Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The end of an era in book selling

Today marks the end of an era when Borders stores will close their doors, to the public at least, for the last time. Despite several contenders, including Richard Joseph who with his father Philip, founded Books Etc, none of the bids have been successful.

Borders, which to the outsider who knows little about the book trade, had such potential, first came to the UK in 1997, as an offshoot of an American chain. Out of all the significant book chains trading in the UK, they have had by far the most turbulent history, changing hands twice in the last two years alone. 2009 has been by far the most eventful of their 12 years in the UK, with the closure of their flagship Oxford Street store and other stores across the country, including most of their airport ones, plus of course the much talked about management buy out, which has
no doubt left Philip Downer licking his wounds (not as much I suspect as his staff).

Downer was in fact Borders first British based employee, and he will also ironically now be their last, as the remaining staff are made redundant on Christmas Eve. He had such hopes for the business speaking at the company's annual conference just a few short months ago, a big expansion programme, new stock lines, and a bigger and better website to name just three, but none of these plans will now see fruition.

Speaking earlier this year, Downer stated "I genuinely believe we have got a unique retail proposition" - but it is difficult to see what this was. The company was faced with heavy competition - and aggressive discounting from Waterstones, supermarkets and the Internet, and simply could not compete. Out of town stores and heavy exposure to the Icelandic banks didn't help much either.

One of their biggest problems I always felt was connected to their distribution - namely, that everything was centralised (although that did change during the final year of business - maybe too late), with everything revolving around a central distribution hub in Cornwall. Books were trucked up and down the M5 to all parts of the country, with books from the average London publisher sent from London to Cornwall and then halfway round the country again to the stores which had requested copies. This I always felt, like the supermarket model, was pure insanity and suicidal for the small presses and small publishers, who did not get a look in, as they were unable to supply direct to their local stores. I speak from experience here.

When the hub close din the autumn of 2007, I hoped that it might herald a change and make things easier for the smaller publishers, but in reality nothing changed. I hoped that individual store Managers as with Waterstones, may have a say as to what was stocked in their stores, and be able to order books via wholesalers from the small presses and self publishers, but no, Head Office still maintained its icy grip. This is not of course the cause of their downfall, for many other factors were involved, but it certainly did not help, and was my personal biggest bug bear, as was the difficulty in extracting information about how to get them to take your work seriously so that you could be stocked. No one, but no one appeared to take the independent publisher seriously.

Borders came into the UK by buying Books Etc, which was run separately from Borders, yet part of the same group. Critics and company insiders claim that the initial success of Borders came at the expense of Books Etc, a claim which Downer has strongly denied. He did though concede that "Borders was the cuckoo in the nest", saying, "It was indulged, and then things were whipped away from it."

From 1997 onwards Books Etc slipped steadily down the agenda, with more and more stores closing until at the end, (they closed their doors at the weekend, ahead of their Borders cousins), only a handful remained. More than 50 staff braved the elements last night to hold a wake for Books Etc in London.

For the staff that remain, which came on Tuesday, confirming that today will be the final day of trading must have come as somewhat of a relief. There have been reports of customers wishing to buy any type of memorabilia they can get their hands on - chairs from the children's dept, coffee mugs from the staff room, and even the shirts that the staff wear as uniform. I can relate to what the anonymous book seller and author of the Borders Insider blog says over on The Bookseller that finally, in the midst of thousands of customers asking when they will close, they can give them an answer - safe in the knowledge that they are not enquiring as to the staff's future, but trying to ascertain how long they have in order to bag some more bargains. I suspect they have lost their chance, as when I visited the Kingston store last week, most of the books had already gone. I was lucky to get 20 percent off a calendar.

So, what will happen to the stores after they close - will some staff club together and buy the leases, as Simon and Tim did when Waterstones closed in Wood Green, or will they turn into just another cloned clothes or coffee shop, selling cheap tat that tastes awful and falls apart after a few washes? We can only wait and see.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Borders to close on 22nd December

The administrators for Borders have confirmed that the stores will close their doors for the final time on Tuesday 22nd December, unless a buyer emerges.

MCR claimed that there were in "advanced stages" of negotiations with a number of parties about purchasing certain stores or assets. But, they added, unless a business took over Borders as a going concern (which looks increasingly unlikely), all stores will formally cease trading on the date stated above. The final day of employment for the 1150 Borders staff will be Christmas Eve.

Staff consultation is expected to continue throughout this week with further updates to individual stores at the end of the week.

In what has been clearly a difficult time for Borders staff, The Bookseller website suggests that that the stores have become a free for all, where pretty much anything that is not nailed down is for sale - from the fixtures and fittings to a range of Denby pottery which was apparently bought some time ago - and there was I thinking there were a book store !

The description of the scene that must surely be an every day reality for the beleaguered staff is highly reminiscent of the store closure that I myself experienced at the beginning of November last year - where on the last day a big bag of plugs, television aerials and so on which we had previously used for the display items was offered free to anyone who would take them.

This latest move suggests, despite claims to the contrary that there is little hope of saving the Borders brand name.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Waterstones admits that content is not high on their list - yes that would mean good writing.

Waterstones have finally admitted at a seminar held to reassure agents about the functioning of their distribution hub, what we as authors have known for some time - that the quality of the writing is not one of four key considerations when the chain chooses to order or stock a book. This is not news as far as I, and most other authors are no doubt concerned, yet the agents reacted with shock and horror when the chain admitted their stance.

Sixty people attended the seminar, held at the retailers flagship Piccadilly store, which included a hub update and an introduction to the new buying team.

The four key considerations were revealed as being, track record (i.e. previous or projected sales history), support from the publisher, market context and pricing/cover. Around half of those in the room put up their hands and asked the obvious question, "What about the writing?'" What indeed you might say.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The bubble bursts for celebrity memoirs

After a week in which we have seen Borders collapse, amid reports of staff being assaulted by rude and aggressive customers, demanding ever higher discounts for books whose jackets have small tears in them (no doubt caused by the vulture like horde of which these customers are a part), I didn't think things could get much worse, but no, at last there is some good news from within the publishing world - celebrity memoirs have finally fallen from grace, amid tumbling sales.

Literary agents are reporting a disastrous autumn for the genre, while publisher Hachette UK has announced that it is trimming its celebrity roster (how will they boost their ego's now?). The total value of hardback celebrity titles in the UK top 50 this year has fallen by almost 25 percent from £4.6 million in 2008 to £3.3 million in 2009.

Jonathan Lloyd, Chief Executive of Curtis Brown, one of the larger London agencies, suggested that this season's memoirs, which include books "by" Peter Kay and Katie Price as well as autobiographies by Jo Brand, Chris Evans and Frankie Boyle, lack the sensational factor and (thank the Lord) their comparatively unremarkable sales may impact on the advances that such celebrities receive in the future.

Others have suggested that the genre has reached saturation point, with "bottom-of-the-barrel" celebrities riding the gravy train, while the publishers find that they have not delivered the meat and two veg (my words, not theirs). Publishers are beginning to find that the public are returning to more traditional fiction. It is particularly noticeable this year to find that the best seller lists are dominated by fiction, with the highest memoir at number seven, the opposite of what happened last year.

Echoing the thoughts of many, Liz Thomson, Editor of BookBrunch, said that she hoped this was the end of an era. "What really gets me" she said "with regards to many of these memoirs is that they claim to give the so-called celebrities a voice when they are so often the voice of their ghost-writers. It's the aspect of cynicism in these publications that I hate. People are being paid a huge amount of money to write this nonsense, at the expense of new writers and quality fiction." Here, here.

A spokesman for Waterstones claimed however that these books are still popular, and the public are simply waiting until nearer Christmas to buy them. He said "There will be an awful lot of people who will wake up with Jeremy Clarkson's or Frankie Boyle's autobiography on Christmas morning." I hope I am not one of them, so don't even think of getting me one! If you really want to though, you can buy yourself a copy of my own mastepiece ...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Borders UK enters administration

It was formerly confirmed earlier this afternoon, that Borders UK have entered administration. Reports began to circulate early this morning when Reuters reported that they had seen court documentation to support the claim of administration. The story was later retracted amid accusations that the news agency had jumped the gun - what they had in fact seen were documents asking the court for permission to place the company in the hands of administrators, which was not to say that they actually were in administration. Everyone knew however that this was merely a technicality and it was only a matter of time.

It is believed that the delay occurred when BDO informed the Borders UK management late yesterday that they had discovered "a conflict of interest" which prevented them from being declared administrators. MCR have since been appointed, citing the reasons for the company's failure as competition from the Internet, together with cash flow pressure and pressure from suppliers - at least three of whom cut off supply earlier in the week.

It is unclear as to how long the company will remain in administration, but while the process continues, stores are expected to remain open and trading as normal.

This is indeed a sad day for the publishing world, with the loss of some 1100 jobs. Whatever my personal experiences of the company have been (and they have been mixed), I would not wish this on anyone. I have worked through three store closures during the 27 years since I left school, so my thoughts are with them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Borders UK on the brink of collapse

There are too many stories about a month's absence from blogging to detail all of them, so I will stick to the most important one for the moment, and that concerns once again, the future of ailing retailer Borders Books.

For the second time this year speculation has reached fever pitch, as the retailer is once again up for sale, a mere months after it was the subject of a management buyout.

It is claimed that publishers who have spoken to The Bookseller have expressed fears over the future of the retailer, after it emerged that one distributor had cut off supply following an unpaid bill. I have never dealt with the chain stores direct, preferring that they order my own book through wholesalers (much easier all round), but I know of at one author who is owed several hundred pounds.

Anyway, rumours have mounted since it was reported on Friday that both WH Smith and HMV had walked away from possible deals, while another deal over the Borders website has also fallen through, following the departure of the web team.

Borders' corporate finance adviser Clearwater placed an advertisement in the Financial Times on last week offering for sale "the assets and trade of a chain of book and entertainment stores", with revenue in the region of £150m. The chain was described as having "prime locations on the High Street and 'out of town' retail parks" (in my opinion it is these out of town locations have been partially responsible for at least some of the problems). No asking price was given.

Borders have so far refused to comment on any of the stories mentioned above, so not surprisingly the industry is awash with rumours and speculation. In an email sent to staff last Friday, Chief Executive Philip Downer said that the chain had received "an unsolicited approach from an interested party", and that it had "retained a corporate finance specialist to investigate future possibilities for the business, in line with best practice". Downer added that a "further announcement will follow once we have confirmed information to share with you".

The fall from grace seems to have happened remarkably quickly and her reasons are unclear. Barely one month ago, Downer outlined a clear and positive vision for the future, full of ideas including a new loyalty scheme and plans for further store openings. At least four national newspapers claim that the chain is on the brink of collapse, and if so, it will be sad day indeed for the book industry. If Borders go, they will take between 7 and 10 percent of the market with them (not to mention several hundred jobs), and that business will have to go elsewhere - leading to even less competition and less choice. The staff will not be the only losers. My thoughts are with them at this difficult time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting Published in Children's Books

It has been just over a week since I last wrote on this blog, and I am pleased to see that I have another follower. The book world seems busy at the moment, with the Frankfurt Book Fair in full swing and deals being struck with various different authors (predominantly for a change, non fiction). For my part, I have been busy at work. With various colleagues on holiday, there has been plenty of overtime, which is good for me, as it means I may get that trip to Iceland yet.

This afternoon though, I am taking a trip to Guildford, whose Book Festival opened yesterday. Before you get excited, no I am not doing a talk (I tried last year, but they wouldn't have me), but am attending one - entitled Getting Published in Children's Books, given by Julia Churchill. Julia so the blurb says, is an agent who will offer important tips and advice on getting your book published. It is a little early for me to consider this, with only 1000 words written, but it will be useful nevertheless. I have taken the day off work (I only work for 2 hours in the evening on a Thursday anyway, from 5 to 7pm), so I do hope so. The talk starts at 3pm, so it will be an early lunch to leave at around 1.30pm, just in case I miss the park and ride and have to wait.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Borders anounce plans for expansion

Philip Downer, new CEO of Borders UK confirmed at the company's annual conference on Monday, that the chain is to launch a loyalty card scheme next year. Downer added that following a management buyout last summer, the company aims to expand its number of stores, taking full advantage of the recession, with cheaper rents. This follows the recent announcement that the company is seeking to become a single brand on the High Street through the sale of its Borders Express and Books Etc stores. It also follows a summer of closures and considerable uncertainty for Borders superstores throughout the country.

Non book sales in the form of various novelty items currently account for around a third of the company's business, and Downer hopes in the coming years to increase this to around 50 percent. It is hard to see how this will be achieved without negatively impacting upon the the sale of books. It is however a sad fact of life that since the abolition of the Net Book Price agreement with the resultant erosion in the perceived value of books through ever increasing discounts, novelty items generate considerably more profit while taking up a lot less space. This is particularly important with Christmas approaching, when let's face it, people buy all sorts of junk.

Downer said that a "full space-planning programme" was now under way, backed up by consumer research this autumn, to ascertain whether his plans are what his customers actually want. With no Borders near me, personally I will be sticking to Waterstones.

Words speak for themselves

On the day that Amazon announce the launch of an international version of the Kindle, Richard Curtis has an interesting slant on digitial book technology on his blog E-Reads.

According to Curtis, the day is coming - much sooner than we think - when authors will no longer be able to define themselves as creators of literary works. As electronic technology gets more and more sophisticated (thank goodness I no longer have to sell this stuff and keep up to date with it all), the emerging generation of readers will no longer be content to accept text that is not as Curtis describes it, "interactively married to other media", demanding not just words, but video, music and probably bells and whistles too. The definition of author will be far removed Curtis says, from how we currently define it.

The word that Curtis uses to describe this new form of media is "vook" (video + book = "vook") blending traditional books with audio, video and other digital media as described above. Bear in mind as I write that Simon and Schuster are already working with a multi media partner to release such material that can be read or viewed, online or through electronic devices such as an iPhone or iPod.

Does this though mean the death of the book - of course not. Traditional books will I believe always be around, albeit in more limited form. Will the term author need to be re-defined to make way for the emerging technology? No again. It has always been the case with books that the author writes while others perform the various tasks that are necessary to put the book into paper or electronic form ready for publication - illustrators draw pictures, IT people convert the book to PDF or some other format that can be read via these devices, cover designers well, design the cover. None of this detracts from the fact the author wrote the thing. An author then will always be an author, and nothing can take that away.

E-books may well be here to stay, but whether "vooks" will catch on remains to be seen. Personally I find that when I read I need silence and concentration, and having moving images and music on the screen would distract from the experience. Maybe younger people would like this, I wouldn't know to be honest, as there aren't many young people that I know who read anyway - not unless you count Heat magazine as reading !

Todays young may feel that they need this distraction, as it what they are used to and they feel lost without these so-called "must have" devices, but like everything else, eventually it will swing back the other way. Call me old fashioned if you will, but I just do not see how images and background music will add to the reading experience.

The whole point of reading is after all, to read, to learn and to stretch the mind and the imagination. Viewing a video of a book, or about a book may be entertaining, but it is not reading. The idea of reading is to be immersed in the story and lose yourself almost in another world, video cannot help you do this - the only way to get immersed is quite simply, to read. Vooks may be cool, but they do not communicate ideas and information, they do not capture the imagination in a way that only words can. The words should be allowed to speak for themselves in the way that only words can.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Publishers reluctant to embrace the blogosphere

Blogging continues to be in the news this week, with an article in the Huffington Post claiming that US publishers are reluctant to write blogs for fear of saying the wrong things. The reasons given when pressed range from being overworked, having no talent for blogging, too many other writing projects, and that their bosses had said "no" without giving any specific reason.

The reason is of course fear - and wanting to control, which in a way is understandable. Jason Pinter, a former Random House Editor lost his job in 2007 because of his blog, and I suspect that he is not the only one. Pinter the article claims is now blogging for the Huffington Post and enjoying success as a thriller writer.

Publishers may not have said yes, but authors have - in their droves, as have independent book sellers, publicists and agents. There are one or two Editors who blog, such as Editorial Ass and The Intern, but these are for the most part anonymous. I occasionally read Editorial Ass myself.

These blogs exist for the most part to give advice to aspiring writers and an insight into the world of publishing. When the world wide web was first created all those years ago, no one could have foreseen the way in which it has grown, both in terms of commerce and as a tool for raising awareness of causes and brands. The Internet for authors, especially the self published, remains the best way in which to reach as wide an audience as possible, and also to network with other authors, through blogs, social networking and peer review sites. The publishers do not know what they are missing out on!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Dishonesty is sometimes the best policy

There is an interesting discussion going on at the moment over on the Writers Group at BlogCatalogue regarding honesty in writing. The author of the post was alerted to this subject via a blog post that she came across contemplating both sides of this issue, as both a reader and a writer. As a reader, she felt misled, and somewhat betrayed, when she discovered that a writer she admired appeared not to have been telling the whole truth, yet when she examined her own writing she had to admit that she hadn't either. It can be a very fine line, as I discovered myself not that long ago.
When I first began this blog three or more years ago, the aim was to write about my experiences with print on demand publishing, in the hope that this might help others considering the same path. As time went on, more of my personal life began to creep in, which was difficult to avoid, since I had a lot going on with regard to my paid nine to five job at that time. I also saw it as a major obstacle standing in the way of my writing success, which I was very resentful of. In retrospect I was maybe a little too honest, as I made the mistake of writing about my work in too much detail. So much detail that when my then employer discovered what I had written, I was suspended from work, and eventually forced to leave. It was a difficult time and a harsh lesson that I had to learn.
The reason my employer was so upset was not because of veiled references to the company name or the products that they sold (which were admittedly there), but because I wrote in great detail about how I felt with regard to certain actions or rather inaction's that the company took and about how it made me feel. If I had written a blog saying what a wonderful company they were to work for and how happy I was in my job then they would have had no reason to get upset, but because I told the truth they became worried that if the wrong people read this, their reputation would suffer. Honesty then in my case was not the best policy.
On the other hand, I had been putting off leaving for a long time before they discovered what I had done (which came about ironically because of someone else's dishonesty), humming and harring over what I wanted to do next, so maybe this was the universe's way of forcing me out. This seems to have been a pattern in my life, whereby I stay in a job becoming more and more miserable and knowing that I should leave until I am made redundant or something else happens to force me to leave. This is a pattern, which I am pleased to say is now well and truly broken.
I admit that when I look at those posts now (they have since been moved to another blog and heavily edited), they make very compulsive reading, as you can feel the pain and the depth of the emotions leaping off the page. No employer wants to be told in such stark terms how their behaviour affects their employees health, so this must have been painful for them to read. Still, it is all water under the bridge now. I have learnt my lesson and moved on.
It does though go to show that sometimes dishonesty or at best a touch of white wash, is the best policy, as total honesty doesn't pay the bills. Fortunately, my new job does.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

As Borders announce further closures, Google show their true colours

There are several stories of interest worth blogging about today, the first of which concerns Borders, who have announced their intention to sell the remaining Books Etc and Borders Express Stores, thus removing these brands entirely from the High Street. The move, which I am sure has gone down with the staff like a lead balloon, is not totally unexpected, as in the words of Independent journalist James Thompson, "Books Etc has been a financial millstone around the neck of Borders UK for a number of years".

The company, which has 36 remaining Borders stores, came close to collapse earlier in the summer, when it was rescued at the 11th hour by a management buyout headed by Philip Downer, Chief Executive. He is a braver man that I would be!

The company is also said to be negotiating with landlords to restructure or reduce the leases on some of the remaining Borders stores, one of which is believed to be Briggate in Leeds. There are however no plans for further closures.

In the meantime, the Google debacle continues on, with French publishing group La Martinière the first publisher worldwide to sue Google in court. The publisher, which is backed by the French publishers association Syndicat National de l’Edition (SNE) and the French Writers Union, Syndicat des Gens de Lettres, (SGDL), is seeking damages of 15 million Euros (£13.8 million) for books digitised by Google without permission. In addition to this, they are seeking a further penalty of 100,000 Euros per day with 3 million Euros for "prejudice to their image". The trial, which opened in Paris on 24th September is expected to last until 18th December at the latest.

What really takes the biscuit for me are comments made by Google lawyer Alexandra Neri, who argued that the French court was not competent to rule on this case, since the books were digitised in the United States. "What Google does" she said "is absolutely legal." "We have never denied that Seuil holds the copyright on printed works, but it has never proved that it holds the right on digital versions of the works."

For a qualified lawyer to show such ignorance of copyright law is to me breathtaking, quite apart from her other comments regarding where the digitisation took place. Surely copyright is copyright, no matter what form the words are printed in - they could be tattooed on her backside for all I care, the fact is that if Google did not write or pay for the rights to publish these works, then they have no right to digitise any of them. It may be true that the author did not assign digital rights to La Martinière since e-books are a relatively new development, but one thing's for sure - they were not assigned to Google, and I personally would suggest that until such rights are assigned to the publisher or to anyone else for that matter, they have to be regarded as resting fairly and squarely with the author. These comments to my mind show once again how breathtaking arrogant this company has become with its dealings with authors outside the US, they are fighting now for dear life to hold on to what little remains of a settlement that is effectively dead, and a reputation which is not much better.

Still e-books are not all bad, if placed in the right hands, they can open a whole new market for the self published and independent authors, and help to level the playing field by potentially cutting out most of the middle men who demand an ever larger slice of our hard earned cash.

Smashwords which was founded in 2008, announced a partnership with Sony, whereby its books will be available to buy direct from the Sony e-book store to be downloaded on to Sony reading devices. They are not the only company to do this, since Author Solutions have also signed an agreement. Smashwords have also announced a distribution agreement with Lexcyle, to allow their books to be read by users of Stanza, an iPhone eBook-reading device with 2 million users.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Banal ramblings

I took the plunge last week and decided to set up a Twitter account, as it seems to be the latest thing and from what I have seen and heard, an excellent way of generating more traffic to your blog. Despite the banality of my ramblings, I am surprised to see that I already have 3 followers. I guess to them, my ramblings aren't as banal as they seem.

It has been a strange day so far - in fact it has been a strange week, a strange year, and an even stranger lifetime ...

I always used to go a salon to get my hair cut, not these expensive glossy ones where they charge you an arm and a leg to walk through the door, but a plain and simple one, with no fuss and no spraying of gallons of chemicals. Lately though on the recommendation of a friend, I have been having my hair cut at home. It is well worth the extra money, as you don't have the stress and hassle of going into town and finding somewhere to park, even if you do have to hoover afterwards. Anyway, today was the day, and my appointment was at 10.45am.

Knowing that the hairdresser likes her clients to wash or at least dampen their hair on arrival, this meant that there was no point in showering. So, for the last couple of hours I have been slobbing around the house in my dressing gown, drinking tea, playing Farmville (a farming game on Facebook) and watching this weeks Ugly Betty.

Now I am showered and not quite dressed (I am still in the dressing gown) I am not sure what to do with the day. It is too close to lunch time to go out, and the crops that I planted will not be ready for another hour. I know what I should do - enter that competition from the National Trust and register for a group meeting with an agent that a friend from a writers forum has set up for forum members. I have half an hour until those crops are ready, so I should be able to get at least half of my entry complete - they only need a few hundred words .... On the other hand, I should really hoover up all that hair ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Google hearing delayed

As expected, lawyers representing US based authors and publishers have requested the courts to postpone the hearing set to take place on October 7th, regarding the proposed Google settlement. More time is needed to examine the various objections and for further negotiations to take place. The issues are complex and cannot be settled overnight.

On Friday, the Department of Justice proposed several important changes to the proposed settlement, including new protection for unknown rights holders and allowing Google's competitors to gain access to and sell books within the registry, thereby preventing a monopoly.
The Open Content Alliance - which includes Amazon, Microsoft, and the Internet Archive naturally view this as an important victory, which will open up competition. It goes without saying, that the opposite is true for Google. We can safely say that the settlement as we knew it, is officially dead.

The October issue is ready to print

The village newsletter is finally ready for the month of October, having completed it late last night. I shall proof read it today and ring the printer for it to be picked up tomorrow morning, bang on schedule (we usually try and print around the 24th of the month).

I didn't think I would get it done on time as almost everyone was late with their contributions, the last one not arriving until yesterday afternoon - most unlike the person who sent it. He is our Chairman and really ought to have known better, but it still got done.

Every month I panic that I don't have enough material, but somehow the pages get filled up. This month because there is a shortage of news, I have been able to include a few spiritually themed page fillers, such as traditions for living by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, and a piece on the benefits of meditation. I was asked to include this by the lovely people who run the meditation group that I attend every other Monday night, one of whom is the Rector (yes, you did read that right). Not all religious people have closed minds - apologies if you are reading this and consider yourself to be religious - like I say, not all religious people have closed minds, and if you are offended by my words, then I suggest you find the nearest mirror !

The news stories this month are suitably scintillating for a small village such as ours - the winners for the recent mastermind type quiz, fund raising efforts made for a children's village in southern Africa, and the shoe box scheme which is run by the local Christian Fellowship (a very worthy cause). The centre spread has been provided by the National Trust, who play a vital role in our village and in fact, throughout the whole area.

I can't believe it is only 2 months to go until Christmas - I shall have to start planning the Christmas edition soon then !

Monday, September 21, 2009

Google settlement likely to be delayed

It seems that the Google book settlement currently being debated in the US courts may have been dealt a death blow, as in a statement released late on Friday night, the US Justice Department declared in no uncertain terms that the settlement should be rejected.

In their own words:

"As presently drafted the proposed settlement does not meet the legal standards this court must apply. This court should reject the proposed settlement and encourage the parties to continue negotiations to comply with Rule 23 and the copyright and antitrust laws."

Google say that they aim to address the findings of the Department of Justice at the hearing in October. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, frantic negotiations are taking place with their objectors, of which there are many. No matter what settlements are reached, the word is that Judge Denny Chin will not veer too far away from the wishes of the Justice Department, and it may take some months of re-negotitions before the final outcome is announced.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Try this if you dare !

One of my Facebook friends (which I have been spending far too much time on this week, perfecting the art of farming) alterted me to a fun 'game' which she found on dovegreyreaders, whereby using only books that you have read this year, you answer the following questions. You are supposed to use the book titles only once, and the game is a lot harder than it actually looks - especially for someone who has read as little as I have (hardly enough books to answer the questions at all!). I have then been forced to cheat and include books that I have bought this year but am yet to read (terrible I know). Thank goodness for Waterstones and those 3 for 2 offers (never thought I would say that either).

Here then goes:

Describe yourself: The Elegance of the Hedgehog: Muriel Barbery
How do you feel: A Fraction of the Whole: Steve Toltz
Describe where you currently live: Heaven's Gate: Karen Bishop
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Small Island: Andrea Levy
Your favorite form of transportation: Night Train to Lisbon: Pascal Marcier
Your best friend is: The Library of Shadows: Mikkel Birkegaard
You and your friends are: Past Imperfect: Julian Fellowes
What's the weather like: Baking Cakes in Kigali: Gaile Parkin
You fear: Dark Places: Kate Grenville
What is the best advice you have to give: Watching the Door: Kevin Myers
Thought for the day: Late Nights on Air: Elizabeth Hay
How I would like to die: Born Under a Million Shadows: Andrea Busfield
My soul's present condition: The Vagrants: Yi Yun Li

Enough said !

Friday, September 18, 2009

Do your beliefs affect your reading?

There seem to have been some really interesting topics of late over on the book club forum, like the one I discussed the other day about what I have learnt from books. One that I am finding particularly interesting at the moment is whether our beliefs influence the type of books that we read. For beliefs you can read religion. I am aware that to some, religion is a touchy subject, but I have found myself fascinated by this thread and the answers that members have given.

They are for the most part talking about fiction as opposed to non fiction, as the majority of members prefer this type of book, but a glance through my "I have read this year" list will show that I read both, although this has not always been the case. There was a time not that long ago, when I read nothing but non fiction, necessitated by the fact that I was writing a book of this genre. Non fiction of course covers many different areas, but the type of books that I read at that time (and my library is still dominated by these) were mind, body and spirit, religion and alternative history, with a healthy dose of science (mainly books on human evolution and genetics, which I studied for a year - in rudimentary form, via Birkbeck). Unlike most of the other members, I therefore answered the question from the perspective of both fiction and non fiction.

While those who read mostly fiction stated that in the main their beliefs did not effect their reading, when I thought about it, the opposite is true with me. They much colour what I read. I find myself actively seeking out books (like The Shack for example) that reinforce my views. Books that examine the human condition and our views of God form an important part of my reading. Books such as Conversations with God, the works of Eckhart Tolle and when it comes to fiction, books about other countries and cultures and days past - the other day I bought six books, two of which were about the Salem Witch trials, and one about a woman in China who decides she longer wants to be a Communist. This year I have also read books on Afghanistan and Northern Ireland - all books that look at the motivations of the character within, which are in their way, tales of how the characters faith was tested. Reading such things helps in a strange sort of way to strengthen your own faith, when you see that the trials that these characters go through and the growth and learning that they experience.

It makes me wonder though whether the other members are being really honest in their own assessment - after all we have this interest in human affairs, it is what makes us human in the first place. To me an interest in humanity is the same thing as an interest in spirituality, because well, we are all spiritual beings whether we like to admit it or not. I have learnt over the years however that when it comes to faith and belief, many people do not appear to know the difference between religion and spirituality, tarring them with the same brush. That then is the key, for I view the two things are separate entities where others believe they are the same. So, what do you think, do your beliefs affect your reading, and if so how?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Lost Symbol - a symbol of a lost industry

With the release of Dan Brown's long awaited novel "The Lost Symbol" tomorrow, book stores and supermarkets are no doubt expecting a surge of interest, not to mention the ringing of tills. This is excellent news for Brown and his agent, and good news for his fans, but is it such good news for the stores? When what has been touted to become the decade's best selling novel is sold at half price (£9.49 instead of the cover price of £18.99), perhaps not. When one thinks of the beleaguered book sellers placing these books into carrier bags and smiling as they take the money, none of which will add to their company's profits, then it all looks rather farcical. A bit like the Curry's superstore which opened in Croydon at the weekend with queues a quarter of a mile long so that customers could buy half price televisions that actually cost the company money rather than earning them any.

This book is no different. Make no mistake - Brown, his publisher and his agent will be about the only ones to profit from this farce. Even with a discount that must be a minimum of 60 percent. Anyone with the slightest understanding of business (not to mention a few brain cells - one would do) can surely see that it is impossible for the book sellers to continue in this mode. Even with that high discount (which will eat heavily into the publisher's own profits, even though there are unlikely to be high returns), what small amount of money the stores do make will be swallowed up promotional costs and other overheads. The situation is such that many small independents who do not have the buying power of the chains, will find it cheaper to buy their own copies from the likes of Asda and Amazon than from their own wholesalers! How can this make sense?

Thus it is that several million pounds that could have been used to help a flagging industry will be literally poured down the drain, and all this at a time when the industry is struggling for survival. It defies all logic known to man (and certainly this woman). What a way to run a business! If people want to buy this book, then why not make them pay full price? When you ask that vital question though, the only response is that the retailers have to remain competitive. Well, how can they remain competitive when they lose money? I fail to see the point.

Selling books at these knock down prices devalues the entire industry, not to mention the worth of authors in the eyes of both readers and publishers, both of whom are struggling to make ends meet (Brown being very much the exception). This comes at a time when authors advances are being squeezed more and more, with some reporting decreases of up to 80 percent and wondering why they bother at all. Brown himself, as with most best selling authors, will make most of his money not from the book itself from the sale or rights - merchandising, film rights and so on, and of course foreign rights for other languages and territories.

For all the talk about diversity and about how the face of publishing is changing, the reality is that very little is - it remains just talk. Walk into the average supermarket and you see rows of celebrity biographies and best selling fiction paperbacks, with if you are lucky, a few heavily discounted gardening and DIY manuals. This is not diversity, but to be quite honest, boring, and I cannot understand how the supermarkets have become the leading book retailers with such a predictable stable. The chains may promote these same types of books the heaviest, but at least they make the effort to stock other types of book, and can order them in if requested. The supermarkets do not offer this level of service, and do not pretend to.

Some may argue that offering books at discount encourages more people to read, and in a way they do have a point, but at what price? In the end if simply devalues the industry and further erodes what is left. After all, logic dictates that if Dan Brown can be sold at half price, so can everything else.

I remember when I first read the Conversations with God series of books back in the mid 90's, in one of them (it may have been book 2, but I can't remember exactly), God speaking through author Neale Donald Walsch suggested that goods should have 2 sets of figures on them - the cost of buying the product and the price that it is actually sold for -perhaps it is time to introduce this system and ask the consumers, would you be prepared to work for so little?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Google makes further concessions

Google must be positively squirming under the weight of criticism from all quarters, as they appear to have made yet another concession regarding the proposed settlement with authors and publishers, this time aimed at retailers who claim that this will create a monopoly, with Google the only company permitted to sell these works.

An article in todays Times states that yesterday Google offered an olive branch to such critics, by stating that it would allow competitors such as Amazon, and even High Street stores to resell their ditisised books. How this will work when such titles are downloaded and not sold in disc form, is unclear. In contrast, The Bookseller states more clearly that other retailers "will be be able to sell access to users on any internet-connected device they choose". This seems to suggest that these other retailers will in effect be agents for the Book Rights Registry.

Google made the concession at a hearing of the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee called to discuss objections to the proposed settlement. They claimed that this was an extension of an earlier initiative to allow publishers (which will of course include the self published who have formed their own companies) who have joined the Partner Program to market their in-print works through Google Books.

Google have scanned more than 10 million books already as part of their project to index what has been described as the world's forgotten literary heritage. They aim to create a "treasure trove" of information in the form of forgotten and out of print books which will be available to anyone with an Internet connection. This has attracted heavy criticism from all quarters, not least of all authors and publishers, which has not been confined to the US.

Despite the objections, David Drummond, Senior Vice President for corporate development and Chief Legal Officer, stressed that the settlement "mostly {either it does or ot doesn't} affects only a very small segment of the book world", which Google estimates at less than 3 percent of the commercial book market. "Even though commercial demand may be low, we still believe it's important to our culture and our literary history for people to be able to find and read these books, and for rightsholders to be able to market and sell them." On that at least, we can agree.

The proposed settlement will be discussed next month in New York.

What I have learnt from books

Over on the Book Club Forum, we are having an interesting discussion on what we have learnt from books - the answers have been extremely varied, concentrating as one would expect on fiction rather than non fiction.

When it comes to my own reading, most of my learning has come from the other source - non fiction books on a variety of different topics. After almost five years spent writing Genesis of Man, it was only after this book was published in 2006 that I returned to fiction reading after a long hiatus. I was surprised at how much I had missed this altogether different type of book, but also surprised at just how much you can learn from the experience. When I think about some of the books I have read in the past couple of years I have learnt an awful lot from them - insights into how male and female minds view the opposite gender, about different countries and their belief systems, how children often make a lot more sense than adults, and understand much more than we know, and how when you get right down to it, people are basically all the same. We all think that our pain and our experiences are unique and we are the only ones to feel and to think as we do, but actually we are not - the human condition is universal and fundamentally flawed, yet beautiful, no matter where we live or who we are - whether we are an Afghan male, a Japanese woman or a struggling British author.

When it comes to fiction books - they are a whole other kettle of fish. When I was writing Genesis of Man, I read an awful lot of other peoples books in a wide range of subjects - religion, history, alternative history, differing aspects of science, spirituality and so on - these books have taught me so many things it is difficult to know where to begin - one thing for example I learnt from David Icke and his books is that there is a very fine line between genius and insanity ! I also learnt about the importance of research and checking facts, something which the non fiction writer has to meticulous at, in fact something that all writers should be meticulous at, but not everyone is. I have spotted several howlers in certain books. I also learnt the importance of proper editing and proof reading, and discovered that contrary to popular belief it is often the commercially published books rather than the self published ones which have the most errors.

Of course my reading is not confined to the subjects mentioned above, as my library contains many different types of books - one type of book I have been reading lately are Icelandic sagas. These are an account of the lives of the early Icelandic settlers, have as such taught me a lot about the early history of the country and dispelled more than a few myths about Viking culture, which was not at all what most people think - no horned helmets in sight ! I have read travel books on all manner of different places, vegetarian cook books, books on evolution and genetics, first aid books, driving manuals, and of course books on publishing and publicity.

From these I have learnt the correct way to approach Editors, how to angle your pitch, how to how to write press releases and how to organise a book event, and also about copyright law and plagarisation. These are all things that the writer needs to know and understand.

Books then have taught me so much. They are not the only source of learning as this has come from many different areas - from adult education classes, television, newspapers, the Internet, and of course from friends, but when I stop to think about it, books probably have been the most important source. Somehow I doubt whether the effect would be the same from e-books as it has been from the printed word, yet research shows that children in California learn more quickly and take in more information from computer screens than they do from paper books - this though is a different generation, with a shorter attention span than the generation I grew up with.

One thing is clear - a world without books would be very much poorer.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Google agrees to European concessions

On the day that the European Commission opens discussions into the Google settlement and the eve of the deadline for filing objections, Google have confirmed that two non-US representatives are to sit on the governing board of the Books Registry that will administer the deal, with full participation on advisory committees.

Google have also confirmed that books available in Europe but out of print in the US will be treated for the purposes of the settlement as "commercially available". What this means in practical terms is that such books can only be displayed with the express permission of rights holders.

This appears to be an open acknowledgment that the settlement is not just about the rights of US authors, but does as I previously wrote, affect authors throughout the world, who are not subject to US law.

These landmark concessions have been made in an effort to placate authors and publishers outside the US who have become increasingly angry and vociferous in the last few weeks, with justifiable cause.

In addition to the two European Directors to be appointed to the board, a third European, Michael Healy is expected to serve as the Book Rights Registry’s first Executive Director.

The move has welcomed by the Publishers Association in the UK. Simon Juden, PA chief executive said: "This represents significant progress on two of the key issues the PA has raised with Google concerning the settlement. As so many of the affected works are non-US works, it is important that the BRR board reflect this."

He added: "Arguably a much more important point is that the definition of commercial availability needs to include UK-specific concerns when rights may not have been sold into the US. We are very pleased that Google has accepted our recommendations to work with UK meta-data on this."

A Google spokesperson said: "We listen carefully to all concerns of stakeholders around the globe and work hard to achieve the common goal of bringing back to life millions of lost books in a way that serves the interest of all." Let's hope that this time it actually means something and that these are not hollow, empty words.

Friday, September 04, 2009

As deadline is extended for Google objections, today's pot and kettle award goes to Amazon.com

As the deadline for objections to the proposed Google settlement is extended by a few days to Tuesday 8th September, today's pot and kettle award goes to Amazon.com.

In a 50 page legal document filed on September 1st, Amazon said the agreement was "unfair"to rights holders as it gave Google "an effective monopoly" over scanned works that would create "a cartel of authors and publishers". It also questioned the legitimacy of the "class action" and warned the court that it was being asked "to exercise powers that it does not have" stating that the agreement "restrains competition in ways that ought not be sanctioned by this court".

I detect a large slice of mirroring in relation to Amazon's own actions last year when they effectively forced US print on demand publishers to use their own printers or have their buy buttons removed.

Amazon state in relation to the proposed settlement:

"It is anti-competitive and violates anti trust laws because it provides Google an effective monopoly in the scanning and exploitation of millions of works whose copyright holders cannot be located or choose not to involve themselves in this class action."

"It also creates a cartel of authors and publishers - the Books Rights Registry - operating with virtually no restrictions on its actions, with the potential to raise book prices and reduce output to the detriment of consumers and new authors or publishers who would compete with the cartel members."

In Amazon's favour, it is true that they have only scanned books where permission has been obtained from the rights holders, but I cannot help feel that these are empty words from a retailer that bemoans others from basically doing what they have done themselves - what the hell they feel like! I am not the only one to notice this, since the Authors Guild in the US have published a letter online accusing the retailer of what they term as "breathtaking hypocrisy".

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Katie Price most abandoned author by budget hotel chain

Budget hotel chain Travelodge, whom I often stay with myself, has today unveiled its list of top 5 books most often left behind in their rooms. To my utter surprise (what do you think) the list is dominated by celebrity 'autobiographies' - headed by Katie Price's "Pushed to the Limit". Personally I would have thought that reading this book would push just about anyone to the limit!

Barack Obama's "Dreams of My Father" comes in at second place, with comedienne Dawn French in third place with "Dear Fatty".

According to the report, hotels in Wakefield, Leicester and Birmingham had the most copies of "Pushed to the Limit" left behind, while those in Manchester and Oldham had the most copies of the Kama Sutra. Business books were not surprisingly, most likely to be abandoned in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

A total of 7000 books were abandoned, among them a case of Mills and Boon's which were left in Nottingham by a "high flying businessman". I cannot speak for others, but personally about the only things that I have left in a hotel (purely by accident) were a pair of socks and a torch!

Google book deal violates German copyright

Following complaints by several European countries, the German government have confirmed via a US court ruling, that Google's plans to digitise millions of books is in violation of German copyright laws. I suspect that Germany is not the only country that this applies to.

Johannes Christian Wichard, Deputy Director General of the Directorate Commercial and Economic Law, in Germany's Justice Ministry said that the deal would allow Google to "flout German laws that have been established to protect German authors and publishers, including with respect to digital copying, publishing and the dissemination of their works."

He went on to say "The decision of this court with respect to this settlement will have the dramatic and long-range effect of creating a new worldwide copyright regime without any input from those who will be greatly impacted - German authors, publishers and digital libraries and German citizens." He also made the point that German authors not published in the United States were not represented by the Authors Guild (and neither of course are British ones or for that matter any authors who live outside the US but whose books are available in that territory).

Authors have until the end of this week to raise objections to the proposed settlement, the hearing for which is due to take place on October 7th.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Amazon denied right to dismiss anti-trust law suit

Amazon may have been in the news recently regarding charges levied against publishers for 'rejected deliveries' and the launch of the Kindle electronic reading device in Europe, but one story that seems to have escaped the British publishing press which pays little heed to most stories that affect then print on demand sector, is that in a 26 page order on August 26th, Chief US District Judge John Woodcock Jnr has denied Amazon's right to dismiss an anti-trust lawsuit brought against them by US print on demand publisher Booklocker. What this means is that the case against them can now go ahead.

This is a monumental victory for the little man against the mighty giant, and although there is still a long way to go, this is the first step towards what will hopefully be a victory for common sense, which sends a strong signal that what has been popularly regarded as bully boy tactics will not be tolerated.

The full report can be read here (PDF).

My own initial post regarding this can be read here

Monday, August 24, 2009

A day in the life of the Editor

I have been Editor of my village newsletter for just over 2 years now, and despite the hard work, it is very rewarding. I agreed to take over the reins before we even moved here, in December 2006, after my friend Gillian notified me that my predecessor (who has continued in his role as Chairman) wanted to give up his role in order to spend more time with his grandchildren. For the first 6 months Des and I worked together with me gradually taking on more responsibility, until I took over on a permanent basis in June 2007.

Despite his advertising for almost a year, I was the only person that came forward, which is strange in a village such as ours. We have perhaps 1500 residents, two thirds of whom buy the magazine in one form or another - most subscribe (it costs £4 per year or 40 pence per issue) and have it delivered through their door, but some buy it from the local shops, the nearby National Trust centre or the Doctors surgery in the centre of our village. It is a wonderful and friendly community, and other than the few poison pen letters I received in the early days (the writer, who used an assumed name objected to me mentioning my book in the newsletter) I have had no problems since, and often receive letters from residents telling me how much they enjoy what I write and how they look forward to each issue.

On average there are 24 pages of editorial with a separate section for advertising (the adverts are dealt with separately by another member of the team, whom I work closely with as each copy deadline approaches). There are sometimes extra ads that need to go into the Editorial section, and when this occurs, as it has been of late, I usually have to produce 28 pages of editorial in order to fit them in. This month I have had to do 32, since we have special 4 page centrespread - in colour - for the first time in the newsletter's 20 year history (the anniversary is actually next year - I am planning a special article to celebrate that as well).

This months centrespread features pictures from our village fair - held at the end of July, and the most important event for the village each year, since it is the major fundraiser for the Neighbourhood Council (the money raised goes towards a Christmas party for the village children and to sponsor local groups and charities) with news about next years fair and how much was taken this year.

Each issue features regular columns from several local groups - the WI and the Organ and Keyboard Club plus the National Trust, who are very much part of our community, one of their largest estates being less than one mile from the village. There are also contributions from the Christian Fellowship, a monthly letter from the Rector and a page of Church Services. This is quite a lot of Church stuff for a small community, and I am aware not only a small number of people go to Church, so I try to balance this out by giving a page to the Inner Journey group as well, and when I can, publishing some articles that I write myself on various spiritual topics - last month I included a piece on spirituality in schools, and how this is creeping into GCSE courses in the social sciences.

We publish 10 issues each year with double editions in July/August and December/January and operate to a copy deadline of 15th of each month with a print deadline of 24th - which is of course today. This month will be a day late, since I am still waiting for the colour proofs of the aforementioned centrespread to be delivered - they are being done by a separate printer to the rest of the newsletter which will be done by our usual printer in black and white, since we lack the equipment to do it ourselves. They should hopefully arrive some time today by courier.

This months newsletter then contains the usual regular columns with around 5 pages of news - the lead stories being a sponsored walk in aid of the Royal Marsden, the latest films to be shown at the village cinema club and some flower tubs that were stolen from outside the village hall. I also have a 2 page spread on a local man who is paralysed from the chest down and takes part in sponsored bike rides to raise money for other paraplegics less fortunate than himself, a one page article on a residents trip to Scotland, various flyer's advertising up and coming events (a charity fashion show being one of them), and a list of walks for the over 50's. There is also the very popular word game, the prize for which is a bottle of wine.

All in all I think is a very well put together newsletter with something for everyone. I look forward to seeing it in print.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pigs might fly ...

This is traditionally a quiet time of year for publishing, but nevertheless a few interesting changes have taken place since I departed for Lundy on July 22nd (Ilfracombe actually, Lundy came three days later). Namely:

The organisers of the Booker prize have announced that from now on, the competition will be open only to self published authors of one book or less. Several new categories are also to be added for non fiction.
The Times and other national newspapers have decreed that from now on at least 50 percent of the space set aside for book reviews shall be reserved for books published via small presses (including but not limited to print on demand).

New legislation is to be passed forcing the publishers of ghost written celebrity memoirs to declare this on the front cover. Royalties are to be split equally between the celebrity and the ghost writer, whose name shall also appear on the cover, alongside that of the celebrity.

The translation rights for Genesis of Man have been sold for a 6 figure sum, enabling the book to be translated into 6 different languages. It has also been accepted as a text book by a major British exam board for GCSE's in Religious Studies and Philosophy.

Last but by no means least, a pig named Rodrigo has been granted his pilots license after completing 100 hours tuition from Piggin Hill airfield in Kent. He celebrated by buying a Piggles costume ....

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Time to start the next book

After a month long hiatus (I was on holiday from 22nd July through to August 8th and have been up to my eyes with other things since my return), there has been too much going on in publishing to trawl through everything.

At a time when I am about to commence work on my second book, which will be aimed at children aged from 9 to 99, and which I hoped may be published commercially, I read today much to my dismay, that children's authors are increasingly turning to self publishing in order to break into the market as it is becoming more and more difficult to secure an agent, bearing in mind that most publishers refuse to even look at work that has not come via this route.

It seems that it is becoming increasingly the norm to utilise the services of peer review sites (notoriously closed to non fiction writers, and so little used up to now by myself) as a means to get their work noticed. Several agents openly acknowledge that they use such sites in order to scout for new and upcoming talent, especially where potential exists for the sale of TV and film rights, as I believe is the case with my own idea. It is up to the author of course to do the hard work of showing this, so I have a lot of work ahead of me - just as well I only work part time ... Of course I also now know why I self published the first book, so that I could lay the groundwork for the second book and knew what to do differently - and this book will be very different!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Another blog award

Nadine Laman has nominated me for another blog award, passed to her by Ivy from Croatia, which Nadine has now passed to me. The award is known as the Kreativ Blogger. I have to list seven of my favourite things before passing it on, which may be difficult, since most of the truly creative people in my life do not have blogs. I will list them then instead.

So my seven favourite things:

1) Has to be my partner Coran - the number one creative inspiration in my life, who has given me so much. He was the first to truly listen to me and understand and has taught me so much about myself, with such brutal honesty that it sometimes hurts - in a good way!

2) The village in which I live, which I will not name except to say that it is located in Surrey, about halfway between London and Brighton. Coran and I were privileged to move here to our beautiful park home 2 1/2 years ago, and it was the best thing we ever did. Our quality of life has changed dramatically and for the better.

3) No list would be complete without the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel which I visit around two to three times each time. This is a magical place, wild and rugged and teeming with wildlife of all descriptions. A perfect place in which to write and relax. The best thing of all is the knowledge that in less a week I shall be there again.

4) A long hot bath with lots of bubbles courtesy of those lovely people from Lush - fresh hand made cosmetics where the words organic and fresh really mean something.

5) Good home cooked vegetarian wheat free food. Meat eaters don't know what they are missing out on!

6) A good long walk in the fresh air with the wind blowing through my hair. There are no shortages of walks around here, which is one of the reasons our village is so special.

7) The opportunity to immerse oneself in silence. Silence is a much needed commodity which for most people with the frenetic pace of our 24 hour society is in short supply. We should value it and preserve the right to enjoy its life preserving benefits. It is not to be afraid of but to make friends with and welcome, like pebbles falling softly into the ocean.

So, who to pass this on to - well it has to be Coran first and foremost, and then my good friend Sarah Jane Grace, astrologer extraordinaire and my spiritual teachers from throughout the years, names of which are too numerous to mention. All those writers, actors and musicians from whom I have drawn inspiration - Michael J Strascynski, Neale Donald Walsch, Eckhart Tolle, James Twyman, so many names from all different walks of life, all of whom have played their part. The people I have worked with over the years, all of whom have helped shape me into the person I am, some more painfully than others, but all of whom I am grateful for (this is beginning to read like the acknowledgements page of my book). The National Trust wardens who work so hard to preserve the space that surrounds our village, the beekeeper who 2 weeks ago removed a large hive from our garden, Richard and his team at Authors OnLine Ltd, who have and continue to be a pleasure and an inspiration to work with - those who run the meditation and Journey groups that I attend, goodness me, I am running out of space to list them all.

Anyone else then who has been forgotten - I am sure there are many.

Friday, July 17, 2009

At long last - proof that writers are indeed mad !

I have long maintained that you have to be mad in order to consider writing as a career, and now it seems that science has proven a link between a genetic mutation linked to psychosis and schizophrenia also influences creativity.

The team, headed by Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, examined a gene involved in brain development known as called neuregulin 1, which previous studies have linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. A single DNA letter mutation that affects how much of the neuregulin 1 protein is made in the brain has been linked to psychosis, poor memory and sensitivity to criticism (just think of all those rejection letters and bad reviews). About 50 per cent of healthy Europeans are thought to carry this mutation, while 15 percent possess two copies.

Kéri genotyped 200 adults who responded to adverts seeking volunteers. The volunteers took part in two tests of creative thinking, and devised an objective score of their creative achievements, such as filing a patent or writing a book.

People with two copies of the mutation – which turned out to be about 12 percent of the study, scored notably higher on these measures of creativity against those with one or no copies of the mutation. Those with one copy were judged as more creative, on average, than those without. The mutation explained between 3 and 8 per cent of the differences in creativity, the study found. All is not roses however, as those with two copies of the mutation were also more likely to experience traits such as paranoia, strange speech patterns and "inappropriate emotions", whatever that means.

Kéri speculates that the mutation dampens the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls mood and behaviour. Intelligence could also be one factor that determines whether the mutation affects creativity or contributes to psychosis. Kéri's volunteers did tend to be more intelligent than average (as writers of course also are, strictly tongue in check you understand - especially those who write non fiction!). In contrast, another study of families with a history of schizophrenia (which mine has - my sister suffers from the disease) found that the same mutation was associated with lower intelligence and psychotic symptoms (it must have skipped the youngest sibling - guess who that would be).

A Kéri says, "My clinical experience is that high-IQ people with psychosis have more intellectual capacity to deal with psychotic experiences, it's not enough to experience those feelings, you have to communicate them." This has always been the problem my sister has had, the inability to express what she is thinking and feeling. This is one of the reasons that writing is so important and beneficial to me, for it has always provided an outlet, from childhood for me to write about my innermost thoughts and feelings, many of which I was unable to share with anyone (until that is I met my partner).

Other scientists concur with the suggestion that the genes effects may be linked to intelligence, but this doesn't mean that the two go hand in hand, and psychosis and creativity are the same thing, for madness is madness, which I personally feel is linked more to nurture than nature.

The full article can be read here.

Plans for the future of Borders

Following the announcement yesterday of the Borders management buyout, further information has since emerged regarding the new teams immediate plans for the future.

Chief Executive Philip Downer said that among immediate plans was a fresh injection of working capital and further borrowing to extend the company's cash flow. This will help to ensure range, systems and processes are in place in the run up to Christmas. Staff will be reassured to hear that there are no plans for further store closures "in the near future".

Downer has refused to discuss the financial aspects of the takeover, including his own personal stake in the business, but most within the industry are simply relieved that the company has survived. The parent company in the US retains a 17 percent stake in the business, so ties with the US have not been completely severed.

Downer was nevertheless stark about the issues facing the company, admitting that the next few months will be extremely challenging. Downer plans a conference with General Managers, Head Office staff and suppliers within the next few months.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Borders subject of management buyout

Following months of speculation, it has been confirmed today that Philip Downer, Chief Executive of Borders UK and Finance Director Mark Little have led a management buyout of the troubled chain, for an undisclosed sum, backed by Valco Capital Partners (VCP). This follows the sale of leases from five of the company's stores to fashion chain New Look earlier in the week.

This is the second time in as many years that Borders has changed hands. The business was bought by the Luke Johnson backed Risk Capital Partners in September 2007.

In a brief statement Downer said: "We are delighted that we have been able to secure the future for Borders in what are exceptional times for UK retailing and the global economy. The Borders management team looks forward to continuing to develop our innovative approach to bookselling, driving sustained growth and success in the future, and strengthening our unique position in the UK book market."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You pays your money, you takes your choice ...

The Book 2 Book newsletter that I subscribe to today has two snippets in the form of press releases from Authorhouse, the largest print on demand operation in the UK, if not the world. The first of these announces two new publishing packages for hard and paperbacks respectively, each of which includes professional one to one support, custom cover design, ISBN registration, online distribution, custom interior layout, and what they term as "more services". The hardback package also includes personalised back cover and 5 complimentary copies.

The second press release states that the company have launched a new and improved UK website. The new site, which they claim is easier to navigate (anything would be an improvement on the old one) will in their own words "improve the experience for the increasing number of authors choosing to publish a book with AuthorHouse UK".

New features include a special savings and offers section with the latest offers for saving money on publishing packages, marketing services, and books, an author resource area with tips and advice from fellow authors, plus an updated bookstore which makes searching for and purcahsing Authorhouse titles quicker and easier than ever before.

I went to the new site to have a look myself and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to find your way around and to obtain information (if not prices) on the various options available. The prices for the publishing packages are there for everyone to see, and at first look compared to my own publisher Authors OnLine Ltd do not appear unreasonable, but the service that Authorhouse provide, judging from what I saw at the seminar that I attended (which admittedly was three years ago), and from talking to those who have published with them, does not begin to compare. I remember when I first spoke to Richard, the boss at Authors OnLine Ltd and mentioned that I had considered Authorhouse, he said to me that everything they could do, he could do better, and probably cheaper, and I believe he was right.

The clincher for me is the Borders and Waterstones packages that they like to tout around. The sum of £999 buys you a basic Borders or Waterstones package whereby they guarantee that 3 copies of your work will be on display for 10 weeks in selected Borders or Waterstones stores (if the Borders ones are still there - one of those in the programme is Dublin). The books are displayed on a special Authorhouse stand - lumped together with all their other titles and therefore advertising to the world and his second cousin twice removed that the books are self published. This stand is not genre specific and is placed slap bang in the middle of the fiction area - fine for fiction writers but not so good for non fiction (of which the majority of self published books are). If you want to add either of these 2 options to your exisiting Authorhouse package you can do so, for £204 for Borders and £175 for Waterstones (why Borders costs more is not stated - perhaps because they demand a higher discount).

My point is though that you do not need to pay extra money for this service - all you need to do is prepare a few publicity materials (information sheet, reviews and so on) and a bit of professional sounding spiel, and ring the stores up. If you say the right things in the right way then they will order copies. It is as simple as that - these copies will be displayed where they belong, in the section that is relevant to your book, if they sell, for considerably more than 10 weeks.

Of course if you really want book stores to stock you, then the books need to be returnable, and this is where the Authorhouse returns package comes in - for the sum of £599 for the first year, you can buy an insurance policy that allows Authorhouse to place your book on sale or return with Gardners, the largest wholesaler in the UK, making it much more attractive to book stores. The problem is that very few if any self published titles make this kind of money - I would have to sell around 450 to 500 books to make this worthwhile - the same number that I have sold in the three years since publication. The sums for the majority of self publishers just do not add up.

Of course if the authors who are stupid enough to sign up to this package (which can be renewed after a year for a further fee of £249) had published with Authors OnLine Ltd and worked as hard as I did, then Richard would have put their books on sale or return for free. This is once again a lesson for would be self publishers to research the market and understand how things, in particular the supply chain works, which most that I encounter fail to do. You pays your money, you takes your choice - I know which one I would make, every time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The debate re author advances

Stories regarding dwindling author advances have been circulating around the Internet for a while, and Mick Rooney recently discussed this subject extensively on his blog. In many ways this is not new or even big news, but The Times newspaper has got hold of the story, and so now it is.

The article in The Times which was published on July 11th, states that in some cases authors are having their advances slashed by as much as 75 percent. Historians are some of the hardest hit, with some the article states, turning to historical fiction instead in a bid to earn more money. Some who have previously commanded advances of over £100,000 have seen these slashed to just £30,000 (which I have to say still seems an awful lot to me).

Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, said that she was avoiding a new contract because of the uncertain state of the market. “I would not be surprised if I were now offered half of my last advance,” she said. “A few years ago we got really handsome advances to write books that did indeed become quite good bestsellers, but never earned out their advances. Then the publishers started asking jobbing authors to write books that did annoyingly well, but they’ve dried up, too. Now, as far as I know, what has replaced us are books about the history of science.”

Professor Jardine goes on to say that print on demand technology, which has been around for some ten years now in the UK, has shaken publishers confidence in their existing business models, and is a huge issue, causing them to avoid risky authors.

This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that if Jardine and others like her did not earn their advances back, then they were obviously too high to begin with. An advance is just that, an advance against sales, which is offset against future sales. The author only starts to earn royalties once they have sold sufficient books to earn that advance - if they do not, then no royalties are paid. The advance is usually non refundable - and in many cases, is all the money the author will get. Claims that the industry are taking advantage of authors during the recession do not then stand up.

One unnamed historian states that she knows another female author in the same genre who is hawking a book on a very marketable topic and has been offered an advance of just £25,000, which represents three years work. This she says is pretty serious.

To me serious is when you spend five years writing a book (as I did), living off an inheritance and savings. At the end of those five years, after receiving countless rejection letters from agents and publishers, you self publish, only to be told that book stores will not stock you as the books are not returnable. This is the true reality of publishing for the silent majority, and I cannot help feel that many of these historians who are now complaining so vociferously are a bit precious - it is clear to me that they do not live in the real world.

Is cutting author advances such a bad thing - in fact, should authors receive an advance at all? Is it fair that the publisher takes all the risk, shelling out money upfront in addition to the actual cost of publication for a book that may or may not sell? The advance which is usually paid in three parts (a third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of the manuscript and a third on publication), comes directly from the publishers marketing department based on the projected profit and loss sheets which are drawn up when the publisher is considering making an offer. It would be nice if we all earned these mega advances, but the majority of authors are lucky to get more than £10,000 and a substantial number of these never earn their advances back.

These are many factors which decide the level of advance paid - sales of previous books, the authors experience and business acumen, their agents negotiating skills (if they have one), interest from other buyers - all these things play a part. The advance signifies the publishers belief in the author, and the higher the advance generally speaking, the higher the marketing budget.

It is easy to see with all of this that the odds are stacked heavily against the publisher, who is expected to shoulder all the risk, so why continue in this way? It makes no sense and is an outdated method of doing business which is no longer relevant or useful. If advances were abolished then good writers would still earn good money, and publishers more to the point would also make money - since less would be wasted propping up authors whose sales do not stack up. This would leave more to go towards nurturing new talent which the industry so desperately needs. As one commentor on The Bookseller, which published the story today notes, too many have been riding the gravy train for too long, that it has taken on an aura of normalcy, something which is theirs by right, when it is clearly not. To defend this institution is nothing more than protectionism, which keeps new authors out and the double whammy of the recession and new technology has revealed the gaping cracks which were there all the time.
Of course if advances were to be abolished, authors would need to be compensated with considerably higher royalties, and that is matter for the industry to debate and work out. It is time in many ways that the balance of power shifted more equally between author and publisher and this may be one way to redress the imbalance. It remains to be seen how and if this can be done, but if not I fear that the flood of authors choosing to embrace the self publishing route, when they realise that they can and often do earn more, will soon turn into a hemorrhage.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Further closures for Borders Stores

Following the announcement a few weeks ago that Borders in the UK were seeking "funding opportunities", a further announcement was made today confirming five further closures. The company's stores in London's Oxford Street, London Colney, Swindon, Dublin and Llantrissant (Wales). A huge clearance sale at each of these stores is due to begin this week and the staff at these stores placed under consultation. This latest round of closures will leave Borders with 36 superstores and 10 smaller ones, including 8 Books Etc.

Completion dates for the closures are yet to be announced, but CEO Philip Downer confirmed that the leases have all been sold to a fashion retailer.

This is a sad day for the book world, with potentially hundreds of staff affected. It is difficult to know what the reasons for the company's problems are - which were there a long time before the recession began. Out of town sites do not help, neither do problems with credit insurance or the closure of their distribution warehouse in Cornwall and move towards buying stock from wholesalers.

I hope that as many staff as possible can be re-deployed in other branches, but fear that this may be more difficult than it sounds, for those that remain will want to hold on their own jobs for as long as possible, at least until they can find something else. As I know from my own experiences, it is not always that easy to find alternative employment within the same field, yet if you are prepared to try different and new challenges and are not afraid to get your hands dirty, there is still work out there. I wish all those affected by these closures the best.