Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Until last week, kindling was always a common noun in my house. I have a huge bag of it next to my Danish piano (an unusual instrument, that looks as if it's been stolen from an infants' school gymnasium). However, during the last seven days it has become a verb for something completely unrelated to fire, although it has had an incendiary effect on the book trade.

I have written many derisive comments about the Amazon Kindle and ebooks in general. As someone who has spent most of their working life in the book trade, it was the default position to take. I love books. For all their worthiness, books are surprisingly sensual objects, engaging all of the senses except taste. Ebooks were the enemy: drab, monochrome devices, reducing every reading experience to uniform fonts, grey backgrounds and a dependence on electricity.

However, like most puritans, I was a hypocrite, secretly fascinated by the ebook phenomenon.

I first saw an ebook in 2000. It looked like an upmarket Psion Organiser and I was underwhelmed, but slightly unnerved by the realisation that something better would appear in a year or two. However, fours years on, ebooks still showed no sign of making any inroads into the book trade and a lot of people were content to bury their heads in the sand.

It says a lot about the book trade that during the mid-'noughties', The Friday Project were regarded as 'zeitgeisty' for turning web content into paper books. We had no idea.

The Amazon Kindle was launched on November 19th 2007 and sold out in under six hours. Customers had to wait for five months before the Kindle was back in stock. But in spite of the apparent demand, the Kindle had a neglible effect on book sales and at the time, it looked like a geeky toy that would never break through into the mass market.

But last year, everything changed. The third generation Kindle was one of the bestselling Christmas presents of 2010 and sales of ebooks began to affect the bestseller charts. Admittedly, this was largely driven by Amazon, who were keen to reduce their warehousing and postage costs by selling ebooks, but nobody could deny that the Kindle was changing the way people bought books.

I became increasingly obsessed by the Kindle and railed against it in various blog posts, but somebody saw straight through me and said that I was on the "verge of Kindledom".

Last week, I asked people to give me reasons for not buying a Kindle and received a number of interesting comments which helped me make up my mind. The following day, I ordered one:

These book titles are quite apposite and I like the "Welcome Philip" - everyone calls me Phil apart from Amazon and my mother. That's how it should be.

It took a while to get used to the light grey screen, but overall I like the Kindle. I had very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. As some people have said, it doesn't replace the printed page, but it does provide an interesting alternative.

I like the fact that I can order the new Henning Mankell - a book I will probably never read again - without having to go through the process of travelling to a bookshop or ordering a hardback, only to find a slip on my doormat saying that the parcel was too big for my letterbox. I also love Project Gutenberg, which enables me to download any one of thousands of classics in under a minute.

What I don't like about the Kindle is the conspicuous absence of most titles published between the 1940s (the threshold of copyright) and four years ago. These titles are all not available in Kindle format:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Great Railway Bazaar
The Songlines
Mr Norris Changes Trains
The Stone Diaries
Brightness Falls
The Slaves of Solitude
The Well of Loneliness
I Capture the Castle
The Dice Man
The Accidental Tourist
Things Fall Apart
The Female Eunuch
Moon Palace
The Bone People
Guns, Germs and Steel
Miss Smila's Feeling For Snow
The Tin Drum
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

I could go on.

Obviously these gaps will gradually be filled, but at the moment I'm impressed by how many books aren't available as downloads, in spite of the hyperbole. We could probably all live without The Bone People and The Dice Man, but Blindness? Come on Random House!

In spite of this, as a reader, I like the Kindle more than I thought I would. As a bookseller, I feel nervous. My project at work is going well and on its own merits, is pretty Kindle-proof, but it is completely dependent on a larger business that sells used paperbacks for a penny on Amazon marketplace. If they go under, so do I.

Last week was my best ever, but in spite of that, I could still be out of a job. I won't be taking out any loans for the time being.

It's hard to know what will happen, as the success of ebooks depends on a number of factors. If digital books become as easy to illegally download and share as MP3 files, then book trade as we know it may be largely finished, apart from niche areas like titles for young children. But on the other hand, people have a greater emotional attachment to books than they did to records, tapes and CDs, so the reading world may be more pluralistic.

I bought a Kindle for two reasons. First, I wanted to understand at first hand the phenomenon that is having such a large impact on the industry I work in. Second, I loved the Kindle's space-saving properties. My small, Victorian terraced house is slowly sinking under the weight of books, many of which I'll never read again. I don't need a hardback copy of the latest Henning Mankell. I'd rather save the shelf space for books that are particularly beautiful.

I know that some people may cry "Judas!", but I've tried to remain open minded and the pro-Kindle comments on this blog have been so eloquent and well-argued, I had to find out for myself.

Jonathan Main (aka Bookseller Crow) wrote this excellent article on the Kindle, arguing that "It is functional in the way that listening to Mozart on a transistor radio is convenient in the circumstances but ultimately completely unfullfilling". However, I think we have to separate the message from the medium. I was all geared-up to hate the Kindle, but was surprised to find that once I was immersed in the text, I forgot that I was even reading one.

Of course, when we enter the next dark age, all of our digitised culture will disappear in a puff of smoke and the Riddley Walkers of the future will be denied the pleasure of reading The Da Vinci Code.

Now there's a thought.

P.S - STOP PRESS - Visit Bookseller Crow's blog for this funny, poignant anecdote about the threat of ebooks.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bushes and Briars

What more could anyone want: Julie Christie, singing* a beautiful song that's at least 200 years old and Peter Finch proving that there's no fool like an old fool.

Oh, and isn't that Alan Bates on the flute?

*(Julie Christie was miming. The real singer was Isla Cameron)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Alice Havers

I've had very limited internet access recently, as my wife has been desperately trying to meet a deadline for some copy-editing work. Hopefully, she'll earn enough to pay for our next holiday in France, so I don't want to get in her way.

However, I managed to take advantage of a quiet moment to scan some images from a Victorian children's book from the 1880s:

This link contains a very brief biographical sketch about the illustrator, Alice Havers, who was a member of the Society of Lady Artists and exhibited her work at the Royal Academy.

The biographical sketch describes her pictures of children as "sentimental" and "pretty awful" and I can't say I passionately disagree, but there is something captivating about her idyllic, pastoral scenes. It isn't just the contrast these images strike with childhood today, but also the reality of the 1880s.

How many Victorian children lived like this:

Alice Mary Havers married the artist Frederick Morgan and they had three children. Sadly, she died in her 40th year, in 1890.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crime and Punishment

For the last two weeks my life has stopped. Reading, blogging and all forms of social interaction have taken second place to my obsession with a Danish television crime drama called 'Forbrydelsen' ('The Crime') which is being shown in the UK as 'The Killing'.

Apparently, the viewing figures on BBC Four are higher than Mad Men and as this Guardian link clearly shows, it has been a huge hit with the chattering classes. Cynics might sneer and say that the intelligensia will happily watch prime time television as long as it has subtitles, but 'Forbrydelsen' is a great work of drama on its own merits.

I've no doubt that part of the appeal is the Scandinavian crime factor - the snake in the Garden of Eden. Police procedurals tend to be less compelling in countries where corruption and violence are a normal part of everyday life. A Swedish-style detective mystery set in Bogota would be as incongruous as a steamy, Magical Realist novel set in Wallander's Skåne.

On the subject of books (he said, seamlessly moving from television to publishing), I have been following several developments in the book trade.

First, it looks as if the last major bookshop chain in Britain is about to have a change of ownership. HMV, who have owned Waterstone's for the last decade, have been in a state of decline for years. They failed to fully embrace the digital age and are now being punished for their lack of foresight. By the time they had a chief executive who understood the challenges posed by Amazon and illegal downloads, it was too late.

However, it has taken HMV a long time to swallow any humble pie. During the last few years, several 'entertainment' retailers have gone to the wall, including Woolworths, Virgin, Silver Screen, Tower Records and Fopp. Each time, HMV has increased its market share of these ever decreasing circles, giving City investors the impression that the senior management knew what they were doing. They didn't.

Sadly, for the last ten years, Waterstone's have been saddled with a management team who thought that the key to survival was to run the business on sound retail principals, tackling Amazon and the supermarkets head-on. This was a huge mistake, as Waterstone's competitors could always afford to take a bigger hit and reduce their prices even further.

I don't know if bookshop chains have any future. The last few months in Britain, Australia and the USA would suggest that the age of the high street bookseller is over. It's quite possible that the change in the way people buy books will make any high street bookselling chain untenable, but my gut feeling is that there are still enough people out there who want real books to make a small chain sustainable.

During the next few weeks, it's possible that Tim Waterstone will finally regain control of the chain that bears his name, helped by a 'sugar daddy' in the form of Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut. It might turn out to be a Faustian pact, but could it be any worse that being saddled to a sinking music chain?

Waterstone's isn't sustainable in it current incarnation - we don't need 300 branches. Interestingly, the original chain only had 36 shops, but the brand had such a good reputation that a succession of bookshop chains were 'rebadged' - Sherrat and Hughes, Dillons, Hatchards, Ottakar's and Books etc - a sort of retail homeopathy, where an increasingly diluted formula was expected to retain its original properties.

The second development that I've been following is the controversy over the selling of ebooks by the agency model. This is a very important issue that hasn't received the press coverage that it deserves, but luckily Sam Jordison has written a very succinct summary of the issues involved and the apparent collusion betwen the EU and Amazon.

You can find his article here.

Finally, I've been continuing to try and get my head around the Kindle phenomenon, separating the hype from the reality. Amazon are understandably promoting the Kindle at every available opportunity and I take their bestseller lists and positive customer reviews with a pinch of salt. But when regular visitors to this blog and colleagues at work start waxing lyrical about the Kindle, my resistance starts to weaken, in spite of this excellent article by Jonathan Main.

I still think that there are many good reasons to have reservations about the Kindle. I don't like the 'golden handcuffs' relationship with Amazon - I abandoned iTunes for the same reason. I've also noticed that a large number of really important backlist titles (for example, Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel) aren't available in Kindle format. So the jury's still out, but living in a small house with limted storage space, I am tempted.

Is there anyone out there who has a Kindle and hates it? Talk me out of buying one before it's too late. Please.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


My project at work seems to be going from strength to strength. I have a first-rate team working for me and every other week, sales reach an all-time high. Things have come a long way from two years ago, when I worked alone in a vast, empty, open-plan office, wondering if I'd ever be able to make a living out of the strange assortment of books and ephemera that arrived in the warehouse below.

But there is one threat to our growth: we are running out of space. If we can't double our inventory within the next six months, then the project will start to lose momentum and we may have to throw away perfectly good books to make room for the newer titles.

I've no doubt that someone thought that they were doing me a huge favour when they suggested that we move into this abandoned warehouse, only a minute's walk from my current office:

When I first saw this building, I thought I had entered a scene of post-apocalyptic desolation, reminiscent of the Tarkovsky film Stalker. The ground was littered with abandoned objects, giving the impression that its inhabitants had left in a hurry during an emergency:

It didn't get any better inside:

When I reached the top of the stairs, I was greeted by the sight of a dead pigeon:

I was told that the warehouse was "purpose built", but for what? Abducting and torturing political prisoners? The only thing missing was a bare lightbulb.

Back in the air-conditioned comfort of my office, I found these wonderful covers:

It's very rare to find an 80-year-old book with its original dustjacket. I don't know why people didn't hang on to them the way we do today, particularly when the cover design is as appealing as this, but I don't think that dustjackets were regarded as an integral part of the book (please feel free to correct me on this, as I'm only guessing).

I love the font of this prescient book, which was published in 1934.

This title was published in 1969 and the cover design's elegant, modernist simplicity is typical of textbooks from this period. I would have probably made the tree more abstract, as it looks a little incongruous, but I still like the cover.

I also admire the clear, understated design of this cover, published a couple of years after 'The Birth of Modern Ireland'.

But nobody could call this jacket design understated:

This absurb dustjacket design lays itself open to a number of interpretations. Judging by the look of horror on the young man's face, I can only assume that the monkey committed a faux pas when passing the port.

What will happen to book jackets in the age of the Kindle?

I seem to be ranting about the Kindle a lot at the moment and as Martin H so perceptively observed, this may be because I'm "teetering on the edge of Kindledom".

Friday, March 11, 2011

Eddie's Man Ray Moment...

Searching through the Eddie and Irene archive today, I found this extraordinary image:

Did Eddie have a Man Ray moment, or did he just forget to make sure that the sun was behind him? Either way, its a great photograph.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Off the Road

Two weeks ago, I was driving back from East Anglia in my dull, but dependable, Citroën Xsara Picasso, marvelling at the fact that it had never let me down in 81,000 miles. Like some arranged marriages, I initially had a strong feeling of revulsion when I bought it. It wasn't just the painfully slow acceleration, but also the strong smell of dog, which permeated every item of clothing I wore, however brief the journey.

But gradually the canine odours faded and I grew used to the car's stolid, philosophical nature. For this stage of my life - a father of two with an elderly mother - it ticked all of the boxes. The boot space was ample enough to smuggle a whole family through customs, whilst the seating was comfortable and spacious. I congratulated myself on my choice.

Almost as if in response to these fatuous thoughts, a warning light flashed on the dashboard and the car started to loose its power. Fortunately, the hills of Lewes loomed in the distance and I was able to freewheel downhill to a local garage, where I assumed that the car would be fixed and I'd be back on the road within 24 hours.

That was two weeks ago. During this time, the fault in my car has acquired the same mythical status as the Higgs Boson particle and I have begun to wonder if I will ever drive again.

In the meantime, I have been commuting to work by train. As the crow flies, it isn't a long journey, but the costs are double and it usually takes at least twice as long. How can we hope to lure people away from using cars under these conditions?

On a good day, my commute has been taking one hour and 40 minutes: one mile to Lewes station, a train journey involving a couple of changes, followed by another mile on foot. It would be tolerable if the line passed through spectacular scenery, but for most of the journey all I can see is badly-designed 20th century housing.

Even "funky", "happening" Brighton doesn't look that great at 6:55am:

The one positive is that I'm able to read, provided that nobody is disturbing me. Unfortnately I have a very poor attention span and will easily be distracted by mobile phones, attractive women, the number of abandoned footballs on the railway track, MP3 players and the headlines on someone else's newspaper. It takes me a long time to read a book.

To my great surprise, I haven't seen any Kindles yet. Perhaps my local railway line just isn't zeitgeisty enough, but after all the hype from Amazon I was expecting to come across at least one Kindle reader.

From a voyeuristic point of view, I love seeing what people are reading and don't look forward to the anonymity of the Kindle. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they dress, but it's their reading material that is most illuminating. When the soberly-dressed man sitting opposite me got out a Stephen Donaldson book, last week, I had a much clearer sense of who he was.

Sometimes people's reading choices are refreshingly unpredictble. I'll never forget the Mr T lookalike at Clapham Junction who was clutching a well-thumbed Catherine Cookson novel, or the "chavvy" girl with Elizabeth Duke jewelery and a Primark hoodie who was engrossed in W. G. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn'.

Books instantly change my perception of people. The rather gorgeous woman sitting opposite suddenly loses her allure when she produces a copy of a misery memoir, whilst the shallow-looking city worker instantly goes up in my estimation with his copy of Maupassant's 'Bel Ami'. In a world full of e-books, I'd be limited to judging people on appearances only (I know that there's another option - don't be so judgemental - but that would take all the fun out of travelling) .

However, it would be a relief to be able to read a trashy thriller without anyone knowing. I love the anonymity provided by MP3 players (if I appear to be close to tears when listening to a piece of music, you'll never know that I'm actually listening to 'Two Little Boys') and would be tempted to buy a Kindle for this reason alone.

In the meantime, if you're on a train from Brighton and see a man pretending to read a very erudite book about Islam or existentialism, but who is clearly more interested in the seagull standing on a nearby chimney pot, that'll be me.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Scenes From a Marriage

I've been working through a huge collection of photos and letters that appeared in my office a couple of weeks ago. So far, I haven't found anything amazing, but I have been touched by these photographs of a married couple:

These pictures of a couple, called Eddie and Irene, cover the best part of half a century. Their story is something of a mystery, but from the hundreds (literally) of photos I've seen, I think I would have liked to have met them.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Pulped Fiction

What do you do with old paperbacks that have no value?

We have thousands of trashy thrillers from the 1950s and 60s delivered every week. They've already failed to sell in charity shops and we're the last resort before the great pulping machine.

This wonderful website has found a very novel (no pun intended) use for old paperbacks:


You couldn't do this with a Kindle, could you?