The What’s A Book Worth Campaign

As anyone who is following me on Twitter will likely know, I have just started a social media campaign called #WhatsABookWorth.

I had the idea at a forum called Did Anybody Ask The Author?, run by author and life-coach John-Paul Flintoff. The event was a day-long brainstorming session involving some thirty authors and publishers which explored ways to improve the business of publishing for authors.

I imagine we all went into it with particular bugbears. Mine is around the perceived value of books. Or rather, the gap between what we as readers know to be the immeasurable human value of books to us, and their “real” monetary value in the marketplace.

Part of this is the downward pressure on book prices from Amazon, a company which funds its low prices through tax avoidance, business practices that come close to extortion, and the willingness of Wall Street to allow it access to finance without the irksome necessity of delivering profits.

Plus, of course, as an aspiring publisher and the key driver of the e-book economy, Amazon has a vested interest in destroying the economic viability of the book trade.

Publishers have played their part too. In fact, the ongoing betrayal of the high-street retail book trade by the publishing industry is one of the more shocking and depressing parts of the affair.

But, more generally, publishing has proven itself unwilling or unable to say anything of any meaning with regard to the price and value of the things they produce.

The reality is that a book represents extraordinary value – and extraordinary value for money. You can buy a book for around the same as a couple of cups of Starbucks, or a couple of drinks, a couple of magazines, a couple of Big Mac meals, and so on, and so on.

For the cost of a disposable moment a book gives you something that will live with you forever.

In marketing parlance, books are the ultimate low-cost premium product. But who ever says that?

For publishers, pretty much all marketing is trade marketing. Money is only directed at driving sales for a particular product – the new Harper Lee, for example – not to support the category itself.

Which wouldn’t matter if the ecosystem of the category wasn’t being eaten away from inside and out.

So, to return to where I began, I was talking about all of this with John-Paul and Dan Kieran of Unbound, who was also at the event. Dan was talking about how much his life had been changed by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and we agreed we should all talk more about the capacity of a book to influence and change and inhabit our lives.

Hence this campaign. You can read about it here, and join in here on Facebook and here on Twitter.

I simply cannot imagine my life without books – fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. Characters, events, places, turns of phrase – real or imagined – people my own experience and imagination so thoroughly that to erase them would be to black out the sun.

The words of men and women I will never meet – long-dead and living – evoke and articulate my own joys and sorrows, losses and loves, with a sharpness that is so human and alive the recognition and sense of fellow-feeling that comes from acknowledging that fact is vivid to the point of pain.

A book is a conversation with the author, with the past, with the present, with oneself. We walk among the words and they walk among us, in us and between us.

A book is a magical thing. We fail to treasure and celebrate them at our peril.

If you’re reading this, you probably agree. Come and join us.


NB It is perfectly true that the same problems currently bedevil other kinds of art – most obviously music. If anyone wanted to start a #WhatsASongWorth campaign, say, they would have my blessing and support!



Human remains: some thoughts on the funeral of Richard III

Over the course of this morning, thousands of people will gather in Leicester for the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. Many more – hundreds of thousands certainly – will watch proceedings on TV as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the actor Benedict Cumberpatch speak at the ceremony.

What does it mean, though? Two patrician voices, pure and incantatory in their privilege, orating over the boxed skeleton of a man who reigned for a mere two years and whose claim to the throne was, to put it mildly, dubious?

Why does this matter to us? Because, clearly, it does.

All the evidence suggested that Richard’s bones were buried behind the altar of the Greyfriars in Leicester. There was good evidence to show where that altar was. There is a reason, after all, that the archaeological team hit the late king’s resting place with more or less the first plunge of their digger.

But if anyone, other than the indefatigable Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, cared you could have been forgiven for not noticing. There were hardly queues around the car park.

But now his bones are out in the glare of the arc lights and the whirr of social media it seems he is important to us. Is it something about the bones themselves? One of the most memorable sequences from the Channel Four documentary about the archaeological dig was the sight of Philippa Langley overcome with emotion at the sight of her long-sought desiderata, the bones of her hero. laid out cold in a laboratory. She had to leave the room. The depth emotion was at once laughable and entirely understandable.

Because it is true. There is a vulnerability about skeletons that echoes in us all. They are curious things, human bones, signifying both strength and frailty, vulnerability and resolve, death and life. We know this is what we all come to, in the end. We can feel the pressure of our bones beneath our skin. We know our flesh is weak. It hides nothing.

But bones, for all their metaphorical resilience, are things of tenderness and reverence, too. If there is anything sacred about our concept of human life, it lives on in the sad and resolute indifference of our skeletons. Empty of individuality except under the expert’s microscope, they are nonetheless intensely human.

We tend to share still, almost 500 years later, Thomas Cromwell’s scorn at the Catholic taste for relics and such. But are we really any different? What is the new tomb of the last Plantagenet but a vast and vulgar reliquary for the bones of a king remembered for little more than infanticide and the stentorian camp of Laurence Olivier’s unflattering portrayal?

Perhaps the funeral – the divine glamour that hedges a notionally royal body with grace – is no more than a national memento mori, a reminder of what little we are, each of us, but also – paradoxically – a reminder of the triumph of memory, that most tenuous and elusive of things, carried down on oral and written histories, forgotten, abused, disdained and championed, and of the tenacity of human life too.

After all, the men who fought and fell with Richard III are lost. The bodies of his victims are mostly gone. The men and women who died over the long dynastic struggle that his death marked the close of – all of them, these ancestors who died in their tens of thousands for little reason and less reward – they are all lost to us. But these bones, these bones of his, they have seen 21st century air and light. We have seen them. The curve of the spine. The death wounds to the unprotected skull. He has been lain out for us in his nakedness and we have seen him, this sometime king of ours.

It is, in many respects, an authentic medieval experience. A hyper-medieval experience. We have seen his vanitas for what it is, as his contemporaries never quite would. What royal dignity, what grace, what power he had is surely gone. The pomp and ceremony serves to highlight that, paradoxically. All this shameful expense over a waste of bones. He is one of us now. Human. Broken. Frail. Dogs could dismember him. Children would, too, offered the chance.

Is this what all that bloodshed was for, Richard? All that ambition? To be carried through the streets of an unremarkable city far from any seat of power, the height of your glory a tourist attraction, a road sign, a minor detour for the SatNav in days and years to come?

We are all Richard, on this reading. We are burying and commemorating something of ourselves today. Vain, foolish, flawed beyond measure yet somehow, too, overwhelmingly human and explicable in the glory and humiliation of death.


NOTE: I was asked to write this piece by the team at the Emotional Objects blog. It appeared first over there under a different heading.

Londonist Out Loud podcast

My Londonist Out Loud podcast with N Quentin Woolf, recorded in the lovely gardens at Hampton Court on Wednesday, is now available for download – either from the Londonist website or from iTunes. We chatted about various London-related matters, including the commercialisation of the Houses of Parliament and the ongoing privatisation of public spaces, among other things. I also spoke briefly about the Elizabethan court – and performed so badly in a quiz on old things in London that Mr Woolf silently dropped about half the questions.

If anyone is interested, my previous appearance on the podcast – recorded at Hogarth House in London earlier this year – alongside Mike Paterson of London Historians,  historian and author Hannah Rennier, and Hogarth House manager John Collins, is still available online here.

The Hollow Crown poster competition

The DVD of The Hollow Crown series of BBC Shakespeare films is now out. When I reviewed the films over the summer – links to my pieces are here – I saw them out of sequence, so I am very much looking forward to watching them through again as they were meant to be seen. Although I have some doubts over the way some of the plays were cut, and felt the transposition to a different medium wasn’t necessarily handled consistently across the four films, I do think the series’ virtues far outweighed such flaws as it may have had. It will be interesting to see how much I need to revisit my earlier judgements when I can watch the films with more time for reflection.
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North, a film by Temujin Doran

Film-maker Temujin Doran contacted me in the summer of 2010 with the intention of making a film based on The Balloonist’s Tale in my book Impossible Journeys, which recounted the failed 1897 attempt by Salomon August Andrée to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon.

In the end, Doran decided to make a different film after his stay on Svalbard, and wonderful it is too: a fascinating and beautiful short documentary about the history and landscape of Svalbard and its role in the 20th century. Beyond the location, it has nothing to do with Andrée or Impossible Journeys, but for my part, I find it quietly moving.