Thursday, 30 September 2010

This Isn’t a Library, You Know!

According to a recent article in The Bookseller, Amazon is considering charging customers for the use of its Look Inside! feature. Apparently they are tired of hosting a free browsing service. Well, Amazon, so are booksellers in the physical world. Not only do high street booksellers have higher overheads in order to cover staff and rents, but they also have to contend with browsers who come to look at the books, damage them, and then purchase pristine, unshopworn copies on Amazon, “because it’s cheaper”. And actually feel no embarrassment about saying so. The problem is, Amazon already gets a browsing service from its competitors, and it’s the competitors who have to pay for the costs this incurs.
Like Google, Amazon is one of those internet companies whose rapid and slightly sinister market dominance is overlooked because many people still view them as the new kids, the plucky outsiders. In the row over e-books (of which Amazon had an eye-watering 90% of the market in 2009), people often believe that Amazon is looking after their interests in the face of the big bad publishing companies after fatter profits. The role of the publisher is often forgotten in this squeeze, and the bulk rates Amazon demands as such a prominent buyer are a real difficulty, especially for independent publishers. But without publishers, Amazon would not have books to sell. Amazon doesn’t invest in new literature, new art, new products (unless they have very obvious benefits to Amazon as with the monopoly-enhancing Kindle). They aren’t looking for the next big thing or the key niche title themselves, they just want to offer it a massive Amazon discount.
Amazon has simply conditioned people to expect to pay less for books. A mere fifteen years after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, people are often astounded when they are asked to pay the full cover price for a book. So when it comes to Look Inside! I don’t imagine they would take kindly to paying for what they used to get for free, or the implication that they have been parasites on the site, using the service but not paying their way. One wonders, if this move goes ahead, whether Amazon would take all the money raised on the basis that it covers the hosting costs for the service, or whether publishers would demand a cut for the use of their products. There would clearly be consequences to the introduction of this measure; it would provide financial incentive for people to go down to their local bookshops and browse there (too bad for people with limited mobility), and perhaps the increased footfall would help physical sales. It would make people aware of the costs to companies of browsing; there is a loss, even though nothing physically is taken. It could also be bad for physical bookshops, furthering their use as museums of display copies, while customers return to Amazon, having gleefully outwitted both retailers.
As a bookseller, I read this story with a distinct sense of schadenfreude. If put into place, this proposed move would provoke an outcry among online shoppers, would show that profits are more important than providing a good service, and would be a terrible PR move for the company. It would make one thing very clear: Amazon is only interested in looking after Amazon.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

The wait is nearly over. There have been numerous customer enquiries, and the books, which arrived about a week ago, are safely sitting on the embargoed shelf. After weeks of intensive publicity in which it felt as though one could probably have picked up an issue of ‘Birding World’, ‘Girl Talk’, or ‘Classic Motor Monthly’ and found an article about it, Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ finally goes on sale tomorrow. Much of the coverage for ‘Freedom’, predictably, focussed on the intensity of the coverage. Lionel Shriver (who had not then read the book) complained that it would not have received anywhere near as much attention had Franzen been female, and perhaps she has a point, when one considers the comparatively modest fame enjoyed by, say, Joyce Carol Oates, whose output is simply astounding in terms of depth, variety and sheer quantity. But you take nine years to write something, and it starts to feel like more of an event, so here we are. Thanks to my privileged position as a bookseller, I have already been there, read it, literally got the Tshirt.* And I loved ‘Freedom’.
The epigraph for ‘The Corrections’ could be Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse”. ‘Freedom’ also covers the tragedy of the succeeding generations of a family trying to correct the mistakes of their parents and becoming further entrenched in their own. Fuller, richer, more compassionate than ‘The Corrections’, I enjoyed it far more. If comfortable and exciting are not mutually exclusive terms, that is how I would like to describe it. Warm and often funny, Franzen’s prose was for me the chief joy of the book, and dipping into it on Tube journeys and lunch breaks was like sinking into a squidgy sofa.
Writers have a very fine line to tread when it comes to respecting a reader’s intelligence and making plain what they want to communicate. The acclaim that ‘Freedom’ has been enjoying suggests that Franzen has got the balance about right, although he does err on the side of over-enunciation. The concept of freedom is quite explicitly addressed by several characters; Walter sees freedom as unrestricted growth and a way to destruction, a variation on his father’s view that freedom is only the freedom to go to hell, and Joey envies others for their freedom from the rules of argument while Patty is stuck in the bubblegum consistency of her sister’s looping logic. As in ‘The Corrections’, Franzen gently but insistently circles round his topic, repeatedly leading his readers back to the same point from different angles.
Perhaps when reading a novel everyone secretly does want to read about themselves, but with Franzen I am always very consciously afraid that he will start writing about me. ‘The Corrections’ seemed to be so exactly about my grandparents it was almost disturbing and the scrutiny he put the characters under was so harsh I did not really care to recognise myself in any of them. With the partial exception of Enid I found the women in ‘The Corrections’ flat and unreal, but Patty is a triumph. Jessica is not so well realised as the other characters; intelligent , independent and well-adjusted, her mother does not pay a great deal of attention to her, and neither does Franzen. But perhaps this only started to bother me when he started to describe her irritation at Joey’s easily amassed fortune set against her struggles in the unlucrative field of literary publishing.
I had my first taste of ‘Freedom’ from the New Yorker, which featured an extract about Patty’s early life in the form of a short story, titled “Agreeable”. Narrated in the third person, it comes as a shock that Patty is actually the writer of this piece, which forms part of an autobiography written on a therapist’s instructions. Instead of being a character set out for us to observe, like a butterfly pinned to a board, she is given the freedom to narrate her own story. Within the novel, Franzen has his characters reading books that so closely reflect who they are, and one wonders whether he is trying to suggest that their narratives form the structure through which people understand themselves. ‘Walden’, after all, reads like a personal mission statement for Walter, while Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’, like the best novel Joey has ever read, is a model of aggressively defended masculinity who dismisses his childhood lover and abnormally fixated mother.
‘Freedom’ took Franzen nine years to write; like Donna Tartt’s books, it has a certain weight to it, a sense that it has been rounded and honed. Such books reward rereading and reconsidering, because the detail has been so carefully planned out. I was given my copy of ‘Freedom’ two weeks before running a reading group on ‘Middlemarch’, which I had not started; by the time of the meeting I had finished them both (‘Freedom’ first – it was irresistible). There were marked similarities, both in their scope and in their uncompromising portrayals of unhappy partnerships straining over time. Despite its flaws, ‘Freedom’ is a classic in today’s idiom.
*I really didn’t think I would get to read an advance copy when our former manager poached it before leaving and kept conveniently forgetting to lend it to me. The Fourth Estate people laughed hollowly when I asked for another one, telling me it was rather popular and they were fresh out. But they did send Tshirts to my shop. Stacks and stacks of Tshirts. Huge massive enormous thanks to Jurgita, the best colleague in the world, who managed to track down a proof for me.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Or, How Titles and Subtitles Can Change Everything

Shortly before I left for California, an author came into work to ask if the shop would stock her book. Personal requests like this are not unusual; the books will often be self-published, and one approaches them with caution. There is less of a guarantee of editorial control, and the look and feel of the book is likely to be less slick and have less appeal to most book buyers. As it is all done at the author’s expense, they are unlikely to provide a proof copy for booksellers to read, so it is difficult to get behind the book. Conversations with these authors can be difficult. Usually an author will only turn to self-publishing because has been unable to find an agent or a publisher, and they are understandably very frustrated that they have put so much work in and have not been published, and have since paid for publication but now cannot get shops to stock the book. While it is a difficult situation, the shop has a strict budget and cannot afford to buy books it won’t be able to sell.
However, my meeting with Isabel Losada turned out to be something different. Although neither were in stock, in this shop alone the titles ‘For Tibet, With Love’ and ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’ had together sold several hundred copies. They were the same book, she said, but the publisher had been disappointed by its sales performance and changed the name, thinking that the “Tibet” in the title was putting people off. This was a mistake. Although rebranding can often be helpful, it is doubly risky. If it isn’t successful, the older brand identity has also been lost, and for nothing. Re-titling the book did not help sales figures, and while bookshops had made ‘For Tibet, With Love’ part of the stock ordered automatically, this did not apply to ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’. Although the title was later changed back, it was too late. Losada now had to speak to the individual booksellers to try to get them to stock her book.
The incident set me to thinking about the importance of titles. Clearly the publisher felt that the potential gain the new title might bring was worth the risk of making the change. Publishers seem to do relatively little market research, and yet books are clearly aimed at specific markets; this is often reflected with a change in title for international editions of books. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book on the 2008 American election bears the title ‘Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime’ in the U.S. edition. The title of the British book, ‘Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House’, seems more appealing to an audience with less general interest in American politics, as it states more explicitly that it is about the presidential election. Some changes are less easily understood. Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand’ is known as ‘Little Bee’ in America, and one wonders why the change was thought necessary. The change from ‘Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone’ to ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ certainly seemed ridiculous when the film version was made and some scenes had to be filmed twice. Sometimes the difference is counterintuitive: Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’ is subtitled “The Case Against Religion” in the U.K., but in America becomes the rather more inflammatory ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’. Although this is a more controversial statement to make in the United States than in Britain, the publishers seem to be calculating that it would not alienate anyone likely to buy the book, but rather that they would be attracted by the provocative subtitle. Was this a gamble that paid off? It seems impossible to be able to say for sure. Unfortunately for publishers, it can be difficult to gauge public tastes, and harder still to know why specifically readers respond to some things and not others.