BookThoughts: Alessandro Baricco – Mr Gwyn


‘Jasper Gwyn diceva che tutti siamo qualche pagina di un libro, ma di un libro che nessuno ha mai scritto e che invano cerchiamo negli scaffali della nostra mente.’

Mr Gwyn, Alessandro Baricco, Feltrinelli, 2011

A beautifully written book, I devoured this in a day, favouring returning home to it over sitting in a bar with a cocktail and rather antisocially turning to read while out with some friends.

Baricco’s relatively short novel was gripping and intriguing. Set in London (although not translated from English, instead written directly in Italian), the plot follows protagonist Jasper Gywn after he gives up writing and sets about creating written portraits. I found it beautifully written, with a simple plot which was engaging and fluid – not the kind of book where you’re having to flip back and forth, trying to keep up with what’s happening.

Mr Gwyn is written in my current favourite style; through a series of short chapters. This adds to the ease of the plot and makes it really readable. The chapters often flowed into each other, without much distance in time between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, and occasionally I wondered whether a new chapter really was necessary. However, the layout of chapters, with a simple number denoting the start of the next, made for unobtrusive chaptering, and added to the ease of the flow of the plot.


VAT and eBooks: a taxing matter

An announcement from Brussels last week has brought the question of taxation and eBooks back to the surface. The European Commission made a statement on Thursday in which it announced that France and Luxembourg would be referred to the EU Court of Justice following their unlawful application of reduced rates of VAT to eBooks.

EU law regarding taxation rates are strict but clear, with tight legislation about the reduction rates of VAT on books for each Member State. However, the statement from the European Commission suggested that there would be discussions about ‘new VAT strategy’ by the end of this year, so can we expect to see changes to strict EU legislation soon?

It’s not exactly a new topic of discussion: there has been debate about the lack of VAT reduction on eBooks for quite some time now. James Bridle’s blog post two years ago highlighted the ‘idiocy’ of the inconsistency of taxation between formats, pointing out that eBooks are classed as ‘electronic guides rather than books’. While laws on taxation mean that paper books are classed as ‘life necessities’, eBooks aren’t granted the same status;  do 20% VAT rates leave eBooks in the ‘luxury product’ range?

The SNE (syndicat nationale de l’edition), the French national trade union for the publishing industry, reacted to the European Commision’s statement in a press release that called for an end to ‘fiscal discrimination between paper and digital books’ and highlighted the absurdity of discrepancies in taxation between the two formats. The SNE stated that ‘like all books, an eBook is above all a work of the mind: it’s defined by its content and not by its format’ and pointed out that ‘the three countries with the most developed digital book markets (United States, Japan, Korea) have VAT levels for eBooks that are lower or equal to those for paper books’.

This week’s events seem to clearly show that out of date tax laws need to be revised to keep up with a rapidly changing publishing industry. I certainly am looking forward to seeing what will come from the EU’s promised discussions about VAT strategy – at a time where the UK’s position in the EU is being widely discussed, perhaps the UK publishing industry could profit from leaving the EU if there is little change to VAT legislation in coming months. Time well tell…

#FutureFoyles: Part Two

Yesterday saw the second workshop at the Charing Cross Road bookshop, and again conversation was rife on Twitter, with even more people getting involved in the discussion. More suggestions were made towards the future of the bookstore, as conversation flowed between writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, united with the hashtag #FutureFoyles.

Photo from

There was a continuation from Monday’s discussions, with a common idea of the future Foyles being a sort of hub for the consumer, and following Monday’s creative and innovative suggestions for the shop, yesterday’s workshop saw more ideas flowing about the Foyles experience.

@Porter_Anderson highlighted the importance of making the shopping experience more exciting than simply shopping on Amazon, tweeting the summary of a group at the workshop’s presentation: ‘#FutureFoyles “More than just filling a shopping basket with product and checking out as on @Amazon.”’ If competing with Amazon’s pricing is to be impossible for the future bookshop, then clearly there need to be other ways for traditional bookshops to fight back against online retailers and cheap eBook retailers.

@Ailsabcd continued to tweet her frustration about an apparent lack of focus on the issue of pricing. With so many shoppers becoming what I like to call jacket shoppers, browsing in-store but then buying cheaply online, Ailsa is right to be looking closely at pricing issues, pointing out that often it’s cheaper to reserve books online and pick them up in store. In conversation with Ailsa, @Sneetchster pointed out the difficulty in lowering prices, pointing out that ‘squeeze is on publishers too’. Clearly the issue of price is a complex one, but nonetheless it seems to go without saying that new ideas about pricing will be of huge importance in the shaping of the future of bookselling. If we look to bookselling in France for example, the ‘Loi Lang’ ensures a fixed price of books, allowing bookshop reductions only up to 5%, and was put in place in 1981 when new competitors such as supermarkets were threatening the fate of independent booksellers. Today, French bookshops are bustling with people eager to buy books, despite the lack of tables of buy-one-get-one-free offers that fill bookshops in England.

So how can the future bookshop fight against cheap online booksellers? Clearly, the idyll of popular French bookshops can’t be reached in England without substantial change in legislation, but there must be ways that booksellers can modernise their pricing structures. @ChrisGarratty tweeted @Foyles to say that ‘[he] would spend a lot more on physical books if [he] got the #kindle version included as well.’ #FutureFoyles discussion saw various suggestions regarding technology and the use of bundling, and @Foyles did comment that ‘Publishers v reticent about bundling’, and @MirabilisDave pointed out that ‘Publishers say to me, “Why bundle when we can charge twice?”’

Perhaps I’m still over-excited following Canongate’s announcement about their bundled multi-format novel with interactive physical cover, but I really do think that bundling in this way, and combining digital features with physical formats seems like the future of bookselling. #FutureFoyles discussions about the use of technology and social media in store saw suggestions of a ‘twitter wall’ and projections of live sales on the walls of the shop, but I think the key to really competing with online bookselling is finding a way to bring digital interactivity to physical bookshops and books.

Bundled, blipped and bound: A Tale for the Time Being

The independent, Edinburgh based publishing house Canongate Books have just announced their ‘innovative campaign’ for Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, launching an exciting interactive cover and multiformat bundling.

Clearly they’re remembering their words from an interview back in 2009 with Lisa Glass from book blog Vulpes Libris, when Canongate’s Jamie Byng said that ‘digital publishing represents a wonderful new opportunity for readers, publishers and writers…if it’s done imaginatively.’ Four years later, these discussions about enhanced content seem to link closely to their new release.

There’s no denying that what Canongate have come up with is anything but imaginative. Today they proudly launched a YouTube video showing the world’s first fully interactive cover. Using clever blippar technology, readers can scan the jacket with a smartphone or tablet and access special features, including author interviews and links to social media conversations.


However, this isn’t where the physical book is separated from the digital realm. Last month Canongate announced that they would be releasing all formats of the book simultaneously, and today’s announcement added a further detail to this. Not only have Canongate brought a digital side to their physical jacket, they’re bundling together the eBook and physical book. Today’s details about pricing revealed that the £20 hardback format will include a free eBook download. Alternatively, both the paperback and eBook versions will retail at £7.99 each.

This announcement seems to be exemplar of a publishing house looking into exciting ways to sustain business in a difficult market. In an industry with a rapidly growing eBook-only sector, bringing together traditional and digital publishing seems like a logical step. Canongate describe the values of the Independent Alliance of which they were a founding member, explaining the ‘common vision of editorial excellence, original, diverse publishing, innovation in marketing and commercial success’. I just hope that we’ll be seeing more like this from other publishers.

Twitter Tuesday: #futurefoyles

Yesterday saw an exciting workshop at Foyles, the first of two, exploring the future of  ‘the UK’s iconic independent bookseller’ ahead of its move to new premises. The London bookshop invited various figures from across the industry to take part in discussions and interactive assignments, generating new ideas about the future of bookselling.

Not only were important figures from the trade present at the workshops at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, but the bookshop’s twitter account got the discussion going, using the hashtag #futurefoyles. From a quick search using, it seems that there were only 98 tweets using this hashtag, but discussion was quick and there were many ideas being thrown around by a wide range of people, from those involved in the industry to ‘normal’ readers.

Discussion on twitter included some creative suggestions to help save high-street bookstores, generally with a common theme of making a more creative and exciting shopping experience for the consumer. @CalebWoodbridge emphasised the importance of encouraging people into bookshops and suggested making the modern bookshop a more social place:


There seemed to be general twitter-consensus that the bookshop of tomorrow should be a more exciting place, bringing people in and making them a more customer-focused buying experience. This is unsurprising; as @ailsabcd tweeted, ‘this is why Amazon is winning against physical stores. All comes down to price’. If physical bookshops are unable to compete in terms of price, then clearly the future of high-street booksellers is intrinsically linked to the customer. Amazon can’t provide the same physical interaction with a customer that a physical shop can offer: so is this where the future of physical bookselling is headed?

Suggestions on twitter for a more interactive and exciting ‘bookshop experience’ were innovative, from @tomtivnan’s suggestion of ‘a Yo Sushi-like conveyor belt of books’ to @SamuelPartridge’s idea of a ‘Stock market style ticker for popular up-and-coming books. What’s going up/down in what genre based on live sales’.

There was discussion about the successful shops that Foyles should take inspiration from: Selfridges and the Apple Store. I’m not sure if the future bookshop needs to be a high-end retail experience, but I do see where @JudyPiatkus is coming from, pointing out Apple’s success with their interactive shops: ‘people like to play and experiment. How do you turn play into bookbuying experience?’

Holding interactive workshops and facilitating twitter discussion about the future of bookselling seems like the perfect step for a bookseller like Foyles to be taking. By involving not only members of the trade, but also individuals and consumers, to get involved and comment on the future of the shop, Foyles is clearly doing the right thing: if the bookshop of tomorrow needs to be interactive, this must be a step in the right direction.

BookThoughts: Pascale Gautier – Les vieilles

‘Penser à après-demain parce qu’on ne sait jamais de quoi demain sera fait.’

Les vielles, Pascale Gautier, Folio Gallimard, 2011
Winner of 2012 Prix Renaudot Poche

Beautifully and cleverly written in the form of many short chapters (45 chapters, 215 pages), this novel was gripping and I was always tempted to read just one more chapter, whipping out the book whenever I had a spare couple of minutes.

Gautier was very successful combining light humour with serious questioning about the nature of life and death. At times the book made me laugh out loud and at other points I was close to tears.

Seeing the world through the eyes of the pensioners makes you question the important things in life. The humorous setting of the town, Le Trou (even with a comic name – ‘The hole’) was amusing on the surface,  but there was a deeper sense of sadness and loneliness. Le Trou is presented as a town where the elderly came to spend their last days, a town deserted by the younger generations, a town where people waited for the ticking time bomb of death; their worlds became their individual fixations, whether running, the cat, the church.

The various family dynamics placed emphasis on the importance of family in old age, showing the basic human desire for company and presenting loneliness as the saddest and most difficult human emotion. There was a certain fixation on death, which I think is epitomised by young Kevin’s joke about work at a crematorium being good, reliable work. This fixation on death can also be seen through the number of widows in the town and the sudden occurrence of multiple suicides towards the end of the book. The panic surroudnign the impending apocalypse serves as a further way in which Gautier presents people’s attitude towards death. This again pointed towards the questioning about the nature of life: is death the only security/stability in life? Is there a certain comfort to be found in the certainty of death?

Les vieilles, Pascale Gautier, Folio Gallimard, 2011.