Friday, April 18, 2008

Book sellers working harder for less money

After two days back at work it feels like I need another five days off to recover. It does not take long for the mind chatter to return with a vengeance, try as you might, and working in a shop with loud music constantly on, not to mention two excitable school boys masquerading as grown men, does not exactly help. I have never been able to understand the fascination with much of what we sell, and to me much of it is a total waste of time. I would much rather curl up with good book and a large mug of hot chocolate.

In common with other areas of the retail sector, the book trade today reports that publishers are facing increasingly tight margins, which means that they are selling more books for less money. The price of books has fallen for the fifth year in a row. According to the Publishers Association's Statistics Yearbook 2007, which is out on 23rd April, the average invoiced price (i.e the price paid by book stores rather than consumers) of books fell from £3.59 to £3.50 in 2007. The average price for home market or British books was £3.77, down from £3.85 in 2006, while export titles slid to £3.13 from £3.20. This was largely due to the weak dollar.

Despite these issues, the publishing industry saw overall growth in both volume and value during 2007. UK publishers saw an estimated 9 percent increase in volume, up from 786 million books sold in 2006, to an estimated 855 million books in 2007. The actual invoice value climbed to £3bn from £2.8bn. The export market was particularly strong, despite the weak dollar, with
sales of 357 million units worth approximately £1.1bn. This represents a jump of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively over 2006.

Children's books saw by the far the biggest growth, with unit sales shooting up by 17 percent with a total sales value of 225 million and an invoice value of £404m (£302m in 2006). Fiction saw the next highest growth, up 7 percent in volume and in terms of value 229 million. Academic and professional titles saw the least growth, with a 4 percent rise in unit sales and a 0.7 percent rise in value to £775m.

Returns also seemed to stabilise somewhat, at 9 percent of publishers' total gross unit sales and 13 percent of total gross value. This represents a 3 percent fall and 0.5 percent increase respectively, indicating that the books that are being returned seem to be those of higher value.

In the meantime, and going back to the Amazon debate, one of the world's largest publishers HarperCollins, has stated that they will not be taking on Amazon by selling direct to consumers via their own website. I can't help feeling here that that they are making a big mistake, which will ultimately prove to be rod for their own backs. They will, unlike rivals Bloomsbury and Penguin, be placing Amazon buy buttons direct on their site, so that customers go straight through to Amazon direct.

The reasoning behind this seems to be that Amazon are a global brand, and taking them on would be foolish in the extreme. Personally I beg to differ, as if they don't, as one of our largest publishers, then who will? Someone has to take a stand, and the fact they have chosen not to, signals to me that they are afraid of a fight and do not want to risk losing sales. What they don't realise is that by failing to take a stand now, they stand to lose in the future, an awful lot more.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Amazon and Lighthing Source unveil plans for expansion

There has been no more news to report at all this week regarding the big Amazon debate, with everything on both sides of the pond suddenly going very quiet indeed. Business for them must be booming though, as a report on the online edition of today's Daily Mail states that Amazon are opening their biggest warehouse yet in Swansea, which is set to be the size of ten football pitches.

The depot will be literally crammed full with not just books, but with every conceivable product, from trainers to lawnmowers to bread makers. There will though be no friendly and helpful shop assistants, just an army of unsung and no doubt underpaid, workers whose sole aim will be to pick and pack goods to be shipped throughout Europe.

Reporter Julie Mount states that yesterday she got her first glimpse of the facilities when First Minister Rhodri Morgan MP lined up alongside local dignitaries to welcome in the new way forward. Morgan declared that "At a time when there's a lot of doom and gloom around, this is a shaft of light for Wales. Amazon is an iconic global company right at the forefront of the e-economy and one of only a handful of truly world brands that have emerged since the Internet changed the way we live our lives. This is one of the biggest investments announced in Wales since devolution began nine years ago. It is a powerful shot in the arm for the Welsh economy and the Swansea Bay area in particular. I am proud of the role that the Assembly Government has played in attracting Amazon to Wales."

I wonder if he would say the same if he were a US or for that matter, UK based print on demand author. Somehow I think not! Global brand my foot - as this comes at the expense, like so many others before them, of all the little ants that they have trodden on and squashed.

Amazon estimates it will take on 1200 employees in five years in order to cope with their ever increasing demand, with many more taken on as seasonal Christmas temps.

While it may appear to be good for the Welsh economy, one has to wonder at the wider implications regarding the rise in the Internet, as it will undoubtedly lead to the demise of many more small independent, and even larger chains, as they simply cannot compete with Amazon's low prices and aggressive marketing. Even my employer, as the UK's largest and arguably most successful electrical retailer are threatened, as there is due to be a big announcement made to the city and the company's staff on May 15th. Rumours are rife within the company regarding store closures, and it seems that my own job may be threatened, as High Street stores like mine will if the rumours are true, be amongst the first to go.

Over reliance on service sector jobs such as those provided by Amazon can be a dangerous thing, as it is pretty much a dead end job, with little skill and no career development. As manufacturing union Unite warned, "These jobs do not provide the foundations for young people to flourish and play a full and constructive role within their communities." At least retail gives you the opportunity to develop skills and interact with people by not just selling, but also providing customer service. Picking things off a warehouse floor and placing them in boxes is just a means to an end.

The second story, from Publishers Weekly, which is somewhat ironic really, concerns print on demand printer Lightning Source, who like Amazon are also opening larger premises.

The report states that they are expanding their current facilities in Milton Keynes from 12,000 to 60,000 square feet. The new plant is due to open later this summer, and will enable them to add 12 more print lines. Managing Director David Taylor described it as a long term strategy for the future. He went on to explain that the UK division printed a staggering 2 million books in 2007, a number which is set to increase this year by a further 25 percent.

Reading this, and bearing in mind that print on demand is even bigger business in the United States, it really does make one wonder once again, what the hell Amazon think they are playing at.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The longing to return home

Having had five days off work, using up holidays before the end of the year, I really did not want to go back to work today. My mind had gone so peaceful and so still and so quiet, I did not want to leave that space and go back to constant background noise and distractions.

I have been thinking about why it is that I seem to have so many problems with jobs. It is as if, for as long as I can remember, each job that I have had rapidly wears thin and I just lose all interest. It is a novelty to begin with, but the rot soon sets in and I start to get resentful about the little things, until they escalate into something big. I resist moving from where I am by kidding myself that I am comfortable until eventually things get so bad that I am forced to leave in order to protect both my health and my sanity. If I still resist, the universe finds another way to oust me from that rut, either by getting me the sack, closing the store or branch that I work in, or making me redundant.

It occurred to me tonight that perhaps it is not the jobs themselves that are the problem, but rather, what they represent. Work to me is a symbol of being tied to the physical, material world, of being shackled and bound by others rules, unable to do your thing and be truly independent.

After my mother died at the end of 1999, I gave up work for a while in order to concentrate on myself. Three years later I found that I had qualified as a crystal therapist and to my surprise, started to write a book. I then developed a bad case of procrastination and fear, masquerading as writers block, and so returned to work part time. I worked initially as a temp for a company that serviced air conditioning units, and then later on for a major supermarket. After about a year of working there part time, Coran became ill and I changed my hours to full time. It was then that the problems began, and I eventually left that job in August 2005.

I then worked flat out to finish my book, doing a complete edit and rewrite in just under 5 months. The first edition was duly published in June 2006, just before I went off to Lundy for three weeks. In between promoting it and doing other forms of writing, I did occasional exam invigilating work and market research, until in November last year I got my current job.

On the surface it is everything that I need - the hours suit me, being able to work four days a week, I get free parking, thanks to an arrangement with one of the local pubs, and I get on for the most part with my colleagues, yet there is still this vague feeling of dissatisfaction, that I should be doing something different. Until I started to write my book, I did not know what that 'something different' was, but since I made this discovery, my life has taken on new purpose and new meaning. I told myself that the dissatisfaction was due to not being able to do what I really love, and yet when I do spend time at home and have the opportunity to write, I spend it doing other things instead - browsing on the Internet, going for walks and cups of tea, shopping etc.

Maybe it is not about not being able to write at all, but more to do with the fact that I do not want to work full stop, since it is a symbol for me of being tied to the physical, material world. I wish to spend time at home doing what I want and when I want, and not be tethered by company rules, time keeping and politics. What really lies behind the dissatisfaction is not any of these things, but the need to return home and the longing to transcend this physical existence and return to source, where none of these things matter and there are no rules, just life in all its glory.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Battle for Harry Potter

Coran and I were sitting in the coffee shop of the local Christian centre this morning enjoying a cup of tea, when I noticed a copy of The Independent on the next table. As I started to flick through, I noticed an article about a battle that is being fought between JK Rowling and a small publisher in the United States that wishes to publish a Harry Potter Encyclopedia. Ms Rowling alleges that this "constitutes wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work". She goes on to claim that this decimated her creativity and halted all work on a new novel, which actually I can understand, as it does take both time and money to fight these things, not to mention huge amounts of energy, both physical and emotional.

The lawsuit which is filed against author Steve Vander Ark and his publisher RDR Books, is somewhat controversial, since the book in question, which is a lexicon or encyclopedia of all information relating to Harry Potter such as characters, spells and so on, because it is essentially a reprinting of what is already on Vander Ark's website, the same website which Ms Rowling appears to have endorsed some years previously and be an enthusiastic fan of.

Ms Rowling states that she feels "no pleasure" in bringing this suit and is "sad and disillusioned" that it had to come to court. When asked by her lawyer Dale Cendali, how she felt about Harry, Rowling said: "I really don't want to cry."

Anthony Falzone, for RDR Books has though defended the publication of this book, by stating that it is a reference guide and that it is perfectly legal and legitimate to organise and discuss the information contained in Ms Rowling's original books in this way.

Although I can to some extent understand where Vander Ark and his publisher are coming from, nevertheless if this position is accepted, then it will set a precedent which will make it almost impossible for authors to protect their work. It will also have an immediate and very negative impact on the freedom of Internet users to be able to enjoy discussing such issues, and pursuing legitimate and essentially harmless activities.

The crux of the matter really seems to rest on whether by virtue of the fact that the information has already been freely available on the Internet for some time, it is therefore deemed as within the public domain. I do not understand copyright laws sufficiently to really be able to comment here, and can only state from my own point of view as an author that I would be both flattered and upset if someone were do this with my own work. It is I feel one of those grey areas, which is made more complicated by the fact that Ms Rowling did appear in the past to endorse the website where the information has for all intents and purposes already been published for some time, from what I understand of the case.

This also raises questions regarding digital rights management and begs the question that if the information has in fact been published for some time on the Internet, as the article in The Independent seemed to suggest, then why did it take this long to bring the case in the first place, and why did Ms Rowling appear to endorse this website? These are all questions that will need answers.

I hear all the time from authors on the various writing forums that I post on how in the US in particular, if any segment of a work has been posted on such sites even just for peer review, then that work is regarded as having been previously published. While it is true that one has to know about these sites before one can make such judgments, the fact that Ms Rowling is a member of the site in question where the work has been previously published would seem to indicate to some at least, that she did not have a problem with this. It then begs the question, is there a difference between publishing in printed form and publishing on the Internet, and if so, what is that diference, and how can the industry best manage these issues to prevent a similar repetition.

The lines between publishing in printed and digital format are becoming increasingly blurred, and these are issues that the industry will need to discuss and form resolutions on.

The trial, which is being heard by Judge Robert Patterson without a jury, is expected to last around one week. Vander Ark's book was originally scheduled for publication on November 28th last year, but the Judge issued an order at an earlier hearing banning completion, distribution, marketing or any advance sales until further notice. If the publisher wins, Rowling says that she will "find it devastating to contemplate the possibility of such a severe alteration of author-fan relations".