Literature

Douglas Adams

12 May 2001 was a big day for me. It was the FA Cup Final, with Arsenal playing Liverpool in Cardiff. And it was also a good friend’s wedding in London. The match didn’t go so well for an Arsenal fan like me (forced to sneak off during the reception to watch the match on a 3″ Casio TV), but the wedding was excellent, and celebrating it ran long into the night.

Sometime around 5.00am, with plans to head home, and possibly having imbibed a little, I found myself in the lobby of the Charlotte Street Hotel (this was a very nice wedding), where they had complimentary copies of the Sunday Times. I picked one up and was completely knocked off my feet to read on their front page that Douglas Adams had died.

This was a massive body blow to me. I couldn’t stop thinking it about it all the way home, and for many days afterwards. When someone notable or famous that I’ve admired usually dies, I tend to feel glad that we have their work to look back at. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or watch a film of theirs. (It is true that I was similarly knocked for six by Iain Banks’ death too).

I loved Douglas Adams’ books, his writing in general, his computer games – I had Starship Titanic, even if I never finished it, and just the man in general. He seemed like someone to aspire to be, even if it felt like a long time between his books. He loved technology (Why can’t I find Adams’ interview on The Kit anywhere online?)

At an event earlier this week in Foyles, discussing Adams and his life, the panel asked the room how they first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many in the room, I can’t quite remember. I may have caught an episode or two on the radio, but those would have been repeats and on the radio in the kitchen that was solidly tuned to Radio 4. It’s also possible that I’d read the first book. Anything that suggested Science Fiction in a bookshop or library tended to get my vote, and I’d read it.

But I know for certain that I watched the 1981 TV series. What I remember, now I think about it, was that in 1981 I was in my final year of primary school, and one of the end of year traditions was that there was a fancy dress parade.

Age 11, I went as Arthur Dent. For one thing, it was easy – I already owned the pyjamas and a dressing gown which formed the major part of my outfit. The more complicated bit was making a copy of “The Book”.

I’d been given a Texas Instruments calculator by my uncle at Christmas. It was one of those models that had a red LED display. I’d taken it apart on several occasions to see how it worked.

As a result, it no longer worked.

But with use of a tissue box, paint, and the remnants of a non-working calculator, I now had an excellent “book” to go with my costume. I forget whether I took a towel.

What I do know is that few, if any, of my classmates or teachers knew who Arthur Dent was, and someone who’s mum had obviously worked very hard, won the prize for going as Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsort fame. I felt robbed as I’d “made” my own costume and not relied on my mum.

On Tuesday’s panel were Jem Roberts who has a new authorised biography of Adams out, The Frood, and author Marie Philips who has recently had the very excellent The Table of Less Valued Knights published – a somewhat different take on Camelot – and has a blog about Adams on the Foyles website.

There was also a chap from Foyles, who’s name I missed [Update – thanks Marie] Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, chairing the event. Given his viciously hard Hitchhiker’s themed quiz – the lack of a follow-up email suggests that I got fewer marks than the guys in the front row wearing “Don’t Panic” T-shirts – and his line of questioning, he is clearly an Adam’s aficionado.

The event started promptly at 6.42pm, and the talk was of Adams as a writer, his influences, his lackadaisical attitude to work, his failure to write female characters (“Write a character, then make them a woman,” said Marie), his agnosticism, his love of technology, and whether he’d have been good on Twitter. On the latter, the feeling of the panel was “probably”, but there was also a fear that we’d have never had another work from him again. Sadly, we’ll never know.

The panel got a little sidetracked on the film version, and all the things that were wrong with. Marie especially hated it. I’ve just re-read my “review” from 2005, and see that I was relatively kind, if not exactly bowled over. I think the fact that they gave me a towel at the screening I attended may have swayed my opinion. I still have the towel. That said, I’ve only ever seen the film that one time. I’ve never felt the need to revisit it when it’s on TV. But I think I’ve taken a more benevolent view of remakes as I’ve got older, if only because the well of original thought seems to keep drying up, and more and more classics are being remade. So yes, it may be true that someone discovers, or is put off from discovering, a fantastic book from a poor film version, but then the first version of Hamlet you see might be poor. Should that detract from Shakespeare’s play? And I can just avoid something if I like. I know that there is a monstrous Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man in existence. But I’ve never seen it, and my memories are not spoiled by that knowledge. I just have to be a little careful flicking around late night TV when looking for something to watch. See also The Ladykillers (love the Coens, but sorry), Edge of Darkness, State of Play, etc.

The new Foyles is rather magnificent incidentally. They’ve moved into premises vacated by Central St Martins when they moved out to their new King’s Cross home. Although I do somehow miss having to go to three tills to make a book purchase. I remember first going to their Charing Cross Road bookshop with a friend and his mother. I’d chosen a book, and the process was then:

– Queue at a teller who would take the book from you and hand you a chit with the price on it.
– Queue at a cashier and pay the value of the chit and get your receipt.
– Queue back at the first teller with your validated receipt and collect your book.

Also, fiction titles were organised by publisher rather than just author, and we all know who publishes what title don’t we? On the other hand, you could find some seriously obscure books and books that wouldn’t be available anywhere else in a pre-internet age.

Once Charing Cross Road was the home of bookshops in London. Sadly the way things are going, Foyles is going to be just about the only bookshop left on the street.

But back to Tuesday night.

It’s traditional at these things that afterwards the writers on stage will sign copies of their books. I already had a copy of Marie’s latest book which I’d read and brought along, but I picked up a copy of Jem’s book and went over to the table to get them signed.

Now here’s the thing, I can never think of anything particularly sensible to say to an author in that situation. Call it social ineptness. I want to make some kind of small-talk. It always feels like everyone else at these events is already a best buddy: Friends coming along because the author is in town; bookshop staff keeping their author happy topping up the wine and rushing to get fresh nibbles. But as I wait in the queue thinking of something sage and witty to say, it can get a little garbled in my head. A few instances:

– Years ago at a signing with John Simpson, I’d just got a job in the marketing department of a small local newspaper. When I said I told him I was interested in journalism and this was the new job I had, he looked at me with a little pity as if to say, “Then why are you working in marketing?”

– At an Iain Banks signing, I was so in awe of the man, it was just, “Make it out to Adam – the usual spelling.” Fortunately Margaret Atwood hadn’t yet published “MaddAddam” – the only way I can think you could misspell my name.

– At a Neil Gaiman signing, the queue was so long behind me that I was scared to engage in any kind of conversation in case he was still signing in the venue post-midnight.

– At a Dave Gorman book-signing, I didn’t mention that we had a mutual friend, and had met in the pub at least twice. That made it all the more awkward the next time we met in the pub with our mutual friend, when he remembered me being (silent) at his last book signing. I picked up Dave’s new book on the way out of Foyles incidentally.

– At a recent very popular signing by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, she first of all asked, “Would you like a date?” Huh? Ah. She actually had a plate of dates. I politely declined. Then I explained that my father was a massive fan (he is) and that’s why I wanted one book made out to him. It still made me sound like I was just a bit “meh” over her books though. I’m not.

Anyway, this is all by way of a bit of an apology to Marie, of who’s new book I said I’d “quite liked” – which sounds simply awful. Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, and laughed out loud. To compund things, I then brusquely told her that she had to “Listen to the CDs,” having told us earlier that her experience of Hitchhiker’s had mostly been the books (and the film). Sorry about that. The CDs (or downloads) are worth getting though!

LonCon 3 – Thoughts on Worldcon

George RR Martin - Paul Cornell - Connie Willis
Paul Cornell interviews George RR Martin and Connie Willis

Each year the World Science Fiction Society holds Worldcon – an annual convention – in different parts of the world. It’s a movable feast, although more often than not, it’ll be held in a US city.

In the past, the UK has had a decent crack of the whip, with a couple of outings to Glasgow and Brighton. But the last time it came to London was 1965. It was probably time for a return.

And I duly signed up for its return this year.

Like most things, I don’t read enough SF (and even less Fantasy), but I enjoy the genre and pay attention to it. And I don’t go to conventions. I once went to a Babylon 5 related gathering years ago in Birmingham but that really is it. And I don’t know anybody who goes to conventions either. It’s not a “thing”. I just haven’t been.

LonCon 3 – as this edition of Worldcon is known – was held in the massive aircraft hanger than is ExCel in London’s Docklands. I don’t believe anything has ever filled ExCel. During the Olympics, when several sports were held there, there were additional unused halls. And even something like the Boat Show, which sees gargantuan luxury yachts inside on stands, still has plenty of space over. The last time I went to that show, I was attending a different show altogether than happened to be on at the same time. That’s how much space there is there. But that’s all by the by.

What did I take away from LonCon?

  • If you think US presidential races last a long time, you’ve not seen the campaigning that goes on for Worldcon. While this year’s event saw Kansas City win the right to hold the 2016 convention, all the 2017 nominee cities were in attendence, as was Dublin looking ahead to 2019. And seemingly Perth is already looking at 2025.
  • Because lots of people travel a long way to get to a Worldcon, everyone tends to show up at the start of day one. Consequently it took about an hour for me to queue for registration.
  • I was travelling daily to the site, but in future, it’d be worth staying in an on-site hotel, because there’s no getting away from the fact that ExCel is horrible to get to.
  • People are very polite and friendly.
  • Really polite, and very friendly.
  • There’s this thing with badges and ribbons I didn’t really understand. Like many conferences, everyone gets a badge on a lanyard to wear while attending. Given that ExCel is open to the public (not that anyone not attending something there would ever “pop by”), security needs to know who to let in, and who not to. So far, so normal. But then people start to attach things to their badges – ribbons supporting different future cities (sometimes competing cities on the same badge); ribbons saying that this is their first event (if I’d seen these I suppose I should have had one); ribbons saying that they voted in the Hugo Awards (ditto); ribbons saying no photos (a polite way of dealing with an issue that fandom has sometimes struggled with); and so on. Then you might put stickers with your country’s flag on it, perhaps indicating the language(s) you speak, or where you come from. By the end of the convention, some people’s badges took on the look of Tom Baker’s scarf in Doctor Who.
  • It’s very international in flavour. Although obviously dealing with English language genre material, attendees come from all over the world. Especially America.
  • Did I mention that ExCel is big? I made the mistake of getting off the DLR at Custom House rather than Prince Regent on my first day. That’s half a mile of additional walking right there, because while both directly serve ExCel, one serves the west end, and the other the east. Lesson learned.
  • If you’ve not been to a convention before, and think it must be a lot like those ComicCon pictures you’ve seen in the press, then think again. The “only” stars in attendance were writers. While people do wear costumes, it’s notable that the big Masquerade cosplay event is mostly about self-created apparel. Most people wear T-shirts. Nearly everything was about books and literature, not forthcoming Marvel or DC universe films.
  • I should have read the copious literature in a bit more detail ahead of time to better meet people and learn about how things worked. But I didn’t. And therefore I failed to go to the “So: This Is Your First Convention” session. Fail.
  • The company who put together the convention’s T-shirt order probably did too few. They’d sold out of most sizes smaller than XXL in many designs by Friday.
  • Nobody pays for autographs. There are just polite queues at signings, and occasionally people asking for autographs at the end of panels. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would buy an autograph. I see those adverts for events in the back of magazines like SFX where dozens of people seemingly supplement their TV show residuals with cash in hand for autographs. It sounds like a horribly grubby and grasping business. I’ll never forget seeing Dave “Darth Vader (not the voice)” Prouse sitting forlornly behind a desk at the aforementioned Babylon 5 gathering (nope – he wasn’t in it) with a pile of 10x8s awaiting cash for signatures.
  • There are panels. Lots of panels. Panels can be good, and they can be bad. For conferences, I think the fewer panels the better in most circumstances. All too often they can be unstructured and nobody is really sure why they’re there. Fortunately I saw more good panels than bad ones at LonCon. And the variety is immense.
  • Did I mention that there were a lot of Americans in attendance? This isn’t surprising given the importance of Americans to the state of English language SF, and the prevalence of conventions there. While I know that the UK isn’t short of a convention or two, you only had to look at a massive display of advertising literature – split by coast – to see how big an “industry” it is there.
  • A genuine fan-run convention like this is actually a pretty “socialist” enterprise. That is, everyone pays, and the memberships are there to cover costs. While not a charity, they’re not supposed to make anyone lots of cash. [Note that there are plenty of events that term themselves conventions that make a packet – but they’re a different kind of beast.]
  • Consequently, you don’t buy a “ticket”, but you become a “member.”
  • This was easily the most access-aware event I’ve ever been to anywhere. Every room had specific places laid out for those with access needs. Lifts were in place for those who needed them, and the convention even had a company supplying those who needed them, mobility scooters and wheelchairs.
  • And it was also the most friendly place I’ve ever been to in terms of LGBT awareness. Entire streams of the conference addressed some of those areas. In general, anyone who wanted to, could be themselves in comfort and without fear of what others might think or say.
  • I mentioned that there was a lot of literature provided to attendees. A large magazine/book as well as a pocket spiral-bound book to help you navigate the venue. But I really liked their app from a company called Grenadine. With a couple of tweaks, this would be nigh-on perfect.
  • The convention wasn’t nearly as commercial as I thought it might be. Aside from some book publishers, clothing manufacturers and a few others, the Dealers Hall wasn’t as outright commercial as I thought it might be. But did I come away with a Micro Drone? Of course I did!
  • I also came away with quite a few books.
  • And I have an even longer list of books I need to read. Because I obviously don’t have enough books already…
  • Something else I learnt about was filk – an SF fandom take on music. I’m not sure what that really means, and it seems odd to me that fans of a particular genre would need their own music. But each to their own. In any case, there was also a Worldcon orchestra made up of musicians of many major UK orchestras. You can never beat hearing the Star Wars theme played by a live orchestra – even in an aircraft hanger.
  • ExCel doesn’t have the greatest range of food available. But it could be worse. It could certainly be cheaper too. Think – captive audience, miles from anywhere.
  • A first for me was a contactless Coke vending machine.
  • Kaffeeklatsches and literary beers were something new to me. You had to sign up early to see who you wanted, but the idea is that about 9 people and a writer sit around either drinking a coffee, beer or other beverage in a rather more intimate setting. As I’d enjoyed Wolves, I sat down with the very friendly Simon Ings. He’s also a fan of Ed Reardon’s Week it turns out!
  • I really must right the wrong that is never having read any Iain M Banks. He was a Guest of Honour in absentia at LonCon, and part of the reason I went. There were some great talks about him and his work.
  • If I hadn’t been in a session about Iain Banks, I wouldn’t have been able to get into the rammed George RR Martin and Connie Willis session either (photo above). Despite loving Game of Thrones on TV, the first volume of is Song of Ice and Fire saga is still unread at home, despite me saying that I was, “going to read it before the TV series starts.” And I’ve not read any Connie Willis either. I picked up To Say Nothing of the Dog while I was there.
  • Sound was mostly pretty good. Despite having more than a dozen simultaneous sessions taking place in different suites in Excel, they all had proper PA systems in place. The bigger problem tended to be speakers not knowing how to use microphones or speaking clearly. Lots of people in a room – even a small room – swallow up sound. As a rule, I’d suggest that Americans are more confident in Brits at projecting their voices.
  • The range of panels and sessions was truly astonishing. Everything was covered. So congratulations on whoever put the programme together.
  • I still find it incredible that I can get to vote in awards as prestigious as the Hugo Awards. It really is akin to me having some say in the outcome of the Man Booker prize. It’s a really nice position sitting between jury-run prizes (i.e. most of them), and an open public vote. The former, by its very nature is limited in scope and can be heavily dependent on the jury. While the latter tend towards the populist, as opposed to the good, and can be subject to groups trying to fix the vote. Everyone who pays to be a member or supporting member of a Worldcon, gets to vote in the Hugos categories. And in recent years, a “voter packet” of ebooks of many nominated titles has been distributed to let you read any of those that you’d missed. Obviously, this still means that you don’t actually have to have read (or watch) all the titles, but you at least have the opportunity. In one instance this year, the entire Wheel of Time sequence of 14 novels was nominated. And yes, they sent us all of them. Let me tell you that I really had to work to get a file that big into my Kindle app. And no, I’ve not read them yet. (There was also a clumsy attempt to get some more right-wing stuff onto the ballot this year, but in the end, the voters ended up choosing the best material).
  • And it’s really rather wonderful to be able to attend the awards ceremony. Has anyone ever let a mere reader into a Man Booker Prize ceremony? That particular award managed to just publish a long list that included books that members of the public can’t yet buy because they’ve not actually been published. So it was delightful hearing from John Chu and Ann Leckie as they picked up their awards.

So there we have it. A very worthwhile event, and actually pretty reasonably priced for an event that lasts five days, even though I was back at work for day five.

Will I be going to Sasquan next summer in Spokane? Probably not – unless I decide a Twin Peaks tour is in order. But other conventions, even if they’re at awkward places like Heathrow or awkward times like Easter, are definitely on the cards. I quite fancy going to a crime one too.

Now I better go and read Ancillary Justice. I bought it months ago, but haven’t read it yet…

eBook Readers – Reappraised to an Extent

I love books. Real, physical books. Two arrived in the post just today! And I have 30 pages left to read in the thriller in my bag. In fact, why am I typing this in my lunch break and not reading it?
As such, I’ve not bothered buying something like a Kindle. They seem vastly popular among the commuting crowd – especially on the line that I use to get to work. But thus far, I’ve not been interested.
However that may soon change. I’m still going to stick with physical paper where I can, but a couple of things have happened recently that are making me change the way I think.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Byliner’s business model sounds interesting. The mid-length pieces that they’re publishing are never going to find their way into print, so digital is the obvious route.
Then something else interesting.
A few weeks ago I went to the excellent new British Library exhibition on science fiction: Out of this World. It’s an excellent distillation of science fiction from its very earliet days through to the current (including the Arthur C Clarke winner Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – a great read by the way).
As I went around, I found myself taking notes of books that I’d never read and wanted to read. For complicated reasons I lost the list, and will have to visit again to put together a full list. But I remembered a handful, and headed off first to Waterstones on Gower Street, and when I struck out there, to Amazon. Shockingly, all of the titles I was looking for (or could remember at least) were out of print – even books that had been published this century were no longer available. One book in particular seemed to be achieving very good prices indeed in the second-hand market.
So that’s why it’s excellent news that the UK’s leading science fiction imprint, Gollanzc, is launching the SF Gateway in September. Launching with 1,000 titles, the number of books available will rise to 5,000 by 2014 we’re promised.
These are books that you’d otherwise have to search high and low for. Perhaps you can get a copy in your library, although the average fiction title has a relatively high turnover in libraries. And no doubt you might find a copy in your local second-hand bookshop or charity shop (I passed an Oxfam recently made great use of yellow-covered Gollanzc books in its window).
Combined – these two initiatives might just push me over the edge. I’m not sure devices are quite there yet however. Amazon will undoubtedly update to a new iteration of its Kindle in time for the run-up to Christmas, and Sony has recently announced a new line-up of eBook readers. I may just be in the market for one…

Byliner

Byliner is a worthwhile new website.
It’s purpose is twofold:

  • to link to and promote long form non-fiction
  • to sell original ebooks in that genre under the Byliner Originals imprint

The site came to prominance when it released Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer a couple of months ago. Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, amongst others, both of which have been filmed – the latter by Sean Penn. Three Cups is an investigative piece of journalism into the deeds of Greg Mortenson, a man who’s become famous – especially in the US – for raising money for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For the first few days, the piece was given away free. It’s now a $2.99 ebook.
It’s been followed up by a further series of original pieces all available for between $0.99 and $5.99.
That’s their business model – promote these pieces. But surrounding it, there’s the recommendation engine and the ability to track favourite authors.
And suddenly, that made me think. I remember that I used to use a site a few years ago that allowed me to track favourite authors. And wasn’t it called… Byliner?
Yes it was. Phil Gyford created the site sometime around 2000, and it finally closed in 2008. I used Byliner quite a bit for a handful of authors, getting the relevant RSS feeds into Bloglines.
The new Byliner is a very different beast. And it’s good to see another worthwhile site using the URL.
Over on BoingBoing they reacted to news of the site with:
This could be inspiring, or the set up for a joke. You pick.
But that referred to a Nieman Journalism Lab blog post which described it thus:
Byliner.com, which launches today, wants to be the Pandora of narrative nonfiction.
I think they use the Pandora comparison in terms its ability to let you discover new material. In fact the Nieman piece by Lois Beckett is well worth a read.
The one thing I will say about the model that Byliner is attempting – it does persuade that perhaps… just perhaps… I might find use for an ebook reader. And that’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever say. The free Krakauer piece was available as a PDF and I carefully printed it out (even using the “booklet” function of a photocopier). But DRM being what it is (although could JK Rowling of all people, be challenging that?), follow up Byliner Originals only appear to be available in Kindle format (or, occassionally, as audiobooks). I think it’s because despite having piles of magazines littering my flat, just waiting for those articles to get read, the format is more transient. The magazines will eventually be thrown out. So I don’t mind longform articles only existing being on a digital reader.
One small issue is that the site only links to the Amazon.com version of books where I’m prevented from purchasing titles as a UK resident. Amazon doesn’t even provide direct links to the same ebook on the UK site. You have to search for it once you’ve clicked through to Amazon.co.uk. Furthermore, Byliner’s current bestselling title – The White House Wants to Get Him by Glenn L. Carle – is, for unfathomable reasons, not available in the UK until July 15 [Update: It’s not out anywhere until July 15. And John at Byliner tells me they’re looking into improving international links.].
Nowithstanding all of that, I very much hope that the site suceeds.

Book News

Waterstones
Two interesting developments in the book world in the last 24 hours:

  • Waterstones has been sold by HMV; and
  • Amazon says it’s selling more Kindle books that Hardback and Paperback titles

Waterstones has been sold by the slightly ailing HMV group for £53m to Alexander Mamut’s A&NN Group, and James Daunt (he of Daunt Books fame, the renound tote-bag selling bookshop) will run it. That suggests that it’s going to concentrate on its core offering – a good range of books.
In the meantime, Amazon.com has announced that in the US, the company is selling 105 Kindle books for every 100 paperback and hardback books it’s selling. And importantly it has stripped out free books. That’s important because when I glance at readers’ Kindles on the tube, I’ve noticed a significant upsurge of interest in classics based largely on the fact that they’re free and everyone likes free.
In the UK, Amazon.co.uk says that it’s selling Kindles to hardbacks on a ratio of greater than 2 to 1. Of course, many Kindle books are priced very cheaply – at below paperback prices. So while I wouldn’t belittle that number, I’d put it in context. On my decidedly middle-class railway line, I see an awful lot of commuters reading Kindles (far more than using iPads for example).
We’re at something of a fork in the road. Our libraries are being whittled away, and this is a last chance for a major high-street book chain to survive and even prosper. If bookshops do disappear, they’re unlikely to reappear. While your supermarket sells a selection of top 20 titles (I bet they’re stocking that Maddie book), that’s not enough. Russian oligarchs are all well and, um, good, but even they probably demand an eventual return on investment.
There’ll be pockets of bookshops that will always exist. The aforementioned Daunt Books will be fine. But its main branch is located on Marylbone High Street (with other branches in those not-quite-destitute parts of London – Chelsea, Holland Park, Belsize Park and Cheapside), while other independents will get by. But without a Waterstones – or even a WH Smiths – many towns and cities will have nothing of note.
I’ve seen the future, and I’m not altogether sure I like it.
[Addendum] I see that in the US, John Malone’s Liberty group has made an offer to buy the troubled US book retailer Barnes & Noble. Is there life left in bricks and mortar stores?

Serendipity Redux

No, not a very poor film in John Cusack’s ouevre.


noun
the occurance and development of events by chance in a happy and beneficial way

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. This is something that sadly the internet is not able to deal with effectively in certain areas. I’m going to talk about music and books, because two experiences just drove this home in case I’d forgotten over the last couple of weeks.
Last week, I visited HMV’s flagship branch on Oxford Street. This is somewhere I’ve been visiting as long as I can remember. While the other “big two” stores – Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, and the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road tube station, have long gone, HMV is just about still standing. Who knows for how long?
I wanted to buy the soundtrack to Norwegian Wood. I’ve not seen the film yet, but I did hear elements of the music played live this time last year when Jonny Greenwood premiered it (and actually seemed to be the key source for the news that Greenwood was composing for the film!). Anyway, the soundtrack album came out last week, and I’m “old” in that music that I care most about, I still buy on CD. I do do download plenty of music too – including being in possession of a long standing eMusic subscription. But you can’t beat a CD. Aside from anything else, it’s the ultimate back-up device.
While I was downstairs in HMV, I took the opportunity to wander around beyond the soundtrack section. And at the end of a World Music aisle I spotted C’est Chic: French Girl Singers of the 1960s. Now I have something of a soft spot for the music of the Yé-yé girls of the 1960s. But aside from downloading Ne Me Laisse Pas L’Aimer by Brigitte Bardot after hearing it on a lager commercial, I only actually own one other record of music of that type – another compilation. What’s more, I didn’t buy that album on Amazon, where I do still buy plenty of music. Amazon has no idea that I quite like 1960s French pop. It’d never suggest that I look at it.
But someone at HMV had put the album out on display. I spotted it. And I bought it. I also picked up a Gustavo Dudamel album in the classical music section that had been newly released and was on the shelves. So a trip to HMV for one album resulted in a sale of three albums. Could I have got them cheaper on Amazon? Well the Greenwood album was £1 cheaper, and I didn’t check the others. But I’ll happily pay a small premium for instant gratification, as well as the knowledge that my opportunities to discover music like this could be going away.
Amazon is great, but there isn’t yet an algorithm that reads my mind and determines that I might like something unless I’ve previously looked at it (Indeed, Amazon currently believe that I want a Panasonic camcorder simply because I used the store to find recommendations for a friend who is in the market for a camcorder).
Then last night I was at the second installment of the Nordic Noir Book Club. If you hadn’t noticed, there’s been an explosion of crime fiction coming from the north. Mankell’s Wallander led the way, and then Larsson’s Elizabeth Salander jumped out onto the scene. Now Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic translators are being kept very busy by a steady stream of other authors, many of who are excellent.
Last night it was the turn of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who until recently I hadn’t read (I’m about halfway through one of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir novels, having not managed to finish it before last night’s event. It’s very good though!
During the interval, I decided to buy the other two books she has in English translation currently. A nice chap from the Newham Bookshop was on hand to sell copies – pretty normal at an event like this. Some bookshop or other will always supply staff and books (with the help of the publisher) – especially if the author has travelled from Iceland especially.
The lady in the queue in front of me had thumbed through a copy and then she asked the chap manning the stand if he knew whether the books were available as eBooks. You see, she had recently been given an eBook reader and wanted to use it with Yrsa’s books. He very politely said that he didn’t know, but since hers is a major publisher it was likely. She walked away.
I felt desperately sorry for her, and wonder how much other bookshop assistants are getting similar queries. eBook sales completely cut out bookshops. You deal directly either with the publisher, or more likely with an enormous middle-man like Amazon or Apple, both of whom have their own devices and ebook technologies to sell.
Waterstones (part of the HMV group) has struggled, and small independent bookshops are constantly fighting for their lives. It’s quite likely that in the not-too-distant future bookshops as we know them will have gone. So will the record shops, and CD or DVD retailers. We’ll all have to purchase everything online.
You won’t be able to get a copy of your Kindle edition signed by the author. You won’t chance across a copy of French 1960s pop compilation. And we’ll be a lesser society for that.

Trying to Decode Kindle Stats

Amazon has been trumpeting its latest Kindle stats, proclaiming that it has sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardback books sold over the last three months.
I say “stats”, but they actually keep their cards very close to their chest. They’re mostly talking about ratios. And they’re not necessarily comparing like with like.
While they’ve excluded the large number of free, out of copyright, books from their figures, they’re not including paperbacks. I know the US publishing set-up is different, but paperback sales tend to significantly outnumber hardback sales – certainly that’s the case in the UK with much popular fiction (with the exception of certain titles that get discounted extraordinarily heavily when they’re released in hardback – Harry Potter and Dan Brown spring to mind).
The only hard numbers that Amazon supplies is the fact that five authors have each cumulatively sold more than 500,000 books in the Kindle format: Charlaine Harris, Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts.
But all of these best-selling authors have multiple titles in the Kindle format. Undoubtedly, those are significant sales stats. But I wonder how many copies in paperback Amazon has sold of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at $7.15 compared to the number of Kindle editions at $5.29.
I think we really need to get some actual numbers in, say, fiction. And then these need to be compared with total sales of hardback and paperbacks over the same period. That’d give a true reflection of the success of the device.
What I still find odd is that Amazon has yet to properly sell the device in the UK. While I’m quite able to buy it via Amazon.com, I have to pay in US dollars, and there are surely some issues surrounding support or returning faulty devices which at the very least will take longer than a purchase from Amazon.co.uk.
Still – look for Apple to try to reclaim bragging rights with its own sales via the iPad. We’ll have to wait and see.

Advertising The Book Show on Sky Arts

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Sky Arts has recently been running a pretty large-scale advertising campaign for The Book Show presented by – as all literary shows seemingly have to be by law – Mariella Frostrup.
That’s fine. Sky Arts is a decent enough channel, even if you know it really exists so that Murdoch can argue for the closure of the BBC because the commercial sector broadcasts the arts – classical music and opera for example.
And I do sometimes watch The Book Show, especially when it goes daily during the Hay Festival of which Sky Arts is a sponsor.
But look closely at the books in the photo that Mariella is leaning against in the ad.
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Even allowing for imperfections in the poster, those books do look pretty beaten up. And it’s not surprising, as they’re really not that new.
The top book appears to be a copy of Piers Morgan’s diaries which while populist, isn’t perhaps a true reflection of the programme. It was published five years ago.
Underneath that is a hardback copy of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. While that would be a book that they’d cover on the programme, and is a good target market for London commuters, it is a book that came out in 1999 – over ten years ago. Isn’t there something a bit more contemporary? No wonder these books are a bit beaten up.
The final identifiable book on the pile is a real oddity. It’s The Silence of the Lambs – Red Dragon which is in fact two books in the Hannibal Lector series. Again – a massively popular series of novels, and titles from which would undoubtedly get coverage on The Book Show if they were published today. Except that this particular unusual edition which combines two of Thomas Harris’ novels, was published in 1991 – 19 years ago. And those curious editions of books that have two titles in one tend to appear in discount bookshops or come from book clubs.
I suppose the main thing is that it’s odd that nothing particularly contemporary is included in the stack of books. Perhaps a Stieg Larsson novel, or a Stephen King title? Ian McEwan, Alice Sebold or even Stephanie Meyer for all I care. Just current.
Instead it feels like the photographer and assistants at the shoot for the ad suddenly realised that they were going to need some books. So they rooted around in the corner of the studio and found a couple of books propping up a table or something and thought, “They’ll do – nobody will see them anyway.” Except that photo was then blown up and put on massive tube posters…

EBook Readers And In-Fighting

What are we to make over the weekend’s bit of fun over at Amazon.com?
In brief, Amazon likes to charge a single price for its ebooks on the Kindle – $9.99. Macmillan, one of the biggest publishers in the US and the world, fundamentally disagrees with that philosophy.
While it’s a clear and simple proposition for Amazon’s customers, it’s Amazon who is largely calling the shots. Yet the products they’re selling belong to the publishers and authors.
A few things to note about this largely American scrap. US books are generally higher priced than they are in the UK. That said, if you’ve bought a Kindle in the UK, you’re buying from the US Amazon store, so this does affect you.
For example, Stephen King’s most recent novel, has a US list price of $35 and currently retails on Amazon for $20.47 (£12.82 at current conversion rates, compared with a current UK price of £11.99). But the Kindle price is $14.09.
King is published by Scribner in US, a Macmillan subsidiary. And Macmillan “won” this brief sortie.
There’s a lot of discussion about what a fair price is to charge for an ebook. Many would point out that there are little to no distribution and transportation costs. Shops aren’t required to keep stock, and inventory can be essentially infinite. In the above example, the saving is significant, but not massive. King’s novel runs to nearly 900 pages, so surely the production costs must be immense.
But in reality, most physical media that we buy is actually pretty cheap to produce. Aside from sumptuously put together boxsets, the average CD, DVD or book costs mere pence to manufacture – assuming that you’ve got some kind of significant production run. That includes hardback books.
Whereas once albums were largely priced at a level that was largely kept the same year after year, we’ve been used for some time now, to buying catalogue material at generally knock down prices. Wander into your local HMV or scour the pages of Amazon, and any album more than a year or so old will be discounted from its original price quite heavily. Even the biggest selling artists’ most recent works will eventually be just a few pounds in a sale.
The same is true of DVDs which might initially retail for around £14, before coming down in price a few months later, and then reaching a lower price again a few months after that. By the time the film has been screened on terrestrial TV it’ll be under a fiver on DVD.
In the book world, variable pricing has been around since Penguin started printing paperbacks. Broadly, we’ve reached a stage where a hardback is published at a premium price, and roughly a year later, the paperback comes out. Mixed into this ecology are trade paperbacks sometimes sitting between the two, club editions, and the ending of the Net Book Agreement meaning that a popular hardback such as Dan Brown’s recent novel, can be discounted massively depending on what retailers – especially online ones like Amazon and supermarkets – are prepared to do.
The belief is that this scrap has been prompted by Apple’s ebook offering – last week’s iPad launch. It’s notable that Apple is letting publishers set their own prices as happens in the App store currently, with Apple taking 30% off the top.
The curious thing is that Amazon and Apple are currently in a reversal of their previous positions with music. In setting up the iTunes store, Apple managed to persuade all the record labels to charge a single price – 79c initially – for a single track.
Labels weren’t happy with this but played along with it, and have reaped the rewards to an extent. Amazon, in launching its own mp3 store, allowed labels to adopt variable pricing – perhaps putting a premium on newer releases and discounting catalogue.
The record labels have managed to put pressure on Apple to change their postition and today, a single track can be charged at a range of different prices dictated by the record label.
It’s almost as though it’s in the best interests of whoever’s first to market to have fixed pricing – presenting a strong proposition for consumers – only for second players to come in and demand alternatives.
But variable pricing has got to be the correct way? If Macmillan set their prices too high, then consumers will simply not purchase their offerings. And it’s surely not in a publisher’s interests to agree to a pricing route that undercuts their main source of income (sales of physical product vastly outweighs sales of ebooks and will do for quite some time).
Against the backdrop of all of this is the “Open” or “Closed” system debate. The iPad is a closed developmental environment – unless Apple approves your application, you can’t run it on an iPad. More pertinent to ebooks is the fact that you’ll only be able to buy iBooks through Apple’s own iBookstore. The same is true for the Kindle which only lets you directly purchase from Amazon’s own store.
Both the iPad and Kindle will accept ePub files, which can be bought from third parties, but it’s clear that like the video games world, closed ecosystems are at the forefront. And that’s probably not a good thing.
And having been mulling over this whole topic for the last few days, Bill Thompson neatly wraps it up over at the BBC.

Henning Mankell

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One of my favourite authors, Henning Mankell, was in London this week to promote his new novel The Man From Beijing. This isn’t a novel set around his most famous creation – Kurt Wallander – but is a thriller set in several countries including, of course, Sweden.
Mankell was interviewed by Stefanie Marsh of The Times (the event was put on by their Times+ club in association with Waterstones), and she did a pretty good job even if she came across as very nervous.
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Nervous is something that Mankell certainly isn’t. He seems to relish this kind of event, beginning with an interview before he told a couple of short stories. We now all know that the sound of the Big Bang is B-Flat.
Then there was a Q&A section with no shortage of questions all of which Mankell happily answered. The one question he said he was expecting (and he got it) was about which of the actors who’ve played Wallander he’s liked the most. He ducked the question to an extent although he did point out that both Swedish actors who’ve played him were actually chosen by him.
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There were a fair few Swedes in the audience, and at least one German too. Let’s hope there weren’t too many Portuguese there, because he labelled them as being very gloomy (this followed a discourse on the British seeing the Swedes as gloomy and vice versa).
Mankell lives for much of his time in Africa and he has some very strong feelings about it. And I must admit that I took to heart the fact that if we watch one less hours of TV an evening we end up with two weeks extra a year.
Finally the evening ended with a signing and I got my copy of The Man From Beijing signed by Mankell.