World Book Night 2012

What do Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sophie Kensella’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and David Pearce’s The Damned United have in common? The answer, in all likelihood, is absolutely nothing; except for the fact that they have been chosen for World Book Night 2012 and will, along with 22 other titles, be given away for free.

Celebrated on April 23, 2012 – Shakepeare’s birthday by the way – WBN “is a celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books”.  In total one million books will be given away by event organisers and members of the public “to spread the joy and love of reading”. WBN, the brainchild of Canongate’s Jamie Byng, was successfully launched on the 5th of March of this year inTrafalgar Square,London and featured, amongst others, appearances from Mark Haddon, Margaret Atwood and David Nicholls.

The idea was greeted, in equal measure, by great fanfare and grave doubters. The supporters claimed that to get people reading, promote books and provide positive publicity for the industry has to be a good thing. The cynics claimed that one million books given away for free are one million books that would otherwise have been sold. Plus, titles such as Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time are the bread and butter of bookshops – especially small, independent ones – and giving them away for free instead of selling them would eat into their profits. They also said that giving away free books devalues a book, as once you give people something for free they expect to always receive it for free.

It is easy to sympathise with the cynics but according to The Bookseller, of the 25 titles given away in 2011, 23 had sales boosts in March 2011 compared to February 2011. In that same period, 9 of the 25 books had triple-digit increases and 16 of the 25 increased by more than 50%. As a matter of fact, the average WBD book saw sales increase by 89% between February and March 2011. Not bad, ey?

Personally, I think WBD is a positive venture for the book industry. The old truism of any publicity is good publicity might ring hollow to booksellers being threatened by Amazon, Supermarkets and global recession, but the buzz of getting people excoted about books will surely, in the long term, lead to positive results for everyone. I narrowly missed out on being a ‘book giver‘ last year (since you’re asking, I applied for the brilliantly underrated, funny and sad Stuart: A Life Backwards) but will be applying again this year. I don’t think the list is quite as strong as last time around but there is still something on there for everyone. As the event grows in stature it can only be hoped that everyone will get behind it and that everyone will reap the benefits.

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.


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Amazon’s appetite for destruction: welcome to the jungle

Old news is still news. Or something along those lines. The unthinkable and unwanted, yet inevitable, happened on the 26th of October. News that booksellers, publishers and some book lovers had been dreading for the past four months: the Amazon take over of the Book Depository has been cleared by the Office of Fair Trading. Another competitor simply devoured by Amazon. If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em! Hard to stomach that is for a staunch supporter of indie bookselling and publishing, as I expect that the repercussions will be severe for the industry as a whole and consumers.

Arguably the Book Depository was the only real competition for Amazon, even if most of its sales come from overseas (free worldwide shipping) and it only holds a 2-4% share of the online market. However, combined with Amazon’s share of the online market, estimated to be around the 75-80% mark, real concerns begin to emerge for the publishing industry, concerns such as the demise of traditional bookshops, a lack of consumer choice and increased bargaining power for Amazon.

Amazon has always been able to drive a hard bargain with publishers, squeezing every last penny out of them and buying books for a fraction of their true cost (and value!). Amazon can afford to sell them cheap and take a hit because they know they will make their money back on a plasma screen or whatever else they sell. This, of course, means that bookshops don’t stand a chance because they don’t get the same rates from publishers, so they can’t sell the books as cheap, which means fewer customers and so and so forth.

Amazon’s monopoly of online bookselling is effectively destroying the high street and the government is sitting back and doing nothing (surprise, surprise!). Not only then is this damaging for the industry but consumers too will suffer as choice will be more limited. Amazon decides what to sell and people buy it – I’m afraid that’s just how it works! It’s the independent shops that champion the underdog, the unheard of quirky books that won’t sell in the millions but that make publishing the exciting and creative industry that it is (or used to be?). More worryingly, as Amazon continues to grow the publishing side of its business, soon it won’t only be deciding what gets sold, but also what gets published in the first place. Will they write the damn things next and stuff mindless consumerist titles down our throat? Probably.

Once competition has been swallowed up Amazon can increase its prices, limit its choices and singlehandedly decide which authors will be successful. This was the perfect opportunity for the government to halt the uncontested growth of the behemoth that is Amazon, to put a stop to this appetite for destruction that threatens to ruin our publishing industry and diminishes the whole experience of buying a book. Welcome to the jungle – the unrelenting, deadly and evil Amazonian jungle!

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.


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The Booker Plight shortlist

It’s that time of the year again: whispers, murmurs and tedious droning about the quality of the Booker Prize shortlist which was announced this Tuesday. There’s just no way to please the sceptics is there? If you put all the heavyweights through to the last round there are cries of ‘predictability’ and resentment for favouring ‘intellectualism’. If you put too many novices through then it’s a case of hidden agendas. I’m ready to throw my towel in the ring; I mean who really gives a damn, right? Any publicity is good publicity, and if the Booker Prize will sell books and get people into bookshops then surely everyone’s a winner.

Everyone except Allen Hollinghurst I expect. Winner of the Booker for his fine, but if you ask me, boring The Line of Beauty in 2004, he was the surprise omission from this year’s shortlist. The clear favourite when the longlist was released, the ‘he-deserves-it’, ‘will-he-at-last’ mantle (gratefully received by Howard Jacobsen last year), has this year been wrapped around Julian Barnes. Shortlisted for the fourth time without having won this prestigious *yawn* award, Barnes is now widely tipped to win. His book, or rather novella, The Sense of an Ending actually sounds very interesting: a middle-aged man’s meditation on life and the role memory plays in the perception of one’s life.

Maybe it is a reaction to everyone finding fault with this year’s shortlist that I am strangely excited by it. Part of the reason, I admit, is the fact that five of the six books are published by independent publishers rather than the traditional literary giants such as William Heinemann (Random House) or Hamish Hamilton (Penguin). Not surprisingly perhaps, I consider these to be the most exciting on the list.

Top of that list for me is Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, published by one of my favourite publishers, Cannongate. It is the story of an unusual friendship between Jaffy Brown and Charles Jamrach, a nineteenth-century eccentric entrepreneur and wild animal collector. A work of historical fiction, it is meant to be very poetic and imaginative and somewhat reminds me of one of my favourite books, Measuring the World and the standout debut of 2010 (in my opinion), Boxer, Beetle.

Pigeon English, published by Harry Potter’s Bloomsbury, was hailed by BBC 2’s Culture Show as one of the promising debutant novelists to look out for and has also been shortlisted for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award. Not bad going. The story is told from the point of view of a 11-year-old Ghanaian boy, Harrison Opoku. Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time it centres around inner-city life, suspense, innocence, growing up in an alien country and gang culture, all of which seems particularly pertinent given the recent London riots.

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters and Brothers published by Granta is an “offbeat western about a reluctant assassin and his murderous brother”. If the Cohen Brothers wrote books, this is probably the kind of book they would write. Apprently. The other two books, Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan) and Snowdrops (A D Miller) published by Serpent’s Tail and Atlantic respectively, don’t really take my fancy so I won’t write about them. Crazy, huh? You can read about them here, though, if you are interested.

After my cynical rant last year I vowed to never do it again and yet, like those inevitable ‘will-he-won’t-he’ rumours circling overhead like preying vultures, I have gone and done it again. Oh well. My money this time round is on Barnes, the heavyweight whom that elusive prize has eluded until now, the veteran who kept getting knocked down in the final round. I don’t yet know if his book is a knock-out, but hey, he deserves it right?

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.


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The end of an era – a new daun(t)?

The end of an era. A new dawn. No, I am not referring to the fact that I recently got married, but rather to the fact that Waterstone’s will imminently be bringing its iconic 3 for 2 book offer to an end.

As an advocate for independent bookshops I don’t much care for Waterstone’s. I often find the staff disinterested, stock limited and mainstream, and a distinct lack of locality/personality across the different branches. I do, however, recognise the value that Waterstone’s brings to the publishing industry, so one mustn’t ignore them entirely.

Of course, since HMV sold Waterstone’s to Alexander Mamut at the end of May and James Daunt was ushered in as managing director, the publishing industry was overtaken by a kind of hushed excitement. James Daunt, you see, founded Daunt Books some 20 years ago, the success of which has seen him hailed as one of the most important figures in theUK book trade. Reportedly he actually pays booksellers a decent wage (unheard of and I talk from experience!), gives his staff responsibility regarding stock and reacts quickly to the changing market. He is also adamant that 3 for 2 devalues books and is in actual fact damaging to the book trade in the long term.

I must admit that I have on occasion succumb to the allure of 3 for 2 but rarely did I actually want all three books, I just needed them to make a saving. Of course you never quite realise that you only actually read one of the three books and hence end up paying more. Still, at times it was quite nice, for instance when the Booker Prize shortlist is announced and you can buy several of the featured books at a discounted rate. The sad truth, though, is that you could probably get the books for cheaper at Amazons anyway!

In the face of the online behemoth that is Amazon, Waterstone’s has been underperforming for some time and as the biggest book retailer left in the country any improvement can only be a good thing. Whether or not Daunt can replicate the success of his independent bookshops remains to be seen – critics argue the success is mostly down to the affluent locations of his shops. The decision to axe 3 for 2 will be the most daring decision of James Daunt’s tenure at the helm of Waterstone’s, hopefully it will be prove to be the beginning of a success story. I for one am all for it.

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.


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New Year, New Publishing

Tree of Codes

Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes

With all my New Year’s Resolutions broken before I even had a chance to have a proper go at them (too wet to go running, sourdough starter didn’t take, drinking, it turns out, is a day-to-day necessity, et cetera) I decided to at least write down some thoughts that have been pervading and plaguing my mind for quite some time. In the world of publishing and books, everybody seems to agree that 2010 marked the beginning of digitisation and as a result the death of books is meant to be a matter of when and not if. The future of the book is apparently bleak, with reportedly selling more ebooks than hardbacks and with publishers from far and wide throwing their money at developing ebooks, with enhanced content, phone and tablet apps and whatever else making technologists drool. The year has barely begun and digital sales are already expected to save the book industry.

I know that there are lots of people who don’t believe that physical books will die out and needless to say I am one of them. I agree that there are obvious advantages to having certain books (textbooks, reference books or even manuals) on an electronic reader (search facilities, easy to carry around, et cetera). But for me the most exciting influence technology can have on books and the publishing industry is how it can transform physical books rather than replace them.

Take the quirky and innovative publisher Visual Editions as an example. According to VE, “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell; with the visual feeding into and adding to the storytelling as much as the words on the page”. VE are publishing books that use “visual writing”, which as the name suggests, is using visual elements as an essential part of a story. Visual elements can include photographs, crossed out words, blank pages and/or die-cuts. Anything goes really. As Jonathan Safran-Foer already used visual writing in Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, his underwhelming follow-up novel to the brilliant Everything is Illuminated, it was a no brainer that VE should approach him about working together. As a result Tree of Codes was born. I had a feeling that this book would do well and sure enough the first print run sold out, with Foyles saying it did extremely well for them over the Christmas period. If you are a book lover, why wouldn’t you want a beautiful, creative and unique book in your Christmas stocking?

And so, as ever, in my typically unsuccinct and confusing way I meant to say that technology won’t necessarily kill books, but that it could revive them. It feels as though the possibilities of what can be published are all of a sudden endless. Sure, my example of the cut-up technique has actually been around in literature since the 1920’s and was popularised by William Burroughs but it’s publishers like VE who are taking it to a whole new level. Technology has the potential to emphasise and bring out the beauty in books that has been lost in these days of Richard and Judy, threefortwo mindless blockbusters, mass production for mass consumption and playing-it-safe-big-name-authors. Visual Editions are not alone in experimenting and redefining the limits of what a book is. Nobrow Press and Ditto Press are also producing stunning and innovative books that make you think that the notion of books dying is still some way away. Here then is to the future of books, technologically inspired to take us back to what books used to be: beautiful and irreplaceable.

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.


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