Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tuesday in court

This explains a great deal

New York magazine has a wonderful piece about Judith Regan, who was (you will doubtless recall) the brains behind the O.J. Simpson book which didn't quite make it (yet) into print.

Among many other fascinating things, New York says that, in the first week of November last, Regan and a couple of other ladies in her office embarked on a 21-day fast, in order to clear their skin, clarify their minds, and otherwise effect dramatic improvements upon their battered bodies and souls.

It's a looooong piece, and if you're rushed for time there's a summary on Galleycat. But reading the whole thing gives you a brand-new insight into the wonderful world of trade publishing, 2007-style. Despite the non-cooperation of some key players, it's also the best piece of journalism that I've read in quite some time.

Big Bruvver is over

Some people, I dare say, would keep quiet about watching Celebrity Big Brother; or, if they admitted it, would say that they watched it in an ironic, postmodernist manner. Well, I watched it like a run-of-the-mill punter, and I enjoyed it. More to the point, perhaps, I found aspects of it extremely revealing.

As mentioned last week, CBB this time around caused a media firestorm in both the UK and India. Just a few days ago, the show was accused of fostering bullying and racist abuse. And look what actually happened in the end!

For them as doesn't know, the show starts out with 12 or 15 celebrities, locked up in a closed environment, and every so often the Great British public gets to vote someone out. At the end of nearly four weeks, the most popular person is the one left, and he or she gets labelled the winner.

This time, guess who the last three celebrities were. None of them was a British citizen, for a start. There was Dirk Benedict, a 61-year-old white American actor. Then there was Jermaine Jackson, 52, a black American singer, and one of Michael's several brothers; he is also a recent convert to Islam, and has adopted the Islamic name Muhammad Abdul Aziz. (An interview with Jermaine, in which he describes his conversion, is available online.) Finally we had Shilpa Shetty, who is an Indian actress, a big star in Bollywood, and older than she looks at 31.

All of these last three were extremely interesting characters, and, in their different ways, impressive people. Dirk came third, Jermaine second, and Shilpa first, with a massive 63% of the votes.

Yes, of course the Asian community will have voted for Shilpa, but a lot of other people must have too. And, since CBB is sneered at by the intellectuals of this world, most of the voters must have been from the UK's under-100-IQ brigade.

I have to say that I find this result slightly astonishing. The people who have been most disadvantaged by the waves of immigration into the UK over the last few decades have been precisely the people most likely to watch and vote on this show. And yet three non-Brits come top. This is further proof, in my mind, that the British qualities of tolerance and fair play, which one might reasonably have thought were long since dead, are in fact alive and well. The voting clearly wasn't influenced by racial origins: it was all to do with character.

But what has any of this to do with books, you may be wondering. Patience.

To begin with, we have the curious phenomenon of CBB reviving a book which was first published in 1987. Dirk Benedict then wrote Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, an autobiography which tells how, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1974, Dirk cured himself, without surgery, through a macrobiotic diet, exercise, and fasting.

The book, which also describes his life in acting, was reprinted in 1991 and 2005. Abebooks reports that Dirk's appearance on CBB triggered a sudden demand for secondhand copies.

Then there's Jade Goody's autobiography. Or rather, there isn't. Jade was the CBB contestant who was accused of being a racist bully, and was voted out by the public pronto. Last week HarperCollins announced that they will not be issuing the paperback version of her autobiography, scheduled for February. The book appeared in hardback last May.

I find this decision very odd. What are HarperCollins afraid of? Public opprobrium? Loss of their reputation for something or other?

If so, their fears are misplaced. The reading public has no idea who publishers are. Writers the public knows about; and bookshops; and printers. But publishers? Not one reader in a hundred ever notices the name of the publisher of the book they're reading. So, to my mind, cancelling a book which could still earn a few bob constitutes careless use of firearms in a downwardly direction.

And also, be it noted, Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins in New York, is quoted in the New York magazine article, referred to above, as not wanting HC to be known as a company that kills books. Well, so far they're doing a pretty good job of it.

Meanwhile, who will sign Jermaine for a book of self-help wisdom, based on his recently adopted Islamic faith? And who will sign Shilpa? If nothing else, she showed herself to be a remarkably resilient and articulate young woman, with a shrewd sense of how to make friends and influence people. Perhaps her book should be called How to get out from under your Mum's thumb -- at last.

Channel 4, by the way, which showed CBB, was the target of a great deal of hypocritical abuse from other sections of the media. To my mind, Channel 4 ran the show with admirable professionalism. And part of the credit for that must go to their Chairman, Luke Johnson.

Luke is a very smart fellow. How do I know that? Because he was once a publisher, and had the good sense to get out of that business and into something which pays better.

Johnson described his time as a publisher as 'a painful experience.' Generally, he said, publishing is a 'terrible business... a barely rational industry.' The cash-flow characteristics are unattractive. 'You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return
basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.'

Fresh talent and imagination, he concluded, are needed to keep publishing alive. As I say, a very smart fellow.


Anonymous said...

Sale or return, 55% discount, 120 days to pay? Maybe if you are a chain! No 'independent' bookseller ever got a deal like that!
No wonder the chains get bigger & the small shops close. It can't be to the advantage of the publishers, surely?

Anonymous said...

Courage. That seems to be the common theme. Regan certainly has it. OJ maintains his even in his weaker moments when he curses Nicole Simpson for “ruining his life” (yeah, damn her eyes). Young Dirk Benedict “whupped” his cancer (and receding hairline) with fruits and seaweed—and can do it for you if you buy his book.

One clearly has to muscle one’s way around in the courage department, with all these reality shows going. Get Jade out of here and get the ghost writers and presses rolling on this Aziz guy and young Shilpa before they screw up, too.

Migs Bassig said...

Hi there, Mr. Grumpy Old Bookman. This is Migs, a writer from Manila. I just want to let you know that I have been reading your blog since the start of the year and that I find it very, very interesting. Educational, certainly!

I have downloaded two of your books already (Truth and Rats); I'd like to have those as guides when I write one myself (an anthology of short stories, I must think).

I know nothing about the publishing business, not even on local shores, yet I always find the occasional visit to your site a truly pleasant and relevant read - locality be damned.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Bookman, there is hope for literacy in the USA as long as the New York Times magazine keeps publishing. The pieces they do are educational and entertaining - and I am addicted to their crossword puzzle.