Saturday, January 20, 2007

The woman who revolutionised UK book distribution

"Woolworths Group plc announces that its Entertainment wholesaling subsidiary, Entertainment UK Limited, has today reached agreement with the majority Bertram shareholders on the terms of the acquisition of Bertram by EUK at a cost of approximately £29 million for the equity."

Grumpy Old Bookman's 19 January reference to
Woolworths taking over Bertram
[scroll down to the para headed "Woolworths? Books?"] reminded me of that remarkable woman, Elsie Bertram MBE, whom I met on several occasions when we lived in Norfolk, not far from Norwich, the city where Bertram started and prospered.

If you've never heard of Elsie, seen on the left with HRH Prince Charles, read the Guardian obit

"Elsie Bertram, who has died aged 91, revolutionised book distribution in the United Kingdom, and left an indelible impression on the book trade. Yet her own home was devoid of books and when, not long ago, she was interviewed and asked about her reading habits, she said that she had once read a collection of short stories but could not remember the title. To her, books were a product to be distributed as fast and as efficiently as possible."

There's another obit in The Independent

You may also want to look at The Norwich and Norfolk Diabetes Trust founded in 1987 by Mrs Bertram and Dr Richard Greenwood, a local diabetes specialist.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A kind deed? What else can it be?

As some of you know, for some time I've been worried because the right hand sidebar of this page was not where it should be, alongside the current blog. Recently the sidebar dropped even lower, to below the end of the current entries.

Blogger has many useful help files plus a help group. But neither provided a solution to the problem. So the other day, apologising for bothering him, I emailed the designer of the blog template I chose back in May 2005. He is Douglas Bowman and I emailed him on the contact form at his consulting firm Stop Design.

A day or two later I realised the sidebar was back where it should be. I can't think of any reason for this except that Mr Bowman has taken time out from his busy schedule to look at this blog's code and adjust whatever was wrong. If that is the case – and what other explanation can there be? – I think it's an extraordinarily kind deed by an extremely busy young American to help an elderly and regrettably untechy Englishwoman.

P D James autobiography

"It has been a particularly good year for biographies, which I now read and enjoy far more than fiction."

That opinion, with which I agree, was written by P D James on Thursday, 6th November 1997, the year when she kept a diary of the months between her 77th and 78th birthdays, subsequently published as Time to Be in Earnest, a Fragment of Autobiography. The title comes from a comment by Samuel Johnson, "At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest."

I bought the book when it came out in paperback in 2000. Last night I started re-reading it. What a relief after tackling three disappointing novels.

Does anyone here know what 'camsiled' means?

I have the permission of a reader called N*** to quote the following from a private email concerning a largely forgotten bestseller about which I blogged on January 10th.

N*** wrote, "I have now borrowed A J Cronin's The Citadel from our local library, but before I started to read it, it "vanished" and I found my husband reading it! Unfortunately he had only read three pages before he started reaching for every dictionary in the house (we have quite a few). The third page, third paragraph starts, "Upstairs, Andrew's room was a small camsiled [sic] apartment with a brass bed...".
"What on earth is 'camsiled'?", he said, when I asked him what he was looking for. Good question. It apparently is not in Collins, Chambers, or the shorter OED. Nor was typing the word in Google any help. We are mystified, not only by the word but by what it might be, if it is perhaps a misprint. The version we have is the Vista edition (Cassell) published in 1996 and has the same cover as that illustrated in your blog."

I have emailed a Scottish colleague to ask if she knows the word which a quick search with Alta Vista suggests may be a Scots architectural or building term.

Emulating GOB

I've decided to emulate one of my favourite bloggers, Grumpy Old Bookworm, and post from Monday to Friday, taking Saturday and Sunday off.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Truss hero's charm fails to captivate Bookworm

Last night's book, to which I'd been looking forward, was With One Lousy Free Packet Of Seed by Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

I noticed that while the pb I was about to read was published in 2004 by Profile, the book's first appearance was as a 1994 Penguin. The hero is described on the back of the pb thus - "Osborne Lonsdale, forty-eight, a down-at-heel journalist mysteriously attractive to women, writes a regular celebrity interview for Come Into the Garden."

Sounded just my cup of tea. Alas, by the end of page 10, Osborne's charm had failed to work on me. I then did a random dip. Chapter 10 opens with Osborne exclaiming, "Oh my good giddy bugger uncle," after he drew "the thick heavy curtains to Angela's bedroom at eight o'clock and saw the devastation" [of a garden shed]. Can you imagine being attracted to a man who uses that sort of exclamation?

Then I had a look at the end. Worse than the opening and middle. In fairness, I must add that an Amazon reviewer called "thepublicist" took a different view. "This early Truss work is simply hilarious. Lynne Truss' off-beat humour and outrageous plot line combine brilliantly."

But the fact that there are only two reviews at Amazon UK is significant.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A thriller with 121 chapters

Last night I read Mary, Mary by James Patterson. "Hollywood has a new psycho and FBI agent Alex Cross is on the case."

According to his publishers, Mr Patterson is "one of the world's favourite storytellers with more than one hundred million books in print in forty languages, making him one of the top-selling writers of all time."

The distinguishing feature of Mary, Mary is that scattered through its 121 chapters are letters written by a homicidal maniac to the people the killer has just murdered. If my notes are correct, there are seven of these letters. There is also a clever twist at the end of the story. I quite liked the hero, Alex Cross, but not as much as Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Also there's a cringe-making Gaelen Foley-style sex scene in Chapter Eight.

So I'll have to be desperate for something to read before opening another Patterson thriller. Clearly I'm not among his target audience who, I suppose, are itinerant businessmen.

A Book for all Reasons

Yesterday I borrowed a photo of Georgette Heyer from a delightful website called A Book for all Reasons owned by Ann and Michael Sims who tell visitors they "have been buying and selling books by mail order for over 20 years. We have had a site on Internet since 1996. We are based in Lowestoft, the most easterly town in England, on the coast of Suffolk. Our household comprises the two of us and a dog, a German Shepherd called 'Tess'.
Until 1998 we also ran our three storey eight bedroomed house as a small private hotel, concentrating on bookselling in the winter. After nearly twenty years of that we decided that we wanted a home of our own again and converted most of the bedrooms to book-rooms."

Their website is a "must" for all fans of Jeffery Farnol, Georgette Heyer, J. B. Priestley, Nevil Shute, Howard Spring, Dennis Wheatley, P. G. Wodehouse and Dornford Yates.

After writing those two paragraphs, suddenly I had a feeling I'd blogged about Michael and Ann Sims before. So I put their names in the search slot at the top of this blog and up came a link to my third blog on 15 May 2005. Then I clicked Edit/Find and typed in Sims and an instant later there was the earlier reference.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The market for tosh

A few days ago Mr Bookworm returned from a mountain walk with a bag of books lent by another walking enthusiast.

They are -

1 Friends, Lovers, Chocolate : Alexander McCall Smith
2 Mary, Mary : James Patterson
3 A Widow for One Year : John Irving
4 With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed : Lynne Truss
5 Devil Takes a Bride : Gaelen Foley

Judging by the clothes of the man on the cover of No 5 it appears to be a Regency romance, though the woman's dress doesn't look right to me. See what you think.

I admit to being prejudiced against Regency romances by authors other than the inventor of the genre, Georgette Heyer, whose books I collected years ago and still re-read occasionally.

The other day, after I had tried to discourage her from committing herself to romance-writing, Liz Fenwick commented, "I will be sticking with romantic fiction as I love it. It's a joy to write."

Well, if someone is set on something, it's a probably a waste of time to try to dissuade them. But if Liz were to read Devil Takes a Bride I think she would understand why I think an aspiring fiction writer should consider crime rather than romance.

However as, like the author of Devil Takes a Bride, Liz is an American perhaps she would not be as appalled by it as I was. Gaelen Foley's website suggests that she takes her research very seriously, but she seems to have absolutely no sense of period.

Almost the whole of Chapter Seven is an explicit seduction scene of the kind that would stretch the reader's credulity if the story took place in the early 20th century. Even in my youth, the Fifties, intelligent girls - and this heroine is supposed to be exceptionally intelligent - did not abandon all common sense and participate in their seduction by their employer's nephew as eagerly as we are expected to believe that Lizzie Carlisle does.

Clearly there is a market in the US for this kind of tosh, and possibly in the UK. But it isn't hard to imagine what Georgette Heyer would have thought of it.

I'll start another of the borrowed books tonight and report back.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Public Lending Right surprise

When my PLR statement arrived the other day, I was surprised to see that one paperback had been borrowed 78 times from UK public libraries in the year to June 2006, earning £4.66 or about US$9.

Surprised because I couldn't fathom how the libraries had got hold of copies.

The book came out in 2002 and I believe it to be the first novel with a list of links to relevant websites at the end of each chapter. There were 58 links in all and when I have an hour to spare I plan to check how many are still working. All of them, I hope.

The publisher was not too happy about the inclusion of links, and insisted on printing the following at the beginning of the book -

Heartline Books regret that they can accept no responsibility for the accuracy, reliability, security or suitability of any of the website addresses with the pages of SEA CHANGE by Anne Weale.

The reason I was surprised the book had been borrowed 78 times was because Heartline Books went into liquidation a short time after the book was published. So Sea Change has never earned a penny in royalties. As for the advance, in a moment of misguided generosity I waived it, wishing to help a new publisher get started. Naturally I assumed the amount of the offered advance would be paid into my bank account eventually as sales and royalties mounted.

Why I didn't notice borrowings of Sea Change on previous PLR statements, I'm not sure. Perhaps, because the publication of the book had been one of the few unhappy episodes in my half century as a writer, instinctively I ignored the title.

However, having checked previous PLR statements, I now find that it first appeared in the statement to 30/6/2003 when it was borrowed only 14 times, earning 68 pence. In the year to 2004 there were 76 library loans earning £4. I seem to have mislaid the statement for 2005 but it's likely there were 70+ borrowings that year. If so, the book's total PLR earnings to date are about £13, rather a meagre return for all the writing hours and research that went into it.

Still, I enjoyed writing it. Here's the foreword.

"I have always loved the sea, or the ocean as you may call it, depending on where you live. Islands, rivers and oceans have been a recurring theme in my life and my stories; and men who brave the sea in its wildest moods have always been high on my list of heroes.
Since I began exploring the World Wide Web, one of my greatest pleasures has been following, online, the many round-the-world yacht races, including the dramatic rescue by the Italian yachtsman, Giovanni Soldini, of the French yachtswoman, Isabelle Autissier, after her boat capsized in the Southern Ocean.
Within hours of that rescue being reported, I found myself thinking, 'What if the situation had been reversed…if a woman had rescued a man…a man she had every reason to dislike?' Once a writer's imagination has started working, there is no stopping it until she has brought her story to its conclusion.
I am always sorry to part from the people in my stories. But, despite all the challenges and difficulties, I know they have a happy future ahead, and I say goodbye to them with the hope that they will find readers who, by the last page, will share my affection for them."

When Heartline's liquidation was over, I asked how many copies of Sea Change they held and was told about 1,500. I asked if, instead of them being sold for pence to a remainder merchant, I might have them. No reply. Later, when I enquired again, I was told the books had been pulped.

Naturally, I'm pleased that the book is being read despite the misfortunes surrounding its publication. But the question remains : where did the public libraries get hold of copies?

Perhaps, when they emerge from their busiest time of the year, the PLR people will be able to throw some light on the matter. It may be that only a couple of public libraries have copies of Sea Change. 78 loans in 12 months is very small beer.

I was interested to learn that of the 330 million total UK library loans last year, 142 million were loans of PLR-registered books. Of the 23,869 recipients, only 363 authors were in the maximum payment band.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Advice from an oldie to a newbie

In today's blog

Advice to a not-so-young aspiring author
Stanley Morgan's adventure : Part 2

Advice to a not-so-young author

"Housework" is not a word one would expect to spark a response. But on January 12 Liz Fenwick posted the comment "I'm doing the same on the housework but there is no joy in it."

Clicking on her name, I found that she has a website where I read -

"I am a writer or I always have been in my heart but now I am taking it more seriously. You can only say to yourself for so long this is what you really want to do and then find ways of avoiding it like earning a living, getting married, having kids, moving around the world etc. One day you have to wake up and just do it. That day happened on 1st January 2004. Since then I have written two books and had two rejections. Do I see a pattern here? No. I am learning so much that soon those rejections will turn to acceptance. So watch this space."

In my view if someone is born a writer, or an artist, or composer, their creative gene should dominate their life, even if they have to modify their daydreams in order to pay the rent. Which is why, at 17, I became a cub reporter, combining earning a living and improving my writing skills.

Liz seems to have made a promising start. Her bio tells us -
"I discovered early on that my best friends could be books. As an only child growing up just outside Boston, I filled many childhood hours lost in their pages. I went onto to study English literature at Mount Holyoke College where I obtained my degree in 1985. While on a waitlist for a Masters in Theological Studies at Harvard, I moved to London to see if life looked different from the other side of the Atlantic. It did. I soon fell in love and married an Englishman then embarked on a new life as an expatriate."

At this point Liz's urge to write seems to have been side-tracked. I can empathise, up to a point, because love is another of life's top priorities. When Mr Bookworm made me choose between marrying him and going abroad for a couple of years, or sticking with my career, it would have been insanity not to go.

But for Liz Fenwick love and marriage was a long-term distraction which makes me wonder if writing really was/is her vocation.

She writes - "As an expat, I became Global Coordinator of an award-winning, grass-roots expatriate spouses association for a 13 billion dollar international corporation. Twelve years and eight international moves later, I am now residing in both London and Cornwall with my husband, three children and a big fluffy white cat where I have rediscovered the joys of writing fiction again."

That word "residing" bothers me. Why not "living"? Also, when I read the blurb for Liz's novel August Rock there was a spelling mistake in the second line.

"American, Judith Chambers leaves one man at the alter and flees to Cornwall. Tristan Trevenen has just lost his father and is now stuck with an historic estate on the Helford River that he doesn't want. In order to sell the estate he requires the specialist help of Chambers, a PhD in History, to catalogue his father's papers."

I'm pretty sure that "alter" for "altar" must be a typo, and I would have pointed it out in a private email to Liz Fenwick except that she doesn't have an email link on her web but one of those maddening forms which require the visitor to fill in first name, last name, email address and comments.

Instead I had a look at her blog started in September.

In my view - and many will disagree - unpublished writers shouldn't waste their creative energy blogging. If and when they do start blogging, it should be a subject blog, not a personal diary or heavily self-promotional as so many authors' blogs are.

All this may sound a rather unkind response from a veteran writer to a newbie. But, as you may remember, recently I quoted Laura Miller's comment "If people were as enthusiastic about reading (or rather, buying) books as they are about writing them, the industry overall would not be in the poor economic situation it's in now."

A day or two ago at the BBC site I read, "How about spending the most boring month in the year, February, doing something crazy and creative? In February 2007, you could be writing the novel of your dreams with Write Here Right Now, Radio Scotland's 'write a novel in a month' project. Last year 1000 writers all around the world signed up to take part."

And to cap that The Times has a piece about a book on how to write chick lit…a genre already overcrowded to bursting point.

Many of the published members of the Romantic Novelists' Association, which Liz Fenwick has joined, fall over themselves to be helpful to unpublished members. It doesn't seem to occur to these self-appointed fairy godmothers that, if the unpublished people have what it takes, they will succeed unaided.

My advice to Liz Fenwick is to forget about romantic fiction and look for a relatively uninhabited region of the book world... if there is one.

Stanley Morgan's adventure : Part 2

Stanley writes -
"What followed the episode was two months of utter chaos and disaster. Mine was a 'leading man' role, playing opposite a very young Dyan Cannon (later to become Mrs Cary Grant). A very promising role for me. The film was shot entirely outdoors, on the beach and on the cliffs of that lovely coastline.

Shortly after shooting commenced, Dyan contracted a poisoned thumb from fossil grains, and went to local hospital to have it treated. That evening, we, a group of actors, were sitting in the Fortaleza Restaurant courtyard having a meal, when Dyan suddenly keeled out of her seat and struck the stone floor with her head. We got her back to the villa (the same villa Morton and I lived in), and called a Portugese doctor. He arrived, I kid you not, swathed in a black gaucho cape, wearing a black-and-silver Zorro sombrero, and smoking a cigarette through a long black holder. Could you make this up?

Dyan awoke from a partial coma, unable to speak, and scratched her feelings of terror on the plaster wall beside her bed with her finger nail. Although not hospitalised, she was unable to work for a week or so, during which time she lost so much weight that when she eventually began to work she looked quite dreadful in the rushes. There followed a litany of disasters that beggar belief and the imagination. Homosexual relationships developed among the crew that triggered jealousies which threatened the technical stability of the shoot; the producer offended the local populace by driving like a madman through the villages; Dyan became increasingly unhappy with her contract and discovered that the producer had not been telephoning her L.A. agent, as promised; the producer was running out of money; the weather turned cold and made outdoor shooting difficult for everyone (I spent quite some time in the sea, knife-fighting with dear old Morton who, mostly in his cups, was so potentially lethal that eventually I had to refuse to do the scenes!)

And the story? Now, promise not to laugh...oh, all right then, go on... We were a band of shipwrecked individuals who, in the opening scenes, drag ourselves ashore from a wrecked yacht, and find ourselves on a beach entirely land-locked by towering cliffs. Thus imprisoned, frustrated by many failed attempts to climb the cliffs, our relationships begin to disintegrate. But then - hold the phone! - on the verge of murdering one another, we spot a band of gauchos on the cliff top! Hurrah! We are saved! No, we are not. For they are not really gauchos, they are...yes, you've guessed it...they are ALIENS from a distant planet! Oh, was it really that obvious? Anne, I don't know who conceived the initial script. I do know that we all sat around daily, before shooting commenced and tried to repair the damage. But it was unfixable. The sad ending to the story is that the film 'The Sleepwalkers' was never distributed. The producer ran foul of the English unions by employing cheap Portugese non-union labour to haul the heavy equipment up the cliffs, and the unions shut him out. For me, it was particularly frustrating because it was my first major role, teamed with Dyan who was a Warner starlet. But everybody lost on that one. Anyway, it has been fun relating it to you, and thank you for listening."

Thank you for telling, Stanley. I was interested to learn that when Dyan married Cary Grant she was 28 to his 61. Not surprisingly it didn't last long.