Books


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!

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’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.

Last week I had to hand in a 500 word proposal detailing what my final year dissertation will be on.  In this dissertation I am combining all my interests by looking at the nature of ‘publishing’ in Anglo-Saxon England and analysing whether it is in fact possible to see any such thing.  So here is a slightly extended version of my proposal (the quote in the title is from King Alfred’s Preface Letter to his Old English Translation of the Pastoral Care, a good translation of which is to be found in this book by Keynes and Lapidge):

These Books Most Necessary for all Men to Know:

An Analysis of the Nature of the ‘Publishing Industry’ in Three Case Studies from Anglo-Saxon England

The modern publishing industry is dedicated to recording ideas, reproducing them – whether in print or other media – and selling the reproductions. It is run for profit, and operates within the constraints of the contemporary economic and legal framework. To describe book production and dissemination in Anglo-Saxon England as a ‘publishing industry’ is therefore anachronistic: there were few of the processes seen in the modern industry as most of these processes developed only after the invention of printing.

It is nevertheless possible to evaluate Anglo-Saxon book production with the concept of a ‘publishing industry’ in mind. My essay will be divided into three thematic sections: The Commissioning, Authorship and Editing of Texts and Manuscripts; The Design and Production of Manuscripts; The Dissemination and Use of Texts and Manuscripts. Each process will be carefully defined. I will distinguish between a text – the written words – and a manuscript – the physical object or book. ‘Editing’ encompasses both the creative role of an ‘editor’ in helping the author formulate ideas into written words (although in our case studies author and editor often overlap) and the corrective role of a ‘copy-editor’ or ‘proof-reader’. ‘Production’ refers to the physical creation of a manuscript, but also describes the overall process from the inception of the idea to the completion of the physical manuscript. ‘Dissemination’ covers both the physical distribution of manuscripts and the cultural spread of ideas.

Within each of these thematic sections I will analyse the nuances of these processes and how they can be defined by an examination of three case studies. My first case study is Bede at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the mid-eighth century, an example of an ‘in-house author’. His works were popular – as evidenced by the requests for copies from the missionary bishops Boniface and Lul. It has been argued that the demand for Bede’s works was a driving factor in the development of Phase II Insular Minuscule script. Here we can see the processes of authorship, production – in the possibly conscious script development – and dissemination – in the number of Bedan manuscripts with continental provenance.

The second case study is the translation and editing of the Old English Pastoral Care by King Alfred and his scholars at the end of the ninth century, and the production of later manuscripts of this text. The Preface Letter to this translation indicates Alfred’s purpose: commissioning a text for a specific purpose and a specific audience. He intended for all young men in the country to be taught to read English, and wished to provide the most ‘necessary books’ translated from Latin into English for them to learn from. Textual and palaeographical research on the surviving manuscripts of the Old English Pastoral Care has led to debate about the manner in which this translation was formulated and written down, and about its later dissemination and use. The precise role of the scribe has been questioned – ‘mindless amanuensis, copy-editor or editor in chief’?

Thirdly I will examine Bishop Leofric of Exeter’s scriptorium in the mid-eleventh century. The donations lists and ownership inscriptions which allow an unusually high number of manuscripts to be associated with Leofric’s library also suggest that Exeter had an unusually active scriptorium at this time. Drage’s analysis of the scripts of all the manuscripts associated with Leofric has allowed her to identify at least 11 scribes working in Leofric’s scriptorium, and about 13 manuscripts which were a product of this scriptorium. These manuscripts were not newly authored texts, but new manuscript copies of texts necessary for the everyday duties of a bishop and his household. It has been argued, however, that the high number of Old English manuscripts surviving from Leofric’s scriptorium suggest a more than usual concern for the provision of practical and suitable texts for his bishopric. Here, therefore, again, we can see the influence of one man ‘commissioning’ specific texts for a specific purpose and audience.

I hope then to draw together all of my case studies and themes in order to come to some conclusions about the nature of ‘publishing’ in each of the case studies. Although the terminology of modern publishing will be useful by analogy to describe the processes of book production in Anglo-Saxon England, it is not my main purpose to compare the Anglo-Saxon era to the modern day, but rather to consider and analyse the processes, functions and nature of Anglo-Saxon book production and ‘publication’ in their own right.

I read a review of this a while back here, so when, armed with birthday book tokens, I spotted it on prominent display in my local Waterstones, I thought I’d give it a go.  Fiction in translation (in this case from French) isn’t something I read very often, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try something new.

I hate to say it, however, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, did not do anything for me at all.  It left me entirely cold, apart from the warm tingle of irritation that pretentiousness always leaves behind.  I persevered until the end, because the review I read said it got better, but in retrospect, it was a waste of time – at least it’s not very long.

The story revolves around a French concierge who, despite the facade of poor, ignorant, stereotypical concierge that she carefully constructs to decieve her rich neighbours, is actually very passionate about Art and Culture.  Interspersed with her narrative are the thoughts of the 12-year-old daughter of one of her neighbours, who, unhappy with what she sees as the inevitability of a facile, superficial life despite her own intelligence, plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.  There is a lot in the book that purports to be about class struggles, stereotypes and superficiality versus profundity, but to me it just came across as pretentious and snobby.  Renee, the concierge, is so scathing about the way her neighbours treat her as sub-human, despite the fact that she goes to great lengths to ensure they continue to think of her in this way and is terrified of her cover being blown.  At the same time as lamenting their snobbishness and superficiality, she is failing to see them as human, and making what I think of as a hugely pretentious assumption that nobody can appreciate Art and Culture in the same way as she.  It never seems to occur to either of the main characters, who are both so absorbed with their own lives and problems, that maybe they aren’t so special after all, and that if they bothered to try and understand those around them, they would see that everybody has their own worth and their own reasons for being how they are.  This hypocrisy is never dealt with or commented on by the author, and it was this that left me frustrated and irritated – along with the wordy and hyperbole descriptions of Art and Beauty and Culture which were, to be frank, extremely off-putting.  They reminded me of the reasons I’m not studying English Literature – I love books and reading, but hate people trying to read things into a narrative that aren’t there – overanalysis can completely spoil your enjoyment of a perfectly good story.  All together, this meant I had little sympathy for the main characters and found the conclusion of the book (and I won’t spoil it just in case any of you do choose to read it) farcical rather than tragic.

The writing in general was not to my taste – as I said, very verbose, flowery, long-winded and pretentious.  I assume that this is how the original French is written and that the translator is reproducing this accurately, but it is of course hard to tell – perhaps if I had read it in French I would have found it easier to stomach.  But there is no way to avoid the conclusion thatI really have not read a book I enjoyed so little in a long time, which is a great shame.

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