Sunday, August 31, 2008

An insult to our nearest relative

A funny thing has happened these last few weeks, considering all the angst that I have been through this past year - I have found that I am thinking less and less about books and more and more about what non writing friends refer to as 'the real world', so much so, that I hardly think of myself as a writer at all anymore. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

We all need to work to pay the bills, and I am no exception to this. For quite a time I had my head in the clouds, thinking I could make a full time living from what I love, and became very fed up and depressed even, when I found that I could not. I blamed the job for a lot of the problems that I had, which mostly stemmed from my non acceptance of this situation. A symbiotic relationship has developed, where I use my experiences at work to feed what writing I do do, which lately has been confined to this blog. It will not have escaped readers notice that the majority of posts in recent months have been more about my work than what is going on in the book world, and I have to make more of an effort each week to keep up. I am not alone in this struggle, since the majority of writers are in the same boat. There is no easy answer, and all I can do is make the most of what time I do have, and have a sneaky look at publishing websites when the boss's back is turned!

I write then for the second time today, about some recent developments in publishing ...

I wrote on here some time ago that Borders were undertaking a restructuring of their buying team, with buyers being asked to re-apply for their jobs (sounds familiar). Now that this is complete, eight of them are to leave. Four will leave at the end of September. Of the remainder, some are being made redundant, while others are moving elsewhere. I wish them all luck.

The new fiction team will be headed by senior fiction buyer Michael Jones, who has been appointed acting books category manager. He (The Bookseller refers to him as a she I notice!) replaces Caroline Mileham who left Borders last month to join Michael will be supported by fiction buyers Ruth Atkins, Radcliffe Harris, John Packard and Sarah Cahill, who has been promoted from assistant airports buyer to real time airports buyer.

The non-fiction team will be led by senior non-fiction buyer Richard Humphreys, who continues in his responsibility for the history section. Guy Raphael will be in charge of lifestyle, biography, travel, film and TV; Rob Hughes will buy current affairs, academic and reference, and popular culture books; and Emma Carter will have responsibility for food, gardening and art and design, as well as managing the bargain books section. I am not sure who will be in charge of my subjects of mind, body and spirit, popular science or religion and philosophy, not that it makes a difference, since hell would have to freeze over (not that I believe in hell anyway, but you know what I mean) before any of them would deign to even look at a POD book, let alone talk to its author. Perhaps one day I will phone up pretending to be from Random House and see what happens - it might be interesting !

CEO Philip Downer said the reorganisation was done in time for the business’ switchover to its new less centralised buying (in theory at least) systems next week. We shall see if it makes a difference (it certainly will for the Cornish economy), but I won't hold my breath ...

In the meantime, I see that another European country, Switzerland has moved one step closer to the reintroduction of fixed book prices, after the economic committee of the Swiss parliament narrowly recommended such a move. Fixed book prices were abolished in Switzerland in May 2007 after the Swiss government supported a court ruling that the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in the German-speaking region of Switzerland was an illegal cartel. They were abolished throughout the country, and not just the German speaking regions.

The vote was as expected very tight, with 13 in favour, 11 against and one abstention. The bill will now go before the Swiss Parliament, where it will no doubt be rigorously debated. It is of course by no means certain as to whether it will be passed, although I am sure that Swiss authors sincerely hope so. Observers, most of whom probably have no insider knowledge of publishing, are widely expecting another cliffhanger after a number of MPs declared their opposition to the bill. The committee concluded that past experience of retail price management for books in both Switzerland and other countries had shown a positive impact on the trade. To readers maybe, but not to writers or retailers, who in common with the electrical market in which I work, find themselves working harder and harder for less and less.

The bill, which was initiated by the late parliamentarian Jean-Philippe Maitre, is expected to go before the parliament in spring 2009. If it succeeds there will still be some room for discounts, since the bill does not completely outlaw them.

Discounting does not appear to as aggressive in Switzerland as in other European countries, most notably the UK, where it has led to a number of disputes. The majority of bookshops stick to publishers' recommended prices or offer restricted discounts on very few titles, but there is stiff competition from the Internet, with online booksellers offering discounts of up to 30 percent. This is probably what lies behind this move; the fear that what is happening here and in the United States, will happen there, and this from where I am sitting, is a fear which is very well founded. If the Swiss want to protect their publishing industry and keep it buoyant then they need to take action before it is too late. It is good then to see them learning from our mistakes. I just hope that we don't leave things too much longer before this is also debated here - in an open and rational manner that benefits not only those who sell the books, but also those who write them. It is after all, our livelihoods that are threatened, and with the rise in e-publishing, the need for debate is more and more acute.

The article that really caught my eye this week, was that regarding the memoirs of Cheeta the Chimp. I reported back in January that Cheeta had been commissioned to write his memoirs for Fourth Estate, and unfortunately this was no monkey business !

The book which is due for release in October, has now been nominated for a book award - The Guardians First Book Award! Readers from six Waterstone's book groups are to help select the final shortlist, following the announcement of the 10-strong longlist today on 29th August. The books selected on the longlist include the autobiography of Cheeta the Chimp.

The panel of judges includes novelist Roddy Doyle; broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock; poet Daljit Nagra (longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2007), historian David Kynatson; novelist, broadcaster and co-founder of the Orange Prize Kate Mosse and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. Claire Armitstead, literary editor of the Guardian, will chair the panel. Six Waterstone's stores throughout the UK – Bath, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, London and Oxford - will ask their reading groups to also vote. Stuart Broom of Waterstone’s will represent their views on the judging panel.

The shortlist of five books, to be agreed by the panel and Waterstone’s readers’ groups, will be announced in early November with the overall winner in December. The winner (which I assume will be the ghost writer and not the chimp!) will receive a prize of £10,000 and a promotional package across The Guardian and The Observer.

It goes without saying that this book must have been ghost written, since a chimp cannot speak, let alone write, English. I would hasten a bet that whoever this writer is, it is not their first book, as publishers usually use experienced people for this kind of work. I fail then to see how it can be nominated for a first book award, and take back what I said about this not being monkey business! Whoever nominated this book must think that we are monkeys if they seriously expect us to believe otherwise.

Comments on the Writers News Talkback forum, where I posted the news, were less than flattering. We are a lively bunch who pull no punches and like to tell it as it is ... One member commented that it was really no different to the so-called works of Jordan or Jade Goody being nominated for a literary prize. However, she went on to say that the chimp book was probably more interesting and better written! She then added that the Guardian is probably run by chimps anyway, but took that back as it was in insult to our nearest relative! Say no more ...

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