So what have we learned this week? That you can kill Margaret Thatcher, but you can’t kill Stephen King. Despite a few protests from some quarters, Hilary Mantel’s short story ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ was published by Comma Press in 2015. James Patterson, however, has decided not to go ahead with publication of The Murder of Stephen King because he does not want to cause “any discomfort” to King and his family. This has been one of those entertaining curios that will surely enter the footnotes of literary history.
Recent days have seen something of a double celebration at the London Book Fair. The agent Ella Kahn, of Diamond Kahn & Woods Literary Agency, has just signed debut novelist Natalie Hart whose pitch for her novel Not my Soldier, completely won her over at the LBF’s Write Stuff event in April. It’s a double celebration because Kahn was the winner of the LBF’s Trailblazer Award, which is sponsored by BookBrunch and the Society of Young Publishers to celebrate ‘the next generation of publishing talent roaring through their twenties’, and the Write Stuff itself is also an LBF initiative. These awards and structures provide incentive and opportunity. Kahn was invited on to the Write Stuff panel of judges as a result of her win, and said: “The fact that I met Natalie as a direct result of having won the Trailblazers Award makes it even more special, as it shows how important the awards are in their support of young publishing professionals and writers.”
But of course, as we all know, some writers do not want to go down these traditional routes at all – they want to explore the self-publishing route in stead. At the LBF’s recent Tech Tuesday event experts in the self-publishing field spoke on the whys and wherefores of this approach. Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors believes traditional publishing “is still structured so that there are all these steps between publisher and reader. Self-publishing deals direct. It’s a simple and direct relationship. In trade publishing there is a lot of talk about getting closer, but it is still difficult with the existing structures.”
Yet she also stressed the importance of the kind of services that traditional houses do provide – a good editor, a good designer etc – and had this advice: “Think of yourself as a creative director. You need lots of patience. You should choose an editor and designer like you would choose a marriage partner…”
Sales of trade books in the US declined by 10.6% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015, according to the Association of American Publisher’s StatShot programme. Ebooks continue to fall, digital audio shows growth and – in separate figures from Nielsen – print books were up by 16.4m units in the first half of this year, with colouring books surely a contributory factor.
Over and above all the analysis of the decline – all the familiar ‘there wasn’t a strong title like Girl on a Train’, ‘ebook prices have gone up because we’ve all negotiated with Amazon to set our own prices’ – there was this telling observation from experienced industry commentator Mike Shatzkin. He told the New York Times: “As more and more people are reading on multifunction devices, there are all kinds of temptations that intrude on book-reading time.” It’s a simple statement, and has been said by many people, but it is arguably the overarching concern of the entire industry.
For every piece of upsetting news – the closure of the last branch of Greece’s oldest book chain, Eleftheroudaki in Athens for example – there is its positive corollary. Thus in the UK both Jaffe & Neale and Winstone’s Books announced new stores, and Louise Chadwick, a former director of programmes at BookTrust, has opened a children’s store in Shrewesbury. There is a sense that something has changed out there with regard to both physical books and physical stores and, appropriately enough, let’s end with another bookshop story.
Many congratulations to Krista Halverson, former editor of the art and literary quarterly Zoetrope: All-Story, who has lovingly put together the history of one of the world’s most famous bookshops in the world – Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Her Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, published by the shop itself, is lovingly put together. It’s all here: the literary customers – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, James Baldwin…; the naked poetry readings (Ginsberg again), and the lovely memories of ‘the tumbleweeds’, those dreamers and future writers (among them Alan Sillitoe) who were allowed to sleep in the shop in return for a few hours work. It’s wonderful stuff. Will any online bookstore ever engender such affection?
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.