Thursday, May 15, 2008

One hell of a ride

Today it looks very much like I will soon be out of a job. We were told at work some time ago that a big announcement would be made to the City today regarding the future of the company and where we were heading, and it was not good news.

Our parent company have decided to close 77 stores. Most of these closures will come about in the form of natural wastage - simply put the stores will close as and when their leases expire. The lease in our store expires at the end of July, and so it seems that mine will be too, and I will have to look for a new job.

While this is still not official, it is as good as a done deal. While I had been half expecting this for several months, it has still come as a bit of a shock to find that despite my rantings about the job on here, I have got used to going there four mornings each week and interacting with the customers.

The publishing world in the meantime, continues to make waves regarding the firm sale debate, which has now moved from Publishing News and onto The Bookseller. This is good, as it means I can post comments of my own, and maybe get some kind of dialogue going. There are one or two independent book sellers who have already added their own comments, and appear to have similar views to my own.

The article on The Bookseller does not say much that Publishing News did not, but whitters on about how unfair it is that book sellers should have to bear the risk, and heaven forbid, actually be responsible enough to carry the can for their own buying decisions. One retailer has said that the changes will affect areas such as academic titles, backlist titles bought for signing sessions, and marketing promotions, all of which would be counted as backlist, but would not be stocked by booksellers if they could not be returned.

The head of one retail chain, whom the article does not name, added that the level of returns was "ridiculous", and that he was sceptical about the motives behind a firm sale move. "There's a touch of green wash in recognising an opportunity to do something really significant in changing terms but dressing it up in green clothing," he said. "I believe that a move that forces improved efficiency is not necessarily a bad thing, but that comment applies to publishers and agents as it does to retailers." Same old, same old...

Another article, this time from Publishing News, states that publishers are reacting angrily to a crude attempt by Amazon to increase its discount. This will no doubt be of interest to my publishing friends across the pond. It is interesting to see that Amazon's demands are as I predicted some time ago, also affecting commercial publishers, and are no longer confined to the self publishing sector through print on demand, not that they ever were, since these days most commercial publishers also use this printing method at least for backlists. The debate re discounting has forced the issue much more into the open, and it is interesting to see the parallels here between the firm sale issue and this issue with Amazon, for if the book sellers get their way, then higher discounting will become the norm rather than the exception, in order to compensate for the loss of returnability.

It seems that Amazon are doing exactly what they did to the print on demand publishers - going from publisher to publisher with extortionate demands, and if they do not persuade one publisher to play ball, then going back to the first house and saying that X has agreed to such and such.

Publishers say that this isn't the first time this has happened, and they are angry and fed up. One unnamed spokesperson said: “UK publishers already give the biggest terms in the world, far larger than the US and Australia. What we see is Amazon attempting a strategy of world domination. In the US, we've already seen them demanding that publishers use their facility for print on demand. It seems that the only people who benefit in the value chain are Amazon. They already have 15 percent of the market in the UK.”

Publishing News estimates that if Amazon continue to grow at this rate, their market share will have doubled to 30 percent within three years. There is then a very real danger that this will result in book store closures. The article goes on to say what Angela Hoy and others like myself have been saying for months, namely that Amazon will then be in a position of such dominance that they will be able to dictate whatever terms they want and destabilise the entire market.

One CEO went as far as to hint that the Competition Commission should look at the situation, although others were not so certain. It certainly hasn't got print on demand authors very far in America. It seems that like the US, the Competition Com­mission here in Britain, pays little heed to protecting the interests of authors and publishers. Perhaps when Amazon do get to the stage where they have 25 percent of the market then they might be interested, but I suspect that by then it will already be too late, as hundreds of book stores, and small presses will have been driven out of business unable to compete with Amazon's aggressive pricing strategies and free deliveries.

Print on demand publishers may have found an ally, since one CEO commented that his company are not moving one single inch, and are if necessary prepared to lose a years sales with Amazon. I say good luck to him. He will need it.

The rise in the Internet does not impact only book sellers, as it is in many ways also responsible for the almost certain loss of my own job. How though do you stop this slide - the answer as always lies within the hands of the buyers - they have to change their attitudes away from themselves and immediate gratification to one of long term gain that benefits all. Everything in time always goes full circle, and in time it will swing back, but in the meantime I feel that we are in for an interesting ride. Where this will end up I do not know, but one thing I do know is that the scenery will be magnificent.

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.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

News from the publishing world this week

There have been several interesting stories in the publishing press this week, the first of which concerns Waterstones, who are of course, the UK's largest and most influential book seller. The Bookseller Online reports that their business is very much in a growth phase, as the company has seen like for like growth in the last 16 weeks of the financial year jump by 6.6 percent.

MD Gerry Johnson said that this was largely attributed to a very strong performance from books, which are at the heart of this growth. The performance bodes well for the full year results, due for release on July 1st. Total sales at Waterstone's at the moment, are up by 4.7 percent compared to last year, with expected turnover of £563m, compared with £537.5m in 2007. This is an excellent record for such a competitive market given the fact that we are supposed to be heading into a recession, and it just goes to show the maybe the British public do value books after all, as they are obviously still spending money on them - including my own one - Genesis of Man.

Waterstones very much have the edge over Borders, as most of their branches are in town centres, and able to capitalise on passing trade as well as the lunch time brigade who visit during the working day, as indeed I often do. They seem to have found the correct balance between the needs of both authors and readers, which Borders have so far failed to do, and this is obviously paying dividends - in more ways than one!

Tesco in the meantime, has unveiled plans to double its own book sales within the next three years to £200m, and are also looking to directly challenge Amazon online. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, and I suppose will depend upon your point of view. I think though they may have their work cut out, as although their online inventory must be almost as large as Amazon's, people associate them more with top 40 paperbacks and celebrity titles than anything else, and there is of course far more to book selling than just this.

That being said, the company saw in growth in sales during 2006 of 16.6 percent volume and 19.15 percent in value, giving them a market share of some 10 percent. They are still then a force to be reckoned with.

Research from consumer rights agency Next Best Thing, confirms this week what I have long suspected - that it is not reviews or media coverage that drive sales of books, but rather, good quality displays in store.

The research, commissioned by The Bookseller surveyed 1000 people across the UK, one quarter of whom claimed to get information regarding new books and authors from such displays. This does make sense when you think about it, as I know from my own experience that the majority of books that I buy are those that I discover from just browsing the shelves. It goes to show just how important it is for the newly published to get their books into as many stores as possible, as it is the act of being on the shelves that drives that demand in the first place. It is just a shame that the majority of small and self publishers cannot afford the fees demanded by the chains for good placement and promotions that would drive their sales even more, but such is life. Sooner or later things always go full circle anyway, and our time will come, perhaps sooner than we think.

These findings overturn all conventional wisdom on the subject, which found that word of mouth is the most powerful tool for driving sales and creating best sellers. This is probably true to a large extent, but it is is true that this success would not happen if the books were not in the stores to begin with - as they have to be available.

The survey forms part of Reading the Future, a major consumer trends report to celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Bookseller. Other areas covered include cover design, discounting (the results of this one will be interesting), formats, browsing behaviour and emerging genres. Results will be viewed by people’s age, social group and current reading habits, and put in the context of wider cultural and economic patterns. I will look out for the full results when they are published and do my best to report back on here.

Talking of discounting, I see that Mexico has voted by a massive majority to introduce fixed book prices. Hallelujah ! The law was adopted by the Senate on 29th April by 107 votes in favour, with just two against and five abstentions, according to the French weekly Livres bdo.

This is the second time in recent years that the Mexican parliament has voted in favour of such legislation. The new law, which seems entirely sensible to me, if passed, will ban all discounts on retail book prices for the first three years after publication. This will not include school text books for elementary and lower secondary schools, which are bought by the State - I wonder why that is ! ?

This seems to be part of a growing trend, as many European countries also have such legislation, indeed, we did here in our own country until 1995. Such legislation now applies to much of Western Europe - including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain. Israel is also working towards a fixed book price. Israeli ambassador to France Daniel Shek said in March that a single book price "will happen sooner or later, whether by agreement or legislation". Perhaps it will also be re-introduced here, for the sake of both book sellers and writers.

Standing Still

A funny thing seems to have happened this weekend - it is almost as if time has stood still, yet at the same time, I have been aware of it moving very quickly as well. When I had my reading with Diana Summer a few weeks ago, she said that once I began to let go I would find that I seemed to have more time for a lot of things, and was no longer running around like a headless chicken. It seems that she was right.

It seems in many ways, to have a even busier weekend than normal. It began on Friday with a trip to the gym and then the supermarket. I find I am getting very fit and strong these days, and I love the way my body looks - I am developing arm muscles that I never had before, and my shoulders have a nice defined look at them. This is no doubt helped by my job - lifting and carrying objects, which in some cases, are almost as big as I am. When I first joined the gym at the beginning of last year, I could not use the treadmills for more than a few minutes without holding on to the rail to steady myself, and I struggled to lift more than 7 kilos. Now I can walk or cycle comfortably for half an hour if not more, at up to 6 kms an hour and comfortably lift more than twice as much. I will perhaps never be a runner, but have always been a walker, preferring a steady pace, and I enjoy the satisfaction of continually pushing myself to reach a goal.

Friday continued with a few calls to book shops and other outlets - Watkins Books in London, and the Head Office of Blackwells, the academic book seller. In the case of Watkins they requested the obligatory free copy, which I told them I would not send since the first one was ignored - I will however send an email instead. With Blackwells, whom I was trying to contact with a view to them stocking my book, I got the obligatory answerphone masquerading as the Buying Team. I will wait and see if they call me back on Monday (by which time I will be back at work anyway), but won't hold my breath, as I have been there and done that. If I don't hear then I expect I will bite the bullet and send them a copy anyway, having spoken to Richard first. Their stores would be a good outlet for my work, especially since it seems to be going down so well now with the students at Arizona State University in America.

This was followed by a lazy afternoon lounging around the viewpoint, sitting in the sun, drinking tea and reading A New Earth. I am almost halfway through the book now - after 2 weeks and it has certainly made a big difference to my life. I still find myself slipping back into the old egocentric ways, but at least now I am much more aware of when I do that, and can see what lies underneath it rather than becoming embroiled and believing that the voice in the head is who I am.

I suppose that is what I love about Lundy - the ability it gives me to completely disengage from the mind chatter and get out of my mind completely - trust me on this - it's the only place to be!

Yesterday the day began with Coran and I visiting the Village Hall for an event that was being put on by the Hall Committee - the Village Fun Day. This was a chance to network with various people from around the Hill, gathering news and gossip for the forthcoming edition of the village newsletter that I edit. The copy deadline is looming once again! I got home and wrote up the various stories that I have been working on - issues around Council Tax banding, a sponsored walk in aid of the Royal Marsden Hospital, and Prince William and Harry's recent visit to Headley Court, amongst other things. I also wrote a piece about the Fun Day itself, with a list of the regular events that take place in the Hall.

Then it was lunch time, followed by a trip into town to get a skirt for work - it is becoming too hot now for trousers, and I thought that if I flash some leg, it might help me to sell a few more things to the younger male customers!
The evening was a busy one as well, with phone calls to be made once again for the village newsletter - to the Secretary for the Roads Association, the Secretary for the Residents Association on our mobile home park, and then to the District Councillor to see if she could help with some legal information regarding the Council Tax banding situation. She couldn't, so I emailed a company called Park Home Legal Services instead, whom I found via the Internet. I will be seeing the District Councillor at the Neighbourhood Council meeting tomorrow anyway, so we can bring each other up to date on various things then.

It was funny though, because Coran and I both thought that Casualty, one of the few television programmes that I still like to watch, was on at 8.45pm, and I ended up stuck on the phone sorting out these various issues until 9.15pm. I switched the TV on anyway to catch what I thought would be the end, only to find that I had got the time wrong and it started at 9.20pm after all ! Isn't the universe wonderful when you let go of expectations and begin to go with the flow !

So, today promises to be yet another sweltering day - and another busy one. Coran and I are off to the gym in a moment before it gets too hot, we will then no doubt stop at the viewpoint to catch the breeze and some more sun, before coming home to cook lunch and do the laundry for next week - the whites are whizzing round as I speak. After that I have to go and interview my subject for this months centrespread and take some more photographs to accompany the text, and then well, we will see what happens.

What a busy weekend then it has been - five weeks and 6 days to go to Lundy and counting ... Not that I am wishing my life away you understand.