The Lucky Packet, Episode 1

With just a basic mixing desk, a few microphones and some open-source software, I have created something of my very own, with some help from good friends. Here’s to my very first podcast, and the first of many, I hope!

Ad-free, and free to you. Please stream or download and enjoy! Available on the iTunes store, and through your podcast app of choice, including Stitcher and Podcast Addict.


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:

Review of the Book Thief Movie

TheBookThiefThis is a children’s novel that talks about skies the colour of Jews. It deals with the horrors of war and the attendant waste of life, and how the human spirit endures through art and kindness. While not whoring out gore (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), it remains a stark, sad book much in the style of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is a book in which Death tries to convince himself that humans are not entirely evil, not entirely worthless.

Why, then, did we get a movie that not only sanitises the Holocaust, but completely fails to elicit any authentic feeling, despite being taken from such superb source material?

The movie adaptation of The Book Thief is not outright awful. It passes the time, true, and as far as production values go, it is a gorgeous movie to look at. Geoffrey Rush is, as always, wonderful, especially as Hans, the affable father. Emily Watson is superb as the rumbling, thunderous Mamma Rosa. But the narrative voice (and the novel’s focaliser) of Death might have been better delivered by Winnie the Pooh. The voice lacked the ancient gravity such a role requires, and the narrative was disjointed and absent when it was most needed. Why not have Alan Rickman voice Death? It was a superb narrative structure for the book, but it worked only because of the snippets in the book. The movie could have done without it.

Never mind the uneven accents, the failure to draw the various threads together, or even the drippy sentimentalism when the book spares none – this movie was so safe. None of the performances were challenging (the great love between Rudy and Liesel never made it off the pages), the Nazis were mildly annoyed landlords and everything is wrapped up in a few fuzzy montages at the end. I haven’t seen such lazy filmmaking since Vanilla Ice’s first music video. How can a movie about Nazis, war, and the most horrific suffering be so very neat and tidy?

This is blatant Oscar bait without being Oscar-worthy. It takes superb source material, one of the most important books written for children in the last ten years, and turns it into a white bread cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off. It is technicolor sentimentalism of the worst order, and has no place imitating a book of far superior depth and ambition.

In the age of superb book to movie adaptations (Catching Fire, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wolf of Wall Street, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (not the American version) Harry Potter – The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows etc), I refuse to believe that an adaptation has to be inferior. My favourite book of all time was adapted into my favourite movie of all time (which is Fight Club, as everyone knows) – the right director and the right scriptwriter can do wonders with books. To turn in such underachieving, dull work is an affront not only to the lovers of the book, but to moviegoers in general.

PS: There’s a terrible placement for Apple in the movie. It made me throw up in my mouth, a little.


Review of “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton

two-brothers-by-ben-eltonTwo Brothers by Ben Elton

I don’t usually dip into historical fiction, as the writers often hide poor character-building behind supposed historical accuracy instead. Often the books are unreadable due to their saturation of research and lack of coherent plot or technical ability. But Two Brothers is not ruined by either of these things: instead it manages to capture madness rather than shoving it in the face of the reader.

Undoubtedly, any story with Nazis in it treads a fine line between being comically grotesque or insultingly dramatic. While the Nazi regime was undoubtedly hideous, boundless in depravity and as insane as it was ruthless, it is still possible for an author to trip over this into ridiculous territory. Every sane person knows the Nazis were evil. But it takes a talented author to shade in the madness at all of its levels rather than creating a caricature that strips it of its terror. And, too often, books rely on ‘here’s a Nazi thing, so terrible so terrible’ without taking the time to put the horror in context and give it the appropriate death.

Two Brothers follows the story of a family from Berlin 1920 right through to 2006 (but without being one of those tedious ‘the story of three generations, family, love, wark wark’ efforts). When Frieda gives birth to twins and one dies, she immediately adopts another son whose mother dies in childbirth. That the child is German is unimportant to this Jewish mother, and the first quarter of the book is filled with the loveliest of stories of the boys Otto and Paulus, as well as the charming father Wolfgang and beautiful, kind mother Frieda. One becomes grateful for this time setting up the characters and their personalities, because by the end of it I truly cared for this family, ruined by the Nazis. (This isn’t really a spoiler – it is a book about a Jewish family in Nazi Berlin, after all.)

I enjoyed this book particularly because it combined outstanding research with several levels of human pain – from petty teenage fighting to full-scale war, from unrequited love to suicide to being rounded up and taken away. The insanity of the regime, often forgotten amongst the industrial scale of its cruelty, is looked at in the Nazi schooling, the petty laws (so similar to Apartheid) and in two key events in German history: The Night of the Long Knives and The Night of Broken Glass.

There are thousands of books about the Nazis, and about the lives they ruined. I have read a few, key of them being Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel. The good ones are the ones that balance horror with hope, which is hard to do with such heart-rending material. This book has stayed with me since I finished it, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I felt such anger towards the character of Dagmar, who is selfish and beautiful and doesn’t deserve the love of the wonderful Stengel twins. Poor Silke, who is kind and loyal and never gets rewarded for it. Frieda, the brave Jewish doctor who was filled with kindness and strength until the very end, and who I will remember through many books, and her musical, ruined husband Wolfgang, who goes through more than any one should have to endure. Through them, and those they meet, the true horror of the Nazi regime is delivered right into the reader’s heart. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, that entire terrible time has become so caricatured, appropriated and simplified that sometimes we need a book that explains the extent of Nazi crime, the slow, fine grinding of Jewish lives into something approximating oblivion and the people caught up in it.

Read this because it is a wonderfully detailed, wide-ranging story of a family you will come to adore within an exquisitely, carefully detailed setting. It does not trivialise violence by putting it at the very front and centre, but keeps it constantly  menacingly in the background. I would give this to my children one day as part of their reading, to help them understand the nature of the Nazi regime, in all of its howling, murderous insanity.

Want to read what others think? Head on here:


Jenny Colgan at the

Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph

Liked this? Try these:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

Surviving the Angel of Death – Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

The Price of Books

Everyone loves to complain about the price of things without really thinking about what it costs to make it happen. How can a book cost R200, wails the consumer (nearly always while spending the same amount on silly cocktails).  How dare the bookstore charge this! How disgusting, knowledge and stories should be free to all!

This happens to me at so many dinner parties and similar arbitrary gatherings that I thought it would be best to set my thoughts down once and for all on the matter. I am tired of people complaining about how their latest copy of some tawdry romance cost them more than a meal, and then focusing that petty anger on me as some convenient representative of the book industry as a whole. I know I’m not the only one to get it in the neck; book reps get asked why the covers are so shit (and therefore drastically reducing the book’s chances of success) and store managers get scolded for painting the store the wrong colour. (I shit you not, this has happened.)

So, this is a handy guide to why books cost what they do, and why one should be grateful they don’t cost more.

The Birth of the Book

Of course, books don’t fall from the sky into the laps of publishers. First, a story must be written. Once that’s been done (in anything from six months to ten years), it gets picked up by a literary agent and/or a publishing house. If the book is pitched at a major book fair, there may be an auction for it. Sometimes these auctions run into 6-figure sums. A page hasn’t been printed and the publisher is already in debt. Usually though, the manuscript is selected and the author is usually paid an advance, and will get royalties once the money spent on the book’s production has been paid back. This seems to average around $15,000, but it can go much higher. Or lower. If the author is a megastar, then they draw a regular salary that needs to be paid. Ultimately, publishing companies need to charge just for the text to defray publishing costs.

This is just for raw product; words on paper. The words then need to be edited, covers must be designed and galleys must be printed. Now there are more people involved, and who need to be paid for their services. Marketing must be done. PR must be paid. Printing must begin! The price of printing books doubled last year, by the way. My contacts at Penguin tell me that an average-length book averages about R60 just to print and bind. It was R30 in 2009. A print run can be anything between 500 to 5 million copies. The opening print run of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was 750,000 copies, for example. Victor: My Journey has a print run of 34,000 copies. And that’s just for a rugby biography. And if the book has colour, then that price is going to double. This is why cookbooks are so expensive.

Now the book, and all its attendant finery of flyers, decals and posters, is ready to go. This is just a top-list book, never mind mid and bottom list books that don’t even get flyers. Ag shame.

Oh, the places this book will go!

 Unless the book is locally produced either by a local publishing house or a local arm of one of the Big Six, it must travel here. Now, the only books that get air-freighted to meet worldwide release dates are books like Harry Potter. Otherwise, everything is shipped to South Africa over the course of several weeks. This is why we always get books late. But before they can even get on a boat here, those books have to be paid for somewhere. The publishers pay to have them printed and shipped; this gets worked into the price that distributors buy them for. And, you guessed it; those prices are negotiated according to the exchange rate. So, if the Rand has been somewhat slapped about by the big boy currencies, then those books aren’t coming in cheap. Since we get about 60% of our books from the UK, we have to trade in the almighty Sterling. Yay.

And that’s before they’ve even gotten to our shores and airports. Our friends at Customs continue to slap an import tax on the books. You know, as punishment for bringing them here and the audacity of teaching children to read. (This is partly why textbooks are so expensive.) From the ports, those books go to warehouses by truck. Add on transport fees, and then feel free to work out how much it costs to get thousands of books all over the country, including hellholes like Kimberly. (On a sidenote, apparently Kimberly is the only place that could sell its stock of that awful Jock of the Bushveld gaffe.) If the price of petrol has gone up like the hemline of a teenage girl’s miniskirt, then add that onto the price too.

Adoption and Home

Finally! The book has arrived at the store after birth and travel. The boxes are opened, the booksellers reverently arrange the bestsellers at the front of the store in the hopes of snaring in customers. The ones with pretty covers glisten in the windows, and the big names are piled high. But the floors and tables don’t come cheap.

Rent has becoming an increasingly bigger nightmare for all store owners, but few get hit worse than stores with lots of shopliftable product and cheap-ass customers who will read an entire book and then leave it behind. Rent inJohannesburg, for example, averages between R700 to R1000 a square metre in the big shopping centres. When you extrapolate the size of your favourite bookstore, and start factoring in rent, it starts to look a bit more sensible. Now that the book has come to its first temporary home, its shelter costs a fair bit. Electricity, staff pay, music licences (it is illegal to play music without a licence from SAMA), stock purchases, banking fees with each credit card swipe, theft and insurance are all built into that price. Add to this the plastic bags that keep your book safe until it gets home. What about general upkeep and maintenance? Then there are book launches, where people often drink and eat free without buying a single book to ease off some of the costs.

So, when you pay for that book, you are paying the author, the publishers, the printers, the transport companies, the South African government for customs and VAT, the bookstore’s rent, Eskom, the banks, the salaries of the people that work there AND for the thoughtlessness of those who thieve books each and every day.

Suddenly, R180 for a novel doesn’t seem quite so outrageous, does it? is eating up the book world

As someone who works between the publisher, author and reader, articles like this bode poorly for my industry. The article discusses how Amazon is directly snapping up authors instead of sourcing their books from the publishers, and how this might affect the publishing industry.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.

So what does this mean for booksellers? For authors? For publishers? It means a hundred things, but the most important thing is that the book industry is going to fundamentally change, and soon. Once upon a time, eBooks and eReaders were slated to be the biggest white elephants in technology. Now their sales are booming (Kindle sales are estimated at 3 million units) and last year it was estimated that Americans alone spent $440 million dollars on eBooks. This sounds like great news for publishers and authors, and it is. People are reading more than ever before and across more genres. Once upon a time fantasy and science fiction were the red-headed stepchildren of the publishing industry, and now we’re seeing massive interest thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, miniseries like Colour of Magic and movies like I, Robot. Young adults are reading like crackmonkeys and the word in the industry is that there’s money to be made in writing for them. Readers enjoy instant and sexy novels and there’s always online shopping for those who don’t want or have an eReader.

Rosy thus far, but the last year has seen the closure of entire book chains, such as the 400 Borders stores that closed this year. 22 independent books stores are on sale in the UK, including the famous store in the Notting Hill movie. And as many of my friends delight in telling me, why wait for a book when they can get it immediately on a Kindle? There’s always the complaint that new books are expensive, but if one considers that the price of printing books has doubled, that the books have to be shipped here, the publishers paid and the rent of the store settled, its no surprise that bookstores are feeling the weight of import duties and exchange rates. We buy books in dollars and pounds, and you can imagine how hard it is on the booksellers when the Rand is down. With theft being endemic and many stores losing money through endless shoplifting and book piracy, it is a damned hard industry to stay afloat. I think one of the saving graces for us is that people over 30 tend to buy proper hardcopies. I know I prefer a real, delicious book but I know not everyone doesn’t.

And now with Amazon taking on authors directly, there are two things that I think will happen. Publishers, in an effort to recoup losses caused by defecting authors, are going to increase the price of books. This will directly affect the booksellers and make it even harder to sell books. So more people will turn to Amazon, who can buy in absolutely ridiculous bulk and command the best prices.

I do believe that Amazon has a phenomenal business model, and one has to admire them for it. They see a hole in the market and they fill it with melted Kindle goodness. And for authors, this may be the best news in the world. With publishers too scared to take on any title that may be a little controversial or too highbrow to do well, Amazon might be the best bet for a fledgling author. If they don’t require agent representation, then that’s another foot in the door. Sure, they’ll probably have slush pile ten feet high, but at least they have the kind of money to hire a fleet of editors and agents. Publishers don’t have that option anymore.

I can’t pretend to know what will happen in a year or five’s time, but I do have this awful feeling that Amazon is chewing up and spitting out all of its competitors in the Western world. With South Africa being a little behind in terms of bandwidth and wireless availability, the bookstores have managed to keep ahead. But with incomes shrinking there will definitely be less money for shiny new books. And if there’s a massive company that will send a cheaper eBook to you immediately, then why go to a bookstore?

The future might lie in bespoke bookstores, or in appealing to the idea of personal interaction with books and booksellers. But for now, all we can do is watch, and like the executives say at Amazon, to not be so hyped on demise.

Amazon executives, interviewed at the company’s headquarters here, declined to say how many editors the company employed, or how many books it had under contract. But they played down Amazon’s power and said publishers were in love with their own demise.

“It’s always the end of the world,” said Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives. “You could set your watch on it arriving.

EDIT: Today The Daily Maverick released this fascinating article that further explores the price structure Amazon is offering authors and more specifically where they will beat out publishers.  In essence, I think Kevin Bloom has nailed the potential upshots and downfalls of this situation quite nicely:

The contract was cancelled and Davenport was forced to pay back the $20,000 advance. She took it philosophically, stating that Cannibal Nights was some of her best writing, and that she had Amazon to thank for finally presenting it to the world. “Sleeping with the enemy?” she wondered. “Perhaps. But now I know who the enemy is.” It was a line read by thousands, as evidenced by the 159 comments under the blog, many from writers railing against the well-known bully tactics of the Big Six.

Which is where the upside to the current turmoil can possibly be found. If Amazon can act as a ballast to the dominant publishers without putting them out of business, if it can break the oligopoly and force better terms for writers as an industry standard, the good guys win.

If, on the other hand, Amazon guts traditional publishing until it’s the last player standing, only Jeff Bezos wins.

For further reading, please visit The Publisher’s Weekly article All Eyes on Amazon Publishing and the Davenport Dialogue blogpost directly dealing with her experience with Penguin.

Forbes Top Ten Authors and the South African Top Ten

It is a slightly old article, but the results of the Forbes Top Ten authors list is as interesting as the authors are (in my opinion) mostly mainstream. The list taken from this page includes a surprising number of authors who write for children or YA markets.

The list encourages one to draw the following conclusions about the book market:

  • Kids are reading more and more than ever before, especially if authors like Kinney are writing exclusively for young kids and others are branching out into the younger readers market. The first article mentions the advantages tech-savvy authors have when they tap into the massive eBook market. I wish I could remember where I read it, but the YA market is possibly the fastest-growing market. It makes sense to write for it. And judging by the books that I see in the subs with the book reps, there is a desperate need for someone to write better YA that doesn’t involve emo vampires or sad fallen angels or hairball-hacking werewolves. Or mermaids. (Why mermaids? That is a question that speaks to some very deep-seated issues.)
  • Writing crime pays, apparently. Judging by the high earnings of Patterson, Evanovich and Steel, writing about or involving crime in one’s books seems to be successful. However it is a highly saturated market with far too many authors competing for one of the most unforgiving markets. Crime readers tend to follow one author just because the selection is so overwhelming. If anyone wants to break into the book market, crime and romance are definitely the hardest to crack. Fantasy and sci-fi readers are much more likely to pick up new authors.
  • Writing for women is more likely to pay off (Steel, Evanovich, Sparks and Meyer are prime examples) and it has long been established in the publishing industry that men don’t read, or at least not enough to matter. (An unfortunate conclusion but that’s how the numbers roll.) Now that I have been meeting with reps for about six months, I have been able to piece together a great deal about the industry. Women do read a great deal more and across more genres, and while I don’t doubt that men read, they don’t read enough to dictate to many markets. From what I gather, non-fiction tends to be more unisex but there is a growing trend in what is unofficially called ‘dick-lit’. Its chick-lit with a male protagonist who too is unfulfilled and seeking love. It sounds a lot rougher than it really is.
  • Mainstream works. None of the authors on the list are particularly challenging or even controversial. Meyer with her necrophilia and bestiality is so bodice-ripper and hetronormative to be puke-inducing, so that puts her firmly in the heart of the mainstream.

I understand that reading is always going to be escapist and simple for 98% of the world’s literate people. That’s why none of these authors write anything that is particularly stimulating. And I can respect that most people are not interested in reading challenging and mind-rearranging material that inspires debate and anger. The list is interesting for many reasons, but mostly for me because it serves as a handy shorthand for what people want to read more than what booksellers want to sell. If I had a book store I know it would be very much like Black Books, with really interesting but badly selling titles. This is why I have a blog and not a book store.

The most important thing to take away from this is that people are still reading, and while a large part of me wishes they were reading more interesting things I’m just glad that kids are still loving books and that people haven’t given up books for reality TV.

While I’m on the topic of top ten lists, it is always interesting to get the Top 50 books sold here at Exclusive Books. While I cannot share numbers with you, I can share the top sellers, and it fascinates me that the local top 10 this week is 90% South African non-fiction. This may change when all the big international Christmas titles come out (Night Circus, Language of Flowers and the Freddie Mercury biography, for example) but for now it is good to see South Africans supporting South African literature, especially non-fiction.





Delicious Books, and the Reading Thereof

In the land of books the reader is king, or so it is said.

I know there are hundreds of blogs out there about books, whether it is writing or reading them. But I have begun this blog alongside my other because I feel that there are hundreds of books that deserve recognition, and many which deserve as much rotten tomatoes hurled at them as I can fit into my small, plucky car.

No book should be burnt because that is ugly and a terrible use of fire, but I am a firm believer in book money not being wasted on disappointing books. With the economic climate being what it is, no one should have to give up books. It is my firm belief that there should always be money for books, and that it should never be wasted on boring, cliched or offensive books.

To clarify, I don’t consider books containing scenes of violence or sex etc inherently offensive. But pornographic levels of either, or blatant misogyny, racism or homophobia will definitely put a book in the bigot bin.

Ultimately, I love reading, and I love discussing books. Books have been my friends for as long as I can remember, and are as much a part of my life as to be sorely missed when they’re not around. I currently work in the book trade as a content writer, having studied English literature up to Honours Level. I will also be doing my Masters next year, so there will be some academic titles appearing on this list over time.

I hope you will enjoy your stay here, and I look forward to receiving your feedback on your favourite titles. If you think I am wrong, I’m happy to listen to your comments and maybe reeavulate my view. I don’t often shift on a book, but often a second or third read makes it more rewarding. (I experienced this with Jane Eyre and Nervous Conditions.)

Welcome to the Ruthless Book List, and I look forward to sharing my reading experiences with you.