Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lordy, Lordy, the Internet's Forty

On October 29, 1969, at 10:30 PM, a connection was established on the Arpanet network between computers at UCLA and Stanford. And thus, basically, the internet was born. It wasn't given that name till several years later, and obviously much has changed, but it can basically traced back to a transmittal forty years ago today.

And what was the message transmitted at that epochal moment? "Lo." It was supposed to be "login," but the system crashed after only the first two letters were sent. Some things never change.

So should we be celebrating or mourning this fortieth anniversary? Mostly celebrating, I would think. After all, I'm using the internet right now, and its ability to gather information and connect people has obviously been hugely transformational.

And it has not -- yet -- killed off the book, not even the quaint variety with a physical cover and pages. The death of that archaic relic has been proclaimed many times before, and it has always survived. I can't help but think that its survival will continue.

And please feel free to spread my thoughts throughout the internet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scrooge Comes to Hogwarts

A lady in West London who calls herself "Ms Marmite Lover" has started a not-for-profit practice of having themed dinners in her home. Her latest idea was to have a Harry Potter dinner, complete with foods from the books, a recreation of Diagon Alley and even a Fat Lady portrait who would demand a password from guests.

All good fun -- until some lawyers from Warner Brothers heard about it. Then they sent her a letter which read in part, "Dear Ms Marmite Lover. While we are delighted you are such a fan of the Harry Potter series, unfortunately your proposed use of the of the Harry Potter properties...without our consent would amount to an infringement of Warner's rights." So, in order to placate the legal Death Eaters, Ms Marmite Lover had to change the name of the event to "Generic Wizard Night."

Yeesh. Where's the Order of the Phoenix when you need them?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The $150 Million Bargain?

About a month ago we received a new book from James Patterson called The Murder of King Tut. This nonfiction volume was preceded in August by a Patterson novel entitled Alex Cross's Trial, and, a month earlier, the latest in Patterson's "Daniel X" series for young adults. November will see the publication of his novel, I, Alex Cross, and a children's book from him is expected before the end of the year. In all, during a twelve-month period beginning this past March, ten different books bearing the name James Patterson on the dust jacket either have been or will be published. Granted, about half of the titles will also have the name of a co-author, but it's the Patterson name that will almost guarantee all of these books will be bestsellers.

Thus, as a recent Forbes article pointed out, it may indeed have represented a bargain for Hachette, Patterson's publisher, when they recently signed him to a new contract for a reported $150 million. Although Hachette wouldn't confirm the dollar amount, we do know the contract calls for Patterson to produce seventeen more books before the end of 2012. And, in addition to obviously having a knack for prolifically writing bestsellers, Patterson knows his marketing -- he's the former chairman of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. It's a formula that over the past two years has earned Hachette an estimated $500 million. Suddenly, $150 million doesn't sound like quite so much money.

By the way, Patterson spends a few of those rare moments he's not writing helping to promote the love of reading for the next generation. His website dedicated to that can be found here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Price Wars: The Empires Strike Back (At Each Other)

Normally I don't write much here about the travails of independent bookstores as we try to compete with the chains and the internet. In the first place, I figure that if you're reading this blog you already have some sympathy with, and knowledge of, the issues involved. Secondly, if it wearies me to write and talk about it, I assume it would weary readers to continually read about it.

However, I can't let the ridiculous book price war that broke out last week between and pass without comment. As you've probably heard, Wal-Mart lowered the pre-publication prices on its website of several major hardcovers to the absurdly low level of $10.00. Amazon promptly matched the price. The one-upmanship continued, and, to make a long, silly, self-destructive story short, by Monday morning the prices on both sites had gone down to $8.99. The whole business reminded me of two egotistical actors continually trying to upstage each other until both end up splayed against the back wall of the theatre.

The first thing to note: unless Amazon and Wal-Mart have made unconscionable sweetheart deals with the publishers they are actually losing a significant amount of money with every book they sell at these prices -- $8.99 is way, way below cost for most standard hardcovers. Of course, it's the classic strategy of the "loss leader": lure customers to your store (or website) with one ridiculously low price and hope they'll buy other items on which the store makes a significant profit. However, it's a strategy usually associated more with a gallon of milk than a Stephen King novel.

The impact this has on independent bookstores is pretty self-evident. It isn't so much the lost sales on the particular titles being discounted -- independent bookstores don't sell that many commercial bestsellers to begin with. Rather it threatens to reinforce the idea in some people's minds that by charging the retail price we are ripping off customers in order to pay for champagne-fueled orgies on the Accent on Books yacht. (I wish.) The reality is that we are an actual bookstore -- not a warehouse with a website -- with all the expenses that entails. In addition, we don't have the buying power of the chains, and we stock titles from smaller, independent publishers who -- like independent bookstores -- can't afford to give exorbitantly generous offers to their customers (i.e. bookstores).

What might not be so clear is the impact these discounts have on authors and publishers. At first glance it might appear to be entirely positive -- after all, authors and publishers get paid the same no matter what price retailers set for their products. But what does it say about books in general when retailing empires use them as disposable giveaways to entice folks to buy other items? ("Here's a free book to go with that overpriced pair of socks.") As David Gernert, the agent for John Grisham, was quoted as saying: "If you can buy Stephen King's new novel, or John Grisham's Ford County for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer's attention away from emerging writers....If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over." Publishers generally have no legal control over what a retailer charges for their products. But if they -- and authors -- were to loudly complain, it would undoubtedly have an effect. Will they? We'll see.

Our good friends at Shelf Awareness have a series of articles and links related to this issue. They can be found here.

P.S. It now appears that Target has become a third combatant in the price wars. Must be nice to have all that money to throw away.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Halloween Book Burning

About a week ago it was announced that a group in Canton, NC, about twenty miles west of Asheville, would be holding an event on Halloween in which they will be publicly burning copies of the Bible. Must be some weird, Satanic cult, right?

Actually, no -- it's a Baptist church.

Marc Grizzard, pastor of the tiny Amazing Grace Baptist Church -- about fourteen members -- says they consider the King James Version to be the only English translation which is the true word of God, and all other English translations to be heretical. So onto the bonfire they'll go: the NIV, the NRSV, even the New King James Version. (An article and video can be found here.) And it won't just be Bibles that will be burning, it will be other books as well. Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling? Well sure, but also Rick Warren, James Dobson, Mother Teresa -- even Billy Graham, who lives about forty miles from Canton. A few days ago, a detailed list could be found at the church's website; as of this writing, however, the website appears to have been suspended by the web host (no reason given).

And if the sight of burning books is not enough to attract a crowd, the church will also be serving barbecue. No word as to whether they plan to use the same bonfire for both books and barbecue grill.

One more thing: the church hopes to make this an annual event. Mark your calendars.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

National Book Awards Nominations

The finalists for the National Book Awards were announced earlier this week, and, as usual, there were not many "household names" on the list. One of the great virtues of these annual citations from the National Book Foundation is their promotion of talented writers who deserve to be better known.

Jayne Anne Phillips may be the best known of the fiction nominees, with her latest novel, Lark and Termite. Also nominated were Bonnie Jo Campbell, Colum McCann, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Marcel Theroux (yes, he's Paul's son).

Twentieth-century business tycoons are at the center of two of the Nonfiction choices: T. J. Stiles' biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Greg Grandin's book about Henry Ford's doomed utopian experiment in the Brazilian jungle. A biography of the ancient king Mithradates and two book dealing with nature round out the list.

Four of the Poetry nominees have had long and distinguished careers: Rae Armantrout, Ann Lauterbach, Carl Phillips and Keith Waldrop. The fifth, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, was nominated for just her second book, her first one appearing eight years ago.

The Young People's Literature category is a fascinating mix, reflecting the richness of this particular field of literature. Two nominated titles are biographies, one of Charles and Emma Darwin , and the other portraying Civil Rights pioneer Claudette Colvin. There are two works of prose fiction: a collection of supernatural tales and a novel dealing with the very real world of an urban high school. The fifth nominee is Stitches, a graphic novel by Caldecott Medalist David Small, who departs from his usual lighthearted projects with this account of his harrowing childhood.

A complete list of nominees -- with more about each title -- can be found here. The winners will be announced November 18.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sat., 10/17: Accent on Books Honors a Famous Bear

It's been more than eighty years since Christopher Robin left the Hundred Acre Wood at the end of The House at Pooh Corner. Yet the devotion to Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Owl and -- my personal hero -- Eeyore has remained strong. Walt Disney, of course has put the Pooh characters on the screen, and various storybooks have been published related to the Disney version.

However, this month for the first time since A. A. Milne's death, a sequel to the Pooh books has appeared with the authorization of the Milne estate. It is called, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, and Accent on Books will mark the occasion with a tea party this coming Saturday morning, starting at 11:00.

The new book is by David Benedictus, with "decorations" by Mark Burgess, and it is a joy for those who love the writing and illustrating styles of Milne and E. H. Shepard. All the favorite characters are here and are joined by a new one. And who or what is the new one? I'll just say she's introduced in Chapter 4, "in which it stops raining forever, and something slinky comes out of the river."

So join us this coming Saturday morning for tea, honey (of course!) and other goodies and feel free to bring your favorite bear or tiger or piglet or other Animal of Great Renown. We'll eat, drink and have fun with some of the greatest characters in children's literature.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Page 854: An American Life

As you may have heard, Sarah Palin's autobiography is due to be released by HarperCollins on November 17. (Earlier reports that there will be a separate "Christian edition," however, have turned out not to be true; Christians will just have to read the same edition as everybody else.)

The title of Palin's book is Going Rogue, an obvious reference to the "maverick" image the ex-Governor has tried to maintain since she appeared on the national scene a year ago. However, as Thom Geier points out in the blog, Shelf-Life, the book's subtitle -- An American Life -- conveys a different image. Indeed, far from being "mavericky," it's one of the most common subtitles out there, gracing the front covers of a wide range of biographies and autobiographies. Palin might be pleased to know that others who have led "An American Life" include Ronald Reagan, Condoleeza Rice and Oral Roberts. But would she be happy to discover that her book also shares a subtitle with ones concerning Burt Lancaster, Ben Hogan, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Jerry Garcia? And then, of course, there's the program on evil, socialist public radio called, "This American Life," which I'm guessing is not at the top of Ms Palin's "must listen to" list.

So if you come into Accent on Books looking for Sarah Palin's book, please don't ask for it by subtitle. You'll throw us into a state of total confusion.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Herta Muller Wins Nobel Prize

The Swedish Academy announced this morning that Romanian-born German writer Herta Muller has won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the twelfth woman to win the award.

Herta Muller (also spelled "Mueller") was born in 1953. Her father was in the Waffen SS during World War II and her mother spent five years in a Soviet labor camp after the war. The German-speaking minority was subjected to persecution in Romania in the postwar years, and especially after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965. From the beginning of her career in the early 1980s, Muller made the repressive reality of life under Ceausescu a prominent subject of her writing, and most of her books were banned in Romania, though celebrated in Germany and elsewhere. She emigrated to Germany in 1987.

Of the nineteen books Muller has written to date four have been translated into English: The Passport, The Land of Green Plums, Traveling on One Leg and The Appointment. All but the first have been published in this country but have quickly gone out of stock as a result of today's announcement. Feel free to check with Accent on Books for future availability.

More information can be found at the Nobel website.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Man Booker Winner Announced

Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her novel, Wolf Hall, it was announced Tuesday. The Man Booker is given every year to an outstanding work of fiction by a citizen of a British Commonwealth country, and this year's winner was an unusually popular choice. Indeed -- this being an award given in England where one can wager on almost anything -- it has been noted that this is the first time the prize has been given to the nominee that had been made the odds-on favorite by the British bookmakers. Mantel's book is an historical novel about the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. The reaction to the choice in today's London Times: "Rarely has the Booker Prize got it so gloriously, marvellously right as this year."

The American edition of Wolf Hall is due to be released next week, and we hope to have it in stock then at Accent on Books.

More information is available at the Man Booker website.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gimme A Break!

On second thought, I'll just take one without waiting for anyone to give it to me.

I'm actually on vacation right now, though I did want to go ahead and get my thoughts and impressions regarding SIBA posted. Now that I've done that, for the most part, I'll put Page 854 aside for a few days.

Talk to you again around, oh, October 7 or so. Until then, be well.