Friday, March 4, 2011

A Grumpy Author writes...

I've been cantankerous all week. The week before, visiting family, I contrived to fall quite spectacularly and bash my head on the end of a door. No real damage was done, other than to my pride, but I have been sporting two quite exquisite, colourful 'black' eyes. My head also ached for a good few days which didn't help my mood. Thankfully the part of West London where I live is full of so many posers that no one notices another idiot wearing sunglasses under steel grey skies in the rain, but having to go incognito hardly cheered me up.

Then earlier this week I came down with a virus. On Wednesday I gave up and went to bed and pulled the covers over my swollen, bruised head and slept. When I woke up I found that England (stop sniggering Michael and Stan!) had been beaten in the cricket World Cup (I said stop sniggering!)  by Ireland. Big deal, some of you may say. Well it was. It probably ranks with Australia beating the US at baseball, or Iran beating Brazil at football. Ireland are no mugs - many of their players make a living in English professional cricket, and their very best are poached for our national side - but still, this was a major shock. At first I thought good old Ireland, and how this was beneficial for a tournament that was becoming insufferably long and boring. Then I received a few gloating texts from Irishmen with no previous interest in cricket, and then I went online and read a stream of invective from more Irishmen about how it was punishment for the arrogance of English players and fans. I can't speak for the players, but English cricket fans are the most self-deprecating, fatalistic, pessimistic bunch of supporters around. My graciousness, which was echoed by many other English cricket fans I know, dissipated. I wish we'd hammered them.

Still, then came Thursday, my virus was clearing and it was World Book Day. Surely I was cheered by this? After all, last week I wrote about closing libraries and closing minds, and here was a day that celebrated reading. So I was happy, right? Wrong. Many of you in other countries are probably frowning and wondering how you missed World Book Day. You didn't. 'World' Book Day in the UK is held on a different day to the rest of the, er, world, who hold it on April 23rd, organised by UNESCO. The reason we moved it earlier, so the cynics say, is that post-Christmas, pre-spring is a notoriously slow sales time, and something like World Book Day helps give people a little push to the checkouts. A case of 'Bugger UNESCO, let's hear it for Tesco'. Though I have no real problem with this. Bookshops need support. Anything that promotes reading is to be encouraged. But why the heck can't we call it UK Book Day or National Book Day? We cricket fans might not be arrogant, but our literary cognoscenti sure are.

I also don't quite what to make of this year's fancy initiative, World Book Night. In the past the organisers have given away book tokens or free books to kids. Great idea. This year, they've encouraged people to volunteer to give away free books to people in the name of promoting reading. The aim is to hand out a million books. Another great idea? I'm not so sure. For a start, 25 books have been chosen and there seems something arbitrary about the choice. 40,000 copies of each book have been printed, royalties nobly waived, and 20,00 volunteers tasked with giving away 48 copies each on Saturday night, March 5th. Many of these volunteers  have organised all manner of sociable and innovative ways to give away their books (at least I hope they have. Wandering down the street and thrusting a copy of The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell into the face of a homeless man might end up promoting violence rather than reading.) Great eh?

Hmmm. I don't want to sound churlish, and I certainly don't subscribe to the view that it's wrong to give away books and it's wrong to suggest books should be free, but I can't help thinking there might be better ways to promote reading. For example, ask people who can afford it to go to their local bookshop, preferably independent, buy a book and then hand it on to a friend or a complete stranger, or their library or local school or whatever. Many of the authors on the list don't need the cash, but the £40k the publishers have stumped up on producing special editions for giveaway could have been money spent on paying for or promoting the books of several other authors, and in the suggestion I outline, this way bookshops benefit too, together with publishers and authors and agents.

Or am I being too uncharitable and shortsighted? I shared these views with someone I know and they said if I was one of the selected authors I may be more open to the idea. Maybe. I'd like to think not, and I certainly don't feel this is motivated by jealousy. My envy is saved for those who sell billions, not have them given away (only kidding...) I just don't think it's a very good idea. I could be wrong. I often am. Maybe handing out tonnes of free books will create a spurt in reading and book buying and lending and I'll look like the curmudgeon I probably am. But I'll take the risk. On World National Book Night I'm going to go to my local bookshop, buy a book and give it to my kid's school or the local library.


Dan - Friday


  1. " 'A case of 'Bugger UNESCO, let's hear it for Tesco'."

    The sentiment is understandable but, based on my long-standing commitment to British mysteries, I know that Tesco is a supermarket chain that seems to have cornered the market on all things comestible. Should they be applauded for stealing the book market as well?

    Actually, there has been, for about twenty years, an agreement between one of the biggest grocery store chains in the northeast United States and Barnes&Noble. The bookstore has the aisle right in the middle of the store; it can't be missed. My kids knew that they weren't going to get any candy at the check out but they figured I wouldn't say no to a book.

    The only way I can think of that would get people to take some time to read would be a national shutting-down of web activity, cell phones, and all things beginning with "i". Even those of us who are old enough to know better believe that the faster something goes, the better it is. Books take time and attention. The reading of a book is usually a solitary pursuit. Think of all the Facebook posts and Tweets that would be missed in an hour.

    Handing someone a book, especially when the giver doesn't know the particular taste of the receiver, seems doomed to failure. Unless, of course, it is about vampires. It seems women and teenage girls share a love for all things vampiric especially if the vampire is a thin, somewhat androgynous male (I was going to write "pale male" but that would be going over the top on a couple of levels).

    Are there no grown-ups anymore, grown-ups who savor a bit of the quiet time that reading affords?


  2. Beth,

    Thanks. I think your comment about handing someone a book when you don't know the taste of the receiver being doomed to failure kind of nails it for me.

    As for quiet time, I have to say with three kids and work and all that I find it difficult to set aside time for reading. I find myself going to bed earlier and earlier in order to get that valuable time. If a books good, I'm up there soon after the kids!


  3. Hi, Dan -- Sorry about the black eyes and the flu. I've got one myself, but since I can't blame you for infecting me, I'll just have to keep my invective bottled up to pour on someone nearer.

    I like you in sour mode. Let's have more of it.

  4. I'll be shooting from the hip more often Tim.

    And if you think this is sour, wait until I blog about my experiences in British publishing the past two years...