Monthly Archives: September 2006

Commercial sense: books and bookbuying

I’m ashamed to say that I rarely go to bookshops these days – in fact I often make a conscious decision not to go. The main reason is that my general purpose for visiting a bookshop (as opposed to wandering in because I happen to be passing) is to buy a specific book and the chances are they won’t have it. Oh sure, if it’s in print, they could order it for me, but why bother? It’s much easier to buy it from Amazon or the publisher online. This is a function of the way bookshops have changed, and the emphasis they place on new releases and bestsellers.

That’s not to say that when I do visit a bookshop I don’t buy anything. I do; I tend to spend a fortune, it’s just that the books I buy are not books I specifically went there to buy. Because I know what I’m like, I try and limit my visits – I spend far too much money on books.

This is an issue for someone like me because so much of what is published today (particularly genre books) is part of a series. Very little crime fiction, science fiction or fantasy is standalone, and an increasing amount of historical fiction consists of trilogies or other multiples. I find it infuriating if, during a browse, all I can find is the third in a series I haven’t read before. No matter how good it looks I won’t buy it until I can read the first two, so I’ll stick them all on my Amazon wish list and in due course buy from them. If the shop had stocked all three in the series they would have had the sales rather than Amazon.

I feel guilty about this because I really do think that bookshops should be supported – I used to love going to Thins in Edinburgh, but they got taken over, so I would make a point of going to Ottakars occasionally. Now I do the same for Blackwells. I don’t much like Watersons – they’re all the same. There is an independent near where I live, but it’s small, doesn’t stock the range of books that would interest me, and didn’t really impress me the few times I’ve been in it.

I wonder if this problem is caused by how I choose to read what I do. Leaving aside library books and the second hand books/out of print books I read, the books I buy split largely into three types:

  • those that form part of a series that I am following, in which case I will buy the next one when it comes out, for example the next Lindsey Davis or the next Pratchett
  • those that have been recommended to me or which I have seen positively mentioned somewhere, and which I have made a note of, for example that is how I started reading Patrick O’Brian
  • those that I buy as a result of a browse and will be either related to something I was looking for, or because they look as if they might be interesting, for example one of the many WW1 histories I have bought over the last year or so.

On the flip side, I never browse online bookstores looking for something interesting. If I’m doing that, I want to be able to hold the book, so all Amazon’s ‘recommended for you’ or ‘search inside’ are a waste of time for someone like me. On the occasions I have browsed there, it’s always been a curiously unsatisfactory experience.

Knights and Ladies: The House of the Paladin, Violet Needham (1945)

I always liked this novel; Needham was getting into her stride much more, and the characterisation, particularly of Anastasia, the heroine, is much more believable. In some ways it is a continuation of Needham’s earlier Ruritanian novels featuring the Empire and Flavonia, but the two main characters are new although old friends do appear.
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Walking past the three for two table.

I was reading a recent edition of The Bookseller the other day and looking at the lists of bestsellers. Then I thought of the books in Mt TBR and those I have already read this year, wondering if there were any similarities at all. Obviously I can only count those books that I have bought new (or were bought to give to me) so I have excluded library books and books I bought second hand.

I discovered that there are thirty-six books I have read or will read that I have bought new. Not a single one is in the top 50 bestsellers. In fact, not a single one of these books is in any of the charts – top 20 original fiction, top 20 mass market fiction, top 20 heatseekers, top 20 hardback non-fiction, top 20 paperback non-fiction, top 20 children’s books. Obviously, since I have bought these books over a period of some months going back to ahem, last year, I would not expect there to be a direct correlation with the current charts, but I did think there would be perhaps one or two in there.

If I add in the library books I have read this year there is one difference – ‘The Historian’, currently riding high in the chart is there. I didn’t think much of it, so I’m glad I didn’t waste my money and buy it.

Even going back a few months, the situation doesn’t change much, checking copies of The Bookseller from January and May, ‘The Historian‘ is still the only one on any of the lists.

In fact, looking at the bestseller charts, the only other book on them that I have read at all is Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which I read last year.

What is the point of this? I read somewhere recently that the booktrade definition of a heavy reader is someone who reads four books a year. I presume that makes someone like me the equivalent of twenty-five heavy readers. Twenty-five heavy readers, moreover who could care less about bestsellers, but who care passionately about the long tail because that’s where they find their reading material.

While it is wrong to try and extrapolate from a single example, I doubt I am alone among ultra heavy readers. Since I don’t know the proportion of total book sales that come from bestsellers, I can’t really draw any conclusions, but it struck me, while flicking through The Bookseller, just how idiosyncratic my reading tastes are.

Am I really that unusual?

Vaulting ambition

The Grumpy Old Bookman had an interesting post the other day. The subject was ambition in writers. He asserted that all of the writers he had known in the course of his life were all linked by the strength of the ambition they shared.

“They are ambitious in that they yearn passionately for success. They long to be famous, to make lots of money, to be favourably reviewed…”

I’ve always thought my writing ambitions were rather modest; sure I want to be published, but famous? I think I have always been realistic enough to accept that I am unlikely to ever make much money out of it. It’s perhaps unfortunate that I have mid-list ambitions at a time when the mid–list has largely disappeared.

The point made by TGOB, is that an ambition to be published in itself verges on lunacy. He refers readers to a long essay he wrote entitled On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which made interesting reading. This clearly demonstrates that one’s chances of being published through submission to the slush pile are, assuming a certain basic competence at writing, essentially down to luck. While I had always suspected this to be the case, to see it in such black and white terms is rather brutal. Our problem seems to be that we focus on the survivors, the published, not the entire population of wannabee writers. We all assume that we share the characteristics of the survivors, rather than those who fell by the wayside. Since my best friend isn’t an editor or an agent, and I’m not as far as I’m aware, a z-list celebrity, I must rely on the slushpile as my best chance. Or, I could follow TGOB’s no doubt excellent advice and give up completely.

Which leads me to a writer whose work I have a great deal of respect for – Steve Kelner. He’s a psychologist, and his book, Motivate your Writing came out a year or two back. His thesis is also very interesting.

He asserts that all humans have three social motives that drive them. These motivations are subconscious and something we have no control over. They are affiliation, power, and achievement. While we have all three to some degree, we tend have at least one stronger than the other two. People who are focused on achievement are all about doing things better, those focused on affiliation are all about friendly relationships whereas those focused on power are all about making an impact on others. We can behave in the same way, but from different motives. So, many people write, but they will do so from different motives. It’s possible through indirect analysis to come to some conclusions about what one’s own motivations are and use that knowledge to focus one’s writing.

Here are some exercises Kelner provided on his blog, to help with this analysis.

    1. List what you like to do for fun, including writing, and why you like it, if possible.

    In other words, if you like to golf, say, do you like it because (a) you like testing yourself against your handicap and bettering it, (b) it’s fun to hang out with your friends, (c) you like trying to beat people, or (d) you like drinking beer and driving golf carts like a maniac? You can do the same behaviour out of different motives (and vice versa).

    If you list “reading,” what genres do you like to read? Different motives relate to different genres.

    2. What do you daydream about? Can you write it down in some detail? Not just “win a prize for my writing,” but “I picture myself going up and picking up the Hugo in front of a room full of cheering fans.” Get past the simple fact and explain what makes this daydream fun, if you can. This is a clue to where your thoughts tend to go!

    3. What would you like written on your tombstone? Or, to put it another way, what would you like to be known for?

    The Big Question: Are there any basic patterns to what you like, what you think about, what you want on your tombstone? The pattern should be about the feelings, or the domain of the goal.

I was surprised to discover that what seems to motivate me is power, which makes me tend to think that I’m unlikely to follow TGOB’s advice and give up, not yet anyway.

Bunk? The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

The Historian is one of those books that should be brilliant but isn’t, and I’m not sure why it isn’t. Mysterious archives, medieval documents, a search for Dracula, all stuff that should make for a great read. It’s not a short book either, but whatever the reason I found it a drag.

Perhaps there were too many first person narratives, although I didn’t have any difficulty in keeping track of who was doing the narrating at any one point. I think, possibly too much was at a remove, and thus too distant to engage the reader. A brief synopsis should give the general idea.
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