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!



History Today column: Charlie Hebdo and the judgement of history

As I write this, millions of people are on the streets of France to protest about the murders of eight writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, of four Jewish patrons of a kosher food store, and of three police officers.

Much comment in the media has identified the slaughter in Manichean terms, reflecting a battle between religious sensibilities and free speech, between the forces of reaction and modernity, between Islam and the West – and so on.

We, as historians, have to judge such claims – both in the present and where they arise in the past. Discerning motive – or finding a way to calibrate the balance of motives in individual acts – is perhaps the hardest task we face. It is an intellectual challenge of course; but it is also a narrative challenge. How far to use the individual act to explain wider societal, cultural and intellectual forces; how far to claim those forces diminish the role of the individual actor, diminish the extent to which his or her uniquely personal experiences shaped and defined their choices.

It is curious that journalists and politicians on both left and right have been much happier discussing the murders in Paris in terms of sweeping cultural wars than in terms of individual actors. For some, they arose out of racism, ‘Islamophobia’ and various kinds of economic and political imperialism. For others, they were another bloody skirmish in the West’s war with ‘Islamofascism’.

It might be glib to suggest the attraction of such responses lay in their simplicity and neatness. Glib, but not necessarily untrue. Few people like to let events redefine their worldviews; editorial writers and politicians like it less than most. Historians, I like to think, are made of sterner – if more supple – stuff.

One of my first thoughts on hearing of the killings at Charlie Hebdo was Milton’s dictum in Areopagitica: “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, the image of God”. Milton’s language as the passage extends is emotive, powerful: massacre, homicide, martyrdom. Censorship is a kind of murder. The concept of murder itself – and the threat of murder – as a kind of censorship does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

Not that Milton would have approved of Charlie Hebdo, of course. Far from it. His lines

“Licence they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good:
But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.”

could almost have been written with the recent events in Paris in mind. For Milton – as for some of those who would import rigid Islamic standards of blasphemy into European society – a free press was intended to enable God’s Englishmen and women to find a truer path to revealed wisdom. He did not understand why the people, in their wisdom, had thought to use it otherwise.

There have always been people like those at Charlie Hebdo who, wherever the boundaries of free speech are, can be found pushing against them. Causing offence is almost a raison d’etre for it, and the magazine’s savage glee at doing so places it somewhere in the arc between South Park and Jonathan Swift.

But, given the magazine’s many provocations, were the forces of history such that the killings were inevitable? Or should we allow more for the role of contingency and chance in what happens – in the present as much as in the past?

As historians, we try to make patterns out of encounters and events, to sift for meaning beyond the oddities and quirks of each human actor. But surely we must resist the temptation to fit each of us wholly and neatly into a wider ideology or identity, to make coherent rational wholes of humans who are rarely less than contradictory and impulsive at the best of times.

Arguably, perhaps, the true definition of civilisation is the absence of a demand for too much intellectual clarity and precision in each other. As individuals and as societies, perhaps the more tolerant we are of both our own contradictions and those of our fellow humans, the more civilised we shall be.


Towards a higher journalism: The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh and tabloid news culture

For those of us who enjoy a little schadenfreude with our morning coffee, today was a very good day.

At the weekend, five senior journalists on The Sun were arrested in dawn raids involving considerable numbers of police officers as part of Operation Elveden, the investigation into allegedly illegal payments to police and other public servants for information. The paper’s associate editor, and former longstanding political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, took to its pages to vent his  spleen, crying foul at what he called a witch-hunt against the paper and its staff. He compared the tactics used against them unfavourably with those of a police state. It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh.

Kavanagh claimed, with no discernible trace of irony, that News International journalists were being treated as if they were part of an organised crime gang. Well, quite.

But, despite enjoying the discomfort of The Sun’s staff to no small degree, I have to agree, reluctantly, that Kavanagh has a point. The heavy-handed style of the police raids smacked of point scoring, if not worse. Elveden’s sister investigation into phone hacking, Operation Weeting, has been frequently excoriated for the its genteel invitations to the likes of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson to attend police stations when they were to be arrested.

These raids, by contrast, seemed designed as much as anything for the news bulletins, a bit of police theatre aimed at media profile rather than investigative efficacy. That papers such as The Sun have gleefully encouraged this sort of police action in the past, not infrequently sending photographers and journalists to accompany such raids, made for effective and delightful irony. Rarely can an organisation and a culture have been so exquisitely hoist with its own petard.

But that doesn’t make the police’s approach right.

Nor does it help alleviate the feeling that the wrong people are being targeted. That, at a very senior level, relationships between news organisations and the Metropolitan Police in particular were – to say the least – over-cosy, seems undeniable. Whether such relationships were legally corrupt, I do not know. They certainly appear to have been morally so, with the police being appallingly compromised. To a great extent, The Sun’s staff are now bearing the brunt of police and public recognition of that fact.

Unfortunately, the net result of this is that the investigation into payments for information – an aspect of the news-gathering process that requires the nicest and most delicate of judgements – is being prosecuted in the bluntest and least thoughtful way possible.
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File-sharing and the future of publishing

Megan McArdle has recently posted a couple of excellent blog posts (here and here) on The Atlantic on the subject of illegal downloading, and where on the spectrum from file-sharing to file-stealing it really sits.

This is, of course, a thorny problem – and one that excites a great deal of passion on either side. And although music and film have borne the brunt of the assault on their rights so far, books cannot be far behind. Certainly, one leading Spanish author has already quit writing in disgust once she realised that more of her books were being downloaded illegally than being bought.

But is this a cultural problem, masquerading as a technological problem, or a technological problem masquerading as a legal one? Sadly, it is probably all three.

In essence, like the law, the argument proceeds by analogy and precedent. To what extent is the unauthorised uploading and downloading of an album like theft – that is, like taking a physical product from a retailer’s premises without paying? Or, conversely, to what extent is it like copying it onto a cassette or CD for specific a friend to hear, or buying and selling it on the second-hand market? After all, all three activities could be said to deprive the artist of income, but only one is the subject of much debate.
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