Mr Smith went to Washington. Ms McKenna’s been to 10 Downing Street.

For a SF and Fantasy novelist, I’m spending a remarkable amount of time being an activist at the moment. Well, it needs doing.

You’ll recall I met David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister to discuss the problems for small businesses created by the new EU digital VAT regulations on cross border sales? As a direct result of that meeting, the PM’s office set up a meeting for Clare Josa and me, on behalf of the EU VAT Action Team, with his special adviser Daniel Korski of the No.10 Policy Unit.

The full report – and guidance on useful actions for everyone affected – is here.

To summarise, the UK Government now realises just what horrendous difficulties these new regulations have created. Countries creating wonderful systems to handle collecting the new taxes and paying them to each other is not the slightest use to the digital sellers whose businesses are now so horribly complicated by the need to locate and appropriately tax their customers at the initial point of sale.

They’ve also acknowledged how vital it will be to have end-user input into any discussions about any proposed technical or other implementation solutions. We’re already following up on that.

The people we need to convince now are the EU Commission and national finance ministries across Europe. Okay then…

EU VAT Action will be rolling out assorted calls to action with a particular focus on Europe. I’ve also met with Catherine Bearder MEP this week, and spent an extremely productive hour and a half going over all the key issues with her and getting her invaluable input on how best to get our voices heard in Europe. Subject to final confirmation, key EU VAT Action team players will be heading for Brussels in the week commencing 16th March.

So we’re definitely making progress.

And what’s No.10 Downing Street really like? Well, I’d say it’s a stately home devoted to the day to day business of government, if that makes any sense at all. Lots of people coming and going, all very focused, in elegant and historic surroundings.

There’s a really interesting history available here, including photos. Yes, I did get to meet Larry the cat – who is the most aloof feline I have ever encountered, and for those of us who know cats, that’s really saying something.

There was a fox as well, trotting about and sniffing at doors first thing. I saw him when I glanced out of the window, when we’d just arrived and were going through the security check. Oh yes, says the friendly copper, he often comes over from the park for a look around…

Talking of coppers, the constables who guard the famous door are clearly a dab hand at taking good photos with any sort of camera or phone they are handed. So that’s quite a snap for the family album.

jules-No.10

And here’s a picture of the cat.

cat

The EU VAT Action Campaign – recent and upcoming events

Last Monday saw the EU VAT Action team represented for the first time at the HMRC Working Group meeting to discuss implementation of the new VATMOSS system. You may rest assured that we highlighted the ongoing problems which microbusinesses are having with compliance, 3rd party platforms and the VATMOSS system itself, not to mention the widespread failures in European implementation.

Since he’s my constituency MP, I was also able to meet David Cameron last Friday, aiming to make sure he realises what the current problems are as well as their wider and longer term implications. It was a positive and constructive meeting, with every indication that the PM understands the seriousness and complexity of this issue.

While we are definitely making headway convincing the UK government, we still need to convince the finance ministers and key officials in other EU member states that this same trouble is heading their way. They just don’t know it yet because their own digital businesses don’t even know about the new regulations, still less about how impossible the law is to work with!

We need as many non-UK responses to the EU VAT Action survey as possible, as soon as possible.

Please spread the word. We’re already compiling country-specific reports from the data we do have – and the picture in the Netherlands for instance, is horrifying.

We want as many people as possible to contact the EU Commission’s Taxation Department with a personal complaint and also to submit comments to the OECD’s current consultation on implementing this sort of taxation.

Sounds daunting? We’re putting together clear guidance on how to go about it and on Thursday 12th February, we’ll be having a major online push to inspire as many people to act as possible.

On Wednesday 11th February I’ll be part of a Google Hangouts live online event at 7pm GMT organised by the The Alliance of Independent Authors to discuss the new regulations, VATMOSS and associated issues.

I’ll be particularly focusing on the campaign and the actions everyone can take to help. The more voices raised, the better the chances of being heard!

If you can’t make that particular time, you’ll be able to access a recording afterwards – check back for linkage in due course.

And I am really, really truly planning to post something NOT about bloody VAT here soon!

Musing on legal aspects of the new EU digital VAT rules.

Bearing in mind I am nothing remotely approaching a lawyer, but as a reasonably well informed onlooker, I find myself pondering the following questions.

How long before the first court case over VATMOSS and the new digital EU VAT?

and

Should HMRC and HM Treasury be the ones explaining themselves in court?

An interesting debate about Amazon and a quiz about EU VAT

I have a lot on this week, so here’s a couple of things to muse on in the meantime.

Is Amazon a Hero or a Monster? This question was debated with strong feelings on both sides recently. It makes for interesting reading.

My answer? Amazon is neither – and casting the debate in these all or nothing terms actively obscures the key issues. Which may well be why Amazon are so keen to present the picture as so black and white. Because Amazon is, as far as I am concerned, an example of unfettered capitalism. So the buyer really should beware… are the short term gains going to be worth the long term losses?

Meantime, over at the EU VAT Action website we have a shiny new quiz! If you think you’ve got a sound grasp of the issues, see how well you get on? If you’re still trying to work out why people are so stressed about it all, see how you get on?

If you are caught up in this and looking at the various solutions now on offer, ask whoever’s offering it some of these questions. Because we’re seeing quite a few semi-compliant solutions cropping up which may be a short term fix but could pose problems in the longer term.

Independently publishing ebooks in the UK – what’s changed since 1st January 2015?

For those of you playing the EU VAT Consequences game, here’s a post I’ve written all about the real world consequences of the new VAT regulations on cross-border digital sales.

Mid-month update

I don’t suppose you’ll be in the least surprised to learn that campaigning against the new EU VAT legislation on crossborder digital sales continues to take up a lot of my time. We are now collecting evidence on just how unworkable the supposedly simple system is – and that is thankfully getting the attention of various MEPs and MPs. Updates here, from EU VAT Action and here on the other blog I started to handle this issue.

Since all this means making noise about other things like the representation of women in SFF is taking a back seat, I’m particularly pleased to see this on Marianne de Pierre’s blog

So here’s the thing guys… I need your help. I began my Research Masters on Future Feminism today, and I’m compiling a list of contemporary female SF authors (not fantasy, not YA, and not straight SF romance) who have been published in novel length work since 2000.

I’d love to hear who your favourite female SF (post 2000) author is so I can add them to my reading list. Please leave the names in the comments section and I’ll add them to my main list. I’ve made a solid start, but there are many more! I’ve alphabetised by surname.

Do check out the blog and see if you can add to the list?

In other news? Well, I’ve had a short story accepted for an anthology and am currently turning that from a draft into a final version thanks to the editor’s helpful feedback. It’s nice to be tackling some fiction again!

In between times, I am working on prepping the texts of the Aldabreshin Compass novels for their ebook editions. We’re also briefing an artist for cover art. The plan is to get all four done at once so we can release them in alternate months later this year. I’m also seriously considering writing some related short stories as re-reading the books has tempted me into tugging on a few lingering loose threads…

Once that’s all underway, I’ll turn my attention to getting the River Kingdom novella ‘The Ties that Bind’ out as an ebook as well as a collection of the short stories I’ve written in that setting.

Meantime, the novel I wrote last year is doing the round of agents… Reactions so far remind me just how subjective this game is. I’ve had ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses like ‘Aspect A is great but I’d really be looking for more Aspect B’ to set against ‘Aspect A is lacking for me, though Aspect B is very well done’. Plus the always baffling ‘I really like Aspect A and Aspect B… but I don’t quite love the whole thing enough to represent it…’

So on we go…

An EU VAT update – and a call for action.

As the holiday break draws to a close, Cheryl over at Wizard’s Tower Press spends yet more of her valuable time sorting out the complicated mess which these new EU VAT regulations have made of our pricing – as well as forcing all of our sales through third parties who all take their hefty cut. So readers will be paying more while all of us involved in making these books available earn less for them.

Meantime, I’m working with the EU VAT Action team to do all we can to create pressure for the changes we need, to get this legislation reviewed and revised from the ground up.

The more voices speaking up, the better the chances of meaningful action. So there are a couple of recent posts over at Digital Microbusiness Action Group on new targets for your letters.

A few recollections of PD James

New Year’s Eve seems like a good day to finally post these valedictory thoughts.

I don’t claim any level of personal acquaintance with PD James, but she was an Honorary Fellow of my old Oxford college, St Hilda’s, and also a regular at the annual Crime & Mystery Conference there, which I attend as often as I can. I think I’ve only missed three or maybe four of those since 1994. So I have had more opportunities than most fans to hear her speak and occasionally, to talk briefly with her.

She always took a personal interest in whoever she was speaking to, remarkable when you consider how many thousands of people she must have met in the briefest of encounters. One year at the St Hilda’s crime conference, I was substantially pregnant with my second child. The weather was hot and sultry and more than once, Baroness James of Holland Park appeared beside me, asking if I was alright, and did I want to sit down or perhaps she could get me some water? The next year? ‘Oh, my dear,’ she greeted me with a smile, ‘now, do tell me, was it a boy or a girl?’ I told her I’d had a second son and her congratulations were wholly sincere, no mere politeness.

I have pages of notes which I made while listening to her talk about aspects of the writing craft and the writing business, at St Hilda’s and elsewhere, notably during her tenure as President of The Society of Authors. She offered far too much good advice for me attempt to detail it here. I particularly remember her talking about the sense of place in her books, and how that was so often her personal starting point for a story. I especially remember her talking about the nature of malice and yes, evil, and how that isn’t something separate from everyday life and that’s what makes it all the more menacing. She was also, always, a passionate advocate for the literary value of genre fiction, upholding its merits when dealing with narrative, plot and character. And so much more besides.

Since I write SF and fantasy, I also remember a question from the floor at some event or other, when she was asked what she thought of the film adaptation of her novel, The Children of Men. She smiled and with a distinct twinkle in her eye, said she would much rather see a good film loosely based on a book than a bad film that was a completely faithful adaptation.

Or is ‘twinkle’ the right word? That seems a bit too cosy. ‘Glint’ seems rather too hard though and she definitely wasn’t hard. But as Val McDermid said ‘there was nothing cosy about Phyllis’. She’d lived far too demanding a life to indulge in sentimentality. Let’s not forget that Baroness James of Holland Park wasn’t born to rank, wealth or privilege. She was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s but never went to university herself to study. Her father didn’t believe in such things for girls. She married young and then found herself supporting her family when her husband returned from the Second World War mentally ill. She would refer to such events in her talks, as and when some facet of her own life might be relevant to the topic at hand. Always matter of fact, never looking for sympathy, praise or such like. I think she would have found the idea of anything of the kind preposterous. But those experiences assuredly gave her a sound understanding of the unfortunate and the underdog which informed her professional and political life as well as her fiction.

Her literary interests went far beyond crime writing. She was an expert of the work of (another St Hilda’s alumna) Barbara Pym. As recently as last November, she gave a talk at the Bodleian Library to mark the Pym Centenary. I particularly remember her talk at The Oxford Literary Festival a few years ago, where she spoke without notes for 45 minutes, standing at the lectern, and then took questions for a further quarter of an hour, giving each one a considered and erudite answer. Since my mother is a tremendous fan of both Barbara Pym and PD James, she came up to Oxford for the day. Since I am on the college media network committee, and was thus involved in helping run the St Hilda’s day of programming, I was able to introduce Mum to her. Once again, even in that briefest of meetings they made a personal connection. (And seeing what that encounter meant to my mum meant everything to me.)

Then there was her interest in Jane Austen and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. I don’t mind saying, I approached the book with some reservations, having read a slew of truly dire Jane Austen continuations when I was a bookseller. Thankfully I liked it, and all the more so after hearing her talk about the process of devising the story and the thoughts that had prompted it, most particularly about the burdens of service and obligation on the likes of Mr Darcy and what that says about society, then and now.

That was at a St Hilda’s event for the English School, and the room was packed with students and alumnae and the occasional classicist like me . When PD James explained that she’d opted to write that book rather than a new crime novel because she so disliked the thought of leaving a Dalgliesh unfinished if she died half way through writing it, there was… not a murmur nor a whimper but a sudden and palpable stillness as everyone looked at her at once. The unspoken words on every tongue were ‘Oh no, don’t say that!’

She looked back at us all with the faintest of smiles, and observed dryly, ‘Anyone who has reached my advanced age without coming to terms with their own mortality must be a very strange and unhappy individual.’ As everyone looked at their shoes or their notes, just a little bit abashed, she continued briskly on with her shrewd analysis of (I think) George Wickham’s character.

So that’s something, I suppose. To know that she was at peace with her own mortality and with the consolations of her faith, at the end of a life so very well lived by any possible measure. It was still a shock to hear of her death though. She had always seemed so indestructible as well as indefatigable. It’s only in the past couple of years that she showed visible signs of aging, notably her deafness which she regarded as a confounded nuisance.

As the cliche goes, her work will live on. But there’s more to her legacy than that. I know I’m by no means the only writer over the years who’s seen her as a role model in countless ways. As we will continue to do.

Indeed, that’s largely the reason why I’m finally posting this more than a month after her death. I’ve been writing this piece in fits and starts ever since the end of November. That’s when the EU VAT catastrophe was just unfolding and was suddenly and unexpectedly taking up all my time. I did have more than a few moments’ indecision about what I should be doing and where my priorities should be. No word of a lie; thinking ‘What would PD James do?’ genuinely helped clarify my thoughts. She would have considered tackling such damaging and ill-thought-out legislation was the most pressing task at hand!

A flying post about reading female fantasy authors…

It’s way, way past time there was something on this blog that’s not about bloody VAT. Unfortunately that time is not today, as key members of the EU VAT Action Team are meeting with representatives of HM Treasury today – and the rest of us are poised, ready for action when we get their feedback.

Thankfully, this established fantasy reader has taken on the ‘women authors challenge’ and found his time very well spent indeed. Do go and have a read.

Welcoming Omenana – Africa’s New Speculative Fiction Magazine

This looks really, really interesting! Wole Talabi tells us –

As someone who has been reading stories from foreign spec-fic mags since I was a young teenager, I’m very pleased to have my own story Crocodile Ark published in the first issue of this new African Spec-Fic Zine – Omenana – edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu.

I know many Africans who have been trying to write spec-fic without any clear sense of the genre and its forms (I also tried to do it with my now defunct The Alchemists Corner column on TNC but I was undirected and the audience wasn’t quite right). Mazi and Chinelo have now taken a small but supremely significant step with creating Omenana; giving a place for all the scattered, isolated pockets of African writers that venture into spec-fic in their blogs, skirt it in their books, and occasionally publish it in other magazines, to converge on and call home.

Click through to his blog to read the full article

Initiatives like this are absolutely central to enriching the SF&Fantasy genre with new voices and new perspectives. How often have you heard someone who’s drifted away from SF&F saying, ‘well, yeah, it got to be just the same old stuff coming round again…’ Honestly, it’s not about ticking political correctness and salving our liberal ‘Western’ consciences (yes, I do know Europe is to the north of the continent). It’s about finding genuinely new, different, exciting and thought provoking things to read. And along the way, learning that the view of Africa we see through the mass media is woefully simplistic, even when it’s not downright wrong (and often insultingly so).

So let’s get behind this! Click here for the pdf of Issue One! Trust me, you want to see that cover art…!

And look! A post that’s not about European VAT!

Oh, hang on…

This digital age is wonderful for giving a voice to writers like this – especially as new technology is enabling Africa to leap forward straight into online reading and distribution, which is so vital given the lack of infrastructure on that continent for transporting hardcopy reading material, from magazines to vital textbooks.

Digital… er, hang on, does that mean African writers are going to get caught up in all this awful VAT mess, if they’re going to try to sell digital downloads into Europe. Y’know, where most of their customers will be, especially for the Francophone countries…?

Shutupshutupshutup! Not everything is about bloody VAT, Jules, even if it’s taken over your life!

No, hang on. This really is a thing. So far we’ve been talking about how it might affect UK and US sellers and those from other more developed countries across Europe. It’s time we started talking about the impact on initiatives like this. It really matters.

So if you have any way to flag up this to organisations who can help us make a noise about the far reaching and damaging implications of these new EU VAT rules on initiatives in the developing world, please, do so.