Saturday, August 06, 2011

Books for a song

William Skidelsky writes of his surprise that hardbacks cost very little more to produce than paperbacks, since, it turns out according to a new book by American author Robert Levine, the biggest cost to a publisher in publishing a book is often the fee paid to an author and the marketing expense, that of letting the world know about it - a cost which shouldn't differ according to the format, whether hardback, paperback or ebook. Yet, he points out, Amazon, cushioned by ownership of the Kindle, have driven down the price of e-books to the extent that all publishers have had to accept that ebooks should now be cheaper than traditional formats. As someone pointed out recently - I'm afraid I don't remember where - at this rate authors will soon be writing for nothing, if they're not already doing so!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Are we becoming passive book buyers?

I was staying in London on Tuesday evening with an artist, and as always we ended up comparing notes about the art and the literary worlds. One thing she said to me was that she doesn't any longer go into bookshops to browse actively and look for new books, which she used to do all the time; nowadays she relies much more on recommendations from friends. She said too that her mother, an English teacher and huge reader, has also changed the way she acquires books: she's always taken a great pile of books for the annual family holiday (on which they were all due to embark), but nowadays it will be block deals, such as Richard and Judy recommendations, and in the gite in France she'll be handing out to others the ones she doesn't fancy...

I've written about this before, but the conversation strengthened for me the sense that we are becoming more passive in our book-buying, more subject to advertising and hype, and of the role that bookshops are being forced to play in this. I remembered that exciting sense I used to get on entering a bookshop, of entering a cave of delights, and which I rarely get now, instantly faced as I am with the three-for-two table and my choices ready-made for me. I know there are shelves and shelves of other books beyond it, but the psychology is quite different: I may previously have gone to only one section of a bookshop on any one occasion, but there was the sense that everything else was also on offer for later, or the next time, whereas now my focus is drawn to that central table, and there is the subtle sense, as in all advertising, that nothing else beyond it matters, or at least not as much...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Soap and Opium

It's often said that if Dickens were alive today he'd be writing for 'Stenders or Corrie - the vivid chararacterisation, the rich tapestry of life, the stress on ordinary people's lives, the anatomisation of their community etc. There's a lot of alternative snobbery too, of course: my dad would leave the room when the soaps came on, despising the rest of us for watching them - far beneath him, they were, in his rarified cultural cloud.  I've always been a defender of soaps, and not just in reaction to my dad: for the past year I have been coming down at 1.30 pm from working on my (to me, anyway) deep (but highly accessible!) novel, and have happily - indeed greedily - watched Neighbours while chomping my lunch, without any sense of cultural jarring whatever. The psychology, it has seemed to me, is brilliant, particularly between parents and children, a lot of the dialogue is very sharp, and there is a nicely wry overall view which provides moments of good comedy while dealing seriously with serious matters.

I have just been away for a fortnight with no telly and have come back to a kind of earthquake shift in the storylines. When I left, a key character, a handsome (and thus easily identifiable with) policeman in a central storyline concerning a love affair, was about to be taken into protective custody, with potential dire consequences (the end of the love affair, hints of the children involved being in danger of kidnap) and another key character had been dramatically carted off in a coma with some mystery illness. What's the situation now? The policeman has disappeared off the face of the earth (the plot was clearly a device to allow the actor to bow out), and his housemates are looking for a replacement, and the character who was in a coma a fortnight ago is bouncing around full of health and providing comic relief by interfering with their plans. And I have no idea how any of this happened, because the script gives no clue, and the characters are acting as though none of it did ever happen. It's that old familiar thing: soap amnesia, inevitable I guess in decades-long-running series, with shifting actors and storyliners, but a fundamental denial of the long-term psychological consequences of the past which Dickens always tackles head-on.

It could be answered of course that we don't always want anything so deep, but soaps dominate the culture.  A culture of forgetting?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Short stories on Radio 4

Gwyneth Williams, controller of Radio 4  faced listeners on Friday's Feedback about her decision to cut short stories, still available on BBC iplayer. Maybe I was too busy decorating and then driving, but I listened twice and simply couldn't follow her argument that cutting stories from three to one a week meant cutting from 144 to 104. The new addition of stories on digital Radio 4 Extra might explain the figures, but didn't seem to be part of the equation in her statement, and in any case the stress there seemed to be on archive material. She insisted that she would be commissioning more writers than previously, but the statement was vague (she did not specify short story writers) and I wasn't convinced. Maybe it was simply unfortunate, but Williams' chipper manner and her initial insistence that talking to listeners in the slot was a 'treat' for her, and in the end that she'd 'really enjoyed it' didn't reassure that she was taking seriously the forthright complaints of those listeners ringing in and the groundswell of protest.