Where should I buy my book?

I was asked today where a friend should buy books, secondhand and otherwise. It goes without saying that if you have a local secondhand shop, that is the place to go for a browse, but supposing you don’t, or you are looking for something specific that  you know you have to go further afield to find.

Secondhand

Booksandcollectibles is the best site online to find a collective of Australian sellers – not only Australian, but certainly forming the core of their database. It was set up in the late nineties to serve the Australian bookselling community and although it has grown past that, it keeps its homegrown feeling. It is a simple, not flashy interface sitting between the seller and the customer.

Biblio is the best of the international collectives. It isn’t the biggest, but it is big enough for most purposes and it’s certainly the one I go to first. It has a clean interface, it is an independent organisation run by people who really care about books and those who love them. So if you care about that sort of thing, who is running the business you are buying from and what are their values etc etc, this is absolutely a first port of call. I don’t understand why it is that they don’t have a bigger share of the pie.

ABE  is not a site I recommend anymore as it is owned by Amazon.

New

As far as new books go, if you are in Melbourne you have some nice choices of shops, but if you must buy online I have no good options for you. We – living in Switzerland without English shops – do shop online from time to time and we use The Book Depository. I was one of their early supporters as they offered a choice to shopping at Amazon, including free shipping, which is so attractive to Australians, of course. But like ABE, the predatorial Amazon has bought The Book Depository too. We still use it, but not with any joy in our hearts.

If anybody has other suggestions for new and old book shopping, please leave a comment!

 

 

 

Of the Pricing of Books there is no End

I’ve been meaning to write something about this myself, but Judith has beaten me to it. I will add to it another time.

Judith writes:

I let Monica answer the phone as a rule. My familiarity with telephones stretches back less than sixty years, and coming to terms with technology new to me is not my strong point. For some reason, though, I fielded a call a couple of days ago. It began inauspiciously. The enquirer mentioned haggling. I mentioned that I don’t, but would get the book in from the storesheds anyway. He rang back the next day and asked for me. I was able to tell him what a lucky fellow he was: the book was listed at $75 but the insured postage was a mere $6 by insured large letter, making a total of $81.

Once, for bookdealers, pricing was a bit like breathing – you hardly noticed that you were doing it. You made it up as you went along. Now with all the information on the internet it may be a little more difficult: look up a title, find a given price range, viz. $0.01 to $2564 and take your pick. However, it remains quite refreshing to come across a potential customer who has studied the subject, although these customers are seldom of the kind who help us booksellers pay our bills. The enquirer had calculated that the book was worth $60 to him, postage included. He recommended with cogent argument that I accept his offer. He based his price on a number of incontrovertible facts. Firstly, the size. It seemed to him that, with but 112 pages, the 279 x 198 mm book was not much more than a pamphlet. Secondly, the subject matter was people whom nobody has heard of, and some of them are, in fact, already dead. The clinching argument concerned a theory of supply and demand. It appears that Pioneer Books is oversupplied with this title as we have never sold this copy, and it is highly unlikely that anyone, apart from himself, will ever want to buy it.

I had to agree with everything he said. I mean, it’s almost self-evident. I did demur over the word ‘pamphlet’, but it’s certainly no Gutenberg Bible. And, yes, the subjects of the book, are, like most of us, practically unknown, and if not already dead, soon will be. And, yes again, there is, at the moment, no line of people at our door all desperately hoping to be the lucky purchaser. Most telling of all is the devil’s advocate in the heart of all sensitive new age booksellers, informing us of the likely final resting place of most of our unsold stock in this digitally blighted age.

Nevertheless, the phone call ended with my suggesting that he try elsewhere for a cheaper copy. I wished him luck, and told him that though he could not get a better copy, I’d be surprised if he didn’t get a cheaper one. He, admirable man, accepted defeat less easily than I. He asked me to consult my partners and suggest to them that we accept his offer.

What is it about secondhand books that inspires such fiscal restraint among a certain percentage of buyers? Many years ago Paul and I provided a collector with a copy of a title in the ‘British Trials’ series. The purchaser, a man who had accumulated great wealth as a defence lawyer for the notoriously criminal and who has since received official honours for conspicuous philanthropy, looked at the book, deemed it not worth the $25 we were asking for it, paid us $15, and left.

‘How did that happen?’ I asked. ‘Why did we let it happen?’ Paul asked; then, ever the philosopher, shrugged his shoulders. ‘Oh, well,’ he said, ‘If ever we take up crime instead of bookselling perhaps he’ll give us a knock-down on his fees.’

Once I would have concluded these observations by drawing attention to the coincidence that it is only when the bookseller is considered to be overcharging that these differences of opinion arise. However, a few months ago a woman came to collect a copy of Mincham’s book on the Flinders Ranges.

‘That will be $15 dollars,’ said Monica.

‘No,’ replied the customer. ‘I couldn’t pay $15 for this. It’s worth $25.’ And she refused to pay less even when Monica showed her the price clearly on our data base

Buying books and avoiding the tax avoiders.

Yes, please do support your local bookstore. Drop in, browse, chat, buy. Although I buy books online my best buys, the ones that please me most are always the ones I look at, touch, flick through and then take up to the counter. Somehow no number of online opinions and ‘look at the pages of this book here’ make up for the judgement one exercises with book literally in hand.

But there are all sorts of reasons why one might need to buy online as well, especially in the case of secondhand books where it is so easily the case that the book you are hunting for is all but extinct. Fortunately there are both international and national databases of booksellers which are not yet owned by Amazon. Here I mention a couple of the localised ones. If you live in Australia, there is booksandcollectibles One of the earliest databases to be set up in the mid-nineties, Paul Anderson, its human face, envisaged the possibility that Australia could support something of its type and indeed he was correct. Its interface is very VERY simple, but lots of customers love that.

You don’t need whizz-bang to buy books.

B&C is not only Australian sellers, but with about two-thirds of the approximately 400 sellers being local, it is an especially effective way of finding books located here. It is also the best source of Australian books, of course. It only sells real hard copy books, no POD and no ebooks. It has about 3,000,000 online at the moment, of which Pioneer books lists around 45,000!

I noticed a change of ownership recently for UK Bookworld This is the UK equivalent of our booksandcollectibles, although it only lists UK sellers. Like b&c it is owned by a real person, in this case John Phipps of Phipps Books. Like Paul Anderson, and a necessity for this kind of business, he knows a lot about computers.

When you shop at either of these online options, you are dealing directly with actual real booksellers, people who live in your town, buy apples at your fruit shop, enrol their kids in your music classes and pay the taxes that make your community a better place in which to live. If you think about it, even if you could buy that book you are thinking about for a few bucks less through a tax avoider like Amazon, it doesn’t really actually make sense, does it?

Amazon and the obligations of living in a society

I guess the supporters of Amazon could argue they are happy to pay higher tax rates themselves in order to support the avoidance of tax by the company. Unfortunately, it is only big companies, and especially multinationals who are able to implement this approach. So, it isn’t just the Amazon supporters who are paying the extra tax to make up for what Amazon avoids. It is also people who do not wish to support Amazon. One of the points that has been made lately is that small business has no way of avoiding tax. Booksellers have been discussing the idea of becoming a huge corporate body in order to avail themselves of the possibilities, but the fact is who wants to do that? We live in a society. Tax is part of that. It seems to me it is sociopathic to try to avoid this part of social life.

In the UK people have been trying to do something from the bottom up to enforce the payment of tax by Amazon. This has led to a petition signed by 170,000 people presented to parliament. The following is part of the speech that accompanied it.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con):….

However, this avoidance is not without its victims. It is businesses such as Warwick Books in my constituency and ordinary people who pick up the bill. Through this creative tax planning, the burden of taxation is shifted on to individuals and businesses that do not have the resources to spend on reducing their tax bill and on hiring expensive accountants to find loopholes in tax law.

I understand that there are some who believe that businesses have a moral duty to pay only the absolute minimum of tax that they are legally obliged to pay, but I cannot believe that that is the case. Businesses, even multinational companies, are still members of society. They benefit from a strong education system, a functioning health care system, decent roads, a transport infrastructure, the police and our armed forces. The reason we raise taxes is in order to produce public goods. We can argue whether the Government spend that money wisely, or whether the Government should provide this or that service, but that is the basic principle behind taxation.

Businesses have a moral responsibility to play a full part in our society, and structuring their businesses in order to avoid taxation and to make it harder for tax authorities to monitor their business is not fulfilling that responsibility. Voluntarily paying tax is not a long-term solution to this issue. What is needed is for multinational companies to take responsibility for their actions and respect the fact that they need to structure their businesses to reflect the way they are operated, rather than merely to avoid that taxation…..

Many of these companies depend on individuals and businesses buying their services, but as they avoid taxation, the Government have to find this revenue from other sources, reducing the profits and incomes of others and leaving them with less to spend on other goods and services. The regulatory arms race between multinational companies and states seeking to raise revenue is also distracting. It is distracting the corporations from focusing on productivity and creativity, and one wonders what marvels or products might have been created if multi- nationals had put the effort they put into avoiding tax into developing new ideas, services and products….

The sheer mechanics of the situation make it clear that action purely from the Government is unlikely to be the solution to the problem. There are hundreds of thousands of multinational companies, and only a handful of tax regimes capable of monitoring their information. It is always a game of catch-up, and while reforming tax codes and greater enforcement may help, they will not reach the nub of the problem. That is why I believe that we need to focus on the culture in international business, on the structure of these businesses and the codes of conduct they abide by. Fundamentally, businesses are staffed by people, and if we put in place the right frameworks, I believe that we can appeal to the better angels of their nature. This is the only long-term solution.

This isn’t rocket science. Paying tax is a moral duty. Moral for human beings, moral for businesses. The simple way for businesses to understand this is to boycott them unless they behave in the right way. It isn’t a game. It isn’t about what you can get away with.

For the discussion in detail – Amazon is scarcely the only offender, but is the most high profile – go to the hansard papers here.

Writing, the book, publishing – the modern way.

Because Pioneer Books has always been a publisher as well as purveyor of secondhand books, we have, over the years, a lot of authors write hopefully to us, looking for somebody to turn their work into a book. As it is, we published most books we took on at a loss – knowing that would be the outcome, but feeling that we were dealing with things that deserved the public eye but were never going to be looked at by commercial mainstream publishers. Poetry, for example. When I talk of ‘loss’ there, I’m talking only of the overt financial loss, counting nothing for the large amounts of work that could be involved in the publishing of a book, even if the ms is received in good order.

Needless to say, for each one we published, there were lots that went by the wayside, which is not to say they lacked merit, but more that we lacked resources, both finances and manhours. I was better than my father at handling the angst of knocking people back and knowing that they really had no further recourse. They could either put up the money themselves to publish and then go through the heart-breaking routine of the self-published author, the cartons of books that now provide the main interior decoration of one’s life and maybe never selling. Never. Or – or give up.

It seems like it was overnight that all this changed. Suddenly with the advent of sites like Lulu, anybody could self-publish and it cost them next to nothing. Potential profits were now largely taken by Lulu instead of by the middle man publisher and the bookshop of days past, but still, at least the outlay is zero. Not one dollar do you have to pass over to see your book in print.

Of course, having said that, the publisher middleman played an important role aside from the financial aspect. It is the publisher that takes responsibility for both the visual aesthetics of the book and the accuracy of both the actual words on the page – grammar, spelling and so forth – and the facts. Oh, and we can add to that, turning the work of the author, which can be all but illiterate as first submitted, into something that is actually readable. Who does that now? The author may be good enough to do it themselves, may have friends who do it for nothing, somebody who does it for money, or maybe they just don’t care. I’ve been gobsmacked by some of the publicity for self-published books I get sent at Pioneer Books; fancy not even being able to write a flyer without a couple of spelling errors.

The new self-publishing goes from one extreme to the other, in a way publishing (almost) never did before. At one end is the utter rubbish, both in content and presentation and at the other are wonderful works of art or reference which might never have seen the light of day in the old system. You take the good with the bad and maybe it can all be straightforwardly sorted by price. If you pay a dollar for it, why should you expect to get more than a dollar’s worth of value? I’m not saying you won’t get more, but perhaps that should be a pleasant bonus.

Amazon, which is one of the market places for self-publishing, found that people in practice responded in quite different kind. They were outraged to buy books for $1 that might be functionally illiterate or so badly put together that they might as well have been. Amazon in response started a system where outsourced ‘editors’ – ie people for whom English is not necessarily their first language, but willing to work for poor wages – began censoring material that went up for sale on Amazon. Writers would be informed that their English wasn’t up to scratch and that their work was being removed from Amazon until it reached an acceptable standard. Hilarious stories started where well known authors were given these notices, a bit like if James Joyce was given his book back with a link to an introduction to English grammar. Stories that are scary, despite the funny side but more on that another time. Perhaps it would be a better method if the customer simply accepted only getting $1 of value for $1.

As well as books now having quite a different way of being produced, they frequently also have a different way of being created. Many authors start out writing small pieces on the internet on websites and blogs. From this, an audience and a realisation of how good they are grow. After a while they are able to make money from their talent and hard work. Sometimes that will be by accepting advertising on their sites. Often it is by turning blog material and perhaps new material of a similar ilk into a book.

I have recently finished proofing one such book:

If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures.

To come clean straight away, let me make clear that the author and I share food, books and sheets together. Our germs are intimately acquainted. Fortunately he is one of the most well-liked reviewers on goodreads, so anything nice I say is no more than an echo.

This is the good end of self-publishing, going the modern route from short pieces on the internet, favourable response, book. It is the second collection Manny has put together from his work on goodreads and like the first is a potted variety of this and that – from children’s to chess – and a strong section on science. Although ostensibly the idea of goodreads is to review, in practice people have taken that to mean anything goes. Yes, there were substantial serious reviews here such as his thoughts on Sartre, which begin:

Many reviewers on goodreads don’t appear to like Sartre. But, if you think he was a complete asshole as a person and you’re not too thrilled about the way he supported the Communist party, you might want to read Les Mains Sales; it’s a short, engaging play, that won’t take you more than a couple of hours to get through, and Sartre does a better job of taking himself apart than you’re ever liked to manage. Hugo, the central character, is a nightmare self-caricature: pathetic, whiny, neurotic, and completely out of touch with reality. He spends half his time agonising aloud over the fact that no one takes him seriously, and that he isn’t able to do anything concrete to help the work of the Resistance. Sartre loved casting himself in the worst light imaginable…

and on Lee Smolin’s latest book Time Reborn:

Two themes in particular dominate the book; one, as the title suggests, is time, and the other is physical law. Smolin argues that there is a deep connection between them. In the picture of science which many scientists use without even reflecting on what they are doing, physical laws are mathematical objects. They do not form part of our everyday existence, but live in an eternal, Platonic world of abstract entities. Yet somehow these abstractions are supposed to be intimately linked to our ‘real’ world. I thought his analysis was very insightful, and helps explain why science is so often compared with religion. A scientist who subscribes to the Platonic picture is not in fact that far from being a kind of priest. He probably doesn’t believe in God (most scientists don’t), but he still claims to be able to mediate between our world and the eternal world of mathematics.

There is a nice skill I see here of being able to talk about intellectual things in accessible ways, which makes his reviews very popular.

But substantial as many of them are, a lot are just plain fun. You don’t need to have read Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, I’ve heard of it, those who think my popular culture knowledge is lacking) to laugh out loud at this:

Bad Book is Like Other Bad Book Shock

At a standing-room-only press conference earlier today, top researchers from the world famous Goodreads Centre for Bodice-Ripping, Bondage and Twlight Studies revealed that a bad book was quite a lot like another bad book.

‘When I saw the final results of the data analysis, a cold shiver went down my spine,’ said the Centre’s director. ‘The chain of inference is long, and at first we weren’t sure all the steps were watertight, but now we’re confident enough to go public. Expressing it in layman’s language, what we have here is basically that this bad book is similar to another bad book, which in turn closely resembles a third bad book. The implications are literally mind-blowing and we’re still trying to understand them. Thank you.’

In other news, EL James was brielfy hospitalised after a pile of gold coins collapsed, partially burying her for several minutes. She suffered ‘minor contusions and abrasions’ but was able to return to have money-cave following a medical examination.

What I like about this book is that everything about it holds up to scrutiny, the content, the typesetting and editing, the cover, this is a proper book, a book that would have passed any exacting test set in the past when there were standards. It’s been an honour to be part of the process.

The Library Bus

As we become used to the idea of sitting at home, ‘communicating’ via machine and technology, how much that used to facilitate social connections between people is being lost to us?

The Library Bus

‘Can’t stand modern poetry’
she said
As she hauled herself up the mobile library steps.
‘All these jerks that can’t write in sentences
And can’t write verses either’
she said
As she slid Best Australian Poems 2012 into Returns.

‘I read ’em all and some of ’em weren’t too bad.
I was going to read those again, but when I finished
I couldn’t remember which ones they were
And sure as hell I’m not going to read ’em all again.’

An old turkey of a woman.
Last time she told him that his bosses missed the bus,
Deciding to terminate the service 2014.
She grinned and told him that it was better than the zoo.
Where else could you visit a captive librarian
And feed him information, instead of the other way around?

Judith Crabb 31/1/13 (written for Aaron, the library bus driver, who will next year no longer be ‘On the Road’, as the Council (?) has recognised that the new technology makes everyone his or her own mobile library (as Ramona Koval put it in A Reader’s Guide to Life), and the bus is an anachronism, along with all the old girls like me who visit it. The idea is that the library will use the money better on other aspects of its service.)

Book burning. It’s yesterday’s science fiction turned real.

A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories

The incipient 451.

I wonder who would have believed it, back then when he was writing it? The Burning of Books. The mark of an anti-civilisation. Yet here we are, watching it happening all around us. Manchester Library is on a rampage, it turns out they could make the library such a better place if it weren’t for all those damned books:

Manchester Library destroys its books

Just as we now have generations who did not know an internet free world, now we have children being brought up bereft of books, not out of some sort of to-be-despised-or-pitied-poverty but because the format of the book is now seen as undesirable. In my home town Adelaide, whole schools are simply eradicating the book as if it is some sort of pest. Children in those schools will no longer read books, they read words on machines.

I have never felt comfortable walking into book-free houses. It is one of the things that makes a house a home, something with character, a way of reading where one is. Maybe Ray Bradbury died just in time. He hated the kindle – no great surprise there.

One impact of the internet – and it is impossible not to associate electronic forms of books with some of the bad aspects of the internet – is that falsehoods spread about enough become facts. The more times they are spread about, the more sure we are they are correct. I reflect upon that because I want to end with the famous Bradbury quote:

“I don’t try to predict the future. I try to prevent it.”

This has been quoted a gadzillion times lately as everybody cuts and pastes the same few bits of information to do ‘their’ obit of Bradbury. I wanted to see where it came from, was it a real quote, or just one of those made up internet ‘facts’ that we can no longer even being bothered questioning. It’s on the internet, lots of people believe it, who cares whether it is actually true?

I can’t find the original source at a first glance, but I am comforted to see that Arthur C Clarke says this:

PP: It’s frightening that man is so destructive and at the same time so much good is being done.

AC: I’ve many, many times quoted my friend Ray Bradbury on this when he says: “ I don’t try to predict the future, I try to prevent it”.

And there is audio of this interview with Clarke to boot: AC Clarke interview

Not that this makes it a fact either, but we are getting close. The more so since ACC himself seems to have some care for the facts. I love the dry response here:

PP: But you also said that you had a dream about extraterrestrials who got off a space ship and said: “Take me to Arthur Clarke” but that dream turned into a nightmare when they said: “Take me to Isaac Asimov!”

AC: Ah yes, I never actually dreamt that but I saw and read that quotation once, or twice.