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.