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Hard Day’s . . . Night

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The Night Sky by  Blake Nancarrow

The Night Sky by Blake Nancarrow

Legend has it that after a particularly long recording session, Ringo Starr left Abbey Road muttering something like “That was a hard day’s…” when he looked up, realized the time and said, “…night.”

True or not, I’m sure you’ve shared that experience: a long work day during which you rarely look up and made worse if you don’t leave the office or have a window. The concept of time that was once gauged by the sun is now dictated by the clock. How many times in the winter have you looked up at 5 p.m. and said, “It looks like nine o’clock at night!” Yes, but who said what nine o’clock looks like?

Indeed the appearance of time, day and night, has changed since the invention (and popularity) of gas then electric light. Compounded with the popularlity of “smart” devices, we are inundated with light to the point that we can’t sleep. And if we can’t sleep then, well, shouldn’t we be productive?

We haven’t always slept through the night. In the distant past, we used to go to bed “early,” dog tired after a labourious day, wake up later in the night or early morning, do stuff in the dark, fall asleep again, and wake up with rooster. Some people still do this, only they write, as Karen Emslie tells us in her Aeon piece, “Broken Sleep.”

Unfortunately this schedule doen’t work for many people. Perhaps we’ve been programmed. Regardless, light affects our melatonin which affects our sleep which affects our mood which determines our mental and physical health. Sure there are pills and exercises and sex and yoga and mantras, but let’s to go to the source: light. Humans cannot cope in a world without darkness, says Rebecca Boyle in her article “The End of Night,” published in Aeon. Not only does it rob us of biological needs but it compels us to produce, to be “on” all the time. We’re surrounded by (very rich) role models, leading us to believe if Highly Successful Person can be highly successful with only four hours’ sleep, then so can I because I’m efficient, not a slacker like other people! For the record, I count myself among the “other people.” You really don’t want to around me when I’ve only had four hours’ sleep. In fact, I think that says something about Highly Successful Person too.

The idea that we must be productive most of the time makes me wonder about the definition of productive. From my North American perspective, it appears to mean making something tangible. Thinking isn’t seen as productive. Oh, you’ll hear lots of discussion about “creatives” and “knowledge workers” “innovating” in “collaborative work environments,” but I think that’s all marketing spin. As I sit alone in my home office by my window looking out onto a tree and a neighbouring building, I wonder what a boss would think, all buttoned up in a dark blue wool suit. He or she would likely scold me for daydreaming then request a status report on something, probably the very thing I was “daydreaming” about.

One thing I do daydream/think about is space. It gives us perspective. Once upon a time I witnessed the northern lights. Recently, my Facebook feed was filled with other people’s photos of the glorious phenomenon. I’d like to see the northern lights again as well as the other celestial shows, but judging from Toronto’s light-polluted night sky, I’ll have to drive pretty far north to do so. Having lived in a city for most of my life, I used to shrug this off. Then I saw the wonderful doc The City Dark and I realized I’m missing something–something important.

It’s a hard day’s night, indeed.

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Seriously

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When I first read Fay Weldon’s advice that when it comes to ebooks authors should “[a]bandon your dignity and write a racy page-turner,” I got my back up and angrily began typing a retort: typical bloddy snobbery at work here! As I clicked through to Weldon’s blog and gave the issue some thought, I relented a bit. Perhaps the numbers do support the idea that genre and commercial fiction outsells their litrary brethren in ebook form; however, I suspect that this has been the case in paperback too. I recall a few editorial discussion where hardbacks are still viewed by some as having more gravitas than trade paperbacks. Ridiculous, I know. Same for mass-market (pocketbook) editions. And so it seems soom book-types view ebooks through the same lens.

Restoration

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Print books aren’t dead and ebooks aren’t a scourge. Print doesn’t flag intellect and digital doesn’t flag a lack thereof. For me, it comes down to length: I prefer print for books and digital for long-form journalism (short stories fall in between). My stuffed shelves are testament to my book-hoarding proclivities. Magazines get recycled (well, most not all, as I see mag boxes full of MOJO and New Depression).

I raise this because of this fascinating blog post on the ROM’s website, “The Anatomy of a Book,” by Sara Schell. For all the chatter about code, revisions, deletions, licensing, and so on, this anatomy reminds us that when a paper book is damaged, it can be fixed despite its age.

Keeping Close to Home

On November 4, 2014,  HarperCollins Canada announced that it was closing its Scarborough warehouse and moving its distribution to the United States. This move will affect approximately 150 workers in the plant. The corporation also announced that it was laying off president and CEO David Kent. This follows on Penguin’s announcement in September that it was closing its warehouse and distributing from the United States.  Random House, given its merger with Penguin, will likely do the same in the near future. As Carolyn Wood writes in her piece for the National Post, this is yet another blow to Canadian publishing. Kent was a high-placed advocate for homegrown writers, so his departure means that authors must rely more heavily on editors, publicists, and other staff to go to bat for them. As for beleaguered booksellers, getting stock from the United States is yet another lag in the supply chain.

Canadian publishing was for a long time a branch-plant industry (see The Perilous Trade by Roy MacSkimming) until the 1970s when a number of small presses were established to publish Canadian authors. In the ensuing years, many of those houses were swallowed up by the big houses. Now we see those big houses swallowing each other. Many reasons are given for this, the predominant one being Amazon. So the big houses are bigger and fewer and seem, at first glance, to control the business. But big doesn’t win. Canadian publishing isn’t about size anymore; it’s about agility; it’s about how quickly publishers can respond to change. Smaller houses are nimble and creative. Many picked up authors left floundering after their publishers went bankrupt. Others, such as ECW, Biblioasis, and House of Anansi have had books on long and short lists for major prizes. They are poking through the apparent rubble that is American-owned Canadian publishing—which is why there is hope

That hope, however, can only flourish if we alter our expectations. Advances, royalties, print runs, formats, sales numbers, prince points, bookselling—all these things must change. Canadian distribution hasn’t disappeared: UTP, Thomas Allen & Sons, and Literary Press Group are still around. Furthermore, we have to stop trying to compete in a game we cannot win. Biblioasis and its ilk cannot go toe to toe with Penguin Random House on the same terms. So don’t. Simply publish good books, grow great authors, pay everyone, and make a profit. There is no need to be the biggest or the wealthiest or the most controlling. Easier said than done, I know.

The Pirahna-Filled South American River

Recently I completed an online course at Humber College called “Ebook QA: Digital Literacy for Editors,” with instructor Laura Brady. One our assignments (due October 9, 2014) was to “reflect on the behemoth that is Amazon.” This is what I wrote:

As a former bookseller, I see Amazon as a predator in the marketplace. I recognize that it cannot be ignored, but nor can any schoolyard bully with the means to buy any shiny bauble he covets. Having worked in book publishing for a little over ten years, I can view the industry as both an insider and a consumer. Convenience and competitive pricing often makes purchase decisions simple: Oh, that item is so cheap and it’s just a click away. I don’t even need to put pants on! Just pull out my credit card, give my info…

While Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly in online book retail, it is perceived as the first place to go when you want a book and the Kindle the only reader you need. Its influence is so pervasive that many forget the many devices that came before, such as the iLiad (see Robert Sawyer’s blog post with photos). In fact, early on in his book Burning the Page Jason Merkoski Amazon employee and ebook “evangelist” makes no mention of the iLiad, the Sony reader, or the rest; indeed, his scripture extols his boss, Jeff Bezos, as the Genesis of ebooks. Strange: In the 1968 book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick depict an astronaut reading from a digital device. Bezos was nowhere to be seen. An obvious oversight.

Bezos sees himself as an innovator not unlike Steve Jobs. In an interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition , journalist and author Richard Brandt (One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon) disputes this, comparing Bezos to Walmart founder Sam Walton. A difference I would make between Amazon and Walmart is that while Walmart wants to sell lots of stuff in exchange for money, Amazon wants to sell lots of stuff in exchange for information. The company got into the book business because books are easy to ship. In his New Yorker article, “Cheap Words,” George Packer writes, “Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. (Amazon says that its original business plan ‘contemplated only books.’).” And they did. As Packer states, “Bezos had realized that the greatest value of an online company lay in the consumer data it collected.”

Amazon has gone on from selling books to publishing them. There is no “gatekeeper” rummaging through her inbox or slush pile looking for the “voice of a generation,” “an epic saga,” or a “gripping, unputdownable page-turner.” No, there is simply an upload button. Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s not as hard as having a manuscript acquired by a traditional publishing house. Indeed, you don’t even have to edit the thing! That’s a lot of books. Wait, scratch that. That’s a lot of content. All of which can be yours for a low, low price. And so easily, too. Just 1-ClickTM away on millions Kindles around the world.

That is, of course, if the content is in MOBI format. Otherwise, you’re cut off. No libraries, no PDF manuals, no borrowing an ebook from your mum who uses a Kobo, or your American cousin who scored a Nook on Black Friday. Amazon’s proprietary software has not only changed reading, it has changed book culture. It sought to change that when it bought Goodreads. (Full disclosure: I’m on Goodreads. I joined before it was bought out because it has great mobile interface.) There is another similar site called LibraryThing. In May 2006, AbeBooks (specializing in used and hard-to-find books) bought 40 per cent of the company. In December 2008, AbeBooks was swallowed up by Amazon.

Publishers have to play nice with Amazon, too. If not, Amazon will take its bat, ball, and buy button and go home. Hachette’s just the latest victim of this tactic.* When Macmillan dared to question pricing in 2010, its buy button disappeared. With Melville House, a small publisher in Brooklyn, things got sinister:

In 2004, when Melville House was just getting started, [co-owner, Dennis] Johnson’s distributor called him and described his negotiations with Amazon as being “like dinner with the Godfather.” Amazon wanted a payment without having to reveal how many Melville House books were sold on the site. (Amazon rarely makes its sales figures public, using bar graphs without numbers in presentations.) “‘Fuck you’ was my attitude,” Johnson said. “‘They’re bluffing—I’m going to call their bluff.’ I’m a working-class kid. I come at this from ‘This is my company, you don’t come in here.’” Johnson, who remains one of the few people in publishing willing to criticize Amazon on the record, contacted reporters, and Publishers Weekly ran a story. By the next day, the BUY buttons had disappeared from Melville House’s titles on Amazon.com. Not long afterward, the Book Expo was held at the Javits Center, in Manhattan. Two young men in suits approached Melville House’s booth and pointed fingers at Johnson. “When are you going to get with the program?” they asked. The men were wearing Amazon nametags.

Before the impasse, Amazon had represented eight per cent of Melville House’s sales, more than Johnson could afford to lose. So he capitulated. “I paid that bribe”—he wouldn’t disclose the amount—“and the books reappeared.”

As I mentioned, I am a former bookseller. For nearly ten years, I worked part-time at Book City in the Beaches. It had its ups and downs, but sales numbers always sent a chill. I lost count of how many times customers (not regulars) would compare our prices with Amazon’s or would ask to pay the US price. One particularly galling Christmas, some customers would come in and scan the books to compare with the Amazon app, then buy it online right there in front of the staff! The logic being if Amazon could sell books so cheap, then it must be a scam and the fat-cat publishers were making millions on the poor readers’ backs. Low-ball ebook pricing simply contributes to this myth. (Meanwhile, I had just been laid off from Key Porter Books, which went bankrupt.) In March 2014, eighteen of us were laid off from Book City—eighteen of thousands of “elitist” minimum-wage bookshop clerks

Now I’m a freelance editor (I can’t lay myself off, right?) who’s trying to write a novel. I’m also trying to write short stories destined for ebooks. My normally clear-eyed view of things is jaded by Amazon. Yes, many if not most readers have a Kindle. It’s almost the only way to get an ebook out there; Kobo simply doesn’t have the same market share. I want to play ball, but unless a bunch of open-source code monkeys break in, the only kid in the schoolyard is the bully and he owns all the gear.

*Hachette and Amazon have since come to an agreement.

Why I Am a Bookseller

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Some customers say weird things as poet and bookseller Jen Campbell documents in her book The Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. However, I’ve been selling books for almost nine years and customers like Book City regular Kerry Clare are one of the reasons why I keep at it. Read her blog post, “The Saddest News,” about the closure of our flagship store in the Annex.

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

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The Humans
My first encounter with UK author Matt Haig was through his tweets, which led me to his blog wherein I learned to love his writing and humour. When I tweeted the blog post and vowed to read everything he’d written, he retweeted me. Sigh. Love at first tweet. Who said social media is anti-social?

The Humans, Haig’s latest novel, centres on Andrew Martin, a math professor, who has been killed and taken over by an alien with a deadly mission. Before he can carry out his task, the alien (or Andrew) begins learning about his “host,” his family, and the world around him. In doing so, Andrew begins to understand them. Meanwhile, he continues to receive instructions from his overlords on his home planet. As he learns empathy, Andrew must make a decision: carry out his mission or carry out his life? The book is written as a journal of sorts: part report to his fellow aliens, part diary.

Some might be put off by the word alien, as though anything with a whiff of science fiction is hard or silly or not serious. Don’t be. This is rather light science fiction as compared to, say, Arthur C. Clarke. But who cares? Science fiction is merely the human condition set in zero gravity. So what if it has two heads? But if makes you feel better, it’s a good novel, plain and simple. And for the record, Andrew has but one head.

So that’s what happens, but what is The Humans really about? Well, first off it’s not about an alien per se; rather, it’s more about the feeling of detachment from a race of mammals with which you share many characteristics but see through an altogether different lens.

In fact, I recognized myself about halfway through. At one point in my life, I endured a long stretch of darkness from which I wasn’t positive I’d emerge; indeed, at times the depressive tendrils escape my brain case and seep through me to this day. The eerie out-of-body experience would feel quite alien if I wasn’t sure that I was seeing an ugly side of humans that does exist. Depression distorts your perception, no question, but we are not a pretty lot, as Haig’s character explains:

Their faces along contain all manner of hideous curiosities. A protuberant central nose, thin-skinned lips, primitive external auditory organs known as “ears,” tiny eyes and unfathomably pointless eyebrows. All of which take a long time to mentally absorb and accept.

We’re fat, skinny, stinky, angry, hateful, spiteful, petty, rude, vengeful, murderous, pompous, fake, and, worse yet, ambivalent.

But we are not completely without merit. One cannot know light if one never sees the dark. Realizing this is one of depression’s meagre but life-saving silver linings that Andrew experiences. Poetry, music, art, tea, laughter, kissing: small and beautiful and expressive. It truly is the small things

And this, above all, is what makes The Humans a delight. It’s not particularly affirming; there remains a very British sense of resignation (“For every silver lining, there’s a big dark cloud”). But that’s realistic. There is rain and there are green pastures. There are weeds and there are blooms. There are pricks and there are roses. As Haig posted recently on his blog, “Sometimes, just sometimes, a cloud can be banished just by knowing there is a sun.”

Is the universe indifferent? Of course, it bloody is. What else is it going to be? It’s a mass of matter, dark and light, gaseous and solid. It can’t feel anything. But we can. And that’s good. We are human, after all.

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