Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Diary of a Madman


It stops a few days later. There is no name.

This is one of the saddest things I've found.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rubbed, Bumped and Cocked (A Post About Books*)

(*Apologies to all connoisseurs of pornography who have visited this site in error, thanks to the post's title)

I have now been self-employed for four months and seem to be settling into a routine that mirrors my old working life. I think I need the discpline of a self-imposed timetable, otherwise I'd just lie in bed looking at YouTube clips of chimpanzees playing the bassoon. Perhaps I'd start to smell too.

Every weekday, without fail, I'm out of the house by 9.00am and drive to my cowshed, listening to Radio Four podcasts. Yesterday I listened to one about the rise of megacities and how many of us secretly wished that most people would disappear, apart from our friends and loved ones. I concurred.

I rarely spend more than five minutes at the farm. The Steerforth Books cowshed is just a bare concrete shell and at this time of year, isn't the most inviting of environments. It is also surprisingly noisy, with a succession of tractors and lorries appearing at regular intervals.

I had planned to turn the farm unit into an office with two workstations, shelving for 6,000 books and a packing area. But at the moment, I just grab a few boxes of unsorted stock and take them back to the warmth and comfort of my home, where I can listen to music and make as many cups of tea as I like.

The first two hours of the day are spent valuing stock, identifying the small percentage of titles that are worth selling. Sometimes it can be quite soul-destroying to realise that books which seemed to have so much promise are utterly worthless, but at least I get to enjoy covers like this:

Shortly before lunchtime I pack the orders and take them to be posted. People often complain about post office staff, but the employees of the Lewes branch deserve a medal for their unceasing courtesy and professionalism, in the face of unremitting tedium. I'm sure their hearts sink when I walk in the door with a bag full of parcels, but they never let on.

After lunch I begin logging the valuable books, adding them to the sales inventory. Each title requires a full description of the book's condition, listing every fault. Phrases like 'cocked binding', 'bumped corners' and 'light rubbing' are part of my small lexicion of bibliographical terms. I avoid acronyms or excessive jargon.

There is a repetitive, machine-like quality to the work and I know that it drives some people mad, but the reward is the ever changing selection of books, many of which are unintentionally amusing:

'Staring at her offensively were several villagers'

'Where did you get this pass from, Missy?'

"Pull, Jill, pull" cried Laura, exerting all her strength

"And if anyone asks what we're doing, tell them you dropped half a crown down your dress and I'm helping you find it"

'Sheelagh bore the new girl off in triumph'
(clearly unperturbed by the fact that she was an identical clone of 'Sheelagh')

"Gosh, after all that fresh air I can't wait until we get to Radclyffe Hall!"

"One of these is a genuine Louis Vuitton, the other's from Primark. Can you tell them apart?"

Obviously I made some of these up (and refrained from publishing the ruder ones), but the original captions often contain unintended double entendres and there's something poignant about their innocence. Today, the small white object in the policeman's hand would be a sachet of cocaine or a cloned credit card.

Finally, a superb dustjacket for a novel by a writer who was, to George Orwell's dismay, one of the most popular authors of her day:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Love in a Cold Climate

Only three months ago, I was reading about the gulags in 'Life and Fate', thinking how awful it would be to do hard labour in sub-zero temperatures. Now, by some cruel twist of fate, I'm doing exactly that. If Solzhenitsyn was still alive, I'd feel that I could look him in the eye.

Admitedly I'm not a political prisoner, there are no armed guards waiting to shoot me if I try to leave and I'm not mining uranium with my bare hands, so the analogy doesn't quite hold up. But it has been very cold.

However, it will have all been worthwhile if I can find some decent books. For the time being, here are some indecent ones that I found today:

"Underneath their uniforms, they were simply girls - warm, soft, yielding creatures who lived fast and loved too recklessly..."

From the 'Five Miles High' club to the '500 Miles High' version:

"She's young, she's lovely - she's an astronaut! And she's been assigned a dangerous mission: to discover the whereabouts of four missing male astronauts who had preceded her to the moon."

If this was the 1970s, I could make a link using the words 'moon' and 'heavenly bodies':

"Laura was the kind of woman that every man wanted to undress - but she never gave them the chance - she did it herself!"

This nonsense all stopped in the early 80s. Was it just AIDS that made promiscuity less appealing or were there other factors too, like the demise of modernism, the growing realisation that sexual liberation had been rather one-sided and the increasing demand for equal opportunities? Also, what part did technology play - first the video recorder, then the internet - in putting an end to 'sauce' and 'titilation'?

Oddly enough, I don't find the images themselves that dated. Look at the video of Pixie Lott's 'What Do You Take Me For?' and it's as if the 1980s never happened. What really dates these books are the hilarious blurbs, with their "warm, soft, yielding creatures..."

It all seems a world away from this:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Austerity and Atonement

Several people have kindly emailed me recently, asking how they can find Steerforth Books. The answer is, I'm afraid,with great difficulty. At the moment I operate almost by stealth, selling books in the dark corners of the internet, like a 1940s black marketeer (but all above board, I hasten to add).

As for the actual home of Steerforth Books, it's a small dot in the middle of this photograph:

I'm tempted to do a sort of 'spot-the-ball' competition, but I'm not quite sure where I am. Wherever it is, it's too far from my house, but at least the journey takes me through some beautiful countryside.

Yesterday, on the way home, I turned off down a small lane and ended up here:

The atmospheric mist is actually a bonfire - just out of the picture a man, who looked as if he'd escaped from the 14th century, was burning leaves. I smiled at him. He snarled back.

Driving through Sussex, you can travel through time as well as space. The main roads inhabit a world of wi-fi, retail parks and smoothies, but take a B road and you suddenly find yourself among the ghosts of other Englands: medieval, Georgian, Victorian and early 20th century, where woodsmoke rises from the chimneys of solitary cottages and death watch beetles rattle in ancient beams (I originally wrote 'death watch beatles', which would be a good name for a geriatric tribute act).

Sometimes I dream of being in one of those lonely buildings, with a fruit and vegetable garden, some chickens and a shed for my books. However, I would miss being in a town, particularly Lewes. I love the feeling of being connected, looking out at the roofs of my neighbours' houses at twilight and listening to the footsteps of people coming home from work.

But to return to Steerforth Books, I feel quietly optimistic about the business. The sales are growing steadily every week and, by Easter, I think I'll have reached a level where the profits provide a reasonable income.

In the meantime, Mrs Steerforth and I have adopted austerity measures. Trips to Waitrose are out and I have made a solemn promise not to do any internet shopping under the influence of alcohol (although I don't regret buying the meteorite).

On the subject of alcohol, we have both decided to cut out drinking during the week. Sharing a bottle of wine in the evening had become a habit. It felt like a reward for the challenges we had faced during the day. But, aside from the health risks, when I worked out how much we were spending I realised that it would pay for a holiday.

Mrs Steerforth was particularly keen to cut down on wine after disgracing herself at a party on New Year's Eve, when she became more drunk than I have ever seen her.

Ironically, only hours earlier, she had published an article about the secrets of avoiding a hangover on New Year's Day.

Quite how Mrs Steerforth failed to follow her own advice is a mystery, but she was one of many people who have fallen victim to our neighbours' generosity with alcohol. She has no memory of jumping up and down to 'Born Slippy' or trying to read a bedtime story to our sons at 12.30am before sliding down the stairs.

But the true moment of horror came the following morning, when my wife couldn't find the underwear she'd been wearing the night before. The expression on her face when I suggested it might be next door was priceless (as was the look of relief when I later told her that it was actually in our bathroom).

Since then, Mrs Steerforth has been drinking elderflower juice by the gallon, determined to atone for her transgression.

2012 is going to be a year of sobriety and hard work. The next few months are going to be particularly exhausting for me, but it will hopefully all be worthwhile in the end. On the plus side, I should soon have a new range of book covers and ephemera to share - this blog hasn't been the same without them.

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Message to the Future

I've resisted trying to do anything clever with the layout of this blog during the last five years, but this evening I thought I'd have a look at some of the new features in Blogger.

That was a big mistake.

In a matter of seconds, I managed to ruin the layout and lose both my links and Bravenet counter stats. I am now working on restoring the blog to its former 2006-style glory, but in the meantime, here is a message to the future from Bertrand Russell:

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.