Monday, January 02, 2012

Last Year in the Book Trade

As far as the book trade is concerned, I think most people would agree that it was the year of the Kindle, with over a million sold per week in December. HarperCollins alone sold 100,000 ebooks on Christmas Day.

This time last year I was firmly in the anti-Kindle camp and wrote several posts extolling the virtues of the printed page over the soulless, grey world of ebooks. But I protested too much and one blogger very astutely commented that I was actually "on the verge of Kindledom".

I finally gave in during March, swayed by the comments made by fellow bloggers and I have to say, I love my Kindle. It's convenient (my nearest proper bookshop is eight miles away), doesn't clutter up my shelves with books I'll never read again and gives me the chance the try sample chapters before I commit to buying the books.

But there's a dark side to all of this. The Kindle also threatens many booksellers with extinction and could make it harder for authors to earn a living wage from their writing, so I'm in the process of rethinking how I buy books. Particularly after this Facebook discussion that took place a couple of days ago (I won't name the author, as she hasn't given me permission to quote):

Reader 1 -Also love my Kindle and am a sucker for an amazon bargain (sorry). Can't beat the personal service of the 7s bookshop though... Is the publishing world doing anything to support authors? Surely no incentive to write (and I'm aware noone is in it for the money) means no wares to sell?

Author - @Reader 1 - 'Is the publishing world doing anything to support authors?' There is a short answer to this. No. Having been an author for ten years and knowing that my books have been appreciated by thousands I am now forced to consider writing a hobby as I could earn more working on a supermarket check out or sweeping the streets. x

Reader 2 -
I'm buying ebooks for an average of £5 each. How much of this is going to the author?

Author -
@Reader 2 - this is a good question. For the two of my books that have earned out the advance - if you buy it for £5 I believe I may get as much as about 0.20p (but I have to check this) For the two that have not earned out the advance I get nothing. For the 0.99p purchace of Steve's above the author may - if they are lucky and have earned out - get about 0.5p. But I may be exaggerating the payment to the author wildly here. I always encourage my readers to buy their books from bookshops to keep the bookshops open.

Reader 2 - I'm really shocked. I was always under the impression that authors received 10% of the rrp, with the burden of any discounts shouldered by the publisher and retailer. What's the best thing we can do to support writers?

Author -
@Reader 2 - no the author gets 10% of whatever the book is sold at... after (and if) the advance is earned out (and it's only earned out by a payment at 10 % of whatever the book is sold at) and then after that the agent takes 15% so if people like Steve buy books at 0.99p ... The best thing you can do to support an author is to buy the book from a bookshop at the price that is on the cover. Likewise on Kindle if you pay full price for the download then the author may eventually get a small payment.

The controversy over the 'agency model' (and you can read a full explanation here if you're interested) will continue to rage in 2012. Like a lot of readers, I like cheap books, but not at the authors' expense.

The other big event of 2011 was the rescue of Waterstone's from the edge of oblivion. For people outside the UK, I should explain that it's Britain's largest specialist chain bookseller and for ten years, was run by a succession of 'retailers' (i.e. people who thought that selling books was no different from selling shoes or CDs) who almost destroyed the business. Waterstone's is now in private ownership, freed from the tyranny of short-termism, with a real bookseller at the helm for the first time in years.

However, although things are now looking more positive, I can't help feeling that it's still too late for Waterstone's and that MD James Daunt is merely a Alexander Kerensky/Shapour Bakhtiar figure, unable to stop the tide of history. I may be wrong. Perhaps James Daunt can cure Waterstone's, but I suspect that palliative care is the most he can provide.

As for the literary highlights of 2011, I'll leave that to the many other bloggers - John Self, Gaskella and company - who are highly accomplished book reviewers. However, I will mention one first novel which, I felt, didn't receive the press attention it deserved - 'Wall of Days' by Alastair Bruce -in spite of being picked by Amazon in its 'Rising Stars' promotion.

If I try to explain the plot I might put you off, so it's probably better to simply include this link to the first few pages. If you like bald, understated prose, like Cormac McCarthy or M. J. Hyland, where devastating truths are hidden beneath mundane recollections, then I can highly recommend this magical novel.

Another reason why Wall of Days struck a chord is that for several years, I'd had a novel brewing in my head that had a very similar beginning. As soon as I began reading the first page, I felt a huge sense of relief that someone had written the novel for me and done a much better job of it. I can now hit the pillow without any more recurring images of grey skies and tussock grass.

Finally, I must mention one other book: Vasily Grossman's 'Life and Fate', which is belatedly being acknowledged as one of the great novels of the 20th century, comparable to War and Peace in its scope and ambition. Although the English translation appeared a few years ago, it wasn't until 2011 that Grossman's epic began to receive the recognition it deserved.

It took me over a month to read Life and Fate, but I would happily read it all over again tomorrow.

Finally, I'd like to wish anyone who reads 'the Age of Uncertainty' a Happy New Year. After a number of challenges and upheavals last year, the blog began to run out of steam towards the end of the year, as I was exhausted by family difficulties and preoccupied with setting up my own bookselling business.

Perhaps, after five years, this blog has reached a natural end. But it's possible that once I have new sources of stock, there will be other stories to tell. I really enjoy sharing the strange fragments of lost lives that seem to come my way and hope that there will be more to come.

We shall see.

29 comments:

JRSM said...

Please don't let the blog go! Even if you can't post so often, your observations and photos are always very welcome. A happy new year to you, and all the best with Steerforth Books.

Martin said...

Did you see Books: the last chapter? It was worth watching. Not sure if it's still available on iPlayer.

I also had strong feelings about winding my blog up, but one reader told me I'm not allowed to ride off into the sunset. I would urge you to carry on with your excellent blog. We're happy to read your posts, as and when they appear.

Happy New Year, Steerforth.

zmkc said...

I don't want to put you under any further pressure, but I would be sad if your blog ran out of steam - perhaps you need make no definitive statement but simply file as rarely as you like (hope to hear from you next New Year?) I can't imagine ever switching entirely to e-books, but I think the person I heard on the radio a few months back who said that the book and the e-book can co-exist in the same way motorcars and bicycles do, may be right: ebooks are useful for travelling but otherwise real books are infinitely better for all sorts of reasons (not least the fact that they don't need to be plugged in, can be read in the bath and even dropped in the bath without being completely utterly ruined). Hope 2012 brings you and your family all that you hope for - and some good things you haven't even dreamt of yet.

Grey Area said...

yes - but.... 100,000 books were sold on Xmas day alone.... isn't that a good thing? In my industry they have been debating 'the death of print' for 2 decades - but really, it's just an evolution - and print will always be with us - if anything, it's more precious and has a higher value now that since it's first general commercial availability. Now that there are so few booksellers - don't they have a monopoly and greater cachet?

Have a break, a change of scene - and keep blogging... please!

( Verification word... 'nonced' - I kid you not!)

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year to you too Steerforth, I have enjoyed your blog for some time and hope it continues. On the subject of Waterstones, if New Years Day in Brighton is anything to go by it doesn't look good. Mounds of unsold cookery books etc at half price and the shop almost empty, Natalie

Mrs Jones said...

I, for one, have very much enjoyed reading your blog so would be sad to see it go but as I'm not terribly good at keeping mine going I understand the lack of ideas, motivation and, indeed, time that can hobble you. So if we don't hear from you again, can I just thank you, at least, for bringing Derek into our lives, and for reintroducing me to the Bearded Lady of Guildford.

Little Nell said...

No need for us all to say ‘Please stay’ but I expect we will. Whether writing about the book trade or family issues, your blog never fails to interest and intrigue. I never skim over your posts because I’m afraid of missing something; that must say something! Good Luck for 2012.

James Russell said...

It is not enough for a writer to create a book, find a publisher and leave the rest to them. It never has been enough, and with deep discounting even good writers struggle. Your 'author' is spot on when they talk about percentages; every time we buy a book cheap, we are depriving the author of their livelihood.

The remedies are fairly brutal. Either abandon your publisher and agent, and self-publish ebooks instead, or sell a lot more books. If your 'author' can sell thousands, they can probably sell tens of thousands. But the publisher isn't going to do the work.

You might want to read my post on independent bookshops, which covers some similar ground...

http://bit.ly/ttwBCW

LUCEWOMAN said...

This post, and Richard's at grey area today, got me thinking about how very possessive we have become. Though a kindle 'book' may be cheaper, who will share it? And by share, even looking at the cover of a fellow passenger on the train's book is 'sharing' in a way.
Books becoming so disposable is sad, on the other hand, so many more people are reading because they love gadgets. And, I've never met so many 'authors' as I have since the dawn of the kindle and rising popularity of sites like LuLu.
It seems books are following a similar fate as CD's. The outcome is great for the true 'artist' types, great for the big-hitting writers with huge marketing teams behind them, and dire for the millions of excellent writers in between.

I won't be selfish and beg you to keep Blogging, blogs are only good when they are written because someone WANTS to share a picture/story or whatever. Having said that, I would definitely miss your blog if you left it to go yellow and damp, like so many good books!

Lucy

Biscuit said...

I own a Kindle and love it, as I take a crowded subway and streetcar to work most days. As I explain patiently at least once a day, it doesn't stop me from buying hard-copy books, nor has it caused me to throw away my (many, many, augh so many) shelves'/decades' worth of the printed word. It's just another delivery mechanism, and really I'm rather baffled by those who think of it as an either/or situation - "I like real books, me!" Well, I like real books too! I just like one more format of them, that's all.

(And really, Steerforth, with all the cajoling it took to get you back it behooves you to stick around a while to keep us from grumbling too much.)

Steerforth said...

Thank you all for the vote of confidence. I'll certainly try to continue blogging, as I enjoy bouncing ideas off other people. Some of my best experiences over the last few years have been thanks to the suggestions and advice of fellow bloggers (e.g. JRSM introducing me to John Christopher). Only yesterday, Mrs Steerforth and I were having tea with the 'Poet Laura-eate'.

And my book business would still be struggling if it hadn't received a shot in the arm from one of my favourite bloggers.

I'd certainly miss the blogosphere.

Martin - No, I didn't see it, but I wish that I'd read the interviews before I read this post. It was fascinating stuff and I'd recommend the link to anyone who's interested in the advent of digital books.

zmkc - I agree - ebooks and printed titles can surely coexist in the same way that paperbacks and hardbacks have. I hope there'll always be a demand for a beautifully-produced 'real' book, but I don't have a sentimental attachment to airport paperbacks. Why waste trees on the likes of Dan Brown?

Richard - That's what I hope too. On a personal level, my book collection has always been dominated by paperbacks, but now that I have a Kindle, the print books I buy are all high quality hardbacks. The future of the printed book with be one of quality rather than quantity, which is no bad thing. Re: HarperCollins - yes, the important thing is that so many people are reading.

Natalie - I'm sorry to hear about the Brighton branch of Waterstone's. I've gave the manager there her first job in bookselling and sometimes wonder if I did her any favours! Luckily we're still friends.

Mrs Jones - I think I have one last installment of Derek's diaries in the pipeline.

Little Nell - Thank you, and please post some more pictures of Lanzarote so that I can enjoy it vicariously.

James - I'd already read your post and made a mental note to visit the Norrington Room. That fact that bookshops like Topping's and Much Ado clearly shows that this is the way ahead for booksellers. I tried to do something on a more modest scale when I ran a branch of Ottakar's, exhibiting works by local artists, putting on plays etc. When we were taken over by HMV/Waterstone's, all of my individual touches were painted over and stamped out. It was heartbreaking.

By the way - I shall make sure that I buy your books from a proper bookseller!

Lucy - I agree about sharing books and I love seeing what people read on the train, particularly when it's something completely unpredictable, like the Mr T lookalike I saw who was reading Catherine Cookson! I also notice that people's attractiveness changes completely (for me at least) according to what they read.

Biscuit - The Kindle's perfect for commuting isn't it, and there's no longer the anxiety of finishing a book before your journey's over. I just don't like the idea that by buying ebooks, I'm helping to make life harder for authors.

I don't know what the answer is. If ebooks become to expensive, they will be pirated in the same way that music and films have been.

I suppose authors could sell directly to the public, but as the Random House CEO points out in the piece that Martin has linked to, we need publishers to sift through the thousands of books that are written every year and identify the ones that are worth reading.

I shall have to do some more research.

Steerforth said...

Re: my response to James, above, I was clearly having a brainstorm.

It should read: "The fact that bookshops like Topping's and Much Ado are thriving clearly shows..."

Canadian Chickadee said...

I can certainly sympathise with you if you feel enough is enough. But I for one will miss reading your witty and interesting posts.

Whatever you decide, good luck with the new venture. May you realise every success.

Happy New Year to you too, Steerforth!

Canadian Chickadee

Genius Loci said...

Late for work (shame) but I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your writing. If you do decide to stop, then I know you know that you've made a massive contribution to people's lives already, through the Age of Uncertainty.

If you carry on, then that will be blooming wonderful!

I definitely recommend you take up fishing, like I think you said you wanted to before. And read a book called The Deepening Pool by Chris Yates. You'll never stop writing then!

Regards,

Ben

Ms Baroque said...

Ooh, Steerforth - I was alarmed until I read your reply in the comments. Very glad you've got more Derek up your sleeve.

I've been finding it hard lately, too - other concerns are so pressing now, it's headspace as much as anything - but I think you'll find that the blog will be a help to your new business.

In fact, only the other day I was wishing you had a subscribe button!

Richmonde said...

Please don't give up your blog - you are funny and have valuable insights and observations. Happy New Year!

Steerforth said...

I'm blushing now.

Canadian Chickadee - Happy New Year to you too and thanks for all of your comments, which helped to light up the darker moments of last year.

Genius - That's very kind of you to say so. Re: fishing - this may sound stupid, but what's the best way to start? I'm a complete novice.

Ms Baroque - How do I get a subscribe button? I'm hopelessly inept at promoting this blog and on the few occasions when a post has 'gone viral', I've never known what to do. At the moment I'm like Radio Three - a small audience, but one that consists of the best people.

Richmonde - I'm not planning to stop blogging, but in a crisis of confidence, I wondered if I was flogging a dead horse. We'll see.

Genius Loci said...

Best way to start fishing is to read The Deepening Pool. Trout Bum by John Gierach will also inspire you. A philosopher in the Rocky Mountains, who writes about his friends and his log cabin. Trout streams and camp coffee. And he writes like Hemmingway, only better.

Once you've read them, you'll just do what you have to! No boring technical stuff with either of them, just pure poetry.

Ms Baroque said...

Hey, a copywriting blogger friend of mine wrote a post the other day that might resonate with you - it was about writing not just for the sake of it but when you have time and something to write about.

He's talking about that sector, of course, but it's the same thing. He says, better to go do the actual work so you have something to write about. Well, these are times when a few people's blogs are slipping a bit, mine included, because we're just so busy doing the real world. We have to be.

I think if you just went into your widgets, or gadgets, or whatever the blogger thing is for your sidebar, you can put a 'subscribe by email' button on your sidebar. Then we could all get an email when you DO write a post, so that even if they;re further apart we won't miss them!

And frankly, you know, even your posts about starting your business and braving it out have been really encouraging to me recently.

so the horse is not dead, it just maybe needs some space...

George H. said...

My occasional companion and I have a deal: we don't see each other unless we are looking forward to it. Might use the same philosophy about writing this excellent blog.

Suze said...

Steerforth, you'll forgive me. I haven't read this post but just wanted to pop over to communicate something.

Saw a post with 'Stairway to Lenin' in the title, recently. Thought your 'chair way' was far more clever.

Happy new year,
-Suze

gaskella said...

Steerforth - thank you so much for your link. As a reader who blogs, I may scribble enthusiastically about a lot of books, but my writing about them is but a mere bagatelle (or something) compared with your musings. I read Wall of Days and enjoyed it very much, finding it strangely beautiful despite its undercurrents of violence. A novel of hidden depths, as they say, said she descending into cliche.

flyingscribbler said...

I'm sure I remember the old Brighton Waterstone's (when I first moved south) used to have tottering piles of books placed on the floor, with bookish-looking staff all over the place hand-writing advice and reviews. I loved it. Are these days gone? I might be aiding the demise with my new (un-asked for) Kindle, but I too have found a use for it and it won't stop me buying books from the indie book shop in Lewes.
Oh, and I'm with Ms Baroque: get thee a subscribe button. And keep posting.

Michelle Trusttum said...

Write when you can. It is worth the wait.

Steerforth said...

Genius - I'll have a go, although I won't need much arm-twisting. Ever since I was a boy, I've envied those contented-looking men who sit silently on river banks.

Ms Baroque - I'll see if I can add some widgets. I did try once, but if anything takes longer than five seconds I start to overheat (which is why I never send text messages).

George - I think you've hit the nail on the head.

Suze - It's just as well I was going somewhere that rhymed with Heaven (I know one small boy who is convinced that when people die, they go to Devon).

Gaskella - Yes, strangely beautiful is exactly how I'd describe the book.

Flyingscribbler - The Brighton branch of Waterstone's remained defiantly bookish, despite the best efforts of the senior management, thanks to some brilliant staff and some of the best customers you could possibly want. How many bookshops could get away with devoting a whole table to fiction in translation (and I'm talking Dedalus, not Stieg Larsson)? The shop had a brilliant manager for years and luckily, her successor has been equally wonderful.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Michelle - I was thinking about you when I heard about the latest earthquake in Canterbury. I trust you're all okay and I hope you have a geologically stable 2012.

Suze said...

Never been to either heaven or Devon.

Seems you've decided to continue hanging about the blogosphere. I'm debating stepping away from the Internet, entirely -- and here's my reasoning.

The Internet chases away boredom but it does so, often, in what amounts to dissipation. Boredom used to pose some utility -- that of making you uncomfortable enough to seek relief in novel ways. The Internet is often one of two things, an opiate or an agitator -- depending on who you meet and from whom you steer clear.

Anyway, I hadn't 'surfed' blogs in a week -- seems so blasted long in this compressed experience in which our wetware has become acclimated to a constant stream of titillation stripped almost entirely of substance -- and I thought to come back here to see about the ways of chairs and their eternal resting places.

From a book I read once and loved:

'It wasn't a pretty house by the standards of those I'd seen from the bus and taxi, being built of dark grey stone with the matching slate roof, almost cubic in shape with plain windows and no adornments of any kind, but the view beyond it was gorgeous: a broad rippling river with reeds showing through at places that must have been shallow, and beyond it gently rolling hills on which cows were grazing, just like a picture on a carton of Devon custard.'
(Sue Haasler)

I'm on some sort of meandering thoughtroll, here (a bit like a jelly roll but 86 the jelly. Hey, wasn't there a jazz musician called Jelly Roll Morton? I'm reminded of a cartoon I got a bang out of as a child in which a little owl sang an Al Jolson song. 'I love to sing-a ... about the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a ... I love to sing-a.' I may have to try and locate the snippet on youtube.)

I'll just stop, here.

Steerforth said...

The internet is a terrible opiate and I waste far too much time on it. I don't blame you for going offline for a week.

However, I've had far too many positive experiences - particularly as a result of this blog - to contemplate such an extreme measure.

Suze said...

Simply put, you're right. I have, too. But there's (been, for some time) a conflict regarding being online within that I don't think will go away with just a week's respite.

I kind of wish I could erase the nonsense about Al Jolson -- and maybe that's part of what bothers me about being online. Ephemeral conversations, ones in which we're tempted to engage when there's nothing but lamplight and laptops over blankets and quiet in the house, get impressed on a public forum which only feels secure. But really it isn't.

I know that generations coming of age in this enormous metabrain milieu may not have a frame of reference for a less exposed, more modest experience of connectedness.

Anyway, may your blog continue to serve up many positive encounters. And may all your endeavours to branch out to try new things to look after yourself and your family be met with success. I would say 'unqualified' success, but we all need a little trouble to shake us out of a dangerous complacency.

Maybe. Or maybe you've had enough shaking and could now use unmitigated success.

May all you need be yours.