Thursday, May 28, 2009

So what about a solution?

Come on, Andrew, this is weak. In a piece in last Sunday's Observer entitled 'How intolerable life would be without books and bookshops', Andrew Marr wrote: 'The internet (and this recession) is destroying fine old local papers. Higher booze prices and the smoking ban are destroying pubs. Similarly, we all know how hard the world of Amazon and Google has hit the small bookshop. Life without papers and pubs is an intolerable prospect. Would there be any point in leaving home at all if bookshops went too?'

This is weak because it does not go far enough. What we want is a piece from Marr saying how bookshops are to be protected. There's no point in 300 middle class words on the smell of books and aren't they wonderful mmmm dusty bookshops I love them blah blah blah. We all know that and we all agree. What would be far more interesting would be to read Marr's ideas on what should be done. But of course, that is much, much harder and throws up all sorts of interesting questions concerning the free market and intevention.

But why didn't he have a shot? Why no speculation on lower rents for bookshops because they are educational? Why no discussion of the NBA? Why no discussion on what the situation is like in other European countries? Why no discussion of the Robinson Patman Act?

He might argue that he isn't qualified and that he'll leave that to the experts. But is he necessarily any more qualified to present a TV series on Charles Darwin? This might sound like I am launching an attack on Marr. I'm not. I agree with what he said - I just think it's easy to state the problem without any attempt at suggesting how it might be addressed. And I'm afraid pieces like his do sneak rather closely to bufferdom territory.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cracking the Google Settlement

I have been labouring with the Google Settlement for some days now, gathering the views of publishers and authors, hearing their fears about copyright, listening to authors talk about how to 'claim' their books etc etc. It is a very complicated subject, but I think I've finally cracked it. The way I see it is like this:

'You put last book in,
Your last book out,
In, out, in, out, shake it all about
You do the Google Boogle
And you turn around
That's what it's all about!

Oh, the Google Google Boogle
Oh, the Google Google Boogle
Oh, the Google Google Boogle
Pay low, rights lost ra! ra! ra!

You put your next book in,
Your next book out,
In, out, in, out, shake it all about
You do the Google Boogle
And you turn around
That's what it's all about!

Oh, the Google Google Boogle...'

....and continue for the next 27 verses until you've run out of money to pay the lawyers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Things can only get samey

This piece by Andy Beckett in the Guardian at the weekend is worth reading. It's a good potted history of the UK book trade over the last 100 years. It's devilishly difficult to work out whether things are better or worse. A part of me thinks he didn't make enough of the collapse of the NBA which led to a vicious circle. Publishers and retailers colluded to let that agreement go, which allowed the supermarkets into the book trade in a big way which in turn forced publishers to give the massive discounts that they now complain about.

But equally more and more people are reading now because of the supermarkets' invovlement in bookselling, and that has to be good.

One point everyone surely has to agree on though is that the front-of-store in chain bookshops has become dull. Same same same. Where are the surprises?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Twelve hours to remember

Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol famously takes place over just 12 hours. It strikes me that the first 12 hours of the book’s publication could be just as eventful

15 September 12.01AM: Publication day! Dan Brown’s UK editor Bill Scott-Kerr is woken by a furious banging at his front-door. It’s the first writ, from a Solomon Kee of High Wycombe, who claims his name has been used without permission. “That was The Solomon Key you fool,” the bleary-eyed publisher tells him. “We changed the title.”

6.00AM: Amazon’s warehouse in Wales is picketed by Christian militants who believe Dan Brown is the devil in chinos. The ‘symbol’ of the title is the mark that Christ allegedly made in the stone that guarded his tomb after the Crucifiction. Sorry, that should read Crucifixion

7.00AM: The website uploads a line-by-line demolition of the book’s plot, plus a subscription offer for their newsletter The Nutter

8.00AM: KwikSave takes 75% off the cover price, selling the book for £4.75.
Transworld’s promotional chocolate ‘symbols’ go into Tesco. They are produced by Galaxy, with the slogan: ‘Unlock your tastebuds for the adventure of your life – with Galaxy and Dan Brown’

9.00 AM: KwikFit decides to stock the title – its first book ever. It also promises to give customers a new exhaust at the same time, all for a tenner

10.00 AM: Waterstone’s slashes its price to 50p, plus dinner with the “real life Robert Langdon”, who turns out to be an unpacker (the last in the company in fact) at the chain’s Bradford branch

11.00 AM: On the streets of Delhi, the first pirated copies appear. They’re rather good, having been produced on the Espresso PoD machine that went missing after the London Book Fair. The PA’s Simon Juden is flown to the scene

NOON: Borders announces a 25p cover price, ‘plus a free Da Vinci Code Tarot Pack as well as The Holy Grail for Dummies'

1.PM: Exasperated by all the crazy discounting, Patrick Neale of Jaffe & Neal tells the Bookseller: “It’s madness. We’re refusing to stock it.” A clutch of other indies follow suit, drafting the NBA – the No Brown Agreement

2.00 PM: The author lands at Stansted on Air Force One which President Obama has lent to Random House “because of Dan Brown’s importance to the US economy”. In thanks, Brown promises to include Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water poodle, in his next book, The Knights Templars go Walkies

3.PM: The author arrives at the studios of QVC for his interview on Richard & Judy’s new show. The book’s ISBN appears inside a giant crop circle in Wiltshire. Tony Mulliken of Midas, brought in to handle the launch, denies all knowledge

4.PM: Footage on YouTube is alleged to show Dan Brown copying parts of Discovering Ley Lines by Shire Publications. The title moves to Number two on Amazon

5.PM: Transworld orders the first reprint. Sainsbury’s cuts its price to £1.50. Asda offers the book for 1p with a year’s free groceries. Nielsen computers crash after attempting to calculate the amount of money given away

Monday, May 11, 2009

Old book trade figure deemed honourable

Couldn't help smiling this evening as the News related the latest claims for expenses being made by MPs - moat-clearing, lawn mower repair, chauffeurs, pet food, swimming pool was a fabulous list. Then the report singled out those MPs who were truly, in the phrase, 'honorable gentlemen', because they were not claiming for expenses for second homes. Among them was Philip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow and still quite widely known in the book trade because he is the former Chairman of Ottakar's, the chain that eventually merged with Waterstone's. He always seemed absolutely straight up and down when he was at Ottakar's - a man with no side, in the curious English phrase - so it is good to see him singled out for praise; and yes, if you look at his website, he still does look like the Christopher Reeve Superman.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

R & J for Tesco?

So Richard & Judy's show on Watch TV (or rather, Don't Watch, because no one did) has been axed. Not surprising, since the viewing figures were on a par with supermarket CCTV systems. In fact, perhaps that's where it should now be filmed - Richard and Judy wandering up and down their local Tesco, picking up paperbacks and chucking them in the trolley as they talk about them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wrong move for Waterstone's

Can I return to one of the issues of the moment in the UK, namely the job losses at Waterstone's. They company wants to use more part-time staff. How will this be good? How will these staff have the product knowledge? Tables that were there on Monday and Tuesday may have been changed by Wednesday. How is the new shift meant to know? Having worked in two bookshops I know that one of the ways you pick up stock knowledge is simply by being there every day.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Part-time MDs?

So Waterstone's wants to increase the number of part-time staff in its stores. "Being full-time or part-time does not change your passion and enthusiasm for books," MD Gerry Johnson told the Bookseller. "It simply changes the number of hours you work in store. We have some absolutely brilliant full-timers and some absolutely brilliant part-timers. What matters to us is the enthusiasm and passion for books and the service they can give to customers."

Some angry booksellers in the chain - and not just those facing redundancy as a result of the distribution hub - might like this idea to be extended to head office. Johnson works Monday to Wednesday, say, then another MD comes in. "Being full-time or part-time does not change your passion and enthusiasm for management....." etc etc.

The chain is in an awful position, perhaps even worse than some independents. It has huge overheads, which indies don't, and Amazon seems unstoppable. I met a senior publisher the other day who admitted to having two Amazon accounts, "one at the office, and one at home - it's just so easy".

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Writers on Obama - and Google

Right wing Obama fan?: Jeffrey Archer and wife Mary at Hatchards Authors of the Year party

To Hatchards, the 200-year-old bookshop on Piccadilly, for its annual Authors of the Year party. This is one of the UK booktrade's best-known events and is rather special for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is extremely rare to have such a gathering of writers in one room and secondly, there are no publishers or agents present. This really is just for authors, plus a smattering of literary journalists.

Guests last night included Michael Holroyd and wife Margaret Drabble, AN Wilson - the three are pictured above - David Lodge, Tibor Fischer, Philip Kerr, Victoria Hislop, Lady Antonia Fraser, Robert Goddard and Man Booker-shortlisted Philip Hensher.

I couldn't resist asking the famously right wing Archer, former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, what he thought of Obama. "He's wonderful. He's had a remarkable first 100 days, and all of us want him to succeed. I can't remember a US President with so much good will behind him." But surely you're a Republican? "If I think back over the last ten Presidents or so, I could have voted Democrat five times and Republican five times. It's fifty-fifty. I could never have voted for Goldwater, but I would have voted for Kennedy. I would have voted for Reagan too - he was a wonderful Mayor of California."

Conversation veered from the trivial - Wilson and Drabble were talking about the prices at the British Musuem's restaurant - to the serious. I asked numerous writers for their views on the Google Settlement, possibly one of the hardest topics for anyone to get their minds around. Stanlingrad author Antony Beevor said: "I don't even think our agents understand it, and if they don't what hope have we got."

AN Wilson, author of The Victorians and much else, said: "I had a huge screed on it this morning from my agent Gillon Aitken but I haven't read it yet." Lodge, pictured left, whose best-known novels remain Small World and Changing Places, was a little more forthcoming. "The advice we're being given by Curtis Brown is not to opt out because then you can't control anything. If you opt out and wanted to take some sort of legal action at a later date, you'd have to make a private case against Google which would be impossible. Google is so powerful. They are in the driving seat, so you have to protect your position as best you can. I think the real issue is that we don't really know the different the Net will make on the culture of print that we have all grown up with."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Is that a poem in your pocket or...

Text messaging strikes me as the perfect form for delivering poetry to readers. Smart publishers should embrace the cell phone, Twitter, Facebook, and other short message services as an ideal platform for promoting new voices. This April 30 marks the seventh annual Poem In Your Pocket Day. Prior to this year, I'd never heard the event, but a flyer was delivered to me in the new edition of Gulf Coast literary magazine. Apparently, it was originally a project of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs to get school kids to pay attention to National Poetry Month. Now, the phenomenon seems to be spreading. Gulf Coast, which is based in Houston, offers to send a "never-before-seen poem from a top-secret and acclaimed poet" if you send your cell phone number to gcpocketday at g mail dot com.

This year, the New York City and Poetry Society of America are collaborating to bring John Waldman's "Envelope Project," into public schools. It's a fantastic classroom exercise that encourages students to take the first line of a famous poem as the starting point for one of their own.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a fan. Last year he contributed his own poem, entitled Press Conference, to the New York Public Library's blog -- and it's pretty darn good.