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.


Helen Brocklebank said...

I love The Killing- can't wait for next Saturday's denouement.
I don't have a kindle, but I do have the kindle app (free) on iPhone, which is completely marvellous. I've completely run out of bookshelves, and once bought I find it really hard to get rid of a book, so it's good from a storage point of view. But I tend to save the kindle for 'reading books'-wallander, for example, rather than something like Barbara Pym which I might want to read again. I like the iPhone kindle because it means I can surreptitiously read late into the night, long after the lights are out, without Mr Trefusis bellyaching about it being time for sleep.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Kindles are too vulgar for words.

They could give them away with boxes of cornflakes and I wouldn't want one.

spotsoftime said...

I ended up with a kindle by accident and have to say I am underwhelmed. I liked the idea of it but in practise haven't really used it. It will be good for travelling but I feel a bit self conscious carrying it round with me on a day to day basis and just take a book in my bag. I much prefer proper books. I find the flash of the turning page a bit annoying and in the back of my mind am always thinking that when it breaks down those books will just be lost unless I buy another or read the book on my computer (very unlikely). Another thought is that, as someone whose husband has recently died, all the playstation games/ iphone apps and itunes stuff that he bought has also gone. His audible account audiobooks I can still access but now Audible has been bought by Amazon I don't know whether they will always be transferrable. His books are still in the house, to share with friends and families and I like the fact that the rooms in our house are testimony to our wide and varied reading tastes. I like the idea that my daughters can go to the bookshelves and browse and borrow and maybe study the same books I studied - not really the same as flicking through a list on a screen. I say spend the money on lots more lovely books!

Friko said...

The Killing is fantastic, but then this household belongs to the group you mention as being particularly susceptible to sub-titled drama.

As for buying a Kindle, I want it to be a good idea; when reading ordinary print becomes difficult, a Kindle sounds just the ticket. Don't, for heaven's sake, talk to me about big print books. Or audio books.

Anonymous said...

Just don't buy one. If outreaching for several months in a desert somewhere, maybe.

The book I'm reading at the moment, 'The Emigrants,' is not available in this format. Buying one of these things just allows you to become corralled. We have limited space and just cull books periodically.

zmkc said...

I don't like the golden handcuffs aspect of Kindle or I-tunes et cetera either. The Sony e-reader is, according to other people I know who share that view, a good substitute, if you're going down the electronic book route. Apparently it is incredibly easy to use and there are huge numbers of out-of-print books available for free et cetera et cetera. (The Killing is great, but I can't understand how, after watching the entire series, I have picked up not a word of Danish).

magiciansgirl said...

It's not quite the same thing, but you can download (for free) the Kindle software for your laptop/PC/netbook/iTouch/iPad, and read books on those devices. It's not my preferred way of reading, but I've found that Kindle on my iTouch is actually ok. I travel for work and I usually like to take a few books, so this allows me to take one 'regular' book and a couple of downloaded books with me. Also, I don't have to lug heavy travel guides around - I can download them or just buy an app (TimeOut guide apps are only about $2 as opposed to $15 for the latest edition.) with maps that work off line. There are many books available for free (the usual classics) so if you need to read Great Expectations immediately and you don't own it, you can download it in about 30 seconds. That being said, I don't think I'll give up on the old fashioned book any time soon, even though at about 1500 & counting I'll probably be found buried under my library some day. Which is fine, as long as I get to read all the books first. kim

Anonymous said...

Today one of the piles of books which totter next to the bookcases (which are full) fell on me as I was trying to add to it. If it had been a pile of Kindles, at least one of them would have broken. All the books are fine. Case closed

Lucille said...

My husband bought one. I can't bear the click each page turn makes. Why did that have to be audible? Big mistake. I won't have one, I love covers too much.

Martin said...

I'm hoping that the Killing will get a re-run. I'm sure it will.

As for the Kindle and the golden handcuffs relationship with Amazon, well, I don't buy books in Kindle format. If I'm paying money, I want that book on the shelf. However, outfits like Many Books and Project Gutenberg offer a wealth of copyright-free reading material for no money. My conclusion - If you're buying, get it in print. If you're looking to stock up with some free Flaubert or some buckshee Brontë, Kindle is ideal.

I have never bought music from iTunes, either. I listen, gratis, at or via Spotify.

elliot said...

I bought a Kindle, but had, and still have, no intention of using it to completely replace paper books. My reason for buying one was to get hold of the many, many excellent obscure, out of print, out of copyright works which exist on and similar sites. The works there are freely available and replaceable (e.g. if your Kindle was lost) without cost.

I've recently been visiting the "pre-history" of fantasy and science fiction, and have found around 130 important titles in that category alone (H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Lord Dunsany, Chesterton, Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs etc.), legally available for free.

I dislike the idea of DRM-laden books, and am bemused by the fact that ebooks usually cost _at least_ as much as the paper copy (sometimes more). But as a platform for reading free books, the Kindle can't be beaten, in my opinion.

By the way, the screen is of excellent quality, and reading from it is as close as you'll get, on a computer, to reading from paper. I find I can read _faster_ on a Kindle, as I can adjust the text size and spacing to suit me perfectly.

I should also mention that you can occasionally find unusual books on sale in the Kindle store at 72p, which might otherwise be difficult to get hold of. In that case, I do fold to temptation and buy them.

I disagree with the Kindle being "vulgar" (they are only as vulgar as a microfiche or electronic archive, both of which probably exist in the Bodleian, that temple of vulgarity). Also note that I have vast quantities of paper books, which are my most treasured possessions, and will never be replaced by anything electronic.

lucy joy said...

I purchased a Kindle for my dad's 60th birthday last September . Initially, he was sceptical, then he marvelled at it, now it just comes out for occasional use (probably to make me feel better). Dad devours books at an incredible rate, and finds the library the only place to conveniently and economically satiate his appetite.

Steerforth said...

Thank you all for your comments. I have a much clearer idea now of the pros and cons.

The idea of becoming fully digitised does scare me - the recent events in Japan show how fragile our infrastructure can be and I don't like the idea of leaving future generations useless lumps of plastic.

On the other hand, I'm very attracted to the prospect of having free access to so many out of copyright titles. And I really need to free-up some space (I've already culled most of the books I want to get rid of).

As several people have pointed out, it's not a case of 'either or'. We can read in both formats, choosing paper for the books we really care about and e-readers for the less important or purely functional ones.

I've read that paperbacks were received with great hostility in some quarters when they first appeared and remember older customers in Richmond who, decades later, still wouldn't be seen dead with one.

I think I'll probably end up getting a Kindle for travel and free downloads, but the books I really care about will continue to be be paper ones.

Shelley said...

Don't buy one for yourself, but buy it for someone who is visually impaired: many books are "voice enabled."

I too dislike the corporate connetion with Amazon, but e-readers could be a blessing for macular degeneration.

Blazing Modesty said...

I am also loving the Killing, but no spoilers please, I'm catching up on iplayer.

I quite like the Sony readers, and I'm a little bit tempted, but I lose things. A paperback doesn't matter, a reader probably does. Also one of the reason I have books is to lend them to people. You can't do that with a screen.

Who'd have thought 'Kindle' would catch on as a name though?

After reading your blog I am brushing up on my Russian in case I get a senior visit...

Steerforth said...

Yes, Ms Modesty - make sure that Tolstoy and Bulgakov are face out!

Actually, I can think of worse outcomes than being owned as a vanity project by a billionaire in search of intellectual credibility. Loss-making branches would probably be safer under his ownership.

I'd love to see Tim back in the driving seat. I only worked for him briefly - less than a year - but he was an inspirational figure who was genuinely passionate about books.

Whether he could save Waterstone's is another matter, but I'd fancy his chances more than HMV.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link!

Meanwhile, I have mixed feelings about the demise of Waterstones. It's dreadful in all sorts of ways... But I do wonder if a few good bookshops might replace them on the high street. Independent ones with control of their own stock... (Or maybe waterstones running on the original model. Rather than the one you so expertly show to be unfit for purpose in this article.)

Jim Murdoch said...

My wife and I have been thoroughly enjoying The Killing. A nice replacement for Wallander. I hope there is more out there. This is what BBC4 should be doing and on the whole I’m quite pleased with what the channel has been broadcasting.

Fopp still exists in Glasgow by the way although the Clydebank branch has closed.

I have a Kindle. I don’t hate it but it is a very limited machine. I’m sure if you use it exactly as Amazon intend and only read novels bought from them it will do just fine but the first thing I started doing was importing PDFs and converting my own novels and that’s when you encounter problems. Much of my fifth novel is written as chat and you would have thought that a chat log wasn’t going to stretch it but it can’t cope with hanging indents properly, tabs or tables. I finally managed to get the thing to upload a PDF but only after I’d saved it with a huge font so that the entire page displayed within the borders of the screen. Hard work and there’s no way I could release the book commercially looking like that. I’m not sure what I’m going to do frankly.

I had a Rocket eBook about ten years ago and I don’t see the Kindle as being much better than it was. In fact I miss the backlight and the stylus. The search feature is adequate but it only works once the book has been indexed and that takes time after it’s been uploaded. I was importing textbooks and wanting to search them there and then and had to wait all night for the damn machine to let me search. Not happy with that. The notes option is also okay until you have a load of them and then you start to realise how poor the controls are.

But like I said, just to import a bog standard novel and read it from cover to cover it’s fine. If you don’t need one then wait and see what we get in a few years. The Kindle has a definite Betamax feel about it only Betamax was better.

MTFF said...

I think I weighed in on the Kindle before. I have one and Kindle for iPad, iPhone, laptop blah blah.. It's perfect for books you won't read more than once, traveling, reading in bed, getting a book you just cannot wait for (urge to read something new at 3am -instant gratification takes too long etc). But it's not the same as a real paper book. I wouldn't give it back, though. At the time I spent the money I felt it was a big purchase but now I hardly remember the $200 or so and the titles are actually cheaper. Plus there are all the free books I might not have read except they are free and available instantly..
Go on, I know you want to..

omegar said...

I love my Kindle. Really, love it. I was really skeptical at first but it has grown on me. I also own and have more than 3000 books, I cannot simply part with them. But Kindle reading has added nother whole dmension to reading for me: it is as if the veil of the many burdens of paper have been lifted for me, forever. Now I prefer electronic to paper, anytime. YMMV, but I love books, and the Kindle has made me love them even more, and I still can't believe that's possible.

E said...

See these articles:

Are ebooks greener than paper books?

The Internet’s Carbon Footprint – Server Farms vs Your Desktop PC

The monster footprint of digital technology

Ms Baroque said...

Well, I have (ahem) just bought one... it's been a big deliberation, and the aim is to try and load it with out-of-copyright poetry (for use in tutoring) and with pdf's I get sent for potential review, so I can get on and read them without spending any MORE time at the computer... it means I can read them on the tube or whatever, make my decisions and then just email publishers quickly, so they can send hard copy direct to the reviewer. The final decision to order was, I admit, enhanced by my desire to be able to claim it off this year's taxes! I'm viewing it as a slightly unfortunate work tool but one that may be a boon in the same way my iPhone has been. Any help?