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.

Angelic blessings for the Fair

It is rare to see authors in the International Rights Centre at the London Book Fair and, to be honest, they're probably better off not visiting: after all, it's a dull place compared to the exhibition floor, just a warren of tables at the top of a long escalator. But for the last two days a rather special woman has been seated at one of the small tables, meeting her international publishers, alongside her agent, Jean Callanan. Lorna Byrne (above) is the author of an unnusual memoir Angels in My Hair, published by Century in the UK and about to be published by Doubleday in the US (where her editor is Jason Kaufman who also looks after one D Brown esquire).

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. Another angels woman. File it under crop circles and alien abduction. Call for the men in white coats. That Roger Tagholm seemed such a sane guy; now listen to him. All of which is fair comment until you meet her. Then, as I said here: she is extraordinarily credible, no matter how incredible her story. Byrne doesn't just see angels every now and then; she sees them all the time: yes, even at the LBF.

"Just being here I can't help but be distracted. I'm seeing what I call 'the teacher angels'. They're here to give encouragement and confidence and take away anxiety. People are worried about books, about the industry - but it's going to come back."

Once again, I found meeting her very moving, and I'm delighted that her book continues to be so successful. It was number six in the Sunday Times hardback chart in January and the third bestselling book in Ireland in 2008. Foreign deals have been concluded in 13 territories, in addition to the US and Canada. But, as Callanan puts it: "Lorna is about so much more than the deals."

She has plans for many more books and feels now is the right time. "Because of the economic situation people are looking for spiritual answers. They are realizing that material things are not as important, that there is a bigger picture." I think we'd all say 'amen' to that, wouldn't we?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CEOs pack the house

A clutch of CEOs (l to r): Penguin's John Makinson, Random House's Gail Rebuck, Hachette UK's Tim Hely Hutchinson and HarperCollins' Victoria Barnsley

Something of a first at the LBF at Earl's Court today. No, not a coffee bar without a queue to aisle W, but the presence of four CEOs and Chairmen on the panel at an industry seminar. The Digital Keynote session entitled 'Where's the money?' was packed, with people standing at the back of the hall, and others sitting on the floor near the stage. Every one knew that the UK heads of Random House, Penguin, Hachette and HarperCollins do not share a platform often and every one wanted to be there.

Moderated by the BBC's Media Correspondent Torin Douglas, it was fascinating to hear industry leaders' views on the D word. Penguin's John Makinson is concerned about protecting IPR and territorial copyright, and said that the Scribd site - "the You Tube of the document world" - needed to be watched carefully. For Random House's Gail Rebuck, digital is about "thinking beyond the book, and looking at added value". Did I mishear her or did she also say: "In the fullness of time we can eliminate print and returns." If she did say that, I don't think she meant it. Surely, she means a reduction in print.

Hachette's Tim Hely Hutchinson is emphatic that piracy must be fought. "Publishers should have zero tolerance of websites with disingenuous raison d'etres." But HarperCollins' Victoria Barnsley added: "We won't win by suing consumers. You have to make them want you. We have to leave the linear model of publishing. Digital is about giving the consumers control."

Are each of them fans of e-readers? Makinson described the Kindle as "very conservative. It seeks to replicate the book and is not designed for young consumers." Rebuck uses a Sony Reader and has found reading on it "almost a more immersive experience than a paper book. The only problem is, once you've finished reading a book, there's nothing to give anyone which is what you would do when you finish a paper book on holiday, for example."

Hely Hutchinson gave around 150 Sony Readers to Hachette UK staff. "Their views are divided around 50-50, with perhaps more in favour. Myself, I haven't taken to it." Barnsley still prefers paper books "because of the design qualitites. But when it comes to e-readers we're still at the black-and-white television stage. I like the flexible screens that companies like Plastic Logic are producing."

Today also saw Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Editor Drenka Willen (below) receive the LBF's Lifetime Achievement Award for International Publishing, sponsored by SBS Worldwide. In an affectionate address Umberto Ecco, one of the many authors she has edited, referred to her as "notre dame des ecrivants". Willen said that she accepted the award "with grace and humility". It was a touching moment and she received lengthy applause from guests who included previous recipient Peter Mayer of Overlook.

A taste of the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair

Monday, April 20, 2009

Kabuki Publishing

Jonathan Karp has an insightful essay in this week's Publishers Weekly outlining twelve steps publishers can take to improve the business. The precis comes early:

It seems likely that the influence and cultural centrality of major publishers, as well as other producers of information and entertainment, will diminish as digital technology enables more and more people to create and share their work. This is exactly why publishers must distinguish themselves by doing better what they've always done best: champion books that offer carefully conceived context, style and authority.

The number Twelve is an obvious echo of the name of Karp's own imprint at Hachette where he's had an impressive track record since its launch in August 2005. The press, which publishes and promotes just a single book per month, has had numerous bestselling titles, notably God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

This is not the first time Karp has said as much, but what he outlines is worth repeating. I happen to agree with him that publishers need to focus on publishing unique, distinct titles and stop echo chamber publishing. As a publishing reporter, I also find it refreshing that he calls for more transparency and less BS when dealing with booksellers and the media. Hear, hear.

The credit crunch Fair

Initial impressions of 'the credit crunch Fair'? Busy busy busy. This is the first London Book Fair since the global economy collapsed, but you wouldn't necessarily have much sense of it at Earls Court today. Yes, we know times are tough, we know redundancies are in the air, but to walk past the stands of HarperColllins, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon and Schuster was to see crowded booths, all the tables occupied, a palpable sense of business being done.

HarperCollins' worldwide CEO Brian Murray (left)knows exactly where the optimism lies. "The hope is on the digital side of the business. We're finding that consumers want their books on a variety of different devices - Kindle, Sony....Our digital sales in the US are growing at a faster rate than we expected."

Does he think the iPod moment for books has arrived? "I don't think there will be an iPod moment for books. It's not the same as it was for music. Pirated music created a legal marketplace for pirated music. People wanted tracks rather than albums, so you can't compare the two markets. I think in the future you'll have everything in both formats. There won't be a reduction in titles, but there will be fewer copies printed."

As if to underline his points, HarperCollins has a Sony Reader on its stand promoting the company's new digital deal with the Tolkein estate. Lord of the Downloads you could say.

Penguin MD Helen Fraser chaired a session on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and noted that "many companies have now picked the low hanging fruit: they've reduced travel, they print on FSC paper, they've reconfigured their buildings, and yet they still find they have not met their carbon neutral targets".

The difficulty - and complexity - of CSR was underlined by all the speakers. The eponymous Alastair Sawday said that "in an ideal world governments would support companies who behaved morally". Michael Green, author of Philanthrocapitalism, favours a "capitalism that gives back", and cited Bill Gates as its poster boy. He also praised Starbucks for "working further down the supply line and giving better rewards to farmers". Veruschka Selbach of Earthscan said the house was planning a "biodegradable stand", which will surely be a first.

Of course, despite the crowded stands, if you bump into an editor out on the aisles - Cape's Dan Franklin, for example - it's all: "There are no books, it's very quiet...." which is always the tradtional response. After all, you don't want to admit to having missed something (not that Dan would miss anything).

David North ( left), here at his first LBF as MD of Quercus, was frequently punching the air and beaming. Nothing to do with a new rights deal, but everything to do with his beloved Everton making it into the FA Cup Final.

Meanwhile, Profile's Andrew Franklin, had his jacket over his shoulder. "I've just been to Brompton Road Cemetery. It's full of publishers....." Let's hope his words aren't prophetic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Off to the Pesta Buku

While many of my friends and colleagues in Europe are preparing for this week's London Book Fair, I am 10,552 km (6557 miles) away at one of Asia's most popular book fairs, the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair.

Malaysia's major book fair - or Pesta Buku Antarabangsa as it is know locally - is more of a consumer fair than a trade fair and attracts massive crowds over its ten days. Over 2 million visitors were estimated to attend last year's fair and, judging by the shoulder-to-shoulder crush on opening weekend, similar hordes are planning on attending this year.

While consumers attend the fair to snap up bargains from the 190 exhibitors, 160 of which are Malaysian, the fair's central location in south-east Asia also attracts exhibitors from other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (or ASEAN) countries, such as Singapore and the Philippines, international companies such as John Wiley & Sons, the Oxford and Cambridge university presses and Cengage Learning, plus some from as far away as Brunei, Egypt and India.

I'm here as part of a Matrade-funded 'incoming buying mission,' along with publishing colleagues from Germany, Taiwan, Denmark and Italy. We're here to discover more about Malaysian literature and meet with our Malaysian peers.

Malaysia has a population of 27 million and has one of the highest literacy rates in the region (93.2% for citizens over 15). While not traditionally a country with a strong book-reading culture, the Malaysian Government, through the various agencies of its Department of Education (which include the Malaysian National Institute of Translation, which co-funds translations of Malay language works).

More about the fair will follow shortly.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All the fun of etc etc

You know you're at LBF when:

You know the face, but can’t remember the company
You know the company, but can’t remember the face
You can’t remember the company or the face (but let’s do business anyway!)
You’ve just spent £23 on teas and coffees
You can’t work find your own stand or anyone else's (that's because you've come to Olympia, duh)
You’ve run out of business cards (but seem to have everyone else’s)

Have a good one. See you there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Publishers copy each other...? dare you suggest such a thing. Here's a current title from Windmill (Random House)...

...and here's one from Sceptre (Hodder)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Stories about Pete

The UK publishing industry still cannot quite believe that Peter Bowron, the popular MD of the Random House Group, is no longer there. He suffered a heart attack in January and leaves behind three young children and his wife, the publisher Clare Ledingham. He was only 40.

Now, Lizzie Noble - the author, Elizabeth Noble (The Reading Group, The Girl Next Door), whose husband is Hachette US CEO David Young - is putting together a book of stories about Peter to give to his children. It's a lovely idea. Here is her letter about the project, which contains contact details should you wish to contribute.

Dear Friends of Pete and Clare

We were all incredibly sad to lose Pete in January. One of the greatest sadnesses for me, and, I know, for many of you, is that Anna, John and Sally can only know and remember and understand what a fantastic man their dad was through what all of us tell them; their own memories will be all too brief, sketchy and incomplete. To that end, and with Clare’s blessing, I need your help.

I am putting together a collection of stories about Pete, which will eventually be bound together in printed books for each of Pete’s family to keep. I’m not looking for condolences or for tributes – I’m hoping for great, colourful Pete stories that will, together, create a picture of who he was, at every stage and in every arena of his life. Funny stories, naughty schoolboy stories, work stories, sweet stories…whatever comes to you when you think of him.

If there are songs that especially remind you of him, send those too (we’ll burn a disk to go with the book). And if you have pictures, send a copy.

I’d like this to be as complete as possible, so if this has reached you, and you can think of other people who may like to contribute, but who we might not have reached, please do circulate and forward this as you wish. The more stories we get, the better – the more Anna and John and Sally will have to read as they grow older.

Please send your stories to me at the following email address:

It’s difficult to put a deadline on this, I know, but if you could try and get your contributions to me by May 31st, then I can get a book into production for the summer.

Thank you so much for helping me put together something that I hope will give Pete’s children something amazingly precious and special in the years to come.

Lizzie Young

Publishing in the middle of the Pacific

Aloha! I don't want readers of this blog to feel sorry for me, but I've had to spend this week working in Hawai'i. (A tough assignment, I know, and - yes - this is the view of Waikiki Beach from my hotel window.)

You really couldn't get further away from anywhere than the 50th state of the USA - it's slap bang in the middle of the North Pacific, 9 hours' flight from Sydney, Australia and 5.5 hours from Los Angeles.

Impressively for a state of less than 1.3 million people, Hawaii has a healthy publishing industry, the Hawai'i Book Publishers Association having 19 members, most of which are attached to institutions (there are also many self-publishers, as there are everywhere). The most eminent is undoubtedly the University of Hawai'i Press, which specialises in the humanities, anthropology and natural history with a clear bias towards Asian and Pacific subjects.

Hawaii's leading independent publisher is The Bess Press, founded by owner Ben 'Buddy' Bess way back in 1979. I had met Ben many years ago at a trade fair (I couldn't recall whether it was Frankfurt or BEA - encouragingly, neither could he) and it was great to meet him again this week and see that he's very much still in business, albeit having had one major restructure in recent years.

The Bess Press does what many regional trade publishing houses around the world do well, which is specialise in topics of local interest. Its list includes over 200 titles - guides to Pacific languages, Pacific history (especially related to the WW2 in the Pacific), educational/children's books and natural history. They sell well across the Pacific and North America - and sell boxloads of their titles through Costco's Hawai'ian stories (although Ben tells me they've yet to crack Costco on the mainland). The Bess Press is planning to attend this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, so look out for Ben at the Independent US Publishers exhibit in Hall 8.

Another pleasant surprise during my visit was bumping into the celebrated New Zealand Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, author of Whale Rider (and also associate producer of the wonderful 2002 film of the same name. Currently holding a Citizen's Chair at the University of Hawai'i, Ihimaera today picked up a Star of Oceania award from the University of Hawai'i for his contribution to Pacific literature and film.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Two Jerrys, but no President

The scene is set at this year's Galaxy British Book Awards......

.....for Ed Victor (and Jerry Hall) to make their grand entrance

So that's another Nibbies done and gone. As ever, it had some choice moments. Just how much was Ed Victor enjoying his walk up the red carpet with Jerry Hall? Who is burlesque model Modesty Blaise and why was she there? Why were all the titles shortlisted for the Tesco Biography of the Year, autobiographies? How surreal was it to have Jerry Springer presenting an award, and wasn't he good?

Of course, Barack didn't turn up - gosh, what a surprise - but his non-appearance was a gift for all those comedian presenters, few of whom - any? - he, or his fellow Americans, have heard of. Jo Brand? Jack Dee? Dara O'Briain? Thankfully, Simon & Schuster's Carolyn Reidy (above) over from the US, had her UK MD Ian Chapman with her to expalin. Brand said that the reason the President couldn't be there in person to collect his Nibbie for Tesco Biography of the Year (biography of who?), was that "he's back at my place, wearing one of my Brentford Nylon nighties and warming up the cocoa - at least, I hope he is".

If Barack couldn't be there, we did have Sebastian Faulks (below) arriving in true Presidential style to collect the Sainsbury's Popular Fiction Award for Devil May Care (Penguin). With Bond girl Tuuli Shipster (the model on the book's jacket) on his arm, they purred up to the red carpet in a vintage Bentley. Sadly, they were somewhat eclipsed by the aforementioned Hall and Victor who sent the paparrazis' shutters into overdrive.

I snatched a quick word with big Jerry and asked her what was on her bedside table. "I've just finished the last Alain de Botton. I've read all his books. But lately, because I've been working on my own book [due from HarperCollins] I've been reading lots of autobiographies. I really liked Steve Martin's and Bob Dylan's."

The red carpet is one of the Nibbies greatest rituals, with authors such as Cecelia Ahern (below) signing autographs and enjoying an Oscars atmosphere (the awards are rightly billed the Oscars of the book industry). Having said that, arrivals tend to go like this: 'Big name author, celebrity I haven't heard of celebrity I haven't heard of celebrity I haven't heard of, actress I vaguely recognise, big name author, publisher ignored by photographers publisher ignored by photographers publisher ignored by photographers, reality TV star, cable channel presenter, big name author, celebrity I haven't of celebrity I haven't heard of etc etc etc' Amusingly, it's no good asking publishers who x is, because they usually don't know either.

Then it's into the Great Room of the Grosvenor Hotel, on Mayfair's Park Lane, for what turned out be a somewhat slimmed down, credit crunch Nibs this year. There was no champagne reception, just straight into dinner where, not surprisingly, there were some 100 fewer tables. Publishers cannot make staff redundant, then take two tables at the Galaxy British Book Awards at £295 a head, plus VAT.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan hosted once again, and if it is all a bit cringe-making at times with painful links, it's churlish to carp when the R&J vehicle remains far and away the most successful marketing phenomenon the UK book trade has ever known. Yet small matters gripe. The Tesco Biography of the Year Award should surely be renamed the Tesco Life Story of the Year Award which would then allow biographies and autobiographies to be included. It is simply silly to have autobiographies shortlisted for such an award.

Footage from previous Richard & Judy shows are shown, with 'celebrities' discussing shortlisted books. But no captions are ever put up telling us who these people are. Ask at your table and you'll find nobody knows.

The full list of awards for the Galaxy British Book Awards 2009 is as follows:
Galaxy Book of the Year The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury) , pictured below
Outstanding Achievement Michael Palin
Richard & Judy Best Read When Will There Be Good News - Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)
Borders Author of the Year Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger (Atlantic Books)
Tesco Biography of the Year Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama (Canongate)
Books Direct Crime Thriller of the Year The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson (Quercus)
Sainsbury's Popular Fiction Award Devil May Care - Sebastian Faulks (Penguin 007) Popular Non-Fiction Award The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)
Waterstone's New Writer of the Year Tom Rob Smith for Child 44 (Simon & Schuster)
WHSmith Children's Book of the Year Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer Atom

Time was when the whole affair was broadcast to a big audience on Channel 4. Now it is only on Watch TV (tonight, Sunday, 5 April at 8pm, Sky Channel 109/Virigin 124),whose viewing figures are probably on a par with supermarket CCTV systems. It is absurd that is no longer on a mainstream channel because it offers glitz and glamour, and undoubtedly makes the world of books sexy.

There were touching moments. Towards the end of the evening, the screens showed pictures of those writers and industry figures who had passed away last year: Arthur C Clarke, Michael Crichton, Harold Pinter, Alexander Solzenhitsyn, Simon Gray, Oliver Postgate, Pat Kavanagh, John Updie, David Foster Wallace, John Mortimer and, lastly, Fred Newman, co-creator of the Nibbies and to whom Richard & Judy producer, Amanda Ross dedicated the evening. Among those watching the role-call was 90-year-old Diana Athill, once Updike's UK editor.

There was emotion too when Erland Larson, Stieg Larson's father, collected the Books Direct Crime Thriller of the Year award for Girl with the Dragon Tatoo on behalf of his son. His tribute to Harvill founder Christopher MacLehose (above) met with warm applause. "Without publishers, the writer is nothing," he said.

And the best moment? These exchanges between Madeley and Springer. What did he think of Jerry Springer: The Opera? "It's very strange, because I can't share the experience with anyone. I can't ring up Carmen or Figaro and say, 'Hey, how was your opera, man?'". Would he be writing an autobiography. "What makes you think any of my fans can read?"

Friday, April 3, 2009

Forget the G20....

.....the real event is tonight's Nibbies. Or, as Alan Bennett, called them, 'the Nibbles'. Will report back later. Wonder if Barack and Michelle will show up....?

A difficult challenge

The UK's Booksellers Association and Publishers Association are working on an industry-wide initiative campaign to promote the value of reading. It's a devilishly difficult task. Many children associate books and reading with school. Compared to the vibrant, social, interactive world of online games - in which you can 'meet' on screen in the virtual playground - children, with some justification, see books as solitary and static.

If someone ask you what you did on Saturday night which sounds more interesting: "I read a book". "We went to the movies." One is a solitary activity; the other is an event.

Somehow the book trade needs to capture the 'coolness' of books - the idea that books make you cool, interesting, attractive, good company. The trouble with that, though, is that it smacks of 'something being good for you' - it's too teacherly, too prescriptive.

But here's a slogan for libraries: 'Three for two? How about five for nothing?'