Book Shop Closed Indefinitely Due to PayPal Removing Support for Encrypted Website Payments

The Dickimaw Books store has unfortunately closed until further notice. The reason for this is because PayPal has removed support for encryption with its PayPal Payments Standard option. This is where an online store redirects the customer to PayPal’s site in order to make the payment. PayPal is still providing this payment option, but the store will now only work if I switch off encryption, which I’m not prepared to do.

For those who want more detail, the way that this works is as follows. The customer adds products to the basket and proceeds through the checkout process until they arrive at the final checkout page that confirms the price of each item, any discount applied, postage and packaging, final total, invoice address and shipping address. All this information needs to be sent to PayPal so that the correct amount can be charged. Once the transaction is successfully completed, PayPal then sends a notification back to the store to confirm that the payment has been made.

Without encryption, the transaction data at the checkout page is contained in plain text within the form parameters and is sent as plain text to PayPal when the customer clicks on the continue button.

There are two problems with using plain text. The first is that these private details about the customer and their transaction can be intercepted by a third party eavesdropper.¹ The second is that a dishonest customer can open the developer tools in their web browser and alter the payment details, awarding themselves a hefty discount and defrauding the merchant. Under those circumstances, it’s hard for the merchant to prove that they didn’t have the products temporarily listed at a lower price when the transaction was made.

Encryption helps to protect both the customer’s private details and the merchant. The way that this is done is through public/private key encryption. At the checkout page, all the transaction details are stored within a single form parameter with an encrypted value. This prevents any tampering and also protects the data when it’s transmitted.

There is a two-way communication between the merchant’s site and PayPal. In order for the encryption to work, the merchant’s store needs a copy of PayPal’s public certificate (which the merchant used to be able to download from their PayPal business account). PayPal, in turn, needs the merchant’s public certificate. The encryption and decryption can’t be performed without a valid public/private key pair.

Certificates have an expiry date. This is a precaution in case the private key is stolen. Whilst stolen keys can be revoked, there’s a chance that this may not be noticed. An expiry date at least limits the length of time a stolen key can be used for.

The certificate for the Dickimaw Books store expired last Sunday. I had set myself a reminder to create a new pair and did so the day before, but when I tried to upload the new public certificate to PayPal, I encountered a 404 page not found error. I raised an issue with their merchant technical support and was informed that the encrypted option was no longer available. The checkout will now only work if I disable the encryption from the store’s admin page.

I have no idea why PayPal would intentionally remove a security feature, particularly without giving any prior warning. This will obviously impact all small merchants who use this method, although they may not discover this until their certificate expires and they try to upload a new one. I’m hoping that this issue will turn out to be a miscommunication within PayPal’s technical support department and an inadvertent broken link. Until they restore the ability to use encryption or until I find an alternative payment provider, the store will remain closed.

Meanwhile, if you want to purchase any of my paperback books, you can purchase them from a third party book seller, such as Amazon.

¹Using https instead of http does, of course, add a layer of protection, which help protect against eavesdropping, but it doesn’t protect against fraudulently altering the information before it’s sent.

Muirgealia: A Tale of Temporal Enchantment

If you’ve looked at the book list recently, you may have noticed a new pending title called Muirgealia. Muirgealia is a land that was home to a mixture of enchanters (with various magical abilities, including telepathy, telekinesis and the power to create areas of stasis), mystics (who can see through time in the form of visions), and handcræfters (people with no magical ability, who are typically inventors, engineers or artisans). Five hundred years before the start of the story, two calamities (one natural and the other contrived) lead to the usurpation of power by the enchanter¹ Pelouana, a traitor who formed an alliance with the warlords from the neighbouring land of Acralund. A warning from the future allowed most of the Muirgealians to escape into exile before a curse hit both Pelouana and Acralund.

At the start of the story, Muirgealia is deserted, except for Pelouana who has been trapped there for five centuries as a result of a magical explosion that fractured a stasis field (where time is almost stopped) causing drifting pockets of stasis. Acralund is sparsely populated by the remnant descendants of the warlords, who are still affected by the curse that prevents them from rebuilding their civilisation. The descendants of the Muirgealians in exile are in hiding, waiting for their future ally to be born and grow up to help them regain their land.

The people of Langdene, to the north of Muirgealia, unwittingly became caught up in events when their king ordered a mass migration south to escape a savage winter. They pass through Muirgealia just after Pelouana has taken over. She murders the king, suspecting him of being the one who had cursed her (it was, in fact, one of his descendants), and a rift forms between the king’s two surviving sons who end up creating two new nations, Farlania and Barlaneland, in the land to the south of Acralund.

Five hundred years later, Luciana is the daughter of the king of Barlaneland and Rupert is the second son of the king of Farlania. Pelouana is finally freed by the Acran, who first target Rupert, believing him to be the one who cursed them, and then target Luciana, believing that they can get to Rupert through her. Meanwhile, the Muirgealians want revenge and their land back (which contains all their books and other cultural works locked up in time). More importantly, they need to destroy the stasis bubbles that will cause havoc if they break free from the loose tethers that are keeping them in Muirgealia and drift around the rest of the world.

The “world” in question is an Earth-like planet with a single moon and orbiting a single star (or perhaps it is Earth in some forgotten past or other timeline). Langdene, Muirgealia, Acralund, Farlania and Barlaneland are all located in an eastern seaboard, bordered to the west by a mountain range. Well over a thousand years earlier, the entire continent was ruled by Potensmunda, a land beyond the mountains. The Potensmundan Empire was much like the Roman Empire. If you know any Latin, you might pick out the words “potens” (powerful) and “munda” (clean). The empire was like bleach, erasing all local languages and replacing them with Potensmundan. The empire has long since fallen, but the language and a few structures, including old roads, remain.

In universe, the above map was created long ago by people who didn’t have the modern surveyor’s tools that we have in our own world, so it’s not accurate. The three different fonts represent three different sets of handwriting, as the map has been modified over time. The translation convention applies here. English is used for modern dialects of Potensmundan, and the few words of ancient high Potensmundan are in Latin. The character names (which are a mixture of Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic) can also be considered as having been translated into the closest match.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t choose “Potensmundi” (powerful world) instead, there are two reasons. The first is aesthetic, I prefer the sound of Potensmunda. (I was looking for a four or five syllable name ending in an ahh sound, but don’t ask me why.) The second is pragmatic: an Internet search of “potensmundi” produces a huge load of hits (which isn’t particularly surprising, given its meaning) whereas “potensmunda” (or “potens munda”) isn’t so common, so I’m less likely to step into someone else’s digital footprints.

If you’re keen to know when Muirgealia is published, you can sign up to be notified, if you have a Dickimaw Books site account. Alternatively, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog or the main news RSS feed or follow the Dickimaw Books Facebook page.

What happened to The Fourth Protectorate, which I’ve previously posted about and is also still listed as pending? Life happened. When I wrote it, the social disorder of the 1980s seemed firmly in the past. Recent years have put me off it. The Fourth Protectorate is without doubt the biggest and bleakest of all my novels. Muirgealia is the shortest and lightest. The Private Enemy comes somewhere in between.

¹Muirgealians use “enchanter” as a gender-neutral term. They don’t use “enchantress”. The Acran and Langdeners use “sorceress” instead.

Farewell to the Hedgehog and Little Duck

Ingram (the parent company of Lightning Source, who print and distribute paperback titles published by Dickimaw Books) have announced that their saddle stitch format is being retired on 1st March 2021 because the software and equipment used to print that format have become obsolete. This means that the first editions of “The Foolish Hedgehog” and “Quack, Quack, Quack, Give My Hat Back!” will be going out of print on that date.

The saddle stitch format is where the pages are held together by staples down the spine. This works well for these illustrated children’s books, particularly “Quack, Quack, Quack, Give My Hat Back!” which has double spread images. The other paperback titles published by Dickimaw Books all use perfect bound (and so aren’t affected by this change), which has a stiff, flat, rectangular spine. Perfect bound doesn’t work well for young children’s books which are often opened out flat.

If you have been thinking about buying a copy of either of these books then you will have to order them from an online book seller before 1st March 2021. After that date, there may still be copies available from the Dickimaw Books store (once it reopens) until existing stock runs out.

SmashWords Ebook Sale

The DRM-free ebook retailer SmashWords has a sale from 18th December 2020 to 1st January 2021. My crime novel “The Private Enemy” has a 75% discount and my crime fiction short story “I’ve Heard the Mermaid Sing” has a 100% discount (i.e. free!) for the duration of the sale. Did you know that you can gift ebooks on SmashWords? If you’re stuck for a present for a book lover this provides a cheap and convenient option, especially if they’re far away or isolating.

Book Samples

The Dickimaw Books site now has a new book samples area. This provides a collection of sample images taken from pages of the selected paperback book with an accompanying audio track. At the moment there’s only one book listed (The Private Enemy) although I plan to add other fiction paperbacks at a later date.

The sample starts with an image of the jacket. You can navigate to the next available sample page using the “next page” icon (a right pointing arrowhead ), which can be found at the top right of the page image. Below the page image are links to further details about the book and to the book’s listing in the Dickimaw Books store . If there is an ebook edition (which there is for The Private Enemy), then there will also be a link to the ebook’s HTML sample.

The audio file accompanying the jacket image is simply an introduction. The audio files for the actual sample pages are of me reading out that page. This means that you can see how the text is actually typeset on the page of the paperback edition and you can hear the page content. If you prefer to just read the text then follow the link to the ebook sample instead. The navigational icons can be changed in the site settings page (see also the Sticky Hamburgers post).

Remember that the ebook edition of The Private Enemy is free for the duration of the “Authors Give Back” SmashWords sale (ends 31st May 2020), so now’s a good time to try it out!

“Authors Give Back” SmashWords Sale

The DRM-free ebook retailer SmashWords has a one month “Authors Give Back” sale from 20th March to 20th April 2020 [Update: closing date has been extended to 31st May 2020]. In response to the current Coronavirus situation that is leaving people housebound, authors are providing their ebooks at a discounted price or free. Both my crime novel “The Private Enemy” and my crime fiction short story “I’ve Heard the Mermaid Sing” are FREE for the duration of this sale.

A word of warning: “The Private Enemy” contains a point in the story where rioting results in a shortage of supplies and people being stuck inside getting bored and on each others nerves, so that may not be the kind of storyline you’ll be in the mood to read right now!

Alternative History

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2018-04-17.] I mentioned my pending novel The Fourth Protectorate in my earlier Crime and SF blog post. I also spoke briefly about it during Keith Skipper’s July 2017 monthly mardle in Radio Norfolk’s Matthew Gudgin’s Teatime Show. For those who are interested, here’s a little more information about the novel’s genre.

The Fourth Protectorate is an alternative history with supernatural elements, but what actually is alternative history? It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘what if?’ genre. What if something happened in the past that caused subsequent events to diverge from real life? That something is the point of departure, and the subsequent events form an alternate timeline (or history). I think the most well-known (but not the earliest) alternative history story is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (first published in 1962). The point of departure in that case was the different outcome of an attempt to assassinate US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In real life, Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot Roosevelt in February 1933. The premise of The Man in the High Castle is what if Zangara had succeeded? In real life, Roosevelt felt so strongly about supporting the Allies during WWII that he broke tradition and stood for a third term. The alternative timeline has Roosevelt replaced by an isolationist who keeps the USA out of the war, which changes the outcome.

The ‘what if so-and-so died at an earlier point in time?’ premise is a common point of departure. The reverse ‘what if so-and-so didn’t die?’ is also used (to comic effect with Red Dwarf and rather more seriously with Star Trek: The Original Series). Other points of departure can be somewhat vaguer, such as ‘what if a battle was lost instead of won?’ (as with Len Deighton’s SS-GB, where the Battle of Britain was lost), or the point of departure can be something seemingly trivial (‘for want of a nail’).

In the case of The Fourth Protectorate, which is set from 1984 to 1995, the principle point of departure is the Brighton Bomb. What if it had killed the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet? The event occurs in the chapter that’s rather unimaginatively called ‘Point of Departure’, and you can accept that as the actual point of departure if you like but, whilst thinking about the exact differences between the alternative timeline of the story and real life, I came to the conclusion that the real point of departure occurs earlier, but the differences are much subtler until 1984 is reached. So what actually causes the divergence?

In the world of The Fourth Protectorate, the supernatural exists, although most people aren’t aware of it, but there’s a constant conflict between good and evil. One side is trying to make the world a better place and the other is trying to ruin it. Both sides have some ability to predict future events, but neither side can interfere with free will. They can, however, plant suggestions in people’s minds to influence outcomes. People are free to choose to follow or ignore those suggestions, but those who have a natural predisposition towards the suggestion or those who have a weak will are more likely to comply. So when is the actual point of departure?

What if during the Blitz a bomb toggle was operated a fraction later? A minor suggestion planted in the airman’s mind that causes a momentary delay. The dispersal pattern changes, a different set of buildings are destroyed and a different set of people die. The global outcome is unchanged, but minor deviations start to occur that can lead up to a bomb or some people being in a slightly different location a few decades later. It may also have led to more significant changes. The Prime Minister and other ministers are never named in the book, so they may not be the same as in our real timeline.

So the principle point of departure is the ‘what if so-and-so died?’ type but the actual point of departure is a seemingly insignificant change that had a knock-on effect. This conveniently means that any minor discrepancies from real life at the start of the book now have an explanation (such as the reason why famous/infamous people who lived in that region in real life don’t appear to exist in the story).

One of the interesting things I’ve encountered while writing the novel is the background research to refresh my memory of the 1980s (and the previous decade). It’s reminded me of just how volatile that era was. There were definitely a lot of ‘what if?’ moments.