Friday, April 30, 2004

More on WHS

Today's Publishing News carries a long and surprisingly informative article about the current state of W.H. Smith, which is arguably the UK's largest bookseller.

Kate Swann, the new CEO, is quoted in remarkably frank terms. WHS, she says, is inefficient, too bureaucratic, and lacking in accurate information. Customers, of course, have known this for some time, but it is refreshing to hear it from the boss lady. She goes on to acknowledge that there is justification in the complaints from suppliers about the difficulty in communicating with the WHS HQ staff at Swindon. Yes indeed. Brick wall stuff, in my experience, although no different from dealing with any other large entity in the book world.

WHS owns a surprising number of bits and pieces in addition to the core shops, and one of those bits is the publisher Hodder Headline. HH has this year made 'an exceptional provision of £9m against author advances.' I wonder what that means. I suspect it means that they have paid authors some £9m more than the HH beancounters currently think they are worth. Though whether the authors think they have been paid £9m more than they are worth is open to question.

It has always been irksome to publishers that they actually have to pay money to those weirdo deadbeats who wander in with manuscripts under their arms. You'd think authors would be glad to be rid of the burden really. Dead authors, on the whole, are much more satisfactory to deal with. They don't whine and whinge about the covers of their books, for one thing, and if they're out of copyright you can use their stuff for free. Trouble is, quite a lot of publishers are wise to the same dodge, so the reprinting of 'classics', as they are quaintly called, is a pretty competitive field. Walk into any bookshop and see how cheaply you can buy a copy of something by Dickens, for example.

The author of the PN article, Fred Newman, is not exactly optimistic about WHS's future. He points out, correctly I'm sure, that the firm is uncomfortably positioned between the specialist retailers on the one side and the supermarkets on the other. They are thus going to have to make the selling of mass-market books their strong suit, which means that they will be in a price war, et cetera.

Now I tell you what. When the high-street price war hots up, even more than at present, margins are going to get shaved. 'Economies' are going to be made. 'Efficiency gains' will be looked for at every level of the business, from author to reader. Printers, for instance, can make efficiency gains through new machinery. Publishers can shave costs by dumping their full-time employees and using freelances as and when. But guess who, in the whole process, cannot easily make efficiency gains. And guess who, when push comes to shove, will end up doing the same job for less money.

The poor bloody authors, that's who.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Crystal balls and other forms of bollocks

I have a friend called George, and every so often we have a drink together in the Faggot and Dyke, where we discuss the state of publishing in general and British publishing in particular.

Unlike myself, George is a cynical hard-bitten chap, of a seriously pessimistic bent; whereas I, of course, am renowned for my sunny disposition and upbeat, almost Panglossian attitude to life. The result is that between us George and I create a formidable dialectic; out of our dings and dongs there emerges, eventually, the noble synthesis of truth. Hegel and Marx would be proud of us.

So it was that one day last week George and I were discussing the works of Jason Epstein. Jase, as you will recall, is author of that great and goodly tome Book Business, first published in 2001. In less than 200 small pages, Epstein gives us not only a potted history of publishing since 1945, as witnessed by himself, but also a vision of the future. And it was then that George asked me the following question: Who is there, he said, on the UK publishing scene, who can offer us a similarly authoritative vision of the future?

Well, I said, there’s Gail Rebuck. And there’s that Cheetham fellow from Orion. And Tim Hely Hutchinson. And a few others.

And do you know what George did? He just sat there and sniggered. Yes, he really did. It was a most unattractive sound, and I had to speak to him quite sharply about it.

Anyway, we kicked this concept around for a bit, and I must admit that, by the end of our discussion, I did feel just the slightest bit doubtful. So I went back and had a look at recent pronouncements by some of the luminaries of the UK book scene.

I began by reminding myself of Gail Rebuck’s address to the London Book Fair in March this year. The Guardian kindly reprinted it. Ms Rebuck, of course, is Chairman and Chief Executive of the UK Random House Group, and is therefore a power in the land.

Sadly, by the time I had reached the sixth paragraph of Gail’s speech, an unworthy thought had entered my head. The text contained so many learned literary references that I began to wonder: had she really written this herself? Or was it like that recent article in The Times by Jacqueline Gold, boss of the Ann Summers sex shops – a clever piece of p.r. work, but obviously written by a p.r. person and not by the one whose name was attached.

As for what the lengthy piece says – well, it argues that books are really important, and will be the saving of civilisation. Which I wouldn’t disagree with. Books will be valued, says Gail, ‘because they embody two of the most prized (but elusive) commodities of our age – authenticity and trust.’ A statement which again I would not seek to demolish. But authenticity and trust? Are those the two words which come to mind when you contemplate the output of our biggest publishers? Celebrity autobiographies, written for said celebrities by someone else, and seldom even read by the person whose name is on the cover? Full of lies and half-truths, which will be denied if necessary – as in Roy Keane’s case?

Five out of ten for Gail. Good try. Do better next time.

More recently, the Bookseller has given us a few extracts from a couple of addresses to the Booksellers Association’s recent session on Mapping the Future.

First, James Heneage, managing director of book chain Ottakar’s. James tells us that we are entering a boom market for books. He cites, God help us all, celebrity autobiographies, TV tie-ins, and Richard and Judy’s chat show as vehicles/avenues which will lead us to this glorious future. He welcomes the entry of supermarkets into the book business, and he claims, in passing, that traditional booksellers have a crucial role in ‘building new talent.’ Funny, I always thought it was the writers who developed themselves. And finally he talks about the danger of losing ‘experimentation and innovation’. Losing them, Jim? When did we ever see any?

No, sorry. Too low on the scale to score at all.

And finally, Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury. He does at least mention authors as if they were key players in the game. ‘The future will be mapped in large part by the author’, he says, ‘and at the end of the day, publishers are midwives, not parents.’ Dead right, Nige. Trouble is, though, I have from time to time looked at the Bloomsbury catalogue, and I’ve never yet seen a book there that I actually wanted to read. Just to be sure I wasn’t misremembering, I have just pulled out the Bloomsbury catalogue for autumn 2001 and dipped a finger into the fiction section at random. Nope, sorry, nothing there for me. A bit too highbrow. Bloomsbury without ole Harry Potter would, I suspect, be a bit like Faber without Cats: up the creek.

So, three out of ten for Nigel, since I’m feeling generous.

Do you know, I am beginning to have the horrible feeling that my friend George was right, and that the leaders of the wonderful UK book trade don’t really have any clear and inspiring vision as to how writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers will all interact in the future. And so now, since I am apparently such a know-all, you will want to know what my vision of the future is.

Well, I think that there will continue to be a massive demand for ‘books’, however defined, but both the demand and the supply will take different forms. And of course the traditional book trade will survive, and perhaps even grow, throughout the lifetime of everyone reading these words. But sometimes these days, when reading the book sections of the weekend broadsheets, I begin to suspect that what they contain is increasingly irrelevant. There is a whole new world out there in cyberspace. There are massive numbers of writers and readers who have pretty much given up on the old way of things, and are creating and finding new ways of doing business.

Why have people given up on the old ways? Because, for a variety of reasons, the old ways don’t deliver what’s wanted. Yesterday, for instance, I was looking for some material on the history of blogs. And there are a few old-fashioned (in the sense of printed) books on the subject. But not many, and they’re not new, and they’re expensive, and none of them are in my local council library – and they’re not even in my local university library. So I made do with an internet search instead. If I could find an ebook covering the subject, which looked as if it provided what I am looking for, I would buy it like a shot.

And don’t underestimate the self-publishing business, either. Time was when self-publishing was strictly for losers. But as the big publishers continue to merge, and as they continue to be more and more interested (perforce) in the huge sellers at the expense of everything else, there are going to be plenty of perfectly sensible people who no longer even bother trying to deal with agents and traditional publishers. (And God knows it isn’t much fun.) These people will just go their own way, because this is the digital age, and you can. (And if you want an example of how one eccentric elderly English writer has done just that, click on the link to Kingsfield Publications.)

More later, as the news services say.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Nude Ego and Roye

Another book found during the decorating episode (see yesterday) was Nude Ego (1955, Hutchinson) by Roye – Roye being the professional name of the photographer Horace Narbeth. I have a signed copy, no less.

Roye was a talented photographer in many areas; at one time he was commissioned by the Rank Organisation (then Britain’s premier film-making company) to produce top-quality publicity shots of all their starlets. But he is chiefly famous, I suppose, for his nudes.

Beginning with Perfect Womanhood in 1938, Roye produced a succession of studies of the female nude. The English Maid was next, followed by Welsh, Scottish, and Irish maids, all of whom proved extremely popular, especially during the war.

Roye’s autobiography is interesting for a variety of reasons, but it was the last chapter which caught my eye this week. Writing at the end of 1954, Roye made the point that the English laws at that time relating to ‘obscenity’ were in a hopeless muddle. ‘Today,’ wrote Roye, ‘more and more publishers and authors are getting into a tangle with the authorities.... They are being heavily fined, and are having their work banned and branded as obscene, or let off, according to the personal outlook of the presiding judge and the luck of the draw in juries.’ He goes on to give examples, including the famous occasion in 1954 when Swindon police seized copies of Boccaccio’s 600-year-old classic The Decameron. The magistrates who declared this work obscene were a retired engineer, a hospital secretary, a grocer, and a railway worker.

Roye was quite right, of course. Chapter five of Victor Bonham Carter’s Authors by Profession (1984, the Bodley Head) describes how, in 1954, five very respectable publishers were prosecuted for obscenity. Needless to say – or perhaps we do need to say – the content of those five books would not raise an eyebrow today. Those of us who live in the wonderful world of the twenty-first century are inclined to forget, even if we were alive then, just how prudish and tight-arsed the English were in the 1950s. The Welsh and the Scots were far worse.

Theoretically, there was no censorship of books; books did not have to be submitted to some central authority for approval. But there was censorship in the theatre, in the form of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. No play could be produced in London without the Lord Chamberlain’s thumbprint upon it, and the newspapers of the day frequently carried accounts from playwrights of the footling changes demanded by that official. No one could exclaim ‘Jesus Christ!’ for example. And as for fuck, bugger and shit – well, my dears, the whole universe would have collapsed around our ears had such words ever been heard upon the English stage.

The Lord Chamberlain survived until the Theatres Act of 1968 sent him packing. The book world was sorted out, after a fashion, by the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Thereafter a number of attempts were made by well-meaning bumblers (Mary Whitehouse to the fore) to control the reading matter of the great British public, but they were largely unsuccessful and served only to provide acres of free publicity for books which really didn’t deserve it.

So Roye was right. The law then was an ass. He himself was prosecuted in 1958 – twice, in fact – for daring to sell photographs of a nude model in which the young woman’s pubic hair was visible. Oh my God! Steps back three paces and clutches heart. I can scarcely bring myself to write these words. Up to that point, you see, it had been a settled principle of English law that any young man, on catching a glimpse of female pubic hair, would immediately suffer a moral and physical collapse, leading to a loss of brain fluid through the end of his penis. The Empire would disintegrate and Hitler would rise from his grave. At Roye’s first trial the jury could not make its made up: 10 of the 12 were for acquittal. The authorities promptly set up a second trial, and lost. Roye chose to relate the whole story in a small booklet, Unique Verdict. This booklet included reproductions of the offending photographs, unretouched pubic hair and all. As you would expect from a man of Roye’s taste and refinement, the pictures are really rather beautiful.

Soon after the unsuccessful prosecution of his work, Roye left England and went to live abroad. He survived to a great age, well into his nineties, and remained a powerful personality to the end. There was an exhibition of his work at the George Street Gallery in Brighton in about five years ago, which he happily attended, but the old fellow came to a sad end. In 2002 he was stabbed to death at his home in Morocco by an intruder.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Eothen and Mr Kinglake

We recently had the hall and landing redecorated, which meant that I had to move all those books out from the shelves under the stairs, which meant, as usual, that I found a few things that I didn’t know I had, plus a few old favourites.

One of the old favourites is Eothen by A.W. Kinglake. How did I come by that? Some years ago I read that someone had once asked Winston Churchill’s advice on how to improve his prose style. ‘Read Kinglake,’ said Churchill. Well, since the old boy did win the Nobel prize for Literature, on account of his ‘mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory’, I figured that it might be worth taking his advice.

Turns out that Kinglake wrote two things of note: Eothen, for one, plus an eight-volume history of the Crimean War. I started with the former, which was originally published in 1844, when Kinglake was 35. The word Eothen, incidentally, means ‘from the east’, and the book describes the author’s travels in what is now, I suppose, called the Middle East.

Well, Churchill was right, in that Eothen is easy to read and tells a gripping story. The title, as the author points out, is the hardest word in the book. There are 29 chapters, many of them indicating the places he went to, such as Constantinople, Cyprus, Cairo, Damascus, and so forth.

Two examples of the content will suffice. One chapter is devoted to Lady Hester Stanhope. Lady Hester evidently came from Somerset, where she acquired a formidable reputation for breaking in the most vicious horses. At some point, however, she became bored with life in England and answered the call of the east. She ended up in the desert, somewhere near what Kinglake refers to as Beyrout, which I suppose is what we now call Beirut.

The desert held no terrors for an Englishwoman with balls, which is very definitely what Lady H was. She could also ride a horse better than most men. Her reputation with the desert tribes was sealed when she was accompanying a group which lived in constant fear of attack by their enemies. At one point, a tiny disturbance was noted on the far horizon, and the group began to panic, thinking that an enemy force was hunting them down. Lady Hester, however, had keener eyes than any of them. She studied the tiny speck on the horizon for a few moments, and then announced that there were indeed horses approaching, but that they were riderless. This statement proved to be correct, and thereafter the tribe seems to have made her some sort of honorary queen.

On another occasion, Lady H was with some other members of a tribe and was told, as tactfully as possible, that if she was found in their company, the whole group would be killed by a rival tribe. Lady H immediately broke apart from her companions, and set off across the desert alone. Sure enough, she was soon being chased by a large band of brigands. Recognising that she could not escape, Lady H turned to face them, and with a roar of defiance yelled out, ‘Avaunt!’ Which is, of course, an obsolete expression, meaning ‘Go away!’ Or ‘To hell with the lot of you!’ Or perhaps something even ruder. The band of brigands was so impressed by this display of courage that they decided not to kill her after all, and roared their approval in reply, firing their weapons into the sky instead of at her. There is more about Lady Hester, along the same lines.

The other story in Eothen which I find quite unforgettable concerns Kinglake’s time in Cairo. Even as he approached the city, he was warned to turn back because the plague was rampant, but he went ahead regardless. He soon discovered that death was a commonplace event. The stream of funeral processions past his lodgings was almost constant. And sure enough, after a few days Kinglake too fell ill with a sore throat. Most of the doctors had fled the city, but one remained – remaining because he was too young and poor to leave, rather than through any desire to serve his fellow men. Kinglake visited the doctor, was examined, and was given a prescription. As he left, he noticed that, although the day was not hot, the doctor was sweating heavily. Within a few days, Kinglake had recovered and the doctor had died.

It is, I believe, somewhere in Eothen (though I cannot now locate it) that you will find a piece of advice which I pass on to you. It is a saying which is sometimes attributed to Cecil Rhodes, but I suspect that it was common currency in the nineteenth-century gentlemen’s clubs and in the officers’ messes. The advice is this: Always remember that you are an Englishman, and have therefore won first prize in the lottery of life.

In the nineteenth century, this was, of course, no more than a statement of fact; but it has a lot of truth in it, even today. So, on those mornings when you wake up and feel that all is far from well with the world – that Mr Blair is a clueless moron, and Mr Bush worse; that David and Victoria are bound to split up, despite your very best efforts; and that, as sure as it is Tuesday, it will rain again in the afternoon – on those occasions, dear reader, I recommend that you repeat the nineteenth-century mantra: I must always remember that I am an Englishman... et cetera.

Of course this little magic spell, so to speak, only works if you actually are an Englishman (or woman). If you are a Frenchman or an Italian, or something ghastly like that, I can only offer you my deepest sympathy. Reading Eothen, however, might at least cheer you up somewhat, and it won’t do your prose style any harm either.

Monday, April 26, 2004

W.H. Smith and the art of selling books

The weekend’s papers (business section) were full of stuff about W.H. Smith. For those who do not know, WHS is just about the UK’s biggest bookseller, and therefore the fate or welfare of the firm is of interest to all involved in the book trade – writers, publishers, and readers alike. And it seems that not all is well in the empire.

W.H. Smith was founded in the nineteenth century by a certain H.W. Smith, but that name didn’t trip off the tongue too easily, so the initials were shifted around. Mr Smith had considerable influence on the nineteenth-century book world for several reasons. One, he came to have bookstalls on virtually every railway station in the land, and thus sold vast quantities of books, newspapers, and magazines. Two, he had a highly successful chain of lending libraries – you paid a modest fee and you could borrow a copy of the latest bestseller.

Because of reasons one and two, publishers and writers had to pay close attention to what Smith wanted to buy. And what Smith wanted, it turned out, was bloody long books (three-deckers) with no sex in them, because Smith was an almighty prude. His chief competitor, Mudie, was also against sex. Cyril Pearl, in his highly entertaining 1955 book The Girl with the Swansdown Seat, describes Smith and Mudie as ‘hymn-bawling Nonconformists [who] exercised a censorship as absolute in its way as that of the Holy Office.’ The prejudices and preferences of these two gentlemen coloured the reading matter of several generations.

For many years WHS had, so to speak, a licence to print money, but in the 1990s the business began to go downhill. You only had to go into a branch of the shop to see that there were problems. There is a small branch of WHS some three miles from where I live, and I go in there at least once every week. The staff are all local, and are friendly and helpful, but it soon becomes clear that there is an absence of joined-up management at national level.

For instance, I once saw a large WHS advert in a national newspaper. It must have cost tens of thousands of pounds. One of the items heavily featured was a ‘revolutionary’ new ball-point pen; it had, as I recall, a ceramic tip. So I went into my local WHS and asked to see one. The staff had no idea what I was talking about. On another occasion, I went in and asked a member of staff where the audio books were. ‘Audio books, sir? What are they?’ And so on. I will not weary you with examples.

More serious, perhaps, is the firm’s attitude towards publishers. Time was when a small local publisher, producing local books which were of interest to local people, could walk into his nearest WHS and do a deal with the manager. The manager would stock the books, local people would buy them, local publisher would emerge with a smile. Not any more. Nowadays buying has been ‘rationalised’ and ‘centralised’. And the rational central buyers are not interested in small publishers. They are only interested in the big boys, who will slip them £10,000 for putting a pile of Princess Diana’s Secret Lesbian Love Diary right near the door.

A few months ago, WHS appointed a new chief executive, Kate Swann. Age, 39. Annual salary £1.8m. ‘Operationally, I had expected it to be better run than I found,’ she said. You just haven’t been going into the shop, darling. WHS shares recently fell to a ten-year low, and now the company is subject to a takeover bid. My advice: sell.

Friday, April 23, 2004

More Manchuria

In writing yesterday's piece about The Manchurian Candidate, I quite forgot that I have also seen a stage version of the book. This was written by John Lahr (son of Bert Lahr -- Wizard of Oz et cetera). The plot in Lahr's version was somewhat updated, as the movie remake no doubt will be, and this time the villains, as I recall, were the Japanese. The script has been published in the US and is available on

Need I say that the stage version didn't work? Any reasonably sensible person who had seen the movie would know that a stage adaptation couldn't possibly work, but that, apparently, didn't prevent a number of starry names from signing up to the project. I saw a pre-London performance at the Theatre Royal, Bath, perhaps ten years ago. When it got to London it lasted about four weeks.

I was once part of a committee which arranged for John Lahr to give a lecture and he seemed a pleasant enough guy. But he didn't mention anything about his interest in The Manchurian Candidate. If only you'd said, John, I could have told you.

There was also a production of this play in New York in 2003. You can see a review of it here. The play was done on an Equity showcase basis, which means that nobody gets paid but people have a chance to look at it and see if it works. Doug De Vita, the reviewer, didn't seem to be much more impressed than I was. Interesting, yes. The material could hardly fail to be interesting. But gripping and thrilling, no.

More money

This morning’s post brings a report from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). Which may sound deadly dull, but it involves money, at any rate for UK-based writers, so if you are among such, pay attention.

The ALCS has been going for nearly thirty years, apparently, and its function is to collect monies which are due to writers from such activities as photocopying, library lending, TV syndication, and the like.

I have had dealings with the ALCS from two directions: as a representative of those who use copyright work, and as one who creates copyrighted material.

As you would expect, the ALCS operates by sampling the use of material. So, for instance, some ten years ago it was the turn of the University of Bath to be sampled. It was my thankless task to make sure that, for a period of two weeks, every piece of copyright material that was photocopied in the entire University was identified and recorded. This involved putting appropriate record sheets alongside every photocopier in the place, and then ‘persuading’ those who turned up and wanted to run off a copy of a chapter or an article to record all the details in writing. As you can imagine, this did not make me popular, but we managed to produce some respectable records in the end.

Since I am also the author of some material of the kind which does get photocopied occasionally, I registered with the ALCS some years ago. And earlier this year I got a cheque for £104.50. Which is not a lot, but it’s a damn sight better than nothing. And it derives, presumably, from one academic book and a handful of articles. Those who do more non-fiction than I can expect to do much better.

In short, the ALCS, from a writer’s point of view, is a Good Thing. If you think you might benefit, and have not already signed up, you can do so at the ALCS web site.

Here are a few figures to encourage you. Last year, some 30,371 writers were paid a total of £11.026m. Chief beneficiaries, as you might expect, were education writers, because their stuff gets copied by students looking for a handy source to plagiarise. The ALCS is, by the way, holding considerable sums in reserve because it has no means of finding the writers to whom the money belongs. You may be one of them.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate -- again

I mentioned a while back that, while looking for something else on Google, I had stumbled upon a copy of the script of The Manchurian Candidate. Well, I have now got around to reading said script, and a rare treat it is too.

At which point I was going to write you a lengthy and no doubt learned essay about the book, by Richard Condon (1959), and the movie (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury. But I find I don’t need to, because the bulk of the job has been done by one Louis Menand, and you can read all about it in the New Yorker.

So, just a few comments. The book is still in print, after all these years. It was a bestseller, but according to Menand it was widely regarded by the serious critics of the day as pulpy crap. Well, you and I should be lucky and talented enough to write such pulpy crap, is all I can say. And if I could find a book to read even once a month which was half as good, I wouldn’t complain. As far as I’m concerned, Condon was one hell of a writer, though his vision was uncomfortably dark at times.

The script of the film, which you can see here, was by George Axelrod. The film is available on DVD, and the DVD apparently also carries interviews with Axelrod, Frankenheimer, and Sinatra.

Page 1 of the script describes the central character, Raymond Shaw, as young, handsome, wooden, and priggish. Well, you can see straight away how Laurence Harvey got the part, can’t you?

The script reads very well. The novel has been described by the film historian David Thomson as ‘a book written so that an idiot could film it,’ and some say that Condon wrote it with the film version ever in mind. He had, after all, worked in Hollywood for years. But I don’t think it was that simple myself. For my money Axelrod and Frankenheimer did exceptional jobs.

According to Menand, ‘Most people know John Frankenheimer’s movie’, but I rather doubt that myself. Clever chaps who write for the New Yorker may well know of it. And boring elderly farts like the author of this blog ditto. But the average guy and gal in the street? I don’t think so. Still, soon they will have an opportunity to learn more, because Jonathan Demme has allegedly filmed a remake, which is scheduled for re-issue in July this year.

The plot of the book/film features a conspiracy to assassinate a candidate for the American presidency, and, since the film came out in 1962, one year before Kennedy was shot, there has been some debate about whether it influenced Harvey Oswald. Whether it did or it didn’t, the film disappeared from view in 1964. Menand says that Sinatra bought the rights in 1972, and removed the film from circulation entirely until 1987. For what it is worth, I once heard Sinatra tell Larry King that he hadn’t realised that he owned the rights, and he rather implied that he had had control from the beginning. But in any event, you can now read the book and see the movie. I recommend both. Whether the remake will be worth a pitcher of warm spit remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Money money money

The Times (and every newspaper today) carries the news that the UK supermarket chain Tesco has achieved annual pre-tax profits of £1.6 billion. That's profits, please note, not turnover. God only knows what the turnover is.

Let us compare that with the UK book trade. Obtaining accurate figures is difficult -- it depends which source you believe -- but a couple of years ago the high-street bookshops took in somewhere around £2 billion a year. Let's be optimistic and say that's gone up by 10%, to £2.2 billion. And that's turnover, please note, not profit. Just by way of comparison, it is worth noting that the income of all firms of solicitors (lawyers) in the UK is in excess of £11 billion a year.

Out of that £2.2 billion spent on books, the trade publishers get somewhere around 50%. Or less. The bookshops, and of course the Tescos of this world, are driving down margin with every passing year. So the fancy end of publishing (as opposed to boring but profitable things like textbooks) is pulling in about £1 billion a year. In turnover. We don't really know what the profit on that is, but we can rest assured that it is modest.

The Bookseller provided some data on profit margins a couple of years ago. Now the term 'profit margin' can mean almost anything, especially if your name's Maxwell, but let us assume that in this case like was being compared with like. The profit margin in consumer trade publishing -- the flashy high-street end -- was given as 4.1%. The margin for scientific publishing was 29.3%.

Now you know why the City of London isn't interested in publishing or bookselling. The whole book industry in the UK is a piddling little business of no interest to the money men whatever. Even the biggest firms are small employers (Hodder Headline, one of the biggest, has less than 800 employees) and staff are very modestly remunerated. In 2001 a Bookseller survey showed that in one medium-sized publisher the average salary was just under £20,000. In the same year, a driver on the London underground was earning £31,000.

No wonder they can't afford to pay writers properly.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Honesty is the best policy

The Times today says that the Shell oil company ‘repeatedly lied to shareholders about the value of its oil and gas reserves.’ Good heavens. Just think of that. Businessmen telling lies. And British businessmen too. There’s just no end to human wickedness, is there?

Fortunately, nothing like that could ever happen in the world of books. Because all publishers, as I may have remarked before, are gentlemen. Some of them went to quite good schools, and even universities, and so it is inconceivable that any of them could mislead their shareholders. Or even stakeholders – among whom, of course, writers figure prominently. Happily, as we are all aware, writers are treated by publishers with the utmost respect and concern for their welfare.

It is worth remembering, however, that it was not always so. Robert Maxwell, for instance, was a publisher. And Mr Maxwell, I regret to say, was not always entirely scrupulous in his dealings. Well, he was a foreigner originally, so what can you expect?

In his book Reputations under Fire, David Hooper recounts some of Maxwell’s more flagrant crimes. On one occasion, Maxwell decided that the end-of-year accounts for one of his companies, company A, were less than satisfactory. So he arranged for another of his companies, company B, to ‘buy’ 5,000 encyclopaedias from A. There was nothing in writing, and as a matter of fact company A didn’t even have 5,000 encyclopaedias in stock, but the deal went through and was recorded as a ‘sale’, thus ensuring that company A ended the year in profit. After the end of the financial year, the order was cancelled.

I once had some dealings with Lord Kearton, who was an unashamed admirer of Maxwell and had worked with him for years. I say with him, please note, rather than for him. Kearton told me that when he held the post of chairman of one of Maxwell’s major companies, he refused to take a salary. Maxwell found this very bizarre, apparently. But, Kearton said, once you took Maxwell’s money you were just another employee. You would be rung up at three o’clock in the morning and bullied, just like everyone else on the payroll. If you refused his money, on the other hand, he would treat you with respect, and there was at least half a chance that he might listen to what you said.

Those who knew Kearton were often puzzled by his admiration for Maxwell, because the latter was such an obvious crook. Kearton, by contrast, seemed to me to be absolutely honest. When I knew him, towards the end of his life, he was Chancellor of the University of Bath. This was an honorary position, the chief function being to hand out degrees at the end of the academic year, but Kearton took the job seriously. Every couple of weeks, sometimes more often, he would drive himself to various committee meetings at the University (which was a 180-mile round trip) and he gave freely of his time and experience. The office of Chancellor did not have any salary attached, but Kearton was entitled to draw travel expenses for these visits. Typically, he never bothered to claim, but I made it my business to see that his costs were covered; it seemed to be the least we could do. At the end of one year I worked out what was due to him, at the standard rate per mile, and found that it came to about £1,100. I rounded it down and sent him a cheque for £1,000. Kearton sent it back. A thousand pounds was, he said, far too much; five hundred would do.

I’m not sure they make businessmen like that any more.

Stephenson interview

A few days ago I wrote a piece about Neal Stephenson's new book The Confusion. The Bookslut kindly directed me to an interview with Neal in Wired.

Among other interesting things, Neal says the following: 'This book is meant to work as a yarn. I hope that readers will take it as such. If they also want to go think deep thoughts about currency fluctuations during the 1690s, then there's plenty of that in here for those who want to read it on that level. Everything I've talked about above took place in a world full of pirate ships, sword fights, seductive courtesans, picaroons and other staples of the bodice-ripping and swashbuckling genres, which I have not been above putting into these books.'

Right on, brother, as I believe they say in some quarters.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Oliver Twist

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last Friday, to see a version of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett.

Mr Bartlett is a Balliol man, as I recall, and had a proper education. Not surprisingly, therefore, his adaptation was masterly. Neither is he any sort of slouch as a director, and from the very first moments you realise that you are in the hands of a team of professionals. I know of no higher compliment.

Of course, while sitting there watching young Oliver, I realised that in many decades of life I had somehow or other managed to avoid ever reading or seeing the full story. I never read the novel. I have seen only bits of David Lean’s famous 1948 movie starring Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. And although I heard countless versions of the songs from the Lionel Bart musical I never attended a performance. So I wasn’t entirely sure how things would turn out. But it transpires, as you might expect, that Olly survives some perfectly dreadful traumas and no doubt goes on to live a full and happy life. So that’s all right then.

Mind you, the story is pretty gruesome and sordid, and I felt that the members of the audience who had brought children under ten were pushing their luck a bit. Dickens told it pretty much like it was in early Victorian London, and Mr Bartlett made it really scary. However, Dickens was obliged to soften the truth a little, and for reality you must read Mayhew.

Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was a journalist and writer. For whatever reason, he made it his business to interview the poor and the downtrodden, those who eked out a miserable existence on the streets of London, and he published the results in a series of books generally known as London Labour and the London Poor. His work seems to be largely out of print today, but an excellent summary can be found in The Illustrated Mayhew’s London, edited by John Canning and with an introduction by Asa Briggs (1986, Weidenfeld and Nicolson). I bought a copy secondhand.

Mayhew describes in surprisingly frank detail the lives of those who struggled to survive. There were abandoned children, for example, who earned a few pence daily by collecting buckets of dog shit. Apparently there was a demand for that smelly substance from tanners.

In another case, Mayhew interviewed a young prostitute, who at the age of ten found herself living in a low lodging house, where three or four dozen boys and girls all slept together in one room. ‘The beds were horrid, filthy, and full of vermin. There was very wicked carryings on.’ Dickens knew all this, of course, just as intimately as Mayhew.

I myself used Mayhew as the source for a couple of characters in my novel Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, which is a sequel to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, written under the pen-name Anne Moore. A cracking good book, even if I do say so myself. And I am not alone. ‘An unusual and entertaining read,’ said Kirkus Reviews.

The programme for Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Oliver Twist gives no details, but the production is presumably touring and is well worth seeing if you get the chance. I don’t expect to see anything better for the next year or two.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Akme and everyone who's anyone

Every so often, writers - and particularly the as-yet-unpublished writers - just completely lose it.

Typically, what happens is that a manuscript is returned to a writer by a publisher. Eventually. Let us say that this happens after six months, and after repeated letters of enquiry and telephone calls. Half of the manuscript has been lost somewhere, and the rest is covered in marmalade. Or worse. And the accompanying letter goes something like this. 'Thank you for sending us you (sic) biogriphy (sic) about Napoleon [when it was actually a chick-lit novel]. We sugest (sic) you approach a litry (sic) agent.' I have read such letters. Believe me. They are often written by the office cleaner, who doubles as a reader during her coffee break. ('I don’t reckon much to this one, Amanda. The ’eroine’s got red ’air. I can’t be doin’ with an ’eroine wot as got red ’air.’)

At which point a red mist descends over the writer’s eyes. (A phenomenon once described rather vividly by Harold Wilson, when he heard some cretinous white Rhodesian telling an off-colour story about his African workers.)

The writer goes rapidly and irreversibly into what is not just a hissy fit but a blood-pressure raising, tooth-grinding rage which lasts for a week or more. And during that week the writer plans his revenge. Oh yes.

Beware, o ye publishers. You can push a chap too far, you know. And even a lady, though they tend to be more stoical. With the possible exception of Beryl Kingston.

What happens then can take a variety of forms, but if the publisher is lucky the revenge will be taken in words rather than via a visit with a sawn-off shotgun. All of which leads me to two web sites which feature revenge of this sweet kind. And I don’t know about you, but I find them richly amusing.

The first revenge site is called Akme, and it is the work of Andrew Malcolm. Briefly, Malcolm once submitted a book on philosophy to Oxford University Press. He was sent a letter which appeared to be an offer of publication, but later the offer was withdrawn. Or OUP decided it had never been made. Or whatever. A court case followed.

But you can read all about it on Akme. Once offended, Mr Malcolm is a hard man to shake off. He began his site, some years ago, by recounting the events surrounding the (non) publication of his book, but he has by now gone a long way from there. He now exposes the grandiose follies of Oxford University itself, and a few other universities as well, come to that. And along the way, if you burrow deep enough, you will find an archive of court cases concerning publishers and writers (the Akme Literary Law Library) which is a useful resource. Exploring this site fully will take you a considerable amount of time.

The other outstanding revenge site is Everyone who’s Anyone. This is American and was set up a few years ago by Gerard Jones. Mr Jones, like many another ambitious and unpublished writer, attempted to kick-start his career by submitting stuff (how else?) to publishers and agents. After a while it occurred to him that the letters he was getting back were - how shall we put it? - full of shit. So he decided to publish them on the web, illiteracies, contradictions, absurdities and all. This did not make him popular. People wrote and asked him to desist. So he published those letters as well.

Mr Jones’s site has changed a bit over the years and I have the distinct impression that it is not as much fun as it used to be. No doubt some of those fine people in publishing - awfully nice, but they do tend to be self-important and lack a sensayuma - maybe they’ve hit him with a writ or two, because they are a frightfully litigious lot over there. Some of the fun stuff seems to have been deleted.

I note that Mr Jones says on his latest front page that he has added a new section called Advice to Writers. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘I wouldn’t take it if I were you.’

God, don’t you just love the world of books?

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Universities cash in on writers

Book2book is a useful site which summarises, on a daily basis, much of what passes for news on the UK publishing scene; and, of course, b2b also records much of what is happening elsewhere in the world. Today b2b provides a link to an article in The Independent which is entitled ‘Universities cash in on creative writing courses as aspiring novelists abandon the lone struggle.’

Thing is, see, there are now 85 universities in the UK offering postgraduate degree courses in creative writing.

Let’s just think about that for a minute. Frankly I didn’t know there were 85 universities in the UK. Depends how you count ’em I suppose. And now they are ‘cashing in’. Well you bet they are. The poor buggers are practically bankrupt, so when they find a bunch of suckers who are prepared to pay handsomely for a one-year (or perhaps even two-year) course which can be taught by another bunch of suckers who will settle for being paid peanuts - well then definitely they’re going to cash in.

Personally I have been a published writer for 49 years (I think it is - could be 50), and I worked for 24 years in the university sector, so I think I know a little bit about both those fields. And I would caution anyone against rushing in to take a one-year postgraduate course in anything. All too often potential students take a look at their life in their late twenties or early thirties, and decide that their career has not quite prospered as they hoped. What is the solution? they ask themselves. Why, get a higher degree, of course.

Except that it isn’t. Often they take the master’s degree - or, even worse, stagger through a PhD - and then... Er, well, not much, actually. No dramatic changes. Except that they have had to resign their job to take the course, and it’s hard to find another one. And it’s cost them a lot of money. And the girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever has got fed up with all this nonsense and hitched up with someone else. So then they blame the university. And they get legal aid to pursue a grievance. Oh, please, God, just give me back a few of the hours I’ve spent dealing with those cases.

The Independent article is founded on research undertaken by Debbie Taylor, and published in Mslexia, a Newcastle-based magazine for women who write. By and large Ms Taylor seems to have her head screwed on right, but I question one or two of her conclusions. Literary agents are queuing up to sign on young writers from such courses, she says. Are they really? I rather doubt it. For very sound reasons, agents are chiefly interested in writers who can generate £100,000 a year. And doing a one-year course with a distinctly literary tone to it does not strike me as the best way to produce such a writer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Names real and adopted

Publishers Lunch kindly led me to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail featuring Sophie Kinsella, author of the Shopaholic series, which you have doubtless read. Er, no, me neither, actually, but it doesn’t matter for what I have to say.

Turns out, you see, that Sophie Kinsella, mistress of the chick-lit genre, is actually Madeleine Wickham, an Oxford graduate with two sons. And - here at last is the point - under her own name she wrote seven novels (apparently fairly serious ones) before adopting the Kinsella monicker for the frothy stuff.

Which makes perfect sense to me. Novelists’ names are after all a form of brand-name. The most famous names - Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, say - denote genres almost all by themselves. Come to think of it, I seem to remember reading that Harlan Ellison (a sci-fi fantasy chap) has recently registered his name as a trade mark. Harlan is well known among fans for his short fuse and snarling manner, and the last I heard he was involved in some hideously protracted and expensive copyright dispute with AOL, which sounds like a head-against-brick-wall situation if ever I heard one. So the trade-mark business may be something to do with that. Anyway, the point is, names at their best denote a genre or at least a particular kind of book.

All of which creates a problem for a writer who wants to write different sorts of books.

See, the thing is this - I for one have a rather short attention span. Well I was born in 1939, you see, doctor, and I never got the right vitamins as a child, on account of the war. So whereas the obvious and most sensible course of action for anyone who wants to be a writer is to choose a genre and then stick to it for 40 years, I myself was never able to do that. Which is how I ended up being an unknown. Rather than go on writing detective stories, and at least having a slim chance of being taken up by the TV people, like Dexter/Morse and some others, I got bored with that. After three books I branched out. So I have, at the last count, written books under my own name (Michael Allen, mostly detective novels), and as Michael Bradford (adventure), Patrick Read (crime/thriller) and Anne Moore (sagas/romance). Even so I have had professionals tell me that the Anne Moore books, for instance, as so different that no publisher could possibly attempt to build a ‘brand’ out of them.

Fortunately we live in the digital age, and the beauty of that is that writers can do whatever they damn well please. If all else fails, you publish it yourself.

Before I forget, even Agatha Christie got bored with writing, in effect, the same book every year. Just for fun she used to write occasional novels under the name Mary Westmacott. These are sometimes referred to as romantic novels, but actually, as I understand it, they were more in the nature of middlebrow novels about middle-class family life.

Oh, and as for Sophie Kinsella, who started off this stream of consciousness, the interviewer in the Globe and Mail says that she was wearing ‘nude fishnet stockings’. Nude fishnet stockings? Listen, can you send me a picture?

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Neal Stephenson - a new master

If the name Neal Stephenson means nothing to you, then please pay close attention.

If you’re reading this blog at all, you are presumably interested in books. Which means, more likely than not, that you read novels. Well now, there are all sorts and kinds of readers of novels, and all sorts and kinds of books to cater for their various tastes. But if you’re interested in good old-fashioned story-telling, on the grand scale, Neal Stephenson’s recent books are just the thing for you.

Stephenson’s first significant book was a sort of eco-thriller called Zodiac. Not bad but nothing staggering. This was followed by a series of books which I suppose one would have to classify as science fiction. But don’t be put off. To begin with, science fiction is several decades past the bug-eyed monster stage, and the genre is in fact producing some of the most intelligent and entertaining fiction around. Which is not to say that I enjoy all of it, by any means.

However, beginning with a book called Quicksilver, published last year, Stephenson has moved away from science fiction and on to slightly different things. Quicksilver is set in the late seventeenth century, and belongs in a category of novels which some would call historical, or picaresque, or possible just an adventure story. All you need to know, as a potential reader, is that it’s a bloody good read. My advice is, get hold of a copy, sharpish.

Quicksilver is apparently the first book in something which the author calls the Baroque Cycle. I have no intention of trying to summarise the plot here – you can find that sort of thing on Amazon. You probably do need to be warned, however, that Quicksilver is fiendish long. And normally I don’t recommend long books, but in this case I more than make an exception. You may need to give the story a little time, but it is well worth the perseverance.

Quicksilver was followed by The Confusion, which was published on 1 April and which I have just finished reading – all 815 pages of it. And the third book in the cycle is due out later this year.

I could provide you with links to reviews and things, but the truth is that no sensible person would bother to ‘review’ or ‘criticise’ a book such as this. The only appropriate response to it is to go down on your knees and thank whatever gods may be that there are still some writers around – well, one, anyway – who can deliver something like this into your hands.

If you insist on a link, go to Metaweb. This is a site which seems to have been set up by Stephenson himself, but which now contains reams of stuff about the author and his books, written by some of those dead-keen people who get kind of carried away in their enthusiasm. In this case, however, I am inclined to think that getting carried away is justified.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Libel lunacy

A couple of weeks ago, Simon Master, of Random House UK, argued in The Bookseller that the laws of libel in the UK are absurdly favourable to those who wish to stifle criticism and comment. Master is right, and what he has to say cannot be said too often or too loudly.

The rich and powerful, who are notoriously thin-skinned, can all too easily launch a libel action in the UK. Do that often enough, and even major newspapers grow tired of the legal costs. Henceforth they will think twice before making any sort of statement about you except the most favourable.

In the course of his article, Master describes a case where Random House was obliged to defend one of its books against a libel writ issued by Armand Hammer. The book had been published in the US without any difficulty, because the laws are markedly different there. But in the UK Hammer could sue, and did. Random House’s pre-trial costs were over £500,000 by the time Hammer died, and brought the case to a conclusion. The firm had, of course, no hope of recouping that sum from sales of the book in question.

Since I am not slow to dish out criticism of publishers (see below) I must pause at this point to say that I warmly admire Random House in this instance, and there are other publishers who have acted equally responsibly.

If you want an example of another rich bully, you need go no further than Robert Maxwell, a ruthless individual who employed a small army of lawyers; their sole task, it seems, was to issue writs against anyone who dared even to hint at what the son of a bitch was up to. For details see David Hooper's excellent book on libel, Reputations Under Fire.

While the situation as regards major publishers and national newspapers is fairly well known, what may not be appreciated is that the effects of the draconian libel laws extend far down into society, to even the most modest levels.

For example, about twenty years ago a friend of mine gave a lecture about university funding. He wanted to make the point (which was recognised as true by anyone in that field) that the cost of scholarly academic journals was a scandal; it was, quite simply, a racket. My friend intended to express this truth in fairly mild terms - something along the lines of 'universities get steadily poorer, while Mr Maxwell and his friends get steadily richer.' However, knowing Maxwell's reputation, he went to the trouble of taking legal advice on this comment. He was advised, in the strongest terms, to leave it out.

Of course, Maxwell would never have won a case for libel on the basis of such a mild comment as the one my friend intended to make. But it was pointed out that if the rich and ruthless Mr Maxwell did issue a writ (and he was quite capable of it), cost would be incurred by the defendant, time would be consumed in large quantities, et cetera, et cetera. Not surprisingly, my friend decided to leave criticism of Mr Maxwell to the big boys.

I myself became sensitised to the dangerous nature of our libel laws a couple of years ago. I came across a case - dating from the 1980s - in which a major publisher had been, shall we say, less than generous to an author. Note, please, that I do not say that the publisher had been stealing the author's money. Dear me no. Perish the thought. Publishers don't do that sort of thing. They are all gentlemen. So we will just say that the author had signed, with her eyes open, but without professional advice, a series of contracts containing terms which were less than generous to her. To be specific, she was getting about one quarter of the royalty level on US sales which any competent agent might have obtained for her. And since she was a successful author, with about 100 books to her credit, the sums of money involved were quite considerable. It seemed to me that, even though this case dated from some twenty years earlier, the circumstances deserved to be more widely known. If you are familiar with mistakes from the past you may perhaps be able to avoid making similar mistakes yourself in the future. So I wrote an article about this state of affairs for a writer's magazine.

The editor of the magazine liked the article, but he was a little worried about the legal aspects. Would I mind if he took advice? No, I didn't mind. He then sent me his lawyer's letter.

The lawyer, not surprisingly given the current state of the English libel laws, wanted me to make a number of changes. I was no longer to suggest, even in the mildest terms, that the publisher might in any way have been remiss. Heaven forfend.

Well, since the editor of the magazine had incurred costs, I felt morally obliged to help him out, so I gritted my teeth and revised the article. After a few hours' work I managed to find a form of words which satisfied the lawyer while at the same time allowing a reasonably bright reader to understand what I really thought about the situation.

The editor then suggested that, to be on the safe side, he had better show the article to the publisher in question, and invite comments. Again I agreed, because I had by now read up a bit about the law of libel and had realised that, if I was not careful, sensitive parts of my anatomy might get caught in the mangle.

The publisher took his time, but eventually came back with a version of events which purported to show that his firm had at all times acted with perfect propriety. Interestingly, he had taken advice both from his UK lawyers, and from lawyers representing his US parent company. We know this because, when replying to the editor, he attached emails from these parties to add weight to the points he was making when commenting on my article.

The editor of the magazine was well pleased. Even if the article was never published, he said, we had prodded the publisher with a sharp stick and made him realise that some people, at least, were keeping an eye on what he was up to. But the editor did wonder whether I could revise the article yet again to take account of the publisher's points.

It would be wearisome to go into any more detail. Suffice it to say that I did revise the article. I included an unambiguous statement to the effect that, in the case which I was describing, there was nothing illegal in the arrangement between author and publisher. Neither, I added, was the arrangement unethical in the sense that it varied significantly from standard trade practice of the time. Short of warmly commending the publisher as a splendid example of good practice, I could scarcely do more.

And all of this, please note, for a tuppeny-ha'penny article, in a magazine with a circulation of 6000. When the article was eventually published my fee was £125.

Oh, and by the way. Later on in the 1980s, the author whose plight I was describing in my article eventually got herself an agent. When he began to review the author's existing contracts, the agent was, he says, 'shocked' by what he saw. Among other things, he suggested to the publisher that it might be necessary for the author to require a full audit of her past royalty statements.

Eventually, however, an audit proved not to be necessary. Guess what happened! Having reviewed the situation, the publisher offered to buy the copyright of 92 of the author's previously published books for a sum in seven figures.

The agent settled for that.

Friday, April 09, 2004

British book Awards aka Nibbies

This week the British Book Awards were... well, awarded. Like all such ceremonies, this one was designed purely and simply to obtain cheap publicity for books and publishers, and it seems to have succeeded tolerably well. Some newspaper coverage and a whole hour on Channel 4 at 5 p.m. on Good Friday. But listen, since hardly anyone reads books these days that wasn't too bad.

Just so long as nobody takes the damn things seriously, that's all.

Out of the multitude of books nominated for the various awards, I appear to have read two. First is Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. This was first published in 1998, by a small firm called Polygon, but apparently that doesn't count. This year it was republished by one of the big boys, who, as everybody knows, are the only important people in publishing, so it gets to be regarded as 'new'. Smith got voted author of the year on the strength of it, and good luck to him. In case you haven't already heard, and goodness knows it's had acres of press coverage in the past few months, Smith's book is about a detective agency run by an African lady in Botswana. I wasn't actually all that struck by it. It was interesting, certainly, but I didn't rush out to find copies of the others in the series.

The other book that I've read is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This one got two Nibbies:children's book of the year, and the literary fiction award. For my money, the book was far too long for its material, particularly in the second half. It is written in the first person, by a boy who is autistic. Many of the people this boy has contact with find him pretty tiresome and difficult, and I must say I felt much the same way. However, judging by the comments on Amazon I am in a minority.

No, I didn't watch the show on Channel 4. I was not even tempted by the fact that, on a previous TV appearance, the hostess (Judy Finnigan) parted company with the top half of her dress. The show was not broadcast live, and even if it had been the producers - bearing in mind the Janet Jackson debacle - would no doubt have built in a five-second delay. As any prudent person would. Dammit.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Profitable publishing

Yesterday, for reasons which need not detain us here, I had cause to refresh my memory of the publisher Charles Skilton. So I did the usual Google search.

Seems that my memory was largely right. Skilton (now deceased, I believe) was the man behind the Luxor Press, among other imprints, including one in his own name.

Luxor was a firm which went in for the risque, publishing such titles as Lesbian Secrets and The School for Sin. If memory serves, the Luxor editions had rather garish yellow covers which caught the eye. Not that I ever read any, of course. Except for research purposes. And I certainly didn't enjoy them. Under his own name, Skilton published more mundane stuff, such as London's Industrial Archaeology and The Windmills of Kent.

Early in his career, in about 1946, Skilton revived the Billy Bunter stories, but couldn't get hold of enough paper to meet demand, and Cassell took over the project. Later he seems to have had more luck, and in due course he bought a rather splendid country house in Surrey. Earl Kemp, in a short memoir about the 1960s, recalls being shown round this mansion. There were, he tells us, secret doors and sliding panels, with peep-holes and listening places giving access to other bedrooms. Later in life, when Kemp founded a pornographic publishing firm in America, he named it Surrey House in honour of Mr Skilton. Now that was nice, wasn't it? Show a little hospitality and you end up getting a publishing firm named after you. Well, after your house, anyway.

Earl Kemp passes on another little tip from his contact with Skilton's editorial staff. A marijuana joint (as they were known in those quaint days) is undetectable if heavily laced with menthol. It does make you smell a bit funny, apparently, but the rozzers will never know.

Never let it be said that this blog does not contain useful information.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The collector's lot

Younger readers may not realise how completely the business of collecting books has been transformed by the internet. And older readers may not be aware of the range of tools which are now available to the buyer of secondhand books. So here are a few comments.

Even as recently as ten years ago, a book collector had to be something of a detective. Suppose, for example, you were interested in buying books about cookery, published in England between, let us say, 1900 and 1950. Well, first you had to find a list of secondhand and antiquarian bookdealers. Then you had to go through the list, making a note of those who stated that they specialised, to some extent, in cookery. Then you had to write to them and ask them for their latest catalogue. If you wanted to do your own research into books which had actually been published in that period, you would have to go to a first-class public library (or better still the library of a good university) engage the help of a friendly librarian, and start poking around, as best you could, in such eye-taxing tomes as the British Museum catalogue of printed books, British Books in Print, the catalogue of the London Library, and so forth. If, as a result of this research, you were able to draw up a 'wants' list, as opposed to just looking at what was sent to you in dealers' catalogues, then you had to photocopy the list, post it off to various dealers, and wait. Sometimes you had to wait for years.

Today, all is changed. Suppose you are looking for Making toast for beginners by Jane Smith. Today you just go to a site called abebooks, type in the title and author, and, unless you are looking for something very obscure, you will be shown a list of several bookdealers, some of them abroad, who have copies for sale. Sometimes there are as many as 30 copies available.

Within the last few weeks, for instance, I have found an excellent copy of a book first published in 1896, at a modest £18, and another book published in 1933 for £14. Twenty years ago I would have had a struggle to locate either of these.

You can still have the doubtful pleasure of searching through dusty rooms in creaky old buildings, if that appeals, because sometimes you will find some unexpected treasures that way. But suppose you aren't quite sure what might be available on your subject, and want to do some research on that. Well, once again, it's all available with a few clicks of the mouse.

You can go to the British Library Public Catalogue, for instance, where they have a list of virtually every book ever published in the UK. You can go to COPAC, which is a useful combination of the catalogues of every major UK university library, plus the BLPC. And you can, if you wish, find out what the Americans were up to by looking through the Library of Congress catalogue. All of these search tools have their limitations, and their little peculiarities, and often the listed details don't tell you nearly as much as you would like to know. But, ten years ago, you would have been hard put even to imagine that such search facilities might be made accessible to you from within your own home.

As for circulating your wants list - well, once again it's all done on the internet. Abebooks and Amazon both offer facilities.

Collecting books is no longer the trial that it once was. All you need these days is a computer and lots of money.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Diet books

It's about 15 months since I decided that I would benefit by losing some weight, and exactly 12 months since I began keeping track of what I consumed each day. Result: about 34 lbs lost.

If you want my opinion - and why not, everybody else has got a view on diet - losing weight has nothing whatever to do with willpower. It's all a matter of attitude. And it's not a question of the 'right' attitude or the 'wrong' attitude either. You just simply have to decide whether you want to lose weight or not. In my case, having studied the facts, I decided that I would probably feel better if I lost at least 10 per cent of my body weight, and that, if I achieved that target, I would markedly reduce my risk of diabetes, heart problems, blood-pressure problems, et cetera. After that it wasn't very difficult.

As it happens, I haven't really been on a diet, in the sense of eating less, at all. I have simply changed the balance of what I consume. I now eat more bread, fruit, and vegetables than I did a year ago, and less dairy foods, fat, and sugar. In terms of volume of material consumed, I am eating more than I used to.

But you naturally want to know about books, since this is a book blog. Well, I began by reading Dr Atkins, of course. The UK edition of the Doctor's latest version of his famous diet has the ISBN 0 09 188948 0. This is an interesting book, and it's by no means aimed at the layman. I suspect that you need a degree in biochemistry to understand it fully, and it includes 24 pages of scientific references, which is unusual in a mass-market paperback. I read most of this book twice, and it certainly contains food for thought, though in the end I decided that the Atkins diet was definitely not for me.

Then I read Lyndel Costain's Diet Trials - how to succeed at dieting, which was written to accompany the 2003 BBC series about losing weight. This book bears all the signs of something cobbled together in great haste to meet a deadline. The material is less than perfectly organised, contradicts itself in places, and would have benefited from more careful editing. The index is pitiful.

However - and it's a big however - the book does contain some very useful information, if you have the patience to burrow for it. In pages 102-111 Costain outlines a 'personal weight-control guide.' Apparently, this approach is frequently used in large clinical studies into obesity, and I can testify that it is certainly effective. It's a rough and ready sort of approach, which does not require you to count every calorie.

Should you wish to count calories, and I for one have found it useful to do so on occasion, then you will need something like The Calorie, Carb and Fat Bible (ISBN 1 904512 00 3 in the UK). This particular Bible is yet another book in search of a better editor or proof-reader. 'Use the calorie tables on pages 15-16318', says the introduction. Huh? Finding simple but useful information, such as how many calories there are in a banana, can be something of a struggle in this book, but it's usually there somewhere.

Friday, April 02, 2004

A useful antidote

Should any of you readers out there have a nephew, niece, son, daughter, or generally young person of your acquaintance, who has expressed a desire to be a writer -- ha! -- then here is a useful antidote that you can administer. Slip it into the young person's drink while s/he is distracted by a video of Britney or something. Buy said person a year's subscription to The Author.

The Author, my friends, is the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors; and you don't have to be a member of the Society to subscribe to the journal. Or at least, lets put it this way: I'm not a member, and I've been subscribing to the journal for years. Although now I come to look at the latest issue, it says nothing whatever about how to subscribe. Neither can I find subscription details on the web site. But you are invited to email the editor for further details.

Anyway, the point I am making is that any one issue of The Author contains enough horror stories to put any normal person off even thinking about a writing career. Not that wannabe writers are normal people, of course. They are, more or less by definition, completely crackers -- people who are constitutionally incapable of looking a fact in the face and recognising it for what it is. But never mind. One can always try. And, in the case of a loved one, trying to protect them from their own foolishness is essential.

Let us take the spring 2004 issue as an example, and extract from it just one story. The novelist Joan Aiken died recently, but shortly before her death she was having a dispute with her American publisher. Joan had written books for thirty years; she has 510 entries on Amazon. And you might think, in your innocence, that a writer with that sort of track record might be assumed to know what she was doing. She might, perhaps, be given credit for having thought about the names of her characters, for instance, and for having a mastery of punctuation.

But no. Not in this case. (And, one might add, in many others.) The publisher had sent Joan's manuscript out to be edited. And the editor had not just pointed out the occasional word misspelt, or omitted -- we all make mistakes like that. No, she had gone through the entire manuscript and 'improved' it. Joan had written 'Hark at the wind,' shivered George. The editor crossed this out and substituted 'Listen to the wind,' said George with a shiver.

It is lucky, I suspect, that there were some three thousand miles of ocean separating the two parties. Should anything of that kind ever happen to me I would be inclined to go round with an iron bar and break the editor's legs. But then I am notorious for not seeing things in perspective and for not having a sense of humour -- at least where those who mess with my prose are concerned.