Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The wheel’s still in spin

So, this is what we have been up to:


We wanted to populate it a little before opening it up to the grubby masses, and there is certainly enough there now to show it to you squeaky-clean folks. Read all about it, read what we have to say. And, for the last time, yes. We are serious about this. And we’d love to hear your thoughts, here, or there.

That said, we have no intention of letting STML die. It’s still a personal site, in case you hadn’t noticed, and we still love books. There’s been some excellent stuff on the lectern recently, incidentally, we’ve just been busy, so here’s to hoping there will be more reviews, views, tangents and dirty lit here before too long. Thank you for reading.

tags: Book 2.0 + Personal History + Publishing | permalink | 6 Comments

Monday, September 25, 2006

Chronicle of a death foretold

There’s been a bit of a creative block in these parts for a while. Half-formed thoughts. Unfinished articles. Sweaty, 5am thinking jags. Please ignore the elephant in the corner. He’s not really there. La la la la la.

The book is going to die. It’s over. Five, ten years. No more books. And we really, really need to start talking about this. We need to put in place structures for coping with this. For ensuring that authors survive, that our stories survive. I’m really not kidding.

All the publishers have absolutely no idea what is about to happen. They’re worried about Google Book Search, for Christ’s sake. Google Book Search is for indexing academic books, for redistributing academic information that’s needlessly locked up in physical locations, and whose freeing up will launch humanity on its next great evolutionary leap. Woohoo. Side effect: no more royalties for authors. No more fat advances. No more lunch money.

Also, in the mid-term, we’re going to see publishers die even before the book does. Hey HarperCollins, what does POD stand for? Random House, can you say Lulu? One of you guys, buy a POD Printer now, please, before it gets embarrassing. Invest in some tech. Start paying attention. Because one day you are going to wake up, Amazon is printing books, and you are out of a job. Oh, look: BookSurge.

We are a couple of years – quite possibly less – away from an eReader that looks like a book. It’s been so long coming we forgot it was about to happen. This whole I’ve-got-the-first-edition thing is really sweet, but do you actually use CDs any more? (Note: if you do, you’re really going to have trouble with the next bit.)

I was talking to someone about this the other day, trying to figure out where all that information now written down in books is going to go, how it will continue to present itself to us. I realised that this isn’t like the move from vinyl to CD, or CD to MP3, although it will initially appear as the latter. It’s the difference between chamber music and the gramophone, between the illuminated manuscript and the paperback. The book as we think of it now has really only been around since the 1930s, since Allen Lane. They’re not as permanent as we’d like to think. Books are about to go back to being written by monks, and the rest of us are going to have to find another way to read. A historical window is about to close.

I don’t know what I’m worried about, really. Well, the dole office. But aside from that. Should anyone apart from publishers be worried about this? You’ll keep getting stories to read. Authors will keep on writing. They won’t get paid much, but hey, they never did. In fact, there’s a chance they’ll get paid more, if they’re smart, but probably not.

We brought this on ourselves, to a large extent. For all our bleating, we’ve been substandard for a while. Cheap paperback editions, with glue that lets all the pages fall out after five years. A total disregard for quality, editorial or otherwise. A craven, backslapping literary culture. Oh well. Bye bye.

Is the format important? Will stories written for a screen rather than a page – even screens that look like pages – differ that much? There’s something bizarre and incredibly nineteenth century in the development of eReaders, a kind of cultural redundancy. We just need to get them to look enough like books in order to kill books, then they’ll look like something else. It’s just a design issue.

It’s 6am. I’m writing this on a computer. Later, I’m going to format it in XHTML and put it out on the internet for people to read. You probably don’t know me, and you probably don’t care. Salman Rushdie is going to really hate this next bit, almost as much as his publishers, but you’re not. Readers will be fine. Take hope in that.

I just want to smooth the transition. Make sure there are enough smart people in the right places so that we don’t lose too much on the way through. There’s enough of them on the web – we should be looking to the W3C, to web standards, to information technologists and engineers, to people who’ve been thinking about this for twenty years. You know, smart people. Not the ones thinking about in at quarter past six on a Monday morning. In bed.

Oh, it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the first really good, genuinely collaborative novel, wiki-style. Chapters written by people on different continents, subplots by experts in their field. Proper editing. I can’t wait to be able to go travelling with five hundred stories on my eReader/iBook/USB SuperDonglePage thing, because I always take Moby Dick and I never read it. The best bit? Readers are going to decide what they’d like to read, not idiots in industry offices, or on lilac sofas. The first MySpace author phenomenon should be about next week. Please, God.

It’s the Frankfurt Book Fair it two weeks time. This should be funny. There’s going to be a man there who publishes books exclusively about angels. Who thinks he actually is an angel, or something. Everybody thinks he’s mad. In ten years time, he’s probably going to be the only one still in business. The angel people will still buy books. No one else will.

We’re going to start thinking about this. A lot. We have no idea what is going to happen, but, just like everybody else, we’d been quietly enjoying this whole internet thing, while pretending to ourselves that it was not going to completely destroy everything we were currently working on. Five years ago, I was studying Computer Science. I got a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence, and then went to work in dead tree publishing. I am an idiot. And, looking around, I’m not the only one. But I know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to see this through. Because we love stories, and we love great writers, and we just need to start separating that concept from your actual, paper books. Good morning. Hello. Wake up now.


UPDATE: Ultimately, this article provided the founding stimulus for booktwo.org, crossposted as Birth pangs of a new literature.

tags: Book 2.0 + Debate + Publishing | permalink | 8 Comments

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The return of Derkaderkastan

Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani is released today, heralded by a flurry of reviews and extracts in the papers, and, as committed STML-watchers will know, we had quite a lot to say about the book some time ago, here, here, and here. And then we shut the hell up, because we realised we’d been taken in by the same towering pile of hype and bullshit as everyone else, and felt sheepish. Bad us.

Still, it was even more depressing to open the Arts sections of various broadsheets over the long weekend and read the same reviews – and virtually the same opinions – of the same ten-or-so books in EVERY SINGLE ONE. With hundreds of books released every week, it remains astonishing how successful the PR people at Random House, Hodder, Penguin, Bloomsbury et al are at shoehorning their books into the papers (below graph from last week’s Publishing News).

Previous week's reviews

While there is undoubtedly a debate to be had about whether reviews actually sell books (most signs, it has to be said, point to No), it can also be asserted that without any reviews at all, literary titles (as opposed to genre fiction or topical non-fic) stand little or no chance of making an impact. So, without trying to sound like a whining small publisher (but succeeding all the same), it’d be nice if journalists would cast their nets a little wider, and not just review the last thing Random House took them on a junket for.

Of course, the main journalistic incitement for reviewing one of the big boy’s releases is knowing that everyone else will be doing it, and you can stick your oar in too. So you can read our review of Londonstani over at RSB now.

[Update/SPOILER ALERT: There’s more discussion in the comments]

tags: Publishing + Reviews | permalink | 10 Comments

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

All the fun of the Fair

And so we finally drag ourselves back to civilisation from the wilds of East London and the waiting room to Hell that is the ExCeL centre (irrelevant capitalisation venue’s own), home to this year’s London Book Fair.

It was the first time the LBF has been held in the East, after many years at the increasingly cramped (but comfortingly distant from Canning Town) Olympia. The DLR had never heard such literate cursing. The final jewel in the joyless crown was the twinning of the august LBF with the world’s largest massage parlour, the Professional Beauty show in the adjacent hall. This led to the amusing sight of the well-heeled mavens and moguls of international publishing scrumming with teenage trainee hairdressers from Catford in the skinny latte queue.

Most notably, there was damn near cock-all in the way of internet access, leaving this reporter the stark choice between no blogging for three days, or entering lengthy reports in a stand-up booth with a wall-mounted keyboard and no command button. Hence the silence.

Such technophobia is a bit weird for somewhere as glassy and steely as ExHell, but it’s par for the course for the book industry. On Sunday (for shame) STML attended a seminar on “Online Book Coverage” hosted by John Vacaro, online manager of Publisher’s Weekly, with a panel consisting on Michael Cader of Publisher’s Lunch, Bethanne Patrick of AOL Books (who has her own blog), and Paul Carr of The Friday Project (ditto). The erudition of the guests was not matched by that of their audience – the panellists were forced to spend most of the session explaining to the room what a blog was, and that, shockingly, the internet could be used to promote books. Publishing Industry, meet the Twenty-First Century; Twenty-First Century… Oh dear. Publishing’s fallen asleep again.

Nevertheless, there was some interest to be had in other areas, and we’ll get onto them as soon as we’ve pissed three days worth of the caffeine out of our system and read a few of the really promising Lithuanian novels we picked up. And the new Taschen catalogue, of course.

tags: News + Publishing | permalink | Comments Off on All the fun of the Fair

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Gottedammerung at the Buchmesse

A suitable time has passed, a suitable distance has elapsed. I can finally talk about it. It started Wednesday 19th October when they threw open the doors of Frankfurt’s immense Messe Halle for the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair, admitting a world of freakish, champing publishers, editors, agents, scouts, successful, less successful and would-be authors, printers, publicists, students, irredeemably lost tourists and the great, literate unwashed. It began properly when HarperCollins threw a huge, champagne-swilling party (their first since 9/11), and someone on the Transworld stand asked Stephen Hawking if he’d read The Da Vinci Code (and he said (pause) “No”), possibly an even greater indignity than writing a brief history of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, selling a million copies, and then being asked to make it even shorter in a tacit acknowledgement that noone actually read it the first time round. It was all downhill from there.

Stephen Hawking at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
Frankfurt is a trade fair held in an exhibition hall, so on the one hand you’ve got international book professionals running all over the place (and I do mean all over the place: you cover miles and miles of corridor in your epic journeys around the Fair: think 20 Earl’s Courts bolted together), desperately trying to make deals, sell rights, and steal ideas, while on the other you’ve got 200,000 German day-trippers out for anything they can get: free books (ha!), free catalogues (yes, by the handful), free carrier bags to carry the free catalogues… The buzz among the former group tends to revolve around big deals and new signings, and heavily-trumpeted ‘surprises’ such as this year’s launch of Canongate’s Myths series, a retelling of various myths from history by various high-end authors. Essentially, it’s another brick in the wall of Jamie Byng’s monumental ego (remember the Pocket Canons?) – but if STML owned half of Scotland AND a publishing house, there’d definitely be a few crazy box sets floating around out there (Complete works of Ed McBain anyone? With introductions by Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie?), so we’d better shut up. And yes, the Margaret Atwood and the forthcoming Chinua Achebe do sound pretty good.

The other feeding frenzy going was the circus around Londonstani, the debut novel by Gautam Malkani, a journalist at the Financial Times. A story about Hounslow’s Heathrow diaspora written in the unique patois of West London’s Asian rudeboys, it provoked a bidding war just won by Fourth Estate, so will probably appear some time next year. Initially hopeful this would turn out to be an answer to STML’s prayer for a truly London novel, conversations with a couple of editors who’ve read it seem to suggest it’s more frivolous than that, poking fun at the wannabe Asian gangstas rather than saying anything too meaningful about London today. Even more amusing was the agonising debate among French and Spanish publishers who snapped up translation rights about whether it will be possible to translate ‘aaiiight’ and ‘innit’ into the Romance languages. Verlan, perhaps? The first chapter appears in the new issue of Prospect Magazine, so go take a peek.

Overview of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
But of course, the real deal with Frankfurt is the aforementioned parties, a chance to blow the hospitality account at the Frankfurter Hof and the Casablanca. To be fair, there’s not a lot else to do at Frankfurt, and after a few days it’s nothing but caffeine, nicotine (Smoking Allowed Throughout: is there a more glorious phrase?), vodka fumes and papercuts. By the weekend the last few publishers out are taking whatever they can get: Slovenian rights to The Da Vinci Spud: an Irish-American Parody? Gotcha. Massive advances for an unpublished novel by a Northamptonshire badger farmer, provisionally titled Brock And Roll? Done. Hours to go and those massive expenses from Kaiserstrasse’s ‘Neu Man Gay Shop World Of Sex’ have to be justified somehow.

Crowd at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
The over-riding impression of Frankfurt was one of frenzy. One abiding memory: A German teenager having an all-out, fists in the air, bawling panic attack on the upper level of Hall 4, beneath a huge, exposed breast advertising Goliath fetish photography, while the crowd swarmed thickly around her, oblivious. Another: I never saw anyone, anywhere, reading a book.

Oh well, four months ‘til London.

[UPDATE 2/5/06: For the last word on Londonstani, see here.]

tags: News + Publishing + Travel | permalink | Comments Off on Gottedammerung at the Buchmesse