Friday, November 21, 2008

Go you good horse!

We know that all publishers are born gamblers, but retailers are usually rather more risk-averse. But just to break the mould, I hear that a prominent bookseller who says they never usually have a flutter ended up having a very nice win on Melbourne Cup day after trusting their instincts and plunging $20 on a 36/1 outside chance, based solely on the horse’s name: Juggle the Books!

Rememberance of Frankfurts past

A lovely Frankfurt story, passed on to me by a weary foot-soldier who says he ‘won’t even look at another sausage for months: you could say I’m wurst for wear.’ When everything was packed up on the Australian stand on the final day, a notebook was left unclaimed. Luckily Maree and Kathy from the APA had a good idea who had left it behind, and the notebook travelled back to Melbourne with my correspondent and was returned to its grateful owner. And was the notebook full of highly confidential business information and irreplaceable international intelligence on hot rights deals? Well, maybe it was, but the owner was most relieved to get it back because ‘one of my Frankfurt contacts had the most marvellous recipe for Madeleines and I wrote it on the front of the notebook.’ How delightfully Proustian!

A catty conversation

According to the Galley Cat blog, an attendee at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair swears he overheard the following catty conversation between two publishing industry pros:
‘Where were you? You missed our appointment.’
‘I know. I'm sick of remaindering your books.’
‘You might have called to cancel.’
‘I was busy talking with a real publisher whose books actually sell.’

How very Gallic!

When French novelist Jean-Marie le Clezio was announced recently as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the big American publishers searched their back-catalogues in vain—the few titles of his they did have rights for were long out of print. Smarting from the pre-prize pronouncement from Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl that ‘American literary culture is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,’ one hears that a number of US-based publishers hoped to rectify this embarrassing situation by bidding for translation rights to Le Clezio’s newest book at Frankfurt. But it wasn’t to be. Anne-Solange Noble, rights director for the venerable French publisher Gallimard, was playing a particularly Gallic game of chat et souris: ‘When an American publisher asks me about the book I reply with “Why are you interested in this Le Clezio? What do you know about his other books?” I tell them that I'll note their interest, but I don’t need to rush the sale, I’ll sell the rights later.’

[Since I write this, I've learned that Simon & Schuster have now picked up rights for le Clezio in the US]

Friday, September 19, 2008

The best of the worst

The winner of one of my favourite ‘literary’ awards has been announced: the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Started in 1982 by the English faculty at the San Jose State University in the States, the Bulwer-Lytton recognises the purplest of prose, with entrants asked to write the most deliberately awful opening sentence to an imaginary novel they can think up, inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ This year’s winner is one Garrison Spik, a 41-year-old communications director and writer from Washington, D.C.

His winning sentence is: "Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

But I think I prefer the runner-up, from Andrew Bowers: "Hmm . . ." thought Abigail as she gazed languidly from the veranda past the bright white patio to the cerulean sea beyond, where dolphins played and seagulls sang, where splashing surf sounded like the tintinnabulation of a thousand tiny bells, where great gray whales bellowed and the sunlight sparkled off the myriad of sequins on the flyfish's bow ties, "time to get my meds checked."

If you want to read more of the cringe-worthy category winners and runners-up, go to

A cardinal sin?

While we’re on the topic of bad writing … British novelist Andrew O’Hagan, who I recall was quite a hit at the 2007 Sydney Writers’ Festival, now seems to be auditioning for the next series of Grumpy (not quite so) Old Men.

During a panel session at the recent Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, he started by committing something akin to treason in the world of UK publishing by criticising the morning TV hosts Richard and Judy. While no-one denies that R&J’s book recommendations have shifted a lot of ‘units’, O’Hagan had the temerity to suggest that ‘they think the British reading public is stupid’ and that the kinds of titles selected ‘oversell a reduced, unimaginative notion of what people's literary enjoyment might be.’

He then added that he was disappointed by so many students taking creative writing courses, and recalled a visit to one such course at a famous institution. He complained that ‘some students were more interested in finding an agent in the United States than in improving their writing.’

‘When you speak to students, if you teach on a creative writing course, often what you find is that they are not interested in life at the level of the sentence,’ he said. ‘When you try to activate some interest, they find that slightly distracting. What they want to talk about is what it would be like to be a famous novelist.’

Sticking their fangs in

Whatever else we might think of it, That Global Online Bookseller (and everything else-seller!) has certainly played a big part in giving readers a voice when it comes to reviewing their purchases. Sometimes the reviews are gushingly over-the-top, others are very thoughtful, and at others hilariously brutal.

Take this one (some names omitted to spare anyone’s blushes): ‘[this] series has never been great-- it's been sloppily-written, almost plot-less, and incredibly cheesy-- but it's been a guilty pleasure. Or at least the first book was. [Book 2] was bad, [book 3] was worse, and now [book 4] is the cherry on top of the really horrible sundae. It rapidly goes from unintentionally hilarious, to awful, to leaving the reader wondering how it ever got published.’

Despite reviews like this—and this one is by no means an isolated example—and growing calls from disgruntled fans for a mass consumer return, this book has been the biggest thing since sliced wizard, selling in the millions. Will quantity win over quality? Or will fan-based communities really shape the way we publish and sell into the future?

On that lofty though, my dears, I bid you adieu.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Where have all the photos gone?

Spending a pleasant few hours looking back through old issues of Bookseller+Publisher magazine recently, I noted how many of you used to send me photos of your goings-on (how young and carefree we all used to look!).

For some reason the pics have dried up, which I find a bit sad given how easy it apparently is to take and send them with all the digital whatsits we have nowadays. So if you have a pic that you think should be gracing this blog or my regular page in the magazine, send it to me by email (, or become my ‘friend’ on the Facebook website, where my nephew has kindly set me up with an account.

Grumpy old men

Now here’s proof that as long as my memory might be, I don’t know everything. The British author Will Self, who can sometimes be seen on one of my favourite telly programs, Grumpy Old Men, has set his latest novel (named after a body part) partially in Australia. Here’s the bit I didn’t know, courtesy of an interview reproduced on the ABC’s Articulate website. Self says ‘I worked for the Northern Territory’s government briefly in my early 20s and I always thought “I’m going to do something with this material.” The Australian Aboriginal culture just leaves you staggering. They were the first people out of Africa 30,000 years before us and walked round the coast to Australia before we had even got out of the trees to go round the other way [he does have a colourful turn of phrase!]. They are the most political, Byzantine people imaginable. The complexity of their politics is astonishing….’ Self found out the hard way just how Byzantine: ‘I got in terrible trouble over How The Dead Live, or at least a situation I took seriously. I named one of these Aboriginal wizards in the book and ran it past a very old friend who’s lived in the Northern Territory for decades. He said no, you can’t do this, it’s got back to him. We had to pulp an edition in Australia and I had to pay compensation.’ I bet that made a few more old men than Mr Self grumpy!

It's like deja vu all over again!

All the malarkey about parallel importation, open markets and 30/90-day rules (I’m still not entirely sure I understand them) is on again! It’s all thanks to the surprise announcement hidden away in one paragraph of a lengthy COAG communiqué released in early July.

Apparently all the state and territory governments have come to a sudden consensus that our territorial copyright regulations are a ‘priority area of competition reform’ and a pressing issue on a par with ‘rationalisation of occupational licences, national transport policy and further reforms to infrastructure access.’ Not to make light of it: this is a very serious issue for all of us and we all need to be acutely aware of the potential impact it could have on our trade, but such debates do bring out some nice rhetorical flushes--a bottle of my favourite passable red to anyone who can remember who compared whom to ‘a pack of dingos’ the last time around!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A bee in her (frilly) bonnet

Speaking of great women, I hear that a certain feisty publisher has got a bee in her frilly bonnet about one aspect of the otherwise extremely genteel Jane Austen Society of Australia (or JASA). She wrote to the society recently: ‘I am contacting you to express my extreme disappointment in one aspect of the JASA website and that is the linking of the website to the US online bookseller, In Australia, we boast many of the best booksellers in the English-speaking world. Their knowledge of books, their enthusiasm and passion for books is one of the greatest un-sung assets to our cultural life. The greatest threat to their livelihoods is for their customers to go off-shore to purchase their books. As a cultural organisation that benefits from a literate, book-reading population I feel JASA should be doing all it can to encourage JASA members to support their local bookshop.’ And on that note, Dear Readers, I bid you all adieu until next month!

Great love letters

I’m sure that like me you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the advertising for a new moving picture based on a television series about some carefree (but painfully thin!) young lasses in New York. In this film, the main character is seen to read from a book entitled Love Letters of Great Men. Fans have been quick to search for this instructive tome, only to find that it doesn’t actually exist! However, the small US publisher who took a punt last year and reissued an obscure and long out-of-print book entitled Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day has had a nice surprise: his little book leapt into the bestseller chart on and is now reprinting!

Recapturing one's lost youth

There was no such controversy about this year’s Miles Franklin pick (or at least there wasn’t at the time I was writing this!), but isn’t it telling that the winning book’s publisher admitted that sales of the winner’s books to date have been ‘modest’—despite his being shortlisted for the Miles three times and winning a regional award in this year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Let’s hope that finally winning ‘the big one’ sees Steven Carroll rewarded for many years of lonely work. Carroll’s own plans are quite modest: he plans to spend some of the $42,000 prizemoney on something called a Rickenbacker (which my nephew tells me is a brand of electric guitar, once favoured by The Beatles: at least I’ve heard of them!). Carroll told the papers that he traded-in his beloved guitar for an electric typewriter to kick-start his writing career 30 years ago. ‘It was one of these pivotal moments, life-defining moments, it’s got a real sadness to it,’ Carroll said. ‘You can’t buy your youth but you can buy back your Rickenbacker.’

How short should a shortlist be?

Our friends across the pond have been getting worked up over their biggest book awards of the year, the Montana Awards. The problem is the shortlist—it’s too short! The judges only chose four novels for the fiction shortlist instead of the usual five, with one saying that ‘while there were other great books, we did not want to dilute the Montana (finalist) sticker by promoting a fifth.’ The pundits were outraged and newspaper articles, blog posts, and live radio interviews on national radio followed, suggesting many well-received novels that they thought should have been contenders. There was even talk of a defamation suit at one point! Isn’t it nice to see such passion? I can’t recall a good stoush about the shortlist for an Australian literary award for years.

From little things, big things grow?

A friend who understands something of the opaque world of finance tells me that the fortunes of a certain large bookselling chain have improved dramatically in the past six months. From being well and truly in the red, said company has now reported a very healthy half-yearly profit. How much of this good fortune can be apportioned to the company’s slightly controversial practice of adding a few cents here and there above RRP to much of its backlist, my correspondent wonders?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm back!

My Dears,

Please accept my sincere apologies for not having updated in so long. There was some palaver with lost passwords and 'Google log-ins' and the like ... Luckily my very clever and patient young nephew has finally sorted it all out, so I'm back on the air!

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of my dear readers for their emails, especially all the ones from Nigeria -- who'd have thought my little blog would have so many fans in Africa!

love, Gladys.

Grey Gorillas awarded

For some inexplicable reason, my invitation to the APA’s 60th anniversary dinner was ‘lost in the mail’, but I hear that a fine time was had by all and I congratulate so many of my oldest and dearest friends for being recognised in the inaugural George Robertson Awards (which I suspect will forever be known as the ‘Grey Gorilla’ awards). Along with all the MDs and publishers, I was particularly pleased to see that Trevor Klein, the indefatigable sales manager for Adelaide’s Wakefield Press, got a gong. Trevor, however, has told his local paper that he was lucky to be around to receive his award. ‘They have to go and catch us before we all die,’ he said (with his tongue presumably firmly lodged in his cheek). ‘We’re all getting old and decrepit, teeth and limbs are falling off.’ Once Trevor reaches the final chapter, he even has a bookish plan for the hereafter: ‘When I die I want them to bind me in a hardcover, drop it in the incinerator and … end of story.’

Near-death experiences at MUP?

While she seemed very upbeat after participating in the Prime Minister’s 2020 Summit, one of my old friends wonders if MUP publisher Louise Adler may have had a near-death experience lately. As evidence, he offers this list of recent MUP titles:
Swimming in a Sea of Death
Sweet Sorrow: A Beginner’s Guide to Death
A Good Death: Argument for Euthanasia
Sacred Places: A Memorial for War Dead
Book of Dead Philosophers
I Lost my Love in Baghdad
A Family History of Smoking
‘Let’s hope Peter Costello isn’t suspicious!’ my correspondent writes.

Message in a bottle

Bruce ‘Salty Sea-dog’ Macky of Dymocks Adelaide has managed to find an empty rum bottle and has sent the following message afloat from an idyllic atoll somewhere in the Pacific:
Dear Gladys, I am extremely flattered that the revered Gladys Bembo would even notice my absence, let alone make note of it in ‘THE’ column. I thought I’d bring you a little more up to date. We indeed arrived at Qingdao on Valentines Day, to the most phenomenal welcome. The following Tuesday was presentation night. The Chinese Olympic Committee did us hugely proud. The Book Industry Awards have a huge distance to go to match the pizzazz. We left on the 24th, on schedule, in absolutely freezing conditions. We had some beautiful sailing down under the bottom of Korea, and across to Honshu Island, Japan. We were making great progress until, on 5 March, our mast broke. What had been 85 feet became 40, with the rest over 4000 metres down in the Pacific. We were incredibly lucky it happened in 8 knots of wind. 36 hours later we had 35+ knots with 20-foot waves. Had it happened then, I'm sure someone would have been lost. The silver lining to this horrible cloud was that we managed to rig a "jury rig", and sail and motor about 1400 nm to Midway Island. This former military base is now a wildlife jewel, home to nearly 2 million albatross, assorted other sea birds, and the very rare Hawaiian Harp Seal and green and loggerhead turtles. We stayed two nights, to fill up with fuel and food, and had a fabulous welcome from the 57 residents on the island. Got parts flown in, fixed to motor, and spent another 6 days motoring 1100nm to Hawaii. We are now enjoying Waikiki while we wait for bits for the boat We will head either for Santa Cruz, California, or to Panama as soon as it is repaired. Gladys, I'm sorry I have rambled, but I cannot emphasise enough how beautiful Midway is, and what a threat plastic is to the worlds' wildlife. Enough. I shall see you in Oz, sometime after July 13. Bruce.

You go girl!

There were sad farewells last month at Hardie Grant Egmont for Susannah McFarlane, who left the firm after six years' hard work turning it into Australia's most dynamic children's list. The creative force behind such bestselling series as 'Go Girls' and 'Zac Power' was presented with a special gift by her staff - her own 'Go Girl' avatar.

Does Aunty speak with a forked tongue?

In the week that my keen and efficient young editor is politely but firmly insisting that I finish my column, the ABC has been ‘flatly denying’ a report in the papers that the ABC Shops are about to close and that one book chain will get an exclusive deal to sell ABC-branded products. However a number of very reliable and well-connected old friends have told me that according to their inside info from our national broadcaster not only are the ABC Shops on their way out sooner rather than later, but more than likely ABC Books as well … who wants to wager a bottle of passable red on the outcome?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Give us a break, Louise!

How can we foster a population with wide-ranging intellectual and creative curiosity? asks the blurb for Kevin Rudd's 2020 Summit. Don't bother to ask book publishers, for starters.

My good friend Louise Adler is the only publisher invited to the Summit and therefore has the great responsiblity of representing the interests of the entire $1.4 billion Australian book publishing industry on her own.

'I am going to Canberra to argue for more money for artists, for more support for the making of more Australian stories, a tax break for Australian book publishers, for the adoption of the French method of cultural protectionism, with a small levy on all movie tickets,' she wrote in The Age.

One can only hope her lone voice isn't drowned out by the 887 others at the Summit, including a healthy number of representatives from the film industry, theatre, TV and music.

No wonder the Australian Publishers Association is forking out a handsome sum on a new report from PR company Australian Public Affairs with the express purpose of raising the industry's profile with the Rudd Government. A pity it won't be published until after the party's over.
Bibliotherapy - the use of books to help people, especially children, better cope with their problems - goes back to the 1930s. It's easy to be cyncial about it, however, especially if you're a publisher being beseiged with proposals for books with titles like Johnny Has a Goitre, Why Spot Must Die, Meredith Has Lost Her Savings in the Sub-Prime Crisis or Mummy's Having Liposuction. Actually, that last title is almost real. My Beautiful Mommy, a tale of a little girl whose mummy has a tummy tuck and nose job, has recently been released in (where else?) the US by Big Tent Books. At last, a book to help little kiddies get over their mum's cosmetic surgery. Author Gabriela Acosta says she wrote it for her son: 'I didn't want him to think [the surgery] was because I was hurting. It was to make me feel good,' she told US magazine Newsweek. Well, it doesn't make me feel any better, Ms Acosta! Why these vanity processes are deemed necessary at all when you can buy a perfectly good foundation garment from Myer is beyond me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Apostrophe catastrophe

Sydney shopper and blogger seunjinbing took this rather telling photograph recently at A&R's new bargain book store in George Street, Sydney. Sadly, there don't appear to be any copies of Eats, Shoots and Leaves in stock. To adapt those Government AIDS awareness ads from the 1980s: 'always use a proofreader, my dears, always.'

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Strange encounter ...

His new colleagues at Paperchain Bookshop in Canberra must have been mightily impressed by bookseller Shane Strange's reputation. A regular customer of Shane's previous employer, Riverbend Books of Brisbane, had also recently moved to Canberra. They popped into Paperchain recently and asked for Shane by name. How nice to see a familiar face. The customer? None other than our new prime minister!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How NOT to market your business?

The marketing guru Dave Patton was so annoyed that a new edition of his book How to Market Your Business was being discounted heavily by that he wrote asking the online bookseller to stop stocking his book.

'If they’d read my book, they would know that you only discount to shift unsold volumes not new editions—this is the sixth —and certainly not on publication date,' Patton told the UK Booskeller. 'With a cover price of £12.99 they are selling it at just £8.57, so they’re giving away more than £4 a book. It’s madness.'

The madness looks set to continue. I note that, for the very first time, there were more discounted books sold in the UK than non-discounted books last year.

Poet's pay day

One week poet John Tranter is scooping a handsome $25,000 in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, and the very next his partner, Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management, is advertising for a personal assistant in the Weekly Book Newsletter. A reader asks: are the two events in any way related?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Edgar gets award for picking winners

Some may have been a bit surprised that someone working in television should win this year's Dromkeen Medal for contribution to Australian children's literature. Patricia Edgar is a special case, of course. Her work for the Australian Children's Television Foundation, which included commissioning series such as Winners, Kaboodle, Touch the Sun and Round the Twist, not only gave work to a lot of Australian writers, but also sold a lot of books too. At her acceptance speech for the medal on 29 February, Edgar recalled McPhee Gribble's insistence that the scriptwriters on Winners also wrote the book tie-ins, which went on to sell a staggering 200,000 copies. This gave one young scriptwriter a chance to write his first book. His name? Morris Gleitzmann.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sorry, you're just too small

What’s this I hear about one of our chains outsourcing some of its buying to a third party? It seems they consider most local suppliers just too small and bothersome to deal with, so their books will now have to supplied through a middle man. Quite how inserting an extra step in the supply chain saves money is lost on me, but then I never claimed to be an economist.

Kolkata exhibitors Wild(e)

To adapt the great Oscar Wilde, to lose one book fair may be seen as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. For the second year running, the two million Indians looking forward to the Kolkata (or Calcutta, as I remember it) Book Fair were disappointed at the last moment when the fair was called off only 48 hours before it was due to open last month. It seems the local judiciary objected to the fair’s environmental impact on the showgrounds where it was due to take place and forbade it from going ahead. Well, two million pairs of feet can make quite an impact, I suppose. Disgruntled exhibitors—who spent a fortune shipping millions of books from all over India for the world’s most attended book fair—may have shrugged off the disappointment but for the fact that the same fair was cancelled at the last minute for the same reasons last year! As they shipped all their unsold stock home again, they might reasonably have been wondering just what the fair’s ‘organisers’ have been doing for the last 12 months. Here's to next year's fair: third time lucky?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Gladys gazes into the crystal ball

Given the surprises we’ve had this year: Pearson buying Harcourt, Collins Booksellers acquiring Book City, Borders putting all its international stores up for sale, Angus & Robertson’s now-celebrated ‘pay up or its goodbye’ letter to its suppliers, it would be a brave person to make some predictions for the trade for 2008. Michael Cairns, US-based former president of R R Bowker and now an industry consultant, has posted a few predictions to his PersonaNonData blog, including ‘there will be some additional consolidation in trade and this could result in a higher profile for Hachette, Bloomsbury and/or Macmillan.’ If I could hazard a few predictions of my own, they would be:

• Melbourne’s Discovery Media is purchased by Cengage, which promptly changes its name to DisCengage.
• Borders merges with Barnes & Noble in the US and announces plans to build an international bookselling chain … all over again.
• French mega-publisher Lagardère buys another ailing UK publishing house only to discover six months later that it already owned it.
• Clive James finally finds the speech he was supposed to make at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.
• With both the continuing consolidation of publishers and the proliferation of literary awards, we finally arrive at the day when one publisher wins everything.
• Christmas stock deliveries are flawless as distributors fail to reach agreement on whose turn it is to muck things up.

By all means share your own predictions with readers of this blog by making a comment below.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The perks of the job

You may recall the case a couple of years ago of Joe Gordon, the Edinburgh bookseller sacked for maligning his employer, UK chain Waterstones (or 'Bastardstones,' as he preferred) in his blog. I'm reminded of the case by poet (and sometime bookseller) Tracy Ryan, whose latest collection of verse, Scar Revision, has just been released by Fremantle Press (I'm still getting used to that name change, Clive). Her poem 'Curriculum Vitae' is a thoughtful meditation on work and the worker and includes a section inspired by Mr Gordon's fate. Ryan seems to speak with some experience as she describes the job thus:

Refuge of intellect
Without resources, without room to move.
But huge compensations: books, and books,
And books, and special discounts, and first look-in
When stock's discarded. Teabreaks
Where no one minds you reading. It's the perks
They get you with, and once they do, you're got.

Sound familiar? The poem also contains a 'downsizing' episode that will ring a bell with quite a few chain booksellers. Well worth ordering a copy for stock just to have a read.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Check under the beds again!

We are living in the era of the survey, by my troth. Mary Cunnane received one before Christmas from a student at a publishing course run by one of our leading universities, who was eager to learn more about the romantic and glamorous world of the literary agent.
In the main, the student's questions were straightforward enough: 'What are the most and least satisfying aspects of your line of work?' and 'What skills or qualifications would be ideal for this kind of work?' were two. Buried further down, however, Cunnane discovered an altogether more troubling question: 'How do you educate yourself about the market and all its different fascists?' Sadly, I am not privy to Cunnane's response (although I like to imagine she named a few names). I realise the industry isn't quite the socialist nirvana it used to be back in those heady days of the 1970s, but I had no idea that it had swung so far to the other side.