Thursday, May 15, 2008

Green and Blacks (sadly not chocolate!)

My mid week news report from around the publishing world comes via some interesting stories on Publishing News. The first one is entitled "Rand attacks Green excuse". It is, as expected, about the firm sale debate - that is, moves towards firm sale on back list titles in a bid to reduce returns. The industry is understandably perhaps, but also predictably, not exactly happy at the prospect of the risk of these books not selling, being shifted on to them. Personally I think that it is well overdue, and I suspect that the majority of independent authors and publishers would agree with me.

The article states that in his inaugural speech as BA President, Graham Rand of Bertrams/THE (remember that Bertrams are one of the largest wholesalers in the UK and that the wholesalers control the supply chain) attacked what he termed the "green excuse" which is being used by some publishers to impose firm sale on back list titles. He claimed that this move threatened to disturb what had hitherto been "superb cooperation" by all sides of the industry on a range of environmental issues, with members both large and small, deeply concerned.

He went on to say that the returns question is a complex issue (not from where I am sitting) and worthy of discussion, but changes should only be made with agreement, and not imposed (pity Gardners didn't think of that when they dumped those 71 books on me back in February). The best though is yet to come, as he added that any new agreement would need to address the question of compensation if risk moves from one side of the business to the other.

No one compensated me when those aforementioned books were dumped in my living room back in February, and no one even bothered to ask or let me know it was happening, or Richard come to that. No, they just did what they decided was right without even bothering to ask my opinion. I would be fair to say that this was imposed upon me, without discussion and certainly without one single thought as to how it would affect me.

Why then should book sellers have the right to start claiming compensation for this when they do not give us that right? No one points a gun at their heads and forces them to buy certain books, okay maybe the public do, by asking for them, but that is business and if they don’t like that, then they are in the wrong business to begin with. Maybe though they could say that about me, as I have to be fair here and say that I did know that there was a risk that I would have some returns to deal with, but if they want us to play fair with them then that needs to be reciprocal, and so far I have little evidence that it is, or they ever intend to start treating independent authors and publishers fairly. Perhaps more to the point, these are decisions that they make whether or not to buy books, and they should have to live by the consequences of those decisions - what has happened to personal responsibility - and more to the point, why should authors and publishers have to bear the brunt of their mistakes?

The way the industry treats both authors and publishers is in my opinion, little short of blackmail. They have us over the proverbial barrow, as if we refuse to cooperate, they will not sell our books. This may sound extreme, but think on this for a moment, if you will. Independent authors cannot get their books into the majority of stores unless they are available on high discount (at least 40 percent) and sale or return (for this read that the book seller has the right to return those books back to the wholesaler, often in poor condition, at any time within a year). The wholesaler of course also reserves the right to return books to the publisher, should they find that they have too much stock.

If you will not, or cannot do business on these terms, then your books are effectively black listed and you cannot even get through the door. Make no bones about it, this is blackmail, and it is also unfair trading, that keeps authors out and stops them from reaching a maximum audience. After all, the Internet may be booming, but the majority of books are still bought in stores, as nothing can or will replace the thrill of browsing and the book shop atmosphere. Self publishers complain about Amazon and what they are up to, but the real problem in my opinion is the rest of the supply chain. They are the ones we should be wary of.

Maybe there is a risk that booksellers will stock less books, and make fewer sales, but to be quite honest, they will know what it bloody well feels like! Until I managed to push through the closed shop that the publishing industry is to the average self published author, with their outrageous demands of higher and higher discounts, and the right to return books at any time, often in poor condition, within one year of sale, I stood no chance of being stocked in most book stores at all. That well used phrase from the Bible springs to mind "do unto others as you would have done unto you". Another perhaps less spiritual one also to ponder on is - "what goes around comes around".

In the meantime, the industry has unveiled a new green initiative in the form of a brand new website aimed at raising environmental awareness within the publishing industry and helping to affect change.

There is of course far more to this issue than just returns, important though that is - it is also about using sustainable paper and ink, non polluting transport for both transporting books and staff, and all those other little things that businesses need - right down to buying fair trade tea and coffee. All these things and more (apart from the tea and coffee perhaps) are discussed in detail on the new site, and I recommend that you take a look.

The Guardian blog also has an interesting article on whether being a successful writer is really worth all the effort, or all it is cracked up to be. Although she was greatly honoured to receive such an accolade, Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel prize for literature states in the article that since she won the award, she has been so busy giving interviews etc, that she does not have the time to write.

The unpublished or struggling author may find this attitude strange, but actually I can understand where she is coming from. Writers are by nature a solitary bunch. We are good at writing because we are good at observing - people, ideas and situations from a distance, we work best on our own, as we are deep thinkers who need time on our own to perfect our craft, away from distractions. Because of this, we are not so good at publicity and self promotion, shying away from the limelight.

In my case, although I work with the public four days a week, I am far better and far more comfortable communicating via the Internet and by phone than I am face to face (the fact that through my telemarketing campaign I managed to get into all those Waterstones, proves my point). Given the choice and the opportunity, I would much rather have a desk job where I did not have to deal with the public face to face, dealing with their foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Success and failure can, as Joseph Heller points out, both be very difficult to endure. I have had a taste of both, several times, in my 42 years and 11 months on this planet, and I expect I have a lot more of both still to come. Along with success comes the so-called celebrity status, which can lead to various forms of escapism - drink, drugs, etc, but also the break up of relationships, as well as constant doubts as to whether someone is with you for just your fame/money, hangers on, depression, anxiety and so on.

Failure, or what we perceive as failure, also has its price - more anxiety and depression, and feeling that you and what you stand for is a complete and utter waste of time and space. Heck, some writers I know are terrified of success, and deliberately choose not to even try and get published in case they can't cope with a) the rejection and b) any success they do have. This is tragic, as you have to follow your dreams to the end, no matter where they take you.

People often make the mistake of believing that success must always mean monetary success, but it is not about this at all - it is about how you feel about yourself, and it is also about having faith that what you have written will reach the people that need to read it. I did not write my book for myself, I wrote it for others, so that you could learn and grow, understanding more about themselves, and more about this world that we live in.

You may sell 1 million copies of a book, but if no one understands it and it does not contain your heart and your soul, then no one will benefit from this. If the other hand, you sell just one copy of your book, and the message that it contains changes someones life, then you have been successful. I know which I would choose every time, and I know which I fall into as well. That makes me a huge success in my eyes, and that is all that I need to know.

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