Wednesday, December 31, 2008
(Apologies - I slipped a little cartoon in there too, by my own, dreadful hand. You see, that's the credit crunch for you: you can't even get proper cartoonists anymore)
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
A very Merry Christmas/happy holidays to all the readers of this blog, and also to my delightful and knowledgeable fellow bloggers. What an extraordinary year it's been. I'm off to the beach for a couple of days.
(This illustration comes from Le costume de Pere Noël by Davide Cali and Éric Heliot, published by Éditions Sarbacane in France and as Santa's Suit by my company in Australia.)
Sunday, December 21, 2008
A quick ‘eye’ survey in my local, suburban London high street today showed no queue in Waterstone’s, but a massive one in HMV. Is there any book that has the ‘must have’ appeal of the latest PS3 game? Play Station, Xbox and Wii are all cited as reasons some boys do not read; slightly ironic, then, that it is Waterstone’s parent company, HMV, which sells all those items.
How booksellers must wish they had their own set of Play Station-style controllers at this time of year: press X for increased sales, ‘square’ for instant stock replenishment; and R1 to cancel returns. Perhaps such an invention is in development....Wishing you all a Happy Christmas.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
There's another way in which Australia appears to be differing from other climes: the retail economy. Whilst it's patchy out there, book retail sales seem, anecdotally, to be keeping up to expectations. Trade magazine Bookseller+Publisher's annual pre-Christmas survey of booksellers reports that 75% of booksellers think sales this year are higher or the same as 2007, with only 24% reporting a drop in sales. (Last year, 18% reported a drop - not a dramatic difference year-on-year, given the global economic brouhaha.)
The Australian Government is trying its best to make us spend up big this Christmas, by sending those of us who receive some form of social security payment (excepting unemployment benefit) a nice fat cheque for AUD$1000. Sales of games consoles reportedly surged by 39% after the measure was announced (indicating where the hearts of Australian consumers truly lie), but no doubt some of the benefits are trickling down to booksellers too (books on how use a Nintendo Wii, for example.)
Given that Australia's second-largest bookselling chain Dymocks this month allowed one of its board members, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, to go public telling everyone that books are too expensive here, perhaps we shouldn't be too upset.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
When Random House tore apart its Bantam Doubleday Dell division, placing Nan Talese's august imprint under the Knopf umbrella with Sonny Mehta, and splitting the rest between Gina Centrello's Random House and Jenny Frost's Crown. The question remained -- who would remain in their jobs?
Well, we all know that Irwyn Applebaum was outsted Steve Rubin is negotiating a new position. Now it is clear at least one esteemed editor, Susan Kamil, has been retained -- and promoted to boot. Kamil has been given the title of editor-in-chief of Random House, on top of her duties running Dial Press (the imprint she relaunched). Kamil, who has edited a wide variety number of blockbusters and award winners -- from the Shopaholic seriesa and Sting's memoirs to Justin Cronin's PEN/Hemingway Award Winner Mary and O'Neil -- is well liked and known for spending freely for books she desires (though that has tapered off somewhat in recent years). Commercial and hip, Kamil might be able to inject "big" Random with a little more adrenaline.
Blockbuster editors Kate Medina and Bob Loomis will have autonomy to report to RH head Gina Centrello.
Still, the Random House refurbishment is likely to be source of the most job cuts of all -- a friend inside the House says that everyone "is extremely worried and no one knows if they're going to have a job."
Still, it's the day (and week and month) after and there's still a lot of questions to be answered.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
This is the real effect of the banking crisis and it’s not pleasant. Yes, books do remain good value and perhaps the increase in sales of the much-maligned celebrity memoirs bears this out. But it is making the entire UK book industry uncomfortable at the moment. Waterstone’s MD Gerry Johnson bravely says it can still be a “vintage Christmas”. We all hope so, or January could be very cold indeed.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Putting that somewhat important point to one side, this was a positive occasion at which it did genuinely seem as if the world of books could lead to a useful exchange of ideas and world views that would increase understanding (and, dare one say it, peace). The other shortlisted titles are: Hunger (Al Adab), by Mohammad Al Bisatie (Egypt); The American Granddaughter (Al Jadid), by Inaam Kachachi (Iraqi); The Time of White Horses (Arab Scientific Publishers) by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Jordan-Palestine); The Scents of Marie-Claire (Al Adab), by Al-Habib Al-Salmi (Tunisia); and Beelzebub (Dar al Shorouk) by Yusuf Zeydan (Egypt).
It is odd to be at an event at which the list of authors is so unfamiliar, yet surely The American Granddaughter will find an English language publisher. It tells the story of an Iraqi-born girl who leaves the country for the US when she is 13, but returns as a young woman to be an interpreter. She welcomes the US action of 2003, but has qualms about the target. She has spent much of her life drinking Coke, the author observes, but has also “drank from the Tigris and Euphrates”.
There is so much happening with books in the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair next March now has a geographic – and calendar – neighbour with the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February; the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, General Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, is lavishing money on the book trade in an effort to eradicate illiteracy; HarperCollins and Random House have just opened offices in the region, partly helped by favourable rates offered by the Sheik; and Bloomsbury is opening in Dohar.
The aim of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is to “bring the best of contemporary Arabic fiction to a wider public,” said Jonathan Taylor, Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation and one of the trustees of the IPAF. It also seeks to encourage more reading and writing of good literature in the Arab world itself. This is a laudable aim: the more the west understands about Arabic cultures – and vice versa – the better. Yes, there are problems with Syria, but they mustn’t be allowed to spoil the party.
I'm very glum at having to report the untimely death of Australia's most widely-read poet, Dorothy Porter, who died yesterday of complications due to cancer. She was 54.
She's probably best known for her lesbian crime thriller in verse, The Monkey's Mask, which was made into a film in 2000 starring, of all people, Kelly 'Witness' McGillis. I published the book in Australia while at Hyland House Publishing, and it was picked up around the world - Serpent's Tail published the UK edition, Random House New Zealand took it on, Arcade Publishing did the US hardback and Residenz Verlag did the German language edition.
Before The Monkey's Mask, Dorothy's audience was confined mostly to literary types, but afterwards she reached the kind of audience (in Australia at least) that any novelist would be pleased with. Subsequent verse novels included What a Piece of Work, Wild Surmise and, most recently El Dorado, about a serial child-killer. Her works were consistently serious contenders for Australia's major literary awards, some of which she won, and she also wrote libretti and collaborated with legendary New Zealand songwriter Tim 'Split Enz/Crowded House' Finn.
I have a soft spot for her first novel, Akhenaten, which was first published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP) back in 1992, before I knew her. It was this remarkable work I witnessed her reading at the National Word Festival in Canberra in 1993 and which first made me want to publish her.
I said as much to her agent and she mentioned that she had a 'crime novel in verse' that UQP were in two minds about. I asked to see the manuscript and took it down to a local cafe with a poetry-loving friend to read it, along with about 30 other poetry manuscripts, most of which were indescribably awful. After twenty minutes of reading it, I'd read a stack of pages and was enthralled. It was a racy read, accessible, erotic, dark and not at all the sort of thing you associate with 'capital P' Poetry.
I managed to convince my partners to take on the book (one thought the book 'salacious', as I recall) and we were off. There was a bit of an edit - there were a few gaps in the plot which she filled with aplomb - but I knew we had a hit on our hands when our warehouse manager rang to ask, in a rather shocked voice, if I'd read page 42 (which is somewhat erotic). I was delighted because it had meant he'd read 41 pages of poetry to get to it.
The Monkey's Mask received rave reviews and we subsequently published Crete, and reissued an earlier collection, Driving Too Fast. Finally in 1998 we got the rights to Akhenaten. At that point, I left Hyland House and Dorothy moved on to Picador and further success.
Dot was a fine reader of her own work. I could only find one video of her reading on the internet. It's 'Hot Date' from her collection Crete, which I published back in 1996. It's sadly appropriate given the circumstances.
Monday, December 8, 2008
I’m probably not alone in revealing that one of my great pleasures when traveling abroad is browsing in foreign bookstores for books I’ve never heard of before. Most European airports and train stations have a generous stock of UK books on sale – many that never find a US publisher. At the Hauptbahnhof during this past Frankfurt Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Jed Mercurio’s novel Ascent – a terrific fictional account of the life of a Russian MiG fighter pilot turned cosmonaut, one that offers a plausible alternative history of the space race.
Here’s where I’m the rube: The book did appear in the States, in March of 2007, published by Simon & Schuster. I missed it – drat! Why? Likely in part because it had yet to come out in paperback, which often gives a book gets a second chance to be noticed. (Ascent is scheduled to appear in paperback in June of 2009).
Years ago I had another “discovery” -- Vikas Swarup’s “Q&A” -- which I bought at the Dubai airport in 2007, having failed to buy a copy I’d seen in Cape Town the year before at Exclusive Books – where it won the prize as the top book of the year.
It too was a terrific read – as many of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of other readers across the world could attest. According to Swarup’s official site, he was in 2007 “France’s favourite novelist” and his book was voted, again by Exclusive Books, among the “100 Books to Read Before You Die.” Ken Follett, a man who has been known to sell a book or two, even chose it as the “One Book for Stevenage” (Ha!)
Apparently, it even won a US Audie Award in 2006 for best fiction audiobook – which made me think..had it already been published in the US? Yes, as a matter of fact it had.
I’d like to say, it’s just me who is missing these things, but I fear that it’s not. When the hardcover was published in the US by Scribner in July 2005, it sold a pittance – again, so few that Scribner didn't schedule a paperback until more than three years later (it appeared this August).
Now, with the film adaptation by Danny Boyle arriving in theaters and being touted as a likely Best Picture nominee – the book has been rechristened with its Hollywood title, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and is all over the bookstores.
I only wonder what was missing for American readers the first time around. The novel was written in English, so there were no translation delays, as with someone like Steig Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it’s sequels were already huge sellers before they got the US.
Could it be a US bias against ethnically Indian writers? On the surface, no. Look at the success of someone like Jumpa Lahiri or Amitav Ghosh or Manil Suri.
I would instead argue that the bias against Swarup or someone like Chetan Bhagat – whose One Night at the Call Center is perhaps the bestselling book ever published in India –is not due to their ethnicity, but to the type of books they write. Ghosh, Suri, and Lahiri (and there are numerous others) are all capital “L” literary writers. Swarup and Bhagat write a pop, mass market sensibility, one that attracts a larger, mass readership. And, not coincidentally, both of these books initially failed to find readers when initially published in the US.
I wonder if in the US we expect foreign books (save for mystery and crime fiction) to be capital “S” serious stuff.
Why? I suspect it may a symptom of the way the foreign books are published and promoted. That is…not at all.
Could populist, pop foreign writers – translated or non-translated – resonate with the same US readers who buy their books principally in airports and railroads? I certainly think so, but it would take some canny marketing and promotion to make it work.
That said, it takes only one to prove an exception. Maybe that one is Swarup’s Q&A, errrrr, Slumdog Millionaire.
Oh, and if you haven't seen the movie...Go...you'll be utterly charmed. It is the best movie of the year.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
I note, in the latest publishing cutback, that the English-speaking dominions of Hachette Livre are to lose the 'Livre' in the company name - a massive 38.4% cut in name length.
According to CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson, the move is designed to ‘simplify communication and give complete clarity to the name of each operating company'. Of course, it may equally have to do with the fact that no-one except a francophone can correctly pronounce the word.
Still, is this best time to be spending cash on a rebranding exercise? Perhaps Hachette should have followed Paul Simon's advice which is, if I recall correctly, 'there are 50 ways to love your livre'.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Sinha, who is of British and Indian descent, made money in advertising and has now devoted his life to helping those affected by the disaster and in trying to make Dow Chemical take proper responsibility for the tragedy. He wrote in the Guardian: ‘Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?’
The legal arguments and claims and counter claims have been batted back and forth for the last 20 years, and one could spend weeks on the Net reading them. All the while of course, people who have no access to lawyers, who are dirt poor, who aren’t sophisticated, well-off westeners, who aren’t glamorous in any way, who do not have any ‘importance’ in the eyes of the world, continue to suffer.
The whole sorry mess has something of Erin Brokovich about it. Sinha's campaign is admirable and it will be fascinating to see what effect the film has.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The case has brought the subject of misery memoirs to the fore, with Nielsen recording a decline in sales in the genre. The area has been over-published, with Smiths even having a section marked ‘Troubled Lives’ now. There is also a uniformity in cover design bordering on the comical, despite the subject matter.
One forgotten title in amidst the scores is Carry me Home by the English writer Catherine Lucas http://www.catherinelucas.co.uk/. This was quietly published in 2005 by Michael Joseph with a tasteful – if somewhat irrelevant – jacket. It is an outstanding spiritual memoir that ranks alongside the finest of religious writing. The title belongs in the religious and mind/body/spirit sections, yet was usually placed in the biography sections.
Having ‘failed’ in hardback, Penguin then gave it the ‘mis mem’ treatment with an eye on the supermarkets. Though somewhat jarring to those of us who had read the book, it was an understandable move: it could have got the title into Tesco et al. Sadly, this failed too and now the title hovers on going out of print.
For what it’s worth, I’ll give it a five star recommendation here. Lucas was met by her mother from school for a driving lesson. She asked her mum to take the wheel while she took off her jumper. The car careered off the road into a ditch. Her mother was killed; Lucas was unharmed. Grief and guilt sat within her into her adult life, with the most extraordinary consequences. This is an unusual, special book, one that has suffered from being incorrectly published by the wrong house: hopefully it will be picked up by someone else one day.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Understandably, the chief concern of many independents is that Bertrams, one of their key suppliers, is unaffected which, at the time of writing, seems to the case.
If there is a hiccup in supply to the supermarkets – whom so many publishers have courted over the last ten years, at the expense, some would argue, of bookshops that will actually order a book for you and give you advice – then independents could be forgiven for not being uduly bothered. So Sainsbury’s has a problem with its book supply? Tough. Trying doing business when you can’t even buy some top 20 titles from a wholesaler at the price some supermarkets sell them at.
If customers fail to find certain titles in supermarkets as a result, it may even cause a few of them to visit an independent or a stockholding bookshop. The supermarkets’ loss could be bookshops’ gain.
But no one really wants to see publishers in trouble. One sales director at a major house told me this morning: “We’re waiting and seeing. Everyone wants EUK to get up and running, and quickly. Who else can supply 730-odd Tescos and 200 Sainsbury’s? It is very worrying. But I do believe that the administrators [Deloitte], EUK and the publishers all want it to work, and if you get those three bodies together in one room I think it will get sorted. There is just too much at risk for everyone.”
And if bricks and mortar stores pick up a few extra sales in the meantime, then all the better.
One web site that tracks Black Friday deals says B&N is offering a 40% coupon for one book (so long as I pay with a MasterCard), Borders sent out an email touting their “Black Friday” deals and the best “deal” I remember was “buy one book light, get one free.” There are other deals – Wal-Mart is selling books at 50% off (but with a limited selection) and Half-Price books is giving a 20% discount on all books for the first few hours they’ll be open tomorrow. But this seems like a bunch of “bah hum bug” deals indeed.
I admit that I may be wrong about this, but unlike the majority of other retailers who make their deals very obvious and easy to find, the booksellers marketing has been less than stellar. There are a variety of coupons, codes and conflicting messages about what’s available. And that’s just the big box stores. Most indie booksellers don’t discount at all and those that do keep it at bare minimum.
Is this a lost opportunity? I wonder if offering a big discount on one day wouldn’t make sense, if only to capture those dollars early in the shopping season before they are spent on the latest I-pod. No, the margin won’t be that great on a book discounted 40%, but it’s better than seeing that money go elsewhere.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
The room is decorated with literary portraits, including Hemingway and Dorothy Parker (both over the bar), Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (in the bedroom), Pablo Neruda (over the fireplace), as well as George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Toni Morrison.
When my wife and I (and baby) checked in, the bellhop pointed out that Stephen Hawking and John Updike had stayed in the room, and pointed the hundreds of books shelved around the room from writers who’d also slept in the same bed. Most were inscribed. Julian Barnes wrote to thank the hotel for the “four or five times” he’d been a guest. Chuck Palahniuk, called the Alexis an “always welcome port in the book tour storm.”
To think think Stephen Hawking had likely bathed in the same whirlpool tub and Chuck Palahniuk has slept in the same bed left me feeling a bit, errr, odd – or was it – awed.
When a friend who is a local bookseller came by the hotel for a drink, he asked to see the room. “It’s here in my backyard, but I’ve never been invited up,” he said, “everyone prefers to meet downstairs.” (The hotel’s bar, called The Bookstore Bar, is a popular spot, as is the restaurant, which is called The Library Bistro). Another friend, a local author, came by to drop off a signed book to place on the shelves next to the others “for posterity.”
Of course, the dilemma with being surrounded by so many books (and the spirit of their creators) is what to choose to read. I was happy to discover more than a few titles I’d never heard of before that I suddenly had an urge to read. But I was faced with a dilemma, what happens if I start a book but don’t finish it…?! Surely, I can’t slip this signed edition into my bag to finish at home in my own time? I have to wonder what valuable titles may have disappeared into travelers bags to be skirted off to the four corners of the earth.
It’s amusing to think that some day in the future, a bibliographer might sit down to peruse a catalog of signed first editions and come across so many copies inscribed to “Alexis” and set out to discover who that was.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
There has been some growth in the UK market though, with volume sales up 19% (4% excluding Harry Potter) in 2007 over 2006, according to Book Marketing Limited. However, the 2008 figure – and more particularly perhaps, as we enter recession, the 2009 figure – may make salutary reading.
The Comments section on the Bookseller’s website has been heavy with responses http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/71243-is-the-price-wrong.html. Should there be some sort of compromise NBA, which limits the discount on new titles, or perhaps does not allow discounts for the first two months of a book’s release? Julian Rivers, who for years was Terry Maher’s right hand man at Dillons when Maher led his campaign against Retail Price Maintenance (RPM), believes “one should not substitute legislation for commercial common sense”. He believes publishers have abandoned a consideration for the whole market and have concentrated too much on pleasing the supermarkets. The result, of course, is that ‘proper’ bookshops suffer.
Yet Hachette UK is making a stand here, and independents have recognised it and applauded it. Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson has said many times that UK publishers have already given away too much in discounts and that enough is enough. Trouble is, of course, publishers brought this situation upon themselves by abandoning the NBA and therefore letting the supermarkets become major players: publishers want supermarkets because that’s how they can achieve the volume sales and get their books into the charts. And so it goes on.
So much of life comes down to free market versus intervention arguments. Why have speed limits? Sod it – how dare anyone tell me how fast I can drive? But of course, the reason we have intervention here is that it is better for everyone. The interventionists are having a good time at the moment, thanks to the global financial crisis.
Europe, in its widest definition, is roughly split over intervention on pricing. RPM, either as law or a trade agreement, exists in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain. There is no RPM in Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Russia, Sweden and the UK.
The US, of course – the traditional home of the free market – may not have RPM, but it does have the Robinson-Patman Act. It has alway struck me as ironic that the UK is now arguably more free market than the US. Doesn't the US also have some sort of cap on the earnings of sports stars too? There are some who believe the UK needs something similar - certainly in the book trade, perhaps even when it comes to footballers.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
This year, 200 publishers submitted 1,258 books to compete for the awards honoring the year's best works of fiction, nonfiction, young people's literature and poetry. Of those, 20 finalists were selected, five in each category. What surprised me is that four of the nominees that graced the list were Texans. Kathi Appelt, Reginald Gibbons, Annette Gordon-Reed and Mark Doty – were all Texans (two native Houstonians, one by proxy, and another from 40 miles north.). And what’s more, Mark Doty and Annette Gordon-Reed won.
That Doty took the prize isn’t a surprise – his book, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems, culls the best from more than two decades of Doty’s exemplary work. He’s a great poet and more than deserving of the award.
Annette Gordon-Reed is a more interesting case. She won in the nonfiction category for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a group biography of one family of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson. It covers Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, who became a lover and bore him children, as well as the rest of her family.
Her timing couldn’t have been better.
“The book examines the origins of American’s way of dealing with race through the eyes of this mixed race family. We’re able to do that by looking at the family of a man who was president,” she wrote to me in a pre-prize interview. “It’s amazing to contemplate that the president I write about held black people as slaves, and we will now inaugurate a black president.”
Ms. Gordon-Reed was raised at a time when Texas cities were still, by and large, segregated:
"I can remember as a little girl going to separate waiting rooms at the Sadler Clinic and sitting in the balcony at the Crighton Movie Theatre. I integrated our school district, which wasn’t the easiest thing for a 6 year old, but it gave me an early sense that blacks were on a journey of sorts, from worse to better, I hoped and still hope.”
She told me, “Obama’s ascendancy doesn’t solve all problems, but it is a major step in the right direction,” adding, “Although the majority of whites did not vote for him, I can take some comfort in the fact that huge numbers did not go out to vote against him, to prevent the election of a non-white person to the presidency. I think that would have happened in years past.
Ross can be brilliantly funny, cleverly improvising on his guests’ comments, but on other occasions – and there are too many – he is crude and puerile, too fond of juvenile innuendos. His fellow host Graham Norton is like this too, all the time – at least Ross has a more serious side when he wants to.
So far, so what? Why am I even wasting my time talking about all these overpaid people? Well, celebrities occupy an increasingly large part of the UK book trade and the Ross/Brand affair – of which more below, or click the link (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7696714.stm) - has recently led to an outburst from independent bookseller Polly Jaffe of Jaffe & Neal in the pretty village of Chipping Norton. She’s admitted to being fed up with them and fed up with their books – the smiling face, the name underneath, the words ‘My Autobiography’. Look at her Bookseller blog http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/70465-christmas-nightmares.html and read the comments and you’ll see how many agree.
As some of you know, on Brand’s radio show, the pair played a prank on the actor Andrew Sachs (he of Fawlty Towers fame), leaving a message on the actor’s answer phone on which Ross shouts, of Brand: “He fucked your granddaughter!” I don’t even like writing that: it is so offensive. Apparently, they did this because Sachs had been due to appear on the show but cancelled.
The consequences of this have been extraordinary. The media laid into the BBC for its poor handling of the furore; the head of Radio 2 resigned as a result and Gordon Brown even commented (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7695951.stm). Now, Ross has been banned from broadcasting on the BBC for three months during which time he will not receive a salary (big deal – he’s already earned enough to retire). Sales of his book have dropped by around 50%, and his publishers, Transworld, must be wishing they had included a ‘reputation clause’ in his contract so that they could claw back some of the advance.
It is clear that some booksellers, particularly independents, have had enough of celebrities. They’re happy to let the chains and supermarkets battle out the celeb’ books war, with their tedious identical window displays and their endless price battles. The hope for indies is that there are enough ‘proper’ books around for them to make better margin business, although, in fairness, some people say the Dawn French and Paul O’Grady are good books.
Why does any of this matter? Well, it is of interest because a foolish, rude, throwaway sentence on a radio show by a key Christmas author has not only led to questions being asked about the editorial judgement of the world’s most famous broadcaster, but also led to booksellers venting their frustration at the nation’s obsession with celebrity. It has also shone a spotlight on an unsavoury element of British culture: namely, yob behaviour and lack of respect. If the affair leads to less gratuitous bad language and pointless offensive behaviour – as opposed to satire which attacks hypocrites in public life who should be attacked – then some good will have come of it. Meanwhile, Transworld must wish they could wind back the clock and leave Ross’ book in the ‘green room’.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
How could so many people blindly follow Jim Jones into taking their own lives?
That was a question I spent the summer of 1993 trying to answer. While a graduate student, I was hired by a famous playwright to research the Jonestown massacre for what is still the most ill-conceived project I’ve ever heard of -- Jonestown! The Musical.
I kid you not. The playwright was working on the libretto and composer for the project was a famous blues singer. The project was backed by a well-known Broadway producer . Everyone involved was concerned that the musical not be perceived as ther mere commercial exploitation of a horrifying series of events (Imagine, “9/11! The Musical!”), but as a way of honoring the victims memories.
So, for three months, I was paid $10 an hour to sit in my sweltering one room Manhattan apartment and read photocopies of the hundreds of handwritten “testimonies” (i.e. suicide notes) of Jim Jones' victims, some written by teenagers, others by mothers on behalf of their children, many men. Almost all the notes followed a script, presumably issued by Jones, and my job was to highlight anything personalized – a mention of a specific loved one, for example.
Sadly, there wasn’t much there. After, reading reams of transcripts of Jones’ speeches and listening to audiotapes of cult members, I came to understand he was a persuasive figure with a strong personality, one that preyed upon only the most vulnerable. By that point, they lost their own voices.
Spending the summer with the doomed Greek chorus of the Jonestown dead in my head still haunts me.
By now, their testimonies have started to fade from my memory. This "anniversary" is a sorrowful, seemingly arbitrary date.
Please, let them rest in peace.
For those interested in the subject, I would recommend journalist Tim Cahill's piece "Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death," which he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine.
It’s been more than a week since returning from the Gower Peninsula of Wales where I had the honor of serving as one of the judges for the Dylan Thomas Book Prize, which gives £60,000 to a writer under 30. Nam Le, 29, won for “The Boat,” his collection of extraordinary short stories.
My four days in Wales was a vivid experience. The drive in from Cardiff in a rented right-hand drive, stick shift Fiat Bravo was harrowing. I got a flat after scraping the front left tire against a stone wall when my left foot slipped off the clutch. (I was wearing leather dress shoes with wet soles…I now completely understand the whole idea of “driving shoes,” which seemed absurd to me prior to this trip.)
Then on arrival at the beautiful grounds of Fairyhill (no kidding!) I ordered a traditional Welsh breakfast of Laver Bread and cockles. Laver bread, as it turns out, is not bread – its seaweed (also known as black butter, purple seavegetable, or sloke). Uh, yum?
And then on the drive back to the Cardiff airport at 3 a.m. (to catch a 6 a.m. flight), driving very gingerly to avoid the suicidal livestock – aka sheep – that litter the roads, I went through a roundabout, took a corner and was forced to slam on my breaks for there, in the middle of the road were a trio of brown horses, cantering away…
There are still wild places on this planet, even in the midst of civilization.
So, regarding the prize, why did Le’s win? Well, he got my vote in part because his collection contained a least one piece I believe will find its way into literary anthologies for years to come: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.”
In this passage from the story, the narrator, who is attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and very much resembles the real life Nam Le, struggles with the question of whether it’s appropriate to use his own past as fodder for fiction:
We had just come from a party following a reading by the workshop's most recent success, a Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America who had written a book of short stories about Chinese characters in stages of migration to America. The stories were subtle and good. The gossip was that she'd been offered a substantial six-figure contract for a two-book deal. It was meant to be an unspoken rule that such things were left unspoken. Of course, it was all anyone talked about.
"It's hot," a writing instructor told me at a bar. "Ethnic literature's hot. And important too."
A couple of visiting literary agents took a similar view: "There's a lot of polished writing around," one of them said. "You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?" She tag-teamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as though intoning a mantra, "Your background and life experience."
Other friends were more forthright: "I'm sick of ethnic lit," one said. "It's full of descriptions of exotic food." Or: "You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab."
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.
"It's a license to bore," my friend said. We were drunk and wheeling our bikes because both of us, separately, had punctured our tires on the way to the party.
"The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians..." he said, as though reciting children's doggerel, then stopped, losing his train of thought. His mouth turned up into a doubtful grin. I could tell he was angry about something.
"Look," I said, pointing at a floodlit porch ahead of us. "Those guys have guns."
"As long as there's an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text"—he held out his thumb and forefinger to indicate half a page, his bike wobbling all over the sidewalk. I nodded to him, and then I nodded to one of the guys on the porch, who nodded back. The other guy waved us through with his faux-wood air rifle. A car with its headlights on was idling in the driveway, and girls' voices emerged from inside, squealing, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"
"Faulkner, you know," my friend said over the squeals, "he said we should write about the old verities. Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." A sudden sharp crack behind us, like the striking of a giant typewriter hammer, followed by some muffled shrieks. "I know I'm a bad person for saying this," my friend said, "but that's why I respect your writing, Nam. Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. Like in your third story."
He must have thought my head was bowed in modesty, but in fact I was figuring out whether I'd just been shot in the back of the thigh. I'd felt a distinct sting. The pellet might have ricocheted off something.
"You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with haemorrhoids.
Would it surprise you if I revealed that Colombian assassins, Hiroshima orphans, and, indeed, Vietnamese boat people all feature elsewhere in Le’s book. The story is a masterful discussion of the notion of an “ethnic literature” and using one’s own story as fodder for fiction. I don’t have a word for what this kind of metatextual commentary is…post-modernism perhaps, or merely self-confidence.
Another of the shortlisted titles, Dinaw Mengestu’s “Children of the Revolution” (published in the US with the title, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears”) offers a perspective on the immigrant experience. It is a remarkable novel about a trio of African immigrants living in Washington DC who never quite feel at home in America, though know they have no other home to which they might return. It is very much an African novel set in America.
The other four shortlisted titles -- Ceridwen Dovey’s novel “Blood Kin,” Edward Hogan, “Blackmoor,” and Ross Raisin’s “God’s Own Country” all deserve to find readers and I would recommend them heartily. Dovey’s book – a group portrait of about the cronies of a corrupt president facing a murderous coup – is written in a plain, allegorical style reminiscent of early J.M. Coetzee and would lend itself easily to translation.
And, if you’re inclined to take bets on the long odds, I would venture to guess that the 22-year-old Leeds poet Caroline Bird, whose book “Trouble Came to the Turnip” greatly impressed the judges and is appears likely to make a number of reappearances on the shortlist. She was, if you polled those who attended the presentation ceremony in Swansea, the fan favorite. It is one of the most striking and enjoyable books of poetry I’ve read in a long time.
One could spend the rest of one’s life reading about scientology on the Net. Let me direct you to one site. It’s not a scientology site, but brace yourself nevertheless. Glosslip.com (‘celebrity gossip from our lips to yours’) claims that in early November ‘Celebrity-Scientologist-in-Chief’ Tom Cruise (forgive me, Tom – and I like some of your films), met with Amazon executives. It asks: ‘Is it mere coincidence that after that meeting we are seeing this book, which was serialised in the UK’s Sun last week, now being pulled from Amazon UK?’ An interesting question.
This whole story is partly about libel law and how it differs on either side of the Atlantic. Essentially, as I understand it, UK law is much tougher on the defendant. In the UK, the onus is on the defendant to prove that the material published is true, which can sometimes be very difficult to do. The claimant only has to prove it’s defamatory which is relatively easy. The book has been pulled from Amazon.co.uk, but is still available from Amazon.com. A spokesman at Amazon.co.uk said: "Amazon.co.uk believes strongly in free speech and it is our policy to make available to our customers the broadest possible selection of books and other expressive materials containing a wide variety of views and opinions. Unfortunately, we have had to withdraw The Complex by John Duignan in the UK because we received a specific allegation that a passage in the book is defamatory regarding an individual named in the book. In circumstances such as these, UK law gives us no choice but to remove the title from our catalogue. The title is still available for sale from Amazon. com."
Does any of this matter? Well, the UK charity The Family Survival Trust says it receives many calls from parents who are upset about their children’s involvement with scientology. The trouble is, the children in question are adults. And here’s the difficulty. If those adults decide to become more and more involved with scientology, and if they say: “Look, I’m fine, I’m happy, this is my decision”, their parents and friends may not like it, but there is not a lot they can do about it. But it’s worth asking the question, how did the people who join scientology – and become further involved with it – come to make those decisions, an area of enquiry which can bring the lawyers running, I feel, so I’ll leave it there.
In the meantime, the title can be bought easily from Irish online sellers Eason.ie and Hughes & Hughes, and is also, curiously, at the time of writing, available from Foyles and Blackwell in the UK.
Monday, November 17, 2008
In a sign of things to come, I've just had my first email from a Chinese printer offering a 'special price' due to a review of 'pricing structure.' The email also offered a shorter production time if I place my order quickly, ie right now. Today.
While that's good news for publishers in search of a printing bargain in the short term, it suggests print runs are coming down and projects are being shelved. That in turn suggests the soft retail environment is beginning to bite.
It's a downward spiral if you're not very careful. Like many publishers, I'm now looking at my own list next year and thinking: do I really need to print X thousand copies of that title? The answer is always: print as few as you can but don't forget to keep the profit margin. Fail to do that, and soon it won't just be printers writing begging letters.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Fred’s legacy will undoubtedly be the two strands of the British Book Awards – the Galaxy British Book Awards aimed at the consumer, and the British Book Industry Awards for the trade itself. Despite the closure of the paper, the two events continue. The former showcases the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year, of course. It is worth noting that Fred is at least partly responsible for the prominence of the Richard & Judy Book Club throughout the book trade, by far and away the most successful book promotion the UK has ever seen.
In the sometimes-pretentious world of publishing, Fred was down to earth. Terry Maher, the former Dillons chief who fought against the NBA, would love to tell people just how many of the Booker list he had read; Fred didn’t mind saying he was reading Jeffrey Archer. He didn’t care what people thought. If he liked a book, he liked a book, and that was that.
When he founded Publishing News in 1979, with his Oxford friend Clive Labovitch, he took on the monopoly enjoyed by the Bookseller and brought some refreshing Fleet Street vigour to the somewhat staid atmosphere of book trade journalism at the time. He was from the Street himself, having spent time on the Daily Sketch, and although his approach was occasionally too tabloid, when it worked, the result was both incisive and fun.
My own fondest memory is of putting together endless Frankfurt Dailies with him in the Messe. Every year Fred would bring his battered portable, manual typewriter with him to the fair, and proudly set it up while all around us flat screens and lap-tops glowed on neighbouring stands. It didn’t matter what we put in the paper: when people stopped by the stand, all they wanted to know about was Fred’s typewriter . So we did a story about it, calling it ‘The Stone Age Daily’.
Fred, I hope it’s up there with you now, clattering away as it did in Frankfurt. My thoughts are with your wife Sylvia, and children Stephanie, Deborah and Mark.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
Thanks to changes to the Copyright Act, US booksellers can now freely ignore territorial copyright restrictions and import all overseas editions of any US book in whatever quantities they want.
Don't expect to read this sentence in Publishers Weekly any time soon - there would rightly be an uproar at the mere suggestion, I'm sure. But such a situation may soon be a possibility in another English language market.
In Australia, the Productivity Commission - a Government-funded think-tank whose ominous goal is 'achieving a more productive economy' - has decided to look at the book industry. More specifically, the Australian Government has asked it to report on whether Australia should become an open market for books - whether large scale parallel importation of competing editions should be permitted.
A little history: this isn't a new idea. The industry addressed this question in the early 1990s, resulting in amendments to the Copyright Act that gave booksellers a little more freedom to import what their customers wanted, and put more pressure on publishers to import books promptly if they wishes to enjoy exclusivity. A decade later, publishers found themselves again successfully preventing the market opening up.
Thus, having the whole issue rear its ugly head again is rather like seeing the garlic-strewn, silver-bulleted, heart-staked vampire springing to life one more time in the final reel of the horror film. The hue-and-cry has gone up and the pitchforks have been handed out. Printers, literary agents, authors and publishers have joined in a coalition to argue for the current system, with one notable exception.
The Australian Booksellers Association on the other hand has taken a more considered position, commissioning a report before deciding that, yes, an open market was in their best interests.
I'm in two minds about the whole thing. Evidence from New Zealand, which has had an open market for a decade, suggests that local publishing and distribution has been seriously affected. Kevin Chapman, who runs Hachette's business in New zealand recently called it a 'cancer, an insidious thing.' Ironically, New Zealand's loss has been Australia's gain: distribution for New Zealand (a few hours by plane to the south-east of Australia) is now frequently done from Australia and several local distributors have closed. This has arguably given NZ consumers less choice about what they can buy from a bookseller.
On the other hand, we almost have an de facto open market in Australia already. Consumers can buy from anywhere in the world (and choose Amazon, invariably), and many booksellers order more books from US wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor than they do from most local distributors.
So, what would be lost if there was an open market? Well, firstly, it's unlikely Australian publishers would buy as many rights from US and UK publishers as they currently do. Without the protection of territorial copyright, who would be willing the make the investment? US and UK publishers would also probably find it harder to get direct distribution for their books in Australia. The net effect might be that less international books are published and distributed in Australia. Currently over half of all books sold in Australia come from overseas.
Would Australian books take up the slack? Large publishers argue no. They say overseas bestsellers help subsidise local lists. Smaller publishers, most of whom rely on the sales of locally-authored books, might feel that there would be more space on the bookshop shelves for local books in such an environment, and that the dominance of the large multinationals might decline. While my own business buys most of our books from overseas publishers (mostly in languages other than English), I doubt the move would change our publishing program that much, although I might be more wary of buying books that had already been published in the US or UK.
No one knows for sure what will happen, and that's enough of an argument for some. For them, the 17th century English politician Viscount Falkland's conservative advice is sufficient: 'When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.'
Booksellers, on the other hand, see an opportunity to be more entrepreneurial, and to have more say in what is stocked on their shelves.
It's an interesting debate, and one you can follow by signing up on the Productivity Commission's website.
Friday, November 7, 2008
But that speech. Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Lecture was published as a booklet; so was Doris Lessing’s last year. I know Obama’s is available over and over again on the Net and was printed in some newspapers; yet, given its historical importance, and majesty, is there not scope for a high quality commemorative edition of some sort, perhaps with a brief biographical sketch of Ann Nixon Cooper too?
While we’re on the subject, Overlook’s Peter Mayer, held an all-night, celebratory election party at his home. “We had quite a good one. Now people are trying to figure out what to do until he becomes President. We were going to serve champagne, but we moved to Prosecco because we thought it was more appropriate to the times we live in. People believe he is going to be more a more social President than Bush and his crew; however, I don’t think anybody thinks he can fix anything quickly. But I think the whole world is happy.”
Barnes & Noble CEO Len Riggio wrote an email to his booksellers telling them to brace “for a terrible holiday season, and expect the trend to continue well into 2009, and perhaps beyond.”
He said: “Never in all of the years I've been in business have I seen a worse outlook for the economy. And never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in. Nothing even close."
On Friday, Chicago book distributor IPG reaffirmed what everyone at Frankfurt was buzzing about: Borders is in real trouble. IPG is being very conservative in shipping orders to Borders, though it typically carries some $2 million worth of receivables. What prompted this notice? Borders informed IPG they will not pay any debt to the company for another two months due to “unexpectedly high returns.” Ouch.
Borders is in the midst of rolling out a new “concept” across the chain, which shrinks the book stock by 15% -- and once that’s full completed, a guesstimate would suggest it would shave a point or two off of publishers overall sales.
What’s this mean? Well, typically, independent retailers in the US rely on holiday sales to account for their profit for the year. A publicly traded chain like B&N, the dominant US bookseller, is somewhat insulated, from this but you can expect to hear of some indies closing coming year if Riggio’s prediction stays firm.
One indie in my home state of Texas closed quite suddenly just this week and it looks like pre-holiday closures are going to be a trend.