Friday, February 27, 2009

Hachette backs down

Listen to this link (scroll down to 08.34) for a little bit of publishing history being quietly made. Surely Hachette UK's climbdown on its exclusive deal with Waterstone's for Glen David Gold's Sunnyside (Sceptre) means that it won't be able to make any such arrangement with any chain again without being accused of gross hypocrisy.

CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "As far as independent booksellers are concerned there is a danger that publishers like me will pay lip service to supporting independents and use various bandaids to make things better, but are not doing much to stop the economic thing of the big guys gradually crushing the smaller people. And I actually do think that we need to go further in finding more meaningful, more economically meaningful solutions to this issue because we certainly do want independent booksellers to survive".

So what is to be done to protect independents? More discount for them? Lower rents and rates? As ever, these issues throw up all the familiar questions of intervention v the free market. Should the BA or PA step in? Should publishers agree not to make exclusive deals with the chains? Should the UK have something like the Robinson Patman Act? And so it goes on.....

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Books for a Penny Can't Be Good for Publishing

If you've ever wondered why publisher's are suffering, you only need to look so far as a web site like -- which just this morning sent me an email touting their promotion of selling 50 titles for a penny each (plus shipping, of course, which is where they make their profit).

The one penny books are entirely undesirable either: Alec Klein's fine book, A Class Apart, about Stuyvesant High School is there, as is Robert Draper's book on George W. Bush, Dead Certain, is on sale as well. Take a look for yourself.

Our industry needs to examine how any book manages, yard sales excepted, to end up on sale for just a penny. UPS/FedEx and the shipping companies are raking it in. Frankly, all this shipping back-and-forth of books -- for what? A Penny -- surely isn't worth the cost to environment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ten million copy seller Eckhart Tolle Eschews Ego

German author Eckhart Tolle offered US news program Nightline a rare interview, one in which he suggests that our ego is the key to discontent.

Having sold ten million copies of his book, A New Earth, he's quite content.

For more on Tolle, see Oprah's ten part online-only series on the book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Who Wrote the Story of O?

Writer James Salter offers a paean to the late Richard Seaver, founder of Arcade Publishing, who died this past January 5. Salter recalls his first meeting with Seaver in Paris in 1961, writing that Seaver looked "like a naval officer, that is to say capable and tough." He goes on to recall the role Seaver played in publishing seminal European writers in the United States.

"Seaver's writers were distinguished and significant, often foreign and sometimes lessor known. though they included Harold Pinter, Octavio Paz, and John Berger," writes Salter. "There were possible Nobel laureates but modest sales." 

Salter too mentions his suspicion that Seaver had more to do with the book than merely serving as translator. 

"I have a kind of Scrabble hand, the letters A A E E E I U and G L N P R," writes Salter.  "They are the letters of the name Pauline Reage, listed author of L'Histoire d'O and pseudonym of the books' actual writer, Dominique Aury...The trouble is that Seaver, who translated the book into English, on sever occasions told me that Dominique Aury was not the real author despite all that has been written saying so. Pauline Reage was anagram for the name of the genuine author, a name I would recognize and know, he said.

"I'm waiting for his yet-to-be-published memoir to reveal the answer."  

Kindle 2: You can read with one hand

Jeff Bezos visited the Daily Show last night where he had ample opportunity to promote Kindle 2, which started arriving at homes today. Host Jon Stewart is suitably skeptical about the new $359 device, one Bezos touts as allowing you to "read with one hand."

Harpers Magazine on the Frankfurt Book Fair

For those who haven't yet seen it, the March issue of Harper's magazine in the US features a cover story about last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Entitled, "The Last Book Party," and subtitled "Publishing Drinks to a Life After Death," it's a wry, well-observed if too cynical look at the Fair.

The author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus takes in the Fair on the arms of a few key US and UK players, most notably, Bob Miller of Harper Studio, and Morgan Entriken of Grove/Atlantic, agents Ira Silverberg and Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie, and the New York Times' publishing reporter Mokoto Rich -- a cast, aside from Rich, of "usual suspects." (It's not news, as such, that Morgan likes to party, but has dialed it back with the arrival of his AARP card.)

Things get a bit more interesting when Lewis-Kraus, encounters the likes of Random House CEO Marcus Dohle, whom he rather unkindly refers to rather unkindly as "the printer" and HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray, whose pants are, deemed "too shiny." Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch is described as "the kind of man you would be chuffed to have as your uncle."  (As it happens, Bob Miller is sort of the author's uncle -- Miller's mother was the author's second wife.)

Throughout, the not-so subtle suggestion is that an army of dull, technocratic Germans are running the traditional community of Jewish creative/intellectual elites out of the publishing business. (The Frankfurter Hof, where many of the parties take place, is explicitly referred to as "Hitler's favorite hotel."). However clever that observation may appear to be -- it's a superficial one. Publishing has been largely diversified, ethnically and racially, for decades, and at least as long as any of those working in it can remember.

Then again, the author also seems to think that everyone in publishing is also sartorially challenged (what people are wearing consumes plenty of space) and ever-so-slightly uncool.

The Fair is summarized as "part industry convention and part endurance trial" a place where everyone comes across as weary of the work and unfashionable (what people are wearing is a big theme). It's a bit of a shame that the author and so many of the people quoted here, as well as the author (who is attending his first Fair) come across as so jaded.  

Call me crazy, but if you love books -- what could be more stimulating than a few thousand, or tens of thousands, or over the course of a week -- hundreds of thousands -- of people gathered together to talk, peruse and, yes, sell books? If you can't find something at Frankfurt to get excited about with regards to publishing, you're not looking.

Follow-up: The LA Times interviewed the author of the piece here

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winners and losers in New Voices

Two riverside offices in London may not be happy this morning. Random House, by Vauxhall Bridge, only has one title on Waterstone's New Voices for 2009 list, while Penguin, by Waterloo Bridge, does not have any at all. Of the 12 titles - all of which will be heavily promoted in the chain's 300-odd stores - half are from independent publishers, although some are vastly more indepedendent, ie small, than others. The two happiest publishers will be Arcadia - a tiny operation working out of two rooms in Fitzrovia - and HarperCollins, which has three titles on the list.

The full list is as follows: A Kind of Intimacy, Jenn Ashworth (Arcadia Books); Ablutions, Patrick DeWitt (Granta); An Equal Stillness, Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicholson); Black Rock, Amanda Smyth (Serpent’s Tail); Days of Grace, Catherine Hall (Portobello); Guernica, Dave Boling (Picador); The Street Philosopher, Matthew Plampin (HarperCollins); Ten Storey Love Song, Richard Milward (Faber); The Earth Hums in B Flat, Mari Strachan (Canongate); The Piano Teacher, Janice Y K Lee (HarperPress); The Rescue Man, Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape); and The Vagrants, Yiyun Li (Fourth Estate).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Orion celebrates despite the gloom

Orion's CEO Peter Roche welcomes guests at the V&A

To the V&A in South Kensington last night for the annual Orion Authors party where, as CEO Peter Roche pointed out, agents (220) outnumbered their clients (200). "What this says about the industry, I'm not sure," he told writers who included Kate Moss, Edna O'Brien, Michael Palin, Andrew Lycett and Max Arthur, and agents Sheila Crowley, Caroline Michel, Sophie Hicks and Bill Massey, all drinking champagne in the museum's entrance hall.

Distinguished trio: Lord Weidenfeld, with wife Annabel, left, and Lady Antonia Fraser

Guests also included Lord Weidenfeld and his wife, Annabel, who held their own private, mini-party, with Lady Antonia Fraser, over to one side of the hall. Weidenfeld & Nicolson will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, when its co-founder (and owner of the finest eyebrows in the whole of publishing) will celebrate his 90th year.
Roche continued: "The received wisdom is that books are recession-proof and I think that view will be tested as never before in the coming months. The book market shrank by one-and-a-half percent last year, the first time it has done so in living memory. We expect a larger reduction this year and as we move forward into a foggy landscape we just have to hope that this downward slope isn't taking us towards the edge of a cliff.

"But we mustn't panic. The industry has been changing, and we have been changing our publishing to match those changes. We are taking steps to ensure that we don't waste money - but that doesn't mean we will be ushering in a period of joyless austerity: hence this party......" To which there were cheers all around.

Yesterday was arguably both a good and bad day for other parts of the Hachette Group. The news that Sceptre had arranged an exclusive deal with Waterstone's to sell the hardback of Glen David Gold's Sunnyside when it is published in July has led to an angry reaction from some independents. The trouble is, UK indies lack a body which speaks only for them, enabling them to act as one, so any talk of boycotting other Sceptre titles is unlikely to lead to any mass action.

Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson and Curtis Brown's Sheila Crowley

Yet it is also true that on a corporate PR front, the deal has not been good for Hachette. This is somewhat ironic, since indies admire the stance the group has taken in its long-running terms dispute with Amazon, and should remember too the backing it has given to Independent Booksellers Week. However, Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson cannot be too worried - when it comes to publicity for the book, the deal has been a masterstroke. Suddenly, everyone is talking about an author whose name often receives the reaction "Who?" .

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hunter S. Thompson Was Good with a Gun

US talk show host Conan O'Brien spent some quality time with Hunter S. Thompson as the late author was promoting his book Kingdom of Fear back in February 2003. If you've never seen Hunter in action, making "art" by blowing away his own books with a machine gun, take a look and (please) be amused.

American Publishers Cite 48 Countries for Tolerating Piracy

The Association of American Publishers cited 48 countries for tolerating copyright violators, most notably China.

“In light of the Chinese government's efforts to minimize the effects of China's significant piracy problem, it is truly unfortunate that the government has chosen to ignore this blatant infringement, which is being facilitated by government-run institutions,” said AAP President and CEO Pat Schroeder in a report submitted to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

“Companies such as Kangjian Shixun that are profiting from blatant infringement must be held to account and China should take effective steps to stop libraries from engaging with such illegal enterprises. The threat of Internet piracy in China is growing daily and a country that expects to be a leader in the digital world cannot afford to let it continue."

The AAP is also recommending that 12 others be put on the “Priority Watch List,” including – surprisingly – Canada, as well as Egypt, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Thailand.

Among the other counties mentioned in the report, which was compiled by a half-dozen other copyright related trade organizations, are Spain, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and South Korea.

“Piracy around the world impedes economic growth by diminishing the incentives to create and distribute content, and undercutting the companies who produce these products,” wrote Schroeder. “And as access to online and mobile technologies increases, the threat of digital piracy looms ever larger as a real threat for the book and journal industry, both now and in the future. It is therefore essential that the gaps in intellectual property protection underscored in this report be closed.”

The full report is online at

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hail Barthelme!

It's the early 90s, and I'm in graduate school in New York. All the fiction writers I know want to write like one of two men: Raymond Carver or Donald Barthelme. It's surprising to realize how much their work has faded from view. There was a time Barthelme was so hip, MTV used his story "Chablis" as a public service announcement for reading. "Reading: Feed Your Head" was the tag line. Those were the days.

Don B is back in a big way, in part because of all the attention being brought back to him from the publication of Tracy Daugherty's new biography, Hiding Man: A biography of Donald Barthelme.

It's about as close as you'll come to finding a skeleton key to his very strange, unusual masterpieces. (My full assessment, written for the Dallas Morning News, is here)

And for your reading pleasure, I direct you to this online collection of some of his best. My personal favorite, "I Bought a Little City," which is here read by Donald Antrim also happens to have given its name to a cool little coffee shop in Austin. These days, though, with a 14 month old at home, I don't get to coffee shops much and the story I best relate to is this gem, which beings, appropriately, "The first thing the baby did wrong was to tear pages out of her books."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Paris is for (Crazy) Booklovers

Watch CBS Videos Online

Friday, February 13, 2009

Memories of a crazy and dangerous time

These are a selection of photographs I took on a noisy demonstration against The Satanic Verses by Muslims from all over the country who marched along Kensington High Street, close to Penguin’s offices, on a miserable, wet afternoon in February 1989.

Remembering those months is to remember another era. The UK still had the NBA and the main book trade news story of any week was the latest attempt by Dillons’ boss Terry Maher to circumvent it. On the day the fatwa was issued I was at Penguin for a publication lunch for Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre – such a non-event compared to what was unfolding elsewhere. There was a gap at the table because one of the Penguin senior staff had been called away to a meeting. We didn’t think anything of it at the time. That meeting, of course, was as a result of the Ayatollah’s announcement and Rushdie having to leave his house in Islington.

And so the madness began. A week or so later I travelled to
Bradford, to interview Muslims at the Council for Mosques. I was so struck by how peaceful they seemed – and yet there was all this insanity outside. The threats to booksellers and Penguin staff were real. The publisher received letters signed in blood. There were arson attacks on shops. For more than a year a policeman was on duty outside Penguin’s offices and became a familiar book trade sight.

The years went by and gradually the story became ‘would Rushdie be at such and such a party?’ It was surreal. You would be at the annual Authors of the Year bash at Hatchards on Piccadilly and you would suddenly realise he was there, across the other side of the room, having been slipped in via a back entrance. Pretty soon it became obvious that he was at every party and the novelty wore off.
One only hopes that the publicity this strange twentieth anniversary will receive does not lead to a return of any of the madness.
Footnote: please forgive strange spacing of the above.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An inexorable decline?

Figures from the UK Booksellers Association show the total number of independent bookshops declining by around 50 a year on average since 2005. In 2008, while 66 opened some 83 closed. Since 2005, the figures look like this:

2005 – 1,562
2006 – 1,483
2007 – 1,422
2009 – 1,350
(Left: Faithful friend and faithful service: Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton)

Curiously, figures from Book Marketing Limited show that between 2003 and July 2007, sales through independents grew by 2% in volume and 10% in value. The reason cited at the time was that those less efficient independents that were perhaps protected by the NBA had fallen by the wayside, leaving the well-run businesses to carve out a niche. BML has its annual Books and the Consumer Conference at the end of next month and it will be interesting to see the updated figures.

The independents v chains debate is one that frequently leads to a lively debate on the Comments section of the Bookseller’s website ( Here’s a recent comment: ‘There is of course a vast difference between (i) a local indie that serves a people and a place, is embedded there, who answers to that place - not a faceless board in London - and whose relatively modest profits largely stay in the local economy and (ii) a here today/gone tomorrow chain store branch with no real interest in the area except insofar as it contributes towards the corporate bottom line and the wealth of shareholders (who themselves have no local connection),and whose use of local business-to business services is minimal….It should otherwise be obvious that one sustains and nurtures the local community and the other takes from it as much as it can, notwithstanding the provision of local "sponsorship", events, etc when HQ decides it would be prudent PR.’

(Above: Standing proud: Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells, Scotland)

There are so many ways of looking at this. While no one likes to see indies close, surely the most important question is whether a community has a

bookshop at all, not whether that shop is an independent or not. With regard to supporting the local community, it could be argued that a chain will employ more people than an independent, thus boosting the local economy.

Equally though, chains are often less organic, less embedded in the local community because managers frequently come from elsewhere in the country, work a year or two, then move on. But that’s just the managers: many of the shop floor staff, the people who actually interact with the public, will be local. But a chain shop is unlikely to offer a delivery service to local customers: Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton (pictured above) used to have a Land Rover in which they ferried books to customers out in the Oxfordshire countryside.
(Left: Happy Cow Books in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire)

How low will the UK indie figures go? Sadly, more closures are surely likely before a plateau is reached. But those indies that are in the right affluent areas, in the type of secondary locations that the chains ignore, will survive. The danger may come if Waterstone’s decides to follow the old Ottakar’s policy of opening smaller branches in such locations. However, at the moment it seems keen on boosting its Net presence and expanding the use of its loyalty card.
Who knows, perhaps the UK recession will help independents as consumers forgo trips to the shopping centre and decide to shop locally. Let’s hope so, just for the sake of diversity in the retail landscape.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Free Download of "Best of" Tools of Change Conference Papers

So, you didn't make it to New York City this week to "network" with your fellow e-publishing enthusiasts, no worries. O'Reilly has compiled a "best of" collection of writing from the just finished Tools of Change conference. You can download it as a free PDF here.

Among those included are the aforementioned Bob Stein. There are also contributions from a host of other people you may have heard of before, but perhaps can't remember why.

More TOC: A New Definition of Books

Bob Stein, executive director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, opened Tuesday at O’Reilly’s Tools for Change conference calling for a redefinition of the book. In a talk entitled “A book is a place…” Stein argued that the traditional conception of a book as an object “used to move ideas around time and space” is no longer accurate.

He argued that a reader’s ability to comment on a text suggests that the hierarchy between the writers and readers is false. By commenting on a text, either scribbled in a bound book or as a comment posted online to a digital text, the readers places him or herself in a parallel role to that of the author.
Stein proposed the new definition of a book should be “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.”

“A book obscures the social relations that underlie a book. They are much more a social experience than we realize,” he said. In this conception of the book, writing is a collaborate event. Authors will no longer sit alone conceiving of a book entirely on their own. Nonfiction authors “become leaders of communities of inquiry” and fiction writers will be “creating a world together with their readers.” Books will, he suggests, be created transparently and collaboratively, largely online, with the participation of readers.

In this brave new world, the key role of publishers “is to build and nurture vibrant communities for authors and tend to their readers.” They will be judged on their ability to “curate and build communities for their authors around their readers.”

Stein said that it is likely his grandchildren will think of reading entirely as social experience. “The idea of reading alone…they won’t even understand that concept.”

Reprinted from Publishers Weekly

Above Us the Waves (of job losses)

There is a kind of reverse one-upmanship to all the job loss announcements. It’s like a negative version of the market share game that so excites UK publishers. It’s as if as soon as one company announces cutbacks or a review or redundancies or salary freezes, three other companies have to do the same. In my mind it plays out like an old war film. One imagines the senior executives with binoculars up in the ‘bridge’ boardroom:

“Captain, HarperCollins say they may have to lose 5% []. Look, there goes another Production Director off the side now. What do you want us to do?”

The bow of HMS Random House plunged through the Atlantic swell, moonlight playing on its mighty steel hull.

“Hold your nerve, men. Steady as she goes.”

“Captain! In-coming Amazon press release re discounts!”

“Engine room, hard to starboard, now!”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TOC: First Impressions, Espresso Book Machine 2.0

The O'Reilly Tools of Change conference got underway today in New York City. Organizers indicate that the program is sold out, with more than 1,000 people paying to attend. Initial impresions suggest that the move to New York City has attracted fewer content producters -- that is, publishers, seem largely absent. Or perhaps they are part of the legions staring into their laptops. Aren't conferences for, well, conferencing -- that is, talking face to face. 

The biggest splash so far is the presence of the second generation Expresso Book Machine. It's notably smaller than the previous generation, perhaps half the size, though it appears just as labor intensive to maintain (everytime we've stepped in to take a look, someone is bent over with their hands in the guts of the machine). 

Here's a first look: 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jeff Bezos's Vision

It came at the very end of his presentation launching the new Kindle 2.0 -- Jeff Bezos's vision:

Every book
In Every language
All available
In less than 60 seconds.

It may look like poetry, but is it poetry to everyone's ears?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Another word on Updike

John Updike: the joys and sadness of family life

It has been more than a week since John Updike’s death was reported in the UK media and there are still articles and comments about him in the press. I cannot remember another writer’s death that has caused such an outpouring and it is a measure of the esteem in which he was held.

Here’s something I wonder about: is there a contradiction between Updike the polite, conservative upholder of old-fashioned values, with his jackets and ties and collegiate appearance and his lovely short stories that capture the little joys and sadness of family life; and Updike, the man who divorced, who disrupted the classic suburban family, who arguably behaved in anything but that conservative way.

I love his writing, but I worry that there isn’t a trail of hurt somewhere; that his children may have a different view. Inevitably, one finds it difficult to separate the life from the art. I’m sure I remember reading an interview with his son David – whose short stories Out on the Marsh were published in the UK – in which he evaded a question about those years.

One doesn’t know the details, but I just worry that his children may read all the tributes and think ‘That’s all very well, but I was there and it hurt’. Yet of course, it must have hurt Updike too. Forgive me for the above; in some ways, since Updike is American I don’t feel he is one of ours to talk about. But there, I’ve done it now. And for stories such as ‘The Family Meadow’ he will always be one of my favourite writers.

A Dying Planet Not Yet Dead: Updike on Mars

One of the final pieces John Updike published before his passing was an appreciation of the mysteries of Mars and NASA's ongoing attempts at exploration.

In the article, written for National Geographic, he describes it as "a dying planet not yet dead," which is what I think of as a surprising analogy for Updike's own place in the constellation of American literature.

He was a man of his time -- 60s and 70s suburbia -- and though his skills never diminished, his status did fade as he lost his grip on the mores of the age. (See: Tom Wolfe). Updike was a Dying Planet Not Yet Dead and will likely remain so for some time.

And, just for fun, here's an audio interview he did with National Geographic in 2007 about bizarre and novel dinosaurs.

Book Beast Is Out of Its Cage

I'm a fan of Tina Brown's new online news thing "The Daily Beast." As befits a Web site that takes its name from literature, (as does Starbucks...) Ms. Brown has launched a new supplement dedicated to all things literary: The Book Beast.

The first posts include a piece by Lee Siegel on the me-too critics lauding Updike only now that he's dead, an excerpt of Bryan Burrough's engrossing (my critique) new book about the Texas oil dynasties, and a look at the new Norman Mailer Writer's Retreat in Provincetown.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Get Ready to Sqint: Google Puts 1.5 Million Books on Your Phone

Back in October following the Google settlement with the publishers, I predicted that it was only a matter of time before Google Book Search was brought to your cell phone.

Lo and behold, it only took the tech wizards at Google took just three months to launch a mobile version of Google Book Search. They've optimized 1.5 million public domain books to be read on your cellphone or PDA. (Americans have access to them all, while those abroad are limited to half a million).

The books are scanned OCR'd copies, so there may be errors in the transcription, and they flow like any digitized text. One cool feature, provided the screen on your phone is big enough, is the option to split the screen in two and see the original text.

I can only imagine the eyestrain this is going to cause.

If you're reading this on your cell phone, you can try it here -- (though at the time of this writing, it still seem a little buggy).

Monday, February 2, 2009

First the credit crunch, now this....

Above: London's equivalent of a 'blizzard', as experienced in Wimbledon, and (left), how the media is quick to make the most of it

Pathetic, isn’t it? We survive the credit crunch (well, almost), but a little bit of snow and we’re finished. London and the south east had a huge fall last night. That’s huge by our standards. What, five inches? If you live in New York or Chicago or Toronto it would be an average day, a day not even worth talking about. Here in London, it’s virtually a national disaster. The trains stop running; the buses stop running; the schools are closed.
What does this mean for the book trade? Well, many publishers offices are depleted of staff today, and some bookshops have closed – their figures were bad without the snow: with the snow they will be even worse. More is forecast this week.

Yet there are winners too. The supermarkets are packed as a siege mentality takes over. Men who are normally in London are out with the kids and, after the snowball fights, are even doing the shopping. It could conceivably favour those bookshops which have managed to open: suddenly, some people have a tiny bit more of unexpected browsing time on their hands as they are given this strange day’s holiday. But it’s doubtful.

However, it is undeniably beautiful and brings to mind the poem London Snow by Robert Bridges (1844-1930):

‘When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town….
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear harkened to the stillness of the solemn air.’