Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon removes Macmillan titles

kindle killerBrad Stone and Motoko Rich report in the New York Times

Looks like this is the first casualty following the announcement of the iPad by Apple Computers: has withdrawn all Macmillan titles from its online bookstore in what looks like the beginnings of a long drawn out book war. This is a war that has been waiting to be declared for a long time, ever since the release of the Kindle a year ago and the subsequent pricing of Amazon's 'hardback' e-books at USD9.99. Publishers have been strongly objecting to this pricing by Amazon for a long time (although the online bookshop actually makes a loss on each sale and not the publishers) on grounds that such pricing devalues books. (Macmillan titles can still, however, be purchased from third-party sellers.)

Macmillan's imprints include Farrar, Straus & Giroux, St. Martins Press and Henry Holt. Books withdrawn include A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich.

Macmillan are one of the publishers that have signed with Apple, as part of its new iBookstore on the iPad tablet. Apple will allow publishers to set their own prices for e-books, which is expected to be between USD12.99 and USD14.99 for most fiction and general non-fiction titles. The discount structure is also believed to be better, with Apple offering 70% to the publishers against 50% by Amazon.

It will be interesting to see how this one develops.

Latest: Amazon concedes this round with the following statement (though they have yet to restore the buy buttons):

"We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles ... We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books."

Exactly. All publishers have monopolies over their titles. That's why books are not like other commodities and they cannot be sold supermarket style. That's why a book is not a shoe.

New York Times

Dictionary banned in US schools

merriam-websterAlison Flood writes in The Guardian that the Merriam Webster's 10th edition dictionary has been banned from classrooms in Menifee Union school district in southern California schools after a parent complained about a child reading the definition for 'oral sex' which it described as
"oral stimulation of the genitals". Aiyoh! Trauma habis!

It was considered too "sexually graphic" and "just not age appropriate" for 4th Grade students (who were between 9 and 10 years old). Consider the case of a parent who went into a Kuala Lumpur bookstore and saw -- horrors of horrors -- a whole row of books by Salman Rushdie, lodged a complaint and got it all removed by the management. How dare they corrupt the innocent minds of his children with ... with ... actually I have no idea with what.

Some parents have praised the move, but others have raised concerns. "It is not such a bad thing for a kid to have the wherewithal to go and look up a word he may have even heard on the playground." But, "You have to draw the line somewhere. What are they going to do next, pull encyclopaedias because they list parts of the human anatomy like the penis and vagina?"

This is not the first book to be banned in schools in the US. Song of Solomon by Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, was suspended last year from (and then reinstated to) the a Michigan school after complaints of graphic sex and violence, as have titles by Khaled Hosseini and Philip Pullman.

Making poetry pay

Poetry speaksMark Garcia-Prats writes in Publishing Perpectives of, a site that features poetry blogs, weekly highlighted poets, and a fully searchable archive of poems in both text and audio format. There is also a poetry bookstore, a forum and videos of poetry performances. In other words: poetry heaven. The websites' motto is "experience, discover, share".

The website was launched in November of 2009 by Sourcebooks, Chicago-based publisher. Says Sourcebooks CEO, "We wanted a site that helps connect poetry readers, potential poetry reader, and poets. And we wanted to begin developing a new business model for poetry." It took five years and USD250,000 (so far) to set up the site.

The vision behind creating the website is to allow readers more direct contact with their favourite poet and to participate in the same poetry community as their heroes. hopes to create a large, active audience of poetry lovers who are willing to download individual poems in text and audio forms for USD 0.99 each, and buy poetry merchandise like books, e-books, DVDs, and CDS, and tickets for poetry performances.

From the website: "Poetry does not, in its essential nature, belong to literature. It comes before literature, when the place of books was occupied by voice and memory. It is meant not so much to be read as to be heard. And the artifice -- the rhyme, the rhythm, the language working to the limits of its capacity -- is what makes poetry stick in the mind like music. At the same time, a skilled interpreter can make a well-worn poem as fresh as if it had never been read before."

Be warned: not for the faint-hearted.

Publishing Perpectives

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dan Brown is not the most pirated ebook of 2009

Kama SutraIf you expected Dan Brown, James Patterson, JK Rowlings, or other airport bestsellers to be at the top of the list of most pirated ebooks, think again. The winner for the award of the most pirated ebook in 2009 was ... drum roll please ... Kama Sutra-aa. Yes! Originally compiled in Sanskrit by Vatsyayana in the second century of the Common Era, this ancient manual of practical advice on sex is still the one to beat. Eat my dust, Playboy. (We are assuming that not all the copies were downloaded in India.)

Interestingly, number two on the list was Adobe Photoshop Secrets and (you have to read this) Chris Matyszczyk reports in CNet News: "My own feeling, from deep beneath my T-shirt, is that the Kama Sutra and Adobe Photoshop Secrets have largely been downloaded by the same people for entirely related purposes." Obviously. What else does he use Photoshop for? Work? The original version did not have any pictures -- they just did it -- but the new ones are all illustrated with mostly fake pictures! Get it right: we are 21st century people, we don't have enough imagination, we need pictures to get us going, you know, visuals.

Number 3 on the most pirated book list was The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amazing Sex. --we are sick, man! -- before the list moves on to nerd territory. Number 4 was The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Solar House--A Guide for the Solar Designer came it Number 5.

Then just when you think that we should start getting worried, sanity returns, and there was at Number 6, Before Pornography--Erotic Writing In Early Modern England . We were back in form! At Number 7 was Twilight -- boring -- before we got back to more titilating stuff at Number 8: How To Get Anyone To Say YES--The Science Of Influence; Number 9: Nude Photography--The Art And The Craft (yeah, right), and finally, for those with no lives at Number 10: Fix It--How To Do All Those Little Repair Jobs Around The Home.

We are such a bunch of sick shits!

Cnet News

Middlemen in trouble

Lit agentsThe middleman has been the most reviled of species, and also the most indispensable -- they have a way of making themselves so. In the publishing industry, these are called literary agents. It seems as if we cannot live without them because a publisher will not deal with anyone without an agent. But they will not answer your emails or your phone calls, they won't even bother to tell you if they don't like your manuscript or (God forbid) read it. They will make you scrape and grovel, and spit you out like a sucked orange once you are no longer the flavour of the week. They are the self appointed Gods of the publishing world. Generally, they are inclined to treat you like the scum accumulated in your kitchen drainpipe.

But now they say they are in trouble. Should we care? According to a story in the Bookseller: "Literary agents have seen their profits tumble, with the recession, dwindling advances and publishers' focus on celebrity cited as contributing factors."

Yes, but how do middlemen lose money? It is one thing it you make less money or don't make money because there is no business, but how do you lose it? Publishers put up the capital for the printing, the (sometimes absurd) advances and have to pay for warehousing, shipping, and deal with returns. There is real risk here if a book doesn't sell. What risks do literary agents face?

There was a time when the publisher made all publishing decisions including talent scouting. Now they leave most of the latter to the "professionals", the literary agents, the self appointed arbiters of "good taste". Some are of the opinion that the industry will be better off without them. There are no literary agents in Malaysia, so we do all the work ourselves (as do the other publishers). Perhaps, we could use editors who provide good editing and critiquing services (paid for by authors) to make manuscripts publishable.

The Bookseller

Friday, January 01, 2010

Pulp fiction

Dalya Alberge writes in The Daily Mail about How 77million books a year are turned into pulp fiction.

She says: "Publishers are quietly disposing of around 77million unsold books a year." And this is only in the UK. These unsold books returned by the bookshops "are being shredded, pulped or sold on market stalls at a fraction of their original price." (That would include BookXcess, I guess.)

Some interesting numbers:

Bookshops returned 61 million books to publishers in the UK, with another 16 million coming from overseas retailers.

Out of 86,000 new titles published in the UK in 2009, 59,000 sold an average of 18 copies (not sure how they get that number), less than the average of 41 copies for POD books.

Cherie Blair who received a GBP 1 million advance for her autobiography, has sold only 23,412 hardbacks and 10,240 paperbacks since 2008. (Wonder if they used the photo above for publicity.)

Electronic books outsold physical books for the first time on Amazon on Christmas Day.

Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of, published in March 2008 has sold only 8,849 copies. (His earlier book Arthur and George sold 500,000 copies.) Martin Amis's The Second Plane sold 4,493 paperbacks from January, and Will Self’s Butt sold 8,200 from May.

And other observations:

The whole industry is a lottery, with publishers risking large sums, always hoping for a bestseller.

Dan Franklin, publisher of Jonathan Cape, says the system is 'raving mad'.

The Daily Mail

Kafka manuscripts

Many people know this story. When Kafka died in 1924, he made one last request to his friend Max Brod: "... everything I leave behind me [is] to be burned unread." But Brod did exactly the opposite. (Of course, according to reports, he agonised over it. We don't know if that is really is the truth, but it sounds more romantic that way.)

Brod devoted the rest of his life to preserving and "editing" his friend's work. He then fled the Nazis (again by catching "the last train" from Prague in 1939 -- I see a movie in it), with a suitcase of Kafka papers, including The Trial, and ended up in Tel Aviv. Kafka was a Czech Jew who wrote in German. (Even today, many claim Kafka as their own. Several years ago, the Austrian Ambassador came to Silverfish Books looking for books by Austrian writers. I told him that I didn't have many but that he was welcomed to look. Soon, he deposited some books on the counter, telling me that they were all Austrian. In the lot was Kafka. I said I thought Kafka was Czech. He assured me otherwise. I told the Czech Ambassador and his wife this the next time we met. They were both livid, and I could not disagree with them, and I don't know the outcome of the diplomatic exchanges that subsequently ensued. BTW, Wikipedia lists Kafka as a Czech, an Austrian and a German writer.)

Apart from the papers in Brod's suitcase, Kafka's legacy was also with his nieces, especially Marianna Steiner who arranged for the transfer of almost all his papers (including The Castle and Metamorphosis) to Oxford from 1961 to 2001, in a display of "rare nobility and generosity of spirit' of the Kafka family, holocaust survivors. Many Kafka scholars visit Oxford in order to study the large collection of Kafka manuscripts housed in the Bodleian Library. The author's handwriting is described as 'spidery, intense and completely legible, with barely a line blotted" by Robert Crum in his Guardian blog, accepting an invitation to inspect Bodleain's Kafka collection.

Robert Crum adds: 'One of the most moving manuscripts is Das Urteil (The Judgment), a story of some 30 pages written ... in a single sitting from 10 o'clock at night to six in the morning. Dated 23 September 1912, it is followed by a diary note expressing Kafka's joy at "the only way to write, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul".'

The Guardian Blog