he’ll come over and say ‘here’s a new one by Ben Jonson’ or ‘Bacon wrote us this one, we’d better get practicing it.’”

“Ah, I see. So he is not so much an actor as a go-between, a person who will solicit plays from playwrights?”

“Not just from playwrights…”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you’d know, being a nobleman and all, with your connections in court…”

“Humour me.”

“Well, some of the plays he brings are secretly by the Earl of Oxford.”

“Oxford? But doesn’t he have his own troupe of players?”

“Well, that’s why they’re secret, see? And he’s not the only nobleman to write for us. Well, I say nobleman, but she’s not exactly a man, is she?”

“Who?”

“Her Majesty”

“The Queen writes plays for you?” I was astonished. Elizabeth had never seemed to have the slightest interest in literary matters.

“Oh yes. She wrote one for us just the other week. We’re practicing it at the moment.” He handed me a bunch of paper. “Here, have a look.”

It was headed The second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift. With the humours of Sir John Falstaff, and swaggering Pistoll, by Her Gracious Majestie Elizabeth Queen of England.

I suddenly realised – if the Queen were writing for my players, that was an obvious means of advancement at court for me. A few flattering words about her poetic style, a couple of phrases from her work dropped casually into the conversation, and that Earldom would be mine after all.

“Do you mind if I borrow this and have a read of it?”

“Oh, not at all. I never bother learning my lines anyway. I just make stuff up. That’s why the crowds love me!”

(I forbore from saying that while the crowds loved him, his fellow actors clearly didn’t. The glares he’d got from the beardy brummie at times had been enough to turn the blood to ice.)

I took the play back to my rooms, and began to read.

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:

It was going to be a long night, but with luck it would pay off.

* * * * *

The next day, I attended court, and was granted an audience with the Queen. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.

“You wished to see us, Hundson?”

“Yes, your Majesty. I have speeded hither with the very extremest inch of possibility.”

“And for what purpose do you wish to see us?”

“I come to praise you, your Majesty, for you write your fair words still in fairer letters.”

“We do not understand.”

“Your play, Majesty.”

“Play?”

“Your play about your glorious ancestor, Henry the fourth.”

“What play is this?”

“Your Majesty?”

“You speak nonsense. I believe the pox that is rotting your face may now be addling your brain.”

“Majesty, I…”

“You may leave us.”

I left, utterly despondent. How could I have messed this up so badly? I was quoting from her Majesty’s own play, using her own words, to praise her. How could she have completely misunderstood my intentions? As it was, a shadow would be over me at court. I should have to claim that I was still grief-stricken for my father, and had temporarily lost my wits.

I decided to send a message to the Earl of Oxford, asking him what he knew of the Queen’s writing. As a playwright and poet himself, he would naturally have spoken with her Majesty, and maybe even given her advice. Oxford was at the time recovering from a particularly serious illness, and was resting in Byfleet, a day’s ride away. While I awaited his reply, I read the play again, because something had seemed odd about it.

In particular, one line stuck out for me – “Which I with more than with a common pain”. This seemed an oddly malformed line for such an otherwise well-written play. Why would there be two ‘with’s in a single sentence? Surely her Majesty would have written a line like “Which I with more than just a common pain”? It would have scanned as well, and would have made more sense.

I puzzled at this for some time, but was still getting nowhere when reply came from Oxford two days later.

He had no knowledge of the Queen ever having written a play in her life.

Not only that, but he denied ever having written anything for any group of players other than his own, and said he had never met this Will Shaxper, Burbage’s talentless but supposedly well-connected actor friend.

This Shaxper had made a fool of me at Court, and I determined to call him to account, but I would first need to find some proof.

And then I saw it, in the very line I had been wondering over for two days. I knew who had really written this play.

* * * * * * * *

I called for Shaxper to come and see me, and he arrived soon after, looking wary.

“What can I do for you, my Lord?”

“You can explain who really wrote this play.”

“What do you mean?”

“Who wrote Henry the Fourth, Part II?”

“Oh, that’s easy, my Lord. Her Majesty the Queen wrote it.”

“Did she?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Then why does she disavow all knowledge of the play?”

“Oh, that’s easy sir. She couldn’t be seen to consort with lower classes such as us poor players, your Lordship. She writes out of a love of the art, not out of any desire for money. And she has all the renown she wishes, as monarch of the greatest country in the world. What desire could she have to be known as a mere spinner of tales?”

“I see. And how about King John? Who wrote that?”

“Francis Bacon, your Lordship.”

“Then how come he says he knows nothing of any of these plays?”

“He’s a very modest man, your Lordship. And he is also worried that some of the plays may offend some of those at Court, so he asks that we perform them without his name.”

“So you’re sticking to the story that the Queen wrote Henry IV, and Bacon wrote King John?”

“It is no story, sir, but the facts.”

“Then let me read something to you.”

I read him a short extract from Henry IV, Part II:

My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be:
Which I with more than with a common pain
‘Gainst all the world will rightf’lly maintain.

He looked sick, but said nothing.

“So, you have nothing to say to that?”

“It’s a good speech, isn’t it? That line about ‘with more than with a common pain’ needs a bit of work, though.”

“And that’s all you’ve got to say?”

“What else is there to say, my Lord?”

“Do you think me a fool?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Then don’t treat me like one. You gave yourself away with this very verse.”

“My Lordship, I assure you, I don’t understand.”

“Do you think I know nothing of ciphers and anagrams? Think you not that all of us in court pay attention to these things, after Scottish Mary was put to the chop for such codes?”

“My Lord?”

“This is a transparent anagram! The letters, when rearranged, say ‘I, William Shakespeare, enticing wit, great’st poet in England, wrote this play. I, Will, am often mimmic moure than common playwright , hiding this via nib so thy art, youth, will not gues who.’ You write a play under my patronage and hide insults to me in it?”

“My Lord, I beg your forgiveness. You are obviously a much greater mind than your noble father. He would never have noticed such a small clue as that.”

I sighed. “Look, just tell me the truth. Did any of your noble friends write any of these plays?”

“No, your Lordship.”

“Not any of them?”

“No.”

“Not Bacon?”

“No.”

“Oxford?”

“No.”

“How about your playwright friends, Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson? Did they write any of them?”

“No, your Lordship. I wrote them all.”

“So the plays of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth are all really by William Shakespeare of Stratford?”

“Yes, your Lordship.”

I sighed again. “Do you have any idea how difficult this will be to cover up?”

Time Detective Chapter Two

[For part one of the story, click the “time detective” tag]

So I should probably explain what it actually is that I do, shouldn’t I? I’m a private detective, but I started out as a physics student. I was planning on a relatively dull career in academia, as a matter of fact – I was interested in doing some work in gravitational physics, which was hardly a cutting-edge whizz-bang area, and the Brian Cox career path had yet to be invented. My plan was to finish my Master’s, get a doctorate, then settle into a life of producing three or four papers a year which nobody would read.

But I made two big mistakes. The first was putting a chemistry module down as one of my optional modules, because I didn’t like the look of electronic engineering. The other was actually paying attention.

A chance remark in an organic chemistry lecture about an unusual property of thiotimoline caused me to think about what would happen to the shape of the molecule in a Gauss-Riemann geometry. I put that together with a couple of other things – which I’m not going to mention here, obviously – and suddenly found I had worked out a way to travel through time. And not one of those “build two black holes ten thousand light years apart and rotate one of them” jobs. This required practically nothing – you probably have most of the equipment to build a small time machine yourself, though you could probably only go back a week or so on a domestic power supply without blowing a fuse.

I posted something on USENET, not saying exactly what I’d done – I didn’t want to pre-empt publication and risk that Nobel prize – but posting a couple of the calculations in a different context, as a gedankenexperiment, just to make sure I hadn’t done anything incredibly stupid.

Two hours later, a man I didn’t know, in an immaculately-tailored suit, one that fit so well that the gun he had in his pocket was extremely conspicuous, showed up at the door of my room in Halls and asked me to take a walk.

As we walked through Sackville Park, he explained the situation to me.

“You’re not the first to figure it out, you know. Feynman knew the trick, and Von Neumann. Godel probably did as well, though by the end he didn’t know much of anything. We get about one undergrad every three or four years figuring it out now.”

“So why haven’t I heard of it before?”

“Oh for God’s sake, man, I thought you were meant to be clever. It’s too dangerous ever to be made public.”

“Dangerous? But I’ve proved that changing history and paradoxes are both impossible. This would only work in a universe with a single consistent history.”

“Exactly. Think about what that means, for a moment, man. Say you want my PIN number. You say you’ll try 1111, and if it works, write it down on a piece of paper and send it back to yourself five minutes earlier. If it doesn’t, you write 1112 and send it back to yourself.” He sat down on a bench. “The only consistent history where that works is the one where you instantly get a piece of paper with my PIN on it. All cryptography becomes useless. All national secrets are instantly open to anyone. The whole fabric of civilisation comes under threat.”

“So, what, you want me to stop investigating this stuff?”

“Not at all. We know that you can’t get the truly curious to ever stop experimenting. You want to build a time machine for your own personal use, we can’t stop you – the components are too easy to get hold of. What we want you to do is to sign the Official Secrets Act – you never tell anyone else how to do it, and any attempt to misuse the technology gets you convicted of high treason. Also, you quit university, today. We don’t want you slipping bits of these ideas out, even by accident.”

“Quit university?!”

“Yes. Drop out. Find another job. Whatever you want – the government will pay you thirty thousand a year to keep your mouth shut, anyway, and you can carry on your research in your own time, so long as you pass all your work on to the government. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.”

“You offer that to everyone who figures this out?”

“Yes, it’s our standard offer.”

“And has anyone ever turned you down?”

“Oh, one or two, one or two…” he stood up,“I’ll be round tomorrow with your copy of the Official Secrets Act.”

As he went, he patted the statue that he’d been sitting next to on the bench. The statue of Alan Turing.

I did as he asked.

So now, I work as a private detective. Not because I need the money as such, but just to give me something to do with my brain now that physics isn’t an option. Not that most of my cases require much of a brain. But a few require a little investigation, and that’s where I have the edge over my competitors. With my personal-sized time machine I can only go back in time a week or so, and I have to be careful not to give myself too much information about the future (the government keep a very close eye on trans-temporal communication – any sudden lottery wins and I’d be the richest man in the graveyard), but it does mean that if someone says their husband came home late last Wednesday, for example, I can go back and follow him and see where he went.

Those are the neat cases, of course. This one was worse. This time someone was dead, and it was my fault, somehow. And I was going to have to go back and meet this man, knowing he was going to die, and knowing there was nothing I could possibly do to stop it.

It’s days like that that make me wish I’d gone for electronic engineering after all.

Linkblogging For 26/01/12

I’ll be mostly absent from the internet for the next few days – I’m working odd hours today (4-10PM), then normal hours tomorrow, on Saturday I’m doing Lib Dem leafletting and on Sunday I’ve got to fill out my tax return for the money I earned from writing last year (what money, he said laughing hollowly). And all this while quite seriously ill. I’m going to *try* to get the next MindlessWho post up, but otherwise don’t expect anything before Tuesday or Wednesday.

So here’s some links:

Millennium Elephant cautiously welcomes Nick Clegg’s speech, but thinks the Lib Dems need to take a different attitude towards people on benefits. I agree.

The Aporetic on Gingrich’s… interesting… choice to refer to the Lincoln/Douglas debates

Kristine Rusch on how self-publishers are ignoring readers.

Autism And Empathy on how claims that people with autism have no empathy are a human-rights issue.

Two great posts from Teatime Brutality, on Avengers vs X-Men and Mass Effect. Warning as always with this tumblr that while those posts are safe for work, others on that blog definitely aren’t.

James Graham wants to know why landlords aren’t “in this together”
.

And Charles Stross continues his series on SF worldbuilding with a post on ‘unknown unknowns’

Making It – Stew And The Negro Problem

Singer/songwriter Mark “Stew” Stewart and bassist/vocalist Heidi Rodewald put out some of my favourite albums of the late 90s and early 2000s, both with their band The Negro Problem (a baroque-pop group whose ex-members have gone on to be, among other things, in Candypants, Cosmo Topper, the Wondermints and the solo artist Carolyn Edwards, all of whom have made wonderful music as well) and under the name of Stew – used for more acoustic, singer-songwriter type records. (This album uses both names, but doesn’t feature many of the musicians on previous Negro Problem albums, and has more of a ‘Stew’ sound than a ‘Negro Problem’ one).

But until today, they hadn’t released a proper album of new material since 2003’s Stew album Something Deeper Than These Changes. To put that in perspective, not only was I single, unemployed and in my twenties when Stew’s last album came out, but I actually went into a shop and bought the CD. An actual shop. Like people in the olden times used to do. So you can imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to this.

This is not to say that they’ve not been busy. A number of ‘official bootlegs’ have come out over the years (and been deleted too quickly for me to buy copies). Stew’s worked as a jobbing songwriter, doing everything from a song for Spongebob Squarepants (Gary Come Home) to one for my wedding (he used to take commissions for songs by email. The song he wrote for our wedding, Now’s Eternity, is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard even without the special context for me). Stew and Heidi wrote a piece for The Asphalt Orchestra, and Stew’s put out a CD of music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Various tracks have been made downloadable over the internet.

But mostly, they’ve been doing theatre work – in particular, the wonderful Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Passing Strange, for which Stew wrote the book and lyrics and starred in, which Stew and Heidi wrote the music for, and for which Rodewald was musical director. The soundtrack album for this is a de facto Stew album, and one of the very strongest, and a film of the play, directed by Spike Lee, is now available on DVD.

But this has meant that those of us outside the US – or even, for the most part, outside New York, have been deprived of much from them for the best part of a decade now. Until Making It, which is their break-up record.

During the theatre run of Passing Strange, Stew and Heidi’s personal relationship broke up, and they had to keep performing on stage together while their private life was falling apart. Making It is the album that came out of that, and it sounds like the kind of album you expect from a couple who split up before making it.

(In fact, Making It is another album of songs from a theatre show, like Passing Strange, but where that was a full-cast recording, this only features Stew and Heidi on vocals.)

Thus, while the album is as good as anything they’ve done, there’s little of the joy of some of their earlier albums, only concerns. There’s nothing as light or laugh-out-loud funny here as Ken or Man In A Dress or Into Me, and in some ways that’s a shame, as those songs are always the best ‘in’ to a Stew album. Stew is a very subtle lyricist, and for someone like myself who’s more musically oriented it often takes many listens for me to really get what he’s doing in his more serious songs.

Which is not to say there’s no wit in this album – very far from it. But lines like “When did you first realise there was a problem with your relationship?” “When she left me” are a far cry from the playfulness of some of Stew’s earlier work.

At times, in fact, this can almost sound like the Beautiful South, with very pleasant melodies but utterly bitter, nasty lyrics sung as male/female duets – on possibly the best song, The Curse, Stew and Heidi both sing the exact same words, but just the different inflections, from two singers on opposite sides of the event, give very different impressions of what went on. But the music has far more bite than that, and also features things like some of the best saxophone skronking in rock music since the first two Roxy Music albums (on Speed, a song about methamphetamine).

Some of this material will be familiar to fans – Black Men Ski has been circulating on the internet for nearly six years now, and is utterly brilliant (I actually used it as one of the through-lines in my chapter on Mister Miracle in An Incomprehensible Condition, it has so many good lines in it about race and society), while Tomorrow Gone is a remake of a song from the last Stew album, Something Deeper Than These Changes.

I’m not doing a very good job of selling this album, I know – it only came out today, and it takes at least a year for me to get enough of a sense of perspective on a Stew album before I can talk intelligently about it. What I will say is that Stew is one of the great songwriters of all time – up there with Jimmy Webb or Ray Davies or Paul McCartney or Jake Thackray or Arthur Lee. (I’m referring to Stew as the songwriter here, but Heidi may well have contributed – she is an excellent songwriter herself, and has often collaborated with Stew. I don’t have access to the songwriting credits, and don’t want to underrate her contribution. The fact that Stew and Heidi still work together after their split shows that they are better as collaborators than either would be alone).

I have absolutely no doubt that this will be one of my two or three favourite albums of the year, and it’s almost certain to be the very best, once it’s had more chance to grow on me. It’s not the best introduction to Stew’s music – that would still be either Joys And Concerns or Guest Host, both of which are far more immediate, but it’s a subtle, heartbreaking album, but with an underlying touch of hope.

Stew and Heidi are currently working on a musical adaptation of the great graphic novel Stagger Lee, and I can’t imagine a better match for them. I hope a soundtrack or DVD of that will be forthcoming very soon, but I also hope we don’t have to wait another nine years for the next album like this.

But it’s worth the wait.