My Rite to Read

Watch this space!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Saltire Appointment

One of India's gameshow millionaires spent his first million, in search of a masters degree in Scotland! This was revealed to me by Cabinet Secretary of Education and Lifelong learning in the Scottish Parliament His Honorable Mike Russell, in an elegant gathering of internationally diverse Commonwealth, Saltire and Chevening Scholars. An alum of University of Edinburgh, Mr. Russell asked what my postgraduate degree was about in Stirling, and I said an MLitt in publishing studies, at which he smacked his lips, saying "perfect!" adding that he had written seven books and that he had several more in the pipeline! The stately National Museum of Scotland, was home again to its annual ceremony commemorating diversity in education on its run up to St. Andrew's Day.

Cabinet Secretary of Education and Lifelong Learning: How do you address an 'Hon'ble MP'?

Others from different universities were intrigued about my subject being publishing studies as opposed to publishing itself, at which I offered that my course was tailored around the trends and topics within publishing that involved not just publishers but also agents, book historians,  gameshow publishers,  social media scientists/artistes, book e-tailers among several other niches. 

Patrick, PhD in Sports Psychology, on the prowl for parliamentarians

Universities, like corporate houses, are integral to society, and look for huge markets like India and Africa to recruit from. In the US, efforts are usually invested at getting/targeting any or all kinds of students, be they undergraduate, postgraduate, doctoral or diploma students. But here in Scotland, I noticed a focused  effort to attract the post-graduate international student, someone who is far more capable of enhancing UK's post industrial economy with their professional skills and expertise, than nubile freshmen in cold water. This works both ways, undergraduates find greater undergraduate study-abroad opportunities in the USA, Canada and Australia, and feel more assured of post study work permits in these countries as compared to the UK which recently repealed its post study work permit program for international students (non-EU nationals). 

India and Malaysia are active hubs for recruitment for Scottish Universities and Mr. Russell himself had returned from his trips to both countries the last month. Students I met were mostly from China, Africa Canada and India. An all-male contingent of Chevening scholars were accompanied by members of the British Council. Commonwealth scholars, hailed mostly from Canada.

University officials were a friendly lot to chat up with,  them, in the habit of recruiting students on a constant basis through conversations. We were bid bye with a lot of cheers and good wishes for Hogmanaynot New Years eve, as we were reminded! I returned home the proud owner of a lovely Saltire key ring.

Visit Scotland: Gearing up for times ahead

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When Books Don't Cost a Thing

We get told every day, BOOKS are Dying. WRITERS will die. Booksellers will die. Publishers are dead!
Man's love of  apocalypse might be older than the Mayan Calendar, but some superstition, is better than none, I say. Books will and shall continue to exist, even if we are 'addressing a demographic' that's strictly USA, the UK and certain parts of the EU, even if we're talking about 15 years from now.

Edinburgh based Electric Bookshop runs a quarterly event on book technology and literary culture at Inspaces, on Crichron Street. This time, part time literary agent and dedicated ebook publisher of crime fiction, Allan Guthrie, talked at length about his mid life professional start up Blasted Heath. Ebooks are the end of all woes for the artiste according to him, in a time where societal anxieties about culture dissipating in the claws of the internet are rampant. His basic pitch was that digital publications undercut the bureaucracy of print, long winded processes of going through middlemen and unimaginative systems that do not understand niches, and the lines between author and consumer have blurred in a way that makes e-reading, e-writing, and e-books if not profitable, at least a whole lot sustainable. Was writing ever a top paying job? No! Everyone knows that only 10% of UK's writers make enough money to do without a day job! Then why the sudden panic with the advent of ebooks, he questioned?

Allan Guthrie in Conversation
image courtsey:
Guthrie said the USP of his publishing was pulse pricing of e-books, and that price could serve as a perfect marketing strategy for products like his! That is, you take popular books, price them lower than usual, and float them at that discount for a limited period, in order to hook overwhelming sales.  Barely over a fortnight old, Blasted Heath ran its first ebook launch week offering a free ebook for download, each day! For those who missed the opportunity, 99p is the promotional price on his first line up of ebooks until the end of November. With tactics like these his group will soon make it to the Big Seven, he jokes in earnest.  The average price of an ebook should be 2 pounds less than its Hardback; the average price of the ebook online is at 9.99 pounds. 

Short stories go undervalued in print editions, and people (and publishers) judge the value of a book by the number of chapters it consists! Such value consciousness disappears in the ebook format, as customers reel with the plethora of choice in widely (and uniformly cheaply) available short stories in numerous electronic formats. 40K Books is another Italian epublishing company that has talked about the short story being the Hero of the Digital Age.

More and more conventional conglomerates and independent publishers are making eforays and acquiring e-lists and imprints to meet the increasingly fast appetites of e-consumers (and readers!). Random House's Story Cuts and  Quercus' Head of Zeus imprints are quick recent examples of the revival of short fiction in e-formats.

The points Allan covered were: 
  • Short stories (in ebooks) will sell like cupcakes on Christmas
  • Marketing of Ebooks should focus on price pulsing
  • Ebooks are author-friendly, undercuts the bureaucracy of print publishing
  • E-artistes live in hope of reaching the consumer directly, no middlemen attached
  • Will "free culture" really stimulate "paid for" culture and facilitate more paid-for content? 
  • Piracy will coexist and perhaps even boost higher sales especially in parts of the world where affordability and access affect literacy; but the internet is a sweat shop
  • No DRM on Blasted Heath books will offer easy access and readability
Allan Guthrie's own crime fiction novel "Slammer" (Polygon) is priced at 1.99GBP in The Works, and offered for 5 pounds as part of a set of three books of one's choice! I couldn't help but wonder if  there was such a thing as value for money in books? I would never buy 3 books for 5 pounds because I always know, the store is tricking me into buying more than I need. Chances are, there is always only one book you really want; and the discerning reader knows that. 

Ewan Morrison takes on the rise of Free Culture and the End of the Book
image courtsey:

The drama hiked up a notch when Ewan Morrison (pictured above) novelist and columnist famous for his predictions on the end of the book in Edinburgh's book festival earlier this year,  tackled Generation Y head on. The attending demographic was a fair mixture of males and females 95%  falling between the ages 17-35 years.

The more book events became related with technology, (like guests being welcomed on an ipad at the reception of this particular function!) the more men will gather at book related events traditionally dominated by the female demographic. Men are seen with gadgets, women are seen with books. With the advent of all things digital, something in the reading experience might be neutered. We are living in our heads, inside the prison that is the internet. Andrew Keine's documentary, says we are policing our own lives, living in mutual consent.

Morrison set up the uncanny equation of Amazon versus the highstreet as equalling 5 books produced by million people versus 1 million books created by 5 people! 80,000 books alone were sold in the past month by Amazon alone. If all books began etailing at 99p, the Big Four will have to clamp down on prices, compromise, warned Morrison. Unless you are a service provider, you will not make money! Famous for his postmarxist perspective on why free culture is killing the livelihoods of artistes, breeding an "economy of resentment," Morrisson sparked off criticisms and debate on the ills of Y culture, the irresponsible consumer, and increasingly caged netizen desperate to be somebody, if only successful

'The Shelf life of a book had fallen somewhere between that of milk and yoghurt'                                    Jason Epstein on the Amazon effect

At the event most guests had downloaded out of copyright videos on YouTube (78% of its content is pirated) in the past year. Was this going to stop? No. Was this going to push artistes out of business, by undervaluing Culture? yes. Was Generation Y guilty of killing off the gatekeepers of culture and gluttons of Free Art? Heated debate ensued. 

I am a strong believer that readers will continue to buy books; they may watch less television but they won't read less on the internet. More people surf the internet than watch television in the UK. While the Web may displace television, there is little relation between watching television and reading books, confirms Jason Epstein.

Fueled by optimism and peppered with a healthy cynicism of what has essentially become a culture less appreciated, and worse monetized, the event pulped much insight on new media and its exploding limits. 

Allan Guthrie and Ewan Morrison will continue their debate at an SYP event on 29 November 2011.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Let the Original Stand?

Stet (Granta Books) comes recommended by every publishing professor to every aspiring editor. Diana Athill, the wise nonagenarian and most legendary editor with over fifty years in the business is quick to claim her caste of "London dwelling, university educated, upper middle class English people who took over publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century from the booksellers who used to run it," in what is a slow, absorbing story of her life and times as an editor. A good book, is often decided by members of the caste Ms Athill warns you fairly early on in her narrative, and the 'god's eye view' that rides publishing, usually that of the wealthy patrician Englishman. Her memoirs of an underpaid life of zest and a mundane obsession with books and their worlds are a grounded recollection of her time in the trade. She reveals, "books have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of own experience and have so greatly enlarged my own sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also thankgod of the light which continues to struggle through." The modest beginnings of her life in Oxford, or as a lighthouse keeper who toiled the midnight flame for Andre Deutsch through the thick and thin of an incestuous friendship and working  relationship, all unfold with easy progression. Diana questions and conforms with the myth of women being addicted to working for satisfaction as opposed to promotions or more money. Beneath the dust and moneymindedness of the bourgeois trade practices sparkle moments of a tough minded editor's honesty, repealed from all that gender induced politeness. The truth is simple as to what steers high sales:

'Thinking up' books on demand is one of the idlest occupations in all of publishing. If an interesting book has its origins in a head other than its author's, then it either comes in a flash as a result of compelling circumstances, or it is the result of someone's obsession which he has nursed until just the right author has turned up. Books worth  reading don't come from people saying to each other 'What a good idea!'. They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it."  

Ms Athill's memoir is a completely dressed down take of a life in publishing, with prolific connections, liasons of money, sex, heresy, etc. Prejudice flavored the intellect, if intellect was the "yeast of evolution." Diana profiles her relations with other staff,  publishers, authors, partners, patrons and other (mostly) men in suits to reveal much about her amicable personality coexisting with editorial perfection.

Part one of the book charts the beginnings of Deutsch's entrepreneurial stints with snatches of lurid exciting life from the gentlemen's world of publishing. I was unable to empathize with a narrator who cared little for the tangible or material fruits of recognition.  So understated is the memory of her own rise in a profession so mousy to its women in her time, that I am grinding my teeth hopelessly until I am thrown by surprise at the futility of my quest.

Part two of the book takes on a completely different energy, freer, perhaps because this is where she moves away from the rigid structures of office and commerce, and describes at length her interactions with her authors, detailing in other words, her actual work and what she is famous for, 'being an editor', not a publisher (as she has herself warned you in the first chapter of the book). Ms Athill's interactions with authors like Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Alfred Chester and Mordai Richler are snapshots of rejuvenated brilliance that attire book 2, be it through nursing or midwifery with authors as mentally sick as Alfred or whimsical, mad as Naipaul. Her witness bares critical and often engaging analysis of author management with spiffy notes on editorial jurisdiction."Perhaps novelists are so often good at gossip because --like God with forgiveness - c'est leur metier," you can hear her chuckle.

The only reason I picked up Stet was for the number of times it came recommended. As a reader, I was distracted by how underpaid and exploited she remained throughout the book, as a guardian and caretaker of Andre Deusche Limited  and her stout refusal to ever back out or ever command her true price. The politics of the commercial workplace (not specific to the 40s when the company was founded), determined you remained if not a mere agent of somebody else's ideas, an ordinary pawn. Do unmarried women, bear the weight of the world more than they have to? Diana's wisdom and humor are a gentle reprieve from what is otherwise an all consuming uphill journey that Athill makes no bones about.

Embedded below is a high quality video of a photo shoot prelude to Diana's upcoming work Instead of a book.
The writing is elegant and classic, witty and learned, a testament to her times in the brave old world of ink. Her marketing nemesis may not be Alison Baverstock, who offers a slickside contemporary view of the glam (and not so glam) street in publishing biz, but the latter is often thrown up as lighter, modern day voice tweeting texts that span the present and future of books.
Seeing books as a  mass market item

The Book Marketing Bible, slightly obsolete 

P-School for Dummies or a P to Z guide to luring employers