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Double Booked. And This Time It’s Personal. December 9, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

Once again I find myself repeating myself, or at least returning to a rant only just posted, but being of an obsessive nature, I just damn well will. (Reminds me of a sign in a Parisian shop a fortnight ago: ‘Okay, I’m addicted to shoes – so what?’). So there I was browsing my local Waterstones, seeking selfish reward after a particularly harrowing dental appointment on Friday and, as anyone frequenting Britain’s sole remaining bookstore chain recently now knows, you can’t get through their doors without tripping over a table full of Kindles. Usually I ignore them, but this time some 12 year-old (© Ed Reardon) actually accosted me and asked if I’d “thought about” buying one.

“Yes,” I replied with all the snottiness you’d expect, “and my thought was ‘not in a million years.’” Not exactly a scintillating response, but as I took my ‘Buy One – Get Another Half Price’ volumes to the dreadlocked Assistant Manager (as his badge so helpfully explained) at the till, I managed something chunkier. “Tell me, “ I asked, handing over my Waterstones loyalty card (yes, I’m that sad), “what’ll happen when you’ve sold all your customers a Kindle… apart,” I added with a triumphant sneer, “from making lots of money for Amazon who won’t pay tax on it?”

Somewhere between sheepish and confused – hadn’t his boss James ‘Turncoat’ Daunt, anticipated his staff being asked this? – he haltingly, if not bitterly replied, “Well I supposed we’ll become a Kindle accessory shop?” Unsure if he was actually being facetious, I parried, “Well then you won’t need all this space will you, or all these staff?”

As it happened, a punter waiting behind me piped up, “But at least it’ll keep people reading, and they’re so much more convenient than books.” I looked round and saw her blanching slightly, perhaps as the import of her words sunk in. Readying her debit card to pay for Hilary Mantel’s latest, this well-groomed, interesting-looking woman of a certain age was perhaps echoing the conclusion drawn in my last blog, inasmuch that digital media is just symptomatic of technology’s inevitable progress, and as bookshops, printers, paper mills, warehouses and all their staff disappear like the quill and the Gutenberg press, society will adjust. Although in this case perhaps just to one or two companies – Amazon? Google? – profiting from and controlling everything we consume.

Which brings me neatly to another regular beef: the changing nature of human communications. I’m actually writing this during the day-long ‘technical rehearsals’ for our town panto, which despite the fluffed lines, wrongly-keyed songs and mis-timed entrances is a terrifically convivial affair and one of the small joys of living in a real community. And afterwards, suitably exhausted and moderately elated, some of us will doubtless repair to the pub, perhaps even staying on ‘til the pub quiz at 9.30.

I’ve actually had some of my best times of my life in pubs and bars, especially this one which luckily is at the end of my road. However I have many friends who never go to pubs at all. And yes, the booze costs thrice as much as at Aldi and if you live in the sticks driving home is risky, but like bookshops (and butchers and bakers), they’re disappearing fast and with them an entire facility for social contact. And how often do you simply phone up your mates for a chat these days? Nah, now it’s Twatter and FarceBerk that evidently sustain us socially and when I sometimes do call someone up for no particular reason, they are usually surprised and sometimes lost for conversation.

But I know people who use FarceBerk on a daily basis to broadcast their little miseries and triumphs (‘Here’s baby Mandy eating her first porridge’), or alert their chums to an hilarious video of a dog farting.  To mention this sounds pejorative and churlish, but like bemoaning the imminent death of the book, it’s a lament for a time when our relationships were more tactile and you could understand so much better how your friends, family and lovers were really feeling across a pub table, or even at the end of a telephone receiver. Okay, there’s Skype, but cowering awkwardly over our keyboards, Skype chats are viewed in blurry, staccato images reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s ‘50s and ‘60s stop-motion film animation… i.e. very distracting.

I know I’m riding high on my extremely hypocritical horse here, because I also occasionally delve into FarceBerk, albeit mainly to flog my blog, I use email several times a day, and I’ve been hopelessly flattered by those I respect into joining online business communities such as LinkedIn and Plaxo, naïvely believing it’d help my so-called career, but all they seem to do is encourage members to boast how clever and successful they are and/or spew out acronyms I neither am able nor really want to understand to voice anodyne opinions about the wonderfulness of digital media.

Where will it end? Will human interaction become limited almost entirely to the digital short-form and if so, what will it mean for the depth and diversity of imagination, emotions and intellectual rigour? As ever, I’m keen to hear your views, Orwellian or otherwise. Full of seasonal cheer, that’s me.

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Publish… and be damned December 2, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

Once, lots of my friends were journalists and editors, now they seem to’ve become novelists and authors. And at a really good party last night I re-acquainted myself with just about the only person I know who could and would talk candidly to me about the industry that all my bookish friends rely on for their living. Hitherto extremely amusing and professionally sharp, he’s M.D. of one of the few remaining independent outfits publishing topical non-fiction, but fast on his feet though he is, he now gloomily observed that book publishing is in dire straits.

The industry, he claimed, couldn’t figure out how to make money out of digital books because Amazon has a virtual (sic) stranglehold on the market thanks to Kindle. And it can’t figure out how to make money out of printed books because Amazon has a stranglehold on the market due to its aggressive pricing. Amazon also announced last week that despite a fall of 7% in U.K. book sales last year (that’s £1.58billion out of the market), they are following their American parent company’s example and starting their own imprint over here, and have essentially warned authors’ agents to fall into line… or else.

Older readers may remember the ‘Net Book Agreement’ which kept prices uniform across the trade but which ended in 1998 and consequently and subsequently some 2000 independent bookshops have ceased trading, as have the Dillons and Books etc. chains. Amazon, and to a (much) lesser extent Tesco have filled the void, the former pushing their downloadable digital book format which obviates the need for print and paper altogether.

My friend bemoaned that Amazon, who remember barely pay tax in the U.K., are so powerful that traditional publishing houses are paralysed by indecision as to how to address the onslaught. For a while it seemed that the other major retailer of digital literature – and indeed everything else – namely Apple, might prove a durable ally in maintaining profitable price levels for e-books, but they broke ranks earlier this year.

And for those of us that still love to browse in bookshops and physically hold a volume in our hands, last night’s prediction was that in five years time there won’t be any except highly specialist bookshops left. And anyway, many book printers are already going bust so who would print them? When I asked why he just didn’t sell up and retire, he looked at me as if I was an idiot and asked, “Who’d buy it?”

Meanwhile even the successful authors I know are being corralled into marketing meetings where bright young consultants, who evidently haven’t (couldn’t?) even read the books they’ve written, instruct them in the mechanisms of ‘author portals’ which will theoretically make them an integral part of the sales effort. (Novelising is a solitary business and they’d much rather go to a good drinks party to hob-nob with their peers and publishers, rather than submit to a sort of literary FarceBerk). The proliferation of these shiny young things is set against a reduction in the numbers of editors, who are so busy running to and from meetings that they barely have time to edit anyway. Sadly, this is a phenomenon replicated throughout the creative industries – just look at the BBC.

I should declare an interest here: I’ve been trying this past two years to find a publisher for the rollicking take of my nosedive from grace which some of you will know about, and although it involves international illegality, corrupt coppers, glamorous women with multiple identities and much double-crossing, I’ve been unsuccessful in my quest. Self-publishing seems now to be the only option and I was surprised that my friend both commended me to take this route whilst also admitting that “the trade is scared shitless” by it “because it plays into the hands of Amazon.”

Which indeed it does. However…

My start in magazine publishing was facilitated by the invention of the IBM golfball typesetter and the emergence of web-offset printing which allowed idealists and scoundrels to produce periodicals outside the grip of the print unions, hence the underground press of the late 1960s. It was a revolution only slightly less dramatic than the Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press in 1440, and my peers and I obviously fully embraced it. So to complain about the demise of the printed word, as I often do in my blogs, is perhaps myopic, if not hypocritical.

What is different now is that the means of production and distribution, like so much of what I whine about, is concentrated in the hands of a rapidly decreasing number of mega-corporations, in this case perhaps ending up with just one, i.e. Amazon. The power they already wield in commercial terms may be as nothing to the influence they could soon have in terms of content. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil… all those 20th century dystopian visions could soon prove prophetic, and with governments and the economies they rely on for their power so emasculated by a failed and corrupt financial system, who will uphold freedom of speech and therefore, thought?

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