Assessing the Health of Independent Bookshops

26 February 2015

From The New York Times:

In a 1936 essay, George Orwell recognized one of the main difficulties of owning an independent bookshop: turning a profit. The bookshop, he wrote, “is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” Nearly 80 years on, the business has hardly gotten easier.

More than one-third of the independent bookshops in Britain and Ireland have disappeared in the past decade, unable to compete with large retailers — chiefly Amazon — who use their superior market position to offer deep discounts on printed and digital books.

According to data released last week from the Booksellers Association, which represents independent publishers, the downward trend continued last year, with around 50 bookshops closing, including one of England’s oldest, the Ibis Bookshop in Banstead, Surrey, which was a mainstay on the town’s high street for 78 years. Tim Godfray, the Booksellers Association’s chief executive, said it had been difficult to watch one store close after the next. “The last few years have been really tough,” he added.

. . . .

 In the United States, independent bookstores have rebounded strongly from the financial crisis, increasing their numbers by 27 percent since 2009, according to data from the American Booksellers Association. The group’s chief executive, Oren Teicher, said American indie bookshops have filled the vacuum left by big box bookstores like Borders (which went out of business in 2011) and Barnes & Noble (which has closed hundreds of stores). They have also capitalized on a spirit of localism and urban renewal that is coursing through some American cities. “The enthusiasm and optimism is pretty staggering,” Mr. Teicher said. “Despite all the quantum leaps in technology, the fact is nothing beats a physical, bricks-and-mortar store to discover books that you didn’t know about.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

‘Mein Kampf’: A historical tool, or Hitler’s voice from beyond the grave?

26 February 2015

From The Washington Post:

Old copies of the offending tome are kept in a secure “poison cabinet,” a literary danger zone in the dark recesses of the vast Bavarian State Library. A team of experts vets every request to see one, keeping the toxic text away from the prying eyes of the idly curious or those who might seek to exalt it.

“This book is too dangerous for the general public,” library historian Florian Sepp warned as he carefully laid a first edition of “Mein Kampf” — Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto of hate — on a table in a restricted reading room.

Nevertheless, the book that once served as a kind of Nazi bible, banned from domestic reprints since the end of World War II, will soon be returning to German bookstores from the Alps to the Baltic Sea.

The prohibition on reissue for years was upheld by the state of Bavaria, which owns the German copyright and legally blocked attempts to duplicate it. But those rights expire in December, and the first new print run here since Hitler’s death is due out early next year. The new edition is a heavily annotated volume in its original German that is stirring an impassioned debate over history, anti-Semitism and the latent power of the written word.

. . . .

[O]pponents are aghast, in part because the book is coming out at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and as the English and other foreign-language versions of “Mein Kampf” — unhindered by the German copyrights — are in the midst of a global renaissance.

Although authorities here struck deals with online sellers such as to prohibit sales in Germany, new copies of “Mein Kampf” have become widely available via the Internet around the globe. In retail stores in India, it is enjoying strong popularity as a self-help book for Hindu nationalists. A comic-book edition was issued in Japan.

. . . .

“This book is most evil; it is the worst anti-Semitic pamphlet and a guidebook for the Holocaust,” she said. “It is a Pandora’s box that, once opened again, cannot be closed.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Waterstones’ boss James Daunt on taking the fight to Amazon

25 February 2015

From Management Today:

The question everyone still wants answered is why? There you are, happily running a clutch of acclaimed, independent bookshops branded with your own name, making a decent profit, meeting interesting people, employing motivated staff, growing slowly at your own pace, which leaves you time for all the other important things in life, such as family and travel and reading and hobbies and fun, and you park all that on one side and take on a vast, broken business like Waterstones, with its millions of pounds of losses, its thousands of anxious employees and hundreds of muddled-up shops.

Why? James Daunt cocks his grey head thoughtfully. ‘Because if I didn’t, my world was going to change radically and with pretty severe implications for everyone in this industry including me.’

And yet, had Waterstones, Britain’s last national bookshop chain, closed in 2011 when it was, as Daunt puts it, ‘a business that had fallen off a cliff’, I would have thought it could only have benefited him. His eponymous business, six large, upmarket bookstores in swanky areas of London such as Marylebone, Chelsea, Hampstead and Holland Park, and a seventh, Owl Bookshop, in the more bohemian Kentish Town, would probably have doubled sales overnight. He could even have had a go at picking up a couple of prime Waterstones sites.

Instead, he helped push forward a deal for Russian investor Alexander Mamut to buy the whole broken chain, and agreed to head it, at a time when high-street bookselling was being shredded by Amazon, the online Godzilla.

Deep breath. ‘OK, so suddenly 300 Waterstones shops close, 4,000 booksellers lose their jobs, we are much busier but the publishing industry here goes through a really traumatic period and almost certainly publishes fewer books, and a lot of smaller publishers disappear altogether. And there’d never be bookshops back in places where there are currently bookshops – through historical accident we have Waterstones bookshops in prime locations; they would go to H&M or Next or whoever, and we’d never get back in.’

The result, he says, would be a return to the world we grew up in. ‘Just a very small number of very small, independent bookshops in secondary locations, with the economics of retailing now very much against the small independent. The reality is you have all the libraries closing down and then all the bookshops as well.’

. . . .

So, sensitive question: do Waterstones’ employees earn as much as Daunt’s staff yet? He clears his throat and speaks almost in a whisper.

‘No. And that’s one of the problems here. It is a people business, so much rests on what the booksellers in shops do, it is a skill and you get better at it the longer you do it, you have to give people a career structure. They want to drive cars and have mortgages and go on holidays and you can’t do that on a Waterstones’ salary.’

. . . .

‘I’m not interested in pulp,’ says Daunt. Meaning? ‘Romantic fiction, supermarket fodder.’ He wants some of that approach in Waterstones to hook smarter buyers, while acknowledging it has to stock what sells well. It sounds like a nightmare to manage.

. . . .

At the root of it, of course, is everyone’s relations with Amazon, the American online retailer that now ruthlessly undercuts British bookstores. Amazon demands and gets big discounts from publishers that have to maintain good relations with such a major seller.

Daunt says he has no complaints about the great deals that Amazon offers to customers, but he wants the tax burden on shop-owners reduced so the playing field is levelled. The government and local councils must do more to support high-street retailing.

‘It’s extremely important to communities, it provides good-quality employment and is burdened by rates that are wholly driven by the erroneous assumption that retail spending will continue to rise forever more – but that’s been ripped out by internet firms that exploit their competitor advantage, in particular, the lightness with which they are taxed.’

High streets are fine in the south-east, he says, but in the north they are emptying. ‘And they offer good-quality jobs which give people in communities self-respect.’

In their place we get logistics centre jobs, ‘which are not high quality at all, they are temporary jobs to match seasonal highs and lows, minimum wage, all the things Amazon does, and its one (in Dunfermline) got £10m from the Scottish government to set up something that rips jobs out of the high street and the buggers run everything out of Luxembourg to minimise tax, and it is not a company that supports our communities other than through giving good prices… ‘

. . . .

[E]book downloads already take nearly a third of the market and Waterstones will not spend a lot online to make its own website more competitive because, says Daunt, its losses mean it must ‘stick to its knitting’. So, given how radically the book market has changed, does he see yet more tech surprises coming?

‘Why don’t you ring Mr Bee-Zos?’ he teases, giving the Amazon founder an exaggerated first syllable, ‘though he might not tell you. Maybe the blinking Google Glasses will shove it through your eyeballs.’

He doesn’t care, as he believes ‘the pleasures of the physical book’ will keep customers hooked. Really? Surely competition for readers’ attention can only ramp up? That’s for certain, he agrees, but books will still be treasured.

Link to the rest at Management Today

Amazon Publishing Expands Into France, Spain

25 February 2015

From Ink, Bits & Pixels:

Amazon’s modest publishing empire has outposts in the US, UK, and Germany – and soon France and Spain.

. . . .

According to the listing, Amazon was “seeking an innovative, passionate, Editor with marketplace insight to acquire exceptional works for our imprints”. The listing goes on to suggest that the operation in France will be a full-fledged publisher with teams devoted to marketing, publicity, and author relations.

Link to the rest at Ink, Bits & Pixels

Scottish man finds lost Sherlock Holmes story from 1904 in attic

21 February 2015

From The Daily News:

In this mystery, Sherlock Holmes was the one who went missing.

A Scottish man discovered a lost Sherlock Holmes story in his attic, more than 80 years after the last tale was published, according to the SWNS Media Group

Walter Elliot, 80, said he found the 1904 short story, “Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burgs and, by Deduction, the Brig Bazaar,” while looking through old papers to display in a local pop-up museum.

The 1,300-word story was nestled inside a long-forgotten pamphlet that a friend had given to him more than 50 years ago, Elliot said.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the piece for a 48-page booklet to raise money for a bridge in Selkirk, Scotland, Elliot said. The pamphlet, with stories by local authors, was called “The Book o’ Brig” after the name of the wood bridge that washed away in a flood in 1902.

The “Book o’ Brig” was sold during a town fundraising bazaar in 1904 and netted about $633, “which was quite a sum back then,” Elliot said. The funds helped the town build an iron bridge, which still stands.

Link to the rest at The Daily News and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Bad News for Kindle Unlimited in France?

20 February 2015

From Publishing Perspectives:

On Thursday, France’s Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, announced that Kindle Unlimited (KU) and other unlimited ebook subscription services are illegal in France because they violate the country’s fixed book price law.

France’s fixed price law, called the Lang Law, was established in 1981 and says that publishers decide on the retail price of their books. Retailers are allowed sell the book for a maximum discount of 5% off the publisher’s price.

This announcement was based on a report written by Laurence Engel, the “mediator of the book” (la Médiatrice du livre) in France. Engel was commissioned by Pellerin to determine the legality of KU and other services in January 2015, about a month after KU launched in France.

The report by Engel found that, in the case of Kindle Unlimited and other ebook subscription services, the book prices are set not by the publishers, but by the subscription service — therefore violating the Lang Law. Engel recommended that the affected companies — Kindle Unlimited, Youboox and YouScribe — be given three months to comply with French law.

. . . .

Nicolas Gary of ActuaLitté writes that Amazon appears to be in the process of hiring an editor and establishing a publishing house in France. Through this new publishing company, Amazon could buy rights and sell its own editions at its own price via a book club model.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Big Publishing and Me

19 February 2015

From author Harry Bingham via The Writers’ Workshop:

I always wanted to be an author. Even as a very small child, I was passionately attached to the written word. When my parents read me Beau Geste, I was so overcome by the ending that I cried for the entire evening. When my father read me Sherlock Holmes, I was as transported as it was possible for any listener to be.

My childhood was divided between London and Wales, and our Welsh cottage lay just a few miles from Hay-on-Wye, a small country town then as now given over entirely to the written word. The shop which dominated the trade was Richard Booth’s Old Cinema: a vast building, castled with books. There was no other bookshop like it in the country, except perhaps the same entrepreneur’s Old Fire Station (equally eccentric, but less child-friendly, at least back then.) Rather than operate the way second-hand booksellers had always operated in the past – handpicking one or two titles from the boxloads offered – Booth had gone industrial. When he got started, a lot of libraries were closing and he simply bought up container loads of books. Good books, bad books, collapsing books, strange books. He didn’t even know what he bought. Didn’t care, so long as it was cheap.

The Old Cinema was crammed with the fruits of those raids. Anyone who calls themselves a bibliophile would have been tested, I think, by that bookshop. I mean, yes, there were treasures present, but in a way the dross was more striking. Edwardian medical almanacks. Old copies of Wisden. Tedious memoirs, authored by nobodies. Gazetteers of countries that history had long scrubbed from the map. Prewar scientific handbooks, that somehow still managed to smell of pipe smoke and tweed. Novels, lauded by reviewers of the day, but whose titles and authors had long vanished from memory.

. . . .

I devoured books. I loved them. I was going to be a writer.

A writer who, however, first needed to make a couple of detours. The first detour was Oxford University, where I learned to write long sentences, replete with qualifiers and anything else which could get in the way of good, plain meaning.

. . . .

And one important thing did happen in that first decade of my working life. I got an idea for a story. The idea was jewel-like in its simplicity. A rich man – very rich – would die, leaving three sons, whom he despised for being lazy and without ambition. So his will, rather than simply dividing up the money in equal thirds, would set them a test. The first son to make a million pounds – by himself, without the assistance or support of the others – would scoop the entire jackpot. If, after three years, none of the brothers had achieved that feat, all the money, every penny of it, would go to charity.

. . . .

I left work, cared for my wife, and wrote my first novel.

That novel was The Money Makers, the race-to-make-a-million romp that I had conceived some years before. The novel wasn’t high art, by any means, but it was fun, the way Jeffrey Archer would be if reading his prose didn’t make your gums hurt.

It took me nine months to write that beast of a book. My writing time was spent, often enough, at my wife’s bedside, she half-dozing, me typing as quietly as I could in the half-light. Strangely, though, the strange and frightening circumstances of the book’s creation show through not at all in the reading of it. The opposite indeed, as though ordinary life, jubilant and irrepressible, was forced burst through the constrictions of that sickened life.

. . . .

I didn’t know the statistics of success (roughly speaking, a literary agent will reject 999 manuscripts for every one they agree to represent) but nor did I care. My story was a decently written adventure story with a strong concept and a proper ending. How could it not sell? Feeling confident, I bought the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (the British equivalent of the American Writer’s Market) and chose six agents, more or less at random.

. . . .

At the time, I was serenely confident that my material would soon secure an offer of representation. With hindsight, I realise I had probably compiled just about the worst submission package in history. The letter was pushy, brash, arrogant. The chapters were a mess, the text all but unreadable for anyone over the age of thirty-five. I waited four weeks, accumulated a handful of rejection letters, then chose another half dozen agents and repeated the process.

. . . .

Within weeks, I had two offers of representation, one from the CEO of a large and well-known literary agency, the other from the co-owner of a two-woman agency, which operated out of a West London basement.

. . . .

We wanted big and we got lucky. Plenty of literary auctions can last weeks, even months. This one was a whirlwind. We got our first offer very quickly. Felicity instantly transmitted the existence of the offer to all other participants. The bidding rose very fast, so that some interested parties were blitzed out of the auction before they’d really had a chance to figure out their maximum price. Bids sailed through that magical ‘six figure sum’ threshold and continued on up. Finally, we were left with two bidders – Hodder and HarperCollins – each offering the exact same sum: £160,000 ($265,000) for a two book deal.

. . . .

HarperCollins largely managed to maintain that air of confidence and swagger, exemplified, not least, by one of the happiest occasions in my publishing life, a meet-the-trade shindig organised by the firm’s sales team.

That shindig looked, I suppose, like countless other corporate entertainment gigs. A large hotel is booked. Various trade types are assembled, given plastic badges, told to mingle. A flock of HarperCollins types grab authors and thrust them at buyers. Everyone feels a little awkward, and our hosts – the only people who know both groups of people – work hard to keep the mood bright and focused.

But then the booze flowed and the nerves wore off. There were perhaps half a dozen authors present: a wee handful of new or up-and-coming talent that the firm particularly wanted to promote. Each author had their own table to charm and delight, and I do remember being particularly delightful to one character, who I later realised had a marginal role at a minor retailer. Hot damn! I’d been launching my best charm missiles at the wrong target, and we were on pudding already!

I needn’t have worried. The real business of the evening began once the puddings had been cleared. The alcohol, which had flowed generously before, flowed prodigiously now. We mingled, we drank, we talked, we moved on.

. . . .

In those far-off days, publishers still had money with which to market books – and agents had the power to make them spend it. The last clause of my first contract reads:

It is understood that the Publishers will promote [The Money Makers] by way of marketing to the value of £50,000.’

That sounds good, though should you look at that clause with a lawyer’s eye, you’ll find something a little curious about it. ‘GUARANTEED MARKETING SPEND’ – that sounds, does it not, like a guarantee? A commitment to spend money. But then the clause itself sounds more hesitant: ‘it is understood that …’ Contracts don’t normally shilly-shally. If something’s agreed, they say so: ‘The publishers will spend a minimum of £50,000 on marketing The Money Makers,’ or something like that.

I was still more of an investment banker than an author, so I queried that clause with my agent. She told me to regard the clause as more of a statement of intent than an actual commitment, saying that in practice no publisher was actually likely to spend £50,000 on advertising a new book by a debut author – but then again what was marketing spend anyway? If we chose to query the spend, the firm would be able to find enough overheads-necessary-to-the-functioning-of-the-marketing-department that they’d be able to clamber their way to any sum we cared to name, no matter how contrived their reasoning.

. . . .

In all, I believe we sold about 70,000 copies.

. . . .

I wrote a terrible book.

Partly, the problem is simply one that afflicts many new writers: the dreaded second novel syndrome, a disease that often proves fatal. First novels don’t arrive the way all the others do. They just fly in through the window and settle in your head. First novels say to you, write me, it would be fun.

. . . .

I got a new editor – Susan – who took a deep breath and invited me to come in for a chat. That meeting was, I think, handled as perfectly as any such thing can be. Susan and Nick were patient, and calm, and non-accusatory, but in the nicest possible way they pointed out that the novel I had placed in their hands was a steaming dungheap of a book, a literary carcrash, an insult to language, a stain on all that the gods of literature held holy.

. . . .

Although HarperCollins had indeed had around 60,000 copies of my book out with retailers, those books were ‘sold’ on a sale-or-return basis. If a retailer couldn’t shift the books, they could simply return them to the publisher, for a full refund.

Which is precisely what happened. About half the books that left HarperCollins’s warehouses came back again. I think final sales of that title amounted to around 35,000 copies, or about half what we had sold of The Money Makers. HarperCollins, having approximately broken even on the first half of our two book deal, had now made an out-and-out loss on the second.

. . . .

We sent the manuscript off to HarperCollins and awaited their verdict.

The answer came back: they loved the book. They liked its scale, liked my dip back into history, liked the fact that my second novel wobbles had been thoroughly overcome. But the plain truth is that it’s probably better to be a debut writer with no sales record, than to be an experienced pro with a horrible one. Retailers, when choosing whether to stock a particular book, have to consider the debut novelist’s work on its own merits, because they’ve got no alternative. When it comes to considering a new work by an established author, they don’t need to care about the book – they can just check the stats.

And my sales experience – that sharp downward curve – gave HarperCollins pause.

Link to the rest at The Writers’ Workshop and thanks to Thomas for the tip.

Here’s a link to Harry Bingham’s books

After Paris Attacks, Voltaire’s ‘Tolerance’ Is Back In Vogue

17 February 2015

From National Public Radio:

Like most bookshops around Paris, Emile, which caters to young readers, sold all its copies of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance on Jan. 8, the day after two gunmen stormed into satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killing eight journalists.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that took the lives of 20 people, Voltaire’s manifesto in favor of religious tolerance — written in 1763 — is flying off the shelves.

Emile employee Laurianne Ledus says she was surprised that an 18th-century manuscript could become a bestseller today.

“It’s really, really weird,” says Ledus. “But I think it is an important book, even 200 hundred years later.”

Ledus says no one really understands why the attacks happened, and everyone is looking for answers.

“Children need to understand life and events and I think parents need this book in order to explain,” Ledus says.

. . . .

In Voltaire’s day, Protestants were persecuted and killed in France. In his book Voltaire defended the Protestants and excoriated the Catholic Church over its intolerance.

As Voltaire famously wrote, “Sir, I hate what you write, but I would give my life so that you could continue writing.”

. . . .

Leading intellectuals have been quick to draw comparisons between Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo. The Societe Voltaire, a group that safeguards the philosopher’s legacy called Voltaire the rallying symbol for those who do not accept violence in the name of religion.

The publishing house Gallimard, which puts out the pocket edition of Voltaire’s tolerance manifesto, says it is already on its second reprint. Nearly half as many copies have been sold in the last three weeks than in the last 12 years.

Publicist Bertrand Mirande-Iriberry says the philosopher’s ideas reassure.

“At a time when our way of life, of being and living together has come under attack, this book is like an antidote,” says Mirande-Iriberry. “It’s a way of resisting.”

Link to the rest at NPR

Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis self-publishes

17 February 2015

Yanis Varoufakis, the Finance Minister of the newly-elected Greek government, is a self-published author, releasing an ebook entitled Europe after the Minotaur: Greece and the Future of the Global Economy on Amazon.

Here’s a link to Yanis Varoufakis’ books on Amazon and here’s a list of his other books on his personal blog.

Thanks to M.S. for the tip.

You Can Burn the Paper, But the Stories Live On

15 February 2015

From Hazlitt:

A bearish shopper approaches Imran Siddiqui’s stall, carrying a ripped bag full of freshly cut meat, and asks for two books. Parked 500 metres away from a butcher shop in Karachi, Pakistan, his tables are full of volumes about cricket, children’s fiction, and sports magazines. “What kind of book do you want?” Siddiqui asks. The impatient man balances his ground beef and chicken legs in one hand, grabbing the first two books he sees in the other, wraps the pages around the raw meat, pays, and walks away.

Watching people treat the texts carelessly is difficult, but these are moral compromises he needs to make. Idealism is a luxury he can’t afford, with four children and an income of approximately 6,000 rupees a month. But his weekly chats with customers such as Sadia, a Master’s student studying English and closet poet who regularly reads her work to him, keep him going.

Although Siddiqui can’t read or write, years of serving Karachi book lovers has given him a respect for the written word. In a city where conventional book stores are few and far between, open-concept book stalls like Siddiqui’s can be found at beaches, outside hospitals, and in front of movie theatres and cafes. The owners are nomads-by-trade, moving frequently to unconventional areas. The majority of these book stalls are nameless; they take on the identity of the owner. Some of the books they sell are imported from Dubai or Singapore, shipped with costume jewelry and silks, while others are stolen from burnt-down or abandoned libraries; there’s a small group of men whose life’s work is to smuggle these texts and sell them to street vendors in a sort of literary black market. Like the origins of the books in which they traffic, they keep their identities secret.

The largest city in the country, with a population of over 23 million, Karachi has fewer than a dozen bookstores, most of which are located in isolated areas and are often poorly stocked. Ordering books online is not always reliable, and delivery can take a long time. Siddiqui and his peers provide many of the citizens of Karachi with their main source of reading material. The stalls themselves are mobile and easy to assemble, allowing their owners to move wherever business might be good, supporting themselves and their families in a country where poverty and unemployment burden many.

. . . .

A rusted steel weighing scale, traditionally used for fruits and vegetables, sits on the floor next to Zayer’s book stall. Magazines and newspapers all have a standard price, but books—most of them old and, in some cases, quite rare—are sold by tola, a South Asian unit of measurement that works out to less than a pound, for as little as one dollar. A several-hundred-year-old copy of The Royal History of England, with hand-painted borders and diagrams, can sell for less than a set of Harry Potter books. Early copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and collections of Shakespeare’s works are wedged between Pakistani gossip magazines. Zayer’s tea is always cold—he puts the cup down every few minutes to chat with passers-by or regular customers, some of whom are women carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, men driving Mercedes. They have been coming to him for years. He remembers the names of their children and their favourite authors. They greet him with a smile and sometimes bring treats for him to take home, an attempt to get what they need faster and in better condition.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Zayer can read and write. His father taught him at his own book stall when Zayer was six. Growing up in a low-income household, books were an escape on the nights when there was no dinner, when the roof leaked in the monsoon season, or when violence broke out in his neighbourhood. “It’s funny when I think about it,” he says. “The people who write these books have wild, beautiful imaginations, but I’m sure they never imagined that their work would be the life force of a man, like me, living in Karachi.”

Link to the rest at Hazlitt and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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