Tag Archives: Sam Jordison

A little rant about marketing books like cornflakes

Everything has its value and anything can be commodified, and marketised, even books. But selling books in the same way as cornflakes or cat food is disturbing. It’s a sign of some serious problems in the business of book production.

215 Bogof 2Have you seen books promoted with a BOGOF offer? Buy one get one free. It makes me mutter out loud in the aisles of the supermarket.

The Net Book Agreement

It all started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. The NBA allowed the price of books to be agreed between publishers and book sellers, and required the sellers to abide by the agreed price. It lasted 90 years. They still have such an agreement in France and Germany.

In 1991 the NBA was challenged by Dillons which wanted to sell books at a discount and other sellers joined in. Eventually in 1997 the NBA was judged a restrictive practice. The Office of Fair Trading claims that book sales have risen 30% since then. The abolition of the NBA has resulted in the slow reduction on the number of independent bookshops, and the concentration of most sales in the hands of a few big stores, notably Waterstone’s and Amazon.

Sales of books may be up but writers’ incomes are down. Mean income for writers surveyed in 2013 was £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when it had been £12,370 according to ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society). Writers get their income from royalties, a percentage of the price at sale not the cover price. Books are rarely sold at the cover price. My own income from writing is much, much less than £11,000. Few writers are able to devote all their working time to writing.

The margins for the publisher have reduced, some appear to have economised by letting the editors go. They play safe with the books they publish, taking fewer risks and promoting books they are sure will sell. The shelf life of books have been reduced, so have current lists and back catalogues. Even so several smaller publishers have been swallowed by the bigger houses. Thank goodness that independent publishers are holding their own and giving us books of quality rather than just backing sure-sellers.

It’s the quantity Stupid

Of course it’s a good thing that more books are being sold, but what matters more than the quantity is the quality. We have come to expect to buy books very cheaply. Like our food and milk. But if we value low cost above everything then we will get poor quality, adulteration, very angry farmers and very disappointed writers and readers.

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

All books are not the same

This is the ranty bit. Books are not the same. One cornflake is pretty much like another cornflake. One book is not like another. Book marketeers love the idea of a series because it suggests that if you read one book by Percy Smith you will want the next book by Percy Smith or one with a very similar cover indicating the same genre.

And we need experimental, innovative, imaginative books. The market today discourages risk-taking and innovation by publishers. They no longer have the margins to cover losses on a book they think is worth publishing but may not be a commercial success. Commercial success indicates popularity and is not a measure of literary quality.

Buying books

215 obama-at-prairie-lights

We want, we need people to buy books. I remember being in Stoke Newington Bookshop in 1995, browsing away as you do. Two young women were in there with me (this was in the old premises which was more like a corridor than a room) and so we were constantly squeezing past each other. One young woman announced, ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’. I was so struck by this statement that I made a note of it. I hope she isn’t still able to make that claim.

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

And then, a couple of years later, I overheard a student at the University of London saying, no doubt in relation to her studies, perhaps an essay she was writing, ‘You read a book and that changes everything.’ I would have liked to introduce these two young women.

215 BOGOFPerhaps the increase in the number of literary prizes is the publishers’ way of supporting initiatives to promote the sale of good books.

Euston Road, London

Euston Road, London

I am surprised but pleased when I see a book advertised on billboards, on the bus stands or on the underground in London.

And then rather shocked when novels, usually thrillers, are promoted with something very much like a film trailer on tv.

And now I am expecting to find a free book in my packet of cornflakes.

Related posts

Sam Jordison in the Guardian in 2010 laid out the damage done to publishers and booksellers by the ending of the NBA.

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Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reading

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I am a little in awe of novels set in the Far East, and especially if the action occurs during the war. Three other books come to mind that are worth reading: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed here). Life seems to be experienced more at the extremes in these novels. The privations are fiercer, punishments are harsher and the deaths more violent.

63 tale

The Gift of Rain has been on my tbr pile for sometime, recommended by the wonderful blogger Annecdotalist and endorsed by a place on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2007.

Rain, as a gift, is of course ambiguous as it is for the protagonist of this novel, Philip Hutton, who is blessed with the gift of the title. There are few certainties in his life, and he is pulled in two or more directions throughout the novel. He tells his story to a visitor as an old man. It is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Penang. His narration offers little in the way of criticism or regret or judgement, despite some horrific cruelty and barbarity and acts of extreme generosity and humanity.

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into the world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

I know her words had truth in them, for it always seemed to be raining in my youth. There were days of cloudless skies and unforgiving heat, but the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the colours around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in mouldy hues. (13)

146 Gift rain coverThese are the opening paragraphs, setting up the expectation of change and wisdom from an older man’s perspective. There is a warning as well of the narrator’s acceptance of the relentless and unforgiving aspects of life’s events. Fate perhaps. The lofty and detached voice will come to relate some of life’s hardest suffering and challenges.

Philip Hutton grows up as a mixed race (English/Chinese) boy within an English family in Penang, Malaya in the late ‘30s. The tension between his dual ethnic heritages within his family is further heightened by his affiliation to the Japanese envoy, Endo-San, who takes him under his wing and teaches him the Japanese way. By the time of the Japanese invasion we have read of Philip’s experience of Japanese refinement and culture, the ethic of respect and loyalty and the skills of martial arts. He is drawn into these through his sensai.

It is clear to the reader, but not to Philip, that Endo-San while genuinely drawn to the young man is also exploiting Philip for his knowledge about the island to assist the invasion of Penang in December 1941. He has his own reasons for this betrayal. During the occupation Philip feeling guilty for all the information he gave his master, and in return for protection for his family, volunteers to join the Japanese occupier. His best friend joins the resistance. Again we read of the ambiguity and tension in Philip’s engagement with the occupying forces and his loyalty to his father, as well as to Endo-San. It is not a tension that the young man manages with ease.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

The Japanese were defeated, but not before they had stretched the loyalties and tensions between the Malay, British and Chinese communities, brutally removed any opposition and implicated Philip in some of their worst transgressions. We are continually invited to ask what options lay open to Philip, and once committed to one line of action how could he do the best according to his conflicting codes. Even fifty years later Philip’s reputation is mixed among the inhabitants of Penang, for he had been complicit in acts of atrocity in order to save some people.

The Japanese are also represented as conflicted. They are cultured, refined and very focused on economic and military domination of the Far East. Yet some of the most principled characters are Japanese. And it is made clear that many Japanese suffered from the war, not least the military personnel, and that some suffered for many lingering years to come. Philip’s visitor was the former lover of Endo-San, and she is dying from radiation sickness from one of the atomic explosions, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This is carefully plotted novel, and very long. We are presented with the backstories of many characters, revealing varied cultural customs and beliefs and their strengths and flaws when these customs are tested in the extreme conditions of war. We find many themes here: ambivalence, contradictions, nuance, uncertainty, divided loyalties, imperfect understanding, pride, face and cruelty.

The descriptions are rich, like the action. Here is Philip meeting Endo-San on the beach one evening.

I went down to the beach late. It was a timeless moment of the day, the sand still wet and silky from a downpour that had occurred earlier. Dark clouds were racing away inland, leaving the seaward sky clear. The moon was already out, a pale companion to the sun that was setting reluctantly.

Birds flew low along the surface, while some pecked on the beach for the almost invisible baby ghost crabs. I could not see them as the scuttled across the beach, only the tracks they left behind them, marking the sand like writing etched by a ghostly hand.

It was quite chilly, the wind carrying a trace of the rain that now fell almost as unseen as the baby crabs, as thought the clouds had been scraped through a fine grater. I solitary figure stood staring out to sea as waves unrolled themselves around his feet like small bundles of silk. I walked up to him, feeling the coldness of the water. (307)

An editor should have removed nearly all uses of ‘almost’ (twice in that passage). Almost is a writer’s weasel word I think – was it invisible or not, unseen or not? I’m not a fan of tightening jaws either, and there are lots of those. But these are very small gripes in the face of the overall achievement of this novel.

Tan Twan Eng (2007) The Gift of Rain published by Myrmidon 508 pp

 

Links to other reviews:

Sam Jordison reviewed it in the Guardian for the Booker Prize Club. He had some editorial comments but thought it an excellent first book.

And the blogger dovegreyreader scribbles enjoyed it too and had some questions for Tan Twan Eng, to which he replied. Here’s the post.

 

Any thoughts about this novel? Have you read it? Do you intend to read it? What have you heard about it?

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews