Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The rumours are flowing around about a connection between Angus & Robertson Whitcoulls and and US bookselling giant, Barnes & Noble. Staff from Australia and New Zealand's largest bookshop chain have apparently been on a 'study tour' in the US partly hosted by B&N. If one is to believe the share market bloggers, the US chain is apparently ripe for a leveraged buyout by private equity, just as ARW was in July 2005, when it was purchased by Pacific Equity Partners. All this means nothing, of course. For the moment, all the two chains have in common is their ampersand.
‘Why should authors get any more than other people with hobbies like sport or music or painting?’ I expect Penguin publishing supremo Bob Sessions may not be the most popular publisher with members of the Australian Society of Authors, following this masterful attempt to hose down their earning expectations in the December 2006 issue of Australian Author. Bob’s remarks certainly seem to have exasperated the writer who interviewed him. Dawn Cohen ended her article canvassing collective bargaining by authors, and even trying to persuade fellow ‘hobbyist’ (and Penguin author) Bryce Courtenay to down tools in support of his impecunious peers.
Credit where credit is due. I had a gentle tease of a certain NSW library supplier a few months ago for promoting things other than books as gift ideas in their Father’s Day newsletter. You can imagine my expectations were high on receiving their Christmas newsletter. Here are the heartening opening words: ‘A book. The perfect Christmas gift for those you know and love ... and for those you don’t really know all that well and maybe aren’t that fond of.’ And they even focused on Australian authors too. Now, that’s more like it! I can also recommend their seasonal recipe for summer pudding, although I’ve found it can be improved upon with the addition of a little brandy or rum (but best not tell the librarians).
I note another industry identity has joined myself and Black Dog Books’ Andrew Kelly in the blog-ocracy. Henry Rosenbloom has always been one with a keen turn of phrase, and now we can enjoy his well-chosen words on the recently re-vamped Scribe website (haven’t revamped your own website recently? Shame on you!). Henry, who describes himself as a ‘deracinated Jewish atheist,’ admits to mixed feelings about the trade’s reliance on the Christmas selling period. ‘Any publisher who releases a serious book between November and December is likely to regret the decision,’ he notes. ‘The seasonal avalanche of celebrity bios, blockbusters, brand-name authors, summer reads, and sports books crushes everything in its path.’ This didn’t stop Scribe releasing Inside the Global Jihad in November, I note.
I hear Pearson Australia CEO Peter Field, who has now left Australia to run Penguin UK, received a right royal send-off from his board. They went to Donovan’s in Melbourne’s trendy beachside suburb of St Kilda for a nice farewell lunch. What started as a lunch, however, soon progressed into afternoon drinks and then … dinner! The staff at Donovan’s must have been relieved when the final stragglers left late into the evening. Who says the long lunch is dead? Bon voyage, Peter.
You would think that having a book exposed in the New York Times as hoax on the eve of Frankfurt would put paid to any rights deals. Not in the case of Rohan Kriwaczek’s An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin. Seemingly an innocent and well-researched work of scholarship about a particular musical tradition born in the Middle Ages, the book is handicapped by one small detail— apparently there’s no such thing as the art of the funerary violin! Such a minor detail didn’t discourage Scribe Publication’s acquisitive Henry Rosenbloom from snapping up this eccentric work from its UK publisher, Gerald Duckworth & Co. It was a book, Rosenbloom enthused, that showed ‘how elusive facts and truth are … if it’s a hoax, it’s a brilliant, brilliant hoax.’ The book’s eccentric author is doing his best to muddy the waters further. In response to questions relating to the book’s authenticity from concerned Duckworth publisher, Peter Mayer, he apparently said: ‘Some [questions] I can’t answer, Mr Mayer, because it is a secret society and it is dying out.’
Talking of rights trading, here’s a heart-warming tale of perseverance rewarded. Back in 1982, Paul Collins of ‘Quentaris Chronicles’ fame wrote two kids’ books, The Wizard’s Torment and The Earthborn. Both were bought by a publisher called Parteach. ‘I received contracts (still have them!) and then nothing,’ Paul tells me. A year went by and Collins discovered the publisher had disappeared, so he sent the novels around to other publishers, but no-one wanted them. It was ten years before Cathie Tasker at HarperCollins took on The Wizard’s Torment, then another ten years before Tor in the US picked up The Earthborn. They then published the sequel, The Skyborn. The Hiveborn, third and final in ‘The Earthborn Wars’ trilogy, finally came out last month from Bohemian Ink. ‘Twenty years in the making, and the books have received my best reviews,’ says Collins. The moral of his story? ‘Persistence often wins through.’
Karl Dickmann has been putting the Australian stand at Frankfurt together for 27 years. He’s the ‘go to’ man for Aussies on set-up day, and not just because of his uncanny ability to produce tape, scissors, trolleys and other useful tools out of thin air. He has also been known to dispense refreshment. This year’s tipple came in a bottle with a label no-one could decipher but apparently the contents was sufficient strong to calm the nerves of even the most highly-strung rights manager. Dickmann identified the bottle as Yugoslavian fire-water purchased 26 years ago to celebrate the death of Marshall Tito. I hope it was worth the 26-year wait.
The battle over Peter Cosgrove has moved on to the retail marketplace, it would seem. First we had Random House gazumping HarperCollins with their own biography of the general, whose autobiography received a new subtitle (My Story) quick-smart, presumably to sort out any confusion among book buyers. Now we have Borders trying a little ambush marketing in the high street. In October A&R had a signing session in Pitt Street with Sir Peter. On the day of the signing Borders, which is two doors down (funny how often that seems to be the case with Borders’ stores, isn’t it?), stacked their window with the book and sold it (‘For today only!’) at $14.95—a hefty 70% off RRP. It dismayed a few booksellers, but I don’t imagine many consumers were complaining.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
The promotional ‘book video’ is apparently de rigueur overseas but it looks like Pan Macmillan can claim to be the first Australian publisher to produce one—for Richard Flanagan’s An Unknown Terrorist. Those who have seen the slightly saucy video may know that it was partly filmed in a Hobart men’s club. I wonder how PanMac will justify that expenditure to the ATO. Time for some creative accounting, perhaps …
My friends at Nielsen BookScan have some news for those canny publishers I referred to recently who were trying to skew the BookScan figures by only holding book launches in stores that supply sales data to the retail survey. The message is: nice try, but it doesn’t work. Apparently, BookScan casts its beady eye over any sales blips and makes appropriate enquiries with the bookshop concerned before deciding whether to add them to the overall survey. Ah well, back to the drawing board …
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Talking of old friends, news of Penguin designer George Dale’s retirement has come as a bit of a shock. I always thought he was younger than me. It may be time to visit that Portland bookseller, George! During one of his innumerable farewell lunches, I’m told the irascible George was treated to a few lines of an ode composed in his honour to the tune of ‘My Favourite Things’. As well as some gentle teasing about Dale’s hankering back to days of Letraset, scalpels and glue pots (they disappeared so fast, didn’t they?), the song also captured some delightful George-isms:
Who took this book on? The plot line is so poor
Sans serif typeface is all that it’s good for
What do you editors do with your time?
Look at the upcoming list—it’s a crime.
Hastings also mentions in passing the shock with which Britons reacted to the revelation, made public by the London Sunday Times in May, that publishers actually pay to have their books in booksellers’ catalogues and ‘recommended reading’ displays. Imagine! The going rate for WHSmith ‘adult gold’ Christmas promotion programme this year is apparently ₤50,000 (A$124,000) per title per week. Well, a bookseller has got to pay for those fixtures and fittings somehow, even if, in Hastings’ mind, the policy ‘stinks,’ is ‘monstrous’ and ‘debases the whole literary world.’ I think we might put him in touch with the Australia Council.
I enjoyed Englishman Max Hastings’ piece in the Australian last month about the ‘wetness’ of book reviews compared to those firey reviews that appear in film or art pages. Book reviewers, he says, do not provide consumers with ‘clear guidance about whether a book is worth their money.’ Instead, they mostly relate the plot, big-note themselves or praise so tepidly that it hardly matters. He goes on to suggest a star-rating system for books rather like the one that appears in this organ. ‘This may be vulgar,’ he admits, ‘but it would oblige critics to offer clearly comprehensible verdicts to prospective purchasers.’ Vulgar or not, I’d like to see it. We might even return to the days when good reviews actually sold books.
I understand at least one author who bravely fell in with tyro press Curtin University Books last year is still waiting for their first royalty cheque, and may be waiting indefinitely. Meanwhile, Ian Templeman’s brave attempt to create a de facto ANU Press at Pandanus had the rug pulled from beneath it by the university, just as the program was starting to take off. Par for the course among our academies, you might think. For all the controversy surrounding the establishment of the new MUP back in late 2002, at least the university has been prepared to back the press for a decent period of time. I note the universities of Tasmania and Central Queensland are also now dabbling in the publishing game. It’s best to stay clear of books entirely, vice-chancellors, unless you’re willing to do take a long-term view.
Book publishing and politics have always gone hand in hand. Small Publisher of the Year, Scribe Publication’s Henry Rosenbloom, was once a staffer for Gough Whitlam before finding his metier at the quire, while the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Irina Dunn was a federal senator in the 1980s. Then, of course, there’s Sylvia Hale (founder of now-dormant Hale & Iremonger), who eschewed the pleasures of publishing for the bump and grind of NSW state politics. Now we have another glittering political career in the offing, following Pluto Press owner Evan Thornley’s decision to run for an ALP seat in the Victorian Upper House this November. He won’t be far from the book industry if voters endorse him—the Southern Metropolitan Region in which he is running is basically Publishing Central, encompassing within its borders about 80% of publishing activity in Melbourne, from Camberwell to Port Melbourne and Kew to Moorabbin. Who knows, in time he might even consider such a bookish electorate worth living in.
We must all diversify our retail offerings, but who is the bookseller in country Victoria selling geriatric scooters? The ABA’s newest life member, on his rounds, tells me he spotted a scooter, complete with red warning flag, parked in front of the new release section of a certain Portland bookseller. Apparently, the proprietor of the store is local agent for the machine. I wonder what the margin is, and whether he can arrange a spin on a demonstration model for this ageing correspondent.
Nielsen BookScan seems as popular as HarperCollins’ 99-cent price point at present, and wasn’t that a thoroughly macabre photo of Michael Webster last month in the Australian? It seems the continuing hoo-ha in the press about the impact of BookScan on Ozlit has finally convinced the Australia Council that Something Must Be Done. It is spending $60,000 on a report. Among other many other things, it will be ‘an investigation of the impact of the Nielsen BookScan continuous retail sales data monitoring service.’ Knees are no doubt trembling as I speak. I wonder who'll get the job of writing the report.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Finally, a reason to be cheerful if you're an Australian independent bookseller ... perhaps. According to The Bookseller, 79 independent booksellers have left the UK Booksellers Association in the past year, the majority due to closure. The journal concludes that if indie stores close at the same rate in future, the independent bookseller will be extinct in Britain in 15 years’ time. In Australia, if one is willing to believe the BookScan figures, independents’ market share has actually increased in the past 12 months, albeit only slightly. Thus, if we apply the Bookseller’s impeccable logic to the situation here, Australia’s clearly endangered chain booksellers and DDS's will all be out of business in about ... 150 years.
Perhaps Rick Warren like to contact Modern Times bookshop in San Francisco. The struggling Californian bookseller has come up with an interesting ruse to raise cash. It’s invited customers to consider sponsoring sections of its bookstore, in return for a plaque (as in ‘This wine section generously sponsored by Gladys Bembo’). While the move smacks a little of desperation, the shop has an additional and ingenious lure: due to its relationship with a nearby college, all contributions have charitable status. If only our own taxman was so understanding.
‘I don’t think it’s sin to be rich, it’s a sin to die rich,’ The Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren is quoted as telling the Sydney Morning Herald (or the Smage, as it’s now called by media insiders due to the uncanny similarity between SMH stories and those of its Melbourne sister paper, the Age). The US pastor, who was in Australia last month attending the annual Hillsong Christian conference, apparently gives away 90% of the royalties he earns from his books yet still manages to be a millionaire.
Returns are an expensive business for everyone but surely the bar has now been raised to record levels with the announcement that after 30 June all Penguin and Pearson Ed’s New Zealand returns were to be delivered to DHL in Auckland. Now that the Pearson-owned Book Distributors New Zealand has closed, presumably these returns are being airfreighted to United Book Distributors in Melbourne. Even if it’s booked on Jetstar, that’s a very expensive holiday to send a book on … especially if it was despatched from Melbourne in the first place. You can’t fault Penguin for running a first class service, but if ever there was an argument for firm sale, then surely sending an unsold book on a 5244-kilometre round trip must be it.
On a related matter, I note ‘$100,000 worth of editing and legal scrutiny’ has been bandied around in the media as the unrecouped costs ABC Books incurred on the book prior to being forced to let it go. My editor friends will no doubt be amusing themselves pondering what huge proportion of this amount went on the editing.
All credit to MUP’s ever-alert Louise Adler for being the first publisher to contact Chris Masters on the day the ABC announced it wasn’t going to publish his book on Alan Jones. I’m sure he appreciated the 11pm call. But there was a sense that normal order was being restored when Allen & Unwin finally announced they had won the race to sign him up, thereby ensuring that stock of Jonestown will arrive in the same carton as it would have done had the ABC published it (my sympathies, Stuart). Makes you wonder if A&U made a joint bid with distributor ADS to stump up the rumoured $250,000 advance.