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MAY 2011

Tanner's Latest
The Book Business
Burgess Redux

Dole Anthems

Scouse poet Paul Tanner has produced a new collection Dole Anthems. If the spectrum of Liverpool poets ranges from the great, but misanthropic, Peter Reading to the lightweight whimsical wit of Roger MacGough then Tanner is nearer Reading - but funny nevertheless. The latest will be up on Amazon soon. Get it and larf.


 For a selection of Tanner's earlier poems click on http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/poetry/tanner.htm

The Business of Books

Brett draws my attention to a piece in the recent FT by Luke Johnson entitled Publishes must seize the digital challenge

Book publishing is coming late to the digital revolution but it may be more transformed than any other segment of the media industry.

From nowhere a few years ago, e-books are now booming and their spectacular growth is likely to continue. In the US, digital sales are now at least 20 per cent of revenues for big publishers and could be a majority within a few years. Because electronic books do not involve printing, binding, storage, shipping and returns, the costs of delivery are much lower, so gross margins are much higher than they are for physical books.

While authors typically get 25 per cent royalties for e-books, rather than the traditional 15 per cent for hardbacks, publishers are not in fact fairly sharing the spoils with authors because their costs have fallen so dramatically. Penguin made £106m profit last year, a record, partly because e-book prices are still close to the price of printed books. But bestselling writers will soon gain the confidence to self-publish unless publishers are more generous with the digital dividend.

English-language publishers and authors may well reap huge benefits from the upheaval. There are about 600m native English speakers and 1.4bn who read English. Most don't buy English-language books now because of the barriers inherent in physical goods. But they would read books in English if they were widely distributed online and cheap. These are incremental sales that UK and US publishers should be pursuing aggressively right now.

There are many challenges. Inevitably, e-books will be pirated, as happened in the music business. Perhaps book readers will remain willing to pay for a better online experience and are less likely to download stolen content than pop fans. But there will surely be material deflation in the price of e-books over time. The inevitable disappearance of the vast majority of bookshops will remove a main marketing channel and will seriously undermine the power of publishers. It will also increase the scary dominance of Amazon. Book printers will, sadly, mostly go out of business, and physical books will become more expensive as a consequence of reduced economies of scale. Public libraries, as repositories of physical volumes, will disappear. Literary agents will become more powerful, but also riven with conflicts, as they turn their hands to publishing and become the very organisations they warn their clients about. Certain genres, such as illustrated books, are less likely to migrate to devices such as Kindles and iPads, while people will still want to give tangible books as gifts.

Book publishers must change their business models radically. Editors must swiftly become experts in online marketing techniques such as search engine optimisation. E-books make a nonsense of the archaic practice of dividing geographic rights by territory. Publishers must learn to sell direct to readers and forget about upsetting bookstores. Far more of their profits must come from their brands. The average For Dummies customer owns five or more of the series but cannot name a single one of the authors - now that is a valuable publishing franchise. At Phaidon, where I am a non-executive director, readers frequently buy our art and cookery books simply because we publish them: the imprint is as big as the authors.

As ever, there are huge opportunities and threats. I expect further consolidation among publishing companies and upstart successes coming from nowhere. I've paid more attention to the economics and future of book publishing recently because I've got a book coming out in September, called Start It Up. It has taken almost a year to go from manuscript to bookshop, like the other seven books I've written - a ludicrous delay. I will never write another book in this traditional way. I suspect the future for many types of publishing is brief, rapidly produced, good value e-books that may even be self-published.

The book industry sees itself as a cultural profession: now publishers must adapt to the 21st century or go broke. The trade should restructure violently, embrace technology and prepare for a new era - and a bigger business might yet emerge. 

lukej@riskcapitalpartners.co.uk The writer runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts

There's no doubt ebooks are ridiculously overpriced - but that's how the market works. It's not what it costs to make plus a mark-up - it's what the punter will pay, and the punter is still used to paying printed book prices -so that's the starting point. Luke is also right to point out the delays in the existing system. The whole book publishing / distribution industry is a Victorian throwback. Jim Burns' book of essays mentioned in my last Oiklet was on a table in Manchester bookshops within a couple of months of conception - no established publisher or distributor was involved. His previous book went through the conventional mill - it took two years. The indexing alone took months.

Personally I think ebooks are a fad - great if you want to take 500 books on holiday or you live in a 6ft by 8ft London flat - and yes, I have a reader with 500 books on it (mostly free from Gutenberg) but I wouldn't sit down and use it if the paper version was available. Interestingly Luke thinks self-publishing is another looming tsunami (but he links this only to ebooks). The price of a self-published paper book is dramatically lower than an industry product (and that's without economies of scale). A 250 page 6" x 9" paperback can be produced for as little as £4 - try buying one in Waterstones for less than a tenner. We're already seeing the iPod effect whereby the producer keeps control of the product even after you've bought it. Amazon famously snatched back Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm after taking the money. And then there's the problem of transferring the text - can you load it onto another gadget - your mate's for instance? Probably not - in fact you don't actually own the thing - you merely rent it. We do live in interesting times in the book business.

While we're on the topic of Brett I draw Oiklet reader's attention to his latest lunacy - a prime candidate for the Bedlam Dr Gerhardt Lovenpants Speaks Out: Married Love  This is not available on any ereader...yet.

Burgess Redux

Marie Feargrieve sends me a link to a Burgess site in Manchester claiming to have unearthed "lost gems" by this author. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-13157885
I always thought AB a monstrous fake. In many respects a typical Manc fake - industrious, hard-nosed, polymathic, always knowing which buttons to press, hugely self-important. He was definitively skewered for me by Roger Lewis's 2002 biography - a hilarious account which scandalised the literary community - even those who didn't rate AB thought Lewis had gone too far. I guess his big break was linking up with Kubrick on Clockwork Orange. Stanley K was a more reticent genius. As Malcolm McDowell said of him "he didn't know what he wanted - but he knew what he didn't want" I doubt there was anything AB didn't want - he wanted everything - huckster, spiv, self-aggrandising crackpot - he was the quintessential crazy oik. I'd have been proud to give him houseroom in this humble mag.

This extract is from the Prologue - it gets more critical later on:

It's impossible not to form the impression that Burgess, whose primary link with Lawrence is that they were both egotists, needed to feel embattled - and, as with Coriolanus, everybody had to hear about it. There was a great deal of self-seeking manipulation in his behaviour, in the advertising of his hurt quality. There was something precarious about him - but he wanted to be like that. We'd now arrived at New College and, the afternoon light having faded, we wandered around the silent darkness of the grassy quadrangles. 'Very charming, very charming,' Burgess muttered as some girls went past. 'Nymphets, undergraduettes. English girls are so well-fed nowadays.' If this was to presage a lunge, or a quick shape-change into a bat so he could bite them on the neck, nothing happened. But Burgess's gaunt, wan features and red-rimmed eyes were certainly vampiral. I'd expected him to be tanned - otherwise what is the point of living in the Mediterranean? - but he looked waxy and pallid, long deprived of the sun. And how are we going to describe his hair? The yellowish-white powdery strands were coiled on his scalp like Bram Stoker's Dracula's peruke, not maintained since Prince Vlad the Impaler fought off the Turks in the Carpathian mountains in 1462. What does it say about a man that he could go around like that, as Burgess did? Though he was a king of the comb-over (did the clumps and fronds emanate from his ear-hole?), no professional barber can be blamed for this. I thought to myself, he has no idea how strange he is. What did he think he looked like? He evidently operated on his own head with a pair of garden shears. Was he indifferent to his appearance? That one can be ruled out. The actorish mannerisms, the voice, the wielding of the cigarillo, the silk handker­chief, the whole Burgess plumage, imply a high level of personal vanity. Yet, if he genuinely believed he was concealing his baldness, he must have been tremendously wrapped up in himself to suspend belief that wilfully. He also had a strange idea of his audiences' (or spectators') credulity -except he could never imagine the thoughts and reactions of others - just as there's no sympathetic or spiritual contact with his readers. It was clear, from a few moments in his company, that he was unlikely to ask your opinion about anything. He was not interested in what you'd do or think or say.

In the short run, however, the nicotine-stained fuzzy bush at the summit of his frame served to distract from the ugliness of the rest of his face, which raised a vague reminiscence of a snapper turtle or tapir. He also appeared to have unnaturally long lower teeth, the colour of maize, and no upper set to speak of, the top of his mouth or lip having become elon­gated to conceal his gums, like a baboon.

So let’s agree that Ant (real name John Wilson – what was wrong with that?) was a quintessential oik Manc writer – a genius of self-promotion and a grafter with Stakhanovite stamina. My own humble library has few of his works – a first ed of Earthly Powers (thought to be his best novel) and the Clockwork Testament. They say his autobiog Little Wilson and Big God is good.  

But what other writers are connected with the city (lets chuck in Salford)? Howard Spring would be the choice of old fart nostalgics. Indeed the first time I visited mad oik bard Ernie Wild (brother of Bob) and asked him who his favourite writer was I got Howard Spring. I was hoping for some arcane continental of the calibre of Huysmans, Louys or Lautréamont – but no. I asked because I’d been told Ernie spoke ten languages, had travelled all over, and had written a 100,000 word novel on the Moors in Spain. I’m unqualified to comment on his linguistic attainments but we have Boabdil, his vast novel on this site should anyone, with a week to spare, feel like having a crack at it. Walter Greenwood (Love on the Dole) is another, more in the vein of socialist realism than the escapist oik fantasies of HS. The great de Quincey was born in 86 Cross Street. Terry Eagleton came from Salford as did Robert Roberts whose Classic Slum is indeed a classic. Shelagh Delaney is a Salford star playwright. Tony Richardson made a great film out of A Taste of Honey.

Then there’s the odd passing migrants. Wittgenstein lived in Palatine Road while he studied propeller design at UMIST. Elias Canetti lived briefly in Burton Road Didsbury.

There must be lots more – so let’s hear about them. Readers are asked not to nominate themselves, their relatives of their best mates.