Monday, 28 April 2008

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Profit before knowledge

As a teenager one of my favourite fictional characters was Gordon Comstock, the rather threadbare poet from George Orwell's Keep The Aspidistra Flying. I loved reading about the bookstore he worked in, and since then I held a belief that people who worked in bookstores were literary-minded, if not actually writers themselves.

In the past few years that illusion has been shattered - at least as far as South Africa's national bookstore chain Exclusive Books is concerned. Firstly, it was the experience of overhearing a customer asking a sales assistant at one branch if (oddly enough) 1984 was in stock, to which the assistant replied by asking:"Do you know the name of the author?" Then, at another branch, spotting Waiting for Godot stocked in the fiction section and finding a book of poetry located under western philosophy. A friend had enquired at yet another branch whether it had any travel books about Andalusia, and the assistant had replied:"What is that?" And just recently at a fourth branch I found a play that my own press had published displayed in the fiction section.

Granted, these could be dismissed as isolated incidents, and I admit that in the past year I did enjoy a chat with a sales assistant about Hunter S Thompson. But deteriorating product knowledge is becoming part and parcel of the retail sector in South Africa. For example, I recently encountered a sales assistant at a CD chain store who had never heard of Eric Clapton.

So, as far as bookstores are concerned, are we soon going to have sales assistants who do not know the authors of Sons and Lovers, To The Lighthouse, or Oliver Twist? This might be the case already - and I am too afraid put it to the test.

After all, South African bookstores, both large and small, are, with a handful of exceptions, not lovers of literature. Between a clothing store and a bookstore, the sole difference is the product. They are retailers in business to make a profit. It's not about the quality of the content, it's about the packaging and its potential to generate revenue.

But it is precisely product knowledge that enhances sales revenue, not ignorance. I've been amused by the reports that Waterstone's in the UK is looking into making their staff wear uniforms. I don't care about whether staff wear uniforms - all I want are staff who have a comprehensive knowledge of what they are selling and putting on the shelves.

After all, in a country such as South Africa, which is still facing a tremendous challenge in reducing illiteracy and is trying to develop a reading culture, bookstores, at the very least, should be setting an example.

(First published in The Bookseller, March issue)

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Anti-consumerist poet with a Luddite bent

A review of 876 by Fox, Third Word Publishing, Johannesburg

This first collection by Johannesburg poet Fox shows his work is as powerful on the page as it is in performance. Fox’s concerns and themes become apparent from the first poem, as he addresses issues of status-driven consumerism, our demands for instant gratification, oppression, the abuse of power, damage to the environment and threats not only to the survival of humanity, but to the planet itself.

Fox’s work is also characterised by an intense energy of language, and experimentation with language, often joining words or engaging in free association, word play and irregular, disruptive punctuation.

The first poem, fast, begins: “fastfood-god, i. have nomore language with me/dead people live/fast-asleep in the fastlane beside me”.

Fox’s poetry is inhabited by images of fast food, TV, cellphones, taxis, megabytes, rain forests and obsessions with money and power.

It is not poetry created in a study, but rather in the bustling streets, as in the poem 154 Market Str, Johannesburg: “Everybody knows — a train in or out of Joburg/is Guerilla warfare, though the glass is harder/than any you would see through, the only/rabbits are those in your headlights”.

Fox mocks, and perhaps laments, our obsession with technology. The poem, If I had a hammer, opens with the lines: “If I had a hammer/&cellphone/I would ring the changes, I would walk in on the president/demanding a precedent”.

In The Gimp Wars, Fox makes it clear how his world view differs from those wishing to climb the corporate ladder: “Ive got my own directive, but management dont care for that/management want a scatter-brained scaredy/cat, someone to fuck and smile & walk the extra mile for assholes”.

He criticises a civilisation brainwashed by TV, as in his poem Remote generation, commenting on people passively “still sitting still/thumbing through/channels,/breast fed on Americanism all morning and oprah winfreedom/fighting phantoms/in Afghanistan”.

He believes people are willing themselves into slavery, as in USER interface: “Our little machines cook in our brains/Little alarm bells give little warning/ Our demise/their control/what can be done has been done”.

In 6 Billion Copies Sold, we are confronted by a world driven by consumerism, where the corporate powers focus on making goods “cheaper, breakable, instantly replaceable/useless, nonredeemable, cash sale no refundable”.

There is concern for the environment, as in his poem BraZillion Rain Forest, and the awareness that greed and power are often the culprits.

There is also, despite the poems’ strong focus on contemporary issues, a frequent look at prehistory, as in the poem, in the footsteps of the satellites, which begins: “funny how we found all those dinosaurs by following muddy/footprints through glacial marshes to their bed in the lime,/ sleeping sweetly as if they never once had teeth as long as my arm/ and a gut full of my ancestors”.

One section of poems in the collection is dated September 10 2001, the day before the World Trade Centre attacks. They carry a sense of impending disaster for a corrupt and power-crazed civilisation intent on “mass producing these weapons of self destruction”.

This seems to be what the title 876 implies — the final stages of a countdown.

The collection also contains a long poem, PRESS DRUK, about a train journey from Johannesburg to Grahamstown, much of it reading like notes, or a montage of fleeting impressions, again undertaking an irreverent critique of technology.

On a local note, Fox criticises the newly emerging black elite in the poem No work: “New money for No work —/black exec in a white merc” while “a distant housing development/looms largely in the future/people walk to work in dirt/ride home in the rain”.

Another poem is a furious tirade against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe: “monarch of faceless dogs and/ patron of filth, you wretched waste of black skin”.

The collection also contains quieter and more gentle poems, such as Lettered Curves or love you like, though it is in such poems that Fox occasionally produces weak, almost trite, lines, as in the poem, empty the sea, which opens: “empty the sea of the blue sky/wash the waters sterile white,/ at night the moon will swim/alone while we cast our eyes/along her naked form”.

But Fox is a strong, vibrant and original voice in contemporary South African poetry and 876 is an invaluable collection.

First published in The Weekender, April 12 2008

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Wednesday, 09 April 2008

So now that you've published a book, how do you promote it?

The nuts and bolts of publishing a book may prove difficult first time around, or even after several titles. Even well-established commercial publishers are not excluded from the trials of a messed-up publication that takes time to correct. But once a book has been published, the next challenge is to ensure that it can be sold in order for you, as a publisher, to not only recover your costs, but also hopefully to make a profit as well.

Irrespective of your means of distribution, whether you wish to do it yourself or employ a distribution agent, you have to generate awareness that the book has been published and is available for sale. You therefore need to promote the book.

On immediate publication, a book can be promoted in several ways. If you have managed to create a mailing list, you can send out a mass mailer drawing attention to the publication. In addition to obvious details such as the title of the book and the author, you should include a small description of the book, supply the ISBN, indicate the number of pages, as well as quote any short blurbs that you may have included on the back cover. If it is a book of poetry, you might want to include a short poem from the collection, or an extract from a longer poem. Most importantly, you need to indicate where the book will be available from (and from what date, roughly) and an estimated retail price. If you have a website, you can also advertise it online.

A common and often effective way to promote a book is to organise a launch. There are several possible venues you can select as a launch, such as a bookstore, a community centre, an art gallery, a university or even a restaurant. You might be able to organise the venue free of charge, though some may charge a rental fee. It is best to organise snacks and drinks for your guests, and you may want to invite a guest speaker. For a small venue, it may not be necessary to organise a microphone, but for a bigger venue, this is preferable.

If you are going to read from the book, keep it short. If you have published a book of poems, maybe read about 4 or 5 short poems – don’t, as I have witnessed on one occasion, read the entire book!

Organise the event at a time that will be suitable for most people. Organising a launch at 5pm rush-hour is not the wisest, nor should you leave it till later in the evening. A time at about 6.30pm – 7pm is best. If you want to organise a launch for the weekend, select a Saturday. Sundays should be avoided.

You can invite guests to the launch by sending out a mass mailer electronically, by normal post, or both, depending on how much money you have budgeted. In addition to friends, family and interested parties, also make a point of sending invites to the media, particularly those publications or radio stations that have book pages or programmes.

A word of caution, though. While you obviously want to draw attention to your book in order to generate sales, you are once again investing money. Book sales at launches are usually good, but this is not guaranteed. You also may be disappointed at the number of people who attend, so avoid over-catering. Remember it is a book launch you are organising, not a party with free food and drink!

Also be sure that you have an adequate number of copies of the book to sell at the launch – in fact, ensure that you have copies to sell at all. Even commercial publishers have found themselves in panic-stricken situations where the launch date has arrived and due to delays at the printers books have not arrived. There have been occasions when the books have arrived at launch venues only about half-an-hour before the starting time.

Another common means of promoting a book is to send review copies to newspapers, magazines, literary journals, radio or even TV stations. Send a review copy with a press release to the respective books editor, containing similar information to that suggested for the mass mailer.

Remember however that, in South Africa particularly, books editors on newspapers and magazines usually have very limited space, and they are not obligated to review your book. Also don’t nag editors to review your publications. Commercial publishers may employ the services of a book publicist to undertake such tasks but for an independent publisher you would probably just irritate the editor. The same applies to radio and TV programmes.

Should your book be reviewed in print, create a clippings file, not only for your own records, but also to assist your distributor – or yourself – when approaching bookstores for orders. Evidence that a book has received publicity in the media assists a purchasing manager in deciding whether to purchase a book, and if so, in what quantities.

(Originally published as Dye Hard Press newsletter 8)

Wednesday, 02 April 2008

A new elitism?

A few weeks back, the South African newspaper The Weekender carried a story by William Skidelsky called 'Bloggers throw down the gauntlet'. According to the story, there has been a bit of a war between newspaper book reviewers and bloggers in the UK, with figures such as academic and book reviewer John Sutherland criticising literary blogs as leading to a "degradation of literary taste". When novelist Susan Hill hit back at such remarks on her blog, a newspaper books editor told her that "no book either published or written by you will in future be reviewed on our literary pages"....Read more here

Tuesday, 01 April 2008