Dog-Eared and Dispatched
Good morning, literary citizens! In the latest rundown of the wild world of book culture, we delve into the U.K.’s ban on books for prisoners and the call-to-action this ruling has created among authors and book lovers worldwide. Next, we investigate who’s really benefiting from the e-book price-fixing refunds issued this week. Lastly, we explore a recent New York Times piece on bookselling in contemporary times and the controversy it has stirred among industry professionals. In this week’s footnotes, we present an update on Kobo’s antitrust case in Canada, a list of the books included on Reddit’s (facetious?) discussion blacklist, Neil Gaiman’s view on ghost stories, Alice Munro’s silver makeover, and more. Let’s get to it!
Starting this past November, a ban on books (and other small items) being sent to prisoners has been in effect in the United Kingdom. According to The Telegraph, this regulation was determined by the Ministry of Justice as part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, the statute that awards inmates for good behavior by allocating funds so that they may purchase basic items for themselves. Prior to November 2013, these goods included literature and other reading materials. Though the ruling has been in play for approximately five months now, its emergence into the public eye is due in large part to the Howard League for Penal Reform’s chief executive, Frances Crook, who published an essay about said banning on Politics.co.uk this past Sunday. “Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules,” Crook states within his column. “Of course prisons should have incentives schemes to reward good behavior, but punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre.” Author Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) agrees with Crook and has been enlisting the aid of writers across the U.K.—novelists Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men), and Joanne Harris (Chocolat); poet Ruth Padel (The Mara Crossing), and folk musician Billy Bragg (Tooth and Nail), to name a few—urging fellow creatives to take a stand against the ban. So far, the Change.org petition launched by Mary Sweeney has gathered over 21,000 signatures, approximately 3,000 signatures short of the number of supporters desired before the letter is sent to Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. “I worked with ex-prisoners for 20 years and know that the secret of salvation for many of them was found between the pages of a book,” U.K. bookstore Word on the Water wrote in a Facebook post on March 25. “In one case, a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists that a prisoner found hidden in a toilet cistern taught him, as he put it, that ‘even people like me deserve to be happy.’ He went on to direct a charity that, with remarkable success, helped men turn away from committing domestic violence. Please, if you agree that depriving those in prison of the ability to read is plain wrong, consider signing the petition.” [GalleyCat, The Telegraph, Politics.co.uk, Shelf Awareness]
E-book refunds—collected as per the price-fixing settlement between the U.S. government and the Big Five publishers—were distributed to consumers this week at $3.17 per New York Times bestseller and 73 cents a pop for all other e-books. Unless otherwise requested, these refunds were automatically issued into consumers’ accounts, with the terms of settlement dictating that such credits are to be used for book purchases only and expire after a year. According to Shelf Awareness, Amazon “did not hesitate to name names” during their refund announcement, and customers’ reactions varied widely (the whole gamut of which can be observed at #tweetyouramazonbookcredit). As GigaOm writer Jeff John Roberts noted, “For now, the biggest winner is Amazon, which already dominated the ebook market at the time of the price-fixing scheme in 2010. Today, as a result of lawsuits brought by the Justice Department and state governments, Amazon is in an even stronger position with the publishers; it will also get a healthy cut of the $160 million or so that the publishers agreed to pay under a settlement.” Meanwhile, on top of the ongoing settlement disputes between Apple and the DOJ, both Apple and the Big Five face more antitrust claims as two new plaintiffs’ cases—Lavoho, LLC and Abbey House Media—are accepted for review by Cote this month. [Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, Shelf Awareness, GigaOm]
When Julie Bosman of The New York Times penned her recent column on rising rent prices in Manhattan and the woes of bookstores, it may very well have been with the best intentions in mind. Popular opinion, however, is to the contrary. In obvious mockery, Melville House Marketing Manager Dustin Kurtz noted that “First Julie Bosman broke the news to a rapt readership that rent for retail spaces in Manhattan is rather high, and that most bookstores do not enjoy paying high rents. Then, in a seeming bid to somehow be even more On It than Bosman’s already incredibly On It piece, the Times asked six contributors to weigh in on the question How Can Bookstores Stay Alive? The result was a pitch-perfect act of trollery designed to make every indie bookseller out there lose their damned mind.” Kurtz went on to say, “The contributors to the discussion included some names for which I have a wealth of respect–Emily Powell of Powell’s, Daniel Power of powerHouse, and Laura Hazard Owen, a tireless and sharp industry reporter. But it’s as if even these voices were given strict instructions to play a caricature of one of the boring, immediately familiar roles in the debate over bookstores . . . I don’t mean to say that these writers weren’t being sincere. Or even that their suggestions weren’t good. They surely were. But they were also so vague and basic as to be useless for booksellers. And that’s the crux of the piece. It’s not for an audience of booksellers. It’s for an audience of people sitting near booksellers, listening to their sputter and rage as they read the thing. Like all the best trollery, its aim was to cause joy and entertainment—just not in those it purports to help.” Shelf Awareness was likewise critical of Bosman’s write-up, noting that in addition to reporting on “unsurprising news,” she “devoted considerably less attention in the piece to the stores that remain in Manhattan and the recent indie bookselling renaissance in Queens and Brooklyn.” [The New York Times, MobyLives!, Shelf Awareness]
1. Kobo’s protests are heard as Canada’s Competition Tribunal suspends an e-book pricing agreement between its Bureau and four of the Big Five publishers.
2. Freshly minted: Canada immortalizes Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro on a silver collector’s coin, mirroring the actions of England with Jane Austen (via Pride and Prejudice) and Sweden with Astrid Lindgren (via Pippi Longstocking).
3. April Fools?: Reddit has announced its decision to ban a selection of classic and popular books from its /r/Books discussion board on April 1.
4. Neil Gaiman discusses the value of ghost stories during his “semi-secret late-night event” at the 2014 TED conference.
5. Parks and Recreation actress Amy Poehler will serve as the honorary chairperson of this year’s World Book Night U.S., scheduled for April 23.
6. Harriet the Spy celebrates the big 5-0 with a New York exhibit hosted by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.