Monday, May 05, 2008

The meaning of life

I had a strange dream in that moment of transition between sleep and wakefulness, the exact details of which I can no longer recall. I do recall though that my sister Linda was there - an unusual occurrence in itself given that she suffers from schizophrenia, and our relationship is not exactly what you call best friends.

From the few details that I do remember, the dream was based around the island of Lundy, where I retreat to two, maybe three times a year, in order to recharge my batteries. Somehow or other I had got locked out of the cottage, with all my possessions inside - everything that I needed to sustain me and keep me warm from the rapidly encroaching darkness as night fell. Linda and I needed to get help to get back into the cottage before this happened, and while she seemed totally unconcerned, I was searching around, desperately looking for help and wondering whether we had time to get that help before it was too late. It was at that point that the alarm clock went off and I had to get out of bed. I would not normally set the alarm clock of course for a Bank Holiday, but I do work in retail, and so to me, it is just another working day - albeit slightly shorter and with more pay.

It occurred to me while I was in the shower, that perhaps this is about letting go of my own baggage. Diana Summer mentioned some while ago that the Terminal 5 baggage fiasco was also about this - where thousands of bags belonging to air passengers failed to arrive at their destination, and weeks later have still not been found. The fact that the darkness was encroaching was also no doubt, about my own willingness, or perhaps lack of it, to look at my own darkness. I think most of us are afraid of this, and I am no exception here. I also think, or rather feel, that I have made a very good start.

For the first time I actually understand experientially as well as conceptually what that phrase "choose a new reality" really means, and I also understand at last, just how powerful our words and our thoughts really are. It is not something that you can explain to another, as to coin a phrase from Genesis of Man "Words are the least effective way of describing our experiences, as they are merely symbols which are used to describe our thoughts and feelings". When Descartes said "I think, therefore I am" perhaps what he should have said is "I feel, therefore I am".

We have to be willing to let go of everything that we are, and everything that we ever have been if we are to understand who we are truly are. When I think about this, I see transsexuals in many ways as the ultimate in this - for these are people who are willing to give up their whole sense of identity - changing their bodies, their names and literally starting all over again to order to find who they truly are inside. On the other side of the coin are the refugees and 'victims' of various atrocities, who have lost their livelihood, their homes and their loved ones - and seen things that are the stuff of nightmares.

Nadine Laman has an interesting take on this in her May newsletter, where she speaks about the recent Amazon debate and relates this to the need to appreciate what we have and support what is important to us. Most people take for granted that which they love, until it too late and it is gone. She relates this to changes within the book industry, and how one day we will wake up and find out that print books are no more, and have been replaced by emails and CD-roms instead. She urges her readers to not wait to buy books that are interested in, or one day they may wake up and realise that it is too late - those books are no more, as their authors have been forced out of business, unable to make a living.

You could equate this with anything I suppose, like failing to vote, or not valuing your loved ones, but the world is changing before our eyes (change being the only constant in the universe), and if we allow ourselves to get too complacent, and just sit around not looking to the future, then that change will happen regardless, and we may not even notice.

Most readers of course have no idea of what is going on in the book industry (I have very little idea of what goes on in music, even though I buy CD's), and for that matter, many writers and authors do not keep up to date either. One thing we can be sure of is that although the format for books may change, books themselves will always be here in one form or another. Books will also have a shorter life and shelf span (it is currently between three to six months on average), as more of them become available, and the window of opportunity will gets shorter and shorter for an authors success. It is important then not to be complacent, and to support the writers that you like, and not wait until those books are off the shelf.

So, don’t wait (or worse still, expect) to be given a free book and then loan it to everyone you know. Writers, like you, are entitled to make a living, and cannot do so if no one buys their books. As Nadine says, one day, it may be a day late and a dollar (or pound) short to have what you treasure. Life is precious indeed and all too short, we should embrace it and live it fully while we can, for one day it will be gone and we will be left wondering where it all went. Don't take it for granted that the things that you enjoy and get meaning from will always be there, they won't unless you nurture them and look after them. So, value life, value books, and most of all, value yourself.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The voice of reason and common sense

It will not have gone unnoticed that I have been somewhat preoccupied of late with some deeply personal issues. I have not mentioned what has been going on in publishing for a good few weeks. Yesterday though, I did briefly mention the so-called Amazon debate, and how it is actually impossible for them to withdraw books from their site, as this is fed to them via the ISBN agency, Nielson Bookdata.

A letter from my own esteemed editor, and owner of Authors OnLine Ltd, Richard Fitt, only serves to confirm this. The letter, which can be read in both the May edition of Writers Forum, and on the Authors OnLine website , refers to a letter from one Dave Patten, which appeared in a previous edition of said magazine. I have not seen Dave's letter, since I rarely buy Writers Forum, preferring the rival publication Writing and Writers News, but from what I can gather in reading Richard's reply, Mr Patten was somewhat enraged at Amazon discounting his book, and as he saw it, demeaning its value. He claims to have asked Amazon to remove his book from their site.

As Richard points out, this is impossible, and the book is of course, despite Mr Patten's protests, still very much alive and kicking. It is in fact, impossible to prevent any one trader from selling any one book via their site without completely withdrawing it from the distribution system.

Many authors seem totally unaware as to how this works, being ignorant of exactly how such sites keep updated. The fact is, that Amazon (and other websites such as Play, Tesco etc) get their data feed from ISBN agencies such as Nielsen Bookdata, so if you register your ISBN with Nielson (which you have to do), then the book will be on these sites whether you like it or not. In most cases (certain larger publishers do sell direct to Amazon if they keep an inventory of books in stock), books are not sold directly to individual Internet based sellers. This is not then under the control of either the publisher or author, but something that happens automatically as long as you have an ISBN.

The supply of these books to such outlets is controlled as always, by the wholesalers and distributors - which in the UK means Gardners and Bertrams. They will supply to anyone who has an account with them and cetainly, no distributor would take a book on the basis that it was NOT sold to Amazon, or anyone else for that matter, as it would be cutting their own throats. It would be virtually impossible to police and may well be contrary to anti-trade laws.

As Richard also points out, in a free economy such as what we have here in the UK, a trader is entitled to sell goods for any price that they deem fit, even if they make loss. That is their concern and not something that we as authors should worry about. It is not as if we lose anything. Genesis of Man is supplied via Gardners to these outlets at 40 percent discount and this is the price that Gardners invoice them for. If Amazon choose to knock more off the cover price then that comes out of their profits and not mine, so why should I be concerned?

The thing we should all be much more concerned about is the sale of new and used copies via these sites, as in many cases they are misleasdingly advertised, and come from dubious sources - gallies for example or review copies. Many of those advertised as 'used' are not in fact used at all, but brand new copies hot off the presses. Richard claims to have tested this by ordering these so-called 'used copies' only to find new ones appearing through the door, alongside a bill from Lightning Source for printing costs!

These copies appear within weeks or even days of a books release, at ridiculous prices, and there is no attempt to differentiate between books in and out of print. Even after books have been withdrawn from the system, copies continue to show on these sites, advertised as both new and used. These must all be used though, as new books are no longer being printed. Neither author nor publisher get one single penny from such sales, while the customer has no way of checking the authenticity of the product until it is too late.

In some ways, Amazon and print on demand are perfect bed fellows, and I can certainly understand why my American counterparts were so upset at what they are doing across the Atlantic. Amazon do not have to hold stock of any of our books, do not insist on returnability, and you know that print on demand books can always be quickly obtained via this source. This I suppose is the secret of their success, and without them, much as I hate to admit it, my life would be a lot more difficult, and I would not sell nearly so many books, as obtaining books via this route is so much easier for everyone concerned.

I do not know how get their stock, but can only assume it is fed to them via the US ISBN agency, which makes me wonder how much of this debate has been blown completely out of proportion. For if they source books via the same route in the US, then they cannot be withdrawn from either, and none of the arguments that people have used to justify their ego driven attacks on Amazon hold sway. I have to include myself in this, as for weeks, I became far too embroiled in this debate, transferring all the anger and all the frustration that I felt onto this one company, in a desperate attempt to not only hold on to those emotions, but also to find authors in the US who were willing to go allow with this whole charade, thus maintaining my egocentric rantings and keeping me in the pain, so that I did not have to look at the source of these feelings.