Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My blog has won an award !

To my utter astonishment and delight, this blog has won an award for non fiction writing, and if I may say so, it really is about time this genre was given more recognition. I have said many times before that there are precious few resources for non fiction writers compared to our fiction writing friends, so it nice to find one more resource that I did not know about.

It is a good thing that I have such a curious mind, as otherwise the email that was waiting for me in my inbox this morning that notified me of the award may have been relegated to the spam box. Anyway, I am chuffed to bits and proud to say that those lovely people at Online English Degree (where one it seems can find out whether or not an online English Degree is for them) have recognised and awarded my talents.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Historic name change for Dorking

Mole Valley District Council have voted unanimously to change the name of Dorking following an important discovery late last year. This is the first time since the compilation of the Doomsday Book in 1066 that the name of a Surrey town has been changed from its original nomenclature. A spokesperson for the Council said that they were very excited at this move, as it marks as decisive turning point in the town's history. He also said that the change would be relatively easy to implement, with the minimum of inconvenience for residents and businesses alike, since there is only one letter in the town's name to be altered.

The Council came to this decision after a team of archaeologists, headed by Professor Andrew S Winehouse from the University of Surrey, unearthed the remains of a prehistoric civilisation of scrofa domestica (otherwise known as wild boar) on the outskirts of the town. The remains, which were dated to approximately 2000 BCE, include fragments of teeth and jaw bones with several intact skeletons of both male and female animals.

Following this decision, I can exclusively reveal that the Council have also unveiled plans to replace the current sculpture of the cockerel at the roundabout near the Council offices at Pippbrook in honour of the town's earliest inhabitants. The new sculpture is due to be unveiled at the beginning of April. Attached is an artist's impression.

The Council will write to everyone in due course advising them to change the D to a P ...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The end of an era in book selling

Today marks the end of an era when Borders stores will close their doors, to the public at least, for the last time. Despite several contenders, including Richard Joseph who with his father Philip, founded Books Etc, none of the bids have been successful.

Borders, which to the outsider who knows little about the book trade, had such potential, first came to the UK in 1997, as an offshoot of an American chain. Out of all the significant book chains trading in the UK, they have had by far the most turbulent history, changing hands twice in the last two years alone. 2009 has been by far the most eventful of their 12 years in the UK, with the closure of their flagship Oxford Street store and other stores across the country, including most of their airport ones, plus of course the much talked about management buy out, which has
no doubt left Philip Downer licking his wounds (not as much I suspect as his staff).

Downer was in fact Borders first British based employee, and he will also ironically now be their last, as the remaining staff are made redundant on Christmas Eve. He had such hopes for the business speaking at the company's annual conference just a few short months ago, a big expansion programme, new stock lines, and a bigger and better website to name just three, but none of these plans will now see fruition.

Speaking earlier this year, Downer stated "I genuinely believe we have got a unique retail proposition" - but it is difficult to see what this was. The company was faced with heavy competition - and aggressive discounting from Waterstones, supermarkets and the Internet, and simply could not compete. Out of town stores and heavy exposure to the Icelandic banks didn't help much either.

One of their biggest problems I always felt was connected to their distribution - namely, that everything was centralised (although that did change during the final year of business - maybe too late), with everything revolving around a central distribution hub in Cornwall. Books were trucked up and down the M5 to all parts of the country, with books from the average London publisher sent from London to Cornwall and then halfway round the country again to the stores which had requested copies. This I always felt, like the supermarket model, was pure insanity and suicidal for the small presses and small publishers, who did not get a look in, as they were unable to supply direct to their local stores. I speak from experience here.

When the hub close din the autumn of 2007, I hoped that it might herald a change and make things easier for the smaller publishers, but in reality nothing changed. I hoped that individual store Managers as with Waterstones, may have a say as to what was stocked in their stores, and be able to order books via wholesalers from the small presses and self publishers, but no, Head Office still maintained its icy grip. This is not of course the cause of their downfall, for many other factors were involved, but it certainly did not help, and was my personal biggest bug bear, as was the difficulty in extracting information about how to get them to take your work seriously so that you could be stocked. No one, but no one appeared to take the independent publisher seriously.

Borders came into the UK by buying Books Etc, which was run separately from Borders, yet part of the same group. Critics and company insiders claim that the initial success of Borders came at the expense of Books Etc, a claim which Downer has strongly denied. He did though concede that "Borders was the cuckoo in the nest", saying, "It was indulged, and then things were whipped away from it."

From 1997 onwards Books Etc slipped steadily down the agenda, with more and more stores closing until at the end, (they closed their doors at the weekend, ahead of their Borders cousins), only a handful remained. More than 50 staff braved the elements last night to hold a wake for Books Etc in London.

For the staff that remain, which came on Tuesday, confirming that today will be the final day of trading must have come as somewhat of a relief. There have been reports of customers wishing to buy any type of memorabilia they can get their hands on - chairs from the children's dept, coffee mugs from the staff room, and even the shirts that the staff wear as uniform. I can relate to what the anonymous book seller and author of the Borders Insider blog says over on The Bookseller that finally, in the midst of thousands of customers asking when they will close, they can give them an answer - safe in the knowledge that they are not enquiring as to the staff's future, but trying to ascertain how long they have in order to bag some more bargains. I suspect they have lost their chance, as when I visited the Kingston store last week, most of the books had already gone. I was lucky to get 20 percent off a calendar.

So, what will happen to the stores after they close - will some staff club together and buy the leases, as Simon and Tim did when Waterstones closed in Wood Green, or will they turn into just another cloned clothes or coffee shop, selling cheap tat that tastes awful and falls apart after a few washes? We can only wait and see.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Borders to close on 22nd December

The administrators for Borders have confirmed that the stores will close their doors for the final time on Tuesday 22nd December, unless a buyer emerges.

MCR claimed that there were in "advanced stages" of negotiations with a number of parties about purchasing certain stores or assets. But, they added, unless a business took over Borders as a going concern (which looks increasingly unlikely), all stores will formally cease trading on the date stated above. The final day of employment for the 1150 Borders staff will be Christmas Eve.

Staff consultation is expected to continue throughout this week with further updates to individual stores at the end of the week.

In what has been clearly a difficult time for Borders staff, The Bookseller website suggests that that the stores have become a free for all, where pretty much anything that is not nailed down is for sale - from the fixtures and fittings to a range of Denby pottery which was apparently bought some time ago - and there was I thinking there were a book store !

The description of the scene that must surely be an every day reality for the beleaguered staff is highly reminiscent of the store closure that I myself experienced at the beginning of November last year - where on the last day a big bag of plugs, television aerials and so on which we had previously used for the display items was offered free to anyone who would take them.

This latest move suggests, despite claims to the contrary that there is little hope of saving the Borders brand name.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Waterstones admits that content is not high on their list - yes that would mean good writing.

Waterstones have finally admitted at a seminar held to reassure agents about the functioning of their distribution hub, what we as authors have known for some time - that the quality of the writing is not one of four key considerations when the chain chooses to order or stock a book. This is not news as far as I, and most other authors are no doubt concerned, yet the agents reacted with shock and horror when the chain admitted their stance.

Sixty people attended the seminar, held at the retailers flagship Piccadilly store, which included a hub update and an introduction to the new buying team.

The four key considerations were revealed as being, track record (i.e. previous or projected sales history), support from the publisher, market context and pricing/cover. Around half of those in the room put up their hands and asked the obvious question, "What about the writing?'" What indeed you might say.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The bubble bursts for celebrity memoirs

After a week in which we have seen Borders collapse, amid reports of staff being assaulted by rude and aggressive customers, demanding ever higher discounts for books whose jackets have small tears in them (no doubt caused by the vulture like horde of which these customers are a part), I didn't think things could get much worse, but no, at last there is some good news from within the publishing world - celebrity memoirs have finally fallen from grace, amid tumbling sales.

Literary agents are reporting a disastrous autumn for the genre, while publisher Hachette UK has announced that it is trimming its celebrity roster (how will they boost their ego's now?). The total value of hardback celebrity titles in the UK top 50 this year has fallen by almost 25 percent from £4.6 million in 2008 to £3.3 million in 2009.

Jonathan Lloyd, Chief Executive of Curtis Brown, one of the larger London agencies, suggested that this season's memoirs, which include books "by" Peter Kay and Katie Price as well as autobiographies by Jo Brand, Chris Evans and Frankie Boyle, lack the sensational factor and (thank the Lord) their comparatively unremarkable sales may impact on the advances that such celebrities receive in the future.

Others have suggested that the genre has reached saturation point, with "bottom-of-the-barrel" celebrities riding the gravy train, while the publishers find that they have not delivered the meat and two veg (my words, not theirs). Publishers are beginning to find that the public are returning to more traditional fiction. It is particularly noticeable this year to find that the best seller lists are dominated by fiction, with the highest memoir at number seven, the opposite of what happened last year.

Echoing the thoughts of many, Liz Thomson, Editor of BookBrunch, said that she hoped this was the end of an era. "What really gets me" she said "with regards to many of these memoirs is that they claim to give the so-called celebrities a voice when they are so often the voice of their ghost-writers. It's the aspect of cynicism in these publications that I hate. People are being paid a huge amount of money to write this nonsense, at the expense of new writers and quality fiction." Here, here.

A spokesman for Waterstones claimed however that these books are still popular, and the public are simply waiting until nearer Christmas to buy them. He said "There will be an awful lot of people who will wake up with Jeremy Clarkson's or Frankie Boyle's autobiography on Christmas morning." I hope I am not one of them, so don't even think of getting me one! If you really want to though, you can buy yourself a copy of my own mastepiece ...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Borders UK enters administration

It was formerly confirmed earlier this afternoon, that Borders UK have entered administration. Reports began to circulate early this morning when Reuters reported that they had seen court documentation to support the claim of administration. The story was later retracted amid accusations that the news agency had jumped the gun - what they had in fact seen were documents asking the court for permission to place the company in the hands of administrators, which was not to say that they actually were in administration. Everyone knew however that this was merely a technicality and it was only a matter of time.

It is believed that the delay occurred when BDO informed the Borders UK management late yesterday that they had discovered "a conflict of interest" which prevented them from being declared administrators. MCR have since been appointed, citing the reasons for the company's failure as competition from the Internet, together with cash flow pressure and pressure from suppliers - at least three of whom cut off supply earlier in the week.

It is unclear as to how long the company will remain in administration, but while the process continues, stores are expected to remain open and trading as normal.

This is indeed a sad day for the publishing world, with the loss of some 1100 jobs. Whatever my personal experiences of the company have been (and they have been mixed), I would not wish this on anyone. I have worked through three store closures during the 27 years since I left school, so my thoughts are with them.