A Bunch of White Guys, or The Hugo Awards

It isn’t a surprise to anyone that I am not the biggest fan of that literary ghetto of a genre, science fiction/fantasy. Despite publisher attempts to rescue books from that dreaded pit by re-labeling them speculative fiction, it remains a genre that has become a shorthand for basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing virgins.

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

Not that all readers of SFF are such – I know some lovely people who read it, and no doubt it produces outstanding literature, when it is careful about book jackets and avoiding the cliches that so haunt it as a genre. Some of my favourite books are technically SFF, but only because its such a broadly-defined genre. I didn’t start reading Pratchett for the dragons, but for his cop stories. But I still feel that this is a genre more haunted by outright racism and misogyny than it should be in 2015.

Then this year’s Hugo Awards nominations were released, and I feel like SFF took five steps back.

In summary: the internet’s bored white boys got annoyed that, gosh darn, women and people of colour were winning awards for SFF writing, and by their pointy white masks, this could not stand. So this group, called the Sad Puppies (I fucking kid you not) petitioned their followers to vote with their $40 dollar membership, and influenced the slate enough to make it nearly entirely white straight guys. They say that the Hugos were too leftist, that ‘serious works’ were shortchanging more popular ones.

Are these assholes serious? Apparently.

...are they serious about this design?

…are they serious about this design?

Now I normally wouldn’t care, because literary awards are bullshit and nearly always go to tedious books or tedious people. Just because the Hugo is the oldest, it doesn’t make it the most important or meaningful. And like io9 points out, now the Hugos are entirely political. But the reason I do care is because its a sign of a trend, and I don’t like that trend. I don’t like the trolls of the internet having enough power to hustle an old award into their agenda. Maybe the Booker prize is given to undeserving novels, but at least it doesn’t get awarded based on whose fans have $40 to spend on a vote. To quote the inimitable Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds:

The easy answer is, “Buy a supporting membership and get voting,” but sometimes this is formed as criticism and it’s worth noting that plenty of folks (fans, authors, whoever) may not be comfortable to (or able to) spend forty bucks just to vote on a science-fiction award. Forty bucks is cheap to a lot of people. And expensive to a lot of others. There’s an argument to be made, too, that if SFF is to represent marginalized or under-served voices, then we may also want to recognize that those voices are often in possession of less filthy lucre than more privileged segments. And further, this argument somewhat explicitly turns the Hugo Awards into a capitalist pissing match rather than a popular vote — have your voice be heard and your vote counted is lovely to say as long as you don’t add to it, but it’ll cost you forty bucks, so write a fucking check.

No one should stand for this state of affairs, and I”m glad that authors are withdrawing their nominations. But you’d think that SFF would just grow up already as a genreits readers, its publishers, its authors. I feel like we’re dragging this damn genre as a whole kicking and screaming into the 1950s, never mind 2015. Given the inexplicable success of Game of Tits and Ender’s Game despite its hideous author’s homophobic and racist rants, the endemic sexism in this genre since its inception, and the ongoing racism, I wonder if this year’s Hugo furore wasn’t inevitable.

Still, there’s hope yet – this is just one year’s awards, and maybe 20 years ago no one would have blinked at a slate like this. The resultant Twitter firestorm, while as predictable as a sunset, is still a good sign that maybe that the status is not quo, and that many authors and readers are horrified by what’s happening in their genre. Look at the 50-author strong backlash against the SFWA magazine cover I put up a few paragraphs ago. Even I, someone who probably wouldn’t pick up SFF unless I was tricked into it, give a shit about this state of affairs. I look forward to seeing it swing back to an interesting, diverse pool of authors next year. Perhaps someone should run a parallel set of awards?

Trigger Warning (As If)

So, since last year, there has been global talk lately of instituting trigger warnings on books, ostensibly to warn people of potentially upsetting themes or scenes in a work of literature. It seems to be originating from students in the USA who are afraid of themes such as suicide, war, rape and racism in books.

To some extent, I can understand why some might see this as necessary. Rape scenes in books have their place as an exploration of the terrible act and how it affects our lives, but for a rape survivor, a warning might help avoid an unwanted recollection. But that said, we find ourselves back in the murky of arbiters. Who decides the trigger warnings? Publisher? Author? Distributor? Independent body of psychologists? Or worse, parents and schools? Considering the harm the MPAA (the ratings body in America) does to any movie more interesting or challenging than Transformers, do we really want someone deciding what is safe to read, and what isn’t? For religious readers, do we need to start putting blasphemy warnings on books? Do we really need another bullshit fatwa over a book that doesn’t deserve it?

It’s an old example, but always a useful one; consider that 90’s capsule American americanpsycho-book-coverPsycho. It is a study in ultra-violence, hyper-masculinity, the pointless excesses of yuppie life (exhibit A: the mineral water scene) and was way ahead of Wolf of Wall Street when it comes to looking at how the ultra-rich live. American Psycho would have so many trigger warnings that it would be unmarketable to anyone under the age of thirty. It is a shocking book, and remains relevant now. Sure, it is an uncomfortable read, but it has a valid point to make on how hideous excess wealth can be. Patrick Bateman buys women like other people buy steaks, and rapes and maims and kills. His wealth and position in society makes it easy for him to be utterly reprehensible. That’s a comment worth making, but it isn’t an easy one to read.

The idea of warning people about the contents of books with a neat label on the back (I really hope not the front of the book) denigrates the idea of intellectual exchange and growth. Treating every reader as an ignorant and fragile snowflake incapable of dealing with ideas in books should be unacceptable to a society that saw books being banned for just their titles less than 50 years ago. Books are already constantly challenged by supposedly well-meaning adults: Captain Underpants, Catcher in The Rye, Harry Potter and more often ignite some feeble-minded rage about what kids shouldn’t read. Adding another layer of interference in publishing bodes ill.

Let the people write whatever they want, and let the readers make decisions based on their own experience, and posterity will sort out the rest. I’m not sure that any intellectually curious reader would appreciate being told what is and isn’t safe reading. Otherwise, anything more interesting than a grade 1 reader will be emblazoned: warning: this book might upset you.

Podcast: Catalogues, Books and Writing

So I wandered into a lovely office in a nursery in Johannesburg to speak at Radio Today,Whale poster a community radio station, to talk about the Exclusive Books catalogue that took four months to produce and is now a glorious, bountiful collection of books.

We also talk about publishing, books as objects of lust and untapped power of booksellers. I share the microphone with author Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Beynon, and was kindly and charmingly hosted by Bruce Dennill.

The podcast is available here at Bruce Dennill’s podcast channel and can be downloaded as well! (Such wonders of technology.)

There are some ideas in there that I have expanded on elsewhere on my blog:

The Foolishness of Book Jackets

Initially, I thought I could try make an argument for the value of book jackets as a language, as a shorthand that is as useful as it is consistent. As the most perfect visual representation of literature outside of typographical visuals.

And then I did some research and realised that that would be an outrageous lie.

Book jackets are occasionally useful, in the sense that car insurance is: you pay for it all the time, but it turns out to be handy once or twice in your lifetime. Most of the time, it’s money down the drain for a service that is more disappointing than useful. So, you may have heard some of these arguments before, and if you haven’t, then I am glad to be somewhat informative.

I’ve written before about the constant whitewashing of book jackets, with black characters suddenly paling and becoming acceptable to the consumer’s eye, and there is the endless use of sad, skinny girls on YA book covers. Book covers are a language, not just for the consumer but for the bookseller. And like any language, it is prone to miscommunication. It’s easy at first glance to be like “oh, that’s a serious, manly literary tome about life and death and cigarettes” or “that’s obviously chick-lit, it has a lady on the front with her back to us and soft fuzzy colours”. Book jackets are a shorthand and a guide, and are both reflective of their time and their publishers. As such, they can be immensely revealing or completely obtuse.

But how is a jacket made, you may ask? Book jackets fall into two categories: careful and careless. More often than not, the book jacket is designed based on the blurb and maybe an extract. Maybe. Most book jacket designers do not even get to read the book, and end up using stock images rather than crafting a jacket that is informed and enriched by the book’s contents. (You’d be amazed how much this applies even outside of traditional publishing.)

Occasionally, you get a book that has a lovingly-made jacket, and in South Africa, 99% of the time that jacket has been painstakingly crafted by the magnificent Joey Hi-Fi, a man of prodigious talent. If you’ve seen a local book jacket you’ve liked, it was probably done by Joey, whether it is Louis Greenberg, Lauren Beukes, or Imraan Coovadia.

In an interview about his book design process, Joey Hi-Fi said:

My conceptualisation process starts with me reading the novel. I always do this before starting work on a book cover. And in the rare cases that I cannot (for example: the book is still being written or is in a foreign language) I ask for a detailed synopsis and to chat to the author.

I’ve never felt comfortable just working off a brief from the editor or marketing.

Behold, a very small sampling of his artwork:

And glory be to Sir Hi-Fi, because most of the time, we just get this:

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Credit: Africa Is A Country

This is from the amazing site Africa Is A Country, about that goddamn acacia tree that is meant to represent all of African literature forever, regardless of the origin of the author or the plot of the novel. Quartz expanded on this, giving the awful truth as to why this happens:

Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”

This discussion caused something of a foofaraw in the book industry, just like the genderflip discussion that started earlier this year about how incredibly gendered and awful book jackets are for women’s books. In this long, brilliant and funny essay, YA author Maureen Johnson discusses why women’s books are deemed fluffy or light or breezy, and men’s books aren’t, and how that has something to do with obviously gendered book jackets.

You are informed about a book’s perceived quality through a number of ways. One of those ways is the cover. The cover may be the biggest message-bearer. Other messages include: blurbs (who they are from), comparisons, review coverage, store placement, and categorization.

And the simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality,and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

Johnson then put out a challenge on Twitter to get some genderflipped covers and the internet took up this cause with such gusto that it made me rather happy. Some of the genderflipped examples below: (images link to original source, please go support!)

From The Frisky

From The Frisky

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

On a similar note, The Oatmeal drew Spiderman the same way the new Spider Woman is drawn. It is glorious (and somewhat not safe for work).

Also by The Frisky

Also by The Frisky

We don’t have to have shitty covers that tell us nothing about the book. It shouldn’t be a case of only a bunch of privileged old white guys who get interesting jackets (Franzen, Eugenides, McEwan, Pynchon, etc), or a few very lucky debuts (Edan Lepucki, Erin Morgenstern), but it is. Inappropriate and inadequate book jacket design is the norm, not the exception. And if you think this isn’t important, remember that bad cover design belittles a book.

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If you take a look at the cover of Alice Munro’s latest Nobel Prize-winning short fiction collection, The View From Castle Rock, you probably wouldn’t guess it includes stories about cholera, the death of an infant, and domestic abuse. The cover, featuring pink lettering and a neck-down shot of a woman suntanning on a pink towel, suggests it’s a breezy summer read–and not one meant for men. – How Tarted-Up Book Covers Belittle Women’s Fiction

Bad cover design delegates books to the wrong sections, gives them the wrong or no readers and so often puts great books on sale tables, alone and unwanted and left to die next to untold numbers of Dan Brown books. We can’t help but judge books by their cover: we don’t have the opportunity and time to read every goddamn blurb or review. Customers and booksellers judge books by their cover, and we’re basing our purchasing decisions on the rushed work of an underpaid, uninformed and overworked designer. Sure, sometimes the shorthand is useful, but it is so often misleading. Books are an investment of our time, and that decision is so largely influenced by this one thing that it seems hideous to judge someone’s writing by another person’s graphic design.

So no, you don’t get to judge a book by its cover. Booksellers should read a bit more around the book, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt. Customers should flip it open to the first chapter and read the first page. Give the author a chance to convince you, especially when her publisher has failed her through thoughtless jacket design.

The War Continues: Amazon Throttles Legacy Publisher Sales

Oh look, it’s happening again. Amazon has removed buy buttons before, in 2008, 2010 (twice) and 2012, and now they’ve decided they’re going to try again and see if people allow it, AGAIN.

Goddammit.

My grief with Amazon has been documented a few times before, and I’ll never apologise for it. However we must realise that what we have been prophesying as an industry for years is rapidly coming to pass. Today author Sam Sykes announced on his Facebook page that Amazon has removed preorder and buy buttons from Hachette authors in order to bully the publisher. James Patterson announced on his blog that:

Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, me, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers. It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors.

Hachette, Little, Brown and Grand Central are not small publishers in themselves, and they also belong to the biggest publishing houses in the world. This is a clear message: Amazon is taking on big publishers once more and expects to win. These are the warning signs that have been discussed nervously by all of us in the book industry, be we publisher, author or bookseller. Amazon made it known ages ago that they wanted to become publishers, beginning with their purchase of Createspace in 2005, creating Direct to Kindle Publishing, and their institution of the godawful Kindle Worlds.

For my money, Amazon’s end game is to control the entire ebook publishing industry, either by buying up authors or driving publishers out of the digital publishing game through these strongarm techniques. To begin printing and editing their own books would take more capital, human resources and intellect than Amazon is willing to spend, but what they already have is a monster of a self-publishing industry producing hideous books at a fat margin to them. No publisher getting a cut, and the author is not much better off trying to flog their stories in a trough of self-published stories the size of the Mariana trench. The Kindle is their outlet, their store in readers’ hands, essentially circumventing the need for them to get off their asses and walk into a bookstore.

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It isn’t digital that’s going to kill the book industry. There’s no reason authors and publishers can’t use the ebook to leverage sales of hardcopies. JK Rowling, far ahead of the curve, controls sales of her ebooks, while her publishers manage the huge sales of her hardcopy books across the world. Better use of DRM might help publishers sell more ebooks. The ebook can prevent books from disappearing when they go out of print. People can take their ebooks on the train and keep their beautiful hardbacks at home. I don’t have a problem with ebooks, but I have a huge problem with Amazon. Amazon is a thug, with no respect for authors’ rights, for publisher overheads, for customer autonomy. They own your ebooks, they’ll yank them from your kindle and delete your entire library without blinking. Their sudden deletion of buy buttons on authors’ books on their store is not a surprise, and it is not unprecedented, but it is still unpleasant.

The only way this will change is if customers vote with their wallets. Buy Nooks or Kobos, if you must. Use a Note or an iPad to read, and for the love of all that is written, please support bookshops, indie and chain. Buy directly from authors’ websites where possible. Buy from Humble Bundle and support authors directly. But please: don’t support Amazon.

UPDATE: How the war between publishers and Amazon will cause a brain drain of talented writers and editors, from Slate

The full text of James Patterson’s speech at Book Expo America – a passionate call to talk about this important issue facing our industry

Neil Gaiman weighs in: I’m Obviously Pissed at Amazon

The superb Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds reminds us that Amazon is neither savior nor underdog.

An author that found his fame with Amazon defends them, and asks umcomfortable questions about why authors are defending the traditional publishing model: Sympathy for the Devil

Criticism of The Fifty Shades Trilogy: Smackdown Round-up

I refuse to accept that there are better things for me to do with my time than round up all the best criticism of Fifty Shades of Fail. I could be saving kittens from trees, probably. However, if I could I would use this post to raise money for all the women that end up in abusive relationships like the one described in Shades of Black and Blue. There are so many things awkwardly wrong with the Shades of Grey trilogy that it is almost obscenely delicious to kick it in the face, day after day after day. If this were a harmless, unknown book then perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so bad. But this horrendous crud must be outed for the dangerous shit it is, and nothing diminishes power faster than laughter. And GIFs.

Knowing that the fans who love it will never think otherwise, I have instead decided to share the best the internet has to offer the non-believers. Because the Shades trilogy has induced the kind of fanaticism the churches wish they still had, it is deserving of all the shame heaped upon it by the best and smartest of the internet. That this book has been considered uplifting for women is as offensive as it is misguided and therefore I am exonerated from any guilt.

Let’s start with the brilliant minds of Tiger Beatdown, best known for their criticism of the overrated Game of Thrones series. While they have not done an entire post revolving around Shades of Vomit, they do bring up a valid point: everything in Shades of Idiocy is cock-centric. It is not about Ana’s pleasure, or her growth or even learning to earn her orgasm, it is about the grating Grey and his penis enjoying all the fun times.

My issue with Fifty Shades of Grey is not that it is badly written, though. Neither is it that it once was a Twilight fanfiction onto which the author pressed “Control F” and then replaced the vampire and werewolf names with those of the current characters. I could easily overlook all of that if the prose was riveting. My issue with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it belongs to the tired, boring, overused sub genre I like to call “penis centric erotica”. Which is to say, practically the only kind of erotica marketed for cis, straight women.

It is a point that many people have missed. The post is available here, amongst many other gems.

Next stop, Jenny Trout. She has bravely, nobly and wryly undergone the torture of reading and recapping every chapter of the series so that we don’t have to. Her commentary is filled with some of the best one liners ever, but her reason for doing it is truly fantastic:

I was honestly almost too furious to continue reading this book once I got to this chapter. In fact, it was this chapter that led me to want to dissect the book piece by piece in the public eye. Because this shit is dangerous. This is dangerous the way I found Twilight dangerous in the last two books. It’s dangerous because it tells women, possibly young, innocent women who are just like Ana, that it’s okay for a man to treat you like garbage if he really, really loves you, or if you want him to really, really love you, you need to put up with it.

And then, add to that lines like this:

I think that if Ana were a real person, every time she opened her mouth to speak, it would just make a sad trombone noise. Every time.

For lines like this, you need to set aside five hours and read all the recaps.

Possibly the most famous is this gif-laden review on Goodreads by Katrina Passick Lumsden:

About halfway through, I wished I’d been keeping track of the word “crap” because Ana is constantly saying/thinking it. Crap, Holy Crap, Double and Triple Crap, Oh Crap, This Crap, That Crap, any and all Crap. Speaking of crap, if I ever, ever ever have to hear/read the words “inner goddess” again, I’m going to construct a pyre out of tampons and maxi pads, light it, and toss unsuspecting women into it.

From the second book:

It went from all-out rage-inducing (like the first book), to incomprehensible hilarity. I had thought the first line was good, but in comparison, lines like this are pure comedic gold:

“I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.” 

Oh my, it’s my dream man. He’s crazy with a side of fries and he utters the worst romanticisms this side of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

And this about the third book:

The temerity of this character is astounding. E.L. James has managed to create one of the most blatantly antagonistic sociopaths I’ve ever seen, yet women everywhere are gobbling it up like he’s the best thing since the vibrator.

Good times with gifs, and a sublime summary of all that is wrong and hilarious.

Here are some quick links for your further amusement:

If you’d like something truly meaty and BA for your repetoire, add to it ‘Anti-Feminist Ideals in Fifty Shades of Grey‘. And to end on a genuinely serious note:

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You can get the original here, and it pretty much sums up how dangerous this shit is.

The State of South African Literature

“Why don’t you stock more local authors? Why can’t I find any South African poetry? Why are there so few black authors?”

These complaints come my way every now and then, and are often brought up at store level. While these are very valid questions, the answer is more complicated (and a little bit sadder) than most booksellers have time to explain.

The book industry, as I’ve discussed before, is ultimately a business with serious overheads and a currently volatile market. More now than ever, publishers are losing their best authors to Amazon, readers are shying away from unusual books and no one wants to take any risks. You only need look at the New York Times bestseller list to see that genre fiction makes up the majority of the bestsellers. For the love of text, the bestselling book this year is that godawful Shades of Vomit tripe. This is further exacerbated in the South African market, which already has a very small book-buying population and is still trying to climb out of a recession. That small market is also likely to own tablets and Kindles, carving that market up even further. And when Amazon sells the same book at a pittance compared to a brick and mortar store with its ridiculous overheads, it makes sense that publishers carefully hedge their bets, and that stores would do the same. After all, rent must be paid and books that sit forever on the shelves end up costing the business. This is one of the many reasons why so many bookstores have closed down.

And unfortunately, publishers are not going to take a chance on a South African author that isn’t an easy sell. Penguin is suing several authors for not producing books that they were paid advances for, and many of these authors are very bankable. If a legacy publisher is losing money on safe bets, then is it really so surprising that a publisher won’t spend the money editing, printing and marketing a collection of African short stories written by a black woman no one has ever heard of?

Ultimately, the publishing industry is much like Hollywood. It likes its leading actors to be white, straight and male (Christian is a bonus) and second it likes white, straight females. While there are definitely gay and lesbian (Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres) and black authors (Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe) who have enjoyed huge literary success, it is still much more difficult for them to break into it than a pretty little white girl who looks good on the back cover. I’ve discussed this issue in terms of black and gay characters, considered risky and likely to hurt sales. And it continues in a cycle of people not buying because the books aren’t there, and the books not being published because there’s a perception that no one wants to buy them.

This is not a new problem in publishing, but I’m not really sure there’s an easy or clear-cut solution. We would have to uproot a lot of social constructs about race and gender before people would be more receptive to a book that isn’t written by someone just like them. One of the many problems with the Man Booker prize is that it is nearly always won by an upper-class white English writer because that’s what the judges are comfortable with.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, lashed out at the “highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker prize”, whose winners have alternated “between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade'”. Speaking at the Edinburgh international writers’ conference , he added that the organisers’ failure to refute accusations of anti-Scottishness, already voiced by Scottish writers such as Alan Bissett, was a sign of “arrogance” and “intellectual enfeeblement”. Welsh, who is famous for using Scottish dialect in his novels, said: “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.” The award, he said, was “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”.

That’s one example of where prejudice can give a book an unfair advantage over other, often better books.

So, perhaps what might be done is that South African book prizes go to authors who actually deserve it rather than the safe bets. Some publishers have local imprints that are supposed to service South African authors; perhaps skimping on print quality to get cheaper books into more hands might be better. How about putting more South African books in the school syllabus instead of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice? (Although Cry The Beloved Country is an awful, condescending litany of racist tripe, it probably has a valid place in the school syllabus.) I really think that South Africa is home to enough legacy publishers with good teams to give local authors good opportunities, and there definitely needs to be more publishing in done in languages other than English and Afrikaans. In fact, I’ll tackle the potential answers in another, lengthier blog post. I’d love to hear what you think about what is happening on the South African literature scene, and what can be done to improve it.

Tony Blair, A Journey and the Armchair Activists

Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a handguide to how abusive relationships start, and that Game of Thrones is an airbrushed Medieval Europe where feminism and civil rights are things that happen to other books, I would never call for these books to be banned or burnt. You’d think this would be evident, but it really, really isn’t.

Part of my job is monitoring social media, and on the basis that Tony Blair is speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit, an impassioned bandwagon-hopper has told us that we have blood on our hands for selling his books, for he is a war criminal. We should do a Tutu and remove ourselves from the equation. Here ends the rant. (Except it was much longer than this, and I don’t think anyone needs that in their lives right now. EDIT: It’s now a loooong Facebook thread all by itself. A guy screaming into the void all alone.)

Now, I agree that Blair is – to use a Valley Girl phrase – a complete tool. He agreed to follow America into a rather stupid and pointless war (although what war isn’t?) and while thousands of Iraqis have died, no one has really taken responsibility. I agree that is entirely unacceptable and there should be some kind of consequence.

But taking his books off the shelf really isn’t the answer.

The guy who wrote in to complain obviously doesn’t know much about publishing or moneymaking, or even common sense, it would seem. Let’s start with the first problem: if we ban one book, and are seen taking a stance on one political view, we will be swamped with demands to ban other books that upset people. We might be told to toss out Dawkins, or anything about the Pope, or a book about Julius Malema or Steve Hofmeyr. The minute we concede any ground in this matter, my time on social media will become exponentially painful as I field complaints about how we stock atheist books, or religious texts or some treatise written by a crazy person that people still study in philosophy.

Secondly, it is not the place of a book store to be the moral guardian of the nation. We have enough self-righteous Brittas around for that. Any place that makes money cannot be expected to toss valuable income down the drain to take a stance that is as transient as it is unnecessary. This is the second half of a very long recession. Bookstores have been particularly hard hit. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll skim off that to say that no sane bookstore is going to listen to three customers complain and toss income potential down the drain. Life must go on, and we do not need to close more stores or retrench more staff. Besides, in three weeks this will have been a non-event and no one will remember that we took a couple hundred books off the shelf (if that many). In any case, if we ban it, Amazon will still sell it. This is a company that sold dolphin meat in its Japanese store; I doubt Blair will bother them much.

Thirdly: Blair is not making as much money off these books as people might think. Once his advance is paid, the publisher (Cornerstone) has to fight to get that money back through sales. The sales aren’t setting the world on fire, which is a pity, since the proceeds are going to the Royal British Legion. I feel sorry for the publishing house, who were probably hoping to make big cash off this so that they could take a risk on a worthy debut author. Remember, publishing houses take a huge risk on any book, and the more money they have to take those risks, the better. Besides, if no one wanted to publish Blair, he could have done it himself. The age of gatekeepers is over.

Fourth: let him embarrass himself in the written word. There’s really not much harm in watching him desperately try to exonerate himself and no one buying it. And nothing destroys a writer’s ego like seeing their book piled high in the back of the warehouse, returned by stores who had customers too smart or uninterested to buy it. The kind of book that gets donated to charities or gets pulped.

Let the bookstore speak, and let the customers make their own decisions. It is not the place of the angry armchair activists to dictate to the buying habits of others, or the selling policies of stores. At the end of the day, banning books is archaic and never seems to work anyway. Remember when Monty Python was banned? And Catcher in the Rye?

It is a lot more gratifying to watch Blair be hoisted by his own petard than to lose out on some much-needed sales.

The Life and Death of the Book Store

I don’t mean to wax lyrical and mewl like an old lady on her stoep with a blanket on her knees and a cat on her lap, but I remember drive-ins. The slap chips, the giant radios that threatened to crack the window, my parents smoking freely while we ran down to the playground just under the screen until the next movie. We could watch in our pajamas and fall asleep where we watched, and maybe the sound wasn’t great but it was better than the movie house because at least no one could throw popcorn at us.

Now, the drive-ins are nearly dead. One remains in Joburg, and for how much longer I’m not entirely sure. (Their offerings are outstandingly paltry.) They died for a number of reasons: muggings, poor quality food and film and the brutal Joburg winter that makes any outdoor activity impossible. With movies becoming more accessible, portable and affordable, the drive-in has become a sepia relic. Like so many other things, we absently miss them but didn’t really do much to support them and stop them from going under.

Which brings me to the constant cry of ‘the bookstore is dying’! The Mail and Guardian posted this article about the death of the bookstore. Interviewing several bookstore owners as well as my boss Ben Williams, the article attempts to offer a multi-faceted view of the book industry. I appreciate the efforts and the statistics are nice to have. Let’s have a look at some of them:

On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.

That article, ‘The Amazon Effect’ can be found in its entirety here. (It is lengthy, but definitely worth the read.) That article goes on to state:

 Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos’ deeply irritating personality aside, the picture is a little grim for bookstores. Alongside the purported death of the publishing houses (we’ll still waiting for that), this year alone has seen the closure of several notable bookstores in South Africa: the Boekehuis, for example. The Wordsworth in V&A Waterfront. EB in Irene and Balito. And as the Mail and Guardian noted, Kalk Bay Books very nearly went under as well. Never mind the independents and second-hand stores that quietly drowned in debt and silence without anyone noticing.

However, it doesn’t mean that all bookstores will become a thing of the past. In the panicking about ereaders, a great number of people forget that 3 million Kindles and 15 million iPads in a sea of 7 billion people is pittance. (I guess because only white readers matter? But I digress.) And while global literacy rates and access to books is not as high as I would like (especially in Africa), there are millions out there who don’t have Kindles and who will still buy paper books. After all, it is sheer idiocy to assume that people who don’t have Kindles/iPads/Nooks don’t matter. What matters, as it always has, is marketing and accessibility. I have discussed before why paper books are so expensive in stores, and those problems need to be addressed. One of the bookstore owners in the M&G article put it quite succinctly:

‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”

Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”

There has to be something better than wailing and whining about how we should all roll over and die, sacrifices on the altar of Amazon. What we should be doing is going back to books as art, as objects of joy and a celebration of the delicious, febrile nature of human imagination and endeavor.

It’s not over yet. Publishers are still bringing the world magnificent books, and bookstores are still lovingly curating them. Not everyone loves Kindle, and while Amazon is a giant, it is also unwieldy, unfeeling and unethical. The Amazon self-publishing ponzi scheme will collapse under the weight of its inherent mediocrity and the world will always value content, even if they have to pay a little more for it.  We should be focusing on accessibility, making books more affordable by dropping the customs tax or giving printers subsidies. In Japan, daily manga collections are published cheaply in disposable bundles. This makes a national art form accessible to all, and nicer colour versions are available for those who want them.

There’s always a better way of doing things, and while the solutions aren’t always easy, they are there. Publishers could treat authors better than they currently do. Bookstores can provide a personal and caring service that Amazon can’t ever hope for. How about some of the money spent on sport in South Africa being put to making printing books cheaper? Translating them into more languages? I refuse to accept that it is okay to bow under the pressure. The most important thing to start with is to abide by Douglas Adams’ advice:

Traditional versus Self-Publishing

Let it be said that the current publishing model, as a whole, doesn’t work perfectly. Great writers don’t make it, mediocre ones do, and the idea of nurturing an author into a bestseller is a part of the past. With eBooks, agency pricing and antitrust cases and debacles around author rights, the system is far from perfect. On some days, it barely functions. As a bookseller I am on the receiving end of a number of publisher fuck-ups, whether it is non-existent stock or ridiculous price-fixing or jacket treatment so abysmal that no one will pick up the book. (A notable example is the impending awful re-jacketing of the incredible Song of Achilles). As a reader, I am appalled at the number of spelling errors and formatting issues that are in final, proper copies.

But there’s still a great deal to be said for the publishing industry’s worth. It is a system of checks and balances, where there are proofreaders and graphic designers, editors and marketers. This is the machine that an author gets access to when a publishing house selects their work. Granted, the machine works better for the AAA authors, but once upon a time they all were bottom-list authors, the ones that the book reps advise booksellers to take 5 of. Very few get massive coverage and support from day one. The only example I can think of from last year was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus. It paid off: it was one of the very few books to enjoy a number one slot longer than 7 weeks on the 2011 bestseller list. It still sells well through word of mouth.

But it is hard to get published. Its nearly a full-time job in and of itself. It is very much like a job: compile a CV (the book itself, because outside of non-fiction no one will accept anything less than a full manuscript) and write a cover letter. Research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send those cover letters according to the specification of the website. (If they will even accept an unsolicited manuscript or directly from the author and not an agent.)

Each publisher will want a different set of things. Some will want a blurb and first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and any other qualifications one may have. Then there’s the usual three to six month wait for an answer, if one comes at all. Mostly, it doesn’t. Mostly, the work will sit on a slush pile amongst thousands of other manuscripts. Or it will get rejected immediately because the formatting is wrong, or they aren’t looking for any new authors or the cover letter was terrible.

Getting published is hard, and a lot of work for anyone who doesn’t have an agent or a contact inside a publishing house. Sure, lots of people get published every year. This year, 342,975 books have been published so far. It sounds like a lot, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. A little rudimentary maths tells us that is about one book per 20,490 people. Then consider how many of those might be from more than one person. There some authors that produce hundreds of books in their lifetimes. Patterson currently publishes two titles a month, for example. 24 books a year is no mean achievement. Compare that to the prolific Corín Tellado, who published more than 4000 novels and novellas in 63 years.  That’s roughly 62 works a year. (Which should make us all feel incredibly lazy.)

Given that, self-publishing starts looking easier. There’s no mean editor to say “this isn’t good enough. Rewrite it.” There’s no one stopping the aspirant author from getting a book out there. There are vultures that will help them do it. Vanity presses abound, and sites like Createspace make that author dream come true. And I suppose that, if the intentions are pure, then that should be enough. The book exists, friends and family and unfortunate denizens of the social media continent can be led to it by bribed bloggers and aggressive tweeting. Mission accomplished, said George Bush, and now we can all go home.

But after the work it takes to produce a novel, some money would be nice. Prestige would be too. And this is where the gates of self-published hell open and consume the will to live of the poor sod that thought it was worth a try. Sure, anyone can give it a try. Look at Amanda Hocking. Look at EL Grey. And…that’s about it, really. Yes, there is the select club of rich self-published authors, but there are maybe a handful of them. The way I see it, if one is willing to put in the nearly back-breaking work required to produce a top-notch manuscript, then why not put in a little more and get the support of a publisher? Sure, great content will produce its own fans by itself, but the self-published have to be their own publicists and life is busy enough without the pain of cultivating a substantial online presence. As it is, most publishers won’t consider an author who doesn’t already have a website and a Twitter following. Establishing that, as outlined by this interesting BubbleCow article, is relatively time-consuming. An aspiring author, published or self-published, will have to develop this web presence to start, but the self-published author will have to work much, much harder to sell books that way. Also, consider that there is no advance for the self-published author. An advance may not always be much but it is something solid.

All in all, both are tough, but I still would rather polish a manuscript until its good enough to be accepted by one of the Big Six than try flog my work in the giant trough of shit that is the Internet. I would rather have the help of experienced people at 7% of the book’s profits than strike out on my own for a tiny chance to make 70% off my novel.