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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Still more on the demise of the newspaper book review

Former L.A. Times Book Review editor, Steve Wasserman, was interviewed on Monday's NewsHour segment about the demise of print book reviews.

As GalleyCat on comments, "Now that there are only four papers with separate book sections including the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, does online book coverage have the authority, nay, gravitas that book sections lend?"

According to Wasserman, they don't. He said:

I have no problem with the vast democracy wall that the Internet provides on which everyone, every crank and every sage can post his or her pronunciamento.

But what's lost here is the discriminatory filter provided by people who have embraced journalism as a craft. What has been lost here is the authority, such as it ever was, of newspaper people trying to do a job well done.

I do not see foreign coverage being replaced by the activity of individuals on the Internet bloviating about this or that.

And despite the robust nature or at least the very excited nature of the conversation on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published, say, in magazines, James Wood in the New Yorker, or Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic, or Christopher Hitchens in the pages of the Atlantic.

And it will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which such people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism. At their best, the newspapers were an exercise in delivering to us that kind of informed criticism, which was the work of professionals who had devoted a lifetime to the consideration of literature.

I say, Granted. Excellent point. But do these people review the books a lot of people read, or is there a literary filter? My impression, too, is that papers like the Boston Globe are publishing commentary on the books that are exciting a lot of discussion out there, which people do read.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, by John Boyne. (Random House/Doubleday, trade paper, NZ$36.99).

The mutiny led by Fletcher Christian, who seized the breadfruit-laden Bounty after leaving Tahiti in April 1789, and set the captain, William Bligh, adrift in a boat, ranks up there with the Titanic as one of the iconic stories of the sea. The combination of sadism, violent confrontation, a sexy Polynesian paradise, and an epic small boat voyage has an enduringly irresistible appeal.
Ever since March 1790, when Bligh arrived in London to report what he called a "close-planned act of villainy", people haven't been able to stop memorialising the event. Poets, including Lord Byron, have penned poems; artworks have been painted; scholarly articles written; and conferences held. Two replica ships have been built, and five films made, one―the 1935 Oscar-winner―managing to convince the world that Bligh was a brute who looked just like Charles Laughton, and Christian, portrayed by Clark Gable, was a romantic hero. Marlon Brando, who played an equally dashing Christian in a 1962 version, was so seduced by the story he married his Boraboran co-star, and bought his own Polynesian island. The mutiny now has several websites.
Nonfiction accounts abound, starting with Bligh's own book, A narrative of the mutiny … (1790). The latest is Caroline Alexander's fine study, The Bounty (2003), which treats Bligh much more charitably than most of the earlier versions, and greatly influenced the book under review. Novelists―starting with Nordhoff and Hall in 1932―have given the sensational story fictionalised treatment, too, and of these John Boyne is the most recent.
For his novel, Boyne has taken a real-life person, John Smith, Captain Bligh's steward, and replaced him with a fourteen-year-old pickpocket. This is John Jacob Turnstile, a lively character with a racy turn of phrase, strengthened rather than corrupted by his dark past as a child prostitute in Portsmouth. Given the choice of a year in jail or a trip to Tahiti, Turnstile chooses the Bounty, but finds adjusting to sea-life quite a challenge.
For the first two days he is most horribly seasick, an ordeal eased only by the lucky fact that he has a kindly captain who tucks his blankets and wipes his fevered brow. When he wakes to his surroundings, it is to find that most of his companions are distinctly unpleasant, being "scuts" and "weasels" who force him to endure a particularly brutal crossing-the-line ceremony. Then, when young "Turnip" arrives in Tahiti, it is to fall in love with a dusky maiden, who betrays him for another.
Surprisingly, the author does not give this as the reason why Turnstile chose loyalty to his captain on the fateful day of the mutiny, rather than take the chance to return to the seductive island. Instead, like much of what has gone before, his decision is not quite credible. It is not until now, at the moment that Turnstile joins Bligh and the other loyal crewmen in the boat, at the start of a 48-day ordeal―"Eighteen men in twenty feet of wood and glue and nails, fighting for their very lives"―that the story becomes convincing. Then it is compellingly so. Of all the accounts of epic small boat voyages I have ever read, Boyne's would be one of the most gripping.
This, along with the memorable protagonist, makes the book a recommended choice. And while it is hard to believe that any naval commander would stoop to mop his servant's brow, it is a refreshing change that Bligh should be the hero, for once, and Fletcher Christian the villain.
Review by Joan Druett, originally published in the Dominion Post of Wellington, New Zealand, 26 July 2008.

More on the demise of the newspaper book review

Kassia Krozser of has posted her meditations about the closure of the book review section of the Los Angeles Times.

"Yesterday was the last day for the dedicated book review, and it makes me sad to know it’s gone," she says; "but if you didn’t see it coming, you weren’t paying attention."

So who should the book world blame? The internet? The newspaper publisher? Certainly the latter, she vigorously goes on -- "Sam Zell has no business owning a newspaper," particularly one that has a sterling record as a Pulitzer-winner. And the former can be blamed only because Zell et al saw it as a competitor, not a complementary facet.

However, she goes on, one has to contrast the fuss created by the loss of the book review pages with the absolute outcry if the sports section was erased. It's not that the sports section creates advertising -- it's that the sports section serves the whole community. Were there 300,000 avid and dedicated readers of the books section, as some have claimed? Absolutely not, she believes, and the reason she gives is that books sections are elitist.

"As we all know, smart women read romance. And literary fiction. And mystery. And science fiction. And a whole lot of other stuff. And women buy more books than men. The LATBR often felt like a gentleman’s club — the books reviewed, the reviewers, the subject matter. This is largely reflective of it top editorial staff, but it’s also a reflection of the value placed on “women’s” fiction and issues. Some weeks it was if there was a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the LATBR."

Intrigued? For more of this very pertinent and thought-provoking commentary, go to:

Yet another marketing ploy for The Lace Reader

Salem enters into the spirit of promoting Lace Reader

With William Morrow's edition of Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader publishing today, the folks in Salem, MA are enjoying the attention.

"Morrow is working with Salem's tourism agency, local merchants, and historic sites to promote the book, which is set here, and the city at the same time. While Salem hopes The Lace Reader will draw tourists to town, author and publisher hope the city's attractions will bolster the book." Director of the tourism bureau Kate Fox says, "It has been the greatest thing to fall into Salem's lap, for promotion and marketing."
Barry is the latest marketing sensation. Reluctant to approach publishers with her first novel, she entered the self-publishing game, with such spectacular results that she negotiated a two-million-dollar deal for The Lace Reader plus another book to come with William Morrow of HarperCollins Publishers. Go to her website to see the trailer.
This marketing partnership with the town of Salem was -- guess what -- suggested by the author. As successful as all her other ploys, it led to a long Boston Globe feature. The paper notes: "Locating a novel in a relatively more intimate, colorful, and historic community like Salem, which everyone has heard of but relatively few have visited, can draw people who want to see the real places they read about. While that's good short-term publicity for a new book, it can benefit a city for years."

I love Salem; have spent many absorbing hours in the Phillips Library at the Peabody-Essex Museum. The flamboyant shipmasters of the early Salem trading vessels played a big part in early colonial New Zealand. And in the Wiki Coffin novels his father, the colorful and reprehensible Captain William Coffin, was a citizen of the place.
Note to myself: Read the Book!

Rushdie even makes the "Not-Quite-Yet List."

Half of the books on the following list won't even be finalists for the Booker Prize, but "Publishers Lunch" picks the contenders:

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold
The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry
From A to X, by John Berger
The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser
Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
The Clothes on Their Backs, by Linda Grant
A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif
The Northern Clemency, by Philip Hensher
Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill
The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz

The shortlist will be announced on September 9.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Internet Review of Books

Carter Jefferson,Texan of Boston, has posted a comment on the item about that great little magazine for readers, Good Reading, asking me to have a look at his blog of reviews,
Well, I have done so, and it is amazing! The content is great, and I am in love with the design. An example to emulate. If possible.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Good Reading

I notice that Caron Dann has posted a very interesting comment to my item about the possible demise of newspaper book reviews. (Scan down . . . and down.)

I "met" Caron Dann when she interviewed me for a story for a marvellous Australian magazine devoted entirely to good books and called (of course) Good Reading. It produces a great internet issue which is complementary to the printed periodical, and which is searchable for past stories and reviews. Have a look at it at:

You need to register, though this is free. You will be issued with a six- or seven-digit number, and the numbers of your post code (zip code) serve as your password. Just in case your program does not allow pop-ups, it is a good idea to press "CTL" as you log on. Then the magazine comes up as a full-page thumbnail, with tabs on either side for easy turning of pages. In order to make a chosen page readable, position your cursor anywhere on the page, and click your mouse. Hold the mouse button down to "grab" the page and scan up, down, and from side to side. It's easy once you get the hang of it, and the content is very highly recommended.

Caron asks about other book review internet sites. I enjoy the online versions of book review pages from regular papers and magazines, including the New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, and The Guardian. A personal favorite for reviews of mystery books is The Mystery Reader, which is one of the many listed on AcqWeb (see link below), which has a very comprehensive list of book review sites, including those of many American, Canadian, and British newspapers.
I am not sure how recent this list is, though, as a few URLs come up with a "page unavailable" sign. Some of those that do work ask for a paid subscription, though they offer a free trial period lasting as long as 30 days, while reference-type sites like Gale want their money upfront.
However, most are free. Many of these ask you to register with a username (which, like Good Reading, they might provide) and a password, but there is no cost attached.
Your local library might post reviews online, often written by the librarians themselves, so it is worth checking its site. And there are some fine and perceptive reviewers writing thoughtful assessments for the sheer love (or in some cases, loathing) of the books they have read on Don't underrate this as a resource.
I'll add more as I think of them. But thanks, Caron!

"Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all"

My vote for the most attention-gripping title to come out this season is Christina Thompson's Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story," published by Bloomsbury USA this month, and due to be launched in New Zealand within the next couple of months or so.

Back in the eighties, Christina was a graduate student in Melbourne, and on the way back to Australia after a vacation with her folks in Boston, Mass., she decided to spend a few days in the Bay of Islands. There, in a reprise of what happened to Captain James Cook and Captain Dumont de Surville about a couple of centuries earlier, she had her first contact with the Maori people. The difference is that while they were both killed by Polynesians, she married one she met in a pub.

It was quite a contrast in cultures. He was a tradesman from a background of rural poverty, she was an upper-middle-class intellectual: He was a “native,” while she descended from European colonizers. She was a 90-pound blonde, and he was a 200-lb Maori. For a candid and revealing Q&A session with Christina, see:

While the book is about those aggressive first contacts between European and Maori warriors (according to Darwin's journal on the Beagle, he was informed that they shouted out something like the words of the title in ritual challenge), Thompson draws the reader in to the story by intertwining New Zealand’s history with an anecdotal account of her own relationship with her husband and his family, describing how the two met and married, had three sons, traveled together, and lived in several different parts of the world, including Australia and Hawaii, before settling in Boston.

Thompson began Come on Shore in 1999, after moving back from the Pacific to the U.S. After putting it aside for several years, she wrote most of it over the course of two years. Apparently her husband had no input, and has not even read it, which demonstrates a great deal of trust in her good taste and judgement, but is also a pity, as it would have been very interesting to learn something about his cultural memories of those first contacts -- not to mention his feelings and being transported to Boston.

Christina Thompson is already planning her next book, which will explore Maori language and culture, in which she hopes to call attention to disappearing languages by documenting the process of learning one. Luckily, she is good with languages, but because her husband is not a fluent speaker of Maori, she says she may have to travel as far as Hawaii to find a teacher.

As far as Hawaii? How odd. Why not New Zealand? While Polynesian dialects have a common root, Hawaiians and speakers of te reo Maori have quite a lot of trouble understanding each other -- or so I have been assured by experts. Hopefully, we will see her here. And it would be great to hear a few words from her husband, too.

Christina Thompson has strong links with New Zealand, quite apart from her very interesting souvenir. She is now the editor of the prestigious Harvard Review, and in the fall issue will include a special section dedicated to that country’s literature. Well, Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, said so, in a speech given at the country’s literary awards ceremony last fall.

For last weekend's New York Times review in the book review section, see:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Those Montana Awards

Bookman Beattie asks WHAT CAN BE DONE TO REVITALISE THE MONTANAS? (The Montana being New Zealand's premier book awards.)

Then he goes on to say: "This is the very timely question posed by Listener Arts & Books Editor Guy Somerset in a page long thoughtful piece in the NZ Listener dated August 2-8."

Timely indeed. As discussed earlier (scan through the older posts), there was a bit of controversy here about only four fiction works being shortlisted, when five is the norm. Was this because the rest of the entries were not up to scratch? This, it was claimed, was the inevitable impression given. (No one mentioned another alternative, that the offering as a whole might be such an even standard that there were very few stand-outs, which could account for the other unusual fact, that two books of short stories were included in the short list.)

For further background (and also because a good friend who is just back from Aus. asked me to do it), here is the complete list of the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards:
Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry winner and Fiction category winner: Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House)
Fiction runner-up: Edwin & Matilda by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Group (NZ))
Poetry winner: Cold Snack by Janet Charman (Auckland University Press)
Montana Medal for Non-Fiction winner and Environment category winner: Wetlands of New Zealand – A bitter-sweet story by Janet Hunt (Random House NZ)
Biography winner: The Life and Times of James Walter Chapman-Taylor by Judy Siers (Millwood Heritage Productions Ltd)
History winner: Te Tau Ihu O Te Waka Volume II: Te Ara Hou – The New Society by Hilary and John Mitchell (Huia Publishers)
Reference and Anthology winner: A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal by Gregory O’Brien (Learning Media Ltd)
Lifestyle & Contemporary Culture winner: Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku with Linda Waimarie Nikora, Mohi Rua and Rolinda Karapu (Penguin Group (NZ))
Illustrative winner: Bill Hammond: Jingle Jangle Morning by Jennifer Hay, with Ron Brownson, Chris Knox and Laurence Aberhart, designed by Aaron Beehre (Christchurch Art Gallery)
Each category winner was presented with a prize of $5,000. The winners of the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry (formerly called the Deutz prize) and the Montana Medal for Non fiction were each presented with an additional prize of $10,000. The runner-up in the Fiction category received $2,500. The Readers’ Choice Award carries a monetary prize worth $1,000.

The prize for the Best First Book of Prose was won by Mary McCullum's book The Blue.


As Bookman Beattie goes on to say, "Somerset makes a number of valid points about the need for a fresh look to be taken at the whole structure of the awards." A fresh look? I wonder if a backward look might be a good idea, too. In "the old days," that much maligned era, there was THE Montana award. I stand to be corrected, but my vague memory is that one book was chosen, because I remember the year that Harry Morton's wonderful The Wind Commands was the winner. Was it split between a fiction winner and a non-fiction winner? Or did that come later? Whatever, somehow, sometime, in the interval, a whole lot of categories have been born. Is this a good thing? Is there any guarantee the winner of one sub-category will be as great, in its way, as the winner of another sub-set? I don't think so.

I vote we go back to two awards, one for a truly outstanding work of fiction -- something folk will still be reading in 200 years' time -- and one for a non-fiction book that extends our knowledge of New Zealand in a fashion so remarkable that it is absolutely essential reading.

Bookman Beattie goes on to quote another interesting observation -- a commentary sent to him by bookseller and former publisher Tom Beran.

Beran says: "My concern regarding the Montana awards has been bugging me for years i.e. the Peoples Choice award which carries a monetary prize of $1000. I have never been able to understand the purpose of this award as the winning author in any year may have encouraged friends, family etc to vote for him/her and due to a small response for such awards (unlike the Children’s one) we may get a strange result."

Beran continues: "Surely the best process is to look at the sales of major selling titles over the calendar year to create a shortlist of say 5 titles, and then the Booksellers NZ/Montana Awards management committee who are unbiased towards any book, author or publisher can chose the appropriate winner by popularity and discussion. This would give the award some parity with the Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award which I don’t think carries any monetary prize, just the prestige of being the booksellers’ favourite title to . . . "

And there, I think, he has an excellent point (Beran, that is). Why is money attached to any of these awards? Isn't the prestige of having won it enough?

To go back to my own experience: back in the dim mists of time, David Ling, then with the now defunct firm Heinemann, published my first book, Exotic Intruders. I was so chuffed I left my teaching job, and changed my registration with the Inland Revenue to "writer." Lo and behold, Exotic Intruders won the Best First Book of Prose Prize.

In those days, you didn't arrive at some grand function, wait with your heart going pit-a-pat, and then stumble to the stage when your name was announced. Instead, you received a letter from PEN (now under the umbrella of the New Zealand Society of Authors) graciously informing you that you had won the prize, and a cheque for one thousand dollars (New Zealand) arrived in due course. Totally chuffed, I instantly joined PEN (NZSA) and have been a member since, through thick and thin, even thought most of my books have been published outside of New Zealand. Then I got a less welcome letter from the Inland Revenue, informing me that as my declared source of revenue was writing, the award was taxable. I eventually wrote a cheque. And basic tax rates were high, back then. So the eventual remuneration was very small.

That is one argument against monetary awards -- unlike winning a lottery like lotto, here in New Zealand awards won in the course of your declared occupation are taxable.

My solution is to remove the monetary component entirely. The three American awards I have received came without money attached, but have been hugely valuable in other respects. In a word, they look great on the curriculum vitae. What more could anyone want?

So, I would reduce the number of Montana awards to lend credibility to the authors and books that win. And I would remove any monetary component, so that the rewards were purely professional.

In a word, call me "Scrooge."

Comments welcomed.

(Photo of Bookman Beattie by Harvey Benge)

The demise of the newspaper book review?

There has been a lot of comment lately on both GalleyCat at and on Bookman Beattie's blog about the possible impending demise of the newspaper book review. The latest, from Graham Beattie, is that there is a rumour flying around that three of New Zealand's major newspapers -- the Dominion Post of Wellington, the Christchurch Press, and the Waikato Times -- will be shifting their book review pages to a single supplement with "an international flavour", composed in Auckland.
He asks, "What can we do to express our anger and disappointment?" As of the latest count, he has had fifteen replies, all very interesting.

My own instant reaction was a very suspicious: "International flavour"? What the devil does that mean? This is echoed by one commenter, who hopes that this won't involve recycled overseas reviews of overseas publications.
Others nod wisely, saying, So that is why so many editors and subbies have been fired lately. (I didn't know that!)
Sue Green, the Dom's weekend magazine editor, assures everyone that the supplement won't necessarily replace the local review pages, as that will be up to the individual newspapers -- welcome news indeed.
However, what I really like is the fellow who prophesied that the printed review pages will be largely replaced by internet sites like Beattie's, where chosen books are reviewed at leisure.

As a reviewer myself, I have thoughts of my own on that. I was going to demonstrate my credentials by giving a link to my review of John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty, which was published prominently and grandly in today's Dominion Post, but when I went to the newspaper's website the review wasn't there! Do they (the Dom and other NZ newspapers) ever put book reviews onto the internet? I don't know, because I have never looked before. But there are none in the archives, so I strongly suspect they do not. This makes blogs like Beattie's all the more valuable. Another thing -- I don't believe that in over twenty years of newspaper book reviewing, anyone has ever stepped up to me, and said, "Hey, I read your review of such-and-such" -- not even offended authors. Yet, I've had a lot of comments on what I have penned on this site, young as this site may be. Another plus for internet reviewing.

So maybe the slow demise of the newspaper book review is not all bad news.

And if anyone asks me (and the Dom allows it), I'll post that review on this blog.

Speaker fees? They must be joking!

The New York Times is running a story by Rachel Donadio called "More Bang for the Book." It's about speaker fees, and claims that a mid-list author can ask (but not necessarily get) $2,500 for a speaking engagement, while a top-seller -- particularly, it seems, if the book is inspirational or written by "a superstar presidential historian" -- can ask up to $40,000. (One of the latter, Doris Kearns Goodwin, can average a lecture a week.) Some best-selling authors charge double that -- on book tours!

Only the venues listed in the story sound familiar -- the churches, the libraries, and the downright weird. I've done all of those, including nearly sinking the Last Wooden Whaleship -- the marvelous old Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut -- with an overlarge crowd. But fees? On book tours, that is unheard of, while the incidental stuff, such as talks to genealogists or maritime enthusiasts, garners wine for my wine-imbibing visitors, or another of my wonderful (though involuntary) collection of handmade pincushions. Oh, and petrol vouchers. After years of this, my rule of thumb is that I will always talk at a museum or historical society where I hope to do some valuable research, or to help out a good friend, but otherwise avoid the business, unless I actually have a new book to promote.

But, it seems, the wine-and-vouchers era is coming to an end, and I might have to rethink my stance. These days, publishers have become booking agents, or have teamed up with speakers' bureaux -- or so Ms Donadio informs us. HarperCollins, Knopf, and Penguin have set up their own agencies, while Random House has gone into some kind of partnership with the American Program Bureau . . . though I have to admit I see no mid-list authors on their list:

Who is to blame when a book doesn't sell?

Galleycat on has a riveting commentary today from an anonymous editor with a New York publishing house, on who should be blamed when a book doesn't sell.
"At our house we have a policy called, Don't Ask Don't Tell," s/he reveals.
What does this mean?
"Well, it means that if a book fails in the marketplace don't ask anyone and don't tell anyone. Nine times out of ten the author is blamed for poor sales; even though, the house more often than not does support the author in marketing the book. As an editor I can assure you that I have too many books to edit and there are too many books to promote."
Why is it a safe bet to blame the author?
"Because we all want to keep our jobs, that's why. What I am telling you is very important because it will give you some insight into the mindset of publishers today. The bottom line is this: When sales are good we all pat ourselves on the back and take credit, but when sales are bad, we find fault with the author, when in fact many times the poor results are our own fault! At just about every publishing house I've worked at I've run into this problem of having too many books to publicize, as do most of my colleagues. Some you just have to send out into the ether blind, some you champion, others you do the bare minimum on because that's all the time you have. I've actually had my boss tell me to NOT do anything for a book because another book needed to take priority. I think poor sales could be blamed on the new corporate model of publishing that thinks of books as widgets and tries to get away with less staff and more books."
Galleycat ran a poll of readers. How would you vote?
1. Sales didn't get enough books into stores O
2. The publicist dropped the ball O
3. The editor bought an unsellable book O
4. The publisher has too many books on the list O
5. The author wrote a dud O
6. The agent built up the author to be more than they were O
7. All of the above O
For the results, read the story:

Amazon surges -- but are they moving away from books?, the gigantic pioneer of internet book selling, reported second quarter sales of US$4.06 billion, an increase of 41% on last year's figure, and yielding a net income of $158 million. North American sales were up 25%, to $1.148 billion, while international sales were up 38% to $1.258 billion.

Full year sales may be as much as $20.1 billion, they say, so it is little wonder that in the hours of trading that followed the announcement, amazon shares rose $6.10, to $76.64.

"It's a very efficient business," observed one commentator, in a miracle of understatement.

However, the chief financial officer, Tom Szkutak, was less upbeat, pointing out that office supplies and fabrics had been added to the inventory, and electronic book downloads promoted, to entice U.S. customers grappling with declining house values and shocking prices at the pumps. Additionally, the increase in international revenue owed a lot to a favorable exchange rate.

"We don't think we're a good barometer for the economy," he said.

Jewelry, electronics, toys, shoes and baby products were among the bestselling items. Amazon is relying less on its traditional strength, which has been media products such as books, DVDs and music -- media sales accounted for just 59% of its total revenue, compared to 64% last year.

Will this trend continue? It looks likely.

So, rich booklovers (if there are any of you left out there), perhaps investment in is not the best option right now.

Stephen King does it again

Despite more success than any other thriller/horror writer in history, Stephen King makes a speciality out of finding new ways to market his books. "The first soldiers out of the trench are always machine-gunned," he comments. "But somebody has to go first, and I'm curious about this. You try these things and see what happens."

What he is trying this time is a mind-bending combination. "N", a previously unpublished story about "a psychiatrist who becomes the victim of the same mysterious and deadly obsession as his patient," which will be part of the table of contents of his new book of short stories, Just After Sunset, has been turned into a series of 25 two-minute video episodes. These will be released FREE to cellphone users via the largest providers (through an embedded Flash player that updates automatically, which sounds really scary), or can be bought through iTunes in batches of five for 99 cents, or the whole caboodle for $3.99.

Simon & Schuster will bring out Just After Sunset as a regular book in November -- but not before pitching it to the Wall Street Journal well ahead of time (to give them time to make sense of it all, as "Publishers Lunch" comments), so that they can tell the business world about this cute new marketing ploy. Then in 2009 -- wait for it -- it will come out as a Marvel comic!

And along the way lots and lots of organizations will be credited -- Scribner, Simon & Schuster Digital, Marvel Entertainment, CBS Mobile, Comic-Con . . .

Good lord. It sure does illustrate how keen publishers (and authors) are to come up with new marketing techniques.

And maybe it explains, too, why video trailers of Dark Knight mysteriously materialize in my outlook express inbox.

Friday, July 25, 2008

World's Largest Floating Bookstore Fails to Sail

And can you blame the captain of MV Douros for deciding to linger? See the pic of the inter-island ferry above. New Zealand is being battered by a record storm, and sure could do with a few prayers!

Ron and I explored the ship on Tuesday, while the storm was building, thinking that we would have a quick look before it sailed as scheduled the next morning. They certainly do have thousands of books, many with a religious theme, and priced, most intriguingly, in "units". One hundred units is equal to four New Zealand dollars, apparently, which made many of the books a real bargain.

Have a look at for more about the ship. And for the storm:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

World's largest floating bookstore

I can't believe that the newspapers have been so quiet about it (or perhaps I wasn't reading them properly, it being school mid-winter vacation time, with attendant influx of delightful but time-consuming visitors) -- but while drifting into harbor on the East-West ferry, I spied a gorgeous old ship docked at Queen's Wharf with a huge sign floating high that bore the magic words "BOOK FAIR."

The ship's name is MV Douros, and - or so I found with a hunt through the internet, including Wotz On in Wellington - it is the world's oldest active passenger ship with the world's largest floating bookshop. She has stopped at over 500 ports of call, but almost decided against Wellington, as the weather forecast was so breezy -- or so the captain, New Zealander Graeme Bird, reported. Fervent prayers did the trick. The gales moderated, and a safe anchorage was made. All Wellingtonians wish that the ship, plus prayers, would make a permanent berth here!

Seriously, MV Douros is a floating book fair, with over 6,000 titles for sale -- quality books, in a range of genres. Staffed by over 300 volunteers, the ship is a charity that works mostly in the developing world, to provide good educational literature. The crew is multinational, and keen to share their cultures with visitors, who can board the ship at any time from dawn to dusk, at no cost.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The secret to winning a Booker

As the whole literary world knows, Sir Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has been voted the most-popular-Booker for the second time. So how does he do it? What is the secret to producing an enduring Booker prizewinner? Vincent Dowd of the BBC service speculates on this fascinating matter, after consultation with Martyn Goff, the man who ran the Booker award for 35 years, and it comes down to four basic points:

1. Literary tourism -- the book should transport the reader to a remote time or place where he or she has never been before.

2. Strong plot -- the book must be a page-turner

3. Compelling story writing. There are lots of beautifully written books out there that are not getting much attention, simply because they are not quite engrossing enough. See point 2.

4. Get the book talked about on TV. Tricky to do, but very effective once accomplished.

The rise of the e-book

According to the latest figures from the American Publishers Assn., book sales in May decreased by 1.8%, while there was a 24.3% increase in e-book sales. Audio books suffered the most, dropping 38%. Books still command the biggest share of the market by far, but how long is this going to continue? As Confuscius would say, we live in interesting times.

Obama and Harry Potter

Blog queen Pam Coughlan -- "mother-reader," who satirizes herself as having "the heart of a mother, the soul of a reader, the mouth of a smartass" -- was fortunate enough to be within shaking hands distance of Barack Obama at an event in Virginia. As she excitedly reports, the speech was great (with much about equal opportunities for hardworking women) but one particular question was electric. A woman asked him how he felt about reading. He was a bit surprised, confessing he'd never had that question before, and waffled for a little bit about his two books, and how he wrote them himself, along with his speeches. It was important to know how to write in order to get a job, he said, as no one ever got a job on the basis of his texting skills. Then, however, he suddenly launched himself into one of those little insights into Obama-the-man that make him seem so unusually accessible. He had read all the Harry Potter books to his daughters, he revealed. And, if a man who is running for prez. can do that, surely every dad can find the time to share the pleasure of books with his children.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Stephanie Meyer phenomenon

This week USA Today marvels over its latest bestseller list:

Two self-help titles -- Randy Pausch's touching study, The Last Lecture, based on the last lecture given by a professor who was battling pancreatic cancer, and Eckhart Tolle's Earth, which was an Oprah Winfrey pick -- have hung onto the two top spots, but the rest of the top ten is dominated by Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.

I have to admit that I was so intrigued by the storyline of the first in the series, Twilight, that I went into Whitcoulls, found the one copy they held, and hid it behind the others to buy later, as I was heading to a function where I did not want to be encumbered by a parcel. When I returned, it was to find that someone else had fossicked it out and carried it away, much to my disgust.

Originally pushed as a book for teens, Twilight is about a girl who arrives as a newbie at a high school in a remote, forest-surrounded back-of-beyond sort of town. That sounds hackneyed -- but she then proceeds to fall for a stunningly handsome guy . . . who turns out to be a vampire. He daren't touch her, fearing that he would be overcome by a lust for her blood, and so it becomes a story of love that can never be consummated.

With a theme like that, it's no wonder the book has taken off with an adult audience, too. Currently, Meyer is being touted as the next J K Rowling. For her candid, interesting and rather Rowling-like story of how she wrote the book and got it published, read the relevant page on her website:

Twilight will be released as a major motion picture later this year, I believe.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wearing fireman's boots, bookseller weeps

The Vineyard Gazette features a heartbreaking story from Julia Wells, describing the emotional agony of the woman still most associated with the iconic bookstore Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven. Desperate to see the damage for herself, Ann Nelson borrowed fireman's boots and jacket, and explored the blackened ruins. As she surveyed blackened shelves and melted ceilings, tears ran down her cheeks.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jack London's Sea Wolf

The University of British Columbia Press has just released a biography of Captain Alex MacLean, who was the inspiration for the title character, Wolf Larsen, in Jack London's classic bestseller, The Sea-Wolf. The author is Don MacGillivray, a professor of history at Cape Breton University.

Originally from Cape Breton, MacLean sailed to the Pacific at the age of 21, and worked as a seaman and sealer for the next 35 years, creating a legend and becoming a folk hero.

More unrest in the world of print on demand

The Small Publishers Association of North America has voted to support the class action antitrust lawsuit,, Inc. vs., Inc. In late March, the news broke that Amazon had begun a new policy requiring print on demand (POD) publishers using Amazon's distribution services to print their books using Amazon's subsidiary BookSurge, and despite public outcry, Amazon has stuck to it. This led, Inc., a POD publisher, to initiate a class action antitrust lawsuit.

Read all about it at:

Washington Post names outsider as top editor

New publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth, is busily putting her stamp on one of the world's great newspapers. Her latest move is to name Marcus W. Brauchli, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, executive editor.

Brauchli, 47, replaces Leonard Downie, 66. I told you that editors are getting younger.

Weymouth herself is just 42.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Update on Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, and a story about Bill Clinton

The news is even worse - there appears to be no chance of saving the bookstore building, as fire as well as smoke and water damaged the second floor as well. No decisions are being made until the insurance people have seen it -but it appears to be a total loss.
I am personally very saddened to see the demise of this Martha's Vineyard icon. I have given several presentations on the upper floor of the historic building, including one memorable one where the slide projector malfunctioned. It spat out slides like cartridges from a Gatling gun, battering staff and guests alike, much to their bemusement.
It is also the setting of a story about Bill Clinton when he was president, which is probably apocryphal, but also rather sweet. As the whole world knows, Martha's Vineyard was a favorite vacation spot for the family; as perhaps the whole world does not know, the Bunch of Grapes was a favorite place to browse for books. The problem was that the store had to be closed once the family was inside, for security reasons. The people trapped with them didn't mind, and were perfectly cooperative on one occasion when the word was passed around that Bill would prefer to be ignored, so he could sift through the book shelves like an ordinary guy. People walked around him as if he was not there; no eye contact was made, and not a word to him was said. After some moments of this, however, the poor fellow became uneasy. He glanced around with a puzzled frown, then strode up to a customer, and flashed the trademark grin. "Don't you know who I am?" he inquired (or words to that effect), and shoved out his hand to shake.
Such is the stuff of which politicians are made.
Whether the anecdote (which I have heard many times) is true or not, the Bunch of Grapes was the perfect place for something so sublime to happen.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bunch of Grapes

Bad news from Vineyard Haven, where one of my favorite bookstores graces the main street of this picturesque town on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

There was a bad fire in the basement of a small restaurant that shared a wall with the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. News reports say that the firemen spent six hours putting out the fire. The upper floor of the bookstore is relatively undamaged but there is serious fire, water, and smoke damage to the first floor and basement. The bookstore is closed until further notice.

A terrible way to celebrate the Fourth.

Read about it on the front page of the Vineyard Gazette:

A book with that latte

The latest from Spy Mouse is that Blackwell bookstores are installing an 'espresso' machine, which will download, print and bind (securely) on demand. They hope to develop less cumbersome machines which can be installed elsewhere.
The print machines will be leased from US company On Demand, who describe the gadget as "an AtM for books." Is this your chance to insert a flash drive with that amazing manuscript you have been laboring on for years, and watch a finished book chug out? No. There is a database of books to choose from, including almost half a million out-of-print titles. Most will be sourced from -- guess what -- Lightning Source International.

The story is in today's Guardian which you can access online.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The 20% solution

Jacqueline Church Simonds, publisher of the highly successful Nevada small press Beaglebay Books, muses on the current status of the relationship of small press publishers with Ingram distributors ...

Recently, we've had a spate of young turks who are convinced they have found the golden keys to the book publishing kingdom by printing up their books via LSI [Lightning Source Int.] - Ingram's POD [Print On Demand] service, which allows for distribution through Ingram, B&T [Baker & Taylor, the second-largest book wholesaler in the business] and bookstores. They have further chosen to demand a short discount of 20% with no returns.

This method allows for a very a small buy-in (low set-up fees). There is an instant "in" with Ingram (because Ingram owns LSI), the largest wholesaler in the biz and the least interested in dealing with newbies - they usually will not talk to you unless you have 10 titles and can make at least $25k a year in sales with them. This also allows self- and micro-publishers an entrée into Amazon without having to deal with Amazon Advantage's yearly fee and mandatory 55% discount. In fact, it's rather like having a virtual distributor.

Yup, it sounds all good. But there are some catches to this rosy picture.

One of the hardest things for new publishers to get their heads around is that they are about to launch into a $3 trillion a year global entertainment industry. It IS a business. Yes, it takes Art to write the book, but the minute you contemplate selling said brain-product, you are in business. As such, you need to know WHO is going to buy your book and HOW to reach them.
WHERE do they shop for your kind of book? You have to know these things, as
well as HOW MUCH they are paying for similar books (many folks with LSI books are already at price levels above what their customers are willing to pay). LSI may get you a book, but it might be too high-priced or in the wrong venue for your customers. Is this the right delivery system for your book? Or would you be better served at trade discounts (55%), or even an offset
run, which would lower your per-unit cost?

~~A short discount (20%) locks you out of certain markets. Like bookstores.
Again, this is a matter of business.

Reasons to *have* a short discount:

o The book is over $40

o The book is on a rarefied subject (academic, medical or professional)

o It is a textbook

o You are testing an idea and will adjust once you see at what levels and prices you have "action"

o You have no plans for selling in bookstores, the listing with Ingram and B&T is just a way of covering all avenues.

o You are selling BOTR (Back of the Room) at speeches, and there is no reason to discount a book you are selling at full retail.

Otherwise, if you are trying to get into bookstores, you are barking up the wrong spruce tree. Bookstores ask for - and get - a 40-46% discount with full returns privileges. They don't do this because they are mean. They have to have something called a profit margin (remember the thing I said about business?) to be able to turn on the lights, pay the help and have a latte machine. I may not like (and in fact, loathe) the returns system, but it is what it is. Why should they take a chance on a small-press/self-published book that probably won't sell because the author/publisher isn't putting anything into marketing to drive people into the store? So the bookstores are not going to order the book. And if they have customers come in and ask for the book, they'll look it up on Ingram and discover it's listed as "no return" and "special order only."
This is simply the kiss of death for a retail situation. My bookstore buddies just tell customers they can't get it. Let the client get the book on Amazon. It's not worth the hassle of ordering and hoping the customer comes back to purchase this book. If they don't, the store is stuck with a
book at near retail. Nope. They won't buy that book.

Giving a short discount to Amazon is also not a great idea. Amazon customers are hooked on discounts. Heaven knows I am. A short-discounted book has no Amazon discount at all. It can't. There's no margin for Amazon to work with. Your customers are rarely looking for YOUR book. They are looking for a book about X subject. If they can choose between Book 1, which has no discount, and Book 2, which does, they will choose the second, cheaper book almost every time. You lose.

How clever is that?

Libraries don't mind a short-discounted, non-return book, but, in most cases, they aren't taking a chance on a book that hasn't had a review from School/Library Journal, Voya, Booklist or Kirkus (and sometimes PW... and maybe ForeWord). Again, they aren't being mean to you. They are under a financial crisis in most cases, and can only buy books they know their constituents will want - and no more.

~~ That brings up another subject. Many using LSI - short discount or regular- are skipping the whole galley/pre-publication review thing. That's fine, if bookstores and libraries aren't your market. But if those are where you want to go, you are hurting your chances for success. You'll need to produce galleys 4 months before your publication date. And you can't sell any books
"to the trade" or off your website during that quiet period. One good review in a pre-pub can mean thousands of sales.

Then there are all the long-lead slick magazines - from Sky & Telescope to Ladies Home Journal and everything in between. These folks can have leads as long as 6-8 months. You need galleys and time (they don't however, care if you are selling the book or not before they bring out something. Obviously, you MUST have the book available when/if they talk about it). So you have to off-set your short discount "savings" with a galley run of at least 25 to cover the pre-publication reviews.

~~ Publish in haste, repent at leisure. That saying adapts so nicely. Why do you have to have it out this week? What's your rush? Very few things are time-sensitive. Hurrying makes for some awful mistakes. Not just typos, but fatal business miscalculations that can doom your book, and your publishing company. Slow down and understand the process before you publish. This is
the real, harsh world. No one will feel sorry for you when your book tanks and you are out moolah. No one will take pity on you, dust you off, pat your po-po and give you your money back. It will just fail. And that s**ks.

In 2003, Ingram threw out self- and micro-publishers (1-4 books). It was devastating. One minute people had Ingram distribution, the next they didn't. By some odd twist of fate, Beagle Bay wasn't tossed out on its long, flopsy ear. We were suddenly in the distribution biz, as several pals came to us asking to have us rep their books.

Ingram has a history of abrupt policy decisions that are not favorable to small presses and self-publishers. I predict that they will get bored with the short discount game within 18 months. The cut-off will be swift and merciless, with no appeal.

The LSI distribution deal will not disappear. Just that you will be forced to accept a 55% discount, or you can't have access to Ingram, etc. So, no, I am not saying you are stupid to do LSI with a short discount and no returns - if you have a sound business reason to do so. But I'd keep an eye on alternative ways to get my books out, just in case LSI/Ingram wakes up with a tummy-ache and gets an idea to harm small publishers...

Tom Bullough, like his website, slowly recovers

Writer Tom Bullough, who was the victim of the devastating mis-announcement of the award for the Wales Book of the Year, is back online at and though hungover (according to his own confession) is getting back into balance. It must be helped by the stacks of supportive messages, by phone and post as well as e-mail, he has received. And, let's face it, being one of the three shortlisted authors is a tremendous achievement.

Friday, July 4, 2008

... "a glimpse of hell"

Writer Tom Bullough, the man mistakenly announced as the winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award, confesses that the experience was "a glimpse of hell." According to extensive quotations from his blog, given in the Wales on Line report, it was a nightmare culmination to years of living on the poverty line in damp, amenity-free Welsh cottages, writing for a pittance in the wild hope of getting the award. For a delirious moment, the cup of success was lifted to his lips, only to be dashed away. The messages of sympathy must be pouring in, as his website, is down for lack of bandwidth. The culture minister feels almost as badly: it was a moment, he says, when he sincerely wished that the floor would open up beneath his feet and let him out of the room.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Culture Minister Rhodi Glyn Thomas announced the WRONG WINNER before backing up to declare Dannie Abse the Wales Book of the Year author.

Train-plane-beach books

What characterizes a book you take to the beach or on board an aircraft or train to while away the hours as pleasantly as possible? Dan Zak of the Washington Post picked up the phone and asked a handful of bestselling writers who faithfully produce a "beach book" on an annual basis (surprise, surprise, they are published in June), and asked them what they thought. Readability came top, along with Diana Gabaldon's rather charming comment that the book must be interruptible too, as children tend to tag along on vacations, and have demands on the reader's time, too. The conclusion is that they might be potboilers, but they are entertaining, undemanding, and fun. They also sell a lot of copies.

Zak then goes on to claim that beach reads -- aka train or plane reads -- began with the advent of cheap, portable, paperback books in 1945, when publisher Ian Ballantine started Bantam Books. Maybe so in America, but Europe beat Ballantine by quite a few decades -- ninety-two years, to be exact.

In 1853, when rail travel became available to the common crowd, a Paris bookseller by the name of Louis Christophe François Hachette launched La Bibliothèque des Chemins de Fer―"The Railway Library," France's first chain bookstore―and pioneered the practice of putting stalls in railroad stations stocked with cheap, light, readable books. Soon these were supplemented with travel guides―"Guides Joanne," now known as "Guides Bleus."

A man of humble origins, Hachette's meteoric rise was directly due to his mother, who ensured he had a good education by enrolling him at the prestigious Lycée Imperial, where she worked as a linen maid. There, despite the obvious social difficulties, Louis justified her faith by doing well scholastically, and making influential friends. His ambition was to qualify as a professor, and when he managed to win admission to the foremost teacher-training institute in France, École Normale Superieure, it looked as if a glowing future in the classroom lay ahead. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), he was foiled. In 1822 the school was closed down by the authorities, being considered too left-wing, and young Hachette was unable to claim the teaching certificate he had earned.

This was where the friendships he had made in the gracious courtyards of the Lycée Imperial began to play an important role in his life. First one old schoolmate, and then another, gave him a job in private tutoring. Then, in 1826, his current employer, Pierre Foucault de Pavant, loaned him 13,956 francs to buy a little bookstore at 12, Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, from a man named Brédife. Of the small stock the most valuable item by far was the license to produce and sell books. This was the entrée to Hachette's brilliant business career.

Renewing the license was difficult, but Hachette persisted, until at last he held the vital certificate in his hands. It was a moment of triumph. Cheated of his ambition to teach dozens of pupils at a time, he now saw the means of teaching thousands all at once. Adopting the motto, "Sic quoque docebo!—Thus shall I teach!" he launched into publishing educational books, becoming the first man in history to specialize in producing texts for elementary school children.

With the profits, Hachette persuaded friends who were now professors to translate worthy books, and published works by Victor Hugo and George Sand. Louis Hachette also produced lavishly illustrated magazines, focusing on "healthy and good reading," with the intention of educating as well as amusing his subscribers. A pivotal moment arrived when he joined forces with a man who shared his deepest ideals. This was fifty-two-year-old Édouard Charton, a philanthropist who fervently believed in the goals of the Age of Enlightenment: equality, education, and respect for human dignity. Hachette appointed him director of publications at once, just in time to edit a new weekly, Le Tour du Monde, which was launched on February 1, 1860, and proved a stunning success.

However, Hachette's greatest achievement was the introduction of cheap, portable, readable books for the vacationing public, the idea that was so profitably emulated by Ian Ballantine. Unsurprisingly, when he passed away in 1864, Louis Hachette was one of the richest men in France.

Evidently this is my week to write about Hachette . . .

Cheerfully cribbed from an article I wrote for the splendid book collectors' periodical, Fine Books and Collections, which appeared in print back in March.

Puzzles for Publishers

In Sunday's Washington Post, Jonathan Karp, publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Group, has much of intense interest to say about the problems facing publishers who have been instructed by their boards or marketing managers to increase annual growth. As he meditates, the choices are limited:

* Spread your risks by adding more titles to the list (Twelve is called "Twelve" because Karp's policy is to publish twelve very good books per year)

* Sell more copies of existing authors and titles (That would be nice! But how?)

* Ask popular authors to increase output (No wonder non-fiction writers struggle to get more than twelve months to produce an enlightening and comprehensive study of some broad topic like the Twelve Hundred Years War)

* Diversify the product (What, another Botox book?)

* Cut costs, pray to the gods of movie tie-in paperback editions, or hope like mad that one of your authors gets his or her own talk show on radio or TV

Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hachette vs amazon

"Over here the cliffhanger is the Hachette/Amazon stand-off," confides Spy Mouse from London today. "Amazon were demanding more and more favourable margins, and Hachette - who own Hodder Headline and Orion among others - have stood firm."

Tim Hely Hutchinson, CEO of Hachette in Britain, has sent a letter to all his authors, briefing them about a stand-off with, which has been pressing for unacceptable discounts, and which Hachette is now refusing to pay.

In retaliation, has been removing the "buy button" from their listings of certain Hachette books, and taking some titles out of promotional positions on their site.

Read about it on the Bookseller website:

Phillippa Gregory wannabes, take note

Writing a saga set in the colorful and eminently novel-worthy Tudor era? British History Online has put the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies, China and Japan - 1513-1616, volume 2 on line.(

How not to respond to critics

When blog-queen Judy McGuire spied that the current cover of the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger had certain similarities to the jacket of her book How Not to Date, she wrote about it in her blog, and sent a friendly e-mail to Stranger editor Dan Savage.
Savage went ballistic the way many authors would love to respond to critics after reading hostile reviews (but usually have the sense to refrain).

Read about the stoush in GalleyCat @

Skewed figures

After reading my post Nielson's Numbers (see below), economist Brian Easton pointed out to me that these figures are skewed, too. They cover only one-year data, not the life of the book, so books published late in the year will report much more poorly than books published in January, for instance. (Are any books published in January?) To which, I added, there is the factor that a title may have several ISBNs, gained when it goes into paperback, large print, condensed book, and so forth. If Nielson's sources report sales by ISBN number, then of course the results for each publication will be fragmented.

In the course of this lively conversation, I also pointed out that publishers expect most sales to happen within months, if not weeks, of publication. Bookstores, unfortunately, tend to clear their shelves and return unsold copies on a regular and increasingly frequent basis. Also, I believe the figures include self-published books, which tend to have very small print runs. Unless, of course, the book is The Shack . . . (Scan down.)