Monday, October 16, 2006

Morning assembly

Gather round, children. And all you Muslims can take your veils off. Especially you, Abdul.

W.H. Smith

Oh woe, and again I say woe. Various news reports say that W.H. Smith, the UK's leading bookseller -- give or take a bit -- saw a rise in annual profits but a fall in sales. Book sales were down 5%.

Kate Swann, the boss lady, for whom my regard rises (admittedly from a lowish base), says that spending on books remains subdued. Christmas will be hard this year -- employees will be forced to dine on supermarket chicken rather than turkey. (Links from

Publishers Lunch says that UK bookselling still looks grim.

Hot type

Nicolas Clee's Hot Type column in the Saturday Times is usually good for an entertaining snippet or two, and this week was no exception.

First, be glad you're not German. Translations from English into German normally add, it seems, one third to the length of a book. So Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (crime fiction, it is said), which is 900 pages in English, becomes a total of 1350 in German, and is to be issued in two volumes.

Then there's the question of big advances. Agent Andre Wylie, known as The Jackal on account of his charm and co-operative manner, claims that he once sold a book for $2 million and the editor 'entirely abandoned' it. Presumably just got bored. And who can blame him? Lots of $2 million books have the same effect on me.

Cowboy Kate

In the 1960s there was a famous book called Cowboy Kate. It was a collection of photographs, mainly young ladies, dressed -- in so far as they were dressed at all -- as cowboys. And it should have been right up my street, because I was interested in photography in general and decorative young ladies in particular. But I just couldn't warm to it: it was pretentious, in my view, and the girls weren't even particularly attractive. And my personal opinion was that the photography was very run of the mill. An early example of hype, I thought, though I'd never heard the word then.

Even in 1965, however, there was for some reason a lot of weight behind the book, and it was hailed as original, exciting, groundbreaking, and all like that. This publicity drive was so successful that the 1965 edition of Cowboy Kate is currently selling on abebooks for about £175 to £850.

But now we have a new edition of Cowboy Kate, labelled the 'director's cut'. Issued by Rizzoli in the USA, in the current month, its list price is $45. The publisher again refers to it as a 'groundbreaking publication', though quite what that means I am not sure. Reminds me of digging graves somehow. Haskins is also said to have 'reinvented the genre of the nude', which is pure drivel.

What is happening here, you see, is that various parties, for their own good reasons, are trying to drive up the price of Haskins's work. The giveaway is the name of Philippe Garner as author of the foreword.

Philippe is a director of Christie's, and whenever you see his name associated with an artist, photographer, or trend, you know that Christie's have decided, or sensed, that this is to be The Next Big Thing, thus driving up prices in the saleroom and increasing Christie's commission.

Some twenty or more years ago, Philippe Garner was host to the single most paralysingly alcoholic lunch that I have ever attended. I was taken to it by Charles Robertson (of Robertson's jam), who was a wealthy collector in his own right, and a man with excellent taste. He was also Chairman of the Trustees of the Holburne Museum in Bath, and we were there to discuss possible co-operation between the two bodies. I don't recall that anything much ever resulted: apart from an afternoon spent drinking black coffee.

Amanda Craig on the new Peter Pan

In J.M. Barrie's will, he left the copyright of his famous story Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Not surprisingly, the Hospital is seeking ways to generate the maximum income from this gift before the copyright expires, and one recent project was the commissioning of a sequel to the original Barrie book.

Geraldine McCaughrean was the winner of a competition involving 200 writers, and got to produce an official sequel, just published, called Peter Pan in Scarlet. Amanda Craig has reviewed it in the Saturday Times.

Amanda says the Barrie's original tale struck her as 'terrifying', which is exactly the word that I scribbled in the back of my copy when I re-read it a few years ago.

The McCaughrean book doesn't get a full five stars in the Times, but enough to convince me that I ought to read it. After all, as mentioned here before, I myself once wrote a prequel to Peter Pan (by agreement with the Hospital). It was in the form of a stage play, and it featured Captain Hook. Producers keen to make me offers for the rights should form an orderly queue outside my door.

Science fiction wins Nobel Prize

Good grief! Can this be true? A man who wrote science fiction (plus other work) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Martin Rundkvist has the story. OK, so it was SF in the form of a poem (103 cantos), but even so.

Entartete Musik

On Saturday night to the Ustinov Theatre, in Bath, to see Entartete Musik, written and directed by Jude Alderson (a woman, it turns out). Entartete means degenerate, and it's what Hitler called all radical music, cabaret songs, jazz, and so forth.

The show consists mainly of Berlin cabaret songs from the time of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. Interweaved are a few snapshots of what life was like in Germany at the time, particularly for the Jews.

This particular show was performed by three attractive and talented young women, plus a ditto pianist, and it has been around for a while so doubtless will continue to tour. Very much worth seeing.

I couldn't help pondering, as I watched this performance, on parallels between the Jews in 1930s Germany and the Muslims in today's England. In the 1930s, were there, I wondered, any mad rabbis going around encouraging young men to kill, maim, and generally attack the people of the country in which they lived? Not so far as I know. And yet look what happened to the Jews.

Compare that with some of the Muslim mouth-frothing that goes on here today. (We will allow, for the sake of argument, that this comes from a tiny minority of Muslims; though the allowance is open to question*.) And yet what do the English do? A few outraged articles appear in the Daily Mail, and, er... well, that's about it. Can this situation last for ever, I ask myself.

But not for very long, because this blog does not do politics and religion.

*See Madame Arcati's note on Rupert Murdoch's take on this issue.

Sue Townsend returns

Sue Townsend has another book out soon. You can read about it in the Sunday Times. She has returned, this time, to dealing with the Royal family, who were the subject of an earlier novel and stage play entitled The Queen and I.

The new book (Queen Camilla) is a sequel to the earlier work, which had the Royal family kicked out of Buck House and reduced to living on a council estate. They're still there, but now Camilla is among them.

The Conservative party intends to restore the monarchy, but the Queen herself can't face it. So she sends Charles a letter.

Dearest Charles,

At 9.30 this morning I abdicated my position as Queen of Britain, the Commonwealth etc. etc. etc.

PS It's wheelie bin day today.

PPS Give my love to Queen Camilla.

Well it all sounds like fun, doesn't it?

The news about Sue Townsend's diabetes is not good. It is now robbing her, at age 60, of her balance, kidney function, and, of course, eyesight. Moral: if you're able to breathe and walk around, stop complaining. As my grandmother used to say, there's always somebody worse off than yourself.

The shape of things to come

The Sunday Times also contains a cracking good article by Bryan Appleyard about how the book trade in general, and bookselling in particular, are going to change over the next few years.

Appleyard is a very distinguished journalist (three times feature writer of the year). He is also the author of a number of books.

His current ST piece is entitled 'A novel use of technology', and it is a lucid account of the impact which print-on-demand technology will shortly have on the huge high-street bookshops, and on publishing in general.

There is, in truth, not much that is new here -- at least if you've been paying attention. Unfortunately, many people in the book trade are not paying attention. Proof? Well, anecdote. Back in 2001, when Jason Epstein's Book Business came out, it said all the things that Appleyard is now saying. I bought and read the book immediately, and whenever I bumped into a book-trade participant that year (and I bumped into quite a few) I asked them if they had read it. I never met anyone who had.

Interestingly, Appleyard's prophecies exactly mirror some of my own (and mine aren't original either), even down to the suggestion that many bookshops will soon shrink 'roughly to the size of a branch of Snappy Snaps.' Only the other day I was asked by another blogger for my favourite prediction. Here is part of what I said:

My prediction is that, within ten years, and probably a lot less, many of us will be buying our books from a new kind of bookshop. This 'bookshop' will be small - very similar to a one-hour photo shop - and it will not hold stock. Instead, it will print out books from a digital file, and these books will be indistinguishable from the factory-made paperbacks of today. Instead of being printed in a run of, say, 10,000 copies, these books will be printed one at a time, as and when a customer in a particular shop wants a copy.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that Appleyard got his ideas from me (though he does list the GOB as one of the blogs to read to keep up with things). We probably both picked up most of our ideas from Epstein and similar sources. What I am saying is that, both to Appleyard and to me, all of this seems perfectly obvious. But we might be wrong, I suppose.

(See also my note about Jason Epstein on 5 October.)

Archer blogs

Jeffrey Archer has a blog. Yes, I do realise that you don't wish to know that, but I thought you ought to be told. For the good of your soul. You have Bryan Appleyard to thank for the info.

The Archer blog looks suspiciously literate to me, for a man who is rumoured to be crap at spelling and punctuation. Perhaps he dictates it to his secretary.

Gangsters' wives?

Ali Karim, of Shots magazine, tells me that he has heard a rumour that the No Exit Press is going to publish a novel called Gangsters Wives. This will be written by 'a very well known British crime writer', but will be published under a pseudonym. It is apparently a full-on erotic gangster novel.

Hmm. Presumably this will be some sort of spoof on the UK down-market hit TV series, Footballers' Wives. Plus a dash of Readers' Wives. But so far Amazon haven't heard of it, which means -- last I heard -- that it isn't on the Nielsen Bookdata database. And it isn't on the No Exit web site either.

If the story is true, we can all start to play the game of whodunit. My candidate is Maxim Jakubowski. Although, come to think of it, he probably wouldn't bother with a pseudonym; unless it was for contractual reasons.

More fact and fiction

David Lodge discusses an another reason for not using living people in your novel (or TV play, film, et cetera). It is, he says, an unacceptable invasion of privacy. Story in today's Times. It's OK if they're dead, though.


Bryan Appleyard said...

Thanks, Grumpy, but I didn't get that from either you or Epstein, just came to me. Synchronicity. Thanks for plug.

Anonymous said...

Michael, your blog does not do politics but since you're on the subject and let's face it; politics IS religion IS publishing:

It's time we came clean on the loonies. That little boy who used to be the education minister in the UK actually made a speech about Islam being a 'peaceful religion'.

This is what's supposed to pass for bridge-building? Islam is about as peaceful as Christianity and we should come clean on it.

Is there a religion out there that hasn't had just about every imaginable atrocity committed in its name? (Rastafarianism?)

I'm sick to death of all these religious maniacs demanding that the rest of us 'respect' their right to be completely fucking bonkers.

Just because a few hundred million people agree with you (it might appear) does not mean you are sane.

Unfortunately we don't have enough places at the local mental hospital for everyone but perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope could share? We could throw in a few Mullahs to do fry-ups on Saturdays.

Christianity, Islam, Judaism; has there ever been a better place for misogynists, paedos and all manner of nasties?

In this country I see nobody speaking for young Muslims so I will. Just a few years ago (before we took part in the slaughter of three- to nine-hundred thousand souls in Iraq) many young Muslims in the UK were up for a club or a quick pint. Today I might be sharing a bacon roll or two with youngsters who are instead making hip-hop signs and talkin' dirty bombs. Fucking Islam man! And who can blame them? We are murdering Muslims by the thousand. (Where they have oil or drugs or the possibility of pipelines, at least.)

We are in deep shit. Like many people reading this blog I lived in London through a lot of IRA shenanigans. A bomb went off a hundred yards from me one day. Now the guys who planted the bombs get to run a country.

Violence is the only answer. Violence works. It's time we started calling religions for what they are: Fantasies, fictions, faerie stories.

The Bible and the Q'ran are terrific books. One has a fierce God followed by a cool hippie and the other is a list of stuff for bumpkins to live by. These books are Harry Potter, they're Grisham and King, they're Gruber and Beckett. They may be a fantastic read but they ain't real.

Muhamad was a peaceful man as long as you became a Muslim. (Otherwise he would kill you.) Christ smoked too much dope for my money but as soon as proper Christians killed all the Gnostics then it became a real religion with persecution and torture and burning; all the ingredient of a great story. Would a power agent have feted Muhamad? What d'you reckon for an advance on The Gospels? A few fishes? I think not.

These guys have topped the bestseller lists for thousands of years.

Is this blasphemous? Am I offending anyone perchance? Well, I find it offensive that I have to pretend that anyone who thinks the Supreme Being told an illiterate and/or a carpenter the meaning of existence isn't barking.

Yup, if your wife gets on your tits make sure to warn her before you give her smack. The Q'ran actually advises men to withhold sex if the wife gets a little tetchy. Withhold sex? The Supreme Being told a guy with no teeth in the desert to withhold sex? This must have been in-between creating pulsars so that future cosmologists might scratch their heads. Perhaps he was bored building galaxy clusters with a billion galaxies and each with a few billion stars? Maybe he thought we'd all be bored studying quantum theory, genetics and relativity and what we really needed was instructions on how to discipline the wife?

Our problem is that we hardly communicate at all in our modern world. Advances in communications technologies display a negative correlation with communication itself.

Billy Connelly said that the fact that someone wants to be a politician should disqualify him from ever becoming one.

We are being badly served by democracy. Our media is full of yackers trying to sound clever instead of getting to the root of things.

If a sci-fi writer can win a Nobel Prize there has to be hope but as someone on this blog alluded to, until J.K. Rowling gets the gong we have to conclude that we are still in the literary dark ages.

Personally, I found the Q'ran prolix and quite dated and as for the bible, the Old Testament is really where it's at. God becomes a ballet dancer in the New Testament.

I'm working now on a musical: Muhamad, Fuck Yeah! Anyone out there who would like to invest please feel free to do so. Lloyd Webber plundered the world of classical music to bring us Rackmaninov on guitar in the limp Jesus Christ Superstar. My plan is to transfer the story of Muhamad to Nashville. A poor Illiterate country boy is shown the meaning of life and then writes a song called Crazy. I'm thinking it would be a great way for Willie Nelson to finish his career.

In Germany and in the UK stage plays have been cancelled; self-censored. I have been told by my own agent that my writing is offensive and in bad taste because the main character is a whiskey-drinking ham roll eating Muslim. (He doesn't like first-person, present tense either.)

I find it offensive that my country, my world is dominated by crazy people who enjoy killing but because they name it something else we acquiesce and, by extension, collude in mass murder.

Enjoying your blog Michael!

Kate Allan said...

Nice to see a link to GOB blog from Bryan Appleyard's piece the Sunday Times

Anonymous said...

I'll avoid the religious issues--there's enough irrational frothing and I'm trying to cut down on my anxiety pills. Perhaps more people should take them.

I enjoyed the Appleyard article--it always amuses me to see the reviled ideas of yesteryear suddenly invented by those very critics.

I have to admire any blogger (Mr. Archer, in this case) who can start a blog entry with the humble, "I began the day with an interview on This Morning...They were fascinated..." And here I missed it.

Anonymous said...

Translations from English into German normally add, it seems, one third to the length of a book.

The same goes for Dutch as well. And another strange thing is that a lot of well known British or American authors appear in translation on the Dutch market, before their new books have come out in their home countries.

The publishers in the Netherlands know that their normal customers will simply buy the English book, if it is available before the translation will be.

Annette said...

I agree with you about the book Cowboy Kate. It isn't even interesting! Very tacky

Anonymous said...

Also, in all fairness (sniff), I would like to let the reading public know MY version of the heartwrenching book affair I had with Bryan Appleyard:

Yours truly,

Daniel Scott Buck

JodyTresidder said...

Not sure I'd have dared a look at Jeffrey Archer's blog without Andrew O'Hara helpfully plucking out the opening line...("I began the day with an interview on This Morning...They were fascinated..."


(The rest of Archer's blog is just as fabulously Pooter-without-the-charm. Thank you!).

Jon said...

Hi Michael,

I think you're being misled about the future of books and bookshops if you believe that print-on-demand hs much of a future. Paper is a transitional technology - it's bulky, it's fragile and it's difficult to search through and edit. Once we are all equipped with adequate viewing devices (and these can be current-generation mobile phones) there's no need for us to go anywhere at all - we can download all the books we need through an electronic connection at home. Bookshops will dry up as quickly as music CD shops are drying up now.

Anonymous said...

My goodness, that's quite a comment from Frances Ellen.

I agree with you on the "future of book" -- but will people be going into shops to order their one-offs or doing it via Amazon or Google Books or other? Via the internet, I venture to suggest, in some/many cases.

I read that Times review of the Peter Pan sequel on Sat and told my younger daughter about it. She thought it was a very bad idea to write a sequel to a classic book -- it was the first time she'd heard of anyone doing it. So it won't be going on her reading pile (she's 11 and got a roomful to wade through).

Finally, on WHS. We have a good branch in Kingston - or at least it used to be. Since Kate Swann took over it has vastly reduced its books (and to a lesser extent, art materials, gifts and music) in favour of a franchised cafe (Costa Coffee I think) and a mobile phone concession, as if Kingston weren't full enough of those already. There was a time when I did most of my xmas shopping in WHS, they put on a very good showing of a variety of stock at that time. Now, you are hard pressed to get anything much there any time, apart from cartoon stationery and the aforementioned mobile phones yuk). I have no sympathy for them if they are going through hard times. At least if you go into the much-maligned (unfairly in my opinion) Borders or Waterstones, you get predominantly books.

Anonymous said...

Bryan Appleyard's ST article gave vent to so many gross inaccuracies and his own dominant prejudices that I am surprised that some have regarded it as indicative of the future of the "printed" word.

Nowadays too many (privileged) authors and journalists choose to dump shite on terrestial bookshops.

We (indie bookshops) will survive : terrestial bookshops will always remain so long as a loyal, yet critical, customer base wants the opportunity to browse and handle in comfort a catholic selection of titles.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a priveleged author or journalist, but a keen reader. And although I love bookshops, and use them when I can, you can't beat 24/7 and long tail (ie stock) of the internet. Independent booksellers in the UK have now got their own website project which could be good: it needs to have more bookshops in it, be more user-friendly and better on price and price comparisons, but I am sure many readers like me would support an enterprise like this, that combines the internet's power with business for the independent booksellers.

Anonymous said...

As an independent bookdealer I am keen to preserve my own identity : that is part of being an indie.

Price wise, I don't discount new books but can offer most non-stock titles within a 24 hr business window.

I also stock and sell, both to the trade and public customers a ecelectic selection of publisher's ends and overstocks : in many instances these are offered at a fraction of the published price.

Oh, my websites are not e-commerce compliant, but then neither is Threshers (learnt that from Radio 5 Business Programme last Sunday evening).

I have just sold a very uncommon ceramics title in store (not listed on line) and taken a telephone order for a new art reference book (now oop) where I would be selling at a third of the lowest AZ 3rd party seller price.

Bookshops like mine will be trading for many years to come : dealers like myself just delight in trading, be it a 50 pence paperback, an £850 antiquarian title, or a copy of "Peter Pan in Scarlet" - which is of course offered from stock.

epikles said...

I don't know about the economics of bookselling elsewhere, but in America it's changed radically over the past generation. Small, independent bookstores survive mainly when their owners can afford to lose money indefinitely, otherwise, the coincidence of the internet and big box stores (Border's, Barnes&Noble) has taken away almost all the walk-in business.

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