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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I missed a birthday!

Well, good lord, how could have missed it? Pulp romantic fiction publisher Mills & Boon batted its century on 28 November, and I didn't even notice.

And yet it is such an amazing success story. Just look at the statistics! Mills & Boon report a UK book sale every three seconds, with 130 million sales globally every year. The books are translated, too, and published in 26 countries.

One thousand, three hundred Mills & Boon authors labor at their computers to produce four books each per annum, to meet an apparently insatiable demand for their work.

The economic downturn has actually worked in their favor -- sales of romantic fiction are rising as people look for happy endings. As editorial director Karin Stoecker reveals, "Generally speaking, we have been quite successful in gloomier economic times." When budgets are tight and newspaper headlines dire, "It's a value-priced entertaining escape from otherwise harsh realities."

Can a man write romantic pulp fiction?

"Can a man really write a Mills & Boon?" asks the BBC newsletter in the arts and entertainment section. (American readers, think "Harlequin.")

Apparently a broad-shouldered Yorkshireman who goes weight training three times a week, climbs mountains in the weekends, and enjoys a drink with his rugby-playing friends churns out four romances a year, and sees his work do well in 26 different countries.

Now an active member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, Roger Sanderson (pictured) would have been a soldier if life hadn't beckoned him in another direction. He was making a sort of living out of writing scripts for commando comics when he just happened to pick up one of his daughter's Mills & Boons, and was hooked. Initially, he co-wrote with his wife Gill, but soon took over her name and did it alone.

"Today," as BBC writer Peter Jackson reveals in the story, "he specialises in medical romances, setting many of his stories in the Lake District around chisel-jawed doctors, with hearts either beating or melting."

Roger reckons he has all the qualifications, being happily married and knowing what it is like to be in love. But how does he know what it is like for a woman to be in love? That, he admits, is difficult. Men like to know how physical things work, while women are interested in relationships and what makes them work.

An unusual success story, which poses a couple of questions. Does Roger tell his rugby mates what he does to make a living? And is he the only male who writes for Mills & Boon (or Harlequin)? I seem to have a vague memory of a bloke in Tasmania who wrote under the name of Victoria Gordon.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

O for Obama

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Yale's Elizabeth Alexander to write and read a poem for his inauguration on 20 January. Intrigued by the news (because I had never heard of her, I admit, shamefaced), I looked up her works, and have decided that he has made an excellent choice.

I have a favorite work already. It is The Venus Hottentot, which begins with an ode to a microscope. Wonderfully evocative, it brought back vivid memories of the wonders that are gradually revealed when a slide with even the humblest smear beneath the cover slip is slid under the lens, and the magnification is adjusted.

Science, science, science!

Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass

Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls

like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites

set in perfect angles

of geometry I'd thought

impossible. Few will

ever see what I see

through this microscope.

EU online library reopens

The BBC has announced that the European Union's digital library, europeana, which crashed soon after its launch on 20 November -- apparently because so many people wanted to have a look at the Mona Lisa online -- has been resuscitated.
The Mona Lisa! Why not books or promotional packaging, for heaven's sake? It's not as if the iconic painting doesn't pop up all the time in the traditional media!
When our boys were nine and eleven, we carted them around the art museums of Europe for five months, an interesting experience for me, as at the entrance to each great gallery I asked them to choose which painting they would buy if they were unimaginably rich. Their choices were fascinating. The only predictable one was the Mona Lisa, and when I asked why, I was told it was because that was the picture advertising a certain brand of television. With constant exposure, it had become warm and familiar, apparently.

But to return to the topic. The site, which gives multilingual access to cultural collections across the European Union, was swamped by users on its launch, with a volume of ten million hits an hour. Now that it's server capacity has been quadrupled, they are trying again, but don't guarantee that "the user experience" will be "optimal."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Winnie the Pooh for King!

In these hard times, it was a delight to read heartwarming news in the BBC arts and culture section -- that the favorite of childhood bedtimes, Winnie the Pooh, has performed magnificently at Sotheby's.

A collection of E H Shepard's original drawings for the children's books has fetched one-point-two-six million pounds at auction.
"He went on tracking, and Piglet ... ran after him," one of Shepard's best-loved works, went for 115,250 pounds, while "Bump, bump, bump ... going up the stairs," fetched almost double the estimated price at 97,250 pounds.
The sale also included limited edition and signed books by the author, A A Milne, plus a first US edition, dated 1926, and inscribed by Milne to Shepard, which also went for almost double the estimate of twenty thousand pounds.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Let the cover match the book!

I have always been interested in the art of hand bookbinding, since the day that artist Julie Beinecke Stackpole showed us her entry in a competition for the binding of a rare copy of Moby-Dick. Her husband Renny was director of the Penobscot Maritime Museum in Searsport, Maine, at the time, and he and Julie invited us to their beautiful old house in Thomaston, where Julie had a studio. From memory, six book binding artists had been given a copy each of the historic edition of Melville's immortal tale, and a certain amount of time to make and attach an appropriate cover. Julie had etched a pattern of ratlines -- the ladderlike ropes the seamen used to climb the shrouds to the top of the mast -- on textured leather. The result was striking and memorable.

A story by Roberta Smith in the art and design section of the New York Times today discusses the glories of hand bookbinding over the centuries, a sampling of which can be viewed at the Morgan Library and Museum. Called "Protecting the Word: Bookbindings of the Morgan," the exhibit presents 55 of the thousand-plus holdings in its special bindings collection.

The show spans fourteen centuries, dating back to a time when books were entirely handmade The earliest is an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, made in Coptic Egypt about the seventh century, and one of the most recent is an op-art binding made in 1959. A particular gem is a binding of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poems (pictured), made by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Truth is truly stranger than fiction

Fictional Corruption Meets Real Life Corruption, headlines GalleyCat on, going on to ask, "What happens when your novel comes to life?'

The recent arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich has unexpectedly boosted the sales of an obscure political novel. Scott Simon's satirical version of Illinois politics came uncomfortably real when Blagojevich was charged with his attempt to bolster his bank account in a novel and surreal way. Simon's novel, Windy City, is replete with corruption, greed and all that stirring stuff, but the author says he would have drawn the line at having any of his characters try to sell a Senate seat, as it would have been so hard to make it plausible.

Electronic books taking on at last?

In today's New York Times, writers Brad Stone and Motoko Rich ask, "Could book lovers finally be willing to switch from pages to pixels?"
Electronic book readers, largely ignored for the past ten years, are finally taking off, thanks to amazon's $359 Kindle. White, light, and about the size of a trade paperback, the Kindle was released a year ago, and appears to be creating interest in this new way to read books. It is selling so well, partly because of the recommendation of talk show host extraordinaire Oprah Winfrey, that stocks are currently sold out.
Sony, grabbing the window of opportunity in these hard times, has embarked on an intense publicity campaign for its latest version, the Reader 700. It comes equipped with a touch screen so readers can interact with the book by making notes (great for researchers, I imagine). It costs only slightly more, $400, and, in an echo of the first paperbacks, which were produced by Louis Hachette back in 1853, with the aim of selling cheap, light, readable books to travelers, it is being promoted in train stations and airports.
So what do the publishers have to say? HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster say that electronic editions constitute less than one percent of total book sales--but that figure is climbing, having tripled or even quadrupled in the past year.

The things you find left between the pages of a book

Sunday's New York Times magazine has a delightfully meditative piece by Henry Alford, called "You Never Know What You'll Find in a Book."

Alford talks about the slice of fried bacon found in a volume in the Duke University Library, and a letter in a used paperback which read, "Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here." There's a novel lurking in that idea -- and another one in the rejection letters that a miffed author inserted between the pages of several copies of the book after it was published, and then sold to a used book dealer.

In my own experience, I have found library books to be an interesting source of between-the-pages litter. Receipts, letters, addressed envelopes, and photographs have all obviously been used as bookmarks, and then forgotten. A box on the counter of one branch library is there especially for people to leave such things.

I must confess to being a deliberate between-the-pages stuffer myself. Originally, I was following the example of Fildes, a prominent early Wellington book collector, whose collection is now in the Beaglehole Library at Victoria University. All the books he owned have a special added interest, in that he inserted newspaper clippings (too often, alas, unsourced and undated) relating to the content, in each the book, along with bits of paper with scribbled comments about said content, sometimes quite unkind. The receipt from the bookseller from whom he bought the book is often there, too, recording a fascinatingly small amount paid for a volume that is now quite valuable.

So, with my own books, I started slipping in relevant newspaper cuttings (carefully sourced and dated, of course). Then I started adding relevant letters I'd received, sometimes from the author of the book, and occasionally from people who are researching the same topic. This has proved frustrating in the long run, as there are times I need to find a certain letter, and can't remember which of the books I put it in. But it is tremendous fun when I buy a secondhand book and find that the previous owner(s) did exactly the same thing.

The most exciting discovery came the day a copy of Nimrod of the Sea, or The American Whaleman, by William M. Davis (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat, 1926) arrived. The first owner had signed his name and date, "P. B. Blanchard, 1926," on the flyleaf -- and I "knew" him! I quote from my book about the strange lives of seafaring wives of captains, Hen Frigates, chapter one.

On October 3, 1906, twenty-year-old Georgia Maria Gilkey of Searsport, Maine, was married in her graduation dress. There had been no time to make a wdding gown, for the bridegroom was a seaman. Captain Phineas Banning Blanchard had proposed to her during one of his fleeting trips home, and one week later they were married. Georgia felt no doubts about the headlong courtship. As she reminsced later, when Banning had taken her out sleighing the sled had capsized, dumping them both in the snow. And that, according to a local old wives' tale, was a sure sign they were to be wed. So George married her captain in her gradulation gown, carrying a bouquet of pink carnations. And, after a hasty buffet luncheon, the newly weds took the train to Philadelphia, to embark on the great square-rigger Bangalore, for a honeymoon voyage around Cape Horn.

Not only had Captain Blanchard signed his copy of Nimrod of the Sea, but he had used a picture postcard of the Bangalore as a bookmark, which was there in the book -- and is still there now.

Booker Prize sponsor damaged by Madoff losses

Last Sunday's book section of the New York Times features an alarming story by Dave Itzkoff. The Man Group, a publicly traded investment company and hedge fund that has sponsored the Booker Prize since 2002, announced that it had about $360 million in funds linked to the rogue Wall Street executive Bernard L. Madoff (pictured).

Former Nasdaq chairman Madoff was recently arrested on a charge of making off with fifty billion dollars entrusted to his companies by trusting investors, in the most high profile collapse of a hedge fund to date. Breaking news is that a New York-based money manager who may have lost $1.4 billion of client funds in Madoff investments has killed himself in his Madison Avenue office. By contrast, Madoff, who appears to have no conscience at all, is probably headed for a comfortable white collar prison.

His shenanigans have sent two European banks to the edge: Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. "Madoff has single-handedly turned an already very bad year for hedge funds into a catastrophe," said one commentator, according to Times On Line. So is it a catastrophe for the Man Booker, too?

Apparently not. Man Group's loss, though it appears huge to ordinary folks like you and me, wipes out only 1.5% of its assets, and the company insists that the sponsorship deal will not be changed or cancelled.

Will Borders claw its way out of trouble?

Christmas sales are drear, so hopes rest on post-Christmas sales.

Borders announced yesterday that they have extended the deadline by one month on both the repayment of their $42.5 million senior secured term loan to Pershing Square, as well as the "put" to require Pershing to purchase their Paperchase subsidiary for $65 million. Both deadlines have been extended to February 16. In late November when reporting quarterly earnings Borders said they were "in discussions with Pershing Square regarding an alternative financing transaction."

Their nearly worthless stock has still managed to decline another 20 percent in early trading today, though Barnes & Noble has suffered weak trading the past two days as well.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hopefully not the Nobel prize for literature ...

The probity of the Nobel Prize is under investigation, in high profile accusations of bribery and undue influence, according to news released by The Times.

Two senior figures in the process that chose Harald zur Hausen for this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine have strong links with the London-based multi-national pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has also recently begun sponsoring the Nobel website. The company strongly denies any wrongdoing.

It is not the only question mark hanging over the probity of the Stockholm-based foundation. The Swedish prosecutor yesterday opened a parallel investigation into bribery allegations after several members of Nobel committees admitted enjoying expenses-paid trips to China to tell officials how candidates are selected for prizes.

Other members of the Nobel Foundation are said to be gravely concerned that the reputation of an organisation that honours the highest achievements in human endeavour is under threat from companies and nations hungry for Nobel glory.

So far, the literature prize has not been implicated, thankfully, but ramifications could lurk in the wings.

More fuss from the Nobel sector

Horace Engdahl Resigns After Ten Years as Secretary of the Swedish Academy

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize-distributing Swedish Academy, has just announced that he will leave his post in June. A couple of months ago, I posted a report that Engdahl had dismissed American literature in a couple of impolite sentences: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular ... They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

Have the chickens come home to roost?

Kafka and pornography?



Thus run the sub-headers in a story written by Kate Connolly which was published in The Guardian on Friday, August 15, this year. Old news, but new to me. Apparently, it is hotly debated in the blogosphere (to which I return after being stranded for days with very limited internet connection. Don't, whatever you do, download a program called "iTunes," as it monsters your internet usage without you knowing it, and you can end up with an enormous bill.)

Well, it seems that a collection of pornography owned by Franz Kafka was recently discovered at the Bodleian Library (Oxford University) and the British Library, by Kafka authority James Hawes. Hawes revealed some of this erotic material in his recently published book Excavating Kafka. According to the story, this stash was concealed by scholars in an attempt to preserve the writer's image, and the content is definitely sensational, in an upmarket sort of way. "These are not naughty postcards from the beach," Mr. Hawes is quoted as saying. "Some of it is quite dark. It's quite unpleasant."

Understandably, German academia is outraged.

"Hawes has given us a look through the keyhole of a Kafka with his trousers down," wrote Kafka researcher Anjana Shrivastava, going on to colorfully scoff that to call those "illustrated magazines ... hardcore porn is like comparing a poem by Heinrich Heine with an advertising slogan for McDonald's." Kafka critic Klaus Wagerbach called Hawes an ignorant idiot. Kafka biographer Rainer Stach said the furore was an "unbelievable marketing ploy."

So, does the pornographic collection exist? Oh yes. No one has ever claimed that Kafka was pure and chaste (though I am surprised that anyone so subject to utter gloom, who so tragically starved to death while those who cared for him stood helplessly by, should be so interested in sex, the source of life). However, says Stach, the "pornographic" pictures are quite innocent, really, being "playful representations, some styled like caricatures."

Hawes, an Oxford graduate who teaches creative writing, has hit back at his critics, accusing them of "a conspiracy of censorship." Why, he demanded, have Kafka scholars deliberatedly ignored this aspect of their idol?

Who knows? The debate continues.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

At last - the NYT review of that "Jewel of Medina" book

This weekend, Lorraine Adams reviews Sherry Jones's Jewel of Medina, the highly controversial novelization of the story of Muhammed's fourth wife, for the New York Times

She first goes over the ground already covered in this blog, as well as in a host of newspapers and other internet sites -- the warning issued by a pre-publication reader that the book could incite Muslim outrage -- the decision by the original publisher to halt publication -- the attempted firebombing of the London office of the publisher who took up the project -- and so on and so forth.

Then we get to the nitty gritty of her take on the book itself. In brief, Jones's research gets a B plus, while her writing gets a C minus.

Read it for yourself. Adams did a good job -- apparently a better job than the novel merits.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Heartwarming -- or just plain weird?

Nine-year-old Alec Greven hand-wrote a book, called it How to Talk to Girls, and sold it at a school fair for $3. Apparently it went like hot cakes, as it was a dating guide for kids, replete with hints about how to talk with the opposite sex. HarperCollins picked it up and turned it into a hardback, and the movie rights were sold to Fox, all within a week.

As GalleyCat comments, it is surely worth a disbelieving shake of the head that "during these topsy-turvy days for publishing, a 9-year-old kid struck gold."

History of the British Merchant Navy

Despite hard times, The History Press is bravely forging ahead with a multi-volume history of the British Merchant Navy, penned by eminent maritime writer Richard Woodman.
The first volume is Neptune’s Trident: Spices and Slaves: 1500-1807. It is divided into three sections – “The Trade of the World,” which covers English shipping from 1500 to 1707; “The Danger of a Seafaring Life,” which describes British shipping in the Atlantic from 1550 to 1807”; and “The Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe,” spanning British shipping in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from 1707 to 1793.
A great Christmas present for that Man in your Life.

Black October and British book sales

Major British bookstore chain Waterstone's reports that sales are down and getting worse -- and it can't all be blamed on the lack of a Harry Potter miracle.

The bookseller showed an operating loss of 9.3 million pounds for the period, 4.5 percent more than last year's loss of 8.9 million pounds, reflecting "a very challenging book market, which contracted by over 5 percent in the period, impacted particularly by poor performance in the non-fiction category."

Particularly worrying is the company's warning that "the book market has seen a marked deterioration in the five-week period to 29 November." Revenue from sales at high street booksellers (Waterstone's, as well as WH Smith and others) fell 12.7 percent in the single week ending December 6--almost five points worse than the overall decline in sales tracked by Nielsen BookScan.

The Telegraph newspaper noted in a story published yesterday (but no longer available on the internet) that "high street book sales are plummeting as discounting, the growth of internet operators such as Amazon and dwindling consumer spending hits retailers." The basic trouble, however, is the economic downturn.

Everyone in the book trade is crossing their fingers for a big boost in pre-Christmas sales.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sea Quotations and Elevated Reading

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reckons bookstores are the "temple of the soul," according to a story by John Elder in The Age.

And, sure enough, the eminent politician was surprised by a reporter from The Sunday Age while ferreting around in Readings bookshop in a Melbourne suburb, Carlton, where Mr Rudd bought a copy of Nuns Having Fun, although he tried to pass off his purchase as a "bit of Christmas shopping." Having delivered that prevarication, he headed for the new releases table at the front of the store, and became elaborately immersed in Edward Duyker's A Dictionary of Sea Quotations in an effort to avoid this unseemly interruption by the press.

The public foiled him, however, by demanding that he pose for photos with them, occasionally with babies in tow. The babies, he liked, but the inspection of his choice of reading matter was evidently unsettling. By the time he got to the cashier, Mr Rudd was also carrying Tom Holland's Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom and Simon Schama's The American Future: A History.
But how refreshing -- and what a wonderfully prime ministerial example for buying books for Christmas presents. Hopefully, Mr. Rudd is setting an international trend.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tribune Company Files for Bankruptcy

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection in a federal court in Delaware on Monday, as the publisher of newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune struggled to cope with rising debt and falling ad revenue.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A huge plus for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

The famous Auckland Writers and Readers Festival will truly glitter on its tenth birthday next May. While the program is always exciting, next year the winners of the 23rd Commonwealth Writer's Prize will be announced in a scintillating ceremony.

All eight regional winners -- who will be announced in March 2009 -- will take part in the activities, and visit schools and literary bodies while they are in the country. This Festival is always a big boost for the cultural scene in Auckland, with famous writers, critics, and journalists flitting here and there in the crowd. Next year, obviously, be bigger, brighter, and better than ever, with visitors arriving from all over the world.

While the first deadline for entry has passed, publishers are urged to make late entries. They can do this as long as they notify the relevant chair, and get the books in by December 31, 2008.

Woes in the media world continue

At Viacom and NBC Universal more than a thousand jobs are being shed before Christmas, according to the New York Times.

Sumner M. Redstone has announced that Viacom would shave seven percent of its workforce, and freeze salaries for top managers, in an effort to save about $200 million next year. NBC Universal, likewise, is going to lay off five hundred staff, including some veteran correspondents.

At Universal Studios, a memo from chairman Marc Shmuger announces that staff numbers will be cut by three percent, and the studios will be "scaling back on travel, overtime, consultants, premiers, conferences, newspaper marketing and general administrative costs."

"This kind of message is never easy," said Jeffrey A. Zucker, CEO of Universal (which is owned by the General Electric Company). Executives at the Walt Disney Company, the News Corporation and CBS are preparing themselves to issue that "kind of message," too, as sales and advertising revenue dry up.

Employees who have lost their jobs at Viacom, including those at Paramount Studios, will be paid until December 31, and then get some kind of severance payment. "Saying goodbye to friends and colleagues is always difficult," say the president, Philippe P. Dauman, and Thomas E. Dooley, the chief financial officer. It must be hard for them to feel their pain, though -- their salaries might be frozen, but they will still receive an end-of-year bonus for navigating the firm in rocky financial waters. Last year, Mr. Dauman's bonus was $7 million, and apparently the target this this year's sterling work is to be $9.5 million. Last year, Mr. Dooley's bonus was $5.6 million, and this year it is slated to be $7.6 million.


Actually, it should be PHRASE of the year. I learn to my amusement that Webster's New World College Dictionary runs an annual "word of the year" competition.
And the shortlist for the 2008 accolade has just been announced:


Leisure sickness


Selective ignorance


You can vote for the winner at


Chris Kelly, in an amusing blog on Huffington Post, headlined GET SARAH PALIN'S NEW BOOK -- FREE! breaks the news that magazine Newsmax is offering "Sarah Palin's new book" for just the cost of shipping.
"Except," as she found on clicking onto the offer, "it's an old book, it's not by Sarah Palin, you'll pay three times the cost of shipping, and you'll have to subscribe to Newsmax magazine.

Yes, it's the same old biography I blogged about myself during that long, riveting, and often mind-boggling presidential campaign, written by Kaylene Johnson and lifted out of obscurity when Sarah abruptly hit the headlines. Now, Newsmax is trying to get the same boost out of the Alaskan Belle -- but without the expense of updating the book.

As Kelly points out (did she succumb and buy the book to check?), John McCain's name doesn't make the index, though a quote from him now appears on the cover. Yes, the only revised bit of the book is the jacket. One word has been removed from the old title. See if you can find it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Simon & Schuster trims staff

More alarming news from the Wall Street fallout -- Lay-offs at Simon & Schuster

According to Publisher's Lunch a memo from the CEO of the publishing house, which in the past has enjoyed huge sales (after paying huge advances) of books written by such glittering stars as Mary Higgins Clark and Stephen King, announces that Simon & Schuster has "enacted a reduction in staff in which 35 positions across the company were eliminated, from areas including our publishing divisions and international, operations and sales.

"Despite having "literally examined our budget line-by-line to find those areas large and small where we might further economize," Reidy goes on, "today's action is an unavoidable acknowledgment of the current bookselling marketplace and what may very well be a prolonged period of economic instability. In light of this uncertainty, we must responsibly position ourselves for challenges both near term and long."


One of just seven original copies of J. K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was handwritten and illustrated by the author of the you-know-who series, is on display at the New York Public Library’s Bill Blass public catalog room from December 4, 2008, to January 4, 2009.
December 4 is altogether a huge day for ordinary common-or-garden Harry Potter fans, as Beedle goes on sale on the website of Big collectors have already signed up for their special edition, which is valued at $100 greenbacks, and comes with a deluxe jacket, ten extra illustrations, a metal skull, a velvet bag embroidered with JKR's signature, and a set of fake gems.
The story of this book is worth a novel in itself. 'Way back when, JK Rowling handwrote and hand-illustrated this little group of tales, and six copies were made. Late 2007, one copy was auctioned to raise money for JKR's favorite charity. Amazon bid $3.98 million -- which may explain why has exclusive rights to the launch.