People-like-us Syndrome

I left my bicycle in the London Library’s bike-shed yesterday. The shed has a lock that can be opened only by library members, and so I didn’t bother to chain the bike to one of the stands. I usually do, but it was a Sunday, the library was closed and I figured the odds were that few if any other members would be opening and closing the door, potentially letting strangers in. During the week, I chain the bike when I leave it there, but I don’t bother to double-chain the basket, which detaches, the way I do when I leave it on the street.

Notice that I was only worried about strangers. I noticed that too, when I thought about locking/not-locking it. It never occurred to me that a library member would steal my bike. I mean, they’re London Library members. They’re people like me!

I make those kind of unconscious decisions all the time, and I’m sure we all do. It’s OK to leave my scarf on a seat, because only university members come here; it’s not OK to leave my book there, ‘anyone’ might come across it. There are in-groups and out-groups in my head. And for some reason, my in-groups (library members, shoppers at one specific — but not any other — farmers’ market, neighbours) have no dishonest people in them, no liars, thieves, cheats.

All the more shocking, therefore, when I read this morning that at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, publishers were losing up to 75 per cent of their stock to, well, looters — 75 per cent can’t really be called petty pilfering, can it? My assumption, automatically, is that some ‘they’ group — outsiders — came in and perpetrated the thefts. Because I can’t get my head around the fact that book people would steal. They wouldn’t, would they? Even though I know there are statistically as many liars, cheats, thieves among my professional cohort as anyone else’s professional cohort.

I know it, but I don’t believe it.

Ikea dooms the book

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to recognize that when Ikea says no one wants books anymore, no one, perhaps, wants books anymore. Word is just out that Ikea has redesigned its famous ‘Billy’ bookshelves. Why is this interesting? Well, because it uses the word ‘book’ together with ‘shelves’, but it doesn’t really mean it. Apparently, the new Billy (excuse the first-name terms: we’re very informal in Sweden) is deeper, the same height but – brace yourselves – the shelves are closer together, so that standard paperbacks no longer fit.

Yup, that’s it: Ikea thinks (knows?) that people don’t actually put books on their bookshelves. So what do we rename these things? [Book]shelves? Place-to-put-my-stuff-shelves? Tchotchke-holders? Whatever, they sure as hell ain’t bookshelves.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Not even, sadly, in literate Stockholm.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Is this a womb I see before me?

There’s nothing I like more than a good online quiz first thing in the morning, so I have to thank V. S. Naipaul (not, I admit, words I ever thought to string together in a sentence) for his Look at Me, Mummy, Look, Look! publicity rant, in which he stated that he knew (just knew) within a paragraph whether a piece of prose had been written by a man or a woman. The Guardian has done us the kind good service of setting up a quiz, to see if this is indeed the case. (Of course, VSN has the obvious response – if it turns out that most readers don’t know the difference, it’s because we’re not as smart as he is; if we do, case proven. See? Well, you would if you were a man. And as smart as VSN.)

I don’t see, but that’s because we women are little fluffy things, only concerned with the trivial and the domestic and sentimenta—  Oh, wait, is that a kitten I see? Awwww… Oh, sorry, got distracted. And then there’s my ribbon-drawer to tidy up, and then – oh, when I ask, am I going to have time to do such big macho things as sit and write?

Certainly it would have been better if Jane Austen had stuck to her tatting. Her novels, after all, are just sentimental, says the sage of Chromosomal Prose. And as for his ex-editor, who was so good as a ‘taster’ (oh kill me now, please) and editor, when she became a writer, ‘lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh’. Tosh, I tell you, tosh! Although just a teeny-tiny insy-wincy bit of me wonders if his views might just possibly be influenced by the fact that in her first book this very same editor described the feelings of joy and lightness she experienced when VSN took his masculine-prose self off to another publisher, and she realized she wouldn’t have to pretend to like him, or even listen to his woes any more.

Nah, I’m sure he’s above such things.

Oh deary deary me. Well, he’s a sad, bitter, lonely old man. Feel sorry for him. I do. It’s the kind of girlie sentimentality I’m programmed for.

Bad writing against the law?

Turkish publisher Irfan Sanci is facing jail for publishing William Borroughs. He has already been prosecuted for publishing Guillaume Appollinaire (no, truly). Now he is being prosecuted because the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ has condemned Burroughs’ The Soft Machine as a book that ‘lacks narrative unity’, being ‘written in an arbitrary fashion devoid of cohesion.’

These seem to me to be literary judgements, and I’m not at all clear from the AP report what makes the Board qualified to pronounce. Even if it were qualified, it’s the linkage it is making that is surprising. Apparently, according to the Board, the book being written in this incoherent style makes Burroughs’ depiction of ‘coarse, sleazy, vulgar and weak aspects of humans’ create ‘an attitude that allows the justification of criminal activities in the readers’ minds’.

That’s giving what it has already announced by fiat to be bad writing a hell of a lot of power. Might it possibly be the case, therefore, that the writing isn’t bad at all? Or is the Board suggesting that only bad writing has this power, and therefore must be outlawed?

It is no joke for Irfan Sanci, but one is led by this to ask, when is the Turkish government going to outlaw woolly thinking? Because it would appear to me from their statement that the members of the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ would all be in jail if that were the case.

Not a reader, just book-ish

Hmm, so publishers finally catch up with Foyle’s, do they? A million years ago, when I was a slip of a gel — well, in the 1980s, maybe even the 1990s — Foyle’s bookshop used to shelve its books, not by subject, nor by genre, nor even by colour of jacket, but by publisher. Yup, if you wanted to buy a copy of Ulysses, or Agatha Christie, or The Galloping Gourmet (or was that a television programme? It was a long time ago), you had to know who published it. Which was, of course, absurd.

Foyle’s did it because it was easy for the staff. Not, of course, the staff dealing with bewildered or irate customers. But the staff shelving, and the staff ordering, copies. The publisher’s sales-rep came in, they pointed him or her to the ‘Penguin’ shelves, s/he looked at what was needed, and put in an order. All hotsty-totsy, apart from those poor saps who actually wanted to buy books. (Which they did somewhere else. So Foyle’s almost disintegrated. But that’s another story.)

For possibly as much as a decade, publishers have been acting like Christina Foyle: they have set up websites to promote ‘their’ books, and ‘their’ authors. (By the way, can I tell publishers how not-enchanted authors are to be referred to by this possessive?) But readers don’t think, ‘Hmm, I’d like to buy a Macmillan title now. Gee, I wonder what they’re offering? I know, I’ll go to their website and see!’

I don’t even know why I had to type that last sentence out, it is so obvious. But not to publishers, apparently. Anyway, they have just as apparently Seen the Light.  Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Penguin are setting up bookish.com, which will be run, they claim, independently, to present a one-stop shop for all books by all publishers.

Well, I look forward. Who knows? But I’ve got to say, the website’s name stinks. Bookish, wow, what a come-on. How incredibly whole-hearted of the industry. It’s like the old Jonathan Miller joke. He was asked if he was a Jew. ‘Not a Jew,’ he demurred, ‘more Jewish. Not,’ he added confidingly, ‘not the whole hog, you know.’

Book-ish. A few pages short of a whole index?

Let’s monetize thinking

Yesterday in the Observer there was a wonderful article on libraries and their function in the 21st century (here), and the various purposes they serve.

The most interesting part (well, it was all interesting — do read it), the most worrying part was, I thought, where one librarian told of the council wanting to ‘measure’ ‘outcomes’:

‘The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,’ says Ian Stringer. ‘Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.’

This seems to me to encapsulate the problem with so much of life, really since Thatcher — the idea that everything can be quantified, everything ‘monetized’. We don’t have public transport or publically-owned postal services because they make life a little better for everyone, make the world a slightly better place to live in, but only if they actually make money, not simply pay for themselves, or even cost something.

As one of the librarians said in the Observer article (really, do read it, I’m telling you), if anyone said today, let’s tell everyone we’re taking a bit of their tax-money to build a bunch of buildings, buy books and tell people they can come in and borrow them, all they have to do is return them, well, everyone would say they were nuts. What the piece doesn’t say is how our mindset has altered to make this proposition risible: that in the 19th-century, when the idea of public libraries was first formulated generally, the idea of doing something for the betterment of society seemed normal and worthwhile, while today it seems a joke, an alien concept.

I saw a bit of this myself when I was a baby copy-editor (oh yes, I get around). My nameless corporation (Penguin) invited a bunch of management consultants to ‘stream’, I think was the unattractive word, us to create a range of salary bands. They got each type of employee together and asked questions about what we did. But the questions were not, what did we do, but how did we ‘enrich’ our ‘product’, and what tools did we need to do said ‘enriching’.

Faced with the response that our tools (in those pre-computer days) were pencils and erasers, and that if we were really really really good at our jobs, our ‘enrichment’ was entirely invisible, they were flummoxed. Worse, looking back, I can see from the results that they went back to our Lords and Masters and said we were unnecessary: that our work could be done by anyone, and that paying salaries instead of freelance rates was simply untenable.

Sure enough, long after I left, the copy-editorial department was run down, and manuscripts, as in most publishing houses, are now sent out to freelance editors. There are many, and many are admirable, freelance editors, but what was lost was the pooled communal knowledge, the discussions of ‘What do you think if X’, or the ability for experienced editors to share that experience with younger ones.

To return to libraries: what we have is something that has no price — it is not a ‘profit centre’, it cannot be ‘monetized’. But yes, it ‘enriches’ all of us. To lose it because we cannot put our finger on ‘outcomes’ is a sign of how shallow our societies have become.

Why we need publishers (an author writes…)

The Bookseller, UK publishing’s trade newspaper, has published an online report (here) from the London International Book Fair, just concluded, on a debate that was held between the forces of Light and Dark — sorry, lost my head, between new media and the dinosaurs, erm, publishers.

The blogger mostly comes down on the side of the Brave New World. S/he, however, somewhat sabotages his/her case by the following:

Franklin however reminded us of all that some regard as arrogant, old world and out of synch with today’s changing market. He lead with one could best describe as publishers know best and all else is drose. He went on to crusade against self publishing as if it was the devil and even made the claim that , ‘Free is too much to pay for the vast majority of self-published books,’ but quickly added as any speaker would having stuck the knife in, that “It’s too much to pay for some of the books that come from publishers.”

Now, without wanting to be more of a pain in the butt than I normally am, may I point out:

  • For ‘he lead’, read ‘he led’
  • For ‘with one could best’, read ‘with what one could best’
  • For ‘drose’, read ‘dross’
  • For ‘self publishing’, read ‘self-publishing’
  • For ‘as if it was the devil’, read ‘as if it were the devil’
  • For ‘claim that ,’ read ‘claim that,’
  • Use all double or all single quotes
  • And finally, I would have broken that last sentence up into two.

I could go on and do this to the rest of the post, but kindness (and time) intervenes. My point in even doing this is not malice. I could have written the sentences above too. Because this blog, and many blogs, are reminders that what publishing adds in value is invisible, until it is not there. It adds extra eyes, to prevent us, the authors, from making all the howlers above. It adds people who have spent their lives reading, who want to make us, the authors, look good.

Publishers, although I have my doubts about many (and I am well aware many feel the same about me), are there for a reason. Any single author on his or her own has lived with his or her book for far too long to be able to see its flaws, both big and small.

So, publishers may not survive in the form they have existed in for so long. But please, let’s keep the expertise. We need it.

‘What are my demographics?’ I wail

Brace yourself, Bridget, for truly the most unappealing idea of the day — week? month? millennium? According to Jane Ubell-Meyer, ‘known in the celebrity gifting world for over a decade’ (are there some words you fully expected never to type in a sentence?), according to Ms Ubell-Meyer, ‘The book publishing industry has an opportunity of a lifetime to tap into the millions of dollars available from corporate sponsorships. They just need to know how to do it.’

And, as a splendid example, she presents ‘a colleague of mine’ who published a diet book and ‘lined up a sponsorship deal with an apparel company that financed her nationwide tour.’ She doesn’t say, but I’m guessing the ‘apparel company’ (clothes, to you and me) made her wear everything one size too big, to emphasize how well the diet worked?

Or, another example, an ‘author’ (my scare quotes) who ‘lined up a deal with a major automotive car company, who not only gave her a hefty deal but also gifted her with a car.’ (Please note, not any old car company, but a major automotive car company: that’s really the best kind — the minor, un-automotive car companies completely suck. And note my heroic restraint in not commenting on ‘gift’ as a verb. I gift, you gift, he she or it gifts…)

But I digress. What, one wonders hungrily, did this author write about? A Mills and Boon, in which the previously frigid heroine finds herself weak with lust every time the tall dark hero opens the door to his Vauxhall Cavalier? A thriller in which the rogue CIA agent outwits the nefarious commie devils by nifty cornering in his vintage Chevy? Or a zany comedy with a suburban family finding the True Meaning of Life after little Johnny is not run over, thanks to the terrific braking of the Toyota?

Ms Ubell-Meyer continues. ‘The very first thing they should think about doing if they want to land a sponsorship deal, maybe even before they’ve written one word, is asking themselves “what is their PR & Marketing plan?”’ Jesus wept, if only I’d thought of that before I started this lark, I too could have a major car and new apparel.

But wait a minute, wait a minute, Ms U-M then warns me not to fly too high. ‘Go after the low-hanging fruit. There are many opportunities you could be missing out on if you don’t approach the second-tier companies first.’

Well damn it to hell, if I’m not getting a major automotive car, or only low-hanging apparel, I’m going to scrub the whole thing right here and now. Maybe I’ll just write books instead.

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