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July 9, 2007 3:01 AM   Subscribe

Harry Potter dies. Harry Potter lives. One thing is becoming clear: Harry Potter is killing the traditional bookseller industry in the UK.
posted by humblepigeon (134 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
To be fair, bookseller.com reports that Bloomsbury (publishers of Potter in the UK) sent special packs to 300 independent booksellers. So they are trying to support indies. It's just that supermarkets and chains are stealing the trade via hefty discounting.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:06 AM on July 9, 2007


I think they'll live. Far be it from me to espouse a Libertarian point of view, but the market will probably sort itself out. The worst outcome, to me, would be a decline in the number of kids reading novels (Rowling's or whomever's).
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:06 AM on July 9, 2007


Harry Potter is just one symptom, but is nowhere near the cause. The fact is, the world has changed; there will definitely always be a place for books, but it's a different place to what it was ten years ago. Publishers and booksellers alike are scrambling.
posted by bwerdmuller at 3:17 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


The fact is, the world has changed; there will definitely always be a place for books, but it's a different place to what it was ten years ago.

I agree. Constant change and cycle.

The most interesting blip on the bookseller horizon is book printing machines (print on demand, or POD), which can be installed in shops. Feed in an appropriate PDF and you get a bound retail quality paperback at the other end.

One thing to bear in mind throughout is that bookshops are about more than selling books. There's a whole culture.

I sometimes call into a second-hand bookshop near me and the joy of stepping from the street into a quiet bookish space is unparalleled.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:29 AM on July 9, 2007


"Hermione, how did you know that the body you identified in the morgue was that of Harry?"

"All I had to do was take one look at his penis and that was it. The mystery was completely solved."

"Did you find what you were looking for? What was it?"

"Scar."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:34 AM on July 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


One thing to bear in mind throughout is that bookshops are about more than selling books. There's a whole culture.

I believe this. The thing is I really really hate most of the small bookstore culture.
posted by srboisvert at 3:45 AM on July 9, 2007


The most interesting blip on the bookseller horizon is book printing machines (print on demand, or POD), which can be installed in shops. Feed in an appropriate PDF and you get a bound retail quality paperback at the other end.

Wait, what? These exist? How soon will they be affordable for home installation? This is the greatest development in piracy since BitTorrent.
posted by stammer at 3:56 AM on July 9, 2007


The dirty little secret here is that the real reason most independent bookshops have run into problems is that most independent bookshops sucked. Small selection that didn't appeal to most people, often assholish proprietors, and very limited geographical coverage. Waldenbooks changed that.

Now, Waldenbooks is a very crappy bookstore. But the truth is for the vast majority of places the choice wasn't between Waldenbooks and a nice independent, it was between Waldenbooks and nothing. No books. Yeah, if you were privileged enough to live in certain, select places like Boston or whatever you had access to fun, quirky little specialist bookstores. But most people don't live there and when Waldenbooks showed up they could actually buy from a decent selection of books!

The second gen chains, Borders and Barnes&Noble, are putting independents out of business because Borders and Barnes&Noble are selling books that people actually want to read in places that people actually live at prices people actually want to pay.

Horror of horrors.
posted by Justinian at 3:57 AM on July 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


MeTa
posted by zardoz at 3:58 AM on July 9, 2007


MeTa

Dammit, some people are so literal.

This posting isn't a spoiler. I'm not saying HP dies. I've no idea. I care even less. The posting is a bit of headline hyperbole. That's allowed. If not, it should be.
posted by humblepigeon at 4:06 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's also interesting that it's a Tory MP speaking up to defend small booksellers from the rapacious big business types. Modern conservative parties seem doomed to confusion about whether they are hypercapitalist Cold Warriors or culture warriors defending pre-capitalist traditions like the Church and nature, but for some reason British old-school conservatives seem rather sweet, in a nasty paternalistic way, while their American religious counterparts just strike me as sleazy.
posted by stammer at 4:09 AM on July 9, 2007


I don't think this is evidence of dead paper's, er, weight in current popular culture (or lack thereof) as much as it is a testament to how dumping is a nasty practice that is antithetical to true free markets. Which is why we banned it in foreign trade, though I guess domestic is A-OK when you're protecting your own country's Big Companies.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:13 AM on July 9, 2007


Wait, what? These exist? How soon will they be affordable for home installation?

This is as good a place to start reading as any.
posted by Leon at 4:16 AM on July 9, 2007


stammer, the Tories will say or do anything to win... they don't believe in or stand for anything that isn't subject to change. They're all 'green' now, which I think is hilarious.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:16 AM on July 9, 2007


Jeezass - this is what I pay tax for? So MP's can opine on Harry bloody Potter? Idiot.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:27 AM on July 9, 2007


Snape kills Dumbledore!!! Aaaargh!

I seriously don't get this Harry Potter mania. My 50 yr old uncle, who looks like an uglier, meaner version of Bluto from Popeye cartoons & is hairier than a fucking grizzly with a monobrow, loves the books & movies. He spends hours online reading about Harry Potter. WTF? I don't get it. I think it's cute & all, but JK Rowling writes like shit, AFAIC. Her prose is awful. What. Is. The. Deal?
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:39 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oops, was I not sposed to say that? Hey, Gandalf dies in Moria but comes back to life.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:40 AM on July 9, 2007


The most interesting blip on the bookseller horizon is book printing machines (print on demand, or POD), which can be installed in shops. Feed in an appropriate PDF and you get a bound retail quality paperback at the other end.

D'ya reckon? I'm not so sure. I think the technology to make this economic is a way off yet. And I suspect all the books will look like those crappy bound proofs reviewers get sent.
posted by rhymer at 4:58 AM on July 9, 2007


Justinian writes 'Borders and Barnes&Noble are selling books that people actually want to read'

Agreed. Waterstones is the best thing that ever happened to the British book shop. It doesn't take anything away from the relatively small numbers of specialist independent book shops -- places like High Stakes, the gambling book shop, Murder Inc for crime books, John Calder's bookshop, and the now sadly deceased Compendium. These niche suppliers get their edge by knowing the needs of their obsessive market, and feeding that with information, readings, imports, etc., and they served a much wider market than their local geographic area.

But with Amazon and Waterstones here in the UK, the British reader has never had it so good. Books have become a global market, so you don't even have to wait any longer, for a book to make it into print. These places can have it in your hot, sweaty palms within a couple of days of publication.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:07 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Henry C. Mabuse, I'm not sure that anyone can adequately summarise why this series of (mostly mediocre) books has so captivated people.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:09 AM on July 9, 2007


He wakes up and it was all a dream.
posted by Grangousier at 5:12 AM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


The worst outcome, to me, would be a decline in the number of kids reading novels (Rowling's or whomever's).

I wonder about that - has the Harry Potter phenomenon resulted in more kids reading novels, or just in more kids reading Harry Potter novels?

I guess the supermarket discounting thing is relevant to that - if a child drags its parents into a small bookshop for the latest Potter, there's a good chance they'll come out with an 'extra' book (if the bookseller is good at his job), but if the latest Potter is effectively the only book available, as in a supermarket, there's no positive knock-on effect.
posted by jack_mo at 5:15 AM on July 9, 2007


But with Amazon and Waterstones here in the UK, the British reader has never had it so good.

I tend to think we had it a bit better when there was also Ottakar's to provide Waterstone's with a bit of big chain competition.
posted by biffa at 5:15 AM on July 9, 2007


Oh dear. I apologise for that second apostrophe.
posted by biffa at 5:16 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


POD is absolutely ideal for "informational" books, stuff like lengthy reports, textbooks, manuals, or Acts of Parliament, all that sort of thing that only needs to be referred to a few times during the course of some project or semester or lifecycle of some operation, and then, in a few years, thrown away. Most universities these days use setups equivalent to a POD machine for study guides, books of readings for the subject, laboratory manuals etc.

For a book you'll read once, enjoy, pass around to a few friends, and then forget about, it's also ideal. I predict traditional publication, books that are meant to be kept, will retreat to high-quality hardbacks. Virtually the entire novel market, and most of non-fiction, is currently presented in a form little better than POD anyway. But the concept of just printing a book out again, rather than chasing down a lent and unreturned physical copy, will take some getting used to. Even more jarring will be questioning whether one needs to print it out at all: I foresee this only adding to paper consumption, in the short and medium term.

The alternative technology is a presentation format that is as comfortable and easily used as a book, which no electronic reader is yet. I expect the successors to the iPhone and its peers will have good PDF display capabilities. If the whole front and back surfaces of the thing are screen, that's a fair bit of space, and flipping it over is a natural motion to go forward and back in the text.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:37 AM on July 9, 2007


Feed in an appropriate PDF and you get a bound retail quality paperback at the other end.

Paperback?!?! I don't want no stinkin' paperback!
posted by IndigoJones at 5:51 AM on July 9, 2007


I tend to think we had it a bit better when there was also Ottakar's to provide Waterstone's with a bit of big chain competition.

What, Borders doesn't count as 'big chain competition'?
posted by Happy Dave at 5:59 AM on July 9, 2007


I think that the way our economy is currently organized makes the rise of the megastores and the fall of the mom&pops inevtable. Not good, just inevitable.

The vast majority of humans, as has often been noted, are not the rational actors that economists populate their models with. For the most part they seem either incapiable of recognizing the sort of value added stuff that mom&pop shops tend to produce, or they're indifferent to such value added, or they find it elsewhere (ie: discussion boards online rather than talking in person with a mom&pop store owner). The result is that, unlike what the beloved models of the economists predict, people will tend to simply buy from the place that has the lowest price and all the talk of intangibles tends to be pretty meaningless when it comes to actual outcomes.

There's also, as has been mentioned in this thread, that the mom&pop stores, as a result of their relatively precarious economic position, simply can't carry the variety that the megastores do. Sure, you *could* special order a book through a mom&pop, but a) it usually takes longer to get a special book that way than it does to order it online yourself, and b) even factoring in shipping you can often get better deals online.

Again, I'd like to emphisize that I don't like the demise of the mom&pops. And, oddly enough, neither do most people. It seems that they appreciate the intangibles even if they aren't willing to pay for them. But, given that last big, it seems inevitable that Starbucks will drive the local coffee shops out, Barnes & Noble will drive the local bookshops out, etc. Or, at least it seems inevitable with our current mode for manufacturing and distributing goods. If that changes so will everything else.
posted by sotonohito at 6:02 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


PeterMcDermott: Waterstones is the best thing that ever happened to the British book shop.

Words fail me.

I've got nothing against Tim Waterstone's shop chain as originally constituted, but since the W. H. Smiths takeover a few years ago it's been going downhill -- and now it's a subsidiary of HMV who basically know zip about bookselling. Worse: since they swallowed Ottakars they're a know-nothing chain with 40% of the retail market. Now that's scary: a clueless near-monopoly!

Bookselling is the classic "long tail" business, with a strong brand name focus (you don't go into a bookstore to buy a kilo of books published by Penguin, you go to find a specific title by a specific author, or a handful of books you haven't read by authors you like or want to try: very focussed). The broader the in-store range, the better the experience for the customer (because the higher their chance of finding what they want). However, the flip side of this is that a wide range on the shelves tends to correspond to having lots of stock that turns over slowly. HMV, a music/game retailer, expects to shift books like magazines -- in and out in four to six weeks. Which really screws the midlist, because it ends up with big up-front order and then large volume returns for the publisher to suck up. Under HMV, Waterstones have been depriving managers of autonomy (no more author signing/reading sessions, no more work with local authors: Head Office dictates what goes on and that's an end of it) and in some cases firing staff for the heinous crime of blogging about their enthusiasm for books.

We're in the middle of a protracted high street price war right now, as the collapse of the Net Book Agreement (which expired years ago but was honoured on a voluntary basis) finally rippled through the channel about four years ago. Those "3 for the price of 2" tables at the front of the shops? What that actually means is a 33% cut in publishing revenues, all the way from the shop back to the publishers and then the authors -- but nobody in the trade dares stop the deep discounting, because if they do, they'll be eaten alive by the competition.

(To make matters worse there's no strip-and-return mass market in the UK any more; it crashed around 1992 and never recovered. So that's one avenue for dealing with the tension created by a trade-only market that's not open to us.)

The standard discount structure publishers offer to booksellers is around 40% off cover price, which is bad enough: in many cases authors receive royalties on the net receipts, not the gross, so they actually end up making less money from a book up front on the "3 for the price of 2" shelves than on a title that languishes in the back of the shop, un-discounted. But in some cases the supermarkets have been going up to 65-70% and discounting 50% off the cover price (as with this latest HP feeding frenzy). By threatening not to stock a bestseller Tescos or Sainsburys can effectively kill its chances of making a splash on launch, so publishers are strong-armed into going along with them. But don't kid yourself that Tescos are stocking the latest Harry Potter effusion to promote literature; they're doing it because they know it'll draw the unwashed masses in and while they're in the store they'll hopefully do a weekend shop and spend 163;100 on groceries at the same time.

There's a lot more the-sky-is-falling doom and gloom to be heard if you go scratch a midlist British writer; I'm in a privileged position (I sell in the USA first -- if the dollar wasn't in free fall I'd be laughing all the way to the bank), but even so, it's grim out there.
posted by cstross at 6:10 AM on July 9, 2007 [20 favorites]


HappyDave: Borders are in big trouble -- they made a stonking seven-digit loss last year. They're talking about closing down/selling off all their European outlets, including their 61 shops in the UK (which, incidentally, are out-numbered something like 10:1 by Waterstones).
posted by cstross at 6:11 AM on July 9, 2007


For a book you'll read once, enjoy, pass around to a few friends, and then forget about, it's also ideal.

For most people today there is no other kind of book. Seriously. People buy books like they buy magazines nowadays. They're about the same price. I bought most of Dan Brown's books from Tescos for around £3 each, and that was back when they were still best-sellers.

I still can't bring myself to dispose of books, however. My favourite trick to get rid of a book is to leave it somewhere, with the romantic notion that somebody will pick it up and enjoy it. There are, of course, schemes organised to encourage this.
posted by humblepigeon at 6:11 AM on July 9, 2007


HappyDave: Borders are in big trouble -- they made a stonking seven-digit loss last year. They're talking about closing down/selling off all their European outlets, including their 61 shops in the UK (which, incidentally, are out-numbered something like 10:1 by Waterstones).

Thanks for the clarification - I guess I'm biased living in London, the density feels higher than that here. Also, top post, cogent and well-argued as ever.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:26 AM on July 9, 2007


I sometimes call into a second-hand bookshop near me and the joy of stepping from the street into a quiet bookish space is unparalleled.

The MP from Ann Arbor would like to associate himself with this comment.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:33 AM on July 9, 2007


Again, I'd like to emphisize that I don't like the demise of the mom&pops. And, oddly enough, neither do most people. It seems that they appreciate the intangibles even if they aren't willing to pay for them.

The funny thing about intangibles is that they usually don't actually exist.
posted by srboisvert at 6:42 AM on July 9, 2007


As much as I'd LIKE to support smaller booksellers, the only ones around here tend to be, well, think Bernard Black, but without the charm.

And the people, selection, and prices at the local Barnes and Noble have always treated me well. It gets to the point where I find myself asking WHY I'm sad to see the smallers by me shut down, when I get better service at B&N by far.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 6:44 AM on July 9, 2007



The funny thing about intangibles is that they usually don't actually exist.


Local stores tend to give more back to their community in terms of taxes (income, property, etc.) than do chains. They also tend to promote smaller presses, and find hidden gem books that pop up a year later on the chains' paperback bestseller lists (Obama's first book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, etc.).

In addition, locally owned bookstores put their money into other locally owned businesses (when Barnes and Noble needs signs they go to their printers, when an indie need signs, they go to the printer down the block).

Indie shops also create jobs other than "retail worker," as they'll need to pay someone locally to do their accounting, their marketing, etc.

If you're not an established author or a new author that your giant publishing company has fallen in love with, a chain will probably have little interest in selling or promoting your book.

At chains, while they may have 60,000 books, if they aren't happy with a cover or just are rubbed the wrong way by a book, they can order as few as 10 copies or less, effectively killing the book (especially if the dominance of the chains increase).

Because they're run for the profit of their shareholders (ie. they have to repeatedly show an increase in profits), their check outs have become mazes designed to shake every last penny from you. Then they try to upsell you from a candy bar to a membership card.

After you leave, they'll make fun of you.

And, if they find a way to make more money then from books, they'll do that instead.
posted by drezdn at 7:03 AM on July 9, 2007


The lowest price mentioned in the article is 8.87 pounds which translates to $17.83. Amazon is carrying the book for $17.99 and you wouldn't even need to run to the for it.

Are the MPs gonna go after Amazon and other online sellers as well?
posted by Ateo Fiel at 7:11 AM on July 9, 2007


Ateo Fiel: the English Language publishing market is traditionally split into two tranches: North American rights (USA plus Canada) are sold separately from UK and rest of Commonwealth (UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and territories -- which amount to about 90 million people). Publishers are contractually obliged to withhold product from territories they're not licensed to sell into; in principal if they allow their books to leak they could be sued by the author or the licensee for that territory. (In practice, leakage happens, and can be a headache: I have had a novel where advanced leakage of US product into UK stores before the book was sold in the UK resulted in a hit on advance orders for the UK edition when it finally appeared.)

The pricing structure in the USA is different from the UK, as is the distribution and wholesale system, the production volume, and what happens to books that don't sell.

Some of the publishers -- notably Hachette Group, aka Little, Brown, aka Orbit, aka a whole bunch of other names -- are looking at shifting to acquiring World English Language Rights and marketing across borders. The logistics are there, now. On the other hand, this may not be in the authors' interests, as in the current system, if a publisher trips over their bootlaces in one market, you get a second chance in the other one; shifting to world rights sales means that screw-ups that were previously annoying and expensive could now be career-threatening.
posted by cstross at 7:24 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


He wakes up and it was all a dream.

...and he finds himself in bed with Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart!
posted by ericb at 7:29 AM on July 9, 2007


He wakes up and it was all a dream.

Is Patrick Duffy in Harry's shower? I'm sure there's been a fanfic of that already...
posted by MikeMc at 7:35 AM on July 9, 2007


POD is crap compared to offset. Maybe you don't care, but I will never, ever pay for a POD quality book in the same way I am never drinking crappy beer. Life is too short.
posted by dame at 7:37 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also, Harry Potter is popular because the story is good and the invented world compelling. I read plenty of well-written stuff, but for crack books, HP is high on the list.
posted by dame at 7:38 AM on July 9, 2007


Death to Harry Potter!!!
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:38 AM on July 9, 2007


POD is crap compared to offset. Maybe you don't care, but I will never, ever pay for a POD quality book in the same way I am never drinking crappy beer. Life is too short.

I understand that POD technology is coming on in leaps and bounds. Last I read, you can't tell a POD copy apart from a standard paperback. Reports regarding quality from those who use services like Lula.com are also extremely positive. There's at least one publishing company who only publish their titles POD.
posted by humblepigeon at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2007


Somehow I thought selling below cost was illegal under monopoly laws, but it seems as if that's usually only applied to certain groceries and gasoline and only when intending to 'impair and prevent competition', 'tend to create a monopoly', 'injure a competitor', etc. I didn't actually find specifics on British law (those were some of the phrasing used in various states' commerce laws) but at some risk I presume they are similar to the commerce laws of the states.

I'm kind of surprised that the post industrial age did not usher in a blanket law of no selling below cost with maybe some promotional exceptions.
posted by kigpig at 7:46 AM on July 9, 2007


Last I read, you can't tell a POD copy apart from a standard paperback.

Maybe it is because I work in books, but I can tell. I think most people can if they bother looking. But since this is the internet, I guess we can't test it.
posted by dame at 7:48 AM on July 9, 2007


Harry Potter is killing the traditional bookseller industry in the UK.

If the UK is like the US in this regard, nonreading is killing the traditional bookseller industry in the UK. Oldish (2004) US study:
Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature, according to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey released today. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline - 28 percent - occurring in the youngest age groups.

The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade. The findings were announced today by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia during a news conference at the New York Public Library.
Kids are reading Harry Potter, but that's just seven books. Are they reading any other fiction?
posted by pracowity at 7:51 AM on July 9, 2007


I much prefer Borders to Waterstones. I love Borders - I live in a town too posh to have actually useful shops (just boutiques and tourist traps), but when I needed to find jokey toys or children's paint or games at Christmas, Borders had all of them. I think 90% of my christmas shopping this year happened at Borders. They also have a great sci-fi and graphic novel selection. About the only thing that the other main shop in town (Heffers, a local big place?) does better is the map selection. I never set foot in Waterstones, for all that it is across the street from Borders.
posted by jb at 7:53 AM on July 9, 2007


Henry Mabuse: What. Is. The. Deal?

I was one of those Potter-haters until the winter of 2005. I laughed at the video of fans waiting in line with the drive-by "Snape killed Dumbledore" and giggled at all the ytmnds about it. I was visiting friends over Thanksgiving and I picked up their copy of the first book on a whim. The prose is shitty, but Rowling's characters are fantastic.

She knows everything about the people who inhabit her world. I love this anecdote from an interview with Order of the Phoenix producer David Heymen:
We have a shot of the Black family tree. And to visualize it, we needed more than the four or five names (in the book). And I called Jo up, and 15 minutes later, a drawing arrived of the Black family tree with 75 names and five generations.
I am just stunned by this. This is Proustian dedication to authorship.
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:54 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


JK Rowling writes like shit, AFAIC. Her prose is awful.

Translation: 'I don't actually have a meaningful standard for prose quality, so I'll dump on anyone I like whenever I like and pretend I know what I'm talking about.'
posted by lodurr at 8:02 AM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


kigpig: trying to define the cost of a book is like nailing jelly to a tree, because they're all different.

How much a book costs depends on:

a) How much paper it's printed on
b) This in turn depends on the typeface used (vary it and the layout and margins and you can vary the number of pages by +/- 20%)
c) The grade of paper used (acid free high quality stuff or wood pulp or ...?)
d) What type of binding -- stitched or "perfect bound" (i.e. glued)
e) What type of cover -- cardboard (as in a paperback) or cloth bound or even leather
f) How the cover's printed
g) Is the cover inlaid with a relief? Hot foil? Holograms?
(We tend to forget that the cover can cost 50% as much as the book block, if it's a cheap paperback where the production spend has gone into making the cover stand out)
h) How much the publisher paid the artist for the cover (it could be a cheap-ass design job run off in house or they might have ended up paying a heavyweight as much as a midlist author's advance to do a special painting)
i) The size of the print run (large volume print runs cost less per book block than short runs)
j) The length of the book (short print runs of big fat books cost disproportionately more than short print runs of thinner books due to mechanical paper-handling issues)
k) How much the publisher wants to spend on marketing and sales (including everything from cardboard displays to posters to advertising ...)
l) How big an advance they paid the author (they ideally want to make a big enough turnover on the first printing to cover the advance from the author's royalties)
m) What percentage royalty the author is on (it varies, and it usually has provisions for different rates to be paid for different editions, and for the rate to ramp up with sales)
n) Because royalties are usually paid as a pecentage of the cover price, there's then the problem of working out how big a discount the publisher can offer the bookstores and still cover their own editorial and administrative costs -- publishing staff do not live on air and good will, they need to eat too

I'm pretty sure the phase of the moon and the house of the zodiac has something to do with it too, but my editor hasn't let me in on those esoteric secrets yet.
posted by cstross at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


I am just stunned by this. This is Proustian dedication to authorship.

Just a minor point but I really hate anecdotes like this. That's not to say that JK Rowling isn't a great writer, or that you shouldn't admire her. It's just that anecdotes are shaky ground upon which to build your admiration of somebody.

Fifteen minutes isn't too long to create a family-tree from scratch. I could do it easily. And it's not unusual for authors to populate their fictional world with extra characters who never make it into the novel. Writing can be like planting a hundred seeds, only to find that only one actually turns into a full plant.

Like I said, I'm not being critical here (honestly!), so please don't reply with a spite posting. You should admire JK Rowling, and she may/may not be a great writer. It's just that anecdote-based fanism rubs me up the wrong way.
posted by humblepigeon at 8:09 AM on July 9, 2007


I like small book shops, especially used book stores where you can find entertaining little books with notes in the margins. But I like Borders as well.

WTF? I don't get it. I think it's cute & all, but JK Rowling writes like shit, AFAIC. Her prose is awful. What. Is. The. Deal?

The thing is, J.K. Rowling does not write like shit. What Harry Potter lacks in poetry, it more than makes up for in sheer complexity and foreshadowing details. The series is one long mystery novel set in a charming, yet dangerous, atmosphere where there are few rules. The simplicity of the prose is itself a little duplicitous. I read casually until I became aware of a few connections between the books, and then it was like Rowling's entire fictional world collapsed under my feet, and I had to reassess all assumptions. By the fifth installment the lines between friend and foe, good intent and evil action, become fascinatingly blurred. Really, it's quite brilliant, and it's quite fun. That's the deal.

Alan Rickman thrown into the mix certainly doesn't hurt matters.
posted by zennie at 8:14 AM on July 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


How much a book costs depends on:

a) How much the publisher sells it to the retailer for.

This isn't looking at the publishing end since Bloomsbury seems to be selling at one cost (sans a few promos mentioned): according to the article "booksellers pay £10.74 for each copy at wholesale."

If a retailer sells the book for less than they paid for it, that's undercutting and is very simple to determine without any of a through n.
posted by kigpig at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2007


Alan Rickman thrown into the mix more than "doesn't hurt." It's the single most important casting decision they made -- Radcliffe included.

To expand on something humblepigeon noted, I know a lot of writers who make that kind of chart for themselves. Some of them are very good, some not so good. But they have it if they need it.

I actually think Rowling is a pretty good hack writer. Being a hack writer is not an easy thing -- it means you can write lucid, transparent prose and do it quickly. It's a powerful skill, difficult to master and usually un-thanked, because good hack writing is so often called "crap", "dreck", etc. We can't all be Faulkner, and shouldn't try. Hell, sometimes Faulkner shouldn't have tried -- sometimes, much of the time, probably most of the time, it's just not what's called for.
posted by lodurr at 8:22 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


humblepigeon: i often do the same thing with my unwanted books.. the thought of throwing them in the bin is unbearable, even if it wasn't a particularly good read
posted by sleep_walker at 8:26 AM on July 9, 2007


It depends on if she's doing it in the manner of JRR Tolkien's sub-creation technique, having planned it all out & having had the family-tree already in her notes, or whether, as humblepigeon says, she makes it up as she goes along.

lodurr, your reaction seems a little extreme. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings if you are a Harry Potter fan, but I don't think many enthusiasts for literature, say, most of what constitutes good English fiction written since 1900, would go out on a limb to posit Rowling is a master of prose. No examples of what constitutes reasonably good writing are necessary to make that determination to anyone with any depth of reading, surely? I mean you could use any example other than Scooter Libby. OK, off the top of my head, another writer of 'light' fiction with good characterization, PG Wodehouse.

But fans can have the last laugh, so breathe easy; she's richer than Croesus & millions read her. If that's the measure of a good author, then she's tops.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2007


What Harry Potter lacks in poetry, it more than makes up for in sheer complexity and foreshadowing details.

I've read and enjoyed all the Harry Potter books but they are neither complex or well written, even when judged against the standards of other children's books. In fact a great deal of their popularity has probably stemmed precisely from the simplicity of their plot and prose: they are undemanding pieces of escapist entertainment.

Oh yeah, and doing a fake family tree is Proustian? You what?
posted by ninebelow at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2007


The standard discount structure publishers offer to booksellers is around 40% off cover price

Ha! I WISH! These days, the vast majority of books sold on my royalty statements are to 50% discount-and-higher chains (read: Amazon). And so you get the lovely but uncomfortable situation of selling thousands of books -- then getting no royalties on them. The damned things never earn out.

The low cover price combined with Amazon's discount structure (and its subsequent effect on royalties) have made it impossible to earn out because publishers are throwing in clauses that allow them to pay you less than the usual royalty rate on ultra-discounted sales.

At the time I signed the first two books' contract, I didn't have an agent -- I figured if the book is that discounted, it probably isn't selling very well anyway, so 5% is better than nothing. How wrong I was.

Not that JK Rowling gives a damn, she's loaded now. But the rest of us poor working stiff authors aren't raking it in even if we sell well thanks to shenanigans like this.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2007


The thing is, J.K. Rowling does not write like shit. What Harry Potter lacks in poetry, it more than makes up for in sheer complexity and foreshadowing details.

No. Composition & plotting do not equal good prose, & they don't necessarily save a book. You can have really good prose & good technical structure, it is possible, but I don't personally find that in HP. Rowling's prose is easy to read, it's not impenetrable, which is part of the reason for popularity. But great writing in the sense of beautiful words it is not.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2007


kigpig: the British supermarkets don't go through wholesalers, they go direct to the publisher. And they screw the publisher, too. That's the kind of buying power they have.

bitter-girl.com: yeah, but I'm talking specifically about the British market. The discounts aren't quite as fiendish here (usually). Amazon are pretty nasty to deal with too, by all accounts.

I echo your closing sentiment.
posted by cstross at 8:39 AM on July 9, 2007


humblepigeon: i often do the same thing with my unwanted books.. the thought of throwing them in the bin is unbearable, even if it wasn't a particularly good read

To cut a long story short I recently worked for a book publisher, and they kept sending me copies of books after I'd finished working for them. These were very specialised books and I had zero interest in them.

So I burned them on the living-room fire during winter. It felt weird. I felt vaguely heretical. It was like I expected people to burst in at any moment and snatch the books from the fire, before chastising me for such a stupid act.

For what it's worth, books burn really badly. They create a lot of ash.
posted by humblepigeon at 8:40 AM on July 9, 2007


I think Rowling's real strength is in plotting - and it's best in the first three novels. I've read many many children's fantasy and sci-fi novels (obsessed with them when I was a kid, but I still read them as a hobby), and there are many which have a better prose style, much more interesting and realistic characters, more compelling premises. My hope is that the popularity of Harry Potter might get more people reading these.

But Rowling could keep me up all night with the first novel - and I was 18. She's a master at getting you to want to know what happens next. Her world creation is very shaky (and very derivative - Pratchett was rightly annoyed at the attitude from fantasy ignorant reporters that she is somehow original), the prose style passable, but not brilliant -- but the pacing and plotting are both very good, and that is what really grabs the children who are the primary audience - and I assume that is what also grabs the adults like myself.

But no, I won't be lining up for the last one. I didn't line up for the fifth, but I did get it on the first day (about 22 hours later) - but the sixth was quite disapointing, and I don't know that I care so much anymore. She was very good at writing 10-13 year olds, but her teenagers just don't ring true to me.
posted by jb at 8:41 AM on July 9, 2007


When I know exactly which book I want, I go to a chain store or order off Amazon. When I don't know exactly what I want, I'll go to a specialty bookstore or a used bookstore to find something I might be interested in.

Rowling's prose is easy to read, it's not impenetrable, which is part of the reason for popularity. But great writing in the sense of beautiful words it is not.

My opinions of JK Rowling's writing aside (I'm skeptical of an author who can't say what he or she needs to say in less than 400 pages), beautiful prose is not the reason people read stories. The plotting and the characters are the reason people are absorbed by Harry Potter. People who want to see prose sent jumping through hoops in plotless novels have plenty of outlets.
posted by deanc at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2007


cstross: yeah, but I'm talking specifically about the British market. The discounts aren't quite as fiendish here (usually). Amazon are pretty nasty to deal with too, by all accounts.

Seriously? How is it that chains in the US can get away with asking for steeper discounts than British chains can get from publishers? That seems a bit odd. Unless it's a volume thing...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:02 AM on July 9, 2007


mabuse: your reaction seems a little extreme.

Hm? How so? And which reaction? That I think Rickman was a crucial choice, or that I find it amusing when people make pronouncements on quality as though they were objectively true?

The first is my opinion, subjective, asserted, as the rhetoricians are always admonishing us to do, in a declarative voice, for emphasis.

The second... well, go ahead and say it's shite if you like. I just don't see you raising any standard to judge it by that doesn't damn the most effective prose for its transparency.

By the way -- "master of english prose"? Certainly it's obvious that I didn't assert that, though again, what would it take to be a "master"? Must the prose be effective at communicating? Or must it be poetical in the extreme -- Faulknerian, or Joycean, or [insert arbitrary adjectivalized english-language literary warhorse]? All I'm saying is that people who write clear prose -- and, for that matter, most especially those people who write it in genres or for commercial markets -- can be expected to be called crappy writers, regardless of whether their prose is judged against any standard of effectiveness. It comes with the territory. Any serious critic who said she was a good writer would be taking a significant risk.
posted by lodurr at 9:07 AM on July 9, 2007


I don't know if it's important that prose is "beautiful" or not. It helps if it is, but it's not the only, or the main, criterion for good writing.

Rowling reminds me a bit of the pulp writers, like Chandler or Hammett. Her strength is in interesting plotting and unexpected twists, and her language is simple and to the point. The pulp writers were somewhat better with language, but it was mostly a question of whittling it down to the minimums, for stylistic reasons, of course, but also to appeal to a mass audience.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:15 AM on July 9, 2007


Popular books suck because they're popular. If lots of people like something, it must suck in some fundamental way because I am a classy intellectual reader and do not read popular fiction.

JK Rowling is not original at all. She didn't even invent the concept of magic or the term wizard! And an English boarding school? Like that's new. Unlike every other book in the scifi/fantasy section of bookstores, she is heavily borrowing concepts from earlier works. Dragons? it's so been done before. She's a fraud! Also, her writing style sucks! Her books have too many words and too many pages! Is there an abridged version? It's fucking time consuming to read. She is killing our children's interest in literature by making her books so long!

The Lord of the Rings is also too long, and the style totally sucks. There are too many descriptions of mountains, rivers, and stupid plants. If I wanted a geography lesson I'd take a course. Tolkien's English is too clear and the plot is suspenseful-- it is trash. Everyone knows that unclear syntax and inaccessibility are the hallmarks of great literature. I hear Tolkien's popular with young adults, so that only proves my point, since they have no taste. Plus there's all that bad poetry about elves. Tolkien stole wizards and elves and all his mythology from Scandinavian cultures anyway. And the Shire is so obviously England. I can't believe people read that shit. That's the sad truth of it-- Tolkien killed the English literary tradition and the English language at the same time. JK Rowling's just taking out the remnants. Stupid hobbits.

If she kills the Weasely twins, I'm boycotting the 8th novel.
posted by Tehanu at 9:41 AM on July 9, 2007 [37 favorites]


Wow, I was just going to bring up the Hammett comparison, Joakim. What Rowling has in common with him in terms of plot and pacing and dialogue (and I'm doing this from memory since I don't have her books around and haven't read one since the last one came out) is that their books are movielike. I use The Maltese Falcon in my Lit. and Film course because it's the next-best thing to a shooting script.

What I think appeals to many readers, especially kids, is that reading Harry Potter is less like reading and more like their more usual entertainment modes than some other books are.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2007


I think that's a really fair assessment of Hammett. He probably wouldn't have liked it, but then, he's dead and he doesn't get to play ;-).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it fits. Even the short stories read like short TV dramas. Now I won't be able to think of his stuff any other way! Damn you!

Rowling, though -- not so much. Plot-wise, I think she's more like Chandler. It's harder to make a movie outline out of a Chandler plot. And in prose style, she aspires to Chandler more than Hammett. (For my money, regarding Chandler and Hammett, Chandler is by far the more interesting stylist and Hammett the more interesting writer. Hammett's ethos is grittier and more real, for me; it feels more relevant to the world I experience, and more so still as I get older.)
posted by lodurr at 9:54 AM on July 9, 2007


dame, in my experience lately it's the offset published books that are crap. I recently borrowed from the library a brand new hardback copy of Hannibal Rising. The pages were not cut straight, the printing was blurry, and the paper was already turning yellow. The paperback I bought for myself more recently was much better quality. And I cannot tell the POD copies of my novel created by lulu.com from a professionally produced trade paperback. Neither can anybody else I've shown them to. Simply declaring that POD is crap doesn't make it so.
posted by localroger at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2007


Oh, wow, thanks for that brilliant Internet-ranger observation. Obviously they are shit in my opinion. I already said that. But hey, you couldn't get a real publisher to do your book, so you want to believe that those vanity presses are okay. Way to go.
posted by dame at 10:16 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't know why it is that when a writer becomes popular, as Tehanu notes, that writer is immediately seen as a hack and a phony.

At the very basic level, kids can identify with Harry, Hogwarts is the kind of school you'd want to go to and the magical world is much more interesting than the world we live in. The mysteries in the novel keep you reading to find out what is going on or to satisfy your own predictions about where the author is going with this or that plot twist. These books are the kind you find yourself re-reading for sheer enjoyment. They're fun. That's the level that many people who critique the books don't see beyond.

For many adult readers, though, there's a lot more behind the popularity of the Harry Potter series of novels than the initial appeal. J.K. Rowling does an excellent job at crafting a multi-leveled, in-depth environment that draws even the most mature readers in, much in the same way that Tolkien did.

The seven Harry Potter novels make up a body of work that is impressive for both the complex intertwining of the characters' plot lines and the maturation of the characters themselves.
Rowling spent years creating these characters, fleshing out the story lines, designing the framework for her novels.

Over time, though, within the novels, the magical world has changed--and I think this is why some have become disillusioned. The delicious savagery of the evil genius, Voldemort, has become secondary to the depressing bureaucracy of the Ministry of Magic. If we want depressing bureaucracies, sadly, we don't have to look into a series of books to find them these days.
posted by misha at 10:21 AM on July 9, 2007


jb: Heffers was a local chain of bookstores, but they were bought by Blackwells a few years back. They still trade under the Heffers name, but they're not independent any more.
posted by penguinliz at 10:40 AM on July 9, 2007


dame I do not understand what you are getting at. I am talking about the physical quality of the book, not the prose. The last offset published hardback I held in my hands was an embarrassment to the industry. The POD books have, regardless of the quality of their content, been exceptionally well crafted physical objects by contrast.

Exactly what is it about the quality of POD books that is inferior? And neither of us was talking about the content before your little ad hominem attack; I'm talking about the quality. Exactly how do you tell a POD book from the same title offset printed?

(And I know damn well why I can't get my book published conventionally. According to about 495 of 500 emails, from the 10,000 or so people who've read it online, the 350 people who sent me tips, and 200 who have bought the POD version, it has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Between the tips and sales I have made more money from MOPI than many beginning authors make from their first books, and that's with zero advertising or promotion other than word of mouth. So there.)
posted by localroger at 10:44 AM on July 9, 2007


Oh, wow, thanks for that brilliant Internet-ranger observation. Obviously they are shit in my opinion. I already said that. But hey, you couldn't get a real publisher to do your book, so you want to believe that those vanity presses are okay. Way to go.

Just wanted to highlight this comment, because it manages to compress an incredible amount of inanity into a very small space.

Well done!
posted by deadcowdan at 10:45 AM on July 9, 2007


I read William Gibson and Neal Stephanson, and it's not because of the poetry of their prose. I find Rowling's writing clunky, but I still love her stories.

I haven't read Hammet in a while, but comparing Rowlings to Chandler- well, what's the longest book Chandler wrote? A couple hundred pages? For the most part, Chandler's writing is very tight.

Not to derail, but if the movies aren't as impressive as they should be, it's though no fault of the majority of the cast, especially the adult characters. Even small parts, like Filch, have been cast with amazing actors.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:59 AM on July 9, 2007


Also, dame, there's a difference between vanity presses and self-publishing. I have published books with Watson-Guptill, Potter Craft (a division of Random House), Interweave Press (a major fiber arts publisher), North Light Books, Chronicle Books and several others.

I have also self-published books, and in fact, last year I started my own publishing company specifically *to* handle niche books that are flying under the big boys' radar. I'm not a "vanity publisher." A vanity publisher charges big bucks to bind and ineffectively promote crap that would never see the light of day at a regular publisher.

A self-publisher is, in this particular internet-ranger place in time, often taking advantage of a niche market and in return, earning more money than he or she would with a standard publishing contract. On my first two major publisher books, I earn on average 40 cents each, paid 2x per year after the titles earn out over their advance. On the titles independently-published by myself and others in the same genre, we earn several dollars per title. Big difference.

Just because you think POD and self-publishing is crap doesn't mean it is, and in fact, it's one of the only methods currently available to authors that takes advantage of new technology to level the playing field and create more income for authors/less for publishers.

Gee, sorry I don't feel like being poor for you.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:59 AM on July 9, 2007


Another strength of Rowling's is the sheer propulsive nature of the books. The story just MOVES, one damn thing after another. I remember picking up the first book and reading through the first chapter thinking well this is OK...I look up next and I'm five chapters in and I have to keep going just to see what's going to happen to the little shit next. Rowling puts the accelerator to the floor and doesn't let up until the denouement.
posted by Ber at 11:10 AM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Glasgow used to be rammed with great booksellers. James Thin, Dillons, Waterstones, Borders, John Smith's, a good few indies, the reader was spoilt for choice. Now Borders is talking about selling up, the Waterstones -- which used to be great -- is like an airport bookstall and the rest are shut. Grrr.
posted by bonaldi at 11:12 AM on July 9, 2007


When I said Rowling was more like Chandler than like Hammett, I should have expanded that IMO she's not in his league as a stylist. Very few are. He was a brilliant stylist, and a very economical writer for a person who wrote the way he did. It's like line-drawing in prose.

I meant she was more like Chandler than hammet with regard to the way things are sequenced. It's all nice and linear, sure, but it's not as crisply script-like as a Hammett story. And my impression is that as a screenwriter, Hammett was somewhat more successful than Chandler; if so, the contrast wouldn't be surprising.
posted by lodurr at 11:12 AM on July 9, 2007


My publisher can beat up your publisher.
posted by zennie at 11:13 AM on July 9, 2007


Were I a small bookseller in the UK I'd purchase every copy that Tesco had on the shelf at their below-wholesale price, and then sell then in my own shop for a pound or two mark-up. Job well-done.

As to the Potter-haters... WYFP? Jo has proven herself a whopping-good storyteller and has created characters that readers (me, among them) actually give a shit about.
posted by deCadmus at 11:14 AM on July 9, 2007


Yeh, I'm thinking the margins on that manouver would get pretty thin. Tesco is liable to set a short upper limit on number per customer, which means you've got to get all your staff rotating in and out of all the Tescos in town. Were I one of those staff, I would certainly hope to be paid for my time to do that. See where I'm going? You eat up a one-pound markup pretty fast.

Nice thinking, though. For a sole proprietor, it might be a worthwhile stunt.
posted by lodurr at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2007


My publisher can beat up your publisher.

This made me laugh, A LOT.

Especially since JK Rowling was roundly rejected 8 times when first seeking a publisher of her own -- and that was with an agent! (A good agent is harder to find than a publisher, in my experience as a nonfic author, and even harder for fiction writers, or so I'm told).

Had she written the first book a few years later, who knows? Maybe she would've done POD!

From here: "In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print run of only one-thousand copies, five-hundred of which were distributed to libraries. Today, such copies are each valued at between £16,000 and £25,000."

So, yeah. Just because you've got a big-deal publisher behind you doesn't mean you're good, and just because you self-publish doesn't mean you're bad. You're always up against what's already on the market and what's in the pipeline. Books about X were huge last year and books about Y are big now, so no one wants X, not even if it's the greatest X book ever.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:44 AM on July 9, 2007


bitter-girl.com: yeah, it's a volume thing. The UK/Commonwealth market has about 90 million punters while the US/Canada market has about 330 million. The UK/Commonwealth buy more books per capita, but not ridiculously more -- so total sales volume in that market amount to about 33% of the US/Canada volume.

Print runs are shorter. Reprint runs are shorter. And because it's all short, the discounts are tighter -- you don't get the economies of scale on an 8000 run of paperbacks that you do on a 30,000 run.
posted by cstross at 12:12 PM on July 9, 2007


Were I a small bookseller in the UK I'd purchase every copy that Tesco had on the shelf at their below-wholesale price, and then sell then in my own shop for a pound or two mark-up. Job well-done.



I had thought about companies doing this in the US with Amazon, but the big problem is that you wouldn't be able to sell to customers at midnight, though it might be worth doing for the non-midnight party customers.
posted by drezdn at 12:13 PM on July 9, 2007


I was wondering how long it would take the UK supermarkets to do to the book market what it did to the CD market. UK supermarkets, along with big box retailers in the US such as Best Buy, etc. have been undercutting specialist music stores for years by selling CDs as loss leaders. It may have been only a contributing factor to the overall devaluing of the CD (plenty of other obvious factors there) but it certainly hit the small retailers where it hurt.
posted by gfrobe at 12:23 PM on July 9, 2007


Rowling's characters are great. The setting is great. The plotlines are wonderful and suspenseful. But give me a copy of the 4th book and I can show you the climactic action scene, five pages full of ellipses and dashes and not one actual complete sentence, where I realized I just couldn't deal with her writing anymore. Her magic is in the world she created, not in her storytelling.
posted by casarkos at 12:31 PM on July 9, 2007


But give me a copy of the 4th book and I can show you the climactic action scene, five pages full of ellipses and dashes and not one actual complete sentence, where I realized I just couldn't deal with her writing anymore.

It's a pity then, you missed some of the latter chapters the sixth book, in particular "The Phoenix Lament," which has some of her best writing, to date, as well as some of her most poignant storytelling.
posted by deCadmus at 1:57 PM on July 9, 2007


What caught my eye, and my ire, was this 'petition to save Harry' business. Not even a true grassroots campaign—the petition was started by Waterstones, whose motives can hardly be in question—but oh, sweet Psyche in a satchel... Because you know they will get their one million signatures. From one million xylocephalous gloopaks who will witlessly support the starkly mercenary prostitution of a formerly pleasant fantasy. There's a plot, folks, there's an arc, and when it's naturally over it should be permitted to end. Who here read the latter Dune books? Any of the Pern books after the first six? Mm-hmm ... Notice how much they sucked?

Oh. ... Not at all, you say. ... Loved em, eh.

... Right-ho. Carry on, then.

Bertie and Jeeves and Marianne and Elinor and I will be over here, enjoying our foma of choice—to wit, that the much-vaunted Hallows turned out sufficiently Deathly after all; that Harry has indubitably bought the farm, or at the very least been better stripped of his magic than an unsold paperback of its cover; and that therefore the ill-advised Book Eight (tentative title: Harry Potter and the Cow of Cash, to be released in the States as Harry Potter and the Literary Dingleberry) never happened.
posted by eritain at 1:57 PM on July 9, 2007


And I called Jo up, and 15 minutes later, a drawing arrived of the Black family tree with 75 names and five generations.

Stolen from the Bible! And Tolkien. And... genealogy.

The mysteries in the novel keep you reading to find out what is going on or to satisfy your own predictions about where the author is going with this or that plot twist.

Stolen from Agatha Christie, who was also British and a bestselling author first.

five pages full of ellipses and dashes and not one actual complete sentence

Stylistic elements stolen from Emily Dickinson! Also from my 10th grade book report on The Old Man and the Sea, which received a low score due to my inability to write at the time.

Emily Dickinson dashed for just a few lines, which is further proof that merit is a product of page count. And you can't deny that her poem on dragon egg theft by broomstick was so much cooler.

/spoilers for my book report
posted by Tehanu at 1:59 PM on July 9, 2007


I glad Rowling made a gazillion dollars. It's very good thing when any fiction author can make some money. I don't understand why anybody should complain about that.

Yeah. I think she stinks. I think the wholly unoriginal Potter series is god awful. There are certainly MUCH better kids authors out there. But so what? Since when has TALENT mattered when making money?

I'm glad people like her a Stephen King can actually make a healthy living writing even if people think they suck. They keep publishers in business and that is good for everybody else. One of the few examples where trickle down actually works.
posted by tkchrist at 2:09 PM on July 9, 2007


I'm glad Rowling made a gazillion dollars. It's very good thing when any fiction author can make some money. I don't understand why anybody should complain about that.

Yeah. I think she stinks. I think the wholly unoriginal Potter series is god awful. There are certainly MUCH better kids authors out there. But so what? Since when has TALENT mattered when making money?

I'm glad people like her a Stephen King can actually make a healthy living writing even if people think they suck. They keep publishers in business and that is good for everybody else. One of the few examples where trickle down actually works.
posted by tkchrist at 2:09 PM on July 9, 2007


oops.
posted by tkchrist at 2:10 PM on July 9, 2007


deCadmus: Actually...sorry, I got a bit hyperbolic there. I did eventually read the next two books, and will probably get around to the last one some time after it comes out, but it's more out of a sense that I must know what happens to people in the end, and the magic, enjoyment, whatever I felt reading the first half of the series just isn't there anymore. It's a bit like the people who hated Episodes I and II and knew III would be dreck, but went to theaters anyway.
posted by casarkos at 2:53 PM on July 9, 2007


tkchrist: here in the UK, 80% of full-time authors make under 163;18K a year. 50% of the earnings of all writers go to the top 2%. The median income of a novelist is 163;4500 a year.

Take an author who's doing really well, earning 163;50,000 a year: they're in the 90% percentile and they're bumping along just below the bestseller list. Nevertheless, J. K. Rowling earns on the order of a thousand times as much as they do from writing.

Is Harry Potter really worth a thousand other good writers' living?

(This isn't a knock on J. K. Rowling, but a comment on the nature of the superstar system and what it does to consumer choice. Personally, I'd much rather see a flatter income curve and many more writers able to earn a living, than one or two stars and poverty for most.)
posted by cstross at 3:23 PM on July 9, 2007


Rowling's characters are great.

Except that the few characters who aren't flat, stock or foils...they don't actually grow or change. And they don't drive the plot; the plot drives them. Harry often spends much of the action unconscious. At the climax, he does what he's been told to do or what he has no other choice but to do.

The characters are interesting, as sketches, but I wouldn't agree that they're great. That said, I'd prefer that people read books that don't turn my crank than not read at all.

As for the book industry: print will be dead in twenty years. The last obstacle will be to mass-produce an inexpensive device with a long (12 hour+) battery life, a colour display resolution not significantly worse than print, and for it to be as light and easy-to-carry as a trade paperback. I'd also like to be able to watch last night's episode of my favourite TV show on it or listen to high-fidelity digital music while I read.

Once that's on the market -- and it will be, within ten years -- there will hardly be any need to buy a dead tree book in a store and the industry will slowly wither away.

As for price-slashing: I worked in the retail book trade for about a decade. The big boys like to order potentially big sellers in huge, huge quantities, discount them heavily, and then return what doesn't sell. When Chapters started doing this in Canada ten years ago, it nearly destroyed the Canadian publishing industry, and it killed off hundreds of independent bookstores. The net result, in Canada at least, has been a shrunken market with a comparatively small in-store selection, increased difficulty in ordering small-run books through (Canadian) online dealers and a reduction in Canadian content available in the bricks-and-mortar marketplace.

Not a big fan of large chain bookstores, but if my instinct is right, they're doomed anyway.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:50 PM on July 9, 2007


You know, bittergirl and lonefrontranger, I had a bad day and I took it out on you: sorry. That said, I think vanity publishing, which is what "self-publishing" is, is bad for both authors and readers. And leads to poorly made book-objects on top of it. You can disagree and I am fine with that, but like I said, as far as I have had experience, vanity presses have low quality in all ways, and if you feel your project is not low quality, it has been obscured by the general trend.
posted by dame at 5:45 PM on July 9, 2007


OK dame, I understand bad days. And I understand that much POD/vanity published stuff is dreck. (I except myself of course.) But I still don't understand what you mean by the quality always being bad. Again, I'm talking about the physical output; you said it was crap. I can hold a copy of my book as printed by Lulu and I literally cannot tell the difference between it and a "professionally" printed trade paperback. It's much better quality than some, especially hardbacks, which seem to be produced with execrable quality controls nowadays (especially ironic considering their price). You still haven't told me what it is that sets POD published product apart from offset published -- other things, such as design and prose, being equal. You said outright that you could tell and it annoys you. I'd like to know what it is you are seeing that I don't.
posted by localroger at 7:07 PM on July 9, 2007


Once that's on the market -- and it will be, within ten years -- there will hardly be any need to buy a dead tree book in a store and the industry will slowly wither away.

Printing may die, book stores (other than antiquarian and specialty shops) may die, and libraries may become cafes with information desks, but people will still be writing, editing, marketing, selling, buying, and reading (electronic) books for as long as reading is pleasurable to enough people. The selling part will be difficult, however, because everyone's a pirate these days, and that won't go away with lower prices, but people will try to sell books.
posted by pracowity at 11:42 PM on July 9, 2007


As for the book industry: print will be dead in twenty years.

I would be willing to wager any amount up to say twenty thousand dollars that this isn't the case.
posted by Justinian at 12:27 AM on July 10, 2007


I would be willing to wager any amount up to say twenty thousand dollars that this isn't the case.

I'm with you, only less moneyed up.
posted by Wolof at 12:30 AM on July 10, 2007


It's twenty years from now, after hyperinflation due to the national debt that's like a buck fifty.
posted by Justinian at 1:01 AM on July 10, 2007


cstross writes 'I've got nothing against Tim Waterstone's shop chain as originally constituted'

OK, it's Waterstones as originally constituted that I had in mind, but nevertheless, even today I don't see an enormous difference from the consumers point of view. Personally, I tend to not go in there, looking for a specific title or a specific author. I can get that stuff from Amazon without ever having to leave the house. I go to Waterstones on a fishing expedition -- checking out what's new in a range of genres. I really can't do this on Amazon, because I need to hold these in my hand, browse them, read a couple of pages and compare them with what else is on the shelves.

If I think back to Liverpool prior to Waterstones, we really just had three or four bookshops. The biggest, Philips, Son, and Nephew, had stuff on three floors, but all of them together didn't keep the range of stock that you get in Waterstones today. There's one shop that I do miss -- an independent book shop with a literary/alternative slant, but I think he'd gone bust long before Waterstones appeared -- and Waterstones actually has taken over many of his functions, selling imports, selling the quirky and unusual stuff you couldn't buy anywhere else.

And as for the various three for two offers -- they certainly induce me to buy more books than I would have done previously. Whereas, in the past, I might have just bought one book, today, if the book I wanted is available on a three for two deal, I'll definitely end up buying three. Surely that's better for writers, readers, publishers *and* distributors?

And Waterstones in Liverpool isn't actually very good. Waterstones in Manchester, in contrast, is hog heaven for a reader. The range of stock they carry in various genres is enormous. Now, perhaps it's just me, but if I were an author, I'd much rather my book was sitting out there on a bookshop shelf, regardless of the business practices of the retailer/distributor, than have it sitting in the warehouse of my publisher.

Just before I go, you probably don't remember me, but you were very helpful with advice when I was trying to learn unix on demon.ip.support.unix, back in the day.

*Long* time ago, now.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:15 AM on July 10, 2007


The UK/Commonwealth market has about 90 million punters while the US/Canada market has about 330 million

Size of market is not the reason for the price differentials between the UK and North America. The rights were sold separately, and Harry Potter in Canada is published by Raincoast Books - we get the British versions (British titles, words, etc), but in our own printing. So the market is only about 30 million large, and yet they are still half the price of what they are in Britain.

Prices are as culturally determined as they are economically determined. It's all about what people are willing to pay - and if your culture is such that books always cost half again to twice what they do in Canada, then you are willing to pay that much. Restaurant prices in Britain work the same way - they have always been higher than North America, so they always stay higher.
posted by jb at 5:24 AM on July 10, 2007


jb: The cost of living in London exceeds the cost of living in Tokyo, according to recent surveys.

(But this is a thread on publishing, not rip-off Britain.)
posted by cstross at 5:55 AM on July 10, 2007


people will still be writing, editing, marketing, selling, buying, and reading (electronic) books for as long as reading is pleasurable to enough people

This says less than nothing about my assertion.

I would be willing to wager any amount up to say twenty thousand dollars that this isn't the case.


I'd bet my life that in twenty years, the market for new non-digital books will have dropped by 95% or more. 20 years ago, few thought that vinyl or casette would essentially disappear.
posted by solid-one-love at 6:49 AM on July 10, 2007


Sorry, didn't mean for that to come out quite so dickish, pracowity. You are addressing the publishing side of the issue, which I and the original articles are not.

I am addressing the distribution and sale of print. The people who work on that end of the equation will, almost to a person, not be working in the industry in 20 years. There will be no jobs for them. Grocery chains will not need book buyers. Very few bookstores will exist, and they (as with digital music today) will not be stocking digital media. And so forth.

People may try to sell books, but people may try to sell MP3s, too. It won't be happening in brick-and-mortar shops, and it'll be done by a few large companies, online, with comparatively small staffs.
posted by solid-one-love at 7:16 AM on July 10, 2007


Tell you what, come back to me when the electronics industry has produced a device lighter than a trade paperback, with 'paper' that can be turned like a real book, read in low light, doesn't react badly to a glass of water spilled on it (i.e. just needs wiping down), cheap enough that if I lose it or it's stolen I'm not overly distressed, hardy enough that I can drop it from a couple of metres up dozens of times and not see any appreciable damage *and* have storage for a few thousand books. Then, and only then, will there be a genuine, sustainable and print-killing e-book industry.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of e-Books. I have a bunch of 'em on my PDA (including the complete works of Shakespeare and cstross's own book Accelerando), and I read them, but usually only when I don't have dead-tree to hand, like when I forget my book in the morning on the train to work. Ironically, it's CC e-Books that have led me to buy a whole bunch of paper books - they're fantastic, practically-zero-cost marketing devices for the current edge-cases like me who don't mind flicking through a 100,000 words with a stylus.

But paper books are the most incredibly simple, low-cost information storage devices we currently have, with an incredibly simple and easy to understand 'user-interface'. Until the electronics industry either effectively mimics that interface, or comes up with a paradigm-busting alternative, print is here to stay, although the business models that support printed books will flex and change (viz Stross, Doctorow et al and their free online eBooks).
posted by Happy Dave at 8:46 AM on July 10, 2007


To expand and extend Happy Dave: Print is here to stay as long as there are legacy users in those inconvenient places that us western geeks don't like to think about, like Africa, Asia, and certain suburbs of Detroit.

And there are billions of those users.
posted by lodurr at 9:47 AM on July 10, 2007


Tell you what, come back to me when

Even with all of those features, within ten years for release and twenty for mass adoption (except for dropping -- you can't even drop a mass-market paperback from two metres two dozen times without appreciable damage, so expecting the same from an electronic device is ludicrous). People bring their $400 iPods to the beach, so I don't think waterproof and shock-resistant will be key features that will prevent them from supplanting the printed page.

But paper books are the most incredibly simple, low-cost information storage devices we currently have, with an incredibly simple and easy to understand 'user-interface'. Until the electronics industry either effectively mimics that interface, or comes up with a paradigm-busting alternative, print is here to stay

Again: within ten years. And don't get me wrong: I am a big fan of print. I have tens of thousands of books (seriously -- I needed a 20-foot truck the last time I moved).

Within ten years we will have low-power-usage devices the size of a trade paperback that will hold thousands of books and have wireless access to many more. Not just novels, but colour content. The bottom end will run about a hundred bucks, which is nearly disposable when it comes to electronics. And within twenty years, anyone who reads will carry one of these sub-16-ounce devices pretty much everywhere they go. And printed books, magazines and newspapers will have total sales pretty close to current sales of vinyl records.

The vinyl disc is about the lowest-tech means of storing audio, but that didn't stop it from being replaced utterly.

Think back 20 years. What kind of media exist today that were unthinkable to even the bleeding-edge techie in 1987? The Web, the ubiquitous Internet, the iPod, the rapid death of vinyl and tape, the approaching death-throes of the CD. Every movie you ever wanted, every comic book, every technical manual, every novel that ever sold more than 10,000 copies, all available (legally or otherwise) on demand from your home computer.

The idea that the printed page will be immune to this accelerating rate of change is not compelling to me.
posted by solid-one-love at 9:48 AM on July 10, 2007


lodurr: and they still listen to vinyl. That's not particularly relevant to the subject at hand, which is the print publishing industry in Britain and, by extension, the West.
posted by solid-one-love at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2007


You're right, Vinyl vs. CD is completely unrelated to the death/persistence of print, since print can be read without intervening technology and vinyl can't. Point well taken. If that was indeed your point, it's hard to tell.

Or was it your point that the persistence/death of print is not relevant to the discussion of publishing in the UK/US? If so, why were you arguing about it?

I mean, it's not as though the rest of the world (and its markets) go away when we cease to believe in them. (Or their relevance.)
posted by lodurr at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2007


It was one example of an outdated media, lodurr. There are others. Fresco painting, for example, is a medium that requires no intervening technology and which was tremendously popular and later supplanted by other forms of art due to changes in technology. Yes, vinyl is not precisely analogous to books. No, this is not a compelling refutation of my point.

Let me spell out my point in one paragraph: Harry Potter in Tesco's is hurting the traditional printed book retail industry in Britain. This is just one example of how the traditional printed book retail industry is being hurt in Britain and the West (vis: my Chapters example). However, these issues are minor compared to what I consider the rapid and inevitable death of the Western print publishing industry in toto due to advancing technology.

I mean, it's not as though the rest of the world (and its markets) go away when we cease to believe in them. (Or their relevance.)

Yes, they're low-tech. But we're not really selling them vinyl or print right now. They're pressing and printing their own, just as we don't sell them the mud from which they build their huts nor the twigs from which they chew the bark.

That isn't going to change, and it isn't going to get the former Waldenbooks employee back off unemployment insurance in any case. When the last Borders closes its doors, their trade sales staff won't be packing up and moving to Upper Armpitistan, and Harcourt & Brace won't be looking to ship 5,000 copies of the new John Irving book to Phnom Penh to make up for lost American sales.

I don't have to cease to believe in the relevance of those markets because there's little relevance to believe in.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:33 AM on July 10, 2007


...because there's little relevance to believe in.

Umm.... you kind of just demonstrated their relevance: "But we're not really selling them vinyl or print right now. They're pressing and printing their own..." IOW, we're not making money off the legacy market.

Anyway, you were stating your objections in pretty absolute terms: "PRINT IS DED!" It's only when you're forced to limit the case that it becomes "print in the west".

And seriously, could you make your writing voice just a tad more imperialistic and ethnocentric? "...the mud from which they build their huts nor the twigs from which they chew the bark" could be made so much more dismissive with a little work. How about: 'Who cares about those sub-human Africans, building their huts of the filthy mud they live in, and chewing bark to make their lowly clothing?' There, that sounds much more dismissive, now.
posted by lodurr at 10:44 AM on July 10, 2007


... and anyway, I forgot my point: New media tend to be volatile; old, solid media (like print, and paintings, and frescos -- btw, what "intervening technology" is required to view frescos, other than stepladders?) tends not to be so volatile.

Ebooks will stand or fall on the persistence of their formats. And the security and soundness of their storage media. In lots of unfavorable conditions, like heat, wet, drought, smashing, droping in the mud (from which they build their huts....).
posted by lodurr at 10:47 AM on July 10, 2007


Umm.... you kind of just demonstrated their relevance: "But we're not really selling them vinyl or print right now. They're pressing and printing their own..." IOW, we're not making money off the legacy market.

Um, no. I stated pretty clearly that we would not be making money from them: "Harcourt & Brace won't be looking to ship 5,000 copies of the new John Irving book to Phnom Penh to make up for lost American sales."

btw, what "intervening technology" is required to view frescos, other than stepladders?)

None. As I stated, pretty clearly, "Fresco painting, for example, is a medium that requires no intervening technology"

If you can demonstrate that you've actually read what I've written, I'm happy to continue this conversation and address the remainder of your comments.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:56 AM on July 10, 2007


Well, now you're at the point where you're trying to get out of it, so I suppose I should just let you. (After all, what possible acceptable answer could I give to your last sentence?)

Really, I just started coming back at you because you seemed to be adopting this arrogant first-worlder's attitude that nothing outside of the technogically-enabled sphere of influence really matters. I don't see you doing anything to convince me otherwise; if that's where you're coming from, you should just embrace it. Lots of people have. If that's not where you're coming from, then you should ditch the childish "prove you can read" games and explain why volatile high-tech solutions are inherently superior to durable low-tech solutions. And if that's not your point, explain where I've misunderstood you.
posted by lodurr at 11:26 AM on July 10, 2007


What possible resposne could you have given? "Oops, sorry, I misread what you wrote. Mea culpa. I will re-read each of your postings with more care and then respond." That, minus the implication of racism and the other attempts to direct the discussion at me rather than the topic.

There's nothing -- and this bears repeating: nothing -- childish about expecting that the person with whom you are having an online discussion is actually reading what you wrote. You clearly were not, as I more than adequately showed above. This is not semantics or bluster, not immature or meaningless. Not even a tiny bit.

I cannot trust that if I respond to you that you will actually read what I wrote and respond to what I wrote. So I'm not going to invest that effort.

I am not "trying to get out of it"; I am quite happy to continue discussing the topic with anyone who responds to what I wrote (and not to what they have imagine that I have written -- seriously, you accused me of taking a position exactly opposite of what I stated in plain language; that shit may fly elsewhere, but not here).
posted by solid-one-love at 11:57 AM on July 10, 2007


There's nothing -- and this bears repeating: nothing -- childish about expecting that the person with whom you are having an online discussion is actually reading what you wrote.

Yes, but there's something very childish about petulantly refusing to continue until you get exactly the answer you want.

And I didnt' really need to imply the racism. You implied it yourself. Really, reading my "places geeks don't want to think about" as implied racism and playing up to it was not a clever move. I did state (did not imply) that there was a lot of ethnocentrism and the strong appearance of imperialism in your statements. You can call that "racism"; I didn't, and I wouldn't. (And you give me a load of crap about imputing arguments to you....)

As for accusing you of stating a position exactly the opposite of what you stated -- well, I'm glad you caught that. I was beginning to think you hadn't. See, the point (which you still don't seem to get, even though you made it yourself in a succeeding post) was that you were making an argument that didn't have any bearing, and obviously so. Vinyl v. CDs is not even close to a valid analogy of print v. digital. It's not just imperfect -- it's completely non-germaine. The issue isn't the display technology, it's the medium.

As for "that shit don't fly here" -- give me a fucking break. Where do you think "this" is? That shit flies here all the time. Pretending otherwise just makes you look like some sweet little puritan.
posted by lodurr at 12:42 PM on July 10, 2007


As for accusing you of stating a position exactly the opposite of what you stated -- well, I'm glad you caught that.

Oh, fuck you that you were using that as a rhetorical device; you were not.

I'm done with you. Not only are you demonstrably lazy, but dishonest, too. I have better things to do.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2007


Heh. You know, the thing is, I thought about whether I should add "<sarcasm>" tags around parts of that post, but I figured I was being obvious enough already. Obviously I was wrong.

Though, seriously, now that it's out there, and you've gone back and looked at that post? And you still can't tell I was being sarcastic? Seriously? Wow.
posted by lodurr at 2:52 PM on July 10, 2007


A little late to the party, but I just have to say that Rowling didn't draw me in with the writing -- even as a children's book it's not that great.

But it's not bad either. As someone (at 29) who thinks youth literature is far better than most adult fiction, it drew me in from the moment someone gave me the first book as a birthday present I turned 21.

That happened just because of the pure entertainment of her story. I think it might have to do with The Boy In The Cupboard. This boy, with an awful life who found this magical other world. It's everything a child dreams of. Or at least it's everything a child who feels they are in a bad place dreams of.

It's the ultimate child fantasy.
posted by aclevername at 6:17 PM on July 10, 2007


The Boy In The Cupboard

Do you mean The Indian In The Cupboard?
posted by ericb at 6:35 PM on July 10, 2007


ericb: No, I didn't mean the Indian in The Cupboard (although I have read that too). I capitalized it only because it seemed like a bit of an archetype -- a modern Oliver Twist, if you will.

The boy in the cupboard who is really a wizard is the ultimate in "I wish I were adopted" lore.
posted by aclevername at 8:18 PM on July 10, 2007


I should probably add that when I say The Boy In The Cupboard I mean Harry Potter.
posted by aclevername at 8:20 PM on July 10, 2007


I always thought of it as a pretty clear exemplar of the Tom Brown's School Days trope -- the Virtuous Boarding School Experience. But then, I'm sensitized to that reading because Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys" is one of my favorite biographical essays, evar.

I'll have to tell my wife about the phrase "boy in the cupboard." She uses the first Potter book sometimes in Literature and Culture classes as a coming-of-age story.
posted by lodurr at 5:03 AM on July 11, 2007


I always thought of it as a pretty clear exemplar of the Tom Brown's School Days trope -- the Virtuous Boarding School Experience.

Man, I wish I would still be alive a century from now when someone writes Malfoy.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:41 AM on July 11, 2007


No kidding. I didn't realize the "Flashman" books were about the bully from Tom Brown's... until I was looking for those links. Now I might just have to read them.
posted by lodurr at 10:06 AM on July 11, 2007


... and if I were Jo Rowling, I might be working on a ribald Malfoy And The Ministry Of Truth under a pseudonym right now.
posted by lodurr at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2007


lodurr: that Orwell essay, plus some supporting links (http://www.st-cyprians-school.org.uk/ is oddly defensive - I wonder if it's run by a relative) deserve an FPP of their own.
posted by Leon at 4:23 AM on July 12, 2007


Hmm. I seem to recall that link being in the Wikipedia entry for that essay, but it wasn't attached to the etext link I posted, at least so far as I can see.

The St. Cyprian's site you link is pretty defensive and self-congratulatory, for sure. Here's what they have to say about Orwell's essay:
However Blair repaid the efforts that were put in for him in very poor coin. “A very small boy, with a very large chip on his shoulder”, was how Mum Wilkes recalled young Eric Blair. This perception might be confirmed by reading Orwell’s distorted description of the school in an essay he wrote based on it. In spite of or perhaps because of all they did for him, Orwell hated the Wilkes and he wrote about them in a piece so libellous it could not be published while they were alive. He was obviously a confused and paranoid child with serious attitude problems compounded by intellectual snobbery. Mum’s overwhelming motherliness and Lewis’s conscientious work ethic must have jarred on him.
What's intriguing to me is that you can more or less predict that the Wilkes and later St. Cyprian's apologists would have just this reaction, based on Orwell's presentation of them. They quite simply have radically different experiences of the same place, and there's good reason to suppose that has a lot to do with social class.
The boys of the scholarship class were not all treated alike. If a boy were the son of rich parents to whom the saving of fees was not all-important, Sambo would goad him along in a comparatively fatherly way, with jokes and digs in the ribs and perhaps an occasional tap with the pencil, but no hair-pulling and no caning. It was the poor but ‘clever’ boys who suffered. Our brains were a gold-mine in which he had sunk money, and the dividends must be squeezed out of us. Long before I had grasped the nature of my financial relationship with Sambo, I had been made to understand that I was not on the same footing as most of the other boys. In effect there were three castes in the school. There was the minority with an aristocratic or millionaire background, there were the children of the ordinary suburban rich, who made up the bulk of the school, and there were a few underlings like myself, the sons of clergyman, Indian civil servants, struggling widows and the like. These poorer ones were discouraged from going in for ‘extras’ such as shooting and carpentry, and were humiliated over clothes and petty possessions. I never, for instance, succeeded in getting a cricket bat of my own, because ‘Your parents wouldn't be able to afford it’. This phrase pursued me throughout my schooldays. At St Cyprian's we were not allowed to keep the money we brought back with us, but had to ‘give it in’ on the first day of term, and then from time to time were allowed to spend it under supervision. I and similarly-placed boys were always choked off from buying expensive toys like model aeroplanes, even if the necessary money stood to our credit. Flip, in particular, seemed to aim consciously at inculcating a humble outlook in the poorer boys. ‘Do you think that's the sort of thing a boy like you should buy?’ I remember her saying to somebody — and she said this in front of the whole school: ‘You know you're not going to grow up with money, don't you? Your people aren't rich. You must learn to be sensible. Don't get above yourself!’ There was also the weekly pocket-money, which we took out in sweets, dispensed by Flip from a large table. The millionaires had a sixpence a week, but the normal sum was threepence. I and one or two others were only allowed twopence. My parents had not given instructions to this effect, and the saving of a penny a week could not conceivably have made any difference to them: it was a mark of status. Worse yet was the detail of the birthday cakes. It was usual for each boy, on his birthday, to have a large iced cake with candles, which was shared out at tea between the whole school. It was provided as a matter of routine and went on his parents’ bill. I never had such a cake, though my parents would have paid for it readily enough. Year after year, never daring to ask, I would miserably hope that his year a cake would appear. Once or twice I even rashly pretended to my companions that this time I was going to have a cake. Then came tea-time, and no cake, which did not make me more popular.
(I apologize for teh long para, but this essay is an artifact from the era of print and of old print, to boot, when people just wrote like that.) Basically, Orwell and the other boys of lesser economic standing are being trained to stay that way. The system needed intelligent worker bees to do real work, and it needed drones to pretend to manage them. Occasionally that system is going to generate a sport like Eric Blair, who'll go on to describe it publicly and unsentimentally in terms of his own experience. And of course the drones, who've had a completely different experience and never even realized it, will find his account scandalous.

FPP? Then I'd have to come and watch people ignore it. But as long as I'm expounding, I'll toss out a prop to another favorite "virtuous" boarding school tale, Peter Hoeg's Borderliners. He's doing something similar, there: Telling a story from a POV that's clearly highly subjective and more than a little mistaken about the fundamental nature of his experience, at least from our perspective. But there are things about his experience (an orphan and ward of the state since infancy) that are nearly impossible for most of us to really understand. I'm sure representatives from his "Biehl's Academy" are similarly scandalized at his account.
posted by lodurr at 6:34 AM on July 12, 2007


Hey, anybody remember when this posting was about Harry Potter and how the series was destroying the British book industry?

Bloomsbury has responded to criticism people have been making, and outlines why the UK market is unique.
posted by humblepigeon at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2007


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