Depending on where you are in the world, a café latte from a chain like Starbucks is likely to cost you in the region of £3/$4. Wherever you are in the world, you can absolutely buy all kinds of books for less than that.
Cheap books are available in various formats and from various sellers:
* Second-hand books sold offline and online
* Discounted books sold in deals at major retailers such as supermarkets
* Heavily discounted books sold by book clubs and discount outlets
* Heavily discounted ebooks (sold for far less than the print-book price)
These cheap deals are excellent news for readers. They can be good news for authors too, in the sense that any sale of a book means they have reached a reader. However, in terms of the author earning what they deserve for their creative work, so-called ‘bargain books’ can be bad news.
In the UK, the Society of Authors is currently running a campaign called ‘Fair Reading’, which aims to ‘ensure that a good deal for the reader is also a fair deal for the author’ (see http://www.societyofauthors.org/Where-We-Stand/Fair-reading). The campaign is focusing on high discounting of books.
Did you know that Amazon is changing the way it sells books? It has always been the case that if you buy a book on Amazon, you are sold a book stocked by Amazon – so Amazon pays the publisher for that book, who in turn pays the author a royalty. In the US, however (and in the UK soon), pressing that ‘buy’ button on Amazon may well mean you are not buying a book supplied to Amazon by the publisher, but a book from a third-party supplier.
The book is second-hand and heavily discounted (often to a mere penny or cent!). Second-hand does not necessarily mean used, though; it can be new and unread. Publishers often print two versions of a book: the quality one intended for sale in bookshops (for which the author earns a decent royalty per sale), and a cheaper run that is not intended for regular buyers but for heavily discounted sales like those via book clubs (for which the author earns but a penny or two per sale). According to the Guardian, ‘it is believed that large quantities are being dumped on the mainstream market to be sold as if they are secondhand – which would explain how paperback editions appear for sale long before they are available to bookshops’ (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/may/17/secondhand-book-sales-authors-cheap).
The major issue here is the bottom line for the author. An author earns around seven to ten per cent of a standard sale. But on these third-party sales, the author earns nothing. So when you click ‘buy’ on an Amazon page to purchase a book, you are not supporting the author at all.
This is just one of several book-pricing issues that exist in publishing, another obvious one being ebook pricing. It is the underlying principle here that most interests me: how much should a book be worth?
The book/coffee price comparison is becoming a common one. On the Society of Authors blog (http://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/James-Mayhew/November-2016/James-Mayhew-Fair-Trade-for-Authors), James Mayhew writes: ‘for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1? This is about far more than my personal return on sales. It is about the symbolic devaluing of books.’
I agree entirely, and I ask:
* How much more easily do we buy a coffee than a book – and how much more quickly do we consume it?
* How many coffees do we buy per year versus books?
* Do we scruitinise the cost of a book more than the cost of a coffee?
* Does a few pounds or dollars feel perfectly reasonable for some hot milk, water and coffee beans, and yet not so reasonable for hundreds of bound (or electronic) pages on which are words formed by many, many hours of work, and so much dedication, skill and artistry?
* Should, in fact, a book cost more than a coffee?
I love books, absolutely love books. With that truth as constant as my heartbeat, I find it very difficult to conceive of getting rid of books – let alone actually doing so.
I remember, when I was a little girl, my father coming home regularly with boxes of books. At that time, due to the political situation in Egypt, many people were leaving the country, and my father would rescue their abandoned books and give them a home in our own house. Books, he taught me, are treasures.
Of course, we grew up in Alexandria, home of the famous library that was designed to collect all the world’s knowledge, but burned to the ground in 48 BC, destroying forever 400,000 precious books (see my article ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’). Whenever we passed the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, we were sobered by the thought of that great fire consuming so many priceless books.
The destruction of books on a mass scale is distressing for bibliophiles. (The Nazi book burning is the most obvious example.) But even on a book-by-book basis, destroying a book can feel wrong. Say you have spilled tea on a book. Do you throw it away – can you bear to?
Do you remember the days when you took a much-thumbed tome that was falling apart not to the recycling centre but to a book binder to be restored? How far we have come from those times. Nowadays, we live in a culture of consumption in which no object is treasured as it once was. A thick paperback novel can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee; it is consumed and then, often, disposed of: thrown in the bin, left on a park bench, donated to a charity shop.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on ‘the books no one wants any more’. The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are books donated so frequently to charity shops that they simply can’t sell all the stock. The hotel chain Travelodge provided data on the books left in their hotel rooms over the course of a year; Fifty Shades Freed topped the list, with 1,209 abandoned copies, followed by two other erotic romances, and then Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. The most hyped books, the books with massive marketing campaigns that attempt to suggest you must read this book or you’re missing out are the ones that are most discarded – not valued, not treasured.
A couple of weeks ago a reader commented on one of my blog posts that advertising a book as a bestseller or by a bestselling author can actually make it less, not more, appealing. I found that really interesting, and it made me look at my bookshelves and consider how many of the books I treasure are books that have been hyped. The answer: very few.
I buy books that I am sure I will love – and therefore will keep. Before purchasing, I carefully read the book blurb; I read the first page or two; I even read the author’s bio, and sometimes I visit their website and learn about them as well. I do this so that I am assured a satisfying reading experience, of course, and to ensure I am not wasting money on a book I won’t enjoy. But I think the deeper-seated reason for my careful approach to book-buying comes down to the fact that I always intend to keep a book that I buy. It’s a thing of beauty, a precious object. I don’t just love the story and the characters and the poetry of the words; I love the smell of the ink, the weight of the work in my hand, the rustle and texture of the pages.
Do you love books in this way too? Does it break your heart to throw away a book? Do you feel an ache when you donate a book to charity? Can you bear to abandon a book? Have you ever bought a book and regretted it, because you didn’t enjoy it but struggled to let it go simply because it was a book? Does the story of unloved books sadden you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Flamenco – the dance, the music, the culture, the artistic duende spirit – is at the heart of my novels Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, which are set in Andalucía, home of flamenco.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘flamenco’? The rousing, rhythmic, raw music, perhaps – the guitars and the hand-clapping and the singer’s cry. Maybe it is the sinuous, sensual movements of the dancers that come to mind. Or perhaps you associate the word with concepts that are inherent in the flamenco art: passion, sexuality, vibrancy, expressiveness…
These concepts are perfectly encapsulated in the costumes that flamenco dancers wear. The dancer’s dress dramatically hugs the silhouette, before giving way to ruffles that cascade romantically down. The more ruffles, the better! The dress is the red of blood or the black of night, and often has polka-dots – in fact, polka-dots originated in flamenco attire.
Until 1929, the traje de flamenco (flamenco dress) was worn solely by women in the south of Spain, who devised their dresses themselves and sewed them at home; but then, in that year, women from the upper echelons of society trialled the new style at the Seville Ibero-American Exposition, where it was well received by Spaniards and foreigners alike. Since then, fashion designers have returned to flamenco time and time again in search of inspiration, and this season is no different.
Visit any fashion store and you’re bound to find ruffles and polka-dots aplenty in the summer range, but this season you’ll also come across a new design: the so-called flamenco flares. Here’s a look at some currently on offer from Spanish high-street brand Zara:
Here are some available from another popular Spanish high-street store, Mango:
When The Times reported on the flamenco flares recently, there was an unmistakable tone of unease in the article, a concern that this style is ‘outlandish’ – ‘comic’, even – and that it ‘may sound alarm bells’.
Of course, everyone has a unique opinion when it comes to fashion, and understated simplicity is always the safest option. But personally, I don’t find fashion inspired by flamenco to be outlandish – I think it’s fabulous. Flamenco is all about authentic expression, about duende, which, as Federico García Lorca, put it, is a question of ‘true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…’.
The word ‘flamenco’ is thought to derive from ‘fire’ or ‘flame’, which conveys the fury and fervour at the heart of the art. To wear a flamenco-inspired design, then, is to embrace that inner flame. ‘Erupt into style’ begins the Times article; that is exactly what flamenco is all about – erupting, conveying with stark honesty emotion and truth and sexuality.
What do you think of fashion inspired by flamenco? Do you admire a person who wears bold, statement pieces like the flamenco flares? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And if you’d like to explore true flamenco fashion further, the website for the 2017 We Love Flamenco show in Seville is an excellent resource: http://www.weloveflamenco.es. It showcases some spectacular designs that make flamenco flares look extremely tame and conventional in comparison; designs that may just inspire you to be colourful, vibrant and bold in your fashion choices this summer.
I dreamed of being an author from a very young age – from the day I first understood how the many books on my parents’ shelves were created and formed the idea that someday I could do that myself.
In those days, to be an author was to be someone who wrote books. It was that simple. Other than dealing with your publisher and engaging in the occasional marketing activity, such as a book-signing event or penning an article for the press, the author’s job was simple: write the next book.
That was my dream job. All I ever wanted to do was write books, many books!
Fast-forward to 2012, and I finally felt ready to seek a publisher for my debut novel, Burning Embers – a book that in fact I began writing in my twenties, but shelved while raising my children and running my business. I was excited that finally I would be living the long-cherished dream of being an author.
But wait… the author job description had changed! No longer could an author just focus on writing books, it seemed. ‘Facebook,’ said my publisher. ‘A blog. Twitter. Goodreads. Instagram. Tumblr. Pinterest. Google-Plus. You must be out there, all the time, making connections, marketing your fiction.’
There was quite a learning curve for me, as I’m sure you can imagine, but soon I did as all authors today must do: I settled into a way of ‘being out there’ that works for me. I blog regularly on topics that interest me and relate to my fiction, and I post once or twice a day on Facebook and Twitter, where I connect with fellow authors and readers. I limit my ‘out there’ work to this, and am careful to ensure that I spend no more than one hour a day on such activities, because for me my novel writing must always come first.
This is what works for me, but all authors are different, and it strikes me that ‘being out there’ is a source of friction for writers. Last week, for example, British writer Joanna Trollope whipped up something of a frenzy by criticising JK Rowling’s ‘insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time… that’s entirely driven by [her] ego’. She was referring to Rowling creating a mass following on Twitter and tweeting several times a day.
People were quick to jump to JK Rowling’s defence and point out that she is a writer who has adapted very well to modern means of marketing and communication. A Radio Times reaction piece praised Rowling for having ‘truly discovered how to make her newest content sing’ on the internet.
While I do admire JK Rowling’s ability to be ‘out there’ so much, I wonder how that affects her ability to write the next book – which, to my mind, is still the author’s job.
In addition, I think Joanna Trollope made some points that are worth consideration. She said ‘she deliberately chose to stay away from social media because she expressed everything she wanted to in her books’ (source: the Guardian). I have a lot of respect for this approach. It reminds me of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who was determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’ (For more on this story, see my article ‘Thoughts on the exposure of Elena Ferrante’). I am also reminded of novelist Jean Rhys, who wrote: ‘All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.’
Joanna Trollope also expressed concern over the future of the author profession: ‘It’s so depressing to think that aspiring authors will look at famous writers with millions of followers, and think that that is how you have to operate.’ I agree that is not how you have to operate as an author. You may do; you may not – but it is a choice, and you are perfectly entitled to make it for yourself.
The key, I think, is to be careful not to stray far from your own definition of ‘author’. For me, being an author means always writing the next book, and so that is what I choose to do with the majority of my time. But in today’s world, no writer need be isolated, and that is where I find this new world of social media really comes into its own. It’s wonderful to connect to like-minded people – such as yourself. So thank you for reading my post today. Now, I had better get on with my novel-in-progress…
Whenever someone asks me what my latest book is about, I am tempted to give a one-word answer: people.
Yes, Legacy is about Andalucía, the region’s stunning scenery and long-held customs, and in the book you’ll read about things like gypsy medicine and art and philosophy. But fundamentally, the book is about a woman and a man falling in love, and the complex relationships that define them: their relationship with each other, and their relationships with their family members, past and present. It is through those relationships – not the setting or the story – that the central themes of the book are established: passion, betrayal, intrigue.
Put simply, people are at the heart of all fiction: how people think and feel and act as individuals, and, more intestestingly, how they interact with one another. When you read a novel, then, you are making a decision to engage with people, to be open to empathising.
The empathy engendered by reading is so powerful. Though we read alone, we are not alone; we become connected to others. James Baldwin wrote:
‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’
This connection is a means of understanding others. ‘You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself,’ wrote John Steinbeck. Reading allows us to feel other people in ourselves, so that we may understand them – but also, crucially, so that we may understand ourselves better.
Recently, the Guardian ran an article entitled ‘Frequent readers make the best lovers, say dating-app users’. It reported that the dating website eHarmony has found that both women and men are more likely to be approached on the site if they list reading as a hobby on their profile. Why? The Guardian article suggests it comes down to empathy. Readers are widely known to be more empathetic than non-readers, and empathy is, of course, a desirable quality in a partner.
Apparently, women who list The Hunger Games among their favourite books are most popular on eHarmony, while men looking for a date are best listing a Richard Branson book. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is popular for both genders. I wonder what this says about empathy. Does business non-fiction count for building empathy? Are women less interested in empathy in a partner than men? Why are the most popular fiction reads both dark, gritty novels full of death and drama?
What kinds of books do you think best build empathy? Do you connect better to characters in certain genres? When you read, do you seek books that will, as Steinbeck put it, enable you to ‘feel other people in yourself’? I would love to hear your thoughts.