Monthly Archives: August 2018

You can’t connect

31 August 2018

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

~ Steve Jobs

Writers We Take for Granted

31 August 2018

From The Times of London:

Literary life isn’t fair. Some authors relax in beautiful Hampstead townhouses, listening to the sound of their specially reinforced mantelpieces groaning under the weight of literary prizes. Other equally good writers shiver in shabby bedsits, without so much as a positive Amazon review to console them.

We’ve been thinking about underappreciated writers after positive reviews of Andrew Miller’s new novel, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free appeared in The Sunday Times and The Times. We loved his book. But why isn’t he better known? Poor old Miller hasn’t won an important prize since he bagged the Costa in 2011. For some reason, that never won him the public recognition he deserved.

That got us thinking — who are our most underrated living novelists? Perhaps if we buy enough of their books we could rescue them from their garrets and send the poor souls to Hampstead.

. . . .

Andrew Miller
Miller wowed our critics with Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, a tale of a veteran of the Napoleonic wars on the run from the army. His novel Pure, which won the Costa in 2011, is set in pre-revolutionary France. His first two novels, Ingenious Pain and Casanovawere also set in the 18th century. His previous novel but one, however, was a bit of a departure. The Crossing is a mysterious nontraditional tale whose main character is deliberately left almost blank.

Tessa Hadley 
Hadley . . . published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, in 2000. It follows the romantic and sexual misadventures of middle-class Londoners. But with its fractured narrative and mysterious symbolism, it’s much more interesting than your typical middle-class divorce novel. If you haven’t read Hadley before, her novel The Master Bedroom is another good place to start. This book follows Kate Flynn who, dissatisfied with her life as a lecturer in London, moves to the countryside to care for her ageing mother. Hadley’s a good thing. So why has she never so much as made it on to a Booker longlist?

Link to the rest at The Times of London  (the link may expire)

How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’

31 August 2018

Content Warning/Trigger Warning/You’ve Been Duly and Thoroughly Warned Warning

  • This post contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.
  • Viewer discretion advised.
  • Intended for mature audiences only.
  • This post contains language.
  • This post may engender strong feelings, bloody violence and mild peril.
  • The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of PG, anyone PG knows or would like to know, anyone PG has ever known (excluding some bad dates in college) or non-subscribers to The Guardian.

From The Guardian:

Here are some things that you can’t do with a Kindle. You can’t turn down a corner, tuck a flap in a chapter, crack a spine (brutal, but sometimes pleasurable) or flick the pages to see how far you have come and how far you have to go. You can’t remember something potent and find it again with reference to where it appeared on a right- or left-hand page. You often can’t remember much at all. You can’t tell whether the end is really the end, or whether the end equals 93% followed by 7% of index and/or questions for book clubs. You can’t pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbour’s door.

A few years ago, I was given a Kindle. I had become a student again. I was reading lots of books and I needed them cheap and light. But now the Kindle has slipped to the back of the desk drawer behind the Blu-Tack that comes out only at Christmas. Meanwhile, the stack of hardbacks and paperbacks on the bedside table has grown so tall it has spawned sub-stacks on the floor; when I get into bed at night, it is like looking down on a miniature book city. I don’t want to speculate about what goes on in other people’s bedrooms but I suspect it might be something similar, because figures published today by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015. So why is the physical book winning through?

Ten years ago, when the Kindle launched, the idea was miraculous. Here was the ability to carry hundreds of books enfolded in a tiny slip of plastic, countless stories in a few hundred grams. It seems hard to believe when you look at the thick, black plastic surround – stylistically it bears more resemblance to a cathode ray tube TV than a tablet – that it predated the iPad by two years. Within five hours, it had sold out, despite a price tag of $399 (then £195). A decade on, lay a Kindle next to a smartphone or tablet and it looks so much older, while the reading experience it delivers has scarcely progressed.

“It was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

. . . .

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback. “Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical,” says James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, which published a special Christmas edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, more than 80,000 copies of which have been sold by the chain. (He, in common with most people involved with the publishing of physical books, reads on a Kindle, but afterwards buys the books he loves.)

. . . .

“The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” Daunt says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

Physical books even feature in this spring/summer’s Fantastic Man magazine, which advises its fashion-literate readership to take five unread books to the sofa and spend five minutes with each one.

. . . .

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.

. . . .

“We had a near-death experience,” Daunt says, referring to the recession. But, he adds: “When you come under pressure, you have to raise your game, and that’s what has gone on throughout the industry.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

. . . .

From Apartment Therapy:

A Defense of Books as Decor

Over the years, I’ve been surprised (and also strangely delighted) by the passion with which our Apartment Therapy community approaches certain design ideas. Chief among them: organizing books by color. Few other topics evoke such vehement responses. The argument in favor is fairly self-evident: it looks pretty. (And maybe helps you find your favorite books, if your brain works a certain way.) The argument against delves more into the philosophy of things, and the idea of what a book is and ought to be. I’ve read your comments, and I know you feel strongly about this. A book, the thinking goes, is a repository of information. It is not a decorative object. To think of a book as something that ornaments your space, for its colorful spine or for any other qualities, reduces its importance as a channel of information and imagination. But… why can’t it be both?

. . . .

Gaze at an illuminated manuscript in a museum — although the script and dialect maybe be too obscure to ascertain, the beauty of the text, and the care taken while writing it, gives it a fascination all its own. These texts were written at a time when books were very precious, because printed media was so difficult to create. This is, if you think about it, not unlike our own time.

. . . .

I think it’s this idea—that books aren’t truly necessary, that they could, conceivably, be replaced entirely by another medium—that is at the root of people’s discomfort with the idea of books as decor.

. . . .

Valuing a book only for its cover, as the aphorism goes, seems to devalue the information within. It is a sign of the shallowness, the superficial fronting that defines modern life. Or is it?

. . . .

I love books more than almost anybody you will meet.

. . . .

And it’s a small jump, especially for people who appreciate beautiful things, to go from valuing the fact that a book has a physical essence to valuing the beauty of said essence. At a time when the chief advantage that books have over other media is their physical, tactile qualities, the value of books as objects that elevate the aesthetic of a space is more important than ever.

. . . .

They’re a door in the wall, a portal to other existences whose presence is sometimes obscured by the ivy of modern life. Look, maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think a book will ever achieve the charming obsolescence of a typewriter or a globe or whatever silly artifact currently decorates moderately-priced American restaurants.

. . . .

Sure, some books that are very beautiful have very dumb things in them—but on a grand scale, a vote for the attractiveness of books is also a vote for the persistence of the ideas that have been contained within books for thousands of years.

Link to the rest at Apartment Therapy

 

The Practical Magic of Joan Aiken, the Greatest Children’s Writer You’ve Likely Never Read

31 August 2018

From The New Yorker:

In the early nineteen-fifties, before she published any of the novels that established her as one of the twentieth century’s great children’s-book writers, Joan Aiken lived on a bus. Aiken and her husband, the journalist Ronald Brown, had acquired a piece of land on which they meant to build a house. But building licenses in England could take years to be approved. To continue renting an apartment seemed wasteful, and since food was still being rationed—this was only a few years after the war—they wanted to start a garden right away. The obvious solution was some sort of temporary residence, a structure that could be brought onto their new plot and then dismantled or moved away once the house was done. But where could they find a home like that?

“We wanted something roomy enough to accommodate two adults, a typewriter, wireless, gramophone and records, sewing machine, a mass of books, a cat and an extremely lively eighteen-month-old baby,” Aiken wrote. “A bus seemed to answer those requirements. The one which we got was a lucky buy—a single-decker (some local authorities object to double-deckers), recently overhauled. We bought it for less than a hundred pounds, complete.”

They outfitted it with water and electricity. They put in a stove for heat. Brown, who worked at Reuters, commuted to London, by train. Aiken painted furniture, worked in the garden, and wrote stories and poems on the typewriter. Her first book, a collection of short fiction called “All You’ve Ever Wanted,” included material written during the bus phase; it was published in 1953.

Aiken wrote a brief essay, probably in 1952, about her unconventional living arrangements. She published it in Housewife magazine. The piece is called, with cheerful straightforwardness, “Our Home Is a One-Decker Bus.” What’s remarkable about it is how Aiken treats her (intimately personal, yet also odd and whimsical) material. That is, she doesn’t “treat” it at all—she reports, with brisk efficiency. Living on a bus comes across as a practical problem, to be managed without fuss. Here is where we built our airing cupboard, above the hot-water tank. Near the clothes horse we keep the baby’s folding bath.

As the article moves along, though, something strange starts to occur. Aiken’s unsentimental accounting begins to acquire a glow of magic. A slow accumulation of increasingly fanciful detail deposits us, almost without our noticing, on the threshold of a fairy tale:

Space is certainly confined. We have to be tidy, which comes hard, and our visitors must sleep in a tin hut which also contains gardening equipment and tea-chests full of papers. But the bus isour own. We can hammer in nails or saw holes wherever we want to, paint the walls red and green, and draw pictures on the doors. We have done all these things, and we add some new embellishment every week.

Aiken wrote more than a hundred novels over the course of her long career, and many of them manage something like this transformation. An absurd premise (we live on a bus; the Glorious Revolution never happened; a queen claims that her lake has been stolen) is treated with deadpan seriousness, allowing its latent magical possibilities to emerge in an atmosphere that’s half ironic, half enchanted—or, rather, in an atmosphere that’s entirely ironic and entirely enchanted, at the same time.

. . . .

Consider “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” Aiken’s best-known novel, which she published in 1962. The book, the first in her Wolves Chronicles series, take place in an alternate historical timeline in which James II was never deposed; in the eighteen-thirties of the books, James III is the King of England and the target of Hanoverian conspirators’ countless plots to overthrow him. A tunnel has been dug under the English Channel, between Dover and Calais, and as a result—and here is the magic sneaking in through the bizarre premise—England has been overrun by wolves, thousands of which have migrated through the tunnel after a string of brutal winters in Europe and Russia.

. . . .

In the deep winter, the river in the woods surrounding Willoughby Chase, the enormous, rambling manor of Sir Willoughby Green, has frozen solid. Lady Green, Sir Willoughby’s wife, has mysteriously taken ill, so the couple have departed on a long ocean voyage that they hope will restore her to health. (That’s three literary clichés—a manor in the woods, a mysterious illness, a sailing voyage—before the novel has even really begun.) They have left their young daughter, Bonnie Green, in the care of a governess (four), Letitia Slighcarp, who also claims to be Sir Willoughby’s estranged fourth cousin (five). To keep Bonnie company, her cousin Sylvia, an orphan (six) being raised in London by their kindly but impoverished Aunt Jane (seven), has made the dangerous train journey north to Willoughby Chase. The little girls have never met before, and their temperaments are opposite—Bonnie is robust and headstrong; Sylvia is modest and delicate—but they immediately become fast friends (eight).

The scene I am thinking of is one in which the girls decide to go ice skating. The forest is full of wolves, but the wolves won’t venture onto the ice, Bonnie says, so as long as the girls stick to the river they will be safe. While they’re skating, they see Miss Slighcarp making her way through the woods. She is clearly up to no good (they can spy on her through a secret compartment in a wall—I’ll stop counting, but you get the idea), and they attempt to follow her, but in doing so they skate farther than they had intended. Now night is approaching, and they are a long way from the house. Bonnie isn’t tired, but Sylvia, who has never skated before, can’t go on any longer. As they try to decide what to do, they begin to hear, from somewhere in the distance, the baying of wolves.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Don’t Close the Book on Books

31 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

As students return to school, I’m reminded of the cheerful Ivy League senior who casually confessed to me earlier this year that she didn’t like to read. A student guide, she was leading my family on a campus tour.

I admired her candor and wasn’t shocked to hear she thought books were a bore. A 2015 survey by Scholastic and YouGov showed a sharp decline in the share of young people who read for pleasure—a trend I’d noticed as an adjunct writing professor when I polled my students. Though curious and ambitious, many freshmen in my classes hadn’t read a book for fun since middle school. When I wrote about it in a 2013 Journal op-ed, I heard many similar stories from readers.

Even so, as I followed our guide around the immaculate campus, I was saddened that one of its degree candidates would soon be entering the world with no love for literature. The tuition, we learned, is nearly $70,000 a year. It’s tragic that such an expensive, elite education could yield a graduate unmoved by the magic of the written word.

To encourage personal reading, universities should start by making books more visible on campus. On my family’s tours of five schools, I was struck by how few books I saw, even in the libraries. Instead of pointing to grand shelves thick with volumes, library guides invariably ushered us into media hubs with computer terminals. These newly reimagined spaces look as inviting as call centers. The sterile setting suggests reading is a rote exercise, devoid of emotion or imagination.

. . . .

But campus bookstores, as I was reminded during our family’s travels, have pretty much gotten out of the book business. One typical two-story bookstore featured only two small shelves of trade titles tucked into a rear corner. The rest of the store was filled with T-shirts, toys and souvenirs.

The few volumes for sale included the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who declared: “From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Amazon’s Fiction and Non-fiction Bestseller Lists

30 August 2018
Comments Off on Amazon’s Fiction and Non-fiction Bestseller Lists

Here are Amazon’s Books Bestseller Lists

Fiction and Non-fiction

(Print/Kindle Combined )

Updated Hourly:

All Books

Fiction Genres

Romance

Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Comics and Graphic Novels

Non-Fiction

Arts & Photography

Biographies & Memoirs

Business and Money

Computers and Technology

Cookbooks, Food & Wine

Health, Fitness & Dieting

History

Politics & Social Sciences

Self-Help

Germany’s Bertelsmann Reports a Half-Year Decline at PRH

30 August 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its report arriving overnight from Gütersloh, Bertelsmann—parent of Penguin Random House—is reporting that its overall 2018 first-half revenues rose to €8.2 billion (US$9.6 billion), its highest result, the company says, in 11 years, with a group profit of €501 million (US$584.4 million).

The news on Penguin Random House, however, is different, recording “declines in sales and earnings” in the same period, the first half of 2018.

And in a letter to staff dated today (August 30), Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle writes, “I’d like to give you some context and perspective on those numbers, highlight some of our key global achievements so far this year, and, especially, thank you for all you are doing on behalf of our books.”

. . . .

To Penguin Random House staffers, Dohle writes, “Even though the reported Bertelsmann headline numbers were down for its book division in euros, the underlying operating revenue and profit numbers for Penguin Random House in US dollars have been stable year-over-year.

“This means that the quality of our business and our earnings have been on the same—high—level as in the prior year. Our core business remains very strong globally.”

. . . .

Dohle’s message is, in essence, better things are ahead. “We have a terrific publishing lineup worldwide to carry us to this year’s finish line,” he writes, ” with new potential national and local bestsellers on the schedule from now through December.

. . . .

Overall, Dohle’s messaging asserts, all is well and getting better, despite disappointing financial reportage from Germany. “In this year of ongoing unrest and anxiety worldwide, our authors’ books across categories are needed more than ever,” writes Markus Dohle.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says the Bertelsmann report that prompted Dohle’s pep talk letter to PRH employees said the first-half revenues of PRH were down 3.3% from last year. Operating EBITDA fell by 17.0 percent.

What interested PG even more was another section of the Bertlesmann report was the following:

“In the United States, Penguin Random House had 178 titles on The New York Times bestseller lists in the first half of the year, 25 of them at No. 1. The biggest bestsellers of the reporting period [included] … Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, which served as the basis for the eponymous Steven Spielberg movie, and was also very successful as an audiobook.

“In the United Kingdom, 41 percent of all books on the The Sunday Times bestseller lists were Penguin Random House titles. In addition to the above-mentioned works that were successful in the United States, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Still Me by Jojo Moyes sold particularly well in the United Kingdom.

. . . .

“In Germany, Verlagsgruppe Random House had 251 titles on Der Spiegel bestseller lists, 11 of them at number one.”

Unless PG has missed something in recent months, Amazon doesn’t share its book sales data with The New York Times, The Sunday Times, etc., for purposes of those publications’ bestseller lists.

A few months back, Mike Shatzkin said that 69% of book sales (print, ebooks and audio) are happening online and only 31% in physical bookstores. The online number for adult fiction and non-fiction is now about 75%.

Let’s put things together:

  1. PRH is killing it on the traditional bestsller lists.
  2. PRH revenues are down.
  3. Amazon sales aren’t reflected in the bestseller lists.

PG admits other factors come into play, but if he combines these reported facts, he suspects that PRH is underperforming on Amazon. PRH books compete quite successfully in the traditional bookstore world, but they can’t compete on Amazon.

Bertelsmann says PRH’s declining sales and earnings are “due to exchange rate effects, among other factors.” PG suggests that among the “other factors,” not being able to sell very effectively on Amazon might be significant.

Of course, whether Barnes & Noble continues to circle the drain or actually goes down the drain, sales on Amazon will become even more important to Big Publishing’s financial performance.

Practical men

30 August 2018

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

~ John Maynard Keynes

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