Saturday, December 13, 2008

Should criminals profit through books?

Readers of this blog will have noticed in recent weeks a pattern has emerged, whereby I post very little for several days, and then when I get days off, post several times a day. I receive several email bulletins with news from around the book world, and read other sites such as The Bookseller on a regular basis, adding comments as I feel necessary, but save the blogging for when I have time to write much more in depth.

Today is one of those days - my first post was about the credit crunch which is affecting EUK and more specifically Bertrams, but my second post for today will detail the various stories that I have found particularly interesting, which have circulated around the book world this week.

Two have particularly caught my eye, the first of which comes from The Guardian. This concerns a Government decision to introduce legislation preventing criminals from profiting from the sale of their stories through books. This has caused a furor within the book world, where publishers pay handsomely for such rights, with many citing this as unworkable and an attack on free speech.

The plan, which is part of the Coroners and Justice Bill announced as part of the Queen's speech, is likely to involve the introduction of a UK-wide civil scheme for the recovery of profits from criminal memoirs. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said it was too early to provide more details, but that the scheme would be unlikely to attempt to retrieve profits retrospectively. The scheme, which is designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, would not include accounts of prison life such as written by Jeffrey Archer (politicians know how to look after its own), books about other people's crimes, or fictional accounts of crime.

On the surface this sounds all well and good, but (and there is always a but), as Peter Walsh, publisher at true crime specialist Milo Books said "practicality is a different argument from ethics." Walsh went on point out that writing about their experiences is for many criminals part of their rehabilitation, and can often lead to new and successful careers where they make a real contribution to society (which includes paying taxes). In some ways this is no worse than celebrities who write about their struggle with drink and drugs, as many argue that in both cases, these books glorify the writers previous activities and encourage those at the bottom of the pile, who look up to such individuals, to follow their example. I have heard some comment that the admission that one has such a problem seems to be worn as a badge of honour.

The second point that Simon Juden, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association pointed out is that much of the most potentially offensive stuff wouldn't come from people convicted of crimes. For example, Nelson Mandela couldn't publish stuff because he was convicted of a crime, but OJ Simpson could, because he wasn't (that has since changed). This scheme is therefore targetting the wrong people.

The second story which comes from Publishers Weekly, is that Amazon boss Jeff Bezoz has been voted as Publishers Person of the Year. My own views on his company are well known to anyone who has read this blog, but love him or loathe him, he is a force to reckoned with, and one that has changed the face of publishing in the 14 years since Amazon was launched.

Bezoz claims in an interview at the company's Seattle headquarters that those at his company see themselves as explorers. He goes on to say “It’s much more interesting looking at unexplored terrain” and, because of the Internet, “there is boundless unexplored terrain.” This makes him sound like a character from Star Trek, going where no man has gone before.

His strategies of allowing negative reviews and the sale of used and second hand books prompted strong criticism from the book world, yet you have to admire his vision. As he also points out "To succeed in new businesses you have to be willing to experiment and to accept possible failure."

That is the hard part, compared to that, starting a business is easy.

Questions, questions and no answers

With the almost certain demise of Woolworths and wholesale arm EUK in administration, it is difficult to see where this credit crunch will end. Although not personally affected (despite claims by some quarters, my own job is relatively safe), it is distressing to see so many who are.
The situation at EUK does not look good. 700 staff lost their jobs last night, 2 weeks before Christmas, and the administrators are said to be calling in the company's debts. This is not good for the supermarkets either, who owe most of the money, although one cannot help but think that their sitting on this money for so long (figures of up £25 million are being talked about for both Salisbury's and Tesco), then EUK may not have been in this mess.

That though is the name of the game - as George Bush would have put it - the haves and the have mores. It has always been the way that some have to be sacrificed so that others remain profitable. Perhaps it is time to start questioning that ethos, as we are all entitled to earn a living.

The situation with Zavvi, which previously traded as Virgin Megastores, is even worse, as they owe EUK £106 million - how and more to the point, why the accounts department at EUK allowed this happen is beyond me - they should never have allowed things to get to this stage. If Zavvi fails to pay this debt, then they too could be placed into administration, with the loss of yet more jobs. A statement from the company is expected soon.

In the meantime, with no buyer for Bertrams, the book world is getting very nervous. Publishers are also affected by the demise of EUK, with the wholesaler owing them money, which they are unlikely to receive in a hurry. A total figure of £25 million has been suggested as money owed, with Random House the worst hit. Could this also bring publishers down I wonder - I sincerely hope not.

One does wonder what this whole thing is about and what would happen if Bertrams were to go. This would leave just one major wholesaler, in the shape of Gardners, for the whole book trade, and handful of smaller specialists.

MD Michael Neil has been putting a brave face on things, insisting that it is business as usual and the scaling down of EUK, which has still been supplying some stores, would not affect attempts to find a buyer. Talks are continuing with a number of interested parties and there is no set time scale for the sale. But he added: "We have to be realistic. Christmas is in the way but we want to get a deal done as soon as possible."

The wholesaler, which was bought by EUK in January 2007, has separate financing and has not been affected by EUK's administration. The administrators confirmed that Bertrams will continue to trade as normal, but their situation remains precarious.

Big publishers and distributors agreed with Bertrams last week that the wholesaler would pay cash upfront for stock. Neil admitted that these new terms were affecting business (how can they not), as they can only buy what they know will sell. This is seriously bad news for the smaller publishers, although most requests for their stock will be as special orders and therefore firm sale anyway. This decision is though bound to affect availability of slower selling and niche titles.

I hope that they manage to weather the storm, but if the worst does happen, could this mean the end of wholesalers in our country, or will a new contender emerge, in the form of a smaller company keen for expansion? If so, who could that be? Gardners could not buy Bertrams out, as that would create a monopoly, although if Bertrams do go, there will be a monopoly anyway.

If the publishers fail to get back what they are owed, where will it leave them - these costs will have to be recovered from somewhere, and this will inevitably mean several things - pay freezes for the staff, a cut in advances for authors (especially for first timers), and an increase in cover prices. Will they have to re-negotiate terms with the wholesalers that are left, and with book stores that they supply direct to for core stock? Could this lead to a re-opening of the firm sale debate all round and hasten its introduction, and will that hinder or benefit the small presses?

Questions, questions and no answers.