Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fair Trade for Authors !

I think when something like a large amount of book returns happens to an author, it is like any other type of grieving process - you go through many different stages before reaching acceptance - the angry stage - how could this have happened, what could I have done to prevent this, the let down stage - I have let myself and everyone else down etc, before one finally gets to the stage where one just surrenders to what has happened and tries to see it in a positive light instead.

Over lunch today, Coran and I watched an episode of Babylon Five, an extraordinary science fiction television series written and created by J Michael Straczynski - the episode we watched was entitled 'Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi'. There is a scene in that episode where one character Delenn, is watching a film of her lost lover whom she is pining for. It is a long story that will be familiar to fans of this series. I won't go into full details here, as it would take too long.

She blames herself for his disappearance, as it is her actions that led him to take risks. In the footage of him speaking that she is shown, he states "this is the hardest thing we've ever done, and frankly, it scares the hell out of me. But it has to be done. The job is to turn this around and make it into something positive. My dad always told me, that's the only way to deal with pain. You don't surrender, and you don't fight it. You turn it into something positive". This is what I now intend to do.

Yesterday then, I sent an email out to all those on my mailing list, and have had some wonderful responses and messages of support. One lady has offered to put the book on her new online shop and try and sell some copies at her local flea market; another chap in Australia has put me in touch with one of his writing pals whom this also happened to, and whom I am waiting to hear from. It was so lovely to hear from Malcolm, whom I hadn't heard from in over a year. His wife died just over a year ago, and we shared some quite personal correspondence and got to know each other very well for 2 people who live on opposite sides of the world. It was lovely then to hear from him after all this time. Good things then can come from adversity.

Yesterday though was a busy day. I spent an hour or so on the phone in the morning ringing various branches of Borders, and managed to get at least some interest. Bournemouth are definitely ordering one copy, which is a start, and the rest asked me to email them with further information. Will keep an eye on the number that Gardners have in stock over the next day or so and see what happens. I am sure I will the first to know when they need more copies, and have got some quotes from DHL in case!

If the number in stock does not drop, I will ring those stores again next week, when I get my day off and catch up with them again to see what the interest is.

Later on in the afternoon I went through the list of contact details for Blackwells stores - an academic book chain based on university campuses, sending them a copy of that review from The Self Publishing Magazine that I had last year which said that the book was ideal as a companion for students of social sciences. Will keep an eye on what happens there as well, as this might be something that could open quite a few doors and lead to interesting opportunities all round.

It even looks like the local paper might write a piece and help me to shift some copies - they will ring me at work tomorrow, all being well, to discuss things further. I am then beginning to think that those books being sent back might turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened.

In the shower this morning like one does, I had the inspiration to write an article entitled Fair Trade for Authors. This seems topical at the moment, as we are in the midst of fair trade fortnight. I did some research of my own on the web and came across an article entitled Fair Trade Books which was posted on a site entitled Times Emit last October. Interesting reading it makes too.

The author, Peter Collingridge, makes the point that being green seems high on the agenda at the moment within the book industry, with moves towards firm sale and the use of recycled, or as least sustainable paper. There is though, to the best of his knowledge, only one carbon neutral publisher, Alasdair Sawday.

Each year, thousands upon thousands of unsold and returned books go to landfill sites and end up being pulped. Most of these are mint copies, which have never been opened, much less read, and this to my mind is little short of criminal. His colleague, James cited a Times Higher Education Supplement piece which calculated that what with production and transport, the average paperback eats its way through 4.5kWh of energy on its journey to the reader. This is equivalent to an extra 100,000 cars on our roads.

The answer lies partly in digitisation in the form of e-books, but this is not the only option, as print on demand also has a role to play. E-books are all well and good for educational text books and the like, but will never totally replace traditional paper copies. Nothing is like the look and feel of a real paper book, and e-books cannot come close to the experience of browsing in a library or book store. Enter then print on demand, as the obvious solution to this problem.

Both Peter and James make the point that book sellers use the returns system to facilitate their pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap attitude to literature. Returns are bad for the environment, and poisonous to literature, as they eat into publishers profits, meaning there is less money going into the system with which to not only pay their own staff, but also the authors. Let's not forget that without us to actually write the books, there would be no publishing industry in the first place.

Writing has never been one of the more lucrative professions, but authors have never been so badly paid, or so exploited, with most of the money going to the select few, who are either very well known or married to someone else who is! It is time then to consider the practise of Fair Trade Books (as opposed to Fat Cat Books), where authors are paid a fair price, publishers print using organic, sustainable, and ethically produced paper and ink, using local printers rather than overseas conglomerates, and where book sellers stop demanding huge discounts and sale or return, helping to promote local authors. Peter is not joking when he writes this, and neither am I, it is not a joking matter.

There has been a revolution going on in the publishing industry which began 10 years ago when Anthony Rowe first brought print on demand to the British Isles in partnership with Gardners. It started as a very gentle whisper, but has become a shout which refuses to go away and can only get louder. If publishers wonder why so many are choosing to self publish, they should take a look at the shameful way in which authors are treated - not as human beings, with feelings and lives and families to support, but as disposable commodities and cash cows to be taken advantage of and milked.

I plan then to expand on this article over the next couple of days, and see what transpires. I have already started the ball rolling by opening up a discussion on self publishing on a book lovers site (for those who read rather than write books) and it is making a few waves, and hopefully will begin to change attitudes towards those who write the books - this is the way to go, for if you can reach the readers and change their attitudes then it seems to me that anything is possible.

As they also say in Babylon Five "if you're falling off a cliff, you may as well try and fly. You've got nothing to lose." This girl has found her wings, and is getting ready to take that jump - to step into the abyss with eyes firmly open, and see what happens.

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