Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “The Guardian”

Literary Fiction in Crisis


Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.

In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.

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Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!

The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…

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Source: A 3.5 year old Guardian article…

The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.

This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.

These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?

Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.

Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.

There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.

Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!

The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.

Following the announcement from Arts Council England that sales of literary fiction are plummeting, it is suggested that arts subsidies be deployed to help writers survive. I have another idea. They should write better books.

This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.

Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.

As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports doesn’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.

*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.

**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).


More anti-Amazon nonsense

This morning I was browsing my various news feeds when I noticed someone had written an article about the arrival of the Amazon Kindle store in Australia. Clearly this article was going to feed my confirmation bias on how awesome it was to have an Aussie version of Amazon available, just like Canada, the UK, India, Germany, Spain, etc. No longer being locked out of some editions of books because of our region, an Aussie store is one step closer to Aussie writers not having all the publishing issues that currently exist, a .au suffix making us feel special: all good! Right?

Well, not according to the article Amazon’s Australian Kindle store: an unhappy ending for the book industry? by Ben Eltham. Rather than stream bile right here, I’ll dissect Ben’s opinion piece about the demise of the protected Aussie book market, and hopefully inject some much needed reality.

Amazon has been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers for years – but what will its local push on Kindle mean for readers, writers and publishers?

It is always good to start an article by using emotive language and by poisoning the well. The use of a logical fallacy so early in the article does not bode well for Ben’s opinion piece.

The local book industry is threatened by Kindle’s entry into the Australian market. When Amazon opened its Australian Kindle store last month, it was to feisty reaction from independent bookshops. Charismatic Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages & Pages Booksellers even relaunched his “Kindle amnesty” – a scheme that allows conscientious local readers to swap their Kindle for the Australian book sector’s preferred e-reader, the Kobo, and receive a $50 book voucher for their trouble.

This opening reference to a stand by one independent bookshop being representative of all bookshops is another example of polarizing the argument before raising any actual evidence, essentially further poisoning the well. You see we are set up to believe that the Kobo e-reader is somehow better for Australian bookshops, despite Kobo also being in direct competition with stores in the same way the Kindle is, as well as to love the “feisty” response to the big bully Amazon arriving.

“We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0,” jokes Page, who is spruiking for the Kobo Aura HD, which he argues is “equal to or better than the Kindle Paperwhite”. Those who read via tablets such as the iPad or Galaxy have access to Kobo reader apps. “We want to take the fight to Amazon because they are so dominant in this market, particularly with the Kindle device,” argues Page. Pointing to the Commonwealth’s 2011 Book Industry Strategy Group report, he claims that Kindle represents about 70% of dedicated e-reading devices. (This figure does not include tablets, phones or laptops). “That’s a problem, because the Kindle locks competition out and locks customers in.”

My idea of a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline. “We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0” doesn’t really make the grade as a joke, but this is all about, again, poisoning the well and polarizing the reader to the author’s opinion without needing to state facts or evidence.

The next point about the Kobo being as good or better than the Kindle is neither here nor there, it just doesn’t matter. I agree that the Kobo is a great e-reader, but most e-readers are pretty good, you are really choosing an e-reader based upon the stores and catalogue they offer access to. I’ve written before about hearing Kobo Australia’s chief seeming to have a very good idea of what is needed in the market place for readers and authors. But ultimately the raising of Kobo vs. Kindle in a discussion about Aussie bookstores is like raising a conversation about which is the tastier bacon at a vegetarian food store.

Finally we do get some actual data, showing that the Kindle is the biggest e-reading device. Well, d’uh. Amazon have the biggest store and have expanded into the most markets, have invested in technology early, have created new markets themselves, and have….. Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The point is that the argument raised is that Amazon and the Kindle have a monopoly. Which is true. What is false about this assertion is the idea that the monopoly isn’t one that can be supplanted by the next generation of technology, or better business models arriving, or the competition preying on Amazon’s weaknesses.

You see, the key weakness for Kindle is also it’s strength. If you lock readers into one store you allow the competition to usurp the market by doing the deals with many stores and libraries (hang on, that’s what Kobo is doing in Australia and Canada!). You also have to remember that the Kindle or any other e-reader is only really for avid readers. Tablets and phones are for the more casual readers, thus they aren’t locked into one device or one store. So we are only another generation of technology away from e-readers losing their advantage over tablets and phones, and the entire Kindle argument becomes moot.

Industry sentiment is divided over the impact of the entry of the tech giant into Australian online retailing. Some have been forecasting impending doom. Others are merely apprehensive about Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut. Amazon’s thin margins terrify competitors. Despite vast revenues, the parent company makes no profit. Amazon raked in US$17bn in net sales last quarter, for an operating loss of US$25m. Analysts and brokers are starting to wonder whether, eventually, Amazon’s gravity-defying stock price will tumble to earth.

This part is a doozy. Ben has framed a false dichotomy in how the industry perceives Amazon. Where is the mention of the people who love their Kindle and the Amazon store? Where is the mention of the people who like their Kindle and Amazon but want to be able to use other formats and borrow e-books from their local library? This is a common false dilemma fallacy used in arguments.

Next the argument goes to Amazon’s business model, providing some facts but leaving out others. Why? Why not mention what the “thin margins” are that terrify competitors? I’d sure like to know. The next point is about how Amazon makes heaps of money, yet doesn’t profit….. Remember above how I mentioned that Amazon had stayed ahead of the competition by expanding and investing? Well that’s where all that revenue is going, straight back into making their business better.

What I’ve always wondered was why an online bookstore was the first one to grab hold of the e-reader concept. E-books are not new, nor are e-readers. They have been waiting in the wings for a decade or more, waiting for a company to invest and make things happen. Why wasn’t this investor a publishing house? Why not a major bookstore chain? Surely they are meant to be knowledgable about their industry and future trends, so why weren’t they the ones creating the new digital marketplace instead of Amazon? The answer is obvious. Amazon had the balls to do it and had an eye on the future, instead of a protectionist view of old and antiquated business and media models. To the victor go the spoils.

But other industry observers have argued that an Australian Amazon presence will be good for consumers and readers. As Kobo’s Malcolm Neil told Melbourne’s Independent Publishing Conference recently: “Amazon is good because the customer likes them … We’re not going to win the argument by telling people they’re wrong.”

Didn’t I say above about Kobo’s boss being a bright guy that knew what the industry wanted? If you’ve heard Malcolm talk about the publishing industry before you know that he has a lot of good points that have been left out, can’t think why. Malcolm’s points are the first example in this article of a different viewpoint being offered. But we’ve already been setup to either disagree with it or ignore it.

Martin Shaw, books division manager at independent retailer Readings, argues that Amazon’s Australia venture may not be such big a deal. “It is only ebooks,” he says. “That market has got so many players in it now, who knows what sort of impact it will have? We will just have to see how the dust settles.” Shaw foresees a coming war of devices in which competitors try to lock customers into competing ecosystems. “I think there will be a lot of devices flooding the market trying to get people to enter the walled garden,” he says. “That will force other e-tailers like Kobo to become more aggressive.”

This speaks to my points above about Amazon and Kindle only being one technology change away from losing market share. I used the example of tablets and phones, but there are other examples in the online stores themselves. Both Kobo and Amazon have exclusive author deals happening. We’ll probably see more of this, which starts to sound like publishing houses and their favoured deals with stores.

Of course the irony is that, in our globalised world, Amazon is not really “starting up” in Australia at all. The retail behemoth has long been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers, who have been buying books and all manner of other things from Amazon in the US for years – estimates of how much that market is worth vary enormously. The move by Amazon to begin an “.au” store that trades in Australian dollars and sells Australian ebooks through Kindle merely makes that custom one step easier. “All that’s changed now is that it’s an Australian-facing site,” Page argues.

I think the irony with this paragraph is the use of the term irony when there appears to be none. But it does give the article a chance to move away from the viewpoints the author disagrees with and move back to more Amazon hate.

There are upsides for consumers. The Gordian knot of digital copyrights, based around various national boundaries, has meant that some US and Australian titles were not available as ebooks in Australia. The new Amazon.com.au store can now stock a much wider range of titles that have Australian-only digital licences.

Lower prices for consumers: Yay!

And prices will be forced lower. Shaw says that we may see “a race to the bottom”. Amazon’s deep pockets, he says, means “they can go there [to low prices] and stay there for as long as they want”. Australian book prices are still much higher than comparable titles internationally. In Amazon’s view, that margin can be returned to consumers in the form of lower prices.

Okay, Yay and Bullshit. Currently Australian e-book prices are ridiculously high. You cannot justify the high cost of an e-book when there are no distribution or printing costs. I have been meaning to post some figures taken from a few publishing houses and their presentation to the shareholder meetings, figures that show just how profitable e-books are for them thanks to the lower costs associated. There is actual irony here, because those same publishing houses are using e-books lower price to justify lower advances and smaller royalty percentages to authors. So Amazon making prices more competitive is a good thing, for readers and authors.

A quick look around the various sites for Australian ebooks revealed some savings. An ebook of Ross Garnaut’s Dog Days worth $9.99 on Kobo, was $9.49 on Amazon. Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winner The Luminaries was $10.68 on Kobo; on Amazon it was $9.35. (As a comparison, a paperback of Dog Days costs $15.29 from Bookworld, while The Luminaries costs $22.49). For other titles, owing to so-called “agency pricing”, Kobo and Amazon’s prices have converged: Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was the same price on both.

Notice that this is the only time “agency pricing” is mentioned. It will not be discussed again. Despite the importance it plays in this entire argument about e-books, pricing, readers, authors, the industry and who is screwing whom.

The other potential winners of Amazon’s entry are successful authors and self-publishers. Amazon’s benefits to authors are controversial, but for the top tier they are real. The Australian publishing industry has been rather wary of embracing the digital world and while it’s hard to pinpoint precise figures, there’s a perception that many local authors have lagged well behind their US counterparts in ebook market penetration. Australian self-publishers will now get a 70% royalty for books sold to Amazon.com.au accounts. International experience has shown that a lucky few will reach big new audiences with bestselling self-published titles. Although on the other hand, mid-rank and lower authors may find themselves little better off.

Well, d’uh. Any new bookstore or way to buy books will favour already successful authors (NB: self-publishers are authors too), because, wait for it, people buy books by successful authors. What is not mentioned is that Amazon algorithms are more likely to expose readers/buyers to authors they haven’t heard of because of purchases they have made or books they have liked. I don’t know if Kobo have a similar system, but I do know that most bookstores do not have anything remotely similar to the promotional power of Amazon for new, emerging or midlist authors.

The statement about Australian self-publishers will “now” get 70% royalties is deliberately misleading. They already get a 70% royalty, that has been the policy from day one at Amazon, it is what all the other self-publishing platforms have come to adopt as well (correct me if I’m wrong on this, I haven’t checked them all).

Meanwhile, agents, publishers and booksellers still face real challenges from digital, Amazon or not. Digital is reshaping the industry and still threatens to cut middlemen out of the chain. Online-only retailers like Bookworld may be the most vulnerable, lacking the size and scale to adequately compete. When Amazon bought Book Depository, the UK retailer popular with Australian consumers, there was consternation in the book industry, despite the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deciding not to oppose the move.

Yeah, who’d have thought an antiquated business model would be under threat by changes in the industry? And didn’t the article make the point that Amazon has already been in Australia to a large extent for years? So doesn’t this kinda negate any points made here?

As books blogger Patrick O’Duffy wrote recently in a long analysis of Amazon’s entry into the Australian market: “By starting this process of moving into Australia, Amazon is going to permanently affect the local writing, reading, publishing and bookselling world.” That much at least seems certain.

Um, no. This final statement and paragraph are about 10 years out of date. E-books and the ability of authors to manage their own careers without ‘gatekeepers’ is what has changed the industry. This has happened for quite a while now. To say that Amazon opening an Aussie store suddenly changes things completely negates the history and many of the points raised in this article.

Now that I’ve addressed the article by Ben Eltham, paragraph by paragraph, I think it is clear that this article is nonsense. It is just another in the long line of e-book, e-publishing, self-publishing, fear-mongering articles that have come to represent “informed” comment on the publishing industry over the last 5 to 10 years. I for one am sick of these articles, in fact I hate them. It isn’t just the continued “fear of change” mantra they all adhere to. The main reason I hate these sorts of articles is that they are trying to pretend that the publishing industry is hurt by changes that benefit readers and writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers and writers are the publishing industry, everyone else is there at their behest. If those middlemen want to stay in the game then they have to offer something to the readers and writers that is beneficial to both. And the success of Amazon (Kobo, etc) and the various publishing houses (agents, editors, designers, etc) that have adopted/adapted to the new paradigms, only illustrates how out of touch these articles are with the industry. Instead of discussing the real issues, like the squeeze on authors, we get another stream of uninformed bile.

The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t


Let’s face it, a large chunk of literature and non-fiction sales are nothing to do with people reading and everything to do with being seen to read. It was no surprise to early e-reader adopters that the romance and erotica genres took off as people on the bus to work could now read the stuff they wanted to without being judged. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%) I have actually read this classic. I read it because Animal Farm was one of the only books I had to read in English Lit class that I actually enjoyed (I’m not counting plays, you’re not meant to read plays, you’re meant to see them performed!!!). I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%) Haven’t read this one and have no intention of trying. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%) I watched the old black and white film, does that count?

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%) I’ve read this many times and hated it every single time. Each time I’ve re-read it I’ve done so because I felt I was too young and/or stupid to get it, so I must re-read it because I’m so much older and smarter now. Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%) I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%) I’ve read it, but I will admit that I did so only after seeing the first movie. I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. I will also say that I started reading The Hobbit when I was in school and then realised that life was worth living and stopped.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%) Okay, I’m guilty of this one. It is on my TBR pile. I have it on Kindle and DTB.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%) See #2

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%) I’m going to read the zombie version.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%) If there is a zombie version of this I may read it.

E-readers are filled with garbage?

An article in The Guardian on Sunday suggested that garbage, which they defined as genre fiction, was the big seller on Kindles and e-readers. See article here.

Prepare for the irony.

Okay, irony aside, The Guardian has published a number of articles extolling the inferiority of e-readers and e-books. For example, they deride romance and erotica as genres, yet they have always sold well. They deride horror, yet Steven King has been a bestselling author for 40 years. Excuse my cherry picking, but I can’t be bothered digging out my stats sheets to bury this argument further.

For years the literary fiction and biography markets have been kept afloat by the gift and commuter sales. Commuters can’t be seen to be reading anything other than high art or an intriguing insight into some mundane public figure, whose only claim to fame was being able to stand in front of a camera at the right moments. Similarly the books people received as gifts were always some intellectual boorish bunk posing as entertainment.

Now commuters don’t have to have the cover of their book on display and are free to read what they actually enjoy reading. Gift givers are wising up and going to wishlists and giving download vouchers. This isn’t just the end of snobbery, it is the start of truly great works of fiction.

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