Friday, 24 February 2012

The Difference Between e-Books and Real Books

e-Books vs Paper Books. What's The Difference?

I wouldn't send my wife an e-card for her birthday.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Swiss Vote on the Price of Books

Fixed prices for books in Switzerland?

Next month the Swiss will vote on 'The Federal Law on the Control of Book Prices'. It's creating a brouhaha in the book world and will affect the majority of books in Switzerland. Despite not having a vote I have been following the law for some time and thought I'd explain it as best I can.

What does it mean?

Assuming the Swiss people vote in favour then the law be applied only to new books, written in one of Switzerland's national languages that are published or sold in Switzerland. The law will extend to online sales, including cross-border transactions.

If the law is implemented then publishing houses or the importers (distributors) will set book prices and the bookshops will be oblidged to respect this price. The 'Surveillant des prix' will keep an eye on the prices and if they are too high in relation to prices in other countries then he has the authority to propose a maximum authorised price to the Federal Council.

Why is it being discussed?

There are many reasons why this law is being proposed. Currently bookshops  are being, frankly, screwed by the publishing houses as they must go through distributors to get the books. This means that a book costing 5 Euros in France costs CHF 11.50 in Switzerland. And there is no other channel to get the book.

On the rare occassions I have been asked to buy French books I have tried to short circuit the system by buying the books from another bookshop, or as a last resort through an online retailer. This works for the very small quantities of French books I buy, but clearly does not work for large French bookshops. The situation for German books is not quite so acute - there are many large wholesalers in Germany who offer reasonable terms - but French publishers and their distributors exert have rigid price and ditribution controls.

The law is also intended to protect small bookshops who struggle to compete on price with the big sellers, particularly those online, who offer huge discounts. This problem is particularly acute in Switzerland where 90% of books are imported. Fixing the price is intended to level the playing field and bring customers back to the independents who offer a quality service and can make informed recommendations. It is an attempt to maintain the biodiversity in the Swiss book market.

Finally, the law aims to protect Swiss publishers and writers. Currently these publishers produce a small amount if books in comparison to their international rivals. This means that they have little power in their own market where their books have to compete with a few, large publishers.  By fixing prices it is hoped that they too will compete more equally with the big boys of publishing which will in turn assist Swiss writers and protect the book as a cultural object.

The view from the bridge

You might think that I am jumping up and down in support of this initiative, but I feel quite ambivalent. I think the law over-simplifies a very complex situation. I am also wary of the fact that it will be publishers and importers who set the price. In whose interest will they do this?

I am also unsure that the state will be able to effectively police online retailers. As the law's opposition point out, these retailers will be rubbing their hands together in glee if they can find some way not to submit to the initiative. A legal challenge by the onine giants is not unthinkable and you can be sure that they will make hay while the challenge winds its way through the courts.

How to vote? 

In the ideal world the consumer would value books as objects and fully appreciate the benefits of buying from a bookshop. In my experience most readers consider price and convenience as the main determining factors and have already voted with their wallets. This law does not and cannot address this situation and, in my opinion, makes the debate something of a sideshow.

If you vote against the law then you more or less approve of the current system, with all its imperfections. If you vote yes then there is no guarantee that the system will improve. It may even deteriorate.

Whichever way you vote you can be certain that no-one will ever open a new bookshop in Switzerland. Globally, the number of bookshops is only ever going to decrease. Our children will be the last to ever walk into a bookshop and be blown away by the presence of so many books. This is a very high price for convenience.This is the crux of the matter.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Perks of Owning a Bookshop

One of the perks of owning a bookshop is that quite often I get to meet the authors of the books I read. I am especially spoiled this month as I went to the Geneva Writer's Conference where I met Patricia Duncker and Bret Lott. Regular readers will also know that Jonathan Coe will be in Vevey next month.

I believe that meeting a writer provides some insight into their books. In the case of Bret Lott, for example, it was fascinating to hear how he began his career as a VC Cola salesman and how this experience influenced his first novel, which incidentally centred around a VC Cola salesman. Having heard Bret speak it was also easier to 'hear' his words as I read his words.

On this month's World Radio Switzerland SpeedRead it seemed appropriate to review books by these three novelists.  At the end of the slot Alex asks me which one of these novels I preferred. Honestly, I believe you could buy any of these books and be treated to an enjoyable read and maybe even discover a writer you really like. The choice I made was strictly personal...

You can listen to the interview here.

I would post an image but in 2012 it seems to be beyond Bluewin to provide me with a wifi connection capable of uploading a 72 kb image.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Jonathan Coe is coming to Vevey

 Jonathan Coe at the '4+1 traduire' Festival

You might be wondering why I am getting very excited about Jonathan Coe's visit to Switzerland. (He is here as part of the "4+1 traduire" festival in Vevey.)

He is the bestselling author of nine novels, including The Closed Circle, The Rain Before It Falls, and most recently The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

Personally I liked Maxwell Sim and reviewed  it on WRS. The narrator in the title writes in the style of a new and unpolished author. I was thinking, 'I am not sure if I can take another 300 pages of this', when he turns to the reader and says, 'Do you think you can read another 300 pages of this?'. My instinct was to answer 'No' but the story had hooked me and I didn't give up.

Later in the book other characters share the narrative - there are memorable exchanges on web forums and in letters - and either Maxwell Sim's style improves or Coe's style comes through as the book is certainly well written. The story concerns Sim's ill-fated journey to Scotland as a toothbrush salesman, and explores isolation in the age of Facebook.

Jonathan Coe also plays with literary convention. Without wishing to give it away, the last chapter of Maxwell Sim asks the question, 'Why do you feel emotion for characters you know are fiction?' In The Rain Before It Falls the book's narrator is a character who is describing photographs. Many people might groan when they read words like 'literary convention' but these books are funny and grounded without being trivial.

If you are interested to come to the event in Vevey it's on Friday, March 9th. The programme is here. I understand from the event organisers that Johnathan Coe will be signing books afterwards. Otherwise why not pass by your local independent bookshop and pick up a copy of one of his books.

Monday, 6 February 2012


1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

Do you know the feeling of looking forward to a particular meal so much that the moment you sit down to eat it you no longer feel hungry? That's how I felt about 1Q84 the new book by Haruki Murakami.

Murakami is one of the authors whose new books I always read. The wait was particularly tortuous as this book was published in German earlier in the year and only came out in English in November 2011. I saved it for Christmas and read the first chapter on the plane.
'This is brilliant', I thought, then I couldn't bring myself to read another word.

Only in January did I sit down and read it.

Murakami fans will be familiar with certain elements. There is a girl with magic ears, an entire scene devoted to the making of food, a slight dislocation of reality. In this case the heroine gets stuck in a traffic jam and her cab driver advises her to use the emergency stairs off the expressway. He warns her that by doing so she will be leaving the world as she knows it in 1984 behind.

In another part of Tokyo a writer and his editor are discussing the entries for a writing competition, in particular the story Air Chrysalis by an unknown high-school student called Fuka-Eri. They like the story but feel that it needs more work to win the prestigious prize it has been entered for. They decide to ask Fuka-Eri's permission to improve the text.

From this beginning I was thrown into the world of 1Q84. This is not a small undertaking. It is three books in one, or 1000 pages. Because the world is so compelling it is difficult to come up for air. You want to read and read, sprint through it, despite its length. The detail is well imagined that you do get lost, you are there with the characters, seeing the same things and weighing the same options.

In an important way the book didn't meet my expectations. In his previous novels Murakami has always drawn the most sexy women. Not classically inviting, prehaps, but with some indescribable allure. 1Q84 does deliver sex, probably too much of it, but without Murakami's trademark mastery of the language of attraction.

Otherwise, the story is sublime. Wildly imaginative and well told. Definitely worth the 3-4 weeks it took me to read.

It is also a beautiful book. The hardcover export version (pictured) has a semi-transparent cover with a see-through title.Inside, the page numbering which shifts positions on the page margins and is sometimes written in mirror writing. There are other small features that are worth the effort to look for.

In the bookshop I often recommend Murakami but I always suggest the easier titles first. First time readers might consider opting for Norweigen Wood or A Wild Sheep Chase.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Perfect Book Blurb

The perfect book blurb has to contain the words, '[this book] has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck.' I think we're only going to stock books whose jackets read like this.

This is from a real book jacket published in 1906.