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Year Endings December 30, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.

It’s that time of year when lazy columnists look back on the past twelve months and try and reach some kind of conclusion about what it all added up to. Resisting the “hill of beans” summation, I’m not even going to get into moisty-eyed backward glances or, more likely, shrill rants about everything that’s ailed mankind and more selfishly, yrs. trly. this past year, I’ll instead stick to more recent stuff.

Actually the end of the year can be, and in my case was one of the best bits of it. Ten days hiatus from the business of, well, business allowed time to catch up on socialising – much of it happily accidental – a whole slew of films downloaded onto my increasingly indispensable Freeview box and of course, reading. Downing far too much food’n’drink smug in the knowledge that the gym doesn’t open again ‘til next week only adds to the delightfulness of the dying days of 2009 and it looks like being snowed in will further excuse this sloth.

Getting Booked

But the subject of reading does prompt a bit of a grumble, and on two counts. Lunching with a friend in Hereford the Saturday before the red mist of Christmas finally descended elicited the recommendation that before I made my intended tramp round Waterstone’s for the usual 3-for-2 fest I should visit the city’s Oxfam bookshop. And this I duly did, finding two tomes I’d missed first time around and for les than a fiver the pair. Hurrah, then.

Two days later over tea and buns with Ian Marchant, Presteigne’s premier novelist, raconteur and the thinking man’s George Formby, (www.ianmarchant.com) I found myself berated for stealing the bread from his table by patronising the Oxfam outlet which of course doesn’t pay the business rates or staff wages that Waterstone’s and other proper bookshops do. The point being that Oxfam can afford to entice bookworms to buy secondhand and remaindered volumes at prices and in quantities that deny him and other struggling authors their just rewards. And my only defence was that I bought the bloody buns.

But this brings me once again to bookshops and their imminent extinction, a reprise prompted by last night’s Front Row on Radio 4 which spent its entire half hour debating the virtues or otherwise of e-books.  With mounting fury I only just resisted hurling my Horlicks at the radio as  Mark ‘I’m-so-damn-clever’ Lawson ignored the impact that Kindle, e-Reader and the rest would likely have on retailers. Happy enough to indulge the man from Sony who predicted that e-books might replace 60% of ink’n’paper books sales within five years (well he would say that, wouldn’t he?), and a woman from Pan-Macmillan who blithely dismissed the prospect of vast layoffs in the printing industry (“They’ll have to adapt”. Yes they will: to unemployment), Lawson never mentioned randomly dipping between the covers, scanning dust jackets, discovering new authors or lesser known works by familiar ones and all the other pleasures of bookshop browsing.  In London a fortnight ago I witnessed the ugly consequences of  bookshop closures, ­ albeit as a result of bad management rather than electronic storage devices, as I passed two boarded-up branches of Borders flyposted and forlorn then spent a feverish twenty minutes rummaging round their one remaining West End store which was having its closing down sale. (Needless to say I found nothing amongst the Archers, Cartlands and third rate sleb memoirs that took my fancy). Okay, it’s only an unreconstituted luddite that ignores the march of technological progress and I am, after all, writing and publishing this on my Apple laptop, but no-one seems concerned about the cultural and social consequences of more unemployment, deserted high streets and the isolation that yet another digital convenience fosters.

Letting The Buyer Do The R & D

This all reads suspiciously if not pathetically like another grumpy old man bemoaning the winds of change, which of course it is. And it also explains, if further explanation were required, my affectation with classic cars and the excuse I need to update my Lancia Gamma woes. (Actually this is in response to at least three, count ‘em, three, queries as to its health). As I write Mr Barratt and his boys are enjoying the festive break before returning, suitably rejuvenated I hope, to the piles of rusting, seized and bent bits that sit disconsolately on pallets in his workshop. But turning two buggered engines – one apparently rescued from a ditch, the other driven perhaps a tad too enthusiastically by yrs. trly. – into one robust runner is a task riven with pitfalls. For example, the full compliment of gaskets and seals it took several weeks and many phone calls and e-mails to assemble may or may not be all present and correct and with this particular engine there is a serious risk that the cylinder liners can ‘drop’ if the paper-thin gaskets twixt block and barrels are damaged. In which case starting all over again (with virtually unobtainable gaskets) is mandatory.

It begs the questions why don’t you forgot all this nonsense and get yourself a nice Mazda MX-5 or, more importantly, what were Lancia’s engineers thinking when they designed and didn’t properly develop this big boxer engine? Brilliant though the basic design was and remains, i.e. smooth, relatively compact and immensely torquey, did they really think it was acceptable to let the first few thousand owners discover its weaknesses? Lancia actually has quite a record in this department, most notably in the use of substandard steel for their early ‘70s Beta saloons which were often rusty before they left the showrooms and the suicide brakes on their otherwise divine Montecarlo coupe, which they pulled from production for two years whilst they (crudely) sorted the problem.

Like the race to compel us all to adopt the e-book, they didn’t consider the price that might be paid which in their case was the relegation of a once proud and innovative marque to nothing more than a badge-engineered Fiat. And yet, and yet I shall stick with my sexy old girl and my heaving shelves of dusty dead trees.

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1. WTK - December 30, 2009

Excellent insights again. Altho I am befuddled about the Lancia fetish. I chalk that up to being an American. The printing press has had a long run. Longer than most technologies. God Save the Printing Press. Publishers have not helped themselves or their cause. Sell a hardback for $30 and put a one-time downloadable flash drive in the jacket for those that MAY be so odd as to read portions on their computer or iPhone, or Kindle, or whatever. For less than a dollar they could have covered both fields. And David Pogue proved piracy a myth through a NYT’s test—resulting in ‘additional’ printed copies of his books. I know, radio, TV, reel-to-reel, audio cassettes, VHS, Beta, DVD’s, CD’s, and streaming were all going to put established media outlets out of business. That’s true—but only the idiots that were so entrenched in their own self-worth that they neglected to gauge their market worth. Business is about serving the customer and as the customer changes, so must your business. As a publisher I would gladly electronically implant my books in a reader’s mastoid bone if they so desired. Publishing is about transferring content to others, so why not use multiple gateways? Hard, soft, digital, analogue, text-to-speech, HUD, sectional, pay-per-view, any method the cutomer feels comfortable using, and priced according to the market value, which the customer base will sort out in a flash for the publisher. Ignore the signals and get hit by the train. As you can see from the above rantings I’m not of the Amish persuasion…

markswill - December 30, 2009

But you are a Quaker, right? Or is that just a breakfast habit?

Seriously though, your arguments are cogent but surely the wider the choice of delivery systems the weaker they become individually? In fact although I didn’t mention them, I can see several advantages in the Kindle etc. over books, although cost and reliability aren’t two of them. My main point was that the pleasures of bookshop browsing will disappear if there aren’t any bookshops because it’s only economically viable to sell books online – something Waterstones seem happy about since they’re heavily promoting the e-reader in their store. (See “Aging Disgracefully’ blog), and that the gradual decline of high-street retailing and printing more generally are ultimately social ills which will cost a lot of money in the long run. But then I am, after all, and old hippy.

2. jan buxton - December 30, 2009

Unlike WTK I am more of an English petrol-head and look forward for the update on the Gamma, even though the nearest I’ve yet come to owning one (apart from my wife’s Y10) was test driving a Delta before deciding I couldn’t afford the insurance.

The issue of paper v. electrons is not one I can get excited about however – so I get news and blogs delivered to my computer for free instead of not buying a paper (no loss of custom), I listen to free music on Spotify which periodically prompts me to buy a CD (try-before-you-buy gets more custom there) but the one that interests me is online mapping, does the OS sell fewer or more paper maps because everyone can display Explorers and Landranger maps on computer (and print bits off)? Anecdotally it seems that those of us who are map junkies regularly use both (plus SatNav) and those who aren’t didn’t buy the paper maps anyway. So as far as the print-buying public are concerned the question is why buy – surely it is more than the transfer of data from page to brain? Until the e-books are something that you can rest you mug on, swot a fly with, stuff under the wonky table leg as well as read they can’t compete – or does that dismay rather than encourage those who sweat the words out?

3. markswill - December 30, 2009

Jan’s right in terms of the tactile charms of a real book, and also the joys of map-reading, but that only applies to people who’ve grown up with and like them. Which doesn’t usually apply to a whole generation weaned on digital media, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the isolationism that by its very nature this incurs fosters anti-social and selfish attitudes and a sense of entitlement unsupported by effort or achievement that makes for a nastier and ultimately economically precarious world.

(Economically precarious, BTW, because the cost of trying to keep society and the world safe from the damage caused – and indeed the funding of permanently high levels of unemployment – is only slowly becoming obvious).

4. Hugh Colvin - December 31, 2009

Re: Tactile charms of a real book; ho-hum. I got the Komplete 2 volume Don Martin for Xmas – he the creator of Fester Bestertester and Karbuncle and many other manic Mad magazine delights over several decades. But you need a bloody lectern to read it – the back of a brass eagle or some such – like they use in church. Its huge, de luxe, although fortunately not as Myles nagCopaleen suggests, bound in goat skin and “a thing to treasure but to put well away from you in hot weather”.
Amongst other gifts I also received a handy sized paperback by an American musical psychologist. Regular reference to the Glossary of terms was required to make it semi-intelligible. This was uncaringly located at the other end of the book. A sensible publisher would have put the translations of the obscure acronyms and hyper-californian terminology at the bottom of the page – (a sensible author would have used plain English) – so in my ignorance I ask – “Will an e-book allow me to view two or more non-consecutive pages at the same time? even from two separate books at the same time!??” – if so more interesting texts in other semi-foreign languages and/or cross-referencing two authors might then become possible.
Dream on probably.
And will it enable us to see more pictures? overcoming the prohibitive cost of publishing decent photographs on paper, and thus further undermining the development of intellectual muscle by providing excess visual material and promoting a coffee table/ surfer mentality.
And finally, the acid test – can you read an e-book in the (hopefully not acid) bath?
What happens when the phone rings just as you are reaching for your g& t and you slip on the soap and the virtual e-thing falls into the real water? An expensive sizzle?
Anything you cant read one-handed in the bath, whilst holding a drink in the other hand, be it the gravestone sized Don Martin or an e-version of the latest Californian psychobabble is wasted on me.
But then my e-cool kids only take showers …… even the bath marks me out as an old fogey, standing or rather lying in the way of the onward march of change, if not progress …..

5. Pete - December 31, 2009

A few random thoughts –

All the technologies that were supposed to kill the book depend on electricity and a machine to deliver them. The book, once printed, needs only a sighted or braille savvy, literate reader to enable it. This gives it a base endurance that is hard to better, especially when manufacturers are often more keen to persuade you to buy the latest technological interface and its toys whilst delivering the content. Chances are there will be a “best of both worlds” scenario for some considerable time.

Ian Marchant’s ire notwithstanding, the secondhand book market has presumably had a symbiotic relationship with the new one since books were first printed. “Library for sale – Gutenberg’s Bible, excellent condition, no dust jacket. Caxton’s Bible, lightly foxed, some scuffing on spine. One guinea o.n.o.” In fact, the secondhand bookshop is surely responsible for extending the shelf-life of authors and could in fact be a source of some comfort to Ian. If he spots a copy on an Oxfam shelf he at least knows that someone bought it in the first place! Additionally they can, through the speculative purchase of a used copy, precipitate further new buys and often a spreading of the word if the initially book is a reading success. (All this avoids the vexed issue of Oxfam’s role as charity subsidised purveyor of books, undermining other USED book dealers, of course)

There is a strong argument for the secondhand book as a green item, embodying as it does the whole principle of recycling. Where it fails the buyer is when an author is actually popular to the extent that people hang on to the books. After years of resistance I have been stricken with the Patrick O’Brian/Jack Aubrey bug and his tales of naval derring-do. Find me copies on used book shelves though. Master & Commander (the first in the series) pops up here and there but the rest are as rare as Nelson’s binoculars. Other small caches are often priced very highly – for a used paperback book – and, as England expects every man to read them in order, the task becomes even more difficult to achieve without setting sail towards a new bookshop. The peculiar alchemy that makes one writer a popular, critical and long-term success whilst other equally popular and critically feted writers fade into obscurity is hard to replicate but the used book market is a useful barometer of their fortunes.

6. tony rooney - December 31, 2009

Cant see the attraction of electronic books , have to do a lot of reading on p.c for work and cant do it for leisure ! Dont see the printed book ever going, its too convenient . As for the Lancia , could be the basis for a book eventually , just reading about this engine rebuild . You have my sympathy as have just finished a 20 year old XL100 engine for my daughter and in the process of of a 1958 fordson tractor engine which keeps throwing up problems , and they werent rare at all !

7. Daisy - January 3, 2010

Having witnessed my very elderly aunt’s disbelieving pleasure when she received a Kindle for Christmas, I can safely say that for someone with bad eyesight and little strength but lots of marbles up top, the Kindle is a godsend, with large-enough font, huge accessibility, loads of titles and no waste of space.

But personally I’d hate to lose the paper version, particularly for research, colour reproduction and detail, all of which are crucial to my work as a painter. Kindle at present doesn’t come near any of that.

markswill - January 3, 2010

This woman is clearly an Amazonian and not to be trusted.

8. Martin Harrison - January 3, 2010

Sorry not to have clearly defined what I meant by throwing the word ‘Libraries’ in the mix. I was adding their loss to the losing list, rather than suggesting they were a great place to go when the book shops are gone.
I can see a place for e-lots of words on a screen, but not without the added fun of an edit/delete function.
May I direct people to a Barbara Kingsolver book of musings, ‘Small Wonder’ – the chapter Marking a Passage, for further thought..
Thank you, and be warm in your houses.

9. Polly - January 8, 2010

I have mixed feelings about electronic books. Initially, like Tony Rooney, I was against them due to the difficulty I have reading electronic screens and the fact that I have to use them all my working day. However, there has been a recent decline in my near sight and I was finding it difficult to read newspapers etc. without bright light and/or removing my distance glass. It occurs to me that I may be able to change the font type, colour and size on an electronic book (particulary useful for the French Enduro mag which likes to use inverse colours). I may be able to read it in a dark place instead of the requirement to have a light on. So it just boils down to the need to supply it with electricity and the cost of downloading publications onto it. There is something very satisfying about holding a book and opening the cover though. I’m sure the ability to flick through pages of an electronic book will be implemented (if not already). I like having books lying around and having books shelves full of books. I’m always deeply suspicious of any house where there isn’t a book in sight.

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