Last week I finally finished reading the excellent Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer: Hominids, Humans and Hybrids.  Finally because there’s a bit of a saga behind this, but first for a quick review.

I’m a sucker for all things ancient and all things futuristic – anything that happened more than 1000 years ago or that might happen 1000 years into the future.  I think it’s to do with the way it puts our own present into perspective – when you look at ancient cave paintings or consider the fact that there are literally billions of stars out there which may or may not have habitable planets orbiting them, it just makes you feel absolutely tiny and insignificant but also completely awed and inspired.

So the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy was perfect for me because it combines so many different elements of the ancient and the futuristic.  Imagine a parallel universe in which Homo Sapiens had become extinct and Homo Neanderthalensis had evolved to become a comparably technologically advanced and highly cultured society.  Now imagine a Neanderthal physicist in this universe conducting a quantum computer experiment which goes wrong and opens a portal hurtling him into our universe.  Modern Homo Sapiens and Modern Homo Neanderthalensis meet for the first time.

Now there’s an excellent premise for a story!  The trilogy tells of the events and repercussions of this meeting of the two universes and explores all sorts of fascinating and unexpected ideas.  Like the best science-fiction, it is very well researched and all the ideas are based on real scientific and palaeoanthropological hypotheses.  A lot of ground is covered, from religion, violence and war, justice and punishment, art and culture, to genetics, archaeology, technology and geology.  We follow the developing relationship between a Homo Sapiens geneticist, Mary, and the Neanderthal physicist, Ponter Boddit, and discover the good and the bad in both systems of society.

I could go into a lot more detail about the plot and some of the specific ideas that interested me, but then I would never stop, so ask if you want to know!  Suffice to say I think there’s something in there for everyone and I very very highly recommend it.

There’s just one problem.  It was inordinately difficult for me to get hold of it.  I’d heard of it because I came across an article by the author on the BBC news here which got me curious.  So I popped in to my lovely local Waterstones only to discover they didn’t have it in stock.  They told me they could order it but I was just about to go away on holiday so I left it until I got back.  I then managed to find the first one, Hominids, in the Picadilly Waterstones and devoured it.  When I came to try and order the other two from Waterstones, however, they firstly told me that it was only published in an American edition so would cost more to ship over.  Fine, I could live with that.  Then it transpired that the second book, Humans – and only the second book! – was out of print, so they couldn’t get it for me after all.  Hmmm.  Surely it’s extremely odd for only the 2nd book in a trilogy to be out of print?????  So finally, I turned to Amazon.  Third book in the trilogy, Hybrids, was no problem.  I ordered it on a Saturday afternoon, they had it in stock in the UK and it arrived on Monday morning.  Humans, however, I had to cough up £30 for, for a SECOND HAND copy (which was in excellent condition, to be fair) from a seller in America on Amazon Marketplace.  And it was worth it, and I don’t regret paying that much, but it is a little ridiculous, don’t you think?

My aunt very cleverly suggested the Blackwells Espresso Book Machine as a solution when I was complaining about this.  This is a new print-on-demand machine Blackwells are launching in their flagship store in Charing Cross to make millions of out-of-print titles available for whoever wants them.  She’s right, it would have been perfect, though I don’t know how much it costs per book.  Unfortunately I think the focus initially will be on out-of-copyright books – negotiations with publishers for out-of-print but in-copyright books  is ongoing, I believe.  And the catalogue is not yet live for the general public to use and order.  But I’m definitely keen to go take a look when it’s up and running properly!

Scott Pack’s blog put me onto an excellent BBC2 Money Programme special investigation into the Media Revolution, with programmes on TV, Newspapers, and, of course, Publishing.  You can download or stream it from BBC iPlayer here until next week; I’d definitely recommend watching it.  It provides a very useful and informative insight into the current state of publishing in an easily accessible way, but doesn’t shy from asking some of the more interesting questions:  the impact of the collapse of the Net Book Agreement and the subsequent discounting price wars; how books get onto the promotional tables in big booksellers; the impact of Richard and Judy’s bookclub; the rise of the celebrity biography; the problems facing independent bookshops and publishers, and more.  Plus you get fascinating (or at least, I think so!) glimpses into Amazon’s distribution warehouse, with awe-inspiring conveyor belts of books hurtling past; and into the fast-paced negotiations at Frankfurt Book Fair.  Defininitely a must-watch for anyone with the slightest interest in books or publishing!

Today I found a really excellent article giving a thorough and thought-provoking overview of the state of the publishing industry today, from the credit crunch, deep discounting and returns to digital publishing and e-books, with lots of other stuff in between.  I highly recommend it, it’s very informative and well written.

Colin Robinson writing at the London Review of Books

A really special thing happened to me this morning.  I went to check the post, not expecting anything exciting, and, completely unexpectedly, a parcel was waiting for me!

The sender address was German, and whilst one of my best friends is German, this wasn’t his address.

So, very puzzled and excited, I opened up the parcel to find, with no accompanying note, these:

Bowls 1

Bowls 1

Bowls 2

Bowls 2

Bowls 3

Bowls 3

Bowls 4

Bowls 4

Bowls 5

Bowls 5

Beautiful porcelain bowls, personalised with two of my favourite words, made by the German ceramicist Angela Johe.

So I was absolutely amazed and delighted, and of course straight away I realised that this was indeed my belated Christmas present from that best friend, who is, in fact, the same person who designed and photographed the image I previously had as my banner.  Well worth the wait, I think – a really special, beautiful and personal present, so thank you very much!

I mentioned a while ago that I still had some things I wanted to write about the Society of Young Publishers’ Careers Conference waaaay back in November; finally I have a spare hour to do so.  I want to write about the talk I heard from Clare Morrison, a Senior Marketing Executive at Random House, because I found what she had to say very interesting, very inspirational, and very thorough.  It’s not my intention to repeat word for word what she said about working in Marketing, but rather to try and give an overall impression of what it was all about, and why I found it so eye-opening.

Marketing is essentially about informing the target audience about your product and influencing them to buy it: essentially, advertising books.  Publicity is closely related to it, but the crucial difference is money: Marketing has a budget to spend, whereas publicists try and generate news stories and reviews of a book without spending money to do so.

There are two aspects to Marketing: the ‘sell-in’ and the ‘sell-out’.  The ‘sell-in’ is focused within the trade, ie on bookshops.  Marketing will liase with the sales teams to ensure they have a full knowledge of the product to promote it to bookshops and encourage them to stock, promote and sell the book.  The ‘sell-out’ targets the consumer – the readers – directly, trying to encourage and persuade them to walk into the bookshop, or click through to the online retailer, to actually buy the book.

There are obviously a huge number of different ways to do this, and one of the things that appealed to me was how creative it seemed.  Marketing in Publishing is essentially advertising and promotion, so you constantly have to be developing new and more creative ways of making your book stand out above the competition.  Of course, different types of books will be marketed in very different ways; academic publishers still need to pursuade libraries and universities to buy their textbook over a competitors,.  It’s in the name: Marketing is about identifying your intended market of readers, raising their awareness of your product, and influencing them to buy it.

This can be done through: catalogues, posters, promotional items (notebooks, mugs, pencils, bookmarks), advertising space in trade and consumer magazines, bill-boards, Underground posters, bus posters, press articles, author and publisher websites, social networking websites, Youtube, reading groups, TV and film tie-ins… and that’s just for starters.  Nowadays, the internet and other interactive media are becoming increasingly important for marketing; thus, a Marketing department might launch an online competition inviting readers to design the cover of a forthcoming book; or they might combine traditional and new techniques by advertising on posters a number to be texted if you want to download the first chapter of a book from a website.  They might also go even more wacky and ‘arty’ by setting up a bed strewn with books in the middle of a London square or having ‘live’ installations in bookshop windows: anything unusual to grab peoples’ attention and get them interested.

Marketing appeals to me because the whole reason I want to work in Publishing is because I love books.  Marketing is the side of Publishing that allows you to share that passion for books with your readers: you are promoting something you love.  The creative element is obviously appealing too; in Editorial you help an author shape and develop their words; in Marketing you work with the design team to create engaging and innovative, often visual, campaigns to draw the reader in.  It also seems to be a sector of publishing which would be very varied.  You would have to work with a huge number of different contacts both inside and outside publishing, and no two projects would ever be the same.  There is obviously a lot more to it than just swanning around designing posters, and I would think you would have to be very business orientated as well:  you have to be focused on your aims, know your product and your market inside out, and tailor your creativity accordingly.

Nevertheless, it is definitely something I can see myself doing, enjoying, and being good at, for the same reasons that Editorial also appeals: the mixture of skills and ideas you would have to have; the blend of innovative managerial, business, and financial decisions which would have to be made with confidence and creativity.

I’ve been reading a couple of different things about sales and returns and discounting recently.  We’re all familiar with the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones, but do any of us ever stop to think about what that actually costs the publisher and the author?

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the actual figures and percentages of it, but I understand the general gist.  When a publisher sells a bookseller a load of books, it is on a sale-or-return basis; if the bookseller is unable to sell those books to the general public, the publisher has to buy them back, thus loosing the profit they made from selling them in the first place.  The principle of this is to prevent the booksellers from having unmanageable piles of unsellable stock, but it is not ideal for the publisher.  It makes it much harder for them to predict their profit margins and therefore to plan for the future, especially in smaller publishers where returns could end up wiping out their whole years profit and destroying them.

This is all tied in with the complicated issue of discounts.  Publishers apparently sell their books to booksellers at incredibly high discounts (compared to the cost of production) which obviously, again, eats into their profit.  This seems to be the only way booksellers are able to make it worth their while buying in bulk.  Without the safety net of being able to return unsold stock, they won’t want to buy books from a publisher unless they are even more heavily discounted.  So there seems to be no way out of the vicious circle: Publishers can’t sell books at even more heavily discounted rates on a no-return basis because then there will be very little profit left.

Drastic new ways of thinking are clearly needed, so HarperStudio’s new innovative deal with Border’s to sell them books on a heavily discounted, non-returnable basis, splitting the profit 50-50 between the author and publisher rather than paying the author on a percentage-royalty, seems extremely interesting to me; hopefully it will work out and more publishers will be able to follow suit!

Here are all the places I’ve been reading about this, with more detail in most cases!

e-Reads blog: Borders to try non-returnable – possibility world will not end.

e-Reads blog: Is there a better way to compensate authors?

e-Reads blog: HarperStudio President responds to Author Compensation post

Newsstand Forum: No Returns? Economics, Digital Media spurring new Book Publishing models

Snowblog: Returns

Galleycat: Indie Publisher Suing Borders for $1million for excessive returns

(ie it has been claimed that Borders overordered with the intention of returning most of the books in order to recoup cash, or something along those lines…)

Bookseller: Border’s Inc to defend Law Suit

Sowblog: Crimbophobia – the impact of promotional discounts on independent publishers

Oh dear, I didn’t mean to go silent for so long again, there were lots of things I wanted to write about back at the end of last term – the SYP Annual Conference, for one thing, which I will come back to however belatedly – but life gets in the way as always!

So I’ll start the New Year with a resolution to be more regular writing here, and for my first entry of the year, here’s a list of some of the books on my shelf I plan to read this term, with short blurbs included!  Apart from my current book, these are either books I was given for Christmas or that I bought the other day with Christmas book tokens, so they’re all brand spanking new!

Happenstance: The Husband’s Story and The Wife’s Story, Carol Shields:   This is what I’m currently reading.  It’s actually two parallel novellas printed back to back and upside down.  As the subtitles suggests, the two narrative voices are a husband and wife, each of whom tells the story of the same five days of their lives when, unusually for them, they are apart.  The style is therefore very much detailed, blow-by-blow insight into a character’s experiences and mind, much in the manner of Anne Tyler.  I wasn’t sure which to read first, or whether to read both a chapter at a time and alternate, but I went for the Husband first and really enjoyed it – bittersweet, insightful and heartwarming.

Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card:  Very excited about this one.  Card’s Ender’s Game series and the parallel Ender’s Shadow series are fantastic, though I don’t recommend much of his other work. Best described perhaps as political, social and philosophical sci-fi, they are absolute must-reads.  This new one is a direct chronological sequel to the first book, Ender’s Game, telling what happens in the ‘lost’ years before book 2 in the series, Speaker for the Dead.

Company of Liars, Karen Maitland:  I picked this up mainly because I liked the cover and it was on special offer, only £5 and it’s a pretty big book, but the plot looks good too.  Set in 1348 during the Plague, a group of travellers trying to survive amidst the chaos discover more sinister things are happening than simply the Black Death…

Affinity Bridge, George Mann:  This and the next one are both published by Independent Publishers Snowbooks, whose blog I read and who seem pretty impressive to me!  This seems to be a sort of historical-sci-fi-fantasy, set in a Victorian London with not only airships and robots but also ghosts and living cadavers.  Throw in some murders and mystery and you’ve got a very interesting looking plot that will probably please Dr Who fans!

The Needle in the Blood, Sarah Bower: Historical fiction based around the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry.  Bishop Odo of Bayeux falls in love with one of the embroideress’s of the tapestry he has commissioned, though she is a Saxon and served his enemies before the Conquest, turning both their worlds upside down.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas: This is on loan from a friend, and is another one with a funky cover – and black-edged pages!  The main character, Ariel, finds a rare book, The End of Mr. Y, rumoured to be cursed, in a second-hand bookshop and, intruiged rather than scared, picks it up.  I’ve been told not to read it alone late at night…!

An Angel at My Table, Janet Frame:  This was a christmas gift from my grandmother.  It is an autobiography of one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed writers, so hopefully I will be inspired to try some of her fiction.  Misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia when young, Janet Frame narrowly escaped undergoing a lobotomy when the doctors discovered she had won a national literary prize.  It sounds intruiging and very moving.

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