Stephen King Posts

Julia Donaldson in India, Jan 2018

Julia Donaldson

Universally adored children’s writer Julia Donaldson toured India in January 2018. The reception she received was heartwarming. Wherever she went there were crowds of excited children and parents. Even at the specially organised event by Scholastic India of school librarians and teachers there were many who while learning from Julia Donaldson’s performance were completely star struck — you could see it in their eyes and later when innumerable group photographs were being clicked. It was an incredible experience to witness.

Here is an article I wrote about Julia Donaldson’s trip in January. It was written days after her departure from India but never was published till today. It was an honour to meet Julia Donaldson for her humility shone through as did her vast amounts of experience in inculcating the love of reading in children. She was keen on telling a good story to the children and infecting them with the joy of reading. While being a fantastic storyteller she also shared her experience of working on the technically-sound phonetic books like the Oxford Reading Tree ( ORT) books that are introduced as part of school curriculums worldwide. According to her it was a big learning curve for it taught her how to focus on telling a story within the limited number of consonants prescribed for a particular level without losing her trademark touch of creating rhyming and play books. 

Note: Follow the links embedded in each title and it leads to the book page on Amazon India. 

Julia Donaldson MBE and former UK Children’s Laureate is to the world of picture books what Stephen King is to horror stories and both have an enviable fan base. Like Ed Sheeran, Julia too began her career busking. She enjoys performing and always has a repertoire in mind before going on stage but willingly adapts if the occasion demands it. As Julia says “audiences and moods vary depending on whether you are performing in a bar, a street or in schools.” She usually performs with her husband Malcolm who accompanies her on the guitar. Their thorough professionalism at managing crowds was evident after a performance ended when Malcolm picked up his guitar and sang while going up and down the queues of eager yet restless folks awaiting their turn to have their books autographed by Julia.

When Julia Donaldson’s tour of India was announced excited adults squeaked “Her picture books are fabulous! The illustrations! AndGruffalo…Will he be there as well?” Chirrups of delight from the children who became eager volunteers at every performance! She would call upon children from the audience to come up on stage to play minor roles in the stories she enacted such as SuperwormThe Ugly Five,and What the Ladybird Heard. Ideally Julia prefers it if her audiences have read some of her “play books” in advance as it enriches the experience. This fear was put to rest in India. Whichever city she visited the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults alike sang with her. It was like being at a pop concert where the  hysteria of the audiences upon seeing Julia Donaldson in flesh was worth witnessing.

The crowds in India were far larger than any she has performed before anywhere else in the world. Yet the warm, cuddly, grandmotherly figure with a radiant smile that lit up her already twinkling eyes remained unperturbed. She performed happily even though some of her little extras decided to plonk themselves on stage to read the pile of picture books placed in a pile rather than participate in the sing-along!  Despite battling terrible bronchitis Julia Donaldson managed to mesmerise folks with her storytelling. Certainly she had sophisticated props; mostly recognizable characters sketched by her long time illustrator Axel Scheffler, yet she relied mostly upon vast dollops of imagination to make her stories come alive.

Julia Donaldson’s magnificently magical storytelling is technically perfect in using rhythm and wordplay. She demonstrated to teachers that while sharing light-hearted stories with new learners it is easy to convert a simple classroom into a vibrant one with music and colour. A happy child learns fast. The importance of reading is critical to her and has always been — she taught her younger sister to read! Of the nearly 200 books Julia Donaldson has written the bulk are phonic readers; requiring her to blend vowels and consonants precisely according to early learning rules of phonetics. This is in keeping with her fascination for sound patterns and letter stories.

Julia Donaldson grew up in a home filled with music and poetry with her grandmother instilling a lifelong passion for Edward Lear’s nonsense language —in The Giants and the Joneses Julia invented Groilish! (Later to her delight she was commissioned to write a sequel to Lear’s “Ówl and the Pussycat”.) Age 5 she was presented by her father, a still treasured edition, of The Book of Thousand Poems inculcating in her a dream to a poet/lyricist. Her mother would play a version of “antakshri”, encouraging her daughter to find a word beginning with the last syllable of a word she had uttered. All of which helped Julia while writing her books in blank verse.   

In the 1970s she worked in a publishing firm while contributing songs and plays to radio. One of these was A Squash and A Squeeze which an editor recollected two decades later persuading Julia to turn it into a picture book.

Julia Donaldson’s fascination lies in experimenting with well-known folktales. In the Gruffalo it was the retelling of an ancient Eastern tale where a little girl goes into the forest and tames a tiger that follows her meekly home. But Julia was stuck for an appropriate rhyming word for “tiger” so used “Grrr… “ Rest they say is history! She recalls fondly that her sons could never cross a bridge without enacting the Three Billy Goats, now she hears of picnic expeditions that revolve around a Gruffalo hunt!

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, translated into many languages. She structures each book carefully paying close attention to her conclusions: “She does not like rosy endings that tell the child that it was all a dream. Sealed endings are not to her liking.” In 2014, 40p of every pound spent on buying picture books in UK, went to Julia Donaldson. It was more than spent on Harry Potter books! On Christmas Day 2017 The Highway Rat premiered on television as an animated film, fulfilling an annual ritual of converting a Julia Donaldson picture book into film since 2012 when Room on the Broom was nominated for an Academy Award. ( For Christmas 2018 it will be Zog and for Christmas 2019 The Snail and the Whale are to be adapted.) 

Running on the Cracks is the only young adult novel she has written. It has her characteristic gentle empathetic touch without underplaying hard issues such as immigrants, mental health, sexual predators and runaway kids. Even so “she would rather make picture books that allow her the freedom to play with words that get made in a shorter time than writing a novel which takes some effort.”

Ultimately Julia Donaldson firmly believes that children should read a variety of genres including comics – give them anything that appeals to them!

And yes, Gruffalo came. Many selfies were taken!

8 Dec 2018


Book 19: 11 – 17 November 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 19 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

19 November 2018

Dave Barry “Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog”

Pulitzer Prize Winner and popular columnist Dave Barry writes about turning 70 gracefully and the lessons he has learned from his 11-year-old rescue dog, Lucy. As expected it is a delightfully bittersweet book with Dave Barry amazed at himself for having written a “self-help” book. With increasing old age memories of the past come flooding back like playing in the musical band called Rock Bottom Remainders. It consisted of authors such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Frank McCourt, and Mitch Albom to name a few. They even played with Bruce Springsteen on stage once. But what hits Dave Barry hard is that the “fun” element in his life is slowly decreasing as more and more time is spent just fulfilling daily needs like paying a bill, replying to an email, filing a column etc. The sheer joy of living in the moment and with it the peace it gives can be learned from his ageing mixed breed Lucy or even by watching his three-year-old grandson. He slowly begins to make slight changes in his life like calling up old friends and chatting to them, throwing parties at home, spending more time with his family and making the effort to enjoy every moment rather than be preoccupied and in a hurry.

The book is scheduled to be released in October by Simon and Schuster. A good book to read. Light and yet one that will stay with you for a long, long time.

15 August 2018 

“Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor

C. J. Tudor’s debut Chalk Man is a thriller that begins promisingly well. It is sinister, fantastically atmospheric.The opening pages of the story are very well written with obvious care to the words selected. The opening scene is unforgettably creepy! Unfortunately as with most first books the energy spent in writing the first section of the novel dissipates fairly rapidly in the subsequent pages. C. J. Tudor’s author blurb reads “Her love of writing, especially the dark and macabre, started young. When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.” She got a dream debut with Stephen King endorsing her book.

Yet despite this extraordinarily generous blessing from legendary Stephen King Chalk Man does not quite hold together. Chalk Man holds promise but is not quite there as yet. Perhaps by her third novel C. J. Tudor will well and truly come into her own for she is undoubtedly a new writer to watch.

Having said that Chalk Man has been shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2018 Shortlist.

 

 

Nevertheless read it if you enjoy reading thrillers.

Buy it on Amazon and Kindle 

Karthik Venkatesh on Granthika, a digital tool

Karthik Venkatesh, a publisher, who often writes longreads on different aspects of publishing. He published an article in The Hindu on Granthika . It was heavily edited. Later he reposted the longer version on his Facebook  wall. I am c&p the text here with his permission. 

RK Narayan’s novel The Vendor of Sweets set as always in Malgudi is the story of Jagan, the sweetmeat vendor, his inner tussles between his Gandhian ideals and the pulls of his business that often leave him in a quandary and his imperfect relationship with his wayward son, Mali. Mali makes his way to America to join a creative writing course and returns a few years later, totally Americanized, with a Korean-American partner in tow. Back in Malgudi, Mali comes up with a grand money-making venture in the form of a story writing machine. It’s a machine in which would-be writers would only have to enter a few details like the number of pages, the number of characters, the place and time, the type of atmosphere and so on and the machines would churn out the story for them, or so goes Mali’s sales pitch.

The romantic image of the writer crouched over at the writing desk pouring his heart out on paper, with the several crumpled pieces of paper strewn around the room evidence of his hard work is one of literature’s most overworked images. It was this image perhaps that Mali sought to change. With Mali’s machine, churning out a story was a matter of pressing a few buttons. Mali’s story-writing machine is of course fictional, but to look at how writers have used technology to aid their writing endeavours is to come across several little nuggets of interesting information.

Historically, writing in longhand was the way most writers worked. Many like John le Carre still put pen to paper (the occasional writer like John Steinbeck swears by pencils), choosing to voluntarily forgo the mediating medium of the machine. A few lucky ones in the past had the benefit of a scribe (a la Veda Vyasa and Ganesha), but that couldn’t have been a cakewalk either. It required the writer to compose the piece in his mind and then regurgitate as the scribe put pen to paper or palm-leaf. The odd scribe is likely to have struggled to keep pace with the writer. But, arguably, more often than not, the scribe’s lot would have been to play the waiting game as the writer struggled to put it all together in his head.

And then, the typewriter came.

In 1874, Mark Twain purchased his first typewriter (a Remington) for $125. Seven years later, a typed manuscript of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was sent to his publisher. Twain did not type it himself. In 1875, he had written to Remington to say that the machine corrupted his morals because it made him want to swear and so he gave the machine away, twice, only to have it return each time. Life on the Mississippi was dictated to a typist from a hand-written draft and was in all likelihood the first typewritten book. Among the typewriter’s other early adopters were Nietzsche and Henry James. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was also typewritten and its heroine, Mina Harker makes references to learning typewriting in the initial part of the novel. Clearly, the typewriter had arrived and for the next century or so, it was the writer’s machine of choice.

In the sixties, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on a roll of paper which he had created by taping several together several sheets. What kind of paper it was is unclear. Among the possibilities are regular paper, a thermo-fax roll and sheets of architect’s paper. He did so because he thought the job of changing the paper would interrupt him and ‘thrust him back into the world’s inauthenticity’. Two weeks after starting On the Road, he had a single single-spaced paragraph a hundred and twenty feet in length all ready. The typewriter had played a critical role in birthing a classic.

The famously acerbic Truman Capote heard about Kerouac’s unusual ways and cuttingly remarked, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

And then came the word-processor.

Who was the Mark Twain of the word processor? There are several claimants most of them small-time with the exception of sci-fi writer Frank Herbert of Dune fame. After Dune’s success in 1965, it is said that Herbert submitted drafts of his works to his literary agent on 8-inch floppy disks in the 1970s, but no evidence exists to confirm this. The New York Times of March 24, 1981 published a rather interesting report which detailed how Jimmy Carter had accidentally deleted several pages from his memoir by pressing the wrong keys on his word-processor.

Among the early adopters of the word processor was Stephen King so much so that in the January 1983 issue of Playboy, he actually published a story entitled … “The Word Processor”! Later republished as Word Processor of the Gods in King‘s 1985 collection Skeleton Crew, the story talks of a word processor that is actually capable of altering the past and in effect, the future and whose discovery changes the lot of a frustrated middle-aged writer. Apart from King, Tom Clancy was an early adopter too and his 1984 thriller The Hunt for Red October, is often cited as one of the earliest word-processed best sellers. Since then, writing (Capote would call it typing) on the computer has pretty much become the norm.

In the second or third quarter of 2018, writer Vikram Chandra of Sacred Games fame hopes to have a beta version ready of Granthika, a digital tool for writers. While its first version will be designed for fiction writers, in the long run, a version for non-fiction writers as well, which will add all the features necessary for that genre, such as footnotes and endnotes, citations, etc. is also planned. Eventually, the goal is to build specialized versions for domains like legal writing, journalism, corporate documentation, scientific publishing, etc.

Its website lists its many components (it calls them ‘Multiple Independent Tools’): ‘a spreadsheet to keep track of dates and events, and to calculate the ages of characters, index cards to visualize the structural outline of the document, a timeline – perhaps drawn on a wall – to visualize the relationship between events (and) a word processor that doesn’t organize any of the above’.

The problem that it seeks to solve is the problem of writers making mistakes in their text and be able to keep track of all the logistics in the text. Among the instances of mistakes it cites to make its case are from Sherlock Holmes—Dr. Watson’s travelling injury (shoulder to leg) and his changing first name (John to James)—and more recently, an oversight in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Granthika is on the face of it, as cutting–edge as it gets. The creation of a writer who understands writing and coding, it might just become to the early 21st century writer what the typewriter was to the late 19th and the word processor to the late 20th. Like it or not, most writers are typing now and with Granthika, Mali, Twain and King have actually been fused together!

(C) Karthik Venkatesh 

5 February 2018 

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 
“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014 

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