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October 20, 2010

On Posterity and Cultural Conservatism

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/04/gabriel-josipovici-modernism-tom-mccarthy

"In cultural terms, we live in deeply conservative times. Editors at several major publishing houses have to run novels' synopses past reader focus groups before being allowed to publish them; "literary" festivals feature newsreaders and other media personalities. We shouldn't imagine, though, that things were that different in the golden age of modernism. Ulysses was printed, in 1922, on a small, private press in Paris, in a run of 1,000; Kafka's Metamorphosis, on its small-press publication in 1915, sold 11 copies – of which 10 were bought by Kafka. Yet can anyone, now, name the successful middlebrow writers of 1922 or 1915? Of course not."

(Tom McCarthy, reviewing Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? for the Guardian.)

What the fuck is a reader focus group?

How do I get onto one?


February 07, 2010

Leo Schulz on the Future of the Book

Writing about web page http://newyouproject.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/guest-commentary-leo-schulz/

An interesting, personal take on some of the changes in the industry at the moment, and how a writer trying to get published responds to what he sees about it.

I was particularly interested in the subsection, "The Beginning of the Anti-Book", but it doesn't quite go where I'd have hoped. Maybe something I'll follow up in a later post. Meantime, descriptions of the Anti-Book of your dreams most welcome.

The greatest consumers of narrative (for the sake of convenience let’s please include in this term any type of long literary work with few graphical elements) are students, but they are a captive audience

So writers should all thank New Labour's campaign to put 50% of UK A-level students into Higher Education? It grows the industry! Hmm. I'm going to end up sounding horribly elitist if I think this through to where my logic's going. Best not.


February 02, 2010

Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2010

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00q9lzl

One of the most exciting titles published this year, at least for literary writers and readers (or, OK, just for me), has to be the Dalkey Archive's 'Best European Fiction 2010' anthology of short stories.

Dalkey's aim was to create a version of what has existed in the US for ages - an annual 'best of' compilartion for the European short story, which, (unlike in the UK, if you believe most of what I've read), is a thriving US prose form. They've managed to draw in a tremendous jigsaw of funding from various European cultural sources to produce the first of these, published in January 2010, and a tremendous collage of writers from thirty-five European countries.

I'm excited mainly for the fact that it showcases a whole load of names that I've never heard of, and new work by a handful I have. To boot, it's coming from a publishing house I trust blindly, not only for drawing their name from a Flann O'Brien novel, but for putting out some seriously intelligent, exciting, original and experimental literature. Not that I 'get' all of what they do, but they've built up a reputation over the past few decades that demonstrates their consistent quality as editors. They also publish The Review of Contemporary Fiction, which, despite the dry title, furthers their mission to grow the readership for this kind of exciting writing.

Anyway, more to the point, editor of the BEF2010, Aleksandr Hemon, was just on Radio 4's Open Book recently, talking about the anthology. You can listen to the show here. (Relevant content kicks in about 10min30secs.)

Here's some more info about the anthology, from the Dalkey webpage.

Contributors:

Ornela Vorpsi
Antonio Fian
Peter Terrin
Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Igor Štiks
Georgi Gospodinov
Neven Ušumović
Naja Marie Aidt
Elo Viiding
Juhani Brander
Christine Montalbetti
George Konrád
Steinar Bragi
Julian Gough
Orna Ní Choileáin
Giulio Mozzi (AKA Carlo Dalcielo)
Inga Abele
Mathias Ospelt
Giedra Radvilavičiūtė
Goce Smilevski
Stephan Enter
Jon Fosse
Michal Witkowski
Valter Hugo Mãe
Cosmin Manolache
Victor Pelevin
David Albahari
Peter Krištúfek
Andrej Blatnik
Julián Ríos
Josep M. Fonalleras
Peter Stamm
Deborah Levy
Alasdair Gray
Penny Simpson


About the Editor

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, and The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay for several months. While there, Sarajevo came under siege, and he was unable to return home. Hemon wrote his first story in English in 1995. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.


January 31, 2010

More Amazonian Clout!

Follow-up to Amazonian Clout from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Just spotted this article via Alvin Pang:

Books published by Macmillan mysteriously poofed from Amazon yesterday. The reason, according to the NYT, is that Amazon is punishing the publisher for arguing that the price of Kindle books should go up to $15. This won't end well.

Get your war on, anyone? This is going to play out badly over the next few months.

Unless all the major ebook publishers form an alliance to remove their content from Amazon's Kindle line, Amazon maintains its stranglehold on the ebook market. They won't do that, because the fewer competitors delivering Kindle content, the more monopoly a publisher will have over Amazon's ebook retail. Macmillan's departure is a boon to Random House et al, who are still tapping that vein.

And meanwhile, iBooks sound like a joke - without the no-light technology of e-readers like Kindle, what's the point in burning your eyes out on an iPad, or any other Apple screen-based product, when you could use audio book formats instead?

I still maintain that the excuse given by book retailers - that 'readers win' when books are cheaper - is a short-term view doing harm to the industry as a whole. The cancer spreads.


January 30, 2010

Amazonian Clout

Writing about web page http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=11367

Further evidence that the publishing industry is reaching a crisis, to go hand in hand with the closure of Borders, one or two Christian-focused bookshop chains and various independent book shops, over December:

The move by three of New York’s big six conglomerate publishers — Simon & Schuster, the Hachette Book Group, and HarperCollins – to stand up to Amazon’s drastic discounting demands took a perverse twist yesterday when Amazon did what it does: act thuggish when it’s time to negotiate

...

this isn’t a war about pricing as much as it is about standing up, finally, to Amazon.com and its destructive behavior towards the entire industry.

Full article here.



March 17, 2009

Stewart Lee Tears a Hole in the Book Industry

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00jd8gp/Stewart_Lees_Comedy_Vehicle_Toilet_Books/

A friend sent this link over (cheers H!). Available till next Monday. Glad to see Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci behind it.

The way he destroys Dan Brown, Harry Potter and Chris Moyles is hilarious, but the bit where he tries to describe rappers is pure poetry.


February 19, 2009

Money Programme on Publishing Industry

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hmbb2

Only just saw this and it's only available for five more days. And it's very insightful.

And an article here.


January 28, 2008

Bypassing publishers

Writing about web page http://www.nin.com/

I stumbled over some interesting music industry happenings recently. I say stumbled: Saul Williams is coming to the UK in February, to do an event for the London Word Festival, run by Tom Chivers of penned in the margins, who I've worked with on podcasting; and I'm a MASSIVE Nine Inch Nails fan. I put two and two together (i.e. I read the websites) and this is the story: 

Saul Williams' latest album is produced by Trent Reznor, who decided, having had trouble releasing the album through a major label, to make the album downloadable for free online. The results: 

"As of 1/2/08,
154,449 people chose to download Saul’s new record.
28,322 of those people chose to pay $5 for it, meaning:
18.3% chose to pay.

[...]

"If 33,897 people went out and bought Saul’s last record 3 years ago (when more people bought CDs) and over 150K - five times as many - sought out this new record, that’s great - right?"

[NB. These figures from this blogpost - go here for the full blog.]

The first 100k downloads were completely free, with an option to pay $5; since then the album's been available for $5. So a drop in about 5000 of actual sales, but a 500% audience boost, roughly.

What's really interesting is the cost of production and marketing. Trent's latest post points at an Observer article by Simon Napier Bell, on the topic of industry giants and how they screw the artists:

"Imagine the outcry if people working in a factory were told that the cost of the products they were making would be deducted from their wages, which anyway would only be paid if the company managed to sell the products. Or that they would have to work for the company for a minimum of 10 years and, at the company's discretion, could be transferred to any other company at any time."

Most notable fact is the 10,000% mark up on raw product to retail price. That profit mostly goes on rent, employee's salaries and into the pocket of the label, not the artist. Remove that and the relatively insignificant cost of hard copy CDs, etc. and you're left with just the artist's time and the producer's time and then the relatively magical concept of the art's intrinsic value (i.e. how much did you enjoy it?).

Compare to Radiohead's latest, In Rainbows. Originally available free, with an honesty box, which reportedly saw devout fans throwing £70 or more into the band's pockets. Now only available from the band's official merchandise website, for £40. Ouch. Ditto Saul Williams' Niggy Tardust, which uses Paypal to process credit card payments. (Waste appears to have its own system, but I couldn't be bothered to register. Maybe when I feel rich enough to buy the album.)

I've had a couple of chats with China Miéville about a similar line being taken in book publishing. Cut out the conglomerate vampires because soon digital reading tech is going to be as good and widespread as ipods. So how to control it, if it takes off?

Readers are swamped with text these days, they're up to the eyeballs in reading material (of a different sort to literature though? I add ponderously) on screen, off the 'net. So there's no question about whether it's going to grow, as far as I'm concerned. I've a friend who came back from Japan recently with a (Chinese-) modded Nintendo DS that allowed him to download ebooks to it from the internet, load up any text, whatever he wanted - correction, whatever he can get hold of, which, increasingly, means everything.

The future is here already, according to China (M, not the country), we just don't have it shipping free with new home entertainment systems yet. According to some people this and digital print in general mean (these are paraphrases):

  • The death of the book in the next five years (China)
  • A shift towards localised networks, devolution of readerships (Rupert Loydell, Stride)
  • An interesting fad, that marketing departments need to be aware of and part of (Stephen Page, CEO Faber & Faber)
  • Something that will create a new playing field for the publishing industry (Alexandra Pringle, Bloomsbury Editor, I think said something like this at her recent Warwick visit, as did various other small press people I've chatted to)
  • A way to screw artists of their royalties (this comes more from music and television giants, like David Geffen, who set up that anti-piracy squad several years ago targeting mp3 websites)
  • A way to screw conglomerate publishers (Steven King & Trent Reznor, though I might be over-interpreting them both)

China suggested that writers will eventually find themselves working directly in partnership with freelance editors, and releasing their books online, possibly with the kind of honesty-box donations that you get on Trent's site.

[Or the one that featured for a while on Stephen King's page, when he serialised The Plant online. The figures I saw published on King's website at the time showed him to have a net profit after the first one or two installments of about £75,000. The article linked above suggests total profits of nearly half a million dollars and that the project was abandoned supposedly because of a slump in people paying for the downloads. Nice work, if you can get it.]

But these processes are subject to one important point: artists with established fan bases can get away with it, but how do you draw new audiences on the net? What will new artists do when they only have a range to 100s or, if they're lucky, thousands of readers? OK, OK, Arctic Monkeys, I hear you say. (But don't say Lily Allen at me, she's connected.)

At the end of the day, being a good writer doesn't make you a good editor; being a good editor doesn't make you a good promoter; the business of publishing art is set up to work with skilled individuals and the idea that a writer is nothing without their readers is a strong one (but not one, in my book, that justifies pitiful royalties and contracts that hold artists over barrels marked 'profit'). At the end of the day, the book still needs to be written, then edited, then promoted. So writers who need editors who need marketers will find themselves working with an increasingly fragmented, independent array of individuals with various skills (accountants, PR people, editors, sub-editors, typesetters) so let's, for the sake of convenience, call this collective a publishing house.

And oh, right, we're back to square one, but with a chance to rewrite the history books. More tea, Comrade Lenin?

So, for me, there's some weight to Stephen Page's idea that the internet's effect on publishing is essentially a marketing problem, in need of marketing solutions. Publishers who don't keep up will look like dinosaurs, and lose face. Publishers who do keep up will be doing the same work as before (providing a collective, professional service) but in a new environment, alongside the existing one, until that, supposedly, dies out. If at all.

Piracy itself won't have that much of an impact on anything except the scale of operations - though the new model of publishing huge quantities of writers and texts that each sell in small quantities (cf. Salt, Shearsman, and, godhelpme, lulu) marks a change that will be much more noticeable at the lower end of the industry's turnover scale. The giants already have massive back catalogues, rights to recent classics and estates, that they won't have to worry too much. Their staff will though.

The main problem is that we're in a transition phase and, as usual, the industry is using it as an excuse to separate the wheat from the chaff in the usual fashion: through blinkered, unimaginative capitalism-tinted goggles. Similarly, you get the kind of shameless exploitation of artists that leads to protest (cf. Writers' Guild of America). Even the BBC is guilty of it, e.g. through early screenings of second episodes online and marketing sampler series to mobile phones. They've asked writers to 'go with it' for the sake of marketing experimentation, but bottom line here is that the broadcaster/publisher is getting coverage at no expense, from someone else's artistic product.

Sure, you could whine till the cows come home, only you can't afford any cows, or a field, because you've got no money. The obvious response is to go and do something it about it. Or go into banking.


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