By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘This Is a Real Investigation’Patricia Cornwell may be hard to miss this week for listeners and viewers of the BBC. The American author of 25 novels is in the UK today (March 6), beginning a round of television and radio appearances up and down the country in support of her new nonfiction release, Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert.
Ripper is published by Amazon publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer, This is the mystery, thriller, and true-crime imprint of Amazon Publishing. The digital version will use Amazon’s enhanced ebook format, Kindle in Motion. This format launched quietly in August 2016. It can be read on any device, includes animation, and gives authors more style and design control.
The Air Campaign
“Somebody very important in the Ripper case in London told me that they saw a billboard for my book and went straight to Waterstones to get it. They were told, ‘Oh, you can’t get it in the UK.’ Of course you can.”Patricia Cornwell
It may not be easy to find the new title in UK bookshops, however.
Unlike the Ripper mystery, many bookshop proprietors will tell you they know exactly who the culprit is in the 11-year case of the closing British bookshops. Rising business-rate taxes and rental costs—and the competition of electronic entertainment media—clearly have taken their toll in the UK. But Amazon, to many in traditional book retail, is the nemesis of choice.
The Amazonian incursion into the UK market is deep. It’s estimated that Amazon controls 90 percent or more of ebook sales in the UK, and its Prime service reaches more than 30 percent of the population. As early as spring 2014, Amazon Publishing announced plans to release more than 500 titles in the UK within the year. Such high levels of activity in the market have caused so much rancor that stocking a book published by Amazon is hardly the norm amid the brick-and-mortar emporia of the United Kingdom—as in the States—despite the fact that Cornwell’s print book is readily available through Gardners in the UK and the European Union.
Cornwell’s tour schedule, provided to Publishing Perspectives, lists no signings at any Waterstones stores, nor a stop at Charing Cross’ flagship Foyles.
Instead, Cornwell is embarking on a busy three days of radio and television events. There are segments on BBC Radio 4’s Today and BBC World Radio’s Conversation as well as on BBC Radio Berkshire, Devon, Jersey, Lancashire, Leicester, Merseyside, Newcastle, Northampton, Shropshire, Surrey & Sussex, Wales, and Wiltshire. She’ll be on ITV’s London Tonight, too.
When your publisher is not welcome in the stores, it seems, one mounts an air campaign.
And while Cornwell tries “to take the high road,” she says, and is graciously measured when speaking to the question of the UK publishing industry’s relationship with Amazon, she does point out that there’s a different kind of disruption at work—between author and reader—when booksellers decline to offer titles to their customers.
“Somebody very important in the Ripper case in London,” she tells Publishing Perspectives, “just told me that they saw a billboard for my book and went straight to Waterstones to get it. They were told, ‘Oh, you can’t get it in the UK.’
“Of course you can get it in the UK,” she says, “but you can’t get it at Waterstones if they refuse to carry it.”
Critics might say that a Waterstones salesperson has driven that customer, Cornwell’s colleague, to Amazon. By making the online giant the only source from which a reader can get Patricia Cornwell’s new book in print, a bookseller’s ground war with Seattle has delivered the prize—another consumer—to the opponent.
And Cornwell says she’s made her decision to publish with Amazon fully aware of the print-in-bookstores dilemma, because she wanted the technological capabilities that other publishers couldn’t provide to her satisfaction in producing this book.
‘A Work of This Magnitude’
Billie Jean King, the revered athlete for whom the National Tennis Center in New York is named, is a friend Cornwell says she deeply admires. And King introduced Cornwell several years ago to Jeffrey Belle, vice president for Amazon Publishing. Cornwell today credits that introduction for the unusual publication of her new Ripper book.
Amazon’s Kindle in Motion technology was “absolutely the right medium for this work,” she says, and it’s for that reason she took the new update on her Ripper work to Seattle.
Every detail and illustration is in the 570-page print edition of the book. But this time, the ebook is the thing. Just when you thought “enhanced ebooks” were behind us? Look at Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert.
Chapter-header artwork is subtly moving, sometimes recalling stark drawings by James Whistler, for whom Sikert worked as an etching assistant.
Maps of old London are animated. A timeline flows smoothly up a page as you scroll it.
Never intrusive (the cardinal sin in enhanced ebooks), and cleanly integrated into the work, this approach “fits the material so perfectly,” Cornwell says, but without forcing it on the reader. “When you first open it, you can use these enhancements or not. If you just want to read it straight through, you can do that.”
The reader controls this by turning on or off the “Aa” setting’s “Show Media” switch.
“I’d been exploring doing this with other publishers,” Cornwell says, “including my own,” William Morrow. “But the credibility of it is what matters most to me. I needed someone who could handle something of this magnitude.”
Hundreds of images here capture the Ripper letters, news clippings of the day, documentation of Cornwell’s own research—as when she goes to the Islington Local History Centre to examine one of Sickert’s artist’s palettes. There’s artwork from the era, as well, and annotated taunts sent to the police by people claiming to be the Ripper.
So many artifacts seem tantalizingly just out of sight, even now. “The Ripper used a woodblock to print the image of a Neanderthal man on one of his letters,” Cornwell says. By laying all this out, she says she likes to think that someone might know where that woodblock is.
“Which attic?” she asks.
‘He Did a Lot of Murder Paintings’
In the spring of 2001 while in London, “I was invited to tour Scotland Yard.” Cornwell recalls, “They sat me down with their senior investigator, a man named John Grieve, who also was their resident expert in the Ripper case—as much as anybody was an expert in it because there wasn’t much known about it.
“We ended up spending two days together. At the end of it, I asked him who the suspects were. He named some people. I asked him based on what evidence. He said, ‘Nothing.’ I asked him what evidence was in the case. He said, ‘Nothing. Just the letters Jack the Ripper wrote.’
“I said, ‘The letters?'”
That would turn out to be Cornwell’s impetus for a long-lived fascination with the perennially unsolved case of Jack the Ripper—that, and what Cornwell says was Grieve’s parting tip to her: that she look into “this guy Walter Sickert. He did a lot of murder paintings. There’s something about him.”
There certainly is. Something about the Camden Town Group painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942) has kept Cornwell going for close to two decades of research into what she says she believes is the artist’s secret identity as the Ripper.
After all the time she’s poured into this inquiry—and her reported purchase of more than 30 of Sickert’s artworks—Cornwell tells Publishing Perspectives that she continues to pursue it. “Because it hasn’t been finished. This is a real investigation.”
And despite the fact that she titled her 2002 book on the matter Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed (Putnam), Cornwell has continued, without conclusive results, to order DNA tests and to sift through material on the case.
In this promotional video from Amazon Publishing, Cornwell goes through five of her talking points on the theory that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.
Graphomania: ‘He Was a Compulsive Writer’
Enthusiasts of Ripper research will point out that her new title no longer splashes around that “case closed” phrasing of the 2002 book. And Cornwell says she welcomes the fact that the new work is already triggering a flurry of tips from readers. There’s still more DNA testing to go, she says, despite the fact that she’s spent upwards of $7 million on her pursuit of the case. Built on the 2002 book, the new one is said to have eight chapters of previously unseen material and it’s replete with visuals from the case.
Can it sway critics of her theory?
“I can’t wait to see if anything starts turning up,” she says. “There are Ripper letters that are still at large. Hundreds of them. This guy was writing letters like mad. In fact, Sickert, himself, had graphomania, which means he was a compulsive writer.
“I wish I were, by the way.”
As that last quip illustrates, Cornwell’s sense of humor is never far from the surface. She’s a lively and clever conversationalist with more than 100 million copies of her books sold into 36 languages and more than 120 countries. Once a journalist, her segue to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia instilled in her the interest in forensic technologies that fans love in her Kay Scarpetta novels, and she’s appeared as a forensic consultant on CNN.
There’s a good fit here, as she’s quick to tell you, between these impulses in her work and this new liaison with Amazon’s Kindle in Motion team—for which she has unstinting praise after collaborating with them.
But what about her fiction? Can she see a Kindle in Motion evocation of a novel? Glad you asked.
“Let’s say that you have a scene,” she says, “in which you’re using a transmission electron microscope.” Called TEM, this is a microscopy approach that shoots a beam of electrons through a tissue to see what interactions occur. “Let’s say you’re using that microscope to look at some strange residue that she [Kay Scarpetta] extracts from a burn on a dead body, like I have in my latest Scarpetta book, Chaos (2016, William Morrow).
“The reader might be curious about what a TEM looks like.” And in a Kindle in Motion rendering, that visual could come into play, as the Ripper documents do in this first outing with Thomas & Mercer.
And because she’s noted for having supported and criticized political candidates in the past on both the right and the left, Cornwell seems an interesting person to ask about her opinion of the political moment as she travels from Trumpian America to Brexitian Britain. Remember that “taking the high road discipline” she applies to the Amazon-vs.-publishing debate? She’s right there when it comes to politics, too.
“You have to remember,” she says, “that I’m a helicopter pilot. And one thing helicopter pilots know is that when there’s nothing under you, you don’t land.”
That’s probably the most charming “no comment” you’ll hear today.
When it comes to the political scene, “I don’t know what the hell is under me right now, so I’m just hovering, baby.
“When I figure it out,” says Patricia Cornwell, “I’ll let you know.”