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

The Unnecessary Elevation of Fanfiction: The Announcement of Kindle Worlds

So Amazon has stooped to a new level of illiterate thuggery, and is now looting the corpses in a way both blatantly ruthless and pathetic. With the introduction of Kindle Worlds, Amazon is now allowing people to write and sell fanfiction for three different, equally vapid series (Gossip Girls, Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars). 

Some people would say (and they would be wrong) that fanfiction authors should have the right to earn money off their work, and they might also (wrongly) suggest that the fanfiction will only bolster the licenced properties in question and therefore generate more money for everyone. Everyone goes home happy and the Internet is better off for it, etc. Except that this is probably one of the worst (and most meta) examples of a poor author-publisher relationship ever. People more studious than I have taken a magnifying glass to the terms offered by Amazon to fanfiction authors, and have found the contracts fairly restrictive, and in some cases outright exploitative. The most excellent John Scalzi has scoured through the terms, and found this little nugget:

As a writer, there are a number of things about the deal Amazon/Alloy are offering that raise red flags for me. Number one among these is this bit: “We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.” i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of moneyeven, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.

And as he goes on to explain further:

“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.

Again, we are seeing Amazon trying to create not only a new publishing playing field, but eroding the rights of writers that have been so hard-won over the years. So many authors are already getting scammed out of their money by vanity presses or traditional publishers with watertight, author-unfriendly contracts – it doesn’t help that the behemoth that is Amazon is further contributing to this increasingly unfair market. Sure, the fanficcers may be earning money they wouldn’t have before, but at what cost in the long term? Like Scalzi mentions,

If you are a corporate rights holder, for example, would you bother with seeking out pro writers any more, and paying them advances and royalties and all of that business? Or would you just open up the gates to paid fan fiction, which you don’t have to pay anything for and yet still have total control over the commercial exploitation thereof? Again, this is interesting stuff to consider, and if I were a pro writer who primarily worked in media tie-in markets, I would have some real concerns.

How many other big licences are going to take advantage of this? I am curious to see how many of them do. Clever authors have made sure to maintain all their rights, and I doubt that any of the really big author-created franchises (Game of Thrones, The Avengers) will follow in this path.

Secondly, how successful can this really be? Does anyone really want to pay for fanfiction? It isn’t clear if there will be a stringent editorial process – as far as I can tell there isn’t much of one on Kindle Direct Publishing and it is unlikely that they would have the people required to proofread the mountains of drivel about to descend on Kindle Worlds. And sure, the fanfiction will probably only cost $5 or so (like most self-published drek) but nonetheless people are accustomed to paying sweet fuck-all for fanfiction. And not only that, but they have been able to get it in a variety of communities, ranging from the infamous fanfiction.net to livejournal,  tumblr to AO3. Many of these websites have become sophisticated platforms, throwing in gifs and deviantart.com-sourced jackets, fan-mix soundtracks and more, all for free. So why pay for it, and be forced to read it on a Kindle anyway? Most Kindle users don’t have the ridiculously priced Kindle Fire, so off it is to dreary e-ink land and no more pretty gifs or fun formatting.

And even worse: who is going to want to buy fanfiction that isn’t allowed to have sex scenes in it? Isn’t that the point, after all? To slash that which has not been slashed before? To have characters bonk boldly where none have bonked before?

And the third (and the worst): why are we even legitmising fanfiction in the first place? I’m sure some people are celebrating this, thinking that now fanficcers can ply their craft in public, like real authors do. And while fanfiction has its place, that place is not on the level of original work. I may not be a fan of his books, but I am a big fan of what George RR Martin has to say about fanfiction:

 I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again.

His blog post is a fascinating look at what fanfiction/plagiarism has cost authors in the past, and the importance of defending their copyright. It has cost authors entire novels, caused lawsuits and even affected their livelihoods. Now I know that the Kindle Worlds have been authorised, and I know the authors have ceded (in part) their control, but nonetheless it is an attempt to monetize and legitimize fanfiction and I am really, really uncomfortable with that. If I published Savant (hahaha, NO) and I came across a fanfiction of it, I would probably be more than a bit pissed off that my years of work had been used by someone else to for whatever strange reason. It is teamwork, but the person who does the most work is still getting screwed and is expected to be grateful for the attention during the unasked-for screwing. And after all the work an author has done, it seems grossly unfair that anyone should dare to profit off their efforts and imagination. Like Martin says “No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me“.

More tasty links:

What Famous Authors Have to Say About Fanfiction (Flavorwire)

How Kindle Worlds Aims to Colonise Fanfiction (The Guardian)

‘Kindle Worlds’ Lets Authors Publish Fan Fiction — At Dubious Cost (Wired)

Fan Fiction Is Finally Legitimized With Kindle Worlds (Forbes)

Amazon launches Kindle Worlds allowing authors to publish fan fiction

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:

The Independent.ie

Jenny Colgan at the Guardian.co.uk

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 Hobbit HFR 3D Review

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So, I was fortunate enough to get a preview ticket to see The Hobbit in very sexy HFR 3D. This luxurious new 3D format actually delivers what it promises: increased depth (which sometimes creates a weird soap opera feel) and no more blurriness. Thankfully, it is also much, much easier on the eyes. I was pleased that I didn’t have a headache after nearly three hours of 3D. For that alone, the new format is worth your time, especially for epic battle scenes.

The-HobbitNow, onto the movie itself. I read The Hobbit a long time ago, like most people, and haven’t reread it since for a number of reasons. Mostly because a) I very rarely reread books when there’s so much out there that should be read and b) I find fantasy the most boring genre in the world. So, the movie should ideally be a distillation of the best parts of the book to encourage people to explore the book further while making the movie a manageable, digestible experience.

Does the movie deliver? The action scenes are sublime in their direction and excitement. The post-production clearly cost a great number of millions. Gollum made an excellent appearance and his facial rendering now severely dates the Lord of the Rings trilogy in comparison. Martin Freeman, while a bit stilted initially, (basically Watson with no shoes on) still makes a great action hero. The dwarfs are fun, and of course Gandalf can save the movie by himself. The art direction is outstanding, the clothes are most beautiful. Taken on the value of those things, the movie is worth watching just for how it looks.

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But you knew that I was going to find something, and I hear the nitpick train coming into the station. The Hobbit is a product of the 50s, and it is going to be inherently problematic. Like Game of Thrones, it too is about a bunch of white men running around having adventures. (Thankfully, less rapey, gratuitious sex.) There is ONE speaking role for a woman in three hours. She mostly glides around like a lost bride and doesn’t really inspire much awe or even interest. As you can imagine, everyone is pretty much lily-white. Men are brave and manly and smoke a lot. It could have been mistaken for a tobacco ad, at times. I don’t see how problematic it would have been to have the dwarves being of different skin colours. (But you only have to look at the backlash about Hunger Games having a few black actors to see where the problem comes in).

The-Hobbit-550x281So, that’s the BA part of me speaking up. Now for the writer part. Dear god, did this one average-sized book have to be split into three movies? There’s still too much walking. There are goddamn musical numbers, which should have been left in the book. They were as trite and folksy as they were in the 50s; they have no right being in a movie now. (Also, sometimes sound editing dropped the ball and the lyrics weren’t very clear.) They jar with the whole movie and should really have been left out. There’s a lot of scenes that could have been left out to make a more coherent, interesting whole. Peter Jackson, like James Cameron, is dragging the viewer into his special circle-jerk. Sure, I can imagine the hardcore fans appreciate the thousands of details in Orc costumes that are only on screen for a few minutes. But what about those of us who want a better version of the books? With less walking and tedious descriptions and complicated family trees that make reading the books like chewing concrete?

My opinion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been an unpopular one, but I stand by it. And unfortunately, the problematic things about the books have made their way into the films, the one chance the books had to get better. The movies are interminably long, as are the books. More writing is not necessarily good writing. Just because I want cheesecake, it does not mean I want to eat one the size of a dustbin lid. The racism and elision of women could have been addressed. After all, the idea of some races being better or smarter qua race is at the very foundation of this. Hobbits are lazy, Elves are smart, Dwaves are drunken and strong, etc.

Sherlock 2 Specials

The best example of a canon evolving is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes the character (as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) was a racist, misogynist asshole, for all of his smartness. But the two most recent iterations of this phenomenon have changed Holmes for the better. BBC’s Sherlock has kept the asshole tendencies but at least he isn’t hardcore racist. I’m ambivalent on the sexism issue. Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Poster-007Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes works with women and has lost the general dickishness of the character as developed in the 1960s and onwards. I don’t think this has harmed the character: if people can change and grow, why can’t characters?

The inherent problem with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is that it has one of the most puritanical fanbases (just like Jane Austen fans). They don’t like change, and they don’t like upgrades. Surely the core message can survive a little updating? Ultimately, the books are about being good, doing good and being brave regardless of size or strength. What difference does it really make if Sam had been a female hobbit? Or black? And if Tolkien couldn’t have done it then, surely Jackson could have done it now? If the characters are really defined by their personalities, there’s no reason race or gender could be an issue. Unfortunately, it is still edgy to to have a female lead. Or a gay one. Or a black one.

Alright, so segue aside, do you need to see the movie? If you can see it in HFR 3D (the Nu-Metro rep said that only four screens will have it nationally), then go see it just to enjoy the new tech and experience. If you’re a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/fantasy fan, nothing I say here will dissuade you. The problems I have are not the ones everyone else will have. It is the holidays, and it isn’t the worst movie you will ever watch (because that movie is Sex and the City).

Read what others thought here:

Slashfilm.com – ‘Rousing, yet Repetitive’

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Robbie Collins

Variety.com – No kinder on small bladders or impressionable eyes

The Trilogy Will Test the Stamina of Non-Believers: The Guardian.co.uk 

Misty Mountain Out of a Molehill – The Daily Mail

Feels Twice As Long as Half a Movie Should – Film School Rejects

Review of The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Oh, Terry. Oh, Sir Pratchett. I have read so many of your books. Sam Vimes is my very favourite character in literature. I love him indecently. I love the Discworld, and all its charming, messed-up folks. I love the subtle social commentary, the use of hard science in elaborate ways. I love the wisdom and the genuine humanism, the flavour of the characters and their adventures and trials. Your humour in the Discworld series is the kind that makes me want to phone people and read lines to them, though I can’t always finish them for the laughter.

And then, Long Earth.

I know its a co-authored work (which has been done well before with Gaiman) and I know its not Discworld. And that’s fine, because an author should always be trying something new. And I admire that, and I admired the plot of Long Earth. It involves lots of delicious what-ifs and timey-wimey stuff. Yay for that. But what happened to Pratchett?

The absence of the beloved author was made glaring by the moments in the book that were pure Pratchett, the moments that shone amongst the general pabulum of the book itself. It took me two weeks to finish this, and I had to force myself through the first 100 pages. It was like a dear friend had invited me to a party, and I was really excited to go, but then I got there and the wine was cheap, the snacks dry and the company less than stellar. And for the first two hours of the party, I wanted to fall upon a knife. But eventually it got sort of better and it didn’t feel too wasteful.

As I write this, I’m wracking my brain to try remember the names of the characters. I have since given away my proof copy (and ain’t that a sign of the times, plentiful Pratchett proofs?) and now I’m trying to remember who starred in the damn thing. It shouldn’t be this hard. Look, I think that a non-Pratchett fan might enjoy it, or a Baxter fan. He is a big-name author in his own right, though he writes in a field I generally find tedious. The thing is, this should have been the proof that Pratchett is not slipping, that he is unaffected by the onset of his Alzheimer’s (proof that there really is no god) and that he can still produce the goods.

But then, I read Snuff, and the rest of the Sam Vimes books in reverse order. And the sad part is that there is a lot of recycling going on here. The end of Snuff, with the amazing race down the river and Vimes ending up in a cave? Pretty much lifted from Thud! with Sam Vimes going crazy in a cave after being tumbled about by an underground river. That was pretty saddening. Lady Sybil is still amazing though.

But you know, even at his worst, Pratchett is still better than 90% of authors out there. I guess this is me just expecting more. Long Earth had boring characters, the female ones especially so. There’s a lesbian cop, which I thought made for a refreshing change, but she really doesn’t do much. She has a bit of a moment at the end, but she was mostly unused and ignored. The same goes for the woman who is good at stepping. (At least there wasn’t a shoehorned romance.) There’s a general menace that is explained away weirdly in something that seems suspiciously stolen from Douglas Adams (who also didn’t know when to end the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) The ending felt rushed and a bit wobbly as well.

This really isn’t one for the fans, because fans expect more and by this point, we kind of have the right to expect that. It is hard for our favourite author to write more than 30 superb novels, and then drop this on us. I don’t even know who to recommend it to. Maybe mid to hardcore sci-fi fans? Mind you, the science isn’t really that hard and there aren’t any fantasy elements barring some interesting animals.

I know that even at my best, I can’t match Pratchett’s worst. All I’m actually saying here is that it is getting a little embarrassing being a Pratchett fan now. I will still buy every book he writes, and I will still throw my panties if he ever comes to visit here, but I am allowed to be disappointed, I think.

But! Not everyone agrees with me, so check out The Guardian’s review, The Independent’s review and what the folks at SFX.co.uk have to say.

Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy

This week the Guardian covered Coelho’s impassioned plea to his fans to pirate his books. He argues, and rather well, that people who might not have bought hard copies did so after reading pirated chapters. His sales are remarkably high; The Alchemist alone sold 12 million copies. The piracy leak sent his sales skyrocketing, so it is understandable that he would be an advocate of book piracy.

It is difficult to measure the effect of piracy on any medium. This blog post at Freakonomics suggests that the actual cost of piracy might be very low, since those who are pirating probably can’t afford the product anyway. Removing piracy won’t solve the problem of financial difficulty. We can’t really work out how book piracy affects sales, and since people have been sharing books for years the damage may be neglible. I do feel that putting digital rights management (DRM) on books will do for books what it did for music: cause a further rippling of piracy. After all, that’s one of my major gripes with the Kindle: those books would not be mine and can be revoked or deleted remotely. This has happened already with 1984.

I’m a passionate believer in the freedom of information, as I’ve shared before, but I would be unforgivably naive if I assumed piracy wasn’t having an impact somewhere. Everyone pirates, intentionally or not. But to counter Coelho’s argument, some people are happy to read thousands of lines on a screen rather than shell out for a book. Again, if they can’t afford the book then the publisher won’t be making money anyway. But I am willing to bet this blog and my signed copy of The Night Circus that there a great number of people who are quite happy to get digital versions of a book and never buy the hard copy. Geeks are particularly comfortable with just not paying for media. Most of the ones I know are in an income bracket where they can afford nice things, but would rather not buy them. This attitude has done some serious damage to the manga and anime  industry in the West. The closure of Tokyo Pop USA is a prime example. Here’s ten more companies that have closed down. Don’t forget about Bandai. Why buy an issue of Bleach or Naruto for R100 upwards when it can found freely on the net? Anime episodes proliferate as long as people are willing to translate and host them. But the problem lies here: the same market that reads/watches manga/anime is nearly entirely made up of people with access to torrents. Unlike TV series and movies, watched by a broader demographic who might not know how to download a folder, geekier things tend to be watched by the geeky. And the geeky often do not like to pay for things they can take.

It seems like a terrible thing to say, but consider who keeps the terabyte drives full of shows and documentaries and audio books. Its not the average parent, and its not the average yuppie. In a Venn diagram these groups might overlap but sadly the same generation howling for the freedom of information is doing some damage to the companies that need their support. I know I said earlier that we can’t always measure the effects of piracy, but we can at least see some evidence that a lack of buying interest is harmful.

Which brings me back to books. Sure, Sir Terry Pratchett has sold tens of millions of books and likely gets royalties from reproductions of his work. I am willing to bet that he is one of the most pirated authors on the planet because I am yet to meet a geek that isn’t a fan. But how many people have bought his books because they wanted to have it to hand? How many of them are content to load pirated pdfs onto their tablets and read that way? We don’t know. We can’t know.

The book industry is in the middle of either death throes or rebirth, depending on who one asks. Some say that self-epublishing is a ponzi scheme about to crash; some say that eBooks will rule the world. Some say that hard copies will always triumph and others will argue that bookstores will be defunct within five years. Already many of them are being treated as displays for online stores, and the closure of two decent book stores in SA so far in 2012 is not heartening. Kindle sales were up 175% from 2010, this past Christmas season. With the massive complexity of this industry, which is different in each country, we can’t really measure the effect of piracy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it, especially when there seems to be so much on the line.

The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards

The Bad Sex Award is definitely not as prestigious as the Man Booker Prize, but it is one of the most popular awards in the literary calender. Established by Auberon Waugh in 1993 ‘to highlight – and hopefully discourage – the “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels”‘, the Bad Sex Award has become also notorious for its rather snide awards ceremony. When Rowan Somerville won last year, he had this to say about receiving the award for The Shape of Her:

In October, well before the shortlist was announced, an article by Susana Rustin in the Guardian had quoted me criticising the Bad Sex award: “It reminds me of a bunch of sniggering sixth-formers in the back of the class. There’s a kind of English notion of sexuality that I wish we could get away from, it’s Benny Hill, it’s page 3 …”

Despite the magazine’s assertion that “it’s only a bit of fun” there’s an atmosphere of bullying peculiar to public schools about the whole thing. If you decline to show up, like the excellent Sebastian Faulks, they harangue you for years.

One wonders what this year’s winner, David Guterson, will undergo at the ceremony. You can read the extracts from Ed King that landed him this prize here.

Ed King by David Guterson

I read all the extracts (it behooves a bookseller to do so) and to be honest, I really thought that Christos Tsolkas would have won for his hugely grotesque descriptions. I would rather not put this blog on some kind of predator watchlist by posting extracts from Dead Europe, but you can read them here.

While I think that gratuitious sex scenes are exactly that, I’m not so sure that some of the extracts (listed below) really count as ‘bad sex’. We can argue all day what constitutes bad sex (and please do so with me in the comments thread!) but the Bad Sex award seems determined to punish clumsy writing more than actual sex scenes. If I were to offer a definition, I’d say a bad sex scene would be one that has no place being there and stands outside the general style of the novel itself. Like throwing in fifteen gang bangs in the middle of a Miss Marple tale, for example. Or some pedestrian, tired new parent sex in the heart of a chainsaw massacre story.  But most of the scenes are just bad writing more than actual bad sex, and reflect on the rest of the novel. Auel’s extract sounds like something my grandmother would write if she weren’t quite so British; its not really bad sex like Mills and Boon produces on a weekly basis.

The other nominations included literary heavyweight Murakami for 1Q84 and the monarch of horror Stephen King for11.22.63; their extracts can be found here and here. Also nominated:

The award generates controversy and publicity for the books, which Rowan Somerville found himself pleasantly surprised by. The Shape of Her had mostly disappeared before the award nominations went in.
But let’s be frank … this ridiculous award had put my novel in newspapers and websites across the world and although, when the deputy editor of the mag emailed me to ask if I’d enjoyed the party, I replied “as much as a televised visit to a proctologist”, I don’t think the publicity is going to do me, or the book, any harm either. So although it surprises me to say it, I am very grateful to them.
For more reading around the Bad Sex award, there’s Alistair Campbell’s article about why he wants to win the Bad Sex Award, the need for a Good Sex Award and why men write such bad sex scenes.
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Originally posted here at the Exclusives.co.za Blog (by me) and adapted with product lists. Buy the books and support your local bookstores where possible.  

The Bloomsbury Whitewash and other book cover issues

In a parallel argument to the ‘No Gays Please’ attitude to most YA texts, this week the Guardian discussed the whitewashing of book covers in order to prevent the cover harming the book sales.

But Larbalestier believes the issues of “whitewashing” of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations for these books are industry-wide. In 2004, Ursula Le Guin asked why “even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover … I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy – which they mostly don’t – could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”

– The Guardian.co.uk

Book covers can easily make or break a book’s sales. In South Africa, for example, putting Christmas themes of snowy trees, mistletoe and Santa will instantly kill that book’s chances here. Likewise, photo-realistic covers like these tend to do very well:

But covers like these usually flounder:

The reason people judge books by their covers is that they only have so much time to read and so much money to spend. It is quite sensible when you think about it. And a book’s jacket has to help it stand out amongst thousands of others, especially in the crime and romance sections. Jacket treatment is so important and yet the author has almost no say in it. Only mega-authors get a say in their book jackets, or re-treatments of their jackets for different countries. We usually get the UK jackets, which is more than a small mercy considering American jackets for books.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Bloomsbury might be whitewashing their jackets, but that doesn’t excuse it. It is offensive to suggest that black people don’t buy enough books to be represented, and that white people won’t buy a book because it has a black person on it. Looking through my extensive collection of book jackets while creating this post, I realised how many have white people on them, especially ‘literary’ titles. But then again, its just white people writing about white people, and having a black character on the front cover where there isn’t one in the book is just tokenism. It is worth noting that this isn’t the entire industry doing the same thing; look at these titles:

So in this case, while I don’t doubt Bloomsbury was in the wrong, I don’t believe they’re the only ones to whitewash a cover. They should get credit for acting quickly when shown that their decision was misinformed. However, I don’t think its fair to see it as indicative of an entire industry. I do think there’s definitely room for more representative covers, especially in YA and fantasy titles. (Unless its Game of Thrones, in which case everyone is lily-white or an Oriental savage. Dull.) But at least there seems to be some representation. So, support authors who write characters who aren’t just white and tormented, because as readers we vote with our money and that’s ultimately what the publishers seek.

For further information and advice on book covers, head on over to “8 Mistakes That Will Absolutely Kill Your Book” at Huffington Post