Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Olden Days ... and forgotten passwords

Whenever I get the chance, I like to horrify young people by telling them stories from the Olden Days, such as ‘bookshops used to have a cash resister on the counter and that was all, and you had to work out the change in your head, and you had to remember where every book in the shop was … ‘ and ‘when I came for my first day’s work at an office job, I was shown to a desk with a chair on each side, two manual typewriters back-to-back and one telephone.’ However, there is a downside to having so much history stored in my head, and that is that there is no room left in there for the multitude of usernames and passwords one needs to remember in order to operate the interwebs. My young nephew, who usually comes to the rescue when I suffer a bout of technical bamboozlement, has been travelling overseas, and his blithe parting words that he would be ‘always available – on email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook or Skype’ proved to be pretty useless when I couldn’t log in to any of them! This is a long-winded way of admitting that I haven’t checked my email for a very long time (if fact, the password problems became so insumountable I now have a new email account at gladys.bembo@gmail.com), which is why I am only reporting the item below some months after the event …

The one about the flightless bird

I hear from one of my dearest bookselling friends in Sydney that the NSW ABA/APA Christmas party held back in December was very well attended by both sides of the industry ‘with drinks flowing, copious food and lots of good cheer from the wall-to-wall people.’ Random House, Harper Collins, Allen & Unwin, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Murdoch were all well represented, with both management and sales reps in attendance. However, when it came time to hand out the prizes for the best reps, it soon became clear that while one publisher (the one with a flightless bird for its logo) was getting many of the gongs, ‘they were notable for having not ONE single person present to accept the awards for their reps. Everyone was laughing that this is such a small company, they couldn't possibly afford to buy a ticket and send someone,’ my friend reports.

Forget pulping, millions of books trashed

In the ‘did you know?’ department: in the US, returns are still running at 30-40% and over a billion unsold books are destroyed each year. What’s more, with so many more titles in the US being published in mass-market paperback editions, a lot of unsold copies don’t even get the chance to be remaindered, as most have their covers ripped off and returned for credit, with the pages of the book simply being put out in the rubbish by the bookseller. As poor old Borders limps along in the US (obligatory note: Borders Asia Pacific is entirely separate now under REDgroup ownership and is doing quite nicely, thanks), it is winding up most of its Waldenbooks stores, and a grass-roots campaign is urging Borders to donate unsold stock from these branches to schools, libraries and community organisations rather than throwing them away. From this beginning, the campaigners are hoping to put pressure on the entire industry to stop being so wasteful. See www.donatenotdumpster.org for more.

Farewell Borders UK

It was very sad to hear of Borders in the UK going into administration and closing its 45 stores just days before Xmas (resulting in over 1100 booksellers losing their jobs and being literally cast out into the cold). Keen to ensure there was no confusion, the good folk at REDGroup sent out a press release within an hour of the news breaking to assure us that all was tiddly-boo with Borders in Australia, NZ and Singapore under their stewardship. Slightly ironic, then, to receive a ‘Buy 3 books at Borders, save 35%’ offer by email just a few hours later …. wasn’t that just the sort of behaviour that’s gotten our British cousins into so much strife?

Charitable gestures

After the enormous success of the Indigenous Literacy Project, I hear rumours of a marvellous new charitable venture in the book industry. I've heard talk that a senior executive within a Certain Retail Organisation has started a reading group for fellow captains of industry. Book publishers have been invited to suggest suitably inspirational titles. The publisher of the chosen book will then receive a handsome order so that the book can be enjoyed by this elite group. So where's the charity come in? Well, obviously CEOs can't be expected to actually pay for the books that they read, so the lucky publisher's three-figure order must be supplied gratis. Clearly, being read by such grandees is reward enough. Great to see our book industry doing its bit to spur on the country's hard-up business leaders.

A sigh of relief

Given the trouble Kiwi icon author Witi Ihimaera has gotten himself into over plagiarism accusations in his latest novel, The Trowenna Sea, I’m sure there’s a Melbourne independent publisher breathing a sigh of relief in his compact little backyard office that after some umming and ahhing last year, his eventual decision was not to acquire the Australian rights and publish an Australian edition! (Although as an aside, it always strikes me as odd how few of the books published across the pond, often by branches of the multinationals, get promoted – or even properly distributed – here. Surely an expat population of approximately 250,000 Kiwis is in itself a good enough reason to try to do more to sell NZ books in Australia?)

Of men and their sheds

Speaking of backyards … Some time ago I was invited to lunch at the home of an old friend, a veteran journo and sometime author who has published a number of books over the years with a range of publishers. Lunch was taking a while to prepare, so half a dozen or so guests and our host were assembled in his fine garden, sipping a pre-lunch drinkie or two in the sun. I’d been to his house previously, but usually for dinner parties, so I don’t think I’d ever seen the garden in full daylight, and I noted out loud my surprise that there were two garden sheds. ‘So, one is for garden tools, what do you keep in the other one: all your remainders?’ I quipped, unwisely. There was a collective intake of breath among the guests, followed by a very uncomfortable silence … until our host strode over to his second shed and flung the door open to reveal that it was indeed stacked with cartons printed with some familiar publishers’ logos. The moral of the tale: never ask a man what he keeps in his shed!

Of authors and their sometimes colourful lifestyles

At one of the many pre-Christmas drinkies events I popped into ‘just for the one’ I was told some very entertaining and scurrilous stories about the personal life of one of our best-known authors. Of course I’m sworn to secrecy, but if you’d like to speculate on who it might have been and what their colourful ‘lifestyle’ might include – and you can do it in a manner that is a) amusing but not filthy and b) not defamatory (as judged by the strict standards of the publisher and editor of this esteemed organ) – you can email me at the address provided below and I may include your responses in a future column.