A Brief History of Codes and Ciphers

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the idea of writing in code. I invented my own very basic algorithm and used it to create secret diary entries. Anyone could have broken it, of-course, because I simply rearranged the letters of each word in a particular way, but that wasn’t the point. It was fun, it was exciting, it was like being a spy sending important coded messages back to base.

Codes and ciphers have been used for millennia, and in this blog I’m going to look back at their evolution over that time, from the simplest of codes used in the Roman armies to the more advanced use of public and secret keys for modern encryption.

What’s the Difference between Codes and Ciphers?

The difference between a code and a cipher lies in how the secret message is generated. When using a code, each letter is replaced by a different character, and the mapping from one to the other is fixed – e.g. an A always becomes £, and a B always becomes %.

In a cipher, an algorithm is used to transform the message to a string of characters rather than using a straight substitution. That’s best explained by looking at the following examples.

A Simple Substitution Code

An example of a simple substitution code is shown in this picture, which allows each letter of the alphabet to be changed to a symbol.

The sequence of lines around every letter is different. For example, the lines around A form a ⌋, and those around E form ☐, and those symbols are then used instead of the letter. To allow for the repetition for the second half of the alphabet, a bar can be placed above the symbol.

The beauty of creating the symbols from a simple set of grids like this is that it’s easy to reproduce the table, and the recipient doesn’t need special equipment to decode it.

A Simple Cipher: Caesar’s Cipher

A cipher is a way of encrypting a message that applies an algorithm to the text rather than a straightforward substitution. In its simplest form, it can be very similar to a substitution code. For example, it could be a simple rotation: the algorithm could be “rotate the alphabet backwards by three characters”. Consider a disk with two concentric rings with the alphabet written all the way round the edge of both rings. If you now take the outer ring and rotate it left by three characters relative to the inner ring, you have an easy way to map characters from the inner ring to the outer. “ABC” at the start of the alphabet would map to “XYZ” on the outer ring. Hence “EAVESDROP” would be encrypted as “BXSBPAOLM”.

This was apparently one of the earliest known methods of encryption and was used in Roman times by Caesar to send messages to his army commanders in the field; it has become known as Caesar’s Cipher.

How to Break a Simple Code or Cipher

These simple codes and ciphers are very easy to break if you have a large enough sample of text because the patterns of the original words are still there. In English, you can identify an E because it’s the most commonly used letter; the second most common letter is a T, and so on as shown in the graph. Similarly, the most common letters for words to begin with are known (T, O, A, W…), as are the most common ones to end with (E, S, T, D…). It’s also known how frequently particular letters form pairs (TH is the most common, followed by ER and then ON), and which letters are most likely to form a double (SS is the most common double, followed by EE and then TT).

Comparing the frequency at which symbols or letters occur in the encoded text with the known distributions for different languages allows the original letters to be identified.

Improved Security with the Playfair Cipher

Charles Wheatstone made a significant development in encryption in 1854 when he created a system that removed those obvious patterns, making it much harder to crack at the time. It became known as the Playfair Cipher, after Lord Playfair who promoted its use to the army.

Wheatstone’s suggestion was that if pairs of letters were encrypted rather than single letters, it would become extremely difficult to identify the original patterns. His method was to start with a secret keyword or phrase to create a 5×5 table (giving 25 squares, so nearly the complete English alphabet). Duplicate letters in the keyword are removed and any blank squares at the end are filled with the remaining letters from the alphabet. To adjust for only having 25 spaces, I and J can be put into the same square. For example, if the keyword is EAVESDROP, the initial letters entered in the grid are EAVSDROP to remove the repeated E. The remaining squares are then populated with the letters that haven’t yet been used:

An algorithm that uses that grid is now applied to the original text. The text to be encrypted is first broken into pairs of letters, so A FAST PACED THRILLER is chopped into AF AS TP AC ED TH RI LL ER, ready to be put into the encryption square. Those pairs are now swapped with ones from the grid: a rectangle is put round the original pair and the letters are swapped with those in the other corners of the rectangle. For example, AF would become EG using this keyword, AS would become SA, TP would become NC, etc.

This method was used by British Forces in both first and second world wars for short-lived non-critical messages because it was very fast to use and didn’t require specialist equipment. For example, if the message related to something that was due to happen in the next 10 minutes, it was safe to use the Playfair Cipher because it would take more than 10 minutes to break the code, and by that time it no longer mattered if the enemy had decrypted the message.

With the speed of modern computer technology, text encrypted using a Playfair Cipher can now broken in a fraction of a second, so it can no longer be used.

The Enigma Machine

Photo from Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous encryption systems is the German Enigma machine, invented in 1918 at the end of the First World War by Arthur Scherbius. It used a keyboard with a rotary mechanism that determined what letter should be transmitted for each entered character. The keyboard was linked to a set of illuminated letters, where the connection between key and illuminated letter changed each time a character was encoded. The operator pressed the key for a letter, and the rotary mechanism connected that key to one of the light behind the set of letters. This illuminated letter was then used in the message. Every key press rotated the mechanism, resulting in different connections between keys and lights each time, so any patterns in the original text were removed.

If the recipient set up an identical machine so that its mechanism made the same sequence of connections as the originating one, the received message could be decrypted in the same way. 

This was used by the Germans during World War Two, and the way this cipher was finally broken at Bletchley Park is a fascinating part of history that has led to some great books and films. Maybe I’ll come back to that in the future.

Modern Encryption: Public Keys and Private Keys

With computers came, not only the ability to break codes, but also the ability to create more powerful encryption. Modern methods use an interesting mathematical principle associated with large prime numbers (a prime number is a number that can’t be created by multiplying two other numbers – for example, 7 and 11 are short prime numbers). When two very large prime numbers are multiplied together, it’s extremely hard to work backwards to work out what the two original numbers were. This fact is used to allow the use of what are known as “private” keys and “public keys” for encryption and decryption.

Two very large prime numbers are selected for the “private key”, and are multiplied together. The resulting product forms a “public key”. Because of the mathematical difficulty of working back from the public key to determine the two original prime numbers, the public key can be shared freely and it’s almost impossible for someone holding it to work out the two originating numbers. Therefore, they cannot work out its associated private key.

The way this is used to pass secure messages is as follows: the person who wants to receive a secure message, generates a public and private key pair and then distributes their public one to everyone who wants to talk to them. For someone to communicate with the originator, they use the distributed public key, put it into an algorithm along with their message, and generate encrypted text. Because of the mathematics, it’s only the person with the matching private key who can decrypt it because that’s the only person who knows the original large prime numbers.

What’s HTTPS?

Websites used for shopping and banking, where sensitive information needs to be entered, have website addresses that begin https://. The “s” at the end tells you that communication with that website will be encrypted using the public key / private key method described above, even though you don’t get involved in the process personally.

The website has a public key that it shares freely in the form of what’s called a “certificate” and securely holds its matching private key. For you to enter information on that website such as your credit card details, the internet browser on your computer uses the site’s public key to encrypt your card information before sending it. The receiving site can then decrypt what was sent using its secret private key; anyone intercepting what you send over the internet only sees encrypted data, which they cannot decrypt.

Summary of Codes and Ciphers

So encryption has come a long way since the days of Caesar, now benefiting from the speed with which modern computers can manipulate extremely large numbers. It seems only fair to end by playing with a coded goodbye:  Vlgbogcankbfllre!

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.


The Role of Location / Setting in a Thriller

The James Bond films would feel very different if 007 spent his time on the Isle of Wight instead of glamorous locations around the world. Dr No saw him in Monte Carlo (Monaco), From Russia with Love sent him to Istanbul. Bond visited Hong Kong in You Only Live Twice, Thailand in The Man with the Golden Gun, Tangier in The Living Daylights, Prague in Casio Royale, and so on.

The use of Aspirational Settings in Thrillers

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Sometimes there are plot reasons why a particular location is needed – if you have a Russian mafia boss as the antagonist, you’ll probably need to spend time in one of the ex-soviet countries – but more often than not, the reason for the setting is to evoke a feeling of glamour and to be aspirational. Many of us have not wandered from table to table at a casino in the south of France, rubbing shoulders with women in elegant evening wear who glitter with diamonds, and men in perfectly tailored tuxedos. But it’s a scene we recognize. Importantly, it’s one we can aspire to. And that’s the key: the reader is excited to read of such glamorous locations because it allows us to go there – to experience it – when in real life we cannot afford to visit.

Using Environment to Provide Tension in a Thriller

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What’s important for a thriller is that we can imagine ourselves there and therefore find it realistic. The same principle can also be applied to put the reader on edge, a requirement for a good thriller. For example, we are preconditioned from childhood to worry if we walk down a narrow alley after dark in a rough part of town. We can’t help but be scared of what’s lurking in the next doorway, just as we feel apprehensive wandering round a grave yard after dark. How ever much we tell ourselves not to be stupid, we can’t help but feel at least some tension. And an old spooky mansion? The latter two environments have now become far too clichéd to use in a modern story because of serious over-use (one thinks of Scooby Doo and laughs – tension gone!), but the principle is still highly relevant: find an environment in which we are preconditioned to feel scared, and it will provide tension when the protagonist finds themselves there. That’s provided it’s described well enough, of-course, and that it’s not clichéd, which is more likely to make the reader laugh than feel on edge.

Location as a Character in a Novel

If a location plays a really major role in the plot for most of the story, and if it’s painted extremely well, it can start to have such an impact on what’s happening that it begins to play the same part as a character. In other words, it can influence how characters behave and can drive the plot in particular directions; it has become part of the action, rather than just a backdrop against which the action takes place. Achieving that position can be the goal of some authors, particularly those writing mystery thrillers or horror fiction. It’s why author Joanne Harris once described location as “the engine at the heart of the novel.” For a thriller, going that far isn’t normally necessary, but it can add an interesting angle.

The Impact of Fiction of Real Locations

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So far, we’ve only thought about the effect particular locations can have in thrillers. However, it’s also worth thinking about the topic the other way round – can fiction have an impact on a real location?

According to historian Geoffrey Mead, the way Graham Greene portrayed Brighton as a seedy resort full of crime in his book Brighton Rock worried the local authority. They were concerned that people would believe it to be a true representation, and holidaymakers would then stay away. They therefore insisted that a disclaimer was added when the film adaptation was made – the credits included a statement that the story was set well in the past and that modern Brighton was nothing like that!

Avoiding Libel When Novels Use Real Locations

While the local authority probably couldn’t sue Greene for his portrayal of their town, authors do need to be careful about the risk of libel if they use real locations. This is the reason why authors often add fictional towns and villages to the map. If a thriller writer described a fraudster medic based in a real town, for example, and that real town only had one medic, he or she could sue the author because readers might assume the author was describing that real person.

Some authors prefer fictional locations for other reasons. If a real place is used, the writer is restricted: if there isn’t a left luggage office at the station but it’s essential for the plot that there is one, what can the poor head-scratching author do? If it doesn’t have a clock tower from which a sniper shoots his victim, the plot may struggle to work. Readers who know the location will soon complain if those buildings are present in the book. On the other hand, fictional towns allow the author to build whatever they want wherever it’s needed; they become the ultimate town planner to map out what their plot demands.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

The 13 Thriller Sub-genres: Do you Know Your Crime Thriller from Your Mystery Thriller?

When my publisher first asked me what sub-genres were relevant to my thriller, I realised I didn’t fully understand the differences. Most thrillers involve a crime of some sort, so what makes one a crime thriller and another a mystery? In this month’s blog, we have a quick look at the thirteen most common thriller sub-genres to see what separates them.

Crime Thrillers

Let’s start with the most popular sub-genre: the crime thriller. In one way, these stand apart from other thrillers because the murder – and it is almost always a death – occurs at the start of the book, and the plot follows a sleuth as they piece together the clues to discover the murderer’s identity. The protagonist is most commonly a police detective, although there are also plenty of private detectives or amateur sleuths around (one thinks of Miss Marple). Police procedurals are a variant of crime thrillers, where the focus is more on the steps taken during the police investigation than on the hero’s personal life, fears, and desires.

Red herrings and misdirections occur by the page-load to prevent the reader realising “who dunn it” ahead of the hero. Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Ann Cleves and many others rule in this sub-genre, and it’s the most common type of thriller to be written as a series, often having one particular detective who’s central to them all.

The terms “gritty” and “dark” are sometimes used in conjunction with one style of crime thriller. That is where the author takes us on a harrowing journey; what is described is realistic and disturbing, taking us to the depths of human unpleasantness. It’s a book that should leave you feeling uncomfortable.

At the other extreme of crime thrillers is Cosy Crime. Here, the description of the dead body is minimal. No blood and guts in this type of story. It’s likely to be written in a light-hearted style with an element of humour. These books are all about solving the puzzle of who committed the murder. Authors such as M.C. Beaton are masters of this kind of tale.

What are Action Thrillers?

In action thrillers, the focus is – yes, you guessed it – on providing loads of heart-racing action. This is one for adrenaline junkies. These books are crammed with gun-fights, explosions, and fighting; blood will definitely be spilt here. Most thrillers have action, but what makes these ones stand out is the amount. They will typically be SAS or SBS stories, normally in a far-off land, possibly during an “official” war, but will more often have a single protagonist or a very small unit on a private or off-the-record mission, perhaps to rescue someone who’s been kidnapped by a foreign army faction, or to prevent a terrorist organisation launching an attack. Authors in this category include such greats as Chris Ryan and Andy McNab.

Disaster Thrillers: man vs nature

Fairly similar to the action thrillers are disaster thrillers, although they’re more commonly seen as films rather than books. Still full of action, the difference is that, here, the antagonist is not human but nature itself. The hero is battling a volcanic eruption, a violent storm or hurricane, a flood or tsunami, an earthquake, a wild fire, snow, or some other natural event. Someone’s life is at risk, and the hero must fight to save them from the disaster.

Legal Thrillers

The protagonist in legal thrillers is likely to be a barrister or solicitor. Action is normally centred on the courtroom proceedings and the protagonist’s efforts to find evidence that their client is innocent.  John Grisham is surely king of this sub-genre. There tends to be far less action in a legal thriller, with the story centred more on people’s motivations and behaviour than adrenaline. It’s frequently about defending the underdog against a large and powerful corporation.

Conspiracy Thrillers

Conspiracy thrillers and political thrillers have much in common but the level of action can be quite different. A conspiracy thriller centres on – well, yes, it’s obvious – a conspiracy! It can be in a large corporation but, more likely, in a government department – the head of a CIA section, for example, who masterminds an unofficial operation that isn’t what it seems. Unexpected twists tend to be key in these thrillers – an operative is sent out on a mission but they’re actually a pawn who is setting up something larger, possibly to be the fall guy for an international incident. Perhaps the protagonist realises what’s really happening part way through, and the book then follows them as they try to stop whatever’s going to happen and stay alive (yes, their paymasters will want to kill them when they find out too much; that’s pretty much given in this kind of story).

Political Thrillers

A political thriller tends to focus more on the politicians and government officials than do conspiracy thrillers, which have a much broader international scope. It may deal with local conspiracies (such as why one particular building company is given a contract and who is getting a backhander). The odd murder or blackmail may appear, but the action level is lower than that with a conspiracy thriller. The protagonist often has the role of ensuring a political person or group takes or maintains power, possibly aiming to find proof of an opponent’s wrongdoing, or to frame someone else so they’re removed from power. Smear campaigns and “stabs in the back” play a key role.

Spy Thrillers

Spy thrillers can head in one of two directions. At one end you have James Bond, where realism is secondary to action; at the other end is John Le Carré’s George Smiley, where realism is key and action may be scarce. The only thing they have in common is that the protagonist is a government operative seeking information from another power.

Supernatural Thrillers

Throw in a ghost, a spirit, or the occult, and you get a supernatural thriller. The story structure may be the same as any of the other sub-genres, but here, realism gives place to the introduction of an unworldly aspect to add an additional twist to the story line.

Psychological Thrillers & Domestic Thrillers

I once heard a famous writer of psychological thrillers describe the difference between this subgenre and a crime thriller in this way: a crime thriller is a “who dunnit”, whereas a psychological thriller is a “why-dunnit”. Both are likely to start with a murder or discovery of a body but, whereas a crime thriller then goes forward in time to follow the hero as they try to uncover the truth, a psychological thriller will then jump back in time to show what led to that murder.

In the last few years, though, psychological thrillers have become increasingly popular, and have spawned domestic thrillers, where the structure is different. No longer does it necessarily start with a death. This type of novel normally focuses on a husband and wife or wife and their neighbour. Normally the heroine is a woman-in-jeopardy, but in an environment that is familiar to everyone, like the family home or a holiday cottage. The theme of the novel might be the uncovering of a partner’s long-hidden secret, or how to deal with coercive behaviour of a partner. This type of story broke the mould of psychological thrillers and changed it forever.

Mystery Thrillers

For a long time, I struggled to get to grips with how a mystery thriller differed from a crime thriller, possibly because I’m British, and mystery thrillers seem to be a subgenre that’s used more in America to describe novels. However, I think I’ve finally got my head round them, having read and very much enjoyed some stories by Peter May. I would now describe a mystery thriller as one where something happened in the past (be it an unexplained murder or a disappearance) and the protagonist in the current day needs to work out what happened and why. The protagonist is not an expert (i.e. not a detective or PI) but is a “normal” person, albeit perhaps with some special skill that is relevant to the story.

Medical Thrillers

The title “Medical thriller” speaks for itself. A deadly virus has escaped into the world, and the protagonist must find a cure. Or maybe people are suddenly falling ill and the heroine must discover the cause. Perhaps a mad doctor is killing patients in order to steal their organs for sale…


Techno-thrillers sit on the border between thrillers and science fiction. There are no UFOs here, but the setting is probably the very-near future. Futuristic technology abounds, be it robots with artificial intelligence, nanobots injected into the body, new weaponry, computers taking over the world, and so on. The aim is to be as realistic as possible, but to provide an environment in which some new advancement in technology provides the basis for a thrilling story.

Historical Thrillers Paint the Past

No need to explain this one. The key with historical thrillers is definitely accuracy. The author describes the scenes in detail, the smells, the way of life, the typical aspirations of people of that age. It transports the reader to that age.

The Importance of Cover Art

Finally, a quick word on front covers. They play a vital role as a shorthand to tell the potential reader what kind of story is inside. A glance should be enough to identify the type of novel. For example, a cosy mystery will probably have a gentle watercolour painting of a village scene; a historical thriller will have a scene with someone dressed according to that period, possibly with a vehicle from the time to clearly stamp the time setting. A medical thriller will probably have a syringe or a Petri glass or something similar on the cover; a conspiracy thriller is likely to be identified by a running figure with a prominent government building in the background. And so on… you can fill in the rest. It’s an efficient way to tell the reader what kind of thriller they’re about to pick up.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

The Seven Most Unusual Assassinations in History

Assassination plots have had their place since the earliest days of history, but some have been more unusual and imaginative than others. We’re not talking here anything as normal as an assassin’s knife or bullet, but far more weirder methods of dispatching victims.

1) The killing of Kim Jong-Nam: a YouTube Prank?

Let’s start with one of the most audacious successful assassinations, that of Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The scene is Kuala Lumpar’s International airport in 2017. Kim Jong-Nam, who has fallen out of favour with his half-brother’s family, is travelling alone to Macau, dressed in polo short and jeans.

A young Indonesian woman, Siti Aisyah, walks up to him and wipes her hands down his face before walking away. Moments later, Doan Thi Huong, a young Vietnamese woman, comes up behind him and gently puts her hands over this eyes, then slides them down his face, apologies, and walks away. They had been conned into thinking they were carrying out a prank for a Japanese YouTube channel. In fact, they had just covered the victim’s face in the nerve agent, DX, one of the most dangerous chemical weapons. Within twenty minutes, Kim Jong-Nam was dead.

2) The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko: Anyone for Tea?

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The predecessor to nerve agent as an effective method for dispatching your victim was poison. Modern poisons are so much more effective than things like arsenic, which was much loved by writers such as Agatha Christie. Take polonium, for instance. It’s a rare radioactive powder, and only a miniscule amount is fatal; experts say that once it has entered the bloodstream, it’s virtually impossible to stop its fatal operation.

In 2006, the Russian Defector and former spy Alexander Litvinenko was having tea at a hotel in Mayfair, London. He had been investigating the assassination of a Russian journalist and was a vocal opponent of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It appears his tea was laced with a tiny quantity of polonium-210.  He fell ill soon afterwards, was up vomiting that night, and was admitted to hospital soon after. His condition continued to deteriorate and he was dead a few weeks later.

The use of polonium in his poisoning is interesting because it’s only commercially produced in one country – Russia! Its use was surely intended as a warning to advertise that Russia’s retribution easily reaches across the world.

3) The assassination of Georgi Markov: Poisoned Umbrella

While we’re talking government retribution, how about the case of Georgi Markov in 1978? Markov was a writer who had defected from Bulgaria at the end of the sixties and was sarcastically critical of the Bulgarian regime. He met his fate at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge in London.

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Markov felt a jab in his leg while waiting in the queue. The man behind him apologized, and it appeared that the tip of his umbrella had caught Karkov’s leg. The area remained painful, and he later noticed a red lump where he had been stabbed; by the evening, he had a fever and was admitted to hospital. Four days later, he was dead.

An autopsy conducted with help from Britain’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Laboratory found a 1.7 mm diameter pellet in Karkov’s skin, which had carried the deadly poison ricin into his body. The pellet had two tiny holes that had been covered with a substance designed to melt at body temperature and release what was inside.  Ricin has no known antidote.

It’s speculated that the Bulgarian government of the day had received help from the KGB for their hit, but this has never been proved, and the umbrella wielding assassin was never identified.

4) The Remote Controlled Shooting of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

Not all government-sponsored assassinations have used poisons, of-course. Many have used standard-issue bullets to achieve their aim, but none has been as technically ingenious as the shooting of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.

Concerned that Fakhrizadeh was playing a key role in the development of a nuclear bomb for Iran, it seems Israel hatched a plan to assassinate him. Not wanting to risk their own agents being arrested, though, they developed a method for killing him remotely.

A hundred meters from a road along which intelligence told them he would be driving, an old pickup truck was abandoned. What couldn’t be seen was that, inside the back, was a remote controlled machine gun with artificial intelligence (AI) assisted software. A camera beamed images back to an operator in a different country, but the problem was the time lag of up to a couple of seconds between the image being captured, it being transmitted by radio, the operator able to respond to what was seen, and the trigger pull command being sent back to the weapon. The AI software was designed to allow for that lag by calculating where the target would be once the time had elapsed, and adjusting the aim accordingly.

As the convoy in which Fakhrizadeh was travelling passed the spot, 15 shots were fired in rapid succession. Fakhrizadeh has killed and, amazingly, no-one else with him was injured. The truck was fitted with explosives intended to destroy any evidence of the weapon after the shooting, but it was insufficient to destroy the solidly-built gun, which was later recovered from the wreckage.

5) The Attempted Assassination of King Louise Philippe: the Mega-gun

The design of fiendish guns is nothing new. For example, head back in history to Europe in 1835 and meet Giuseppe Fieschi, who was determined to assassinate King Louise Philippe of France in revenge for a ten year prison sentence that he had received.

Fieschi knew he would only have the opportunity to take a single shot, so he developed his own weapon by fusing together twenty guns and combining them so that they would all fire simultaneously on the pull of one trigger. Although it was somewhat unwieldy and hard to conceal, he did succeed in getting it into position. As the king neared him, Fieschi pulled the trigger and all weapons fired.

Incredibly, the bullets somehow missed the king, although many people around him were killed. Unfortunately for Fieschi, one gun was connected the other way round – deliberately or accidently will never be known – and he was shot by his own machine. Although he suffered serious injuries, he did survive because the king insisted that doctors give him the best possible care. Thinking he was going to be pardoned, Fieschi foolishly gave details of his co-conspirators. Once the king had that information, he had Fieschi executed by guillotine.

6) Nero’s Attempted Assassination of His Mother Agrippa

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Half-mad assassins seem to enjoy developing weird machinery to rid themselves of their enemies. The Roman emperor, Nero, who was known for his murderous cruelty, was no exception. When his mother, Julia Agrippa, opposed an affair he was having, Nero planned how to dispose of his mother. When a method to arrange the collapse of the ceiling above her bed failed to achieve his objective, he designed a special boat that was designed to sink.

Nero invited his mother to the Bay of Naples, where he presented the boat to her as a present. She went out on it, his mechanism worked, and the boat sank. Agrippa, however, simply swam safely to shore. Nero then gave up on his ingenious methods and resorted to the tried-and-tested, hiring assassins to stab her to death at her country home in AD 59.

7) Death by a Spear up the Bottom

Knives were a fairly reliable way to murder your victim provided you could get close enough. The demise in 1076 of Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lower Lorraine, was a good example of the lengths to which assassins would go to get sufficiently close to their victims in order to deliver that fatal blow.

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Following normal medieval building methods, toilets in the 11th century would drain on the outer side of the house’s wall to an exterior ditch. The assassin worked out which toilet belonged to Godfrey’s room in a house in Holland and found its outflow. Positioning himself underneath it with a spear or a sword (it isn’t clear which was used), he waited until Godfrey felt the need to use the toilet. Once he was sitting comfortably to “do his business”, the assassin struck him forcibly up the bottom.

He did not die immediately, but was quickly carried away by boat to Utrecht after the attack, but died there later from his injuries.

So next time you sit on the toilet, it’s not only a spider lurking under the rim you need to think about.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

Why Have Paperback Books Become Larger?

I’ve always loved my shelves of paperback novels; all the books were of similar size and sat in neat, orderly rows. Over the last few years, though, things changed. At one point, every thriller I bought seemed to be a different size to the previous one and the shelves became a mess, so in this month’s blog, we dig into what’s happening.

When Paperbacks Were Invented

Mass market paperbacks were born in 1935 when Allen Lane launched the Penguin brand and published the first “commuter friendly” books. His aim was to produce books of quality literature at low prices and to sell them at train stations alongside the newspapers, magazines, and cigarettes. The cover price was set at six pence, and 1 million paperbacks were sold in the first ten months, including novels from Christie and Hemingway. The covers were colour coded – orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for biography. Lane wanted a consistent size and layout for the books, and Penguin settled on 4⅜” x 7⅛” (111 mm x 181 mm). It used an approximation of the “golden ratio” of 1.618 to set the relationship between height and width so that the cover would look pleasing, while also maximising the number of pages that could be obtained from paper of the size used by the printing presses of the day.

The US following in 1939 with the launch of Pocket Books, which started to produce paperbacks that were more squat than Penguin’s, at 4¼” x 6⅞”. Although not definite, the reason for the smaller size was probably that paper size standards in the US were different to the UK’s, so a book needed different proportions to make the most of the US paper it was printed on.

Mass Market Fiction Paperback Trim Size

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In the UK, the height of the standard mass market paperback dropped slightly to 7” (178 mm), and become known as the A-format (UK). The reason for the small reduction is hard to determine but may have been due to the 1943 Book Production War Economy Agreement that was introduced to help with paper rationing by controlling font size and words per page; or it could have been caused by the introduction of rotating carousels in the US to hold paperbacks. Whatever the reason for the change, the A-format was standard for many years. Looking at the books on my “neat” bookshelf, all its books are of that size, published in the seventies and eighties.

Have you recently read a novel from that period? I reread one recently, and it has to be admitted that the font size in those early mass-market paperbacks seems quite small. And that was the cause of a major change in paperback book sizes that took place in 2020. Publishers were concerned by falling sales, and felt it was caused by their main readership getting older and finding it increasingly hard to read the small print. Penguin and Simon & Schuster began a trend for increasing the font, the margin size, and the gaps between lines. The result: larger paperbacks. Simon & Schuster’s chief executive is reported as saying, “We’ve been losing the foundation of our customer base because their eyesight is getting worse and the books are getting harder to read.”

They experimented by publishing some of their best selling authors in larger sized paperbacks and the positive feedback they received prompted them to add thriller writers Clive Cussler and Robin Cook to the new format. Their clear success caused Harlequin to join the transition shortly after.

For a while, a whole variety of sizes were being used, but in the last few years, the chaos seems to have subsided, and mass market fiction from mainstream publishers seems to have finally settled on a common size of 5” x 7⅜” in the UK. At last, my bookshelf is starting to look ordered once again, although the thicker spines mean far fewer books per shelf than my older collection.

A Book’s Size Shows its Genre

The A-format size was used for mass-market genre fiction. However, publishers felt that “more prestigious” works of fiction should have a similar size to hardbacks in order to be taken seriously; a book’s size became a way for retailers and customers to understand what type of work they were holding. Literary fiction standardised on what’s called the B-format (5⅛” x 7¾”; 129 mm x 198 mm) and is referred to as a “Trade Paperback” instead of “Mass Market”.

I hadn’t realised the subtle link between size and genre until my publisher asked me if I had any preference on what size my next book was printed in. Digging into the topic further, I found that size is significant. Novellas and memoirs both have set sizes that are different to both genre fiction and literary fiction. Text books are different again, and are different to general non-fiction; and children’s books are larger.  Originally, each of those styles of paperback had its own size, but that original clear distinction has become blurred in recent years, particularly with the birth of self-publishing and print-on-demand. Suddenly there’s an explosion of available sizes, and the subtle link between size and genre looks set to become blurred.

The Future of Paperback Book Sizes

There seems no doubt that self-publishing and print-on-demand will have a major impact on the size of books over the next decade. Independent authors and small publishers who rely on the likes of Amazon KDP or IngramSpark to produce their books have a whole wealth of sizes to choose from. Confusion abounds. When I wrote this article, Amazon was offering sixteen different paperback trim sizes from 5” x 8” upwards; IngramSpark offered twenty-nine, starting at 4” x 6”. With publishing now open to almost everyone, the hope of keeping to standard sizes for different types of book now seems impossible.

I like supporting smaller publishers, so it looks like my bookshelves in the future will never be neatly ordered again. Sad.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

How Publishers are Responding to the Environmental Impact of Books

Our consumption of books has steadily increased over the centuries since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in 1450. Each year, around 2.2 million books are now produced, distributed, and sold, and publishers’ awareness of how that impacts the environment is now growing.

In this month’s blog, I take a little look at how books have an environmental impact and what publishers are doing to address their target of reaching net zero by 2040.

The Use of Recycled Paper in Publishing

First, lets address the obvious – the number of trees that must be felled to meet our voracious appetite for books. “Use recycled paper, stupid,” I hear you shout. But is it that clear cut? Ignoring for a moment the environmental impact of the recycling factory and transport, would the use of recycled paper make publishers green because of a resulting slowdown in deforestation?

The main issue here is longevity: every time a sheet of paper is recycled, the fibres become shorter and worn, meaning paper can’t be recycled more than seven times. The result? If the world relied on 100% recycled paper, we would run out in only three months.

The answer is therefore to use paper that’s a mix of recycled paper and fresh, and the publishing industry therefore cannot avoid a reliance on virgin paper production. What’s important is therefore to ensure the new paper pulp comes from renewable sources so that it doesn’t contribute to deforestation.

The next question is whether the production of recycled paper does actually result in less CO2 emission than manufacturing new paper. And it’s not that obvious.

The Environmental Impact of Paper Production

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Penguin Random House (PRH) organised a large study into the impact of publishing on the environment, looking at the complete chain from felling a tree to disposal of “dead” books. Their most interesting and surprising discovery was that the book with the lowest total start-to-finish environmental impact was actually one made with paper from one particular paper mill that produced virgin paper rather than recycled. They found the reason was that the main contributor to CO2 emissions is the energy required to produce the paper in the first place. PRH discovered that Holmen’s paper mill in Hallsta, Sweden, causes zero CO2 emissions because it was powered purely from green energy – power derived from sources such as hydro-electric generation, wind, and solar.

The second best source of paper was found to be recycled paper coming from an Austrian site.

But it’s not only the factory itself that has a bearing on CO2 emissions; the complete end-to-end chain must be considered. And this, again, was where the Hallsta paper mill had an advantage because it was well sited to minimise the emissions caused by transport: moving input material and finished paper by rail rather than road reduces overall emissions.

Producing Paper from Renewable Sources

So, if the above conclusion is that there are several reasons why the manufacture of virgin paper is necessary (we’ll come to the alternative of Kindle and e-readers in a moment), it becomes critical to consider the source of the trees being used to ensure the environmental impact of that part of process is also minimised.

Making paper only from wood that’s FSC certified (Forestry Stewardship Council) is clearly an essential step because it ensures the wood comes only from renewable resources and that the paper manufacturing process does not cause pollution. Penguin Random House proudly announces that 100% of its paper is now FSC certified. In fact, I noticed that the Simon Kernick book I’m currently reading (published by Arrow Books, a PRH imprint) has the FSC stamp on the copyright page.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

My own publisher, as do many small publishers, relies heavily on Amazon KDP for printing. While this has the advantage that books are only printed in the quantities required so there are no concerns about wastage, Amazon does not declare its paper to be 100% FSC certified. One author queried this with Amazon and received the response that Amazon does use paper from FSC-certified sources; but is that 100% of their paper? Who knows?

The Impact of Printing Ink on the Environment

But it isn’t only the paper that is important. Ink, too, has an environmental impact, and the best solution isn’t immediately obvious. Yes, soya-based inks look like the best way forward (biodegradable, more energy-efficient to produce, and less toxic) but the complete life-cycle needs to be considered (soya, by the way, acts as the medium that carries the pigment in the ink and then dries off to leave the pigment and any additives on the page). But the ink reservoirs need to be cleaned after use, which calls for the use of Volatile Organic Compounds; and the best cleaning solution can vary with the type of ink. Publishers need to pick an ink that provides a good print on the particular paper that’s chosen for the book, while ensuring that the overall impact of the paper, the ink itself, and the cleaning process is the lowest possible. It’s a balancing act.

The Environmental Impact of Kindle and Other E-Readers

So is the solution for turning the publishing industry green to get customers to switch entirely to using Kindle or other e-book readers? Even here, the answer is not straightforward.

The advantage is that there’s no paper production or printing (except for packaging) and no need to ship books from the printers to the warehouse, nor is there a requirement to transport remaindered copies for pulping. However, CustomWise estimated that manufacturing a Kindle e-reader releases 29.5 kg of CO2 and consumes 100 kWh of energy. And to that we need to add the power to keep it charged over a 3-year life span. Over the life time on an i-pad, it has been estimated that 130 kg of CO2 will have been emitted (45% of which comes for its manufacture, 49% for the energy to use it, and 6% on transport and processing the e-waste at the end of its life).

Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Pexels.com

Furthermore, e-readers require materials such as tantalum, lithium and rare metals that come from countries were workers are unfairly and unhealthily treated, and the mining, refining, and shipping of those materials to the manufacturing sites have a noticeable environmental impact.

On top of that, there’s the environmental impact of all those power-hungry servers around the world (to provide the necessary download capability) and the powerful air conditioning to keep them cool. Don’t forget, also, the energy required to power the computers used for editing and setting-out the book. Cccb Lab estimated that this digital phase of production contributes 9.6% of a novel’s environmental impact.

Taking all the above into consideration, the Cleantech group (US) estimated that making one Kindle has the same impact as making 23 paperbacks, while the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden estimated it required 33 books. So, if we take an average and say a typical e-reader has a similar environmental impact to 28 paperbacks and has a 3-year life span, it would seem that people who consume less than 10 paperbacks a year could have less impact on the environment by purchasing new paperbacks than by using an e-reader!

Of-course, that ignores the fact that you may be using an i-pad for reading as well as other things, but the point the above figures make is that the difference is not as clear cut as might first be assumed.

Secondhand books & Libraries

Maybe one way in which readers can help is to use libraries or to buy from secondhand retailers. This is not always the “nicest” solution, of-course: a friend or family member is unlikely to be overjoyed to receive a tatty paperback as a present. And consider the local library: it works brilliantly for browsing books and borrowing from the ones on their shelves at that moment, but it’s less reliable when you’re after one particular book, especially if it didn’t hit the bestsellers’ list.

Photo by Rafael Cosquiere on Pexels.com

The secondhand market is not the perfect solution because it obviously needs to be continually “fed” with a fresh supply of books, so it cannot remove the need for publishers to manufacture books in the first place. There is also the question of author’s revenue to consider. Professional authors rely on income from royalties; the fewer new books that are sold, the less income they receive, driving more authors to the breadline. The recently formed AuthorSHARE initiative helps slightly here – secondhand retailers WorldofBooks and BookBarn International contribute to a fund that gives royalties to authors on the sale of secondhand books.  A similar scheme runs for library borrowing to help compensate for the resulting reduction in fresh purchases. Like many other authors, I benefit from Public Lending Rights (PLR), which distributes payments to authors to recompense them for their books being borrowed from libraries; to some authors, PLR provides a significant percentage of their annual income.

How Print-on-Demand (POD) Helps the Environment

Increasingly, publishers are turning to Print-on-Demand (POD). It’s a favourite of small publishers because it removes the need for high upfront costs, but comes at higher financial cost. The environmental benefit is that no books are remaindered and therefore the CO2emissions from transporting unwanted books is eliminated, and there is no energy requirement to pulp and recycle them, and no need to use landfill. Some larger publishers are now adopting a hybrid approach by producing smaller conventional print runs and supplementing the volume with POD.

Publisher’s Targets for Net Zero Environmental Impact

Many publishers have signed-up to the Publishing Declares initiative, which aims to help publishers achieve net-zero by 2040. It will be interesting in the coming years to see what methods they adopt in their pursuit of this target.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

What’s the Best Way to Write a Novel?

I’ve always written the first draft of my thrillers longhand in a notebook, but friends—non-writers I should stress—look at me in amazement. “Why?” they ask. When that same question was asked for the tenth time and, once more, I’d struggled to give a convincing answer as to why it works better than bashing it straight into a computer, I thought I’d better try to find a more robust response.

It turns out I’m not alone. In a 2001 interview for CBS’ The Early Show, Stephen King described how he was forced to change to pen and paper after a car accident made it too painful to sit at a PC, and he admitted that he discovered longhand was a more beneficial way to write. It forced him to slow down and consider every word, he said.

Other writers who adhere to pen and paper include the scriptwriter Quentin Tarantino, who takes it further by buying a new notebook and a fresh set of felt-tip pens for each new manuscript. “I suppose it makes it special,” he said when asked about it.

Pulitzer prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri provided insight to her writing process when, in a Harper’s Bazaar interview, she explained, “I feel freer when I write by hand.” And I think that’s part of it—you’re not tied to that keyboard and your arms and fingers aren’t trapped in that repetitive digital motion of typing. Because you now physically move your arm across the page, your body is free; in some way, that lack of constraint conveys itself into the writing and helps the imagination fly free. That might sound like an airhead thing to say, but there does seem to be some science behind it. Pam Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel Oppenheimer (University of California) studied two groups of students—those who recorded lecture notes on laptops, and those who used paper. Their results, published in Psychological Science, showed that the laptop users did “significantly worse” in standardised tests than students who had written longhand. They hypothesised that, when typing, which is faster, the lecturer’s words converted directly to finger movements, with the brain doing very limited processing. When using a pen, however, the process of converting speech into the loops and lines of written text required the writer to think about the words flowing through their brains; it required more of the brain to be involved in the process.

Writing creatively is very similar. The (slightly) slower process of putting pen to paper allows the brain to process the flow of words, while the need to recall the shapes of letters and the patterns of words stimulates more of the brain, allowing its creative part to be more imaginative. It’s a very analogue process compared to the digital up-down of keyboard hammering.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There is also more feedback to the brain when writing on paper because the emotion of the phrases is conveyed in the intensity of the marks on the page—descriptions of fast action are reflected in the words because they become more scrawled; tension is seen by the additional pen pressure making the words darker. Those subliminal signs get fed back to the brain and stimulate more of the same emotion, which helps the author “get into” their story more. No such feedback occurs when typing.

Brain scans taken while writing and typing clearly show that writing generates more brain activity. Several studies of this were summarised by the American Association of Social Administration, who also concluded that using pen or pencil improved people’s ability to construct sentences.

So I’m not a freak to write my first drafts in a notebook using my favourite pencil: science shows it is a better way to do it. So if you create directly on a keyboard, give longhand a go—see if it helps the creative forces flow more smoothly and gives an overall better result. Come back and let me know how you got on.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

From Ox heads to ‘A’ – a potted History of Writing

alphabet-David Hewitt

photo: David Hewitt

We are utterly reliant on our alphabet, but do you know where it came from and how it developed into what we use today? I was so fascinated by a brilliant article on the subject by Caroline Brothers recently published in The Author that I felt compelled to share a short summary.

The origin of writing

Experts reckon that writing was invented independently in four places: before 3000BC by the Sumerians (who lived around the river Euphrates) and by the inhabitants of Southern Mexico, then by the Egyptians in 3000BC, and later by the Chinese in 1300BC; all occurring independently.

hieroglyphs-Thomas Picard

photo: Thomas Picard

However, in those days, when the focus was on food and trade, the earliest forms of writing were limited to symbols (pictographs) that bore a resemblance to the nouns they represented. Who needed a word for ‘joyful’ when the overwhelming priority was to gather enough to eat and keep warm? ‘Ox’, ‘water’, ‘fig’, ’fire’ etc. were the necessary words.

Representing Intangible Words

Brothers explained that subsequent centuries saw forty different writing systems evolve from those four roots, but it was the Sumerians who, again, took the next big step forward in the written form. They realised that abstract words could be depicted by combining nouns that sounded the same when put in juxtaposition. In her article, Brothers demonstrates this with the example of the word ‘belief’, which could be constructed by joining the symbol that represented a bee to the one for a leaf and adding a mark to indicate that the resulting word was to be taken in that way.

Now writing could progress from the constraints of agricultural lists to stories and poems: the tool for “real” literature was born.

Inventing an Alphabet

Meanwhile, the Egyptians were developing their own writing system and added signs for consonants to their pictograms and associated symbols. At one point, they had over a thousand different symbols! However, it was the Semitic race of Syria and Sinai in the

hieroglyphs-Mira Pavlakovic

photo: Mira Pavlakovic

second millennium BC who are credited with the biggest disruptive step forward—the invention of an alphabet. They experimented with adding vowels, and devised a system from which can be traced the Greek alphabet. The Greek system gave rise to the Roman one, which is recognizable as the source of today’s modern Western alphabet.

A recent exhibition of writing at the British Library, which Brothers visited, traced how the alphabets’ individual characters changed over time. Taking the example of our letter ‘A’, it demonstrated how the Phoenicians took the Egyptian symbol that represented an ox head and turned it on its side; the Greeks later rotated it, before the Etruscans in ancient Italy adopted it, from where it found its way into the Roman alphabet.

A Smile and a Wink

smiley-Jay LopezWriting and the characters used have come a long way over the last 5,000 years. Perhaps our twenty-first century addition to this continued evolution is the introduction of emoticons, which provide a mechanism for representing the tone in which something is spoken. If the human race is still around in another thousand years, perhaps historians will see it as the next significant step in the development of writing. Or maybe we’re just craving a return to the hieroglyphs of our early forefathers!

Thank You to the Ancients

Without the Sumerians and Semites and all the others who strove to create a system for the written word, we would be without this fantastic medium for sharing emotion-generating stories. We would be without the power of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, and all the others who have provided entertainment across the centuries, the masters of taking the written word and using it to wring tears, sadness, fear and joy from our minds.

Here’s a big “thank you” to our ancestors.

EavesdropCoverREDUCEDIan Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk/Ian-Coates/e/B00R66BWLM

Audible: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Eavesdrop-Audiobook/B07K6R3R85

Website: www.iancoatesthrillers.co.uk

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates


Free Competition to Win An Audio Book

Do you love audio books? Would you like to win a FREE audio-book worth $16.35 / £14.99?

Eavesdrop-cover-audibleTo mark the launch of Audible’s edition of the spy thriller Eavesdrop, there’s a competition running on the International Thriller Writers’ webpage to win the audio version of this fast-paced novel. Free to enter. Just go to ITW’s “thebigthrill” Neverending Book giveaway page, scroll down to the entry for Eavesdrop, click, and simply reply to the post.

Your Customs Investigator career in ruins, your wife fighting cancer… What do you do when you discover the reason behind your dismissal is a police cover-up, and that there’s a way to prove your innocence?

Enjoy TV actor Simon Darwen bringing its assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies to life…


The competition is only open until Jan 31st, so hurry.


About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

Ian posts on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates

His Tweets can be found at: www.twitter.com/@ian_coates_






The Making of an Audio Book

In this month’s blog, I share what it was like to experience the creation of an audio book version of my thriller Eavesdrop.

Wednesday June 13th 2018

My head’s been in a spin all day. The unexpected email arrived this morning, a reply to my entry to Audible’s New Crime Writing Grant competition. I had sent them a copy of Eavesdrop on the off-chance—didn’t think it would be accepted because it had been previously published. Although the competition title suggested it only wanted un-published work, the terms & conditions were less specific and only said the author had to be holding the full rights. I had sent it anyway with an explanatory letter; nothing to lose.

“…disappointed to inform you that your title was not selected for our Crime Grant shortlist due to the work being published already in the US,” the writer informed me. Heart sinks, but it’s what I had expected. “…judges were so impressed that we would like to offer you a standard audio agreement with Audible anyway!” I re-read the whole email again carefully to make sure I’d understood. Sure enough, there below are outline details of a proffered contract for Audible to produce an audio version of my book. There’s a reasonable advance and terms that seem okay. Of-course I email back; would be delighted to accept. Let me know more.

Thursday June 28th 2018

TypingFinally signed the contract today. Had a few questions, which Audible answered very efficiently, and they made a small change at my request. The “paperwork” is all electronic—one of those pdf files that works with e-signatures. I sign it with a text string. Now need to do the tax questionnaire: because money comes from the USA, it will be taxed there as well as here unless I have the necessary forms in place. Fortunately I already have income from the USA and have the requisite American ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) that allows me to avoid double taxation. I provide the Audible database with my number, send them an invoice for the advance, and all is set.

Monday July 30th 2018

Get an email introduction to my editor. He’ll be helping to make it “audio-ready”, whatever that means.

Wednesday August 8th 2018

Chat on the phone today with the editor. He’s very complimentary, which obviously makes me feel great. He says he normally has to do structural changes to books, but reckons Eavesdrop is great as it stands. Good sense of pace, he says; well structured already. I remember the long spreadsheet I used while writing it, with all the scenes numbered and summarised down to single lines so that I could juggle them around to maximise suspense while still able to see the big picture to make it flow well; it was obviously worth it. Just a few line edits is all he wants. It won’t take long, but he’s about to go on holiday and would like to wait until he returns so that he can start it fresh and do a good job. I agree; works okay for me.

Sunday September 23rd 2018

Now holidays are out of the way, my editor is on the case. I get an email with his suggested changes, and we arrange a telephone call to discuss them. I skim through his lonely-beach-1370802-639x545notes. It’s a Word document and we’ve agreed to use its ‘review’ feature to track each suggested change. It’s rewarding to see how few edits he’s proposing—little more than minor word changes here and there.

I don’t reckon it’ll take long to go through them.

Wednesday September 26th 2018

We have a brief phone call. He again comments on how well written Eavesdrop is, and how much he enjoyed reading it. That gives my confidence a boost.

I spend a few hours each day going through all the comments in detail. It takes longer than I expected but I’m done within the week.

mansface2Being back with these old characters feels strange. Very glad I’m not being asked to add any more descriptions of them because I can’t remember the team well enough—that would end in continuity errors, I’m sure. Somewhere in the loft I’ve got my original notes from the book—I did character details for them all, and even had pictures clipped from magazines for people who resembled my characters—but I’ve got a horrible feeling some of those have been thrown away by now.

We work it with me also using the ‘review comments’ feature, and I add a response to each proposed change. Glad to say they’re mainly all word or small phrase changes. He makes an alternative suggestion; I look at it and either accept it or make a counter proposal. In some cases, I don’t like his word, but I can see what he’s trying to achieve, so I spend time looking at ones I feel work better. For example, in one section I had Winter “diving” into another room. ‘Change it to “moved”,’ my editor says. I can see why he doesn’t like “dived” (or “dove” if we stick with American spelling) because Winter doesn’t end up on the floor; but “moved” just feels such a sluggish verb; I want more urgency.

How about “darted”? I suggest. Document pings back later with a new comment: ‘You’ve already used that a couple of times in this chapter.’ More head scratching and thumbing of thesaurus. Finally we agree that “bolted” is the best choice.

Thursday October 4th 2018

A week later, all’s done and he’s sent it to the production team. He tells me his involvement is now finished and someone else will pick it up. I ask if he knows the schedule for the next stage of the book, but all he can tell me is that it’s planned for the first quarter of next year; no specific dates are yet fixed. Who’s my contact now? I wonder, but I’m sure someone will be in touch.

Friday October 26th 2018

calendarFeels like I’m in a black hole. I want to know the production schedule so I can plan my own publicity and press releases. You’re supposed to start at least six weeks before launch for e-releases (more for physical formats), and a launch of “quarter one” could easily mean we’re almost there already.

I try emailing the wonderful Alex—a manger in Audible’s Business Affairs team—who’s always so efficient, and true to form, she replies the same day to say it’s not fixed yet. ‘It can take time to find the right narrator for the book,’ she explains, and I find the care they seem to employ to get the audio-book to its best is really encouraging.

I remember the few phrases of Finnish in chapter 38 and wonder if they’ll warn the narrator. How will he* go about checking the pronunciation? I wonder. Perhaps I should put him in touch with one of my ex-colleagues from when I worked at Nokia Mobile Phones—as a Finnish company, there were plenty of native speakers around, and I still have many of them as Facebook friends. I’ll wait to see if Audible raises the question. They’re professionals after all, and this can’t be the first time they’ve produced an audio book with a few foreign words in it.

*By the way, I’ve assumed it’s to be a male narrator on the basis that the main character is a bloke; it would be odd to have him narrated in a woman’s voice. In contrast, the thriller I’m working on at the moment has a woman as the lead character—if I sell the audio rights for that one, I assume its narrator would probably be female.

Tuesday October 30th 2018

An email Eavesdrop-cover-audiblearrives out of the blue. The writer introduces herself as in charge of artwork and she has attached a jpeg of the cover they’ve created.

It’s awesome. So edgy, and I think it captures the tension of the thriller brilliantly. I email back to let her know how great I think it is.

I’m now really excited. This is real. I imagine it sitting on Amazon alongside my print and e-book editions. I think about printing the cover out and making a framed picture for my study wall.

Tuesday November 14th 2018

Taken totally by surprise today; feeling shocked.

Most of my Facebook and Twitter posts are about interesting new technology or unusual crime related news, but I thought it was time to give my thriller a bit of a plug. I put a very short extract up and inserted a link to Amazon’s American e-book page. Better check it’s the correct link first, I think, so entered it straight into a browser. “This product is currently not available,” Amazon reports back. My heart does a little jump and I start to panic. Why has it disappeared?*

In case my link is out of date (perhaps it was pointing to the original Assent Publishing version), I use the Amazon search box and enter “Eavesdrop”. I scroll down a list and there’s the familiar grey and blue cover. Just below that I’m startled to see the new red and navy art work that Audible created.

Stunned, I click through and there’s the audio version available for pre-order; release date: Nov 29th 2018. There’s a narrator named as well—Simon Darwen. That’s barely two weeks away. I’ve suddenly got to compress all my own publicity into just fourteen days. I feel slight panic, then wonder if the date’s right. I check the Audible website as well. Same date. Okay—looks like tomorrow will be a busy day finding all the media contacts I need. Having moved to Worcestershire only a few months ago, my current contact list doesn’t cover this area, and I need to start again.

Simon-DarwenTime to check out the narrator. I’d hoped to have been introduced to him earlier, possibly even get a photo together for my publicity. Too late now. I Google him: IMDb tells me he’s best know for parts in the TV shows The Bletchley Circle, Silent Witness, and Call The Midwife. Sounds hopeful. I go back to the Audible site, search for other books he’s narrated, and listen to a few extracts. Impressed. And he is great at accents from the bits I hear. He’ll have done a great job, I’m sure.

I still wonder how he dealt with those sentences of Finnish, though. I think I’ll try to contact him out of curiosity to ask how he got on with them. Too late now to help, of-course—the recording must be well finished—but it would be nice to know. I’ll search for him on social media.

*was quickly resolved. Turned out it was a technical problem Amazon was already aware of.

Thursday November 15th 2018

Spent the day on press releases. When Assent first published Eavesdrop, they provided marketing and publicity training, so I know how to go about it. I just need a contacts list.

Half a day of internet searching later and I think I have a suitable set, and out go the first releases on email. The angle I take on the first one is summed up by the title I give it—Local Author’s Illicit Competition Entry Thrills Audio Publisher. I was going to have Author’s Cheeky Competition Entry Thrills… but realised in time that the combination of “cheeky” and “thrills” could be badly misconstrued. Glad I spotted that in time!

I deal with how Audible came to read Eavesdrop in the first place and how I’ve loved audio books since my parents played story cassettes to me on long car journeys. Hopefully it might pique someone’s interest.

reading-newspaperIt’s about 300 words in length—a little long, but I’m pleased with it and send it out to about half a dozen local papers and magazines, directly addressed to the relevant reporters and editors.

I plan the rest of the publicity campaign—or at least my personal one; I don’t know what Audible is planning, but I guess they’re doing something. I check my email again, but nothing from them to let me know their plans. ‘Silence is golden,’ didn’t someone once sing? Not in this case, perhaps.

I’ll do two more press releases over the coming two weeks—one to the publicise their choice of narrator and the fantastic new cover, and one to inform of the release itself, which according to their website is still set for November 29th.

Long day on the computer. My eyes are sore and I’m tired, but publicity is now underway. Just need to see if any of those reporters show an interest.

Friday November 16th 2018

I prepare a social media splurge—one item each day, slowly introducing information about the audio book, planned to culminate on the 29th with the release itself. I’ll add my normal techie / crime posts in between, of-course, so that it’s not only banging away about it; I reckon a good balance is important.

Check me out on facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates and twitter.com/@ian_coates_

Thursday November 29th 2018

drawing-pin-1427330-1278x855Release day today. Still heard nothing from Audible, which surprises me. Went to Amazon and clicked “hear sample”. Sounds good, but I’d like to hear the full version. I’m surprised Audible didn’t send me a copy once it was ready. I email the always-helpful and always-patient Alex, who rapidly puts me in touch with the “author-care” team; they will send me a code to get my free copy.

Well,  here we are at the end of a journey. A great actor gives voice to Eavesdrop’s assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies. Hear the characters come alive for yourself – Audible’s audio version of the thriller Eavesdrop can be purchased directly from Audible’s site (audible.co.uk or audible.com)  or via Amazon (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com).