I was really quite tired yesterday after such an intensely enjoyable weekend at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was back to the day job for 8am, clutching a bacon roll and black coffee and wishing I was up at Charlotte Square. Then the headache started.
The day dragged, although over lunch I managed to catch up on all but one of my outstanding event reviews from the festival. I also penned a few ideas for some non-author articles relating to the book festival, which I’ll be posting in the very near future.
After a quick nip home to change and freshen up, I launched my weary bones backup to Charlotte Square for an evening consisting of two events: André Schiffrin and Pauline Black. As I stepped through the carpeted entrance to the Square, my headache seemed to dissipate delightfully and all was well with the world again.
I headed straight for the Press tent to collect my tickets for the evening, and decided to stop there for half an hour until it was time to head round to Peppers Theatre. I tweeted, I browsed the Internet, and then suddenly I heard a familiar voice. I turned to my left and there was Simon Callow, standing against a backdrop being photographed by official book festival photographer, Chris Close. I grabbed a snap (see right) and then shook my head vigorously about the surrealism of it all.
Renowned New York publisher André Schiffrin left Random House many years ago in order to work for Pantheon. But today came to Edinburgh to describe what he believes to be a developing crisis in Western publishing. In The Business of Books, he demonstrates how the American corporate model has extended its reach across the globe.
Schiffrin had a lot of interesting things to say and took up most of the hour working through pre-pared notes, that transferred to the audience as a gentle guide through the world of publishing and the state we found ourselves in. “The Adam Smith concept that good things will sell,” he began, “isn’t necessarily the case in publishing; a lot of good books have lost money.”
And from here the story he painted only looked bleaker, as he cited a couple of interesting titbits. For example, “during the first Iraqi war, no books were published from American publishing houses that were critical of Bush of the White House at that time. This proves the big publishing houses were influenced by the political landscape of the nation and how it applied to their profit expectations.”
Another thing that worked against the system was the Mars Bar Index: “Mars was comparing their price increases with everyone else, and the same thing is happening now. Penguin did this so they could increase their growth and profitability by 15%-20% instead if the 6% it was before.”
Schiffrin seemed to argument more for the benefits of having not-for-profit publishing houses as opposed to the conglomerates model of maximising profits (or increasing their return to shareholders). They way of doing this is would be “to drop massive author advances and then pay authors and staff a consistent rate.”
When asked about the impact of Kindle on book stores, he commented: “publishing only means you make something public, you still have to put in the same level of marketing whether you are on Kindle or not. However, when I worked in New York as a lad there were over 300 good independent book stores, but now there are only 30.” He continued: “Small books won’t make it through the barrier any more thanks to Google and Amazon.”
Hinting that it might be beneficial to introduce a law to prevent the current model of heavy discounting, which only served to create fake cover prices of books and devalue the cost of a novel, Schiffrin’s allotted time came to a close far too soon—it was just getting interesting when time ran out.
As a lover of literature with more than a close second love of ska and reggae music, this was one event that stood out for me like a hippy in a crowd of skinheads.
Having seen Pauline Black perform with The Selecter and Three Men and Black on numerous occasions, I was already well versed in her musical talents and ability to move a crowd. However, this wasn’t a crowd of half-drunk skinheads bopping and skanking away to some top classic ska in a club somewhere in deepest London, this was a book festival crowd in Edinburgh: eclectic in gathering, and varied in their reason for being there.
Before the event I was chatting to the book festival photographer, Chris Close, in the hope of being able to snap Pauline’s photo shoot as it happened. Alas, I was too late, but when we checked with Pauline and Frances from the Press office if we could re-create the photo shoot, both kindly agreed. As Pauline took her place in front of the backdrop, she said: “Is that a Dangermen t-shit you’re wearing?” I couldn’t lie and told her that I didn’t have a clean Selecter t-shirt from which to choose.
The “shoot” began. The result was a series of shots, all of Pauline in her iconic poses while being photographed by Chris, who was shouting back at me: “Are you getting this Colin? How does this look?”, and all the while me in the background snapping the snapper and his subject. It only lasted about 30 seconds but it was fantastic that it even happened at all.
Thank you Pauline for being so game and allowing it to happen, and thank you too Chris and Frances for entertaining one bloke who grew up and was shaped by the voice of the woman he got to photograph. And so to the event.
Born to an Anglo-Jewish mother and Nigerian father, she was adopted by a white middle-aged couple and thus began a journey that is in some way answered in the writing of her first book, Black by Design , which follows Black’s rise to fame and recollections of the 2-tone phenomenon allied to the search for her real parents.
She always felt she needed to define her identity, which wasn’t something she had properly considered until one music fan accosted her on a train and clumsily said: “You’re Pauline Black!” It made her stop and think. She’d already changed her name twice, once from Belinda Magnus and then from Pauline Vickers, so who was she now? “The question that underpinned my life journey was: who made me?”
While recalling these early days with her adopted family, Black remarked that, “adoption is legalised identity theft.” When challenged later as to what precisely she meant by this, she further explained that she wasn’t saying adoption is a bad thing, but that, “the identity of the children should not be forgotten and it should be addressed, not forgotten. If a person doesn’t know where they come from then it’s impossible for them to know who they are.”
The conversation inevitably led to her days leading the popular 2-Tone bad The Selecter, and the political landscape that formed the British ska movement. “Things have moved on now since our day, though; recession is global now not national. I don’t have a great deal of truck with any of the political parties these days.”
Referring to the band’s position in the British psyche these days, she joked: “Apparently The Selecter are now classed as a ‘Heritage Band’ as though we’re one step away from a museum.”
The conversation was wide and varied crossing Black’s desire to uncover who she was, black culture, and the forms of racism she encountered while growing up. Her career has also been varied, and when asked about her experience in the acting industry remarked: “The one thing that acting taught me is that there are no ladders for ethnic minorities in this country to climb.”
The subject of the England riots has never been far away from any of the discussions here at the book festival this week, and Black was also keen to impart her views also: “Riots happen, and they happen with people feel dis-empowered. We need to analyse what happened not bang them up. If 13 year olds are going around setting fire to things it is ALL our problem, not just the parents.”
Before leaving the tent for an animated signing session for her music and book fans, she left us with this thought: “I can only try and change people’s opinions and I do it through music and now this book.”
Book Fest Media
Catch up on all my reviews and articles on my sister site, the (Unofficial) Edinburgh Book Festival Blog
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Ciao for now!