Thursday, November 26, 2009

On the Borders of Change

A thoughtful blog by independent Snowbooks' Emma Barnes on the horrible realities of book retail (in response to the denied rumour that Borders is in administration). Here's a snippet:
Truth is, Borders and their sub brand Books Etc have bought hardly anything from us for the whole year. Our current balance with them is about £100. So on the plus side, if they go bust as a result of being in administration, our cash flow will hardly notice and we won't have to write off any debt.
Read the whole blog, though: there are also interesting thoughts on Amazon.

Books are Evil

Michael Wolff has had it with books (Thanks to Melville House Publishing via Peter Robins at the Guardian):
If there are still good books, they are largely irrelevant to a form and business that is largely about the creation of the artifact—identifier, symbol, leave-behind, brand enhancer...

...It’s not that there is anything wrong, or at least out of the ordinary, with salesmanship or promotional copy, or with even saying you wrote what your ghostwriter wrote. This is the stuff of speeches, advertising, and testimonials. What’s insidious here is that these forms, which are understood to be insincere and a confection, are now in the guise of a book, which is understood to be genuine and substantial.

And, indeed, people are fooled. And, to the extent that readers are not fooled (and reading just a few paragraphs of these books, if you do read them, ought to raise questions), the form of the book itself is undermined. Books lose value and meaning. Real readers come to understand there are fewer and fewer real books.

Publishers publish fake books because, if you have an “author” who has some larger cause to promote, the publisher gets free promotion. What the publisher has traded for such an abundance of promotion is its own brand. HarperCollins does not really believe Sarah Palin has written a valuable book—or even that it is really a book, not in the way that HarperCollins has historically understood books, or in the way that people have counted on HarperCollins to have understood a book. But, these are desperate times and real books are an increasingly equivocal proposition anyway, so almost all publishers are willing to engage in the strategic mix-up between real books and fake books.

This really isn’t quibbling. We have created a giant system of national agitprop, in which books and the book business have become one of the most effective tools...

...Literate people should boycott books.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Reality of Fiction

A post on Katy Evans-Bush's blog reminded me tonight that I hadn't yet read Zadie Smith's Guardian essay on the essay, and I went and did so. I commend to you this article, in which Zadie acknowledges the reality of 'novel-nausea', a sickness with the artificiality of novels in general (which Katy, it seems, strongly shares) and conventional novels in particular, but takes issue with the total condemnation of fiction expressed in a forthcoming book by David Shields.

Funnily enough, I had been intending a blog on this subject myself, ever since I went back, a few weeks ago, to a place where I once lived and which I'd had in mind as one of the 'settings' when I wrote my new novel. Suddenly I found myself in the same street, and suddenly the emotions came back to me that I'd had when I lived there. I hadn't even tried to translate those feelings into the novel, as they weren't appropriate to the story, but it struck me that I never could, not precisely: because those feelings were to do with the inchoate: they belonged to the time before they could be processed, and modified, via logic and the imagination and words.

But then I wondered? Could I? Isn't that my next task as a novelist, to find some way of doing so? To dispense not only with accepted conventions but my own conventions, and write something truly real but nevertheless fictional? Because, like Zadie, I have faith in Werner Herzog's 'ecstatic truth' of fiction.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On the Theme of Themes

I like this by A L Kennedy on the Guardian books blog, which expresses exactly what I feel about being asked to write stories according to predetermined themes:
I object on principle to unhelpful restrictions of time and subject, because I got into writing at least in part so that no one could tell me what to do or think. I neither like nor thrive upon that kind of interference and it doesn't necessarily help me to grow or develop my capacities. I also don't relish restrictions being placed upon a form which should be able to roam free and express itself as it wishes. Sometimes a subject is an inspiration or chimes with an idea you've already got, but often a magazine, or a newspaper, or a bunch of people who say they want to save the short story will end up constricting imaginative and technical scope and making sure much of what they receive will resemble slightly over-emotional op-ed articles. This doesn't help the uninitiated to think well of the short story. And would anyone phone up a writer and ask them to write a themed novel?
I also like Darragh McManus's tribute on the same blog to Margaret Atwood on her 70th birthday, which is a nice counterbalance to Robert McCrum's recent dismissal of the powers of older writers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selling to the Bookshop Chains: How Waterstone's Compares

After the conflicting claims about the way in which Waterstone's deals with literary fiction not backed by big marketing budgets (see Stuart Jeffries versus Waterstone's MD Gerry Johnson and writer and Waterstone's employee Sara Crowley), it's been a bit hard to know what to believe. So, for what it's worth, here's my own experience of visiting branches of the chain bookshops in central London this week, and asking if they would order my new novel, Too Many Magpies (published by independent Salt which doesn't have the resources for big marketing budgets).

Borders, Charing Cross Road. I set foot in this shop with a sinking heart: it doesn't really look like a book shop, more like a W H Smith's, a big gift shop, basically. I approach the information desk with my book and a sheet of information about it, and ask if I can speak to the relevant person. I am given the immediate and unequivocal answer that I need to ring Head Office and swiftly handed the number. I leave the shop, efficiently dispatched.

Foyles. Now this should be more promising: after all, Salt have done a reading here in which I took part. At the information desk I am told by a rakish-looking young man with a beard that the fiction buyer is not available, and I should email him for an appointment. I explain that I'm only in London that day (Tuesday) and the next, and am told that I should still email him and ask for an appointment next day. He adds that this is a very busy period, Christmas. I'm pretty sure I'm being cynically fobbed off, but for the sake of thoroughness, I repair to a cafe and do so. Now, at the time of writing, it's late on Thursday, and I have still had no reply, and of course I am back in Manchester.

Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road. The academic bookshop which you might expect to be interested in serious literature - although of course they probably rely on the academic rather than the general market. This time I can actually speak to the fiction buyer, a nice bearded young man. He hears my spiel, he looks at my book and the information sheet, and the review quotes for my story collection on the back cover. He looks very embarrassed. He is silent. He bites his lip. He says, 'Er...' He is silent once more then he says: 'But will you be getting broadsheet reviews for this?' I say, 'Well, it's certainly been sent out to them for review!' But of course we both know how difficult it is to get reviews nowadays, and the unspoken knowledge swells between us. He starts to go red. He looks as though he'd rather die than be dealing with this. I feel tremendously sorry for him. He bites his lip again, and then he shakes his head. 'I'm sorry,' he says - and I can see he really is - 'but it's so difficult to sell anything that hasn't already had broadsheet reviews.' And that's it. He can't stock my book.

Now 7 branches of Waterstone's:

Waterstone's Trafalgar Square. I'm feeling pretty cynical as I enter this branch, which I imagine caters to passing rather than serious literary trade. But when I speak to Stephen on the front desk, he turns out to be not only one of the fiction buyers, but to know all about Salt, to be really interested in the fact that they have now published a novel (my book), and in my book, and orders two copies on the spot! Wow! Thank you, Stephen!

Waterstone's Gower Street. Once again the first bookseller I speak to, Verona, turns out to be a fiction buyer and orders a copy of my novel there and then. Double wow! This Waterstone's also has a 'small press' section, I notice, in which books by Dedalus and another small press are given a magnificent display. Thank you, Verona!

Waterstone's Covent Garden. Triple wow! Without any ado Gabie, the knowledgable-looking woman on the front desk, orders a copy of my book as I stand there! Thank you, Gabie.

It's the end of the day now and I finish on a high and I'm back in love with Waterstone's.

Waterstone's Oxford Street Plaza. Next day here in the retail heart of London my renewed affection is perhaps inevitably in for a bit of knock. This is a far more commercial-looking branch, 'Best sellers' flagged like mad at the entrance. I must say, though, that the young man I speak to is wonderfully attentive and enthusiastic: he insists on taking me upstairs to the fiction buyer, and all the way up the escalator he asks me about the book and takes it in his hands and strokes it and seems mightily interested and impressed. He introduces me to the fiction buyer and stands by waiting. She is an extremely polite young woman, who tells me most pleasantly but briskly that at this time of the year unless I am a local author or the book has a specifically London connection, they are unable to take it as they can't give it the profile it requires, with face-out displays and Staff Recommends. I say that I wouldn't necessarily expect the book to be given a high-profile treatment, but she insists on her point, perhaps understandably, and says that now, in the run up to Christmas, all the Staff Recommends are hardback (my book is a paperback). Maybe I'm being unfair, but now I'm getting the feeling I'm being fobbed off. She does take my information sheet and tells me that in the New Year they'll perhaps look at the possibility again. And the young man insists on taking me downstairs again and all the way to the front door, with almost ostentatious solicitousness, and, maybe I'm completely wrong, but I can't get rid of the feeling that they saw me coming (or at least read my statement on the web that I was coming).

Waterstone's Oxford Street West. This branch is if anything even more commercial. I speak to a young woman who says the fiction buyer has just popped out, she'll go and check. I can hear her reporting my request to a man who comes back and tells me that there are no fiction buyers in the shop today. He says he'll pass my information sheet on to them, and I'm out of the shop in five minutes flat with the complete certainty that nothing will come of it.

Waterstone's Piccadilly. Here in Waterstone's flagship store is the first table I have come across dedicated to collections of single-author short stories, but as far as I can see (in my by now worn-out state), they are all by well-known or classic authors in editions from mainstream publishers (which would appear to make Brighton Waterstone's, with its specialist short story section, something of an exception). The person I speak to is the crime buyer, who says he will deal with me because the general fiction buyer is busy and not available. He looks doubtful. I push my spiel. I point out my nice comment (re my short stories) from ex-Waterstone's Scott Pack. He says, in such a mumble that I have to ask him to repeat it, that they only deal with official reps from publishing houses. I explain that my publishing house doesn't have the resources for an official rep, and then get the feeling that I've thereby condemned myself and my publisher anyway. He takes my information sheet to pass on, but once again it doesn't look in the least promising.

Waterstone's High Holborn. This is the last shop on my list. It's late in the day, dark, I'm exhausted and hungry - I didn't have lunch - and it's a long trek up to High Holborn from Piccadilly. Is it worth it, when Waterstone's has been so disappointing today? But me, I'm like a dog with a bone, I've got to finish this job. I set off for High Holborn. When I get there I find the branch is tiny. The fiction section is miniscule. I say to the young man at the desk: 'Is that your whole fiction section?' Yes, he tells me. 'Well,' I say, hardened and cynical now, 'then there's probably no point my asking if you'll stock my new novel.' He says he'll go and ask James. James comes up. James instantly hits the buttons and orders three copies of my book. I nearly fall off my blistered feet to the floor. Thank you, thank you, James!

Hatchard's, Piccadilly. Before leaving Piccadilly I turned into Hatchard's (owned, like Waterstone's, by HMV). Oh, wow. Here it was, a truly traditional bookshop, oozing the glamour of intellect and of tradition and modernity in collision which I have always associated with bookshops, and for which I think we're all in mourning. Downstairs in the fiction section which was hushed with a kind of lush intellectual expectancy, Margot received me and my book with warm enthusiasm and ordered four copies, the biggest order of all, and told me that she will give it attention and display it face out. Thank you, thank you, Margot.

So what can be concluded? If my experience is anything to go by, the other big chains are a dead loss for no-budget literary fiction, but Hatchard's and some, though not all, of the Waterstone's branches are great. And that Waterstone's just can't be characterized by any single one of its variable branches.

And, for the sake now purely of promotion, here are the branches where I know my new novel is available:

Hatchard's Piccadilly and Waterstone's in Brighton (Thank you Sara!), Trafalgar Square, Gower Street, Covent Garden and High Holborn.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Waterstone's Response

Gerry Johnson, managing director of Waterstone's, responds to Stuart Jeffries' Tuesday Guardian article, and insists that Waterstone's is still passionate about books, and intent on making sure that 'writers get to write the books they want, and readers can enjoy the books they want to read'.

This is a most heartwarming thing to read, and I am very glad indeed if the worries of publishers and writers turn out to be unfounded (in relation to Waterstone's at any rate). However, Johnson needs to make a better argument to reassure me.

He says that Waterstone's buyers picked out Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Sadie Jones's The Outcast 'before they received any media or awards attention.' Well, The White Tiger comes from independent Atlantic, so this is good. But Sadie Jones's debut is well known to have been 'hotly tipped', so the odds are that its powerful publisher, Harper, awarded it a fair-sized marketing budget which must have included buying attention from bookshops.

He refutes Jeffries' statement that Waterstone's is a place where 'you're invited to buy as much as possible and then shove off' with the vague statement that the stores are 'hugely inviting'. Hm, maybe W has changed since I last went there, but the alternative possibility is that Johnson believes that the sight of rows and rows of the latest bestseller face out like slabs of marg is inviting, in which case he rather undermines his own point: such a sight can be inviting only to the reader happy to be marketed the latest commodity. (I suppose it's also an inviting sight to the marketer.)

In addition, he says, the shops 'give people the opportunity to meet writers they love'. Now that's an interesting statement. Which writers is he talking about? People can only love the writers they know about, of course, and they are more likely to know about the ones the bookshops are pushing. So which writers is W pushing (and inviting to read)? And that phrase 'the writers they love' has too much of the ring of crowd-pleasing and the lowest common denominator for comfort.

Similarly with the 'countless reading groups' he says W runs: to be convinced that they are any more than cynical marketing exercises we would need to know that these reading groups read books other than those with front-table budgets behind them.

Jeffries weakened his argument with his choice of vocabulary, I think, when he made a plea for bookshops to be more like 'old-fashioned reading lounges'. But Johnson's rebuff is very telling. 'Our customers' needs are different to those of shoppers a century ago', he says. 'Our industry must look to the future and adapt to changes in demand, taste and technology.' Again, he fails to define. We must work out those customer 'needs', 'demand' and 'taste' from the context: that customers don't want to hang around browsing any more, and are thus no longer interested in exploring and making their own choices, but in simply purchasing those books on ready display, or those they know about before they set foot in a bookstore, and which, mostly, they know of only because of big marketing budgets. Above all, this statement appears to prove Jeffries' main point that bookshops have relinquished their role of 'creat[ing] demand for books worth reading', and now respond solely to a commercial imperative. And as for that word 'industry': well, I know we use it for the creative businesses all the time, especially in the media, but one wonders if in the context it's especially telling.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The End for Writers

Stuart Jeffries examines How Waterstone's killed publishing. So great is the stranglehold of the book chains over publishers that he can't get any publishers to talk openly about the situation. Agent Bill Hamilton tells him that "They fear speaking out about how their books are being sold." Hamilton, a man who should know, tells us instead:
"There's been a slow bonfire of literary authors in the last 18 months," says Hamilton. "Publishers are sending out to pasture established literary novelists because they realise they aren't going to be sold by the chains. The complaint now from publishers is that most of their quality books hardly get a look in at all"

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Old Authors: Shut Up

Same old story from Robert McCrum as he adds fuel to the ageism of our literary culture once again. (It's always the same old story, Observer, today.) Old authors ought to shut up, is his basic message, pointing to the thinness of Roth's latest novel, the disappointment of Nabokov's recently revealed last, and the fact that Doris Lessing is remembered for the novels she wrote in her forties rather than her latest, written at 87 - and the fact that Shakespeare hung up his quill before he was 50, another aspect, according to McCrum, of his genius. McCrum rather shoots himself in the foot again, though, with his finger-wagging retort to Tolstoy's avowal, expressed at the age of 79, not to be silent: that Tolstoy produced his last 'novel of any consequence' at the tender age of 72...

Edited in: This, ironically, in an edition of the review which leads with an appreciation by Tim Adams of Alan Bennett and the cover story strapline: At 75, with a masterly new play on stage, are we finally seeing the true Alan Bennett?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Same old

Joe Queenan is sick of the repetition in film which current marketing practice has created. (They liked this, so let's give them another.) Most of the films he mentions, though, are populist, and while many of us deplore the blanket application of such marketing philosophy to all films and books, including the serious and 'literary', I only have to haul my ex-mother-in-law before you once again to indicate that, when it comes to populist culture, the marketers have got it right. Picture her once more: rotund, leaning back in the soft chair by the fire, feet up on the side of the fireplace, Mills and Boon in her hand, utterly engrossed for two solid hours. Then she gets to the end and snaps the book shut with great satisfaction, heaves herself, knees spread, from the chair, stops half-way up with a thought and then says, matter-of-fact: 'Mmm, think I might have read that one before!'

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Definitive versions?

Today in the Observer Tim Adams reviews Beginners, the unexpurgated version of Raymond Carver's second story collection, published by Gordon Lish as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He finds the differences startling, but that the 'new' version is nevertheless 'an extraordinary book, more generous and rambling in tone than its distilled counterpart', more nuanced, yet 'still recognizably Carver's'.

Struck by the incongruity of that last thought - presumably that we should be looking for, and hoping for, what we think of as Carver's 'real' voice in his more original work - Adams muses most interestingly on the power and practice of editors:
Editing of Lish's kind is a dark art, but not so unusual. I used to work for a literary magazine, Granta, where the editor, Bill Buford, brought a Lish-style idea of editing to all the content. In some pieces, long stories of 10,000 words or more, not a sentence of the writer's original draft stood. Many writers were grateful for these interventions: they had never sounded so good. Some, of course, balked at the mauling. Carver's friend Richard Ford, for one, would always take Buford back through any story and painstakingly argue for the choice behind every word and comma until the original was restored exactly, not in every case better, but all his own.
One does wonder if this still happens: the Booker judges this year complained at the apparent lack of editing. But you never know, really: as a once-editor myself, I know that it's perfectly possible to overlook the typos but still mess about with a writer's prose, and anyway I suspect that in general nowadays an obsession with the market promotes a cavalier attitude towards authors' intentions which allows for the former and leads to the latter.

The Carver-Lish debate and these Granta revelations focus on the issue of prose style. My experience with my first novel was to have to submit to a change of structure - simple but radical: chapter four was moved to the beginning - specifically designed to create a very different type of novel (as I indicated recently) which would appeal to a very different market. As a new young writer I felt I didn't have a leg to stand on in this matter, but I was never happy with the result, and later republished the book with its original structure restored. Adams predicts that the publication of Beginners will start a trend in this direction - 'the author's cut'.

(If anyone is interested, the revised edition of my first novel The Birth Machine - The Author's Cut, which includes a preface discussing the implications of the changes, is available on Amazon or direct from me via my profile along with a limited number of used copies of the original edition.)