Posts Tagged ‘follies’

Coming down and calming down from two hectic days at the London Book Fair, I’m sitting in our Harlech office looking out at the waves and the wind and the sunshine, and contemplating the immense power of books.

There’s no doubt the publishing world is in turmoil, with fewer people buying books, ebooks taking an ever larger slice of the pie, bookshops closing every week and a general air of uncertainty hanging over everything. This of course adds to the excitement, and there is, as always in publishing, this sense of ambiguity — are we in the right business? Should we be looking forward? Or over our shoulders?

Two companies expressed an interest, however veiled, in acquiring fotoLibra. Of course there’s a world of difference between acquiring and buying, but it’s interesting to see that some firms are discreetly expanding, and not necessarily in their core disciplines. I should add that these are the first signals of this type we’ve seen in nine years. Flattering, I guess.

To get an indication of the measure of hope in the business, I posed a theoretical question: “If you personally had fifty thousand to invest, would you put it in a firm making printing machinery or a firm making screens?” No one answered directly. Everyone nodded slowly.

There is a rearguard action. At the fair advertising king Maurice Saatchi launched his Books Are My Bag campaign, claimed to be the biggest ever promotion of bookshops. Who doesn’t love a bookshop? But we’re all buying online, and condemning them to a slow, lingering death. Asked to name my favourite bookshop, I hesitated — there used to be two in Crouch End, now there are none.

It’s not because everyone is buying ebooks. An ebook is still a book; it’s just presented differently. And the only ebooks that are selling are fiction. Illustrated ebooks, as we have found out to our cost, are hard to shift. Heritage Ebooks, which we launched with great hope and wonderful images from fotoLibra photographers, has struggled to find a market. We did a deal with The Folly Fellowship, an organisation concerned with the history and preservation of this curious aspect of Britain’s architectural heritage, to give their members a thumping great discount on the purchase of any of our forty Follies of England ebook titles. How many folly enthusiasts took up the offer? None. Not one. Zilch. That is disheartening.

But The Guardian tells me they’re now doing a feature on our Heritage Ebooks, illustrating ten of our ebook covers. That would be nice. I’ll believe it when I see it. BREAKING NEWS: They’re not doing it. Our ebook covers are Portrait format, and they said they needed Landscape. The covers have lettering on them — the book titles, actually — and they wanted them without lettering. It turns out what they really wanted was ten free photographs of follies.

Despite all this doom and gloom, the London Book Fair was humming. Large companies had dozens of tables, each one with four people talking intently with heads bowed. Business was being done. Smaller firms were concentrating just as hard. The only oases of quiet were to be found in the Arab quarter: huge, lavish, glittering, empty national stands, as depopulated as the deserts.

I captioned this piece The Power Of The Word. The word has more power to stimulate the imagination than the image, I regret to admit. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they see and hear.” But we’re not told what sort of people they asked. These aren’t book people.

Book people feed on words. I’ll give you an example. I’ve known my old pal Mike for over forty years. We haven’t been in touch a lot since he left publishing, but we hooked up last Christmas and resumed normal service. For a Significant Birthday he was planning a tour of Japan. His highlight was going to be queuing outside a bookshop to be the first to buy Haruki Murakami’s new novel. That was, to borrow a phrase from Gilbert Harding, his Sole Purpose of Visit. What power can there be in words to drag a foreigner halfway around the world — literally! — to join (or in Mike’s case, form) a queue outside a Japanese bookshop? I wish I had readers like that. He’s still out there, by the way, and blogging about it as he travels around the country. You can read his adventures here. Oh — and he left book publishing to become a film-maker. Images for words.

So this week was the book fair. fotoLibra’s major source of income is from book publishers. Next week will be the picture buyers’ fair, fotoFringe in King’s Cross. It will be a busy week for us. And there will be some interesting NEWS from fotoLibra.

If I don’t blow my own trumpet nobody else is going to do it for me*, so I’d like to announce that — TA RA! — today is the publication day of my latest book Follies: Fabulous, Fanciful and Frivolous Buildings. It’s published by the National Trust and it has lots of lovely photographs and just four by fotoLibra members. Out of my hands, I’m afraid.

This is what it looks like, and if you’d like to read the story of how it came about, I’ve gone into a lot more detail on my personal fotoLibrarian blog, right here.

This is a hardback book and has nothing to do with our own Heritage Ebooks on follies, except sharing an author.  fotoLibra members who supplied images of follies under the advanceImages scheme will be getting notifications and sales data built in to the new fotoLibra Version 5.0 website, shortly to be launched. There will be an announcement on this blog.

This little book is what is known in the trade as a Slim Volume. But it should make a pleasant present. It’s a tiny hardback, with lots of pretty pictures so you don’t have to read too much of my text. Available of all good booksellers, is what they say. ISBN 978-1-907892-30-1

One note of naked self-interest — if you are kind enough to buy it, please try and choose a retailer other than Amazon, where deep discounts mean someone has to be cut out of the equation if the publisher and bookseller are to make any money. And yes, you’ve guessed it — it’s the author. But I can supply signed copies for £8.99 plus £2.20 postage in the UK if you email me, or let me know in a comment to this post.

* certainly not the publisher …

Jacqui Norman, who never makes a mistake (or so she tells me) sent out a Picture Call this morning for some exciting mountaineering shots for the front cover of a Japanese novel titled “Hidako”.

Of course my knowledge of Japanese peaks is second to none, and the Hidaka range is well known to me (and Mr. Wikipedia). The highest peak is Mount Poroshiri at 6,785 feet. It’s not HidakO, it’s HidakA. But Jacqui says that if that’s what the client ordered, that’s what the client wants.

She said he wanted images to capture the thrills, excitement and danger of mountaineering anywhere, not just on some overblown Japanese hill. Like Joe Simpson’s “Into The Void”.

Ah. Wrong again, Jacqui. Joe Simpson’s “Touching The Void”, not “Into The Void” is one of the classics of mountaineering, as fotoLibra “8,000 Uploads!” member Nick Jenkins quickly pointed out.

And as I remember only too well, even without the aid of Mr. Wikipedia. I have never read the book, because I am consumed with jealousy.

Let me take you back to 1985. I had just delivered the manuscript of Wim Meulenkamp’s and my first book on follies to the gilded offices of Jonathan Cape in London’s Bedford Square (even the electric sockets were golden, there’s posh, yes?). Unfortunately my editor Liz Calder, who had commissioned the book, had left to co-found a new publisher called Bloomsbury, so our book was passed down to another editor, Tony Colwell.

Tony could spare me half an hour to talk about publicity. I was ushered into his office. He greeted me abstractedly. “This is a really wonderful book,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Oh!” I stammered. “Thank you so much!”

“No, no, I’m sorry, I was thinking about this mountaineering book,” he said. “It’s called “Touching The Void”, and it’s by this amazing man called Joe Simpson.”

And for the next 25 minutes Tony praised this incredible book, lauding it with superlative after superlative. He went on and on. I just sat there.

Eventually he glanced at his watch. “Goodness, is that the time? I suppose we’d better talk about your book. Well, we’ll be sending out the usual review copies. Is there anything else? Well, goodbye, so good of you to come in.”

And that was that.

Ever since then, any mention of Joe Simpson’s “Touching The Void” sets my teeth on edge.

I shouldn’t really complain, because Jonathan Cape ended up doing a really spectacular publicity job on “Follies”, and it sold out in 11 months.

And if you want to see a REALLY plush publisher’s office, you should visit Bloomsbury, the company that Liz Calder co-founded. Spread over three town houses in the same Bedford Square, they might as well have gilded the entire interior, such is its opulence. I guess Harry Potter contributed a penny or two.

Oh — and congratulations are due to Nick Jenkins. 8,000 images is one impressive portfolio! Other members could learn a lot from him — and they can, because Nick runs some great photography courses at Freespirit Images.

Heritage Ebooks, for those who don’t know, is the digital publishing arm of VisConPro Ltd, the holding company of fotoLibra. So we’re sister companies: same owners, same shareholders, same staff.

We set up Heritage Ebooks to demonstrate the advanceImages system for supplying images to ebook publishers, and it’s already taken on a life of its own. I will be blogging extensively about advanceImages next month.

Heritage Ebooks’ first 40 titles are the Follies of England series, over a quarter of a million words written by me and Dutch art historian Wim Meulenkamp, and with a large percentage of the 1,900+ photographs taken by fotoLibra members. You can see our first titles here at heritage.co.uk — click on VIEW ALL TITLES.

Although we’re not awash with critical acclaim — nobody has yet reviewed a single title — there has been media interest. I was on BBC Radio 4′s flagship programme Today on Monday 31 October, talking about follies.

Today the Daily Mail ran a good, big feature on the amazing follies of Whitaker Wright, with a credit to Heritage Ebooks at the end. You can read it here.

All this, as our PR says, is grist to the mill. fotoLibra members are being paid a royalty on the sale of these books, so the more books we sell, the more they will earn. And ebooks never go out of print. So the money will keep coming in. More publicity means more sales. To date we’ve sold 99. Harry Potter this isn’t.

But it’s a start.

Orphan Books

December 23rd, 2009

The New York Times has published its annual list of ‘buzzwords of the year’. Two have been derived from book publishing, in which fotoLibra has a vested interest as publishers constitute our largest single market.

The words are ‘Vook’ and ‘Orphan Books’. ‘Vook’ is a neologism and ‘Orphan Books’ is a phrase rather than a word, but we’ll let that pass. Let’s deal with Vook first: its etymology is a combination of Video and bOOK content, in other words the killer ebook I described in this blog post without using the word vook. More recently, I got rather excited by this ad for Sports Illustrated which pretty accurately delivered what I was looking for in an ebook, only as a magazine. So what would this be? A vazine? Videodical? A Vag (Video mAGazine)?

Anyway, the first time I ever heard the term ‘vook’ was when I read the article this morning. So I’m not aware of it as a buzz word.

Orphan Books are defined by the New York Times as “volumes still in copyright but out of print and unavailable for sale, and whose copyright holders cannot be found.” The article says that the term ‘Orphan Book’ first rose to prominence in 2007, but “peaked this year with the fierce discussion over the proposed Google Books settlement.”

Orphan Book has a completely different meaning for me and many other authors and publishers. The real Orphan Book is one that is orphaned at birth, a tragedy shared with genuine orphans.

When an editor commissions a book and leaves the firm before the book is published, that creates an orphan book. Within a publishing house, the editor’s rôle is to deliver the best product he can, and to do that he has to talk up his babies to publicity, sales, marketing and of course the board. His books are better than the books from the other editors in the house; they are more marketable, better written, more intelligent, bigger sellers, indeed seminal. Few can remain unimpressed at the sight of an editor firing on all 16 cylinders to promote a favoured author or title at a sales conference.

But if that editor is no longer there to defend and promote the title, what happens to the book? I can tell you from bitter experience — it’s forgotten. There’s a contract, so the company is obliged to issue the book, but because no one remaining in the company is interested, it is not so much published as released into the community.

Three of my books were orphan books: Follies: A National Trust Guide: commissioned by Robin Wright (died shortly afterwards) and Liz Calder (left to found Bloomsbury). Eventually published by Jonathan Cape, 1986.

Architectural Follies In America: commissioned by Buckley Jeppson of the Preservation Press. Buckley left, the company was acquired by John Wiley & Son and the book was eventually published by them in 1996.

The Encyclopaedia of Fonts: Commissioned by Jane Ellis. Jane left over a year before a new managing director eventually allowed the book to trickle out in mid-December. Eventually published by Cassell Illustrated, 2005.

So where does the New York Times get Orphan Books from, to mean this quasi-legal grey area? From Google, of course. Google is not a book publisher and does not use a book publishing vocabulary, so it created this term to describe what is in fact a minute sector of the market. How many titles are we talking about in Google’s definition of an ‘orphan book’? How many books are there where the copyright holders cannot be found? Who is looking for them? How hard are they looking?

If I owe somebody money, they always manage to find me. But if money is owed to me, the difficulty of tracking me down becomes exponentially greater. Creating a snappy phrase — even by appropriating one that’s already in use within the trade for a common occurrence — gives visibility to an otherwise overlooked and unimportant sector of the market.

And interestingly it might help to divert attention from much larger, yet less transparent, activities being carried on elsewhere.