Margin call

From The Bookseller:

Seven years ago, The Bookseller published an open letter from Sam Husain, then chief executive of Foyles, exhorting publishers to support bookshops with better terms. He wanted an average discount closer to 60%, an improvement of 20 percentage points on what he saw was prevalent at the time. He argued that despite lower volumes on some titles, bookshops needed to be rewarded for the value they put into the market, including visibility, knowledge and author events.

Last week Blackwell’s made a similar intervention in a private letter to suppliers, requesting a 7% promotional rebate, to be applied on all invoices after 7th February—equivalent, it seems, to increasing the discount it receives on the published r.r.p. by a modest amount.

. . . .

In terms of strategies, it’s hard not to think Foyles did it better: an open discussion about the future of high street bookselling made sense, a blanket demand for a back-hander looks more gauche. It was no surprise that by the time The Bookseller saw the letter, its contents were already part of a lively discussion on Twitter. 

There was also confusion over the demands: publishers have long been prepared to give a bit extra in return for additional visibility, but Blackwell’s offers no such assurances, stating that the extra discount would support its drive towards profit and growing the market. The letter, too, stipulates that the rebate is for 2020, but does not say what will be different in 2021—either Blackwell’s needs the money now for a particular reason, or it will need it forever. Publishers expect the latter.None of this means Blackwell’s is wrong to make the demand, or amiss in setting out the costs and virtues of running bookshops staffed with savvy booksellers. Missteps are forgivable when the argument is sound. And it is. Blackwell’s has grown sales by £15m in three years, but its overheads continue to rise too. The same is not true for all publishers: although they screw their faces up at the accusation, many are more profitable than once they were, and it is not unimaginable that they could use some of what is the digital bounty to invest in bookshops. Academic publishers may feel less secure, but their discounts—far lower than those offered by trade publishers—were established in a bygone era when textbook prices were high, and student need was reliable. Wherever you sit, Blackwell’s is right to argue for an adjustment. 

There is a wider discussion to be had, too. Long forgotten in Husain’s missive was a call to use consignment—whereby booksellers only pay for the stock once it is sold—a suggestion perhaps too radical at the time. But the “returns” bit of the current model is wasteful, bad for profit and bad for the environment. Any discussion on terms must include a review of this model. 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Italian Book and Newspaper Publishers Reveal Scale of Piracy

From Publishing Perspectives:

As Much as 23 Percent of the Market Impacted

Calling for a government intervention, the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) and the Federation of Italian Newspaper Publishers (Federazione Italiana Editori Giornali, FIEG) have presented results of newly commissioned study on the impact of piracy in the Italian market.

. . . .

“This data reveals the need for the imposition of strong law enforcement and the education of users who are not always fully aware of the effects of their behavior.”

AIE and FIEG are reporting an annual loss of some €528 million (US$585 million) to the books industry and an aggregate of €1.3 billion when news publishing is added in, accounting for as much as 23 percent of the market, exclusive of exports and educational content.

. . . .

Some of the most interesting revelations in the report have to do with who the researchers can identify are the pirati, the pirates.

As is often the case–and a part of what makes combatting the problem so difficult–the culprits are everyday users, many of them unaware of how damaging their fondness for free or cheap content can be.

Some 36 percent of users–more than one in three Italians older than 15, the researchers found–carried out at least one act of piracy with a work of published content in the last year.

  • One in four users are estimated to have downloaded an illegal ebook or audiobook free of charge at least once
  • Seventeen percent of those surveyed said they’ve received at least one ebook from a friend or family member
  • Eight percent said they’d been given at least one photocopied book by a friend or acquaintance
  • Seven percent of respondents said they’d bought at least one photocopied book in the last year

In the university setting, the issue is more dramatic, with some 80 percent of university students committing at least one act of piracy–involving either physical or digital content–in the last year. And 81 percent of professional respondents–including attorneys, notaries, accountants, engineers, and architects–said they’d committed at least on act of piracy in the past year.

Speaking in the morning’s session for the research effort, however, IPSOS president Nando Pagnoncelli said the general public, for the most part is not unaware that piracy is illegal.

Some 84 percent of those older than 15 told researchers this, he said. But 66 percent said that piracy is unlikely to be discovered and punished by authorities, and 39 percent said that they don’t consider piracy to be serious enough to prosecute.

. . . .

And he also made the point, frequently heard now in piracy discussions, that ensuring easy legitimate access to content is important, the “abundance over scarcity” context in which it’s believed that piracy is less attractive because users don’t have to resort to illicit means to attain content they want.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The rocket league

From The Bookseller:

Between 1950 and 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union (USSR) spent millions in an attempt to beat each other into space. The activity, known as the Space Race, led to a technological leap, paving the way for many of the things we take for granted today, including GPS, powdered milk and the PC mouse. Publishing has never quite made it into orbit, but just as the world changed once the US landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, so publishing was irrevocably altered by its own celestial eclipse: the 2013 merger of Penguin with Random House.

In the run-up to the mega-coupling, Random House and Hachette had long duked it out to be top dog in the UK, with Hachette ahead at the turn of the last decade thanks, in large part, to the runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. With digital just beginning to make its mark, it was a period when print success made the difference to the publisher rankings, with Random House only leaping over Hachette again in 2012, thanks to E L James’ own leftfield take on Meyer’s chaste vampires.

The rest is, um, history. As this week’s publisher league table shows (see p06), PRH has an unassailable lead over the rest—a gigantic market share of 21%, making it bigger now than the next two, Hachette and HarperCollins, combined.

. . . .

The curiosity is Hachette, for so long—and, for the purposes of this analogy—the USSR to RH’s US. In 2019 its sales fell 2.7%, with a market share of 12.2%, way off its 2009 high of 16%. While much has remained the same since P joined RH, Hachette has not, consolidating its divisions within one building, and broadening its business with smart acquisitions, such as Bookouture, Quercus, JKP and Short Books. What it has not done is chase the market. If there was an element of vanity about the Space Race, it is hard not to read Hachette’s settling into second as an effort to put profit before growth, to focus on maintaining its bloc, rather than re-engaging in a disorderly hustle for the top.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Hunger Diaries

From The New Yorker:

In 1950, at the age of twenty-eight, Mavis Gallant left a job as a journalist in Montreal and moved to Paris. She published her first short story in The New Yorker in 1951, and spent the next decade travelling around Europe, from city to city, from hotel to pension to rented apartment, while working on her fiction. The following excerpts from her diary cover March to June, 1952, when Gallant was living hand to mouth in Spain, giving English lessons and anxiously waiting for payment for her New Yorker stories to arrive via her literary agent, Jacques Chambrun.

The Border, March, 1952

An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast on which rushes a steel sea. Black rocks, cliffs, wind, a cold spring sun. Fragile, feathery fruit trees in pink. At Portbou, leave the train. A large room, like a drafty baggage depot. I wait; my luggage is wrenched open and inspected by insolent guards. Organized disorder. Luggage is chalked. People drift to the currency exchange to declare what they are bringing in. I am bringing in so little (twelve thousand lire) that I expect them to think I am hiding more. We are funnelled into a doorway between filthy guards to show our passports. I am caught between a quarrelling French couple. Evidently bringing the baby was her idea—he knew better from the start. A wait, a long one. Inexplicable multilingual confusion, lending of pens, filling out of forms. I reach the window. “Journalist?” says the arrogant young man. (Will they all be like this?) “Beautiful, too!” I know what I must look like after a night and a day and a night in a third-class train. On to another window, where something is stamped, and a rush to the Barcelona train. They seem old (the carriages) but not shabby, just high and rather solid. No compartment doors, thank God, as I have been suffocating since Sicily. I share the window with a young girl who wears the Saint-Germain-des-Prés uniform—plaid slacks, black shirt, peajacket, mascara, no lipstick. Holes in her socks (the heel is a great grubby-white moon) and she obviously doesn’t give a damn. She has two addresses for cheap rooms in Barcelona and Madrid and writes a note for one, Calle de Hortaleza 7, Madrid. The carriage fills: an old woman, who can hardly hide her loathing for Miss Saint-Germain; two businessmen, who gravely offer each other smoking tobacco and papers for rolling; a booted soldier, fat blond wife, two babies. Everyone sleeps. The soldier wakes up and says to one of the babies, who is crying, “Si tú no te callas, te tiras por la ventana,” which I immediately write down, as it is the first sentence in Spanish I have heard and miraculously understood, though if he had not pointed to the window I might not have known about ventana.

Barcelona, March

Gray stone houses, balconies, trolley lines, dust. Like a bourgeois part of Paris suddenly deserted, disappearing under grit and sand.

No restaurants open before ten at night. It rains, it blows, every other sign advertises a detective agency. Nothing in the bookshops, just grammars and technical books. No one smiles. It is a big city, and dirty and gloomy. A suit for a man costs five dollars.

______

Breakfast is always a cup of warm milk flavored with haricot beans, and a bit of dry bread. Orphanage food. The food is very strange and I am bothered by the people staring. It isn’t the lively Italian curiosity but, rather, heavy and dull, like cows in a field.

Madrid, April

I live on bread, wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is governed by the price of mortadella. I know the Uniprix [department store] in France, the Upim in Rome, and here the sepu, all alike, with music piped in. In Madrid, subdued flamenco, and they seem to like the airs from Sigmund Romberg operettas.

Went to see “Oliver Twist,” which was dubbed and seemed very strange. In one scene, when he is beaten, the young people in the audience burst into maniacal laughter.

______

This flat is full of sound. There is a squeaky baby I have not yet seen, who cries like a toy being pressed. His mother croons and sounds like the Duchess in “Alice.” And then there is the strange dark woman who shouts, and a very little, dark old creature with a senile face who creeps up to me and murmurs in the passage. I talk to her cheerfully in English until someone comes and rushes her off to the kitchen. The people are not friendly, but nice. I think not accustomed to foreigners.

______

“Mama, look at the señora smoking,” a little girl cried, staring at me, in a café. Cool wind, fluttering apricot-colored tablecloths. At night the sky is deep indigo, the moon a piece of cold metal. Few city lights, and so it is almost a country sky. The sound of Madrid is a million trampling feet. Its smell is cooking oil. Everything tastes of it, even the breakfast croissants. This flat is awash in it. At lunch I saw a meal being prepared—a bath of oil with something sinister swimming inside.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

UK Booksellers Association Cites Third Year of Gains in Stores

From Publishing Perspectives:

In an announcement today (January 10) from their offices in London’s Bell Yard, the Booksellers Association reports a third year of gains in the number of sales outlets it counts among independent bookstores in Ireland and the UK.

The association’s managing director, Meryl Halls, says, in a prepared statement, “It’s very heartening to see the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland grow for a third year. This is a testament to the creativity, passion, and hard work of our booksellers, who continue to excel in the face of challenging circumstances, particularly those wider high street challenges which so often see bookshops outperforming their high street peers.”

The 2019 performance, Halls says, “is enhanced by the news of Waterstones store openings during 2019 and bolsters the bookselling community across the board.”

As her comment about Waterstones indicate, the association’s membership isn’t limited to independents. It includes chain and “nontraditional” stores—the latter term normally referring to food stores and other outlets not led by a book-related inventory.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Book clinic: can you suggest funny reads from female authors?

From The Guardian:

A: Viv Groskopwriter, broadcaster and standup comedian, writes:

I am tempted to answer with more questions. Define “book.” Define “really funny”. Define “recently.” After all, Nora Ephron is recent in historical terms, though she is also dead. I also slightly balk at “by a woman” because – this is crazy! – men can be funny too and anything by Craig Brown or David Sedaris would always be at the top of my make-me-laugh-dancing-monkey wish list.

But I will obey your demands. If you’re looking for fiction, you need to be checking out Reasons to Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe, Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Grown Ups by Marian Keyes or All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg. (Those last two are out in spring 2020. Take that for recent.)

Link to the rest at The Guardian

How the decade in books changed what and how we read

From Our Windsor.ca:

In 2010 or so I bought my first e-reader. A Kobo. I was intrigued by the idea of an e-reader; I thought it might be convenient. But I equivocated — should I buy a Kobo? Or a Kindle?

Kindle was associated with the growing bookseller Amazon, the Kobo with the Canadian company Chapters/Indigo. Which company would have more books available? Apple released the first iPad at the beginning of the year and sales took off immediately. Technology was changing so quickly I wasn’t sure what to buy. Would it all be obsolete a year from now?

Little did I know then that the questions I was asking would form the crux of what occurred in books over the ensuing decade, in which what we read, how we read and who we read have created industry-wide changes.

Bookstores aren’t dead

One of the hallmarks of the decade before the 2010s was the death of the bookstore, thanks to the proliferation of big box stores selling books plus online retailers, Amazon in particular.

A recent headline in the American newspaper the Grand Haven Tribune asked: “Are bookstores back?” The piece quotes the American Booksellers Association, which says between 2009 and 2019 the number of new shops owned by members increased by 53 per cent. They might not be big, but they are there.

New bookstores have been opening in Toronto and across the country, too. A bookshop can’t live by selling books alone — but they can when the community gets involved. Stores such as Another Story Bookshop in Toronto have increasingly organized author readings; some organize writers’ workshops, book clubs. In other words, bookstores and books do what they’ve always done: contribute to a community of ideas and storytelling.

Print’s not dead, either

The total volume of print units sold in 2018, as tracked by BookNet Canada SalesData, is 54.7 million at a value of $1.13 billion. BookNet’s State of Digital Publishing in Canada survey showed that 18.6 per cent of books purchased in 2017 were ebooks. That was up just slightly from 2016.

But when it comes to Canadian books, the picture looks bleaker. According to the More Canada Report, published in December 2018, only 15 per cent of books purchased were written by Canadians. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult for readers to identify Canadian books. That’s in great part due to the way they are bought: through Amazon. Amazon’s algorithm recommends books to you — but not necessarily Canadian books, leaving Canadian publishing houses and Canadian authors at the mercy of an algorithm that isn’t interested in promoting them.

. . . .

The report also found that independent publishers’ sales were down 44 per cent over the past 10 years.

That’s happened as big publishers are getting bigger. The publishing giant Penguin Random House didn’t quite exist at the beginning of this decade — the takeover of the two companies Penguin and Random House by the German multinational Bertelsmann wouldn’t take effect until 2012.

. . . .

Self-publishing has also become a way to, sometimes, make a living as a writer and publish books that mainstream publishers might not have picked up. It also allows mainstream writers to capture income in different ways — they become hybrid writers, publishing some of their work in the traditional way under one name and self-publishing under another.

Some, such as the science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, have launched Patreon accounts so that readers can basically become “patrons of the arts and of individual creators,” he told the Star in a 2018 interview. Even bestselling authors find the freedom of non-traditional publishing a positive thing. They get to keep a bigger cut of the books they sell and they get the creative freedom to do what they want.

Does all this access to potential audiences work? It depends. Overall, writers are earning less money than they ever have. A Writers’ Union of Canada survey in 2018 found a 27 per cent decrease in writers’ income over the previous three years. Part of the reason for that was copyright legislation in Canada. In the U.K., authors reported in 2018 that their incomes had declined 15 per cent over the previous three years.

. . . .

Marketing books changed as publishers embraced online advertising through Facebook, finding the ability to directly target a specific audience and, as the algorithms got even better, specific readers, was attractive. “Influencers” also became a key part of targeting book buyers. With the increasing closure of traditional media outlets came the withering of books sections and an erosion of readily accessible reviews. Instead, reader-generated review sites such as Goodreads proliferated. Some mainstream news outlets, including the Star, kept their books sections going, and many smaller literary magazines began publishing more reviews and stand-alone review sections.

Link to the rest at Our Windsor.ca

As PG and others have pointed out before, stories about the book industry that cite legacy publishing and traditional book store industry statistics are always wrong because Amazon doesn’t break out sales figures for books, including books from traditional publishers, self-published books and print on demand books and, with no denigration of Kobo intended, Amazon sells the large majority of English-language ebooks.

Amazon created the market for ebooks, at least in the English-speaking world, by offering ebooks at attractive prices, building and selling ebook readers at attractive prices, creating the software and commercial infrastructure to build, distribute and sell ebooks efficiently around the world and putting a lot of brains and money into the task of introducing and attracting readers to ebooks. Because old-line traditional publishing promotional tools like book reviews in newspapers and magazines (yet another sinking ship and no friend to Amazon or other online competitors), Amazon acquired and built Goodreads up into a leading (the leading?) online book review site.

Could anyone else have accomplished this task as quickly and effectively and at the scale Amazon did? A hypothetical competitor might have done so, but real-world competitors have not. See, for example, Nook.

PG is not certain whether the Writers Union of Canada welcomes indie authors or not, but most traditional authors organizations are of little interest to indie authors because these organizations focus on topics like improving the standard contract terms that old-line publishers offer authors and flagging the latest fly-by-night publishing scam that comes floating up from the sewers.

PG is not familiar enough with the details of the Canadian bookstore market to know whether a retail disaster on the order of Barnes & Noble has occurred or is threatened, but as he has mentioned before, if Barnes & Noble can’t be saved, a huge part of the world of traditional publishing and bookselling will simply disappear.

If you were counseling a college student nearing graduation about career choices, would you recommend that they go to work for Barnes & Noble? Penguin Random House?

As far as a writing career is concerned, if this hypothetical college student wanted to earn a living by writing, would you suggest s/he complete a quality manuscript, then start sending it to agents or publishers and wait for a response? While working at Starbucks? Instead of signing up for campus interviews with companies who want to hire graduates right away?

 

 

‘Virtue Politics’ Review: Of Soulcraft And Statecraft

From The Wall Street Journal:

What characteristics are necessary for a political career? How do you recognize an unfit ruler? Should you oppose or try to reform him? These questions are central to recent debates about liberalism, conservatism and meritocracy—and perhaps even impeachment.

Yet they are also very old questions. As Harvard professor James Hankins shows in “Virtue Politics,” a magisterial study of “soulcraft and statecraft,” humanist scholars in the Italian Renaissance were concerned with many of the same puzzles that obsess us today. While acknowledging the variety of responses that they offered, Mr. Hankins focuses on a particular kind of answer. He calls it “virtue politics”: the attempt to reform civic life by improving the morality of the ruling elite.

Virtue politics was not invented in the 15th century. As Mr. Hankins shows, it drew on intellectual currents that extend back to ancient Greece, classical Rome and the Church Fathers of the early Christian era. In different ways, Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine all argued that virtue was the basis of political achievement.

But the central figure in Mr. Hankins’s account is Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. He is remembered today mostly as a poet and an editor of Latin texts. Mr. Hankins contends that he was also a significant political thinker. According to Mr. Hankins, Petrarch saw his literary and scholarly endeavors as a step toward saving Italy—and perhaps all of Christendom—from misgovernment. Learning to speak and write beautifully was not simply a cultural achievement but also, he believed, a political necessity.

Borrowing a term from German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, Mr. Hankins describes this enterprise as paideuma—an “intentional form of elite culture,” as he writes, “that seeks power within a society with the aim of altering the moral attitudes and behaviors of society’s members, especially its leadership class.” The humanists’ task was to institutionalize and propagate this paideuma through writing, speaking and teaching.

On the intellectual level, Petrarch and his followers sought to rescue classical antiquity, especially pagan Rome, from Christians’ historical suspicion. Although the Romans had not known the true God, humanists argued, their political success was based on their superiority in virtue. When it came to personal rectitude and public spirit, the Romans often exceeded ostensible Christians. The humanists had to acknowledge that not all Romans met this lofty standard. But they adopted Cicero—the statesman, lawyer and philosopher—as its personification.

. . . .

True nobility was closely related to the humanist conception of the good government. Unsatisfactory rulers might secure desirable outcomes from selfish motives. Those with true nobility would pursue the right goals for the right reasons. In this respect, humanist political thought had a perfectionist quality. The test of legitimacy was not simply performance, but good character.

Mr. Hankins shows that the humanists’ obsession with character explains their surprising indifference to particular forms of government. If rulers lacked authentic virtue, they believed, it did not matter what institutions framed their power.

. . . .

Indeed, a ruler of true nobility, in the humanists’ view, should be cherished even if he came to power in an irregular manner. Despite their admiration for Cicero, some humanists defended Julius Caesar —who invaded Italy, against the senate’s order, and ruled as dictator for life. To these writers, Caesar’s outstanding character and good intentions outweighed his questionable methods. “Can a man raised to power through his own merits, a man who showed such a humane spirit, not to his partisans alone but also to his opponents because they were his fellow citizens—can he rightly be called a tyrant?” asked the Florentine statesman Coluccio Salutati “I do not see how this can be maintained, unless indeed we are to pass judgment arbitrarily.”

Such humanist defenses of Caesar’s virtue are superficially similar to Machiavelli’s infamous account of the virtù of a prince—the capacity for amoral calculation that, in Machiavelli’s view, must guide the effective prince (a generic term that includes any aspirant to power). Mr. Hankins devotes his last three chapters to exploring the differences. If Petrarch is the hero of “Virtue Politics,” Machiavelli is its villain.

. . . .

In this respect, Machiavelli prefigures our current predicament. The Renaissance tradition remained influential well into modern times. Particularly in New England, humanist arguments about virtue were often blended with Protestant theology in an amalgam that historian Mark Noll calls “Christian republicanism.” John Adams believed Petrarch showed that “tyranny can scarcely be practiced upon a virtuous and wise people.”

Yet virtue politics was eclipsed by modern constitutionalism. In their emphasis on the separation of powers, Locke and Montesquieu and the other Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas inspired the American Founders shared Machiavelli’s doubts about the sufficiency of virtue. English scholars like Edward Coke and William Blackstone also promoted a greater appreciation for the role of law. We can see the legacy of this shift in the ambiguity of the impeachment process, which appeals both to virtue and to legality.

. . . .

Mr. Hankins makes an explicit plea to the modern successors of the elite that the humanists tried to cultivate. Those who enjoy cultural or political influence should consider carefully whether they are worthy of such power.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)