Monday, December 15, 2008

Amazon accused of shoddy working practices

I have been trying to talk to my boss since Friday regarding a discrepancy in my last pay slip, but she has not been there on the same days that I have been. I am not sure how it happened, but I seem to have been paid for only 30 hours a week since I started at this new store rather than the 32 which I am contracted to do, and have worked. It is true that Sunday is a shorter day of 6 rather than 8 hours, but I was told that we were paid for a full day. Even if they have averaged these Sundays over the month (I work every other one) I should have been paid for 31 hours and not 32.

Neither has the increase from £5.73 to £5.90 an hour that I believed I was due in October materialised. I spoke to her about this last week, and was told that I had made a mistake, and I was not eligible for this, since I had not another review. This did not sound right to me, so I went home and re-read the letter I was sent in July detailing how the increase worked.

It was awarded to all those who received a good score on their annual review of which I did, in two stages. The first stage took place in August when our salary was increased from £5.53 to £5.73 an hour. When the minimum wage increased to that same rate (£5.73) in October, qualifying staff, so the letter states, would be awarded a further increase to £5.90 an hour (in other words, another 3 percent on top of the minimum wage). In order to qualify, you needed to have had six months service (which I have) and to have successfully completed the new training scheme (which I have also done). The rise though has not been forthcoming, and I need to know why.

The good news is that my Manager is in tomorrow, so I should be able to speak to her then. If I get no joy, then I shall just have to ring the Payroll Department myself and query things.

Despite these hiccups, compared to Amazon employees I am relatively well off. An article in The Times today details the truly awful conditions that these people have to work under. Many of them are Eastern Europeans, who are sadly all too easy to exploit. The most shocking thing of all is that none of this is actually illegal, although in my opinion, Amazon are sailing pretty close to the wind, especially with their insistence that staff work a compulsory night shift after doing a full weeks work.

The gist of the article is that despite global profits exceeding £2.2 billion, Amazon insist that their staff work seven days in row and threatens them for taking time off sick.

An undercover reporter spent a week working at Amazon's distribution centre in Bedfordshire and found:

That the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.

Employees are made to work a compulsory 10.5 hour overnight shift at the end of a five day week. The overnight shift, which runs from Saturday evening to 5am on Sunday, means they have to work every day of the week.

That employees are set quotas for the number of items to be picked or packed in an hour that even a Manager described as “ridiculous”. Those packing heavy X-box games consoles (and they are heavy - I have trouble lifting them) had to pack 140 an hour to reach their target.

That employees are set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalises staff if any other member of their group fails to hit the quota.

That staff have to walk anything up to 14 miles during their shift to collect items for packing.

That staff get one break of 15 minutes and another of 20 minutes per eight hour shift and have to ask permission to go to the toilet.

The reporter spent seven working days at Amazon’s warehouse in Bedfordshire as a packer after signing up with Quest Employment, an agency based in Northampton that supplies it with temporary staff. She was told that the hourly rate for a day shift was £6.30, 57p more than the minimum wage (which is incidentally 57p more than I get). She worked on an evening shift until midnight, earning £6.80 an hour, but was told that she would have to pay £8.50 a day to use a communal bus laid on by Quest unless she could arrange her own travel to Amazon’s warehouse.

Of course Amazon are playing things down and eating humble pie in copious amounts, as one would expect. It is all an exercise in PR, and in the scheme of things pretty meaningless. The most shocking thing about all of this is the fact that none of it is actually illegal.

The Working Time Directive states that staff are entitled to a 20 minute rest break if they work 6 hours or more, and Amazon employees actually get a lot more than this. The Directive also states that staff are entitled to a 24 hour uninterrupted rest break every 7 days, which they also get - assuming they finish work before 6.30pm on a Friday and do not start again until 5am on Monday, they actually get twice that. Technically they do work seven days a week, as that night shift starts on the Saturday and finishes on Sunday, but they do get the rest to which they are entitled and this is not outside the law.

The one possible area for concern would be the pressurising of staff to work that extra night shift, which may push them over the 48 hour working week that the Directive states should not be exceeded. While staff can opt out of this and agree to work more, they cannot be pressured into doing so, or disciplined if they refuse. Since I do not have detailed information about the exact number of hours worked during the week, and whether this exceeds the 37.5 that would be necessary to push them over this 48 hour limit, I cannot comment either way.

Not surprisingly this had led to a flurry of protests against the company on The Bookseller and other sites with many vowing never to buy from the company again. The trouble is that as one poster commented, in a few months time when we see something at reduced price on their site that we really want (and persuade ourselves that we need), we will forget all of this and order it anyway. The public are nothing else if not fickle.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Should criminals profit through books?

Readers of this blog will have noticed in recent weeks a pattern has emerged, whereby I post very little for several days, and then when I get days off, post several times a day. I receive several email bulletins with news from around the book world, and read other sites such as The Bookseller on a regular basis, adding comments as I feel necessary, but save the blogging for when I have time to write much more in depth.

Today is one of those days - my first post was about the credit crunch which is affecting EUK and more specifically Bertrams, but my second post for today will detail the various stories that I have found particularly interesting, which have circulated around the book world this week.

Two have particularly caught my eye, the first of which comes from The Guardian. This concerns a Government decision to introduce legislation preventing criminals from profiting from the sale of their stories through books. This has caused a furor within the book world, where publishers pay handsomely for such rights, with many citing this as unworkable and an attack on free speech.

The plan, which is part of the Coroners and Justice Bill announced as part of the Queen's speech, is likely to involve the introduction of a UK-wide civil scheme for the recovery of profits from criminal memoirs. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said it was too early to provide more details, but that the scheme would be unlikely to attempt to retrieve profits retrospectively. The scheme, which is designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, would not include accounts of prison life such as written by Jeffrey Archer (politicians know how to look after its own), books about other people's crimes, or fictional accounts of crime.

On the surface this sounds all well and good, but (and there is always a but), as Peter Walsh, publisher at true crime specialist Milo Books said "practicality is a different argument from ethics." Walsh went on point out that writing about their experiences is for many criminals part of their rehabilitation, and can often lead to new and successful careers where they make a real contribution to society (which includes paying taxes). In some ways this is no worse than celebrities who write about their struggle with drink and drugs, as many argue that in both cases, these books glorify the writers previous activities and encourage those at the bottom of the pile, who look up to such individuals, to follow their example. I have heard some comment that the admission that one has such a problem seems to be worn as a badge of honour.

The second point that Simon Juden, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association pointed out is that much of the most potentially offensive stuff wouldn't come from people convicted of crimes. For example, Nelson Mandela couldn't publish stuff because he was convicted of a crime, but OJ Simpson could, because he wasn't (that has since changed). This scheme is therefore targetting the wrong people.

The second story which comes from Publishers Weekly, is that Amazon boss Jeff Bezoz has been voted as Publishers Person of the Year. My own views on his company are well known to anyone who has read this blog, but love him or loathe him, he is a force to reckoned with, and one that has changed the face of publishing in the 14 years since Amazon was launched.

Bezoz claims in an interview at the company's Seattle headquarters that those at his company see themselves as explorers. He goes on to say “It’s much more interesting looking at unexplored terrain” and, because of the Internet, “there is boundless unexplored terrain.” This makes him sound like a character from Star Trek, going where no man has gone before.

His strategies of allowing negative reviews and the sale of used and second hand books prompted strong criticism from the book world, yet you have to admire his vision. As he also points out "To succeed in new businesses you have to be willing to experiment and to accept possible failure."

That is the hard part, compared to that, starting a business is easy.

Questions, questions and no answers

With the almost certain demise of Woolworths and wholesale arm EUK in administration, it is difficult to see where this credit crunch will end. Although not personally affected (despite claims by some quarters, my own job is relatively safe), it is distressing to see so many who are.
The situation at EUK does not look good. 700 staff lost their jobs last night, 2 weeks before Christmas, and the administrators are said to be calling in the company's debts. This is not good for the supermarkets either, who owe most of the money, although one cannot help but think that their sitting on this money for so long (figures of up £25 million are being talked about for both Salisbury's and Tesco), then EUK may not have been in this mess.

That though is the name of the game - as George Bush would have put it - the haves and the have mores. It has always been the way that some have to be sacrificed so that others remain profitable. Perhaps it is time to start questioning that ethos, as we are all entitled to earn a living.

The situation with Zavvi, which previously traded as Virgin Megastores, is even worse, as they owe EUK £106 million - how and more to the point, why the accounts department at EUK allowed this happen is beyond me - they should never have allowed things to get to this stage. If Zavvi fails to pay this debt, then they too could be placed into administration, with the loss of yet more jobs. A statement from the company is expected soon.

In the meantime, with no buyer for Bertrams, the book world is getting very nervous. Publishers are also affected by the demise of EUK, with the wholesaler owing them money, which they are unlikely to receive in a hurry. A total figure of £25 million has been suggested as money owed, with Random House the worst hit. Could this also bring publishers down I wonder - I sincerely hope not.

One does wonder what this whole thing is about and what would happen if Bertrams were to go. This would leave just one major wholesaler, in the shape of Gardners, for the whole book trade, and handful of smaller specialists.

MD Michael Neil has been putting a brave face on things, insisting that it is business as usual and the scaling down of EUK, which has still been supplying some stores, would not affect attempts to find a buyer. Talks are continuing with a number of interested parties and there is no set time scale for the sale. But he added: "We have to be realistic. Christmas is in the way but we want to get a deal done as soon as possible."

The wholesaler, which was bought by EUK in January 2007, has separate financing and has not been affected by EUK's administration. The administrators confirmed that Bertrams will continue to trade as normal, but their situation remains precarious.

Big publishers and distributors agreed with Bertrams last week that the wholesaler would pay cash upfront for stock. Neil admitted that these new terms were affecting business (how can they not), as they can only buy what they know will sell. This is seriously bad news for the smaller publishers, although most requests for their stock will be as special orders and therefore firm sale anyway. This decision is though bound to affect availability of slower selling and niche titles.

I hope that they manage to weather the storm, but if the worst does happen, could this mean the end of wholesalers in our country, or will a new contender emerge, in the form of a smaller company keen for expansion? If so, who could that be? Gardners could not buy Bertrams out, as that would create a monopoly, although if Bertrams do go, there will be a monopoly anyway.

If the publishers fail to get back what they are owed, where will it leave them - these costs will have to be recovered from somewhere, and this will inevitably mean several things - pay freezes for the staff, a cut in advances for authors (especially for first timers), and an increase in cover prices. Will they have to re-negotiate terms with the wholesalers that are left, and with book stores that they supply direct to for core stock? Could this lead to a re-opening of the firm sale debate all round and hasten its introduction, and will that hinder or benefit the small presses?

Questions, questions and no answers.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Black Wednesday for the book world

As the future of wholesaler Bertrams as part of EUK, the wholesaler arm of Woolworths hangs in the balance, the book world is holding its breath to see what happens. The most likely contenders are Lingenbrink, Libri and Koch or Neff - all of them German - or Dutch based Centraal Boekhuis. The strong Euro may make the company look attractive, but Germany in particular and the rest of Europe are like Britain, on the brink of recession, and European banks are tighter on lending than their UK counterparts.

Across the Atlantic and encouraged by the strengthening dollar, Ingram may also be a contender - they already have a presence in the UK via Lightning Source, but the recession in the US is if anything worse than here.

Negotiations also continue for a buyer for the troubled chain of Woolworths stores.

Yesterday I read of the redundancy of Telegraph Literary Editor Sam Leith after ten years service. I wish him well in his future career. Yesterday was not a good day for publishing all round Stateside, being tagged as "black Wednesday", following the news of 35 redundancies from Simon and Schuster and that Thomas Nelson are to shed 10 percent of their staff, effective on Friday. This comes on top of planned re-structuring at Random House. I see as well that the Penguin Group have frozen all 2009 pay rises for staff who earn more than $50,000 (£30,000) a year.

Total sales for America's three largest chains fell 6.3 percent for the quarter ended November 1st, with revenue falling to $1.93 billion. All three have blamed the decline in customer footfall, with sales particularly slow in September and October, traditionally the time for new releases in non-fiction. The book sellers are not alone, with other retailers also feeling the pinch. Both footfall and conversion at the store that I work in have tumbled in recent months. reporting Last Wednesday, the Commerce Department in the US reported that consumer spending fell by 1 percent in October, the steepest decline since 911.

Borders saw the highest drop of all the chains, at 9.4 percent. It also suffered the largest decline in like for like conversion on a branch by branch basis. CEO George Jones said the steeper decline at Borders was due to the company’s aggressive inventory reduction program. He stated that Borders are “fine tuning” their inventory program and have a team in place going from store by store to restore any titles that may have mistakenly been removed.

It is timely that BBC2's Money Programme is set to explore the state of the publishing industry in the New Year. The programme will include interviews with Larry Finlay of Transworld, Patrick Janson-Smith of HarperCollins, agent Carole Blake, author Catherine O'Flynn, Luke Brown of Tindal Street, Neill Denny of the Bookseller, and Nicholas Clee of BookBrunch. It will also feature Amanda Ross of Cactus TV, the makers of the Richard and Judy show. I look forward to watching it in due course and seeing what conclusions are reached.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Turning life's crap into compost

The daily Book News update that I receive today featured an article about one Bill Shapiro (editor of Other People's Love Letters) who is asking for authors to send in rejection letters for a new book that he is working on, entitled Other People's Rejection Letters. Letters can be typed or handwritten on paper, by text email or in any format the recipient chooses, and can be either emailed to Bill direct as an attachment or scanned in.

This is an interesting idea that I can see might have a considerable market. Rejection is a necessary evil that every writer has to deal with, and I have had more than my fair share over the years. Perhaps I will send Bill some of mine. The ones I found the most offensive were those addressed to Jane rather than June, showing that the writer had obviously not bothered to read my work. I can imagine how they would have felt if I had spelt their name wrong, but for some reason it was deemed acceptable for them to do this to me.

The post predictably featured several comments from would-be authors, on either side of the pond. One of these contained a link to the website of one Mary Patrick Kavanagh who has found a novel (no pun) way to celebrate the imminent (self) publication of her book. She will be holding a live funeral for it, on December 6th, which can be watched via webcast, hosted by Lifemark Chapel of the Chimes. This will include a viewing of the 'failed' manuscript, rejection letters etc, together with the authors much watched DVD copy of The Secret (I can relate to this one). Viewers are encouraged to bring remnants of their own dead dreams to be buried alongside the authors own dashed hopes. Mary goes on to say that copies of the rejected novel will be sold in the lobby to offset the cost of the appetizers served afterwards. Pity purchases are welcome and encouraged.

I don't why I didn't think of this when I self published my book 2 1/2 years ago - but then again I am not American - and things like this can only happen there. I applaud her sense of humour and enterprise and hope her book is a resounding success. Pity I am working that day, or I would have booked a front row seat !

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Known commodities

As furniture chain MFI enters administration, it looks as if Woolworths will follow suit. According to the BBC News site tonight, the troubled retailer has buckled under the strain, after weeks of uncertainty, placing 815 stores, and countless jobs in jeporady. The board of Woolies, one of the UK's oldest chains, have been in talks since 1800 hours to make the formal decision and announcement, which will no doubt come by morning.

Thankfully wholesaler Bertrams is unaffected by this decision, and for them at least, it is business as usual.

In the meantime, and just to underlie how volatile the publishing business it, US publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has closed its doors to any new acquisitions, in a move that has rattled agents throughout the industry. At the other end of the spectrum, it has emerged that the Hachette Group, whose stable encompasses names as Little Brown and Grand Central Publishing, are giving a bonus equivalent to one weeks salary to each of their employees.

If things were already bad for first time authors, struggling to find a deal, they were dealt an ever bigger blow when literary agent Esther Newberg said “It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” in case anyone might consider self publishing instead, she went on to say "I would hate to be starting out in the business.”

Even Google is not immune. The company is reducing its 10,000 strong army of contractors, in an effort to cut costs. A spokesman for the company admitted that they had been considering this for some time, since such staff, who make up a third of their workforce, are easier to shed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A tough Christmas - especially for celebrities

With sales down at almost all major retailers, within and without the book trade, and crisis talks at Woolworths, this will be a bleak Christmas for many. The market in which I work is one of the worst hit, mainly since the products that we sell are seen not only as expensive, but also as non-essential.

The book world is finally being forced to wake up to the reality of the discounting culture that it unwittingly created with the abolition of the Net Book Price Agreement. Echoing what I have been saying for months, The Bookseller reports that according to the Booksellers Association Benchmark Study, the results of which were released on Friday (November 21st), UK booksellers are locked in a damaging "vicious circle" of discounting, and are making fewer profits and seeing less growth than their counterparts overseas.

The report goes on to say that book stores have been hit by a "triple whammy" of declining average prices, stagnating growth and rising costs. Of the countries studied (UK, USA, Ireland, Netherlands, Finland and Sweden), only one (the United States) had a lower average selling price than the UK, with perhaps more worryingly, the number of books sold at discount in the UK rising from 44 percent in 2004 to 51 percent in 2007.

The report estimates that UK bookshops lost around 10 percent of volume sales to other sources, such as supermarkets and online retailers during that same three years. Gross margin for UK booksellers per book is put at around 25 percent (meaning that my book which is sold at 40 percent discount, is a relatively high earner for most), far lower than the average of the countries surveyed.

Echoing my own words, BA president Graham Rand said: "We have to ask ourselves whether the industry has gone too far in creating this -'lowest price' environment for consumers; through this serial discounting are we simply devaluing the worth of the book in consumers' eyes?" I have been saying this for a long time, ever since I first began to learn about publishing in fact and understood how the supply chain works. The lower the prices go, the more books are seen as throw away commodities, of little or no value.

Any fool can surely see that such heavy discounting is not good for business - and not just for book stores. Every sector of publishing is affected by this aggressive strategy, from publishers to book stores to authors. On the surface, it is good for the consumers, since they get lower prices, but it also means less choice, as the money is no longer there to nurture and support up and coming talent, hence the explosion in self publishing. Instead of welcoming this, and seeing it as a good thing that leads to increased choice and competition, the majority working in the industry see this as bane and a dumbing down of quality, to be kept out at all costs. One look at the average celebrity (supposedly) written book will soon tell you where the real dumbing down has come from - the industry itself that pays such obscene amounts to publish these books - not for much longer though.

The BA hopes that this report will be used as a springboard to book sellers to re-think their business strategies, and so do I, for the good of all. Discounting has its place, to encourage sales in slower moving titles perhaps, but to sell brand new books as loss leaders is irresponsible in the extreme. Instead of creating business and instilling brand confidence, this ultimately has the opposite effect. The company I work for, in the electrical sector is undergoing a major re-branding exercise to overcome their public image as a discount retailers; if the book stores do not change their stance, they may be forced to do the same. The conditions may be difficult - they are for all - but there is more than one way to skin a cat - if money is tight, instead of discounting, we need to find ways to cut costs by as the report suggests, closer negotiations with publishers, rethinking of labour costs, increased product ranges and ensuring the supply chain is being used effectively.

Things may be good for Katie Price (her latest book is reported to have outsold Gordon Brown's by 4,446 copies to 193, in just two weeks) but the signs are that the industry is finally catching up with public opinion and cottoning on to the fact that these so-called celebrity memoirs are not worth the money being spent on them. As a genre, celebrity memoirs are losing popularity fast, in favour of self help and books on how to beat the credit crunch.

As well as a more cautious public, who see these books as expensive luxuries, publishers can no longer afford fees reaching into seven figures for such authors. In the first six months of 2008, publishers' lists for non-fiction hardbacks were crammed with books by celebrities, including the aforementioned Katie Price, Katherine Jenkins, Myleene Klass and Craig Charles. Books were also scheduled for older more established stars such as Esther Rantzen, Julie Andrews, Mike Oldfield and William Shatner (now that one might be worth reading). Lists for 2009 reveal only 3 such celebrity books, by comedian Jack Dee, TV host Jeremy Kyle, and comedienne Jo Brand.

The majority of these books are issued as hardbacks, with cover prices (before discount) around the £19 mark, which is a high price to pay. Last December, books had to sell at least 10,000 copies to make it into the Top 20 of the Bookseller magazine's sales charts, this year that has halved to just 5000 copies. While some books have done remarkably well, other have failed to meet expectations. Dawn French is said to have received an advance of up to £2 million for her memoirs, Dear Fatty, yet the book has sold just 30,000 copies. Simply put, celebrities are becoming a de-valued currency. Despite these huge advances with thousands spent on publicity, the majority fail to deliver on sales and do not earn their advances back. Books like this cost publishers money, and lots of it, and the more books that make a loss, the less there is to pay the real writers, who in the meantime, struggle to get any advance at all.

Publishers are beginning to see the light, and are becoming more and more cautious when it comes to these deals. As Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday's literary editor, said: "When even the big names aren't selling, the economics don't add up. Add in the shrinking books market overall, as the credit crunch takes effect, and publishers become no longer willing to take a chance."

Publishing, or for that matter any business venture, is a game of chance, which can go either way. The current economics and experience show, that celebrity books are losing favour with the reading populace. Everything goes in circles, as I knew it would sooner or later. At times of uncertainly the public do not want to know about other peoples glamorous lives, as all this does is create more misery, what they want is believable information and ideas on how to escape from their own. Maybe it is time for me to write that book about Lundy?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A victory for common sense

I have been considering of late whether to publish this blog (omitting the personal and work related stuff) but since it is not likely to be that commercially viable, and on the recommendation of various writing friends, will probably do this via Lulu rather than Authors OnLine, who although very good, are not cheap. At this stage in my life I do not have the funds to publish another book, yet reading through some of the older posts on here, from when I first started this blog (at the beginning of 2006), they are rather good, and have the potential I think, to help a lot of others who may be considering this route. I also considered (and will get around to at some point) writing a more detailed book about print on demand in the UK, and publishing through Lulu may be a useful experience to write about. It will be useful to have tried this route, and have more than one angle to write about (doing it yourself as opposed to through a POD provider who oversee all the formatting and so on for you).

To this end, last weekend I bought one of the those new netbook computers. I have been considering one of these for a while, since my old laptop is rather heavy and bulky for travelling with, especially on the winter helicopter service, where there is a strict weight limit and not much room for hand luggage in the cabin. The one I chose, the Acer Aspire One, has a nine inch screen and 8 GB flash drive, with a Linux operating system. It will be more than adequate for my needs, and a useful and versatile travelling companion.

Not much has been happening in the book world these past few weeks, now that I have got to the bottom of what is going with Amazon and the introduction of their own print on demand service in the UK. The court case with Booklocker must be due quite soon, but there has been no more news. I expect it will appear on the Bookseller in due course, and I will no doubt hear about it from the various writing sites that I post on, as well as from Angela Hoy (the plaintiff) and the Long Riders Guild, whom I am in touch with from time to time.

Now that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed the Kindle, I expect that Amazon shall be selling a few more of these devices. It is not expected to be launched in the UK until the spring, so for the moment we will have to content ourselves with other means, such as the Sony E-Reader, which I expect Waterstones will also sell a few of over the coming festive season.

It will be a tough one this year for all retailers, not just book sellers, with Amazon predicting a sharp downturn in sales. Shares in the company are reported to have plunged by 14 percent in after-hours trading, as Amazon lowered its revenue target for the final three months of the year to between $6 billion (£3.67 billion) and $7 billion, against the $7.2 billion previously forecast. Jeff Bezos is still a lot richer than I am, so I don't think he has anything to worry about quite yet.

I see that Google have also agreed to provisionally (what this means is anyone's guess) pay $125m (£80m) to settle a long-running legal dispute between it and US publishers over its controversial book scanning programme, Google Books.

According to a statement released today, the settlement, which is subject to court approval, will expand online access to millions of in-copyright books, and other documents, in the United States from the collections of participating libraries.

Google Book Search allows users to browse millions of books online and, in the case of out-of-copyright titles (or titles that the author chooses to upload to the site, as I have done), read an extract or sometimes (depending on the permission granted) the entire text. The settlement resolves two lawsuits filed in the United States just over three years ago, one of which involved the Authors’ Guild and the other of which involved McGraw-Hill, Pearson, John Wiley and Simon and Schuster. The lawsuits objected to Google’s plans to digitise, search and display extracts of in-copyright books and share them online without the explicit permission of the copyright holder - I should think so too.

Under the terms of the provisional settlement, users will be able to search and preview millions of additional titles, including out-of-print books, online. Users will also be able to buy titles online via the Book Search site (thank goodness for small mercies). US academic institutions will be able to subscribe to the online collections of libraries from around the world, and students will be able to access millions of out-of-print titles from designated computers in public and university libraries.

In addition to resolving these claims, a portion of the $125 million potential settlement will go towards helping to establish the Books Rights Registry. This will be an independent, non profit organisation will pay the rights holders earnings from institutional subscriptions, book sales, advertising revenue and other potential revenue streams (similar to Public Lending Rights by the sound of it, but online). The registry will also be the method for authors to request inclusion or exclusion from the Google Book Search programme. I must remember to look at this myself then, once it is all set up, since it affects not only US based authors, but anyone whose work is distributed within that territory.

This is a victory not just for common sense, but also for both readers and authors, who will now get paid for the use of their work. I mustn't write too soon though, as how much we will get paid remains to be seen. If it is similar to the public lending rights system, where only a sample of libraries are used each year from which to calculate earnings, then this will not be much good at all, since the libraries that my own books is stocked in have so far not been included in this sample, meaning that even though I know they are being borrowed, I am still not paid. The real winner is then the reader, who will have access to a wealth of knowledge that these books contain.

Further information for authors affected by this decision can be obtained here and here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A storm in a tea cup

Following some comments posted on here by one Aaron Shepard a week or so ago, regarding and their plans to implement their own POD service, some interesting things have happened.

Aaron posted on here to say that both Bertrams and Gardners had stopped stocking Lightning Source titles, and that they were only available through what he referred to as 'back order'. This he said, had allowed along with their other sites outside the US, to start listing LSI titles as 'out of stock' or to stop taking orders for them at all.

I was puzzled by these comments, since neither Bertrams or Gardners routinely stock any POD titles, no matter who they are printed by (my own book, which is stocked by Gardners, is very much the exception). Most POD books are available via special order only, which is what Aaron refers to as 'back order'. What this means is that rather than Gardners etc keeping the books in stock, they are printed to order as and when needed. This is the norm for most POD titles, and the reason why they are not normally returnable, hence the fact that the majority of retailers do not keep in stock.

Having said this, no retailer in their right mind would refuse to obtain a book that a customer had specifically requested, for to do so would be commercial suicide. If the customer requests this book, and pays for it upfront, which they would be expected to do so, then the sale is guaranteed, so what has the retailer got to lose? It is money for old rope.

It is true that was showing such titles as out of stock, but when you looked at the details for these books, Amazon also said that they would let customers know when the books were available (expected within 6 to 9 days) and not take their money until then. There is nothing sinister in this at all, so I don't understand what Aaron was so upset about.

I emailed Richard to see what he knew and received the following reply:

"It would appear that Amazon managed to inadvertently route all Lighting Source books to the US printing works thus putting every POD book in Britain 'Temporarily Out of Stock' - and Gardners have not changed their policy, procedure or systems - if you start looking on Amazon now, you will see that they are all beginning to come back to normal. So a bit of a speculative storm in a tea cup - my info is from the President of Lightning Source who is a long standing business friend of mine, so I usually eventually get to the bottom of things."

He is as usual right. The majority of books are now showing as available within 24 hours - so back to business as usual.

I noticed that Paul has also posted some comments on The Bookseller stating that he spoke to I Damien Peachey from the Amazon press office. Damian assured him that although Amazon would prefer to print in house via Booksurge, publishers not signing up will be able to carry on exactly as they have been, with no problems at all. Titles will be available exactly the same as they always have.

I spoke to Paul in person the other night, and he relayed this tale in somewhat more detail. He also stated that he had spoken to the Business Development Manager of a large print on demand company based in both the UK and US, and he has received a letter from Amazon, confirming that printing with Booksurge is not compulsory, and things will continue as normal for all who do not sign up. So now we have it, in black and white, no one is forcing anyone to change printers.

All is well then that ends well. As Richard said all along, it is all a storm in a tea cup.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Borders hit by Icelandic banking crisis

As print on demand company Lulu make 24 people redundant at the UK site, due to the credit crunch, Amazon seem (unfortunately) to be going from strength to strength with their profits going up with each successive quarter. This has by all accounts, been a highly successful year for them - with the acquisition of social networking site Shelfari, and the launch in the United States, of the Kindle e-reading device. I see now that they have now been awarded a US patent for "creating an incentive to author useful item reviews."

The patent describes a method of "rewarding the authors of reviews found to be useful by their readers, such as by prominently displaying their names and ranks as authors of useful reviews prominently on the web merchant's web site." In practise this means giving customers badges for writing product reviews based on whether or not others found their submission useful. This is I suppose, Amazon's way of saying thank you (pity they didn't think to thank all us authors for writing the books that they sell at such ridiculous discounts and screwing us out of the opportunity to sell them at cheaper than they do - see the Booksurge contract in yesterday's post).

The funny thing is that back in 2000, Jeff Bezos called for "fewer patents, of higher average quality." Exactly what his definition of average is, is obviously different to the rest of us ... Why anyone is surprised by this backtrack is beyond me, for like politicians, it is all he seems to do. He stated not that long ago that Amazon had no plans to implement their POD "service" in the UK, but we all took that with a pinch of salt, and quite rightly so, given my two posts of yesterday. Some time ago, in an interview with the New York Times, he declared that books were like horses, as both were perfect things that were difficult to improve upon. It seems to me that he spends most of his time talking out of that same thing that horses s*** through.

Things may be good for Amazon, but they are far from good for troubled book chain, Borders, which has found itself emboiled in the Icelandic banking crisis. The retailer - which secured a £23 million asset-based loan from Landsbanki Island earlier this year, also has an overdraft facility with the bank, which has been taken over by Iceland's Financial Services Authority. Its links with Landsbanki could have long term implications for Borders UK's access to working capital, although the impact is as yet unclear.

The chain could find their working capital severely restricted during the most critical trading period of the year, while the Icelandic Government decides what to do with the banks international operations. Speculation is rife, with one suggesiton that Borders may be asked to pay back some of the £23 million loan. The problem is that this is secured by the stock that is held in both the company's stores, and its distribution centre (recently closed) in Truro.

At the time that this loan was announced, in February, Mark Raban, who was Borders' Finance Director, said: "Landsbanki were able to offer flexibility and complete the deal quickly. We are confident the deal puts us on a strong footing for future success." I bet he is eating those words now.

While I would hate to see the demise of the chain, and the resultant loss of jobs, it would in many ways be not unexpected. Borders seem to have lost something in recent years - they used to be a good company to deal with and to shop with, but the stores now seem tatty and out of date, with the shelves stocked full of books that no one wants to buy. Whether the closure of the Truro centre will make a difference is difficult to tell, in theory it should, for the smaller presses and self publishers at least, since the staff will no longer be able to fob you off by stating that they only buy stock centrally through Head Office. Some titles no doubt are, but they will no longer be able to use this as an excuse to get rid of the savvy self publishers like me, who will challenge them on this, by pointing out that this is not the case, the stock can and is, also obtained from wholesalers, with deliveries direct to stores.

It is once again a case of wait and see. I hope that they can manage to dig their way out, but I fear that this time, their number may be up, leaving just two major book chains in the UK - WH Smiths and Waterstones.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Amazon UK launches POD service

Around the end of March this year, stories began to circulate around the Internet that were contacting US based print on demand publishers by telephone and telling them that from now on, if they wished their books to be listed directly (i.e have buy now buttons) on, then they would have be printed by Booksurge, Amazon's own printer. This understandably caused a flurry of protests, for various reasons, which I blogged extensively about at the time, and which I will talk more about later on. It culminated in Angela Hoy, proprietor of together with her husband Richard, filing an anti-trust suit against Amazon, which is due in court at any time.

Everyone in the UK breathed a sigh of relief when Amazon confirmed that we were safe - for the moment, but sadly it seems that this moment has passed, for earlier this week The Bookseller ran an article written by Graeme Neill entitled Amazon UK launches POD service.

The article states that Amazon has launched a print on demand programme in the UK, which means that they can rapidly print and ship individual books following a customer order. The service will allow them to bring previously unavailable titles, such as out of print books or foreign language editions, into print in the UK. Publishers who have joined the programme are listed as Faber, John Wiley and Sons, HarperCollins UK, Cambridge University Press and Allen and Unwin Australia. Amazon state that they will be able to print books in both colour and black and white, and that the books will be 'virtually' indistinguishable from traditionally printed (lithographic) titles.

The article goes on to state that for a limited time, will be offering free set up for publishers with POD ready print on demand files. The service will it seems be offered from Amazon's fulfilment centre in Milton Keynes, the exact same town where POD printer Lightning Source are also based.

The more I read this article the more confused I got, as what the article describes is the exact service that Amazon already have through their partnership, if that is the right word to use, with Lightning Source. The similarities are so similar, that I began to wonder if they had come to an agreement with Lightning Source to print books with their name on in their own fulfilment centre - especially since Cambridge University Press are so I am told, Lightning Source' biggest customer by far.

Somewhat suspiciously, Christopher North, Vice President of media at says that "Amazon will be consulting with its US POD company Booksurge for their 'expertise and experience'". He went on to say that would not require publishers to use its POD service exclusively, adding that "We are offering titles that are being produced by other print on demand providers".

The funny thing is that they said the exact same thing in the States, but this turned out to mean that publishers who refused to print with Booksurge would have to join the inappropriately named Amazon Advantage programme instead, which requires publishers to give Amazon 55 percent off the list price (the same terms that wholesalers demand, when they are not a wholesaler), and pay Amazon $29.95 a year, plus all shipping costs to send the books to Amazon. These terms are even worse than the Booksurge contract, and that is saying something.

If this is what Amazon are proposing to bring into the UK then we should all be concerned, as it will cause ripples that will impact across the book industry for years to come.

This will be a lesson for all of us in unity consciousness - what publishers, large and small will need to do is band together and pool their resources, standing up and saying NO, we will not allow you to do this.

Although I reacted with fury to begin with, now that I have had a chance to think, the threat is a bit overplayed. The laws are different in this country, and the Monoplies and Mergers Commission would never let them get away with this. The court case in America with BookLocker is yet to be decided also, and to push ahead with this prior to the verdict would be stupid in the extreme. The fact is that no one, not even Amazon can force anyone to do anything that they don't want to - people like to think otherwise as thay way they can kid themselves that they don't have a choice, and then don't have to take responsibility.

Amazon do not buy books published by the smaller companies and the self publishing outfits direct from them, but through wholesalers. I know this for a fact, as I been told it many times by many different people. It makes sense for them to obtain my book in this way, since it is stocked by Gardners, who give them a far better deal (and higher discount) than Richard would. All books that have both an ISBN and distribution through either Bertrams or Gardners, the UK's two largest wholesalers (all major POD companies have accounts with both) are automatically fed to Amazon's site by the ISBN agency, and there is nothing that Amazon can do to prevent this. It is how the system works. They can in theory remove any book that they like from their site (and I am sure that they would find a way - they did with Hachette Livre) if they really wanted to, but this would entail an awful lot of work, too much even for the mighty Amazon. I mean think about it for a moment, would they really go to the time and trouble of wading through all those books from all those publishers and removing them from their site - of course not, and more to the point, would they really alienate themselves from companies that provide their most lucrative source of income - no - they know which side their bread is buttered.

I don't think we have reason to panic then quite yet.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The future's bright, the future's digital

Changes have been taking place within the publishing industry this past year or so at an alarming rate, or what seems alarming for a relatively slow moving trade. The industry is notoriously resistant to change, and so to many, these changes have not been easy and the transition far from smooth. The main threats facing the industry, which have been much debated in recent months are of course both e-books and print on demand. Both have been around for some time, with print on demand making great inroads and coming on in leaps and bounds. This is due in part to hard working and professional self publishers such as myself who have worked tirelessly to change perceptions, but also due to economics. While lithographic printing has become more expensive, due to the various costs involved, as the technology has grown and evolved, print on demand has become cheaper. Publishers are then embracing this technology as never before, and beginning to see it as more of a positive than a negative. This can only be a good thing.

The second threat if that is the right word, is e-books. Like print on demand, these too have been available for some time, but unlike print on demand, have been confined mainly to academic texts. This though is changing with the advent of new user friendly e-reader devices, such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, recently trialled very successfully I might add, by Waterstones.

What exactly though is an e-book? An e-book is a book that has been digitised so that it can be read on an electronic device instead of a paper copy. This reading device has traditionally been a computer, but can also be one of the new reading devices as mentioned above. Instead of reading the words on a page, you read them on the screen - to advance to the next page, you simply press the next button. The e-readers themselves are shaped very much like books, and weigh about the same.

They offer several advantages over traditional paper books - the most obvious of which is the ability to store up to 100 books on the same device. Think how heavy and awkward it would be if you had to carry around 100 books! This is a real boon for travellers and academics alike, not to mention writers like myself, who need access to lots of different texts at the touch of a button for research purposes. The ability to search quickly and easily within the text is another advantage.

The readers have received a mixed reaction amongst book devotees, with some welcoming them and others seemingly dead against. I fell into this camp myself until I actually saw one in my local Waterstones and had the opportunity to have a play around. They are surprisingly lightweight and very user friendly, with a well lit and lifelike screen that copes well even with bright sunlight. Whether you could use it in the bath is matter for debate - it would not be advisable, since water and electricity do not mix (like i-pods the readers have rechargeable batteries so don't need to be plugged in all the time). Curling up with one of these in bed would not have quite the same feel either, but the readers are here to stay, whether we like it or not, so we had better used to them.

The reaction from authors has also been mixed, with concerns over piracy and copyright. These issues do need to be addressed, but they mask, in my opinion, the underlying cause of this fear. The fear comes not from the technology itself but from it represents - freedom for both author and reader. If e-books catch on then publishers and agents could become obsolete, for instead of relying on them to sell their wares, authors will be able to go direct to the public. There will be nothing to stop them from setting up their own websites (the smart author has already done this anyway), paying a small fee to have their books digitised (Authors OnLine did a splendid job with mine for a very small fee indeed), and a bit more for publicity (easier said than done, depending on who you are). Once these costs are taken off the author gets 100 percent of the royalties. A traditional publisher if you are lucky, pays between 10 and 15 percent, so you work it out.

Publishing companies have good cause to be concerned, for this is a direct threat to their livelihood. They are bound to see their revenues decline, as are agents, as more and more authors begin to cut out the middle men, who have traditionally acted as gatekeepers. The old ways are crumbling to give birth to the new.

The real beneficiaries as always will be the unseen and unheard majority, those who cannot for various reasons get either an agent or a publisher to help sell their wares. There will be (and in reality, already is) nothing to prevent them from setting up their own store fronts in competition with the big boys and girls, who will no longer be able to look down on us from ivory towers, but instead look upon as the equals that we are. This will open up the market as never before, and do wonders to help the self published cause. The future belongs fairly and squarely to us, who embrace this technology with open arms, knowing what it means and the advantages that it offers. Perhaps as author and Sony ambassaor Toby Young says so eloquently in the current edition of Waterstones magazine, that is the real reason why so many are so nervous.

A review of the new Sony e-Reader can be seen here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

YouWriteOn publishes POD books for free

A few days ago, I received the following email from Arts Council sponsored peer review website, YouWriteOn. It reads as follows:

"Dear YouWriteOn member

Arts Council funded will publish the first 5,000 writers who contact us for Free - fiction and non fiction.

To participate follow these 2 steps:

1) Email, and inside your email add your name, address, telephone number, book title, genre, length of your book, and a synopsis up to 50 words
2) We will contact the first 5,000 people who email us by 31st October 2008. Your book will be ready to order by readers as a paperback by Christmas. Open to UK and US residents."

The email goes on to provide further details of previous successes that the site has launched (all fiction, since the site is for some inexplicable reason, closed to non fiction writers, as indeed all other peer review sites are, with the exception of Authonomy), and provide details of how this deal will work.

Books will be available to order direct through the YouWriteOn site, and members will be able to review them and contact each other in the same way as with other works downloaded on to the site. The authors will receive a 60 percent royalty for each copy sold, paid six monthly, as opposed to the usual 12 to 15 percent paid by commercial publishers. The books they say, will be the same quality as bookstore or 'trade' paperbacks, and the author will retain all rights to their work. It goes without saying that the books will not be lithographic, but print on demand.

The offer, which seems a good one, is open to UK and US residents only and the contract is non exclusive - what this means is that if you are made an offer from someone else, or have other reasons to withdraw the work from their site, then you can do without any further obligation.

While this offer is entirely free, the books do need to be in a publishable state, since here is the catch, no editing or proof reading is offered. While it is true that works that have been on the site for some time may have been subject to a form of proof reading on the part of the readers, who point out mistakes so that they can be corrected, this is not the same thing as a professional edit. I can already hear the battle cries of 'vanity press', and believe you me, certain sectors of the industry will seize on this as an excuse to use that term and be very derogatory indeed about the resultant books. It does make one wonder whether this is such a good deal or not. It does though do a lot to help raise POD's profile, and I have to say that in general, YouWriteOn are a very POD friendly bunch, offering US authors affected by the Amazon debacle earlier this year, the chance to advertise their books (once again fiction only) on the site for free.

On the other hand, it this that much different to what other POD providers offer, such as Authors OnLine Ltd? In some ways no, but in others, yes. Authors OnLine and other reputable print on demand providers (there are a few of them) have access to freelancers whose role is to edit and proof read (for a fee) works that they publish or put their name to. They also offer help with marketing (if you ask) that goes far beyond placing it on a website and asking people to review it. On the other hand, they are not as high profile as YouWriteOn, which attracts some heavyweight members, with the chance of being spotted and picked up by one of the big boys (or girls - and several authors have been).
Of course none of this is of any significance to the non fiction writer (and bear in mind that most print on demand books are non fiction, as indeed most books are in general - the market for fiction is small in comparison), since YouWriteOn do not publish such material on their site anyway, yet the free publishing offer does include non fiction. Maybe they are planning to open the site up to non fiction in the hopefully near future, I seem to remember them indicating that to me in an email, but the details are hazy.
The other catch is the relatively low, but nevertheless, competitive cover prices that they hope to set, of between £5.99 and £7.99. With print costs of around 1 penny per page, plus the cover this will not leave much left over to pay the author their royalties. Mind you, 60 percent is still more than the 12 to 15 percent that commercial publishers pay, although the site doesn't stipulate whether royalties are based on net prices (after print costs etc are taken off) or the actual cover price. I would need to see the contract to know that, and seeing as I have nothing to offer them, that might be difficult ...
This seems such a good offer, that it is pity I don't have anything suitable. Perhaps I should consider publishing this blog ... Would you be prepared to buy it in published form - answers in the comments section please ...

Since the books will not have an ISBN (unless you pay extra for one - essential in my opinion), they will not be available in book stores or via the usual Internet retailers (Amazon, etc). This will cost an additional £39.99 through a separate partnership with Legend Press.

If you wish to submit your work, simply email The offer is open to applicants of all nationalities.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The End of Book Publishing as we know it?

My next installment for today features several other articles sent to me via the lovely people at Book2Book. The first of these is a rather long article published in New York magazine entitled The End of Book Publishing as we Know It? The article is too long to detail in its entirety but it basically bemoans the state of the industry, and poses the question, is this the end of publishing as we know it, and can and will it evolve into something better? What that something better is is open to debate, and depends as always on your point of view.

From the authors point of view, it cannot really get much worse, but that depends again on who you are. If you are one of the select few who is guaranteed large advances and healthy sales for every book that you write, then you may not have much to worry about, since you have made your money, but for the majority who struggle to get a foothold at all, then serious changed need to be made, changes that will I hope benefit all, and not just those who actually sell the books.

In its heyday, whenever that was, publishing was a good industry to be working in, the author has a large variety of different houses to choose from, both large and small, and many different outlets for their work. Today things are somewhat different - most of those smaller publishers have since been swallowed up the large conglomerates - the big five publishers who collectively control around 75 percent of the market - in the UK as well as the US. It is the same with book sellers, with independents being forced out of business by the aggressive marketing of the chains and Internet retailers, most notably Amazon. The industry is no longer driven by talent, but by profit, and market forces - in other words, the book buying public, who demand higher and higher discounts. It is an endless and self perpetuating cycle - the more they get used to discounted book prices, the more they demand them, until it gets to the point that nothing is bought at full price. What this means to both author and publisher is less money in the coffers to a) promote new talent and b) spend on producing good quality books. No one is a winner, least of all the public themselves.

The biggest threat comes from the Internet, without a doubt. E-books and print on demand also play a role. Amazon has been busy expanding their share of the market and capitalising on these new trends, by buying up not just Booksurge, a large print on demand company, but also Shelfari, a social networking site, where members are encouraged to upload their book shelves and make recommendations to others. They also launched the Kindle reading device (in the United States only, although I am sure that will change) earlier this year. Editors and retailers fear with good reason that they bent on building an an inclusive publishing business where they control every aspect from sales to publication, with no middle men in sight. The first step began at the end of March when they announced that from now on, any print on demand companies based in the United States would have to use their own printer Booksurge, in order to be listed directly on This is the first step towards cutting out the middle men, and sceptics say in time, controlling the entire print on demand sector, which is increasingly used by not just self publishers, but also the larger houses to maintain their back lists, what is commonly referred to as the 'long tail'. Control this and you control the entire market. It is the same with the Kindle, why bother with HarperCollins, Borders Books etc when you can sell direct to the public via Amazon and have your books preloaded onto such a device? Certain books now are going straight to Kindle long before they are published as paper copies.

Amazon are also playing hard ball over terms with publishers. When Hachette Livre, the UK's largest publishing group refused to give into their demands for higher discounts, Amazon removed the BUY NEW button from its listings for all the company’s key books. Hachette’s CEO responded with an open letter, saying “Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours.” I know they feel, and the cynic in me says what the hell do they expect, for their have allowed other book sellers to get away with similar behaviour, demanding extortionate fees for prime placement and promotions) for far, far too long, at the expense of the small presses and self publishers who simply cannot compete.

The ultimate fear is that the Kindle could be a Trojan horse. At the moment, Amazon makes little or nothing at all on Kindle books. Pay $359 for the device and you can get e-books for $9.99. Publishers list those same e-books for $17.99, and as with paper copies, charge Amazon around half that price for the privilege. This means that Amazon make around $5 for each book, while the publishers make $9 (before overheads are taken off or taken into account).

The fear is that Amazon are doing what the supermarkets also do - offering a sweet deal now in order to undercut publishers later on. If they succeed in making e-books the dominant medium (and the signs are encouraging), then they will be in a position to pay publishers whatever they feel like, the same as they already trying to do with print on demand through the Booksurge debacle (see my posts about this on the archives from April of this year).

While some are playing a game of watch and wait, others are attempting to take matters into their own hands. HarperStudio and a few others are making ambitious plans. In February of this year, Bob Miller and Jane Friedman met at the bar of the Omni Berkshire hotel for one of their freewheeling chats. “How would you do it differently if you could start all over again,” Jane asked. Bob said that he’d try to reduce advances and returns, put out only a few books, and focus on cheap Internet marketing. “Why don’t you do that?” Jane asked, and within a week they had a deal.

Miller has worked out separate contracts with booksellers and authors - capping advances at $100,000 and reducing returns. Authors will contribute to their own pre-publication marketing.
Miller doesn’t wait for agent submissions, instead accosting writers at conferences, telling them how much more a writer can make under 50-50 profit-sharing. Of course the cynic in me says that all of this, noble as it sounds is really just another term for subsidy publishing, and why the hell shouldn't an author contribute to marketing - after all, whose book is it? When the contract is offered by a small unknown publisher is is subsidy or even worse, vanity publishing, but when the published in question is a large and respected one, then it is profit sharing ...

One unnamed indie publisher has gone a step further, expanding into print on demand, online subscriptions, and even considering a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transition period of print on demand, followed by an era in which most books will be published electronically for next to nothing. High-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become will become limited edition collectors item - the vinyl of the future.

The transition will be hard - some publishers will transform, some will muddle through, and some will simply die. One things for sure; gone are the days when authors were paid in the millions, or even printed in the millions. The industry has to find a new way of being if it is survive.

Perhaps if we really want to turn things around we should listen to Sam Leith from The Telegraph, who states that reading makes you rich and better in bed.

Five reasons not to write a book

Each day I receive an e-newsletter called Book2Book which contains snippets from around the book world gleaned from various newspapers and blog sites, and each day I mean to write about what I read in those snippets. Each day though for the past 10 days I have failed to do so, mostly because I just didn't feel like writing. I have though been saving the best bits for when I did feel like writing, and so here goes.

The first installment for today comes from the blog site of one Penelope Trunk, otherwise known as the Brazen Careerist. Nothing wrong in that provided of course you do not step on other peoples toes to get there, and I have no reason whatsoever to think that Penelope has done. Her post, which is dated September 14th, is entitled 5 Reasons why you don't need to write a book, and I have to say that most of them, from my experience are very good compelling reasons, then again though, maybe not ...

They are as follows:

1. People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.
While it is true that a blog is more immediate, and possibly interactive, with better feedback, it all depends on what sort of ideas you have. Some subjects lend themselves better to blogs than others, while others lend themselves better to books, as it is easier to dip in and out of a book, and use it as a source of reference (provided of course that it has a decent index). Penelope does have a point though when she says that many people who think they have a ton of ideas that lend themselves to books actually have very few new ideas, yet it is also true that there is nothing new under the sun. It is important to find avenues for those ideas, sure, but blogging is not the only way to do this - you can also write articles for magazines and other peoples websites. Like I said, it all depends on what sort of ideas you have. I suspect that Penelope, like so many others I come across, may be falling into the same old trap of believing that everyone writes fiction...

2. A book is an outdated way to gain authority.
Maybe, it depends again on how hard you are prepared to work. I wouldn't say that Katie Price has any authority when it comes to horses, any more than Victoria Beckham when it comes to fashion, but that is just my opinion. Riding for many years, or being paid by posh designers to wear their frocks does not make you an expert, yet both of these ladies are seen as icons and people of authority.
In my genre it seems that in order to be seen as an authority and taken seriously, very much like in the world of work, one has to have a degree. It is true that I have not been to university, but with all the years of study I have done, I am sure that my combined qualifications would be at least the equivalent of a degree, heck the years I spent writing that book ought to count for something as well. Can I get taken seriously though, no, because I am not famous enough and don't have the right pieces of paper to prove what I have done. A book is not seen as enough, you have to know the right people, and get the qualification first before you start writing, and not use the writing as means to get qualified as I did.

3. Books lead to speaking careers, but speaking careers lead nowhere.
Books and speaking, in non fiction at least anyway are natural bed fellows, but each lasts as long as the other. To be successful at either, you need to keep churning them out, year in, year out. If you don't do this, then like Victoria Beckham's singing career, you are soon forgotten about.

4. You'll make more money flipping burgers [or selling electrical equipment] than writing a book.
Tell me about it! One read through this blog will confirm this simple truth, than any would be writer would be wise to take on board. Chances are that in today's climate you will have to pay to have your book published rather than the other way around. You will then spend the next 2-3 years justifying to everyone else your reasons for going this, while juggling career, kids (thankfully I don't have any) and a life (I do have both a career and a life, and contrary to popular belief, they are not the same thing).

5. When you're feeling lost, a book won't save you.
This is the one above all else that I can really relate to. A lot of my problems stemmed from the simple truth that I expected and hoped that my book would indeed save me, by providing me with not just a direction in life, but also something to define myself by. It did both of these for a while, but once published, the novelty began to wear off. I have had to learn the hard way that a book does not give you a direction in life - only you can do that. As Penelope says, a book is something you write in order to get you to where you're going. If you have nowhere to go, a book will ensure that you stay where you are: lost.

She goes on to say that people use books like they use law school. They think that if they have a piece of paper - a degree or a publishing contract, then people will respect them. If others respect them, then they can respect themselves. Self respect though comes from within, and should not be dependent on others vision of yourself (tell that to the faceless celebrities who continue to churn out endless tosh, or those who apply for Big Brother). No one can give you that vision, you have to find it for yourself.

I wish I had read this article when I first began to write, as she gives some very good advice. She says that most people who think they need a book deal probably need to answer the question: What will I be doing two years after that book? Do you really need the book to get where you want to go? Probably not. In my case though, I most definitely did, because I honestly cannot see that there was any other way for me to learn what I have done, and I have had some great fun along the way.

Despite the problems and the pitfalls, it was the right path for me, for it has forced me to take a long hard look at myself in way that nothing else could. When you hit rock bottom, as I have, one minute in the depths of despair and the next as high as kite, then this makes you question your motivations and who you are like nothing else can. The past two years since publication have forced me to re-evaluate my vision of who I thought I was, and change my perception of someone who was a victim to someone who is magnificent and shining success, and someone whose who does not need the approval of others to define herself in this way. That to me is infinitely more valuable than any amount of degrees or bits of paper, for I have learnt through the school of life. I may be a bit battered and bruised, but I have come up smiling and am confident and happy with who I am.

More, maybe, later on ...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Price is right?

Speaking as an author, who is a member and regular poster on several reading and writing sites, there is one subject that is guaranteed to be a good discussion and that is Katie Price and her books. Love her or loathe her, Katie and her books always spark controversy, with plenty of differing views.

Two articles have been circulating around the national press this week regarding this very same subject, one in the Daily Mail and one on the blog of author and ghost writer Andrew Crofts.

The article in the Daily Mail, which is written by Lionel Shriver, bemoans the fact that Katie's books are selling faster than JK Rowling's, which is no mean feat. Gone are the days when writers were seen as shy retiring sorts, who were slightly eccentric, as they are now ego drive celebrities who are willing to court publicity at any cost. If the best sellers charts are to be believed, then in order to become successful in this game (as a woman anyway), you have to have large breasts (preferably surgically enhanced), be married to or in a relationship with someone famous, or go on some meaningless reality TV show. In Katie's case, she has done all three.

In some ways you have to admire her business sense, and you can hardly blame her for cashing in on others appetite for the gory details of her private life (and some details in her book really are private), but it does not mean that it is right. I am not sure if I would reveal anwhere near what she has for any price, let alone the £17 million, which she is reportedly worth.

The fact that her books are ghost written only adds to the controversy, for how can she really be called an author? It somehow does not seem fair that she earns all this money from books that she has not written, when others who do write struggle on so little, with no recognition at all.

Andrew Croft makes the point that every so often (not that I ever see it) there is a burst of indignation within the media about how little serious authors earn (although he fails to define what a serious author is). Figures are bandied about and comparisons are made, such as the fact that Katie makes more money from the books that she puts her name to than the entire Man Booker shortlist put together. Given her 'celebrity' status, and the mentality of the average 20 something who reads this stuff, this is to be expected. The boss of Waterstones makes more than the people who write the books that they sell, and the Chairman of our company more than the factory workers in Korea, where we obtain our televisions from. The fact that this happens does not though mean that it is morally or ethically right.

Andrew goes on to say that the average earnings of members of the Society of Authors are often brought up to illustrate how poorly writers are rewarded, yet we are able to exercise some form of control by working harder. It is true that if you write just one book a year, then you are not likely to get rich, but you have to have the time to do this in the first place. It is all very well saying that writers should work harder by writing eight hours a day and doing this that and the other, but how are we supposed to pay our bills while we do this? Sitting at home writing all day does not put food on the table and coins in the gas metre.

It is true that the most successful writers are the most versatile, and the most marketable, but we don't all have rich partners or parents to fall back on. We have to work outside the home (and this means outside of writing) in order to support ourselves. It is catch 22; you have to be out there promoting your work and creating the next one, but do not have the financial means to do this.

The best way to be succesful (apart from having a rich someone to support you, or relying on benefits) is to have a varied portfolio of different types of work and a long list of contacts. Both have to be worked at and do not happen overnight. The most successful writers are the ones who are continually promoting themselves and their work (or brand), as indeed does Katie.

It is easy to deride her for marketing so blatantly (and you don't get much more blatant than she did on Spanish TV - giving far too much detail about the reason for her sore throat - so I was told by an expatriate friend), but she would not be where she is had she not done this (marketed that is). Sad as it is, in many ways, her success can be seen as lesson for all of us, in refusing to take no for an answer, and making the most of what we have.

I may not like her or what she has done, but I have to admit that she has had to overcome an awful lot of snobbery to get to where she is today. Five years ago she was a struggling glamour model whose career was in decline, with what Andrew refers to as 'a tabloid reputation'. When she approached publishers with the idea of writing a book about her life, she received a less than enthusiastic welcome. Only John Blake, a man famed for his open mind on different subjects, was willing to give her a chance. He bought her book 'Being Jordan' for about two per cent of the price that Katie and her people had initially asked for. The book turned into a resounding success, and the rest as they say is history.

Those who turned her down must surely be kicking themselves, as those who turned down JK Rowling (and June Austin!) before them. By teaming up with Blake, Katie was able to appeal direct to the general public over the heads of the publishing elite who have traditionally set themselves up as the gatekeepers of what the public should or should not read (a subject I know all about). Having got to know her via exposure on television (I'm A Celebrity and the truly awful Katie and Peter certainly helped), the public responded by buying her books by the cartload. She appealed particularly to young women, through her obvious love and concern for disabled son Harvey, and penchant for wrong men.

Her writing career has been nothing less than a phenomena, which no one could have foreseen. It is not confined to her own memoirs, as she also puts her name to children's books about horses and riding, one of which was nominated for a prestigous book prize earlier this year. Her success contains several lessons for would be writers. Firstly, not to be out off by rejections, and secondly to settle for a modest advance in order to get started. Once this had happened, she did not sit around waiting for people to buy her books, but got out there and actively promoted them, bringing herself into the public eye to spark peoples interest.

On occasions I have been accused of jealousy regarding Katie, and I must admit that some of my comments have been less than charitable. I do not like her personality or her approach to fame, and there is no way that I would want that sort of lifestyle (just give me the fortune and forget the fame), but I have to admit that she has made some pretty astute business decisions and worked damned hard to get where she is. Her fame though comes at a price, and for me that price is just a little too high.