Tuesday, April 28, 2009

long and winding road

Every so often readers write in offering to sell copies of The Last Samurai and asking how to set this up. If they were professional booksellers, obviously, they wouldn't need to ask; these are people who run, as it might be, a yarn shop, or a pet supplies store, who nevertheless feel that the lives of their customers, denied the unguessed-at joys of the Eskimo Book of Knowledge and Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, are blighted and that Something Must Be Done.

Publishers love to complain about how hard it is to sell books; two particular areas of grievance are the decline of independent bookstores and the ruthlessness of the big chains. It's hard to get books into the big chains; once there, a book gets a couple of weeks' shelf-time, after which it is (if unsold) returned to the publisher at the publishers' expense. Another point often made is that books achieve success by word of mouth - people are likelier, it seems, to buy a book on the recommendation of a friend than they are after reading a good review. No one really knows how to orchestrate word of mouth, so it's haaaaaaaaaaaaaard, it's haaaaaaaaaaard, it's just so haaaaaaaaaaaaard. Mwaaaaaaaaaaah.

A couple of recent interviews on Poets & Writers revisited the themes (4 young editors, 4 literary agents; I passed them on to two writer friends. Response A: Fuck you pal. Response B: I can never read these things without wanting to kill myself.

Agents and editors alike talked about falling in love with a book, how important it was to fall in love with a book, how it was simply not possible to get books in stores unless everyone down the line had fallen in love with the book. Something about this called to mind Shaw's Arms and the Man: the play in which Shaw sets the notion of warfare as won by heroic gallant charges against the modern type of warfare, won by logistics, technical expertise, access to resources.

Suppose we imagine a system rather different from the one we have now. The sale of books is not confined to specialist outlets; if you walk into a hardware store, or a pet supplies store, or a hairdresser's, or a doctor's waiting room, if you check into a hotel, if you turn up at a restaurant, you will always find a few books on sale - books chosen, presumably, according to the taste of the proprietor. Or chosen, maybe, after urgent recommendation from the proprietor's friends.

A couple of points spring to mind:

First, precisely because this is not a bookstore, the lucky few are not in competition with a whole bookstore full of other books. They have the level of prominence that in a bookstore comes with display on a front table - something publishers generally have to pay to achieve.

Second, because this is not a bookstore, possible buyers are not drawn exclusively from the (I gather) small pool of people who go to bookstores. The books are seen by the very much larger pool of people who are (I gather) put off by bookstores, but happily go to, as it might be, yarn shops, pet supplies shops, hardware shops.

It seemed to me that I should do my bit to bring about this desirable world, so I bit the bullet. That is, I forced myself to do something I had been shirking for months, if not years: I called the Customer Service line of HarperCollins, who are the US distributor for The Last Samurai.

The number, for those who want to try it out for themselves, is 1-800-242-7737. You call and get a recorded menu (the sort of thing that leaves my mother in tears). If you pick 2, which I think was new orders, you get put through to a human being. I got Lauren. I explained that I was trying to streamline the process for readers who might like to sell the book in non-bookselling outlets; what sort of price would they have to pay? How many books would they be expected to order? Well, says L, it all depends; the would-be customers would all need to call separately and talk to a service rep who would determine etc. etc.

I say: Well, but look, I'm just trying to remove obstacles. It's absurdly inefficient to make every single person call up and play phone tag; I just want to give people a fixed deal that they can put in place without a lot of hassle.

I say: Look, everyone is talking about how publishing is going into freefall, the big publishers are laying off staff right and left, Bob Miller left Hyperion to go to HarperStudio to try to fix the system and one of the major problems is that the chains all insist on returns. A retailer who just wants to make a book available to customers isn't going to care about returns, so we should all want to make this easier, I'm just trying to facilitate

Lauren says she will put me through to Stan at Hyperion. There's a short pause. I get Stan. I explain what I'm trying to do.

Stan is willing to reveal that the normal discount given booksellers is 45% off the cover price. I say, And what would someone need to do to place an order? Do they really have to call and go through this hassle? Isn't there a way to place an order online or a form they can send in or something?

He says: They can send an e-mail to orders@harpercollins.com, if they don't mind giving credit card details in an e-mail. Or they can fax an order, the fax number is 1-800-822-4090.

I say: OK, and is there some minimum number of copies someone would need to order? How does this work, exactly?

Stan says: These are not booksellers?

HD: No.

Stan: Well, to open an account they'd have to make an initial payment of $450.

HD: [I'm going mad. I'm going mad. Can they be serious? Can they possibly be serious? You think some guy who runs a hardware store, who out of the goodness of his heart has agreed to stock 10 copies of my book, is going to make an initial payment of $450!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! to set up the account?]

But the thing is, though I'm going berserk, I realize that Stan did not set up this policy. It's not his fault. It would be unfair to start raving at Stan. I say again that everyone says publishing is in freefall, no one knows what to do, the big problem is that independents are closing and the big chains are ruthless about returns so we should look for other solutions, and that this seems like a big obstacle in the path of people who would happily stock a book, but I realize he did not make the policy so I will just write about it on my blog.

It's hard to be sane. The reason I put off calling the Customer Service number was that I was sure the business of selling books would face stiff opposition from an unhelpful publisher. And it's boring, yes; Jenny Turner said the other day that most people aren't interested in these things. But wotthehell wotthehell.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

more on Baumann

Got a belated comment from a reader, Glen McGhee, on an old post on Baumann, which I am now hauling out of the comments folder because I liked his quotation of Elias:

But I have to admit -- even though few recognize that Marx's first encounter with alienation was in the div of labour context -- I had not given a thought to it being a mechanism of moral displacement, or, the "social production of moral indifference."

It is, of course, just a short jump to the kinds of groupthink that threaten the global financial system.

And this is where Bauman can be extended, I think: what he calls "moral" is really also cognitive, and the creation of the kinds of moral deficits by effective bureaucracies that he describes, for example, the upwards displacement through a hierarchical chain of command, and the deficiencies that accumulate at its base, also describes the accumulation of cognitive deficits as well. The implications of this should be obvious.

But Bauman misses a chance on page 22 of having Max Weber blow his horn for one of Bauman's key concepts: the required moral neutrality of the small cog in the large bureaucratic machine -- Viz. "Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces" (Gerth/Mills 95). Bold not quoted by Bauman! Wow! Without this moral indifference, "the whole f****** apparatus would fall to pieces." Indeed!

Yes, everyone should read Bauman, especially if they are interested in bureaucratic theory (see link).

Bauman isn't interested in power, as say Foucault is. He wants to understand moral collapse, and genocide. He is somewhat interested in taken-for-grantedness, and social institutions, but not power.

If there is room, I wanted to post some Norbert Elias, whom Bauman uses, for Rachel:
More and more groups, and with them more and more individuals, tend to become dependent on each other for their security and the satisfaction of their needs in ways which, for the most part, surpass the comprehension of those involved.

It is as if first thousands, then millions, then more and more millions walked through this world with their hands and feet chained together by invisible ties. No one is in charge. No one stands outside. Some want it this way, others that. They fall upon each other and, vanquishing or defeated, still remain chained to each other.

No one can regulate the movements of the whole unless a great part of them are able to understand -- to see, as it were, from outside -- the whole patterns they form together. And they are not able to visualize themselves as part of these larger patterns because, being hemmed in and moved uncomprehendingly hither and thither in ways which none of them intended, they cannot help being preoccupied with the urgent, narrow and parochial problems which each of them has to face.

--- Norbert Elias, British Journal of Sociology, 1956.

(The original post is here.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

couper la difficulté en quatre

I got a wonderful e-mail from a Russian reader, Elena Davos, who has kindly allowed me to quote some of it:

It all started with “The Last Samurai”.

In 2002 I worked as PR manager for the Sheraton hotel in Moscow, Russia and met a lot of interesting people, at work and after-hours. One beautiful winter evening a British journalist invited me for a cup of tea to his studio not far from the hotel. We talked about everything and about nothing, drinking our tea in the kitchen as many Russians do. And I asked something, and he answered something, and I told something and it was time to say goodbye. So he went to his living room and came back with a big yellow book. On the cover of the book there was a picture of a boy holding a book.

And the journalist said something like:

You know, may be, being a single mom of a 5 y.o. girl, you will find this stuff interesting. It is about how to teach kids foreign languages. I think you’ll enjoy it.

[... ]

For one point the journalist was right however. Having finished We Never Get Off at Sloane Square I quickly taught my daughter Greek letters.

It was not like with Ludo. She could not wake up at 7 am and ask for a book to work with. But anyway she learned how to read in French and in Russian using the method you described in the book: highlighting the words she knew with a yellow Stabilo. Writing with Latin letters Russian words. Asking me millions of questions I didn’t know the answer to. I’m not (at all) a patient teacher, I wasn’t born to be a teacher, I never wanted to be a teacher. But somehow “couper la difficulté en quatre” helped me. It helped me with my daughter; it helped me with my son. During my Russian lessons in Paris it helped me too. But I’m piping into Volume Two, as Psmith once said, so -

…as at that time my daughter liked to listen to my stories, I told her some bits of what happened in Odyssey. She immediately asked who Homer was, and it blocked me again, and I had to stop, to reread, and to describe several points of view, about Unitarians and others, as simple as possible.

It breaks my heart to tell the truth, but I wasn’t persistent enough and she doesn’t remember how to read Greek letters now. She still remembers though what happens in Odyssey 5, 6 & 7. She started Japanese this winter. She is 11 y. o.

I’m happily looking forward to teaching languages to my 3 y.o. son who is bilingual and twice as stubborn as my daughter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

the g is silent, or, the panda's thumb

An old interview with Brian Kernighan, translated from the Romanian...

The languages that succeed are very pragmatic, and are very often fairly dirty because they try to solve real problems. C++ is a great example of a language that in many ways has serious flaws. One of the flaws is that it tried very hard to be compatible with C: compatible at the object level, compatible very closely at the source level. Because of this there are places where there's something ugly in the language, weird syntactic problems, strange semantic behaviors. In one sense this is bad, and nobody should ever do that, but one of the reasons that C++ succeeded was precisely that it was compatible with C, it was able to use the C libraries, it was usable by the base of existing C programmers, and therefore people could back into it and use it fairly effectively without having to buy into a whole new way of doing business.

the rest here