Saturday, 21 July 2012

Business books | Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back

Mitch Blunt's illustration for Big Issue

Business books: sounds dry already, doesn’t it? Double entry accounting systems? The Ten Most Efficient Ways to Reach Your Sales Target? Stuff for the workplace, surely? And yet if I was to say to you some of the most interesting literature being written about our world today comes under the banner “business books” I don’t think I’d be entirely wrong – and I wouldn’t be alone either.
You may have heard of the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell, but even if you haven’t I bet you’ve heard the phrase “The Tipping Point”, which he popularised as the title of his breakthrough book in 2000. Subtitled “How little things make a big difference” it sought to explain how a pair of shoes, for instance, can go from being merely popular to being worn by absolutely everyone. It’s a concept that has since been applied to everything from anti-smoking legislation to selling mobile phones.
In doing so Gladwell confirmed the first rule, if you like, of the business book. Don’t just give your book a title, give it a buzzphrase.
Later this year you’ll likely hear a lot about Anti-Fragility, the title of a book by Nasim Taleb (due out in October), an economist best known for another book, The Black Swan, (another buzzphrase) which went some way to explain the credit crunch.
For now, however, it’s Reslience, Why Things Bounce Back. And really, could there be a more apt subject for our times: as the world economy remains doggedly in the doldrums with societies around the globe scratching their communal heads and wondering, what now? It seems the right time to look at how societies can recover from terrible traumas.
Written by National Geographic fellow Andrew Zolli and New York based journalist Ann Marie Healy, Resilience is a US slanted book, undoubtedly, but its sweep is broad and fascinating. In the best Gladwellian traditions, Reslience pulls information in from all over, mashes it all up, and offers some startling conclusions.
The first thing you need to know about the Resilience is that shit happens. Avoiding disasters isn’t the point: being able to recover from them is. The granddaddy of all recent shocks was the closure of Lehmanns bank and the economic cluster bust which followed.
Zolli and Healy have a lot of interesting things to say on this. About how in the run up to it, for instance, the financial industry, globally, had become extraordinarily homogeneous – a warning sign. They use the term “synchrony”: all the companies were doing much the same thing, making much the same amounts of money. In this case they were chopping and reselling asset portfolios in a way that went beyond mere reason. Memorably they compare these collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) to lining up 15 done-in nags from the glue factory and selling the fastest as a thoroughbred. The result wasn’t a resilient system, but a fragile one.
Resilience scores by going beyond the obvious, with readable and illuminating chapters on topics as diverse as fishing policy in the tiny Pacific island state of Paulau, victims of gang violence in Chicago and the role of the batfish on the Jamaican coral reef. Hugely interesting.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Penguin joins the self-publishing Kindle revolution | $116 million ASI deal

Write a book, make a million
This week, Penguin became the latest literary icon joined the self-publishing revolution.

Which sounds like the kind of mildly humorous non sequitur an overpaid Radio Four satirist might make up. But hold on to your manuscripts, people, this one is true.

Arguably the world’s best-known publisher, which last year enjoyed a turnover of $1 billion, Penguin has splashed $116 million (about £70 million) buying a company called ASI, which stands for Author Solutions Inc.

The oddity is that ASI specialise in what used to be called vanity publishing. If you’ve written a book and want to see it in print, you give them a call/email/whatever and they’ll turn your purple prose into a paperback.

With the recent rise of digital books, ASI has mined a rich seam helping authors prepare a manuscript, designing the cover and marketing it.

Once upon a time, self-publishing was a joke. A last resort for the desperately-seeking-fame, the place memoirs went to die.

The Kindle changed all that
But Amazon, its Kindle, and the e-reading revolution have changed all that. Authors like Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath have become millionaires without the help of a traditional publisher by flogging their books at 99 cents each. No editor required. No agent either. And certainly no Waterstones or Borders.

Others, most notably Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James, have won lucrative deals after publishing their books digitally.

Suddenly publishers, famous for their long literary lunches, are no longer the gatekeepers to the Lucrative Land of Literature. Their margins are getting squeezed because these days anyone with a laptop and wi-fi access can beat them at their own game.

The result is a massive online market place made up of free, or extremely cheap titles. And it is totally random. Vampire detectives at 99 cents, Booker Prize winners for a pound, mommy porn £1.99.

Penguin’s purchase of ASI suggests a company fearing that its current business model is about to fall off a cliff. It suggests a company wanting to cover all the possible bases. After all, if people will no longer pay £20 to read a new hardback, perhaps they’ll spend £100 to write one instead.

Like I said, it’s the sort of non sequitur you might hear on Radio 4.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Snow Child | Interview with Eowyn Ivey, bestselling author and bookshop worker from Alaska

If the world of traditional publishing was looking for a poster girl, they might consider the American author Eowyn Ivey.

A former journalist – she worked for her home town newspaper for nine years reporting everything from local crime to the school board minutes – Eowyn (yes, her mum really did name her after a character from Lord of The Rings) now works part time in the fiercely independent and local Fireside Books shop, in between caring for her young children... and writing novels.

Did I mention she’s Alaskan? And yet this unconnected, non-celebrity, shop worker with no connections whatsoever to any literary dynasty or media outlet has, with her debut The Snow Child, has hit the kind of commercial and critical home run most writers just get to dream about. This year she has seen her debut in the top twenty hardbacks on both sides of the Atlantic, and selling briskly round the world too.

I met her a few months ago when she breezed through Glasgow on a book tour.

“I know, everything that has happened has been completely contrary to how I understood publishing to be,” she says, blushing slightly. “It is amazing to me.”

She first came across the original Russian folk tale her novel is based on while stacking books at work. It gave her a “tingly sensation” as she realised that this was exactly the kind of story she’d been looking to adapt.

“I had been working on a completely different novel for about five years and I abandoned it,” she says. 

“Later I discovered the Arthur Ransome version, Little Daughter of the Snow, and learned that there were ballets and operas based on the story. It has a rich history, and it was like an opening up into this world I didn’t know about.”

Ivey was three quarters of the way through her manuscript – replanting the yarn to her own native Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s – when she and her mother went to a writing conference in state capital Anchorage. (“We’re really lucky where we live, because we’re on the road system,” Ivey assures me. “It means we can get into Anchorage without needing a plane or a boat.”)

Once there she pitched her concept to a New York agent, who immediately demanded to read the first hundred pages. “I didn’t even have it with me,” she shrugs. “I had to get my husband Sam to fax it.”
With the agent’s guidance Ivey finished the novel – which took another year of writing in the evening while her husband bathed the kids.

But then, in an unexpected plot twist, Mr New York told her to sit on it. “Publishing in the US was so topsy-turvy,” she explains. “It was the recession and there was all this talk about e-books. He decided it was best to wait a year. But that was really difficult.”

She has no regrets about the strategy now. The book was scooped up by Little, Brown in America, Headline Review in the UK, and by a raft of other publishers worldwide. It has hit the best seller charts, been featured on reading lists compiled by Oprah and Waterstones, and next week graces Radio 4. Self publish on Kindle, you say, why bother?

It’s easy to see the broad appeal. The Snow Child is a highly evocative read and Ivey writes beautifully, sculpting her characters with economy while summoning up the extremes of the Alaskan landscape, exploiting her own lifelong experience. That’s the other thing about Eowyn she really couldn’t be any more authentic, short of turning up at our interview with a set of antlers.

She and her husband Sam (they met at High School) had a first date shooting moose (the only meat they eat is what they kill themselves) and live in a cabin too remote to be connected to the mains water supply. “Every book is a small donation to our new well,” Eowyn laughs. I think that well should be pretty well dug, by now.

The Snow Child is out now (Headline Review, £14.99). 

Aren't there already too many books? | Things writers don't want to hear

Aren't there already too many books?

I never get the chance to read any more.

When I go into a bookshop, I can never find anything I like.

So are you the next JK Rowling then?

I just don't think I love it enough.

I'm a retired lawyer. I always thought I'd write a book some day, can you give me advice on how to get started?

Your book was OK, but have you read Twilight? It's brilliant!

I suppose you need to put in lots of sex to make money.

Can you put in lots of sex, that way it will make money.

I think I just read an American YA novel with exactly that plot. But it was set in space.

Your characters are great, they could have been on TV.

I like a book where you can not pay attention for a few pages and then still pick up the gist of it.

How many pages? And you wrote every one?

Chinese History | Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

You think you know a country and then wallop, a book comes along that turns everything on its head. Stephen Platt’s hugely enjoyable Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, for instance. A megatome if ever there was one. Knowledgeable, zestily written, and utterly surprising.

China’s GDP is predicted to overhaul the USA in the next few years, making it the world’s leading superpower. And yet we have a general notion that China’s history comes in rough-hewn slabs: Emperors, Orwellian Communists and then, in a reversal of the way Karl Marx imagined, mad rampant Capitalism.
But China is as diverse as Europe and just as complex.

Platt, a leading American academic, offers a glimpse of the forces that dragged the world’s most popular nation out of the middle ages and into the modern era, by focusing on a rather peculiar rebellion which took place in the mid-19th century.

Peculiar in the sense that it was led by a Christian fundamentalist who saw visions of God and believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. Not what you expect from the land of Buddha and Confucius.

Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping movement illustrates just how extraordinary and terrible humanity is. All it took was an idea – one that seemed preposterous to those in the west – for a million people to rise up against their overlords. Religion is not set in stone. It morphs, depending on who is doing the preaching.

Platt is tackling a big subject: a forgotten civil war, perhaps the bloodiest of all time, which resulted in as many as 20 million deaths. The reaction of the western powers – and western public opinion – to the Taiping revolution was crucial in how it played out.

But it is the details that make a history book really work and Platt is good with these. There is something brilliantly mundane about Xiuquan, for instance, in that he failed the stringent exams for the Chinese civil service five times. Had he passed, you wonder if the war might never have happened.

Does history work like that, or is it down to individuals or to greater forces – be they economic, physical, 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Andy Murray | Wimbledon | Roger Federer | Real men do cry

Watching Andy Murray come so close and yet fail at Wimbledon on Sunday, I realised there were yet two more reasons to respect the big Scot.

For a start, there is the fact that he cried.

Blubbing is one of the markers of genuine manhood. I’m not saying we should all break down all the time. Not a bit. But when the fighting done, and believe me he fought tooth and nail during his match with Roger Federerer, there is nothing wrong with letting go and showing people how you really feel.

The fact that he cries, and he is Scottish might confuse some people. Scots traditionally have a flintiness about them that keeps their eyes dry and fathers and sons, especially, unable to summon up so much as a handshake sometimes, never mind a hug. But Murray showed on Sunday that times have changed, for the better. His is a generation unafraid of feeling. The look of genuine love and affection that carried between him and his girlfriend Kim, and his mother and family, and all his supporters, was really quite moving.

And then he had to make a speech! After all that blinking tennis, line calls, gazillion deuces and heartache, he had to take a microphone and, off the cuff, barely able to speak at first, address the 15,000 people inside centre court -- who included (by the way) only the most famous celebs, royals and sport stars in the country... ever. Not to mention a worldwide audience likely to top half a billion.

Face it. Most of us get the jitters just standing up to say a few words after dinner with the in-laws. Jerry Seinfeld has a famous skit about how more people are worried about public speaking than they are about dying. Meaning that at a funeral, most folks would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.

So well done Murray: a 25-year-old man who can cry and stumble his way through a half decent speech. After that, surely winning a Grand Slam is only a matter of time.