Archive for October, 2013

Bokaflod

October 22nd, 2013

The first thing to say about self-published books is that there are an awful lot of them.

And they’re breeding. A report by Bowker has found that self-publishing has increased by 422 per cent since 2007. The year on year growth shows that self-publishing is a platform that is here to stay, but one question that hasn’t been settled is whether this is a positive development.

Publishers certainly don’t think so. They have, after-all, traditionally been the gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff, and preventing those fools that dare to mix metaphors from ever seeing their names in print. They may have been feeling vindicated last week with the news that Amazon and other online retailers have been selling self-published books containing indecent material, including scenes of rape and the sexual abuse of children.

These retailers rushed to remove the offending titles from their stores, with the Kobo sites even closing down last week to ensure that all of this content had been taken down. However, these revelations have opened up the debate as to how self-published works can be effectively regulated without curbing freedom of speech.

The situation is entirely different in an independent bookshop. Just as with titles released by publishers, each self-published book will be individually considered by a buyer before being stocked. There is no danger that the offensive titles uncovered last week would ever find their way onto the shelves for this reason. The problem, therefore, is restricted to the digital medium, as booksellers are often able to take the quality controlling role that has been historically been fulfilled by publishers.

This is, of course, reductive. Publishers do a lot more than merely acting as moral guardians, and their declining influence has disadvantages for writers as well as readers. Many great books owe their greatness to their editors; you need only look at Ezra Pound’s annotated first edit of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to see the enormous impact that a bit of judicious excision can have.

Publishers also know how to create a product, one that communicates quickly to a prospective reader what kind of experience they will have if they take the book home. This is one area where self-publishing still lags behind. So many self-published books that arrive at the shop have covers that give no real clue as to what the book is about and are typeset poorly. Customers are often short of time and want to make decisions quickly. Elegant and coherent book design helps make this possible, and so without the resources to pay for design and marketing specialists, many self-published books leave these customers cold.

But whatever else it means, self-publishing means more books, and I would say that this can only be a good thing. The BBC recently reported on the ‘bokaflod’ in Iceland, where 1 in 10 people will publish a book in their lifetime. Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, told the BBC that “Even now, when I go the hairdressers, they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.” The financial crisis fuelled a renewed interest in reading and writing. And whether they are good or bad, if more books mean more people reading, surely it cannot be such a terrible thing?

SF

(Please feel free to comment, we would welcome your opinion!)

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Nobel Defeat

October 14th, 2013

Once again, American poet John Ashbery has missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It cannot be said that this has come as a complete surprise. On the morning of the announcment the Telegraph published a list of the top 10 ‘runners and riders’ which featured three Americans – none of whom were John Ashbery.

His name is, however, one that is bandied about every year in lists of possible recipients of the prize and he is the frequent recipient of epithets such as ‘most important living American poet’ and ‘best poet of the late 20th century’. All of which he has earned and deserves and so, to fly in the face of the Nobel committee, I would like to offer some reasons why we could all do with a little more Ashbery in our lives.

He is the antidote to the criticism, made in 2008 by the permanent secretary to the Nobel jury Horace Engdahl that American writers ‘don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature’. Though at times obtuse, Ashbery’s work is always inclusive, and it certainly never shies away from the big ideas. Take this opening sentence from ‘Spring Day’, a poem from Ashbery’s 1970 collection The Double Dream of Spring.

 

The immense hope, and forbearance
Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
As night returns bringing doubts

That swarm around the sleeper’s head
But are fenced off with clubs and knives, so that morning
Installs again in cold hope
The air that was yesterday, is what you are,

In so many phases the head slips from the hand. […]

 

The first thing you notice is non-linearity; the sentence trails through two nights to end up at yesterday. But it is the combination of this dream-time with a poised uncertainty of address which is striking. An addressee seems to be located with ‘is what you are’, but when you read it back once more this addressee dissolves as you realise it was merely ‘the air that was yesterday’. Just as in a dream, as a reader of Ashbery you are not always sure where you are, who you are and how much time has passed. It is very liberating.

In an interview once Ashbery said that ‘you should try to make your poetry as representative as possible’ which suggests to me a drive towards democratic inclusiveness. This is borne out by the poem which, instead of describing one dream, gives us the experience of dreaming. It allows you as the reader to be the dreamer. This experience of dreaming was one that fascinated Freud, inspired Breton and the surrealists and continues to influence and inform important writers such as Murakami today. So if Ashbery isn’t ‘participating in the big dialogue of literature,’ then perhaps it’s time to change the conversation.

SF

Marriage of Convenience

October 7th, 2013

In an interview this weekend for the Guardian, Managing Director of Waterstones James Daunt discussed his decision to stock the Amazon Kindle in stores across the country.

The decision came as part of a dramatic overhaul that Daunt has been carrying out at the retail chain since he was hired by the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, after Mamut bought Waterstones from HMW two years ago.

In reply to those that have said that stocking Kindle tablets and e-readers is like ‘inviting the fox into the henhouse’ Daunt has said that he is merely ‘giving customers what they want’. He went on to write off concerns that book-buying customers might disappear completely once they have got hold of an e-reader, convinced that the market is reaching an equilibrium and that only a small minority will abandon print books altogether.

These comments, however, fail to address the matter from which criticism has stemmed. The issue is not whether Waterstones should remained focussed on print books, but rather whether Daunt is wise to allow Amazon to set a shop-front in their stores across the country.

In an article in the Bookseller this month it was reported that Amazon ‘control 79% of the e-book market in the UK’. It is a battle that, for the moment, they have won. And so they seek to tighten their strangle-hold on the physical book industry. Their purchase of Abe Books and The Book Depository, combined with the astonishingly low prices they are able to offer by not paying tax of any kind, has meant that they have already claimed great swathes of the book-buying public. Now, it seems, Daunt is determined to funnel those customers still dedicated to buying from the high street into Amazon’s ever-widening maw.

Once customers have bought a Kindle from Waterstones will they not be tempted to do all their shopping in one click, bundling their ebook and print books into the same basket? It is certainly true that – as Daunt mentions – many readers retain a strong tactile relationship to books. But are they going to continue to return to high street for them if they are being led by the hand from the stores that they frequent?

In the short run, it makes a lot of sense; Waterstones will make more money. But in the background Jeff Bezos will be lurking, keeping an eye on his enormous clock and rubbing his hands together with glee.

SF

Pets and Books

October 4th, 2013

Contented Book dealers often have pets in their book shops or market stalls. Do you have or know of a domestic pet that stays with its owner in their shop, book room or warehouse? If so, take a photo and send it in – preferably with anecdotes!
Camden Lock Books has a three year old rescue dog who comes to the bookshop every Thursday morning. She is a mongrel that is a ‘collaboration’ -part collie, part black Labrador and part Alsatian. She arrived a year ago, having recently had a litter, via Dorset Dog Rescue, from a pound in Ireland where she had been scheduled for extermination.
She is surprisingly well socialised and adjusted (though somewhat food obsessed),  as you can find out if you come into the bookshop one Thursday for a meet and greet with her. In fact, she’s so affectionate that a tummy rub is in prospect for any dog lover who needs that special animal ‘fix’.

Yesterday a customer came to buy a book at the counter and said that Rosie had sold it to him- that it had felt so homely to see her  reclined on the bookshop floor that he felt compelled to make his purchase.

Cats are always choosy about where they sleep – but Rosie has a bed made for her behind the counter because she is sometimes too friendly, particularly if a customer is carrying their eat-out lunch in a bag with them.