I wanted to write about something else today (maybe finish that Bad Behavior review, eh?), but I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore. Or whatever. The truth of the matter is that I saw something that pissed me off, maybe not a huge thing, but big enough, and I’m the kind of dude who likes to stomp around and make a fuss when I’m pissed off. So here’s my fuss.
I learned today (and would have learned yesterday, if I hadn’t been ill and skipped some reading), that Penguin has struck a deal with W H Smith to be their sole supplier of travel books. This is a Big Deal. (Canadians might recognize the company from their old Canadian operation, called SmithBooks, which was bought by local owners and merged with Coles to become Chapters. So not small potatoes.) First, W H Smith has a significant, often exclusive, presence in UK airports and train stations, 450 Travel stores in all, which means they have a bit of influence on the travel book market in the UK. This isn’t quite vertical integration, but it has the same kind of anti-competitive stink to it, and the book industry has a special sensitivity to that particular smell. Second: Travel writers, publishers, and booksellers are rightly up in arms over the whole thing, and there are protests, boycotts, and one of Penguin’s own travel writers has ended his relationship with the publisher and contacted the Minister for Culture. Finally, Penguin is the world’s second largest publisher, with market-specific branches all over the place, including here in Canada. This whole debacle could be highly relevant to Canadians, as it could set a precedent; if they can pull this off in one market, what’s to stop them from trying it in others? W H Smith issued a transparently ridiculous press statement about the deal being “easier for the customer”, and Penguin hasn’t said a thing. That in itself is telling; Penguin usually gives great press. If they genuinely believed this was a Good Thing, they’d be driving through the streets with a megaphone like Jake and Elwood. There’s a follow-up post over at MobyLives if you’re like me and are interested in more details.
So that’s upsetting. But it’s not what pissed me off. What initially did it is that I had to hear it from MobyLives in the first place. This is honest-to-fucking-God book news with possible implications for the entire book publishing industry. Do I hear about it from the Globe & Mail and their spiffy new more-and-better-coverage website? They devote a single link to it, in the form of a mangled, incomplete sentence. A headline with no story. What about the National Post and their new blog? I’ve teased them in the past for less than adequate coverage, but they’ve been improving more or less exponentially in the last few months. They devote a whole paragraph to it, essentially rehashing, and even linking to, the MobyLives post. Their analysis amounts to, and I quote: “Seems like a bit of a bone-headed move on the booksellers’ part to me.” So what about the Books department over at the Ceeb. If there’s one thing the Ceeb does well, and God knows it’s damned near the only thing sometimes, it’s news. Nobody does news like the Ceeb. Ceeb in the hiz-ouse, yo. Survey says: not a goddamn word. Not one. So the professional journalists covering book publishing at three of Canada’s best and most important news gathering agencies came back with a combined total of fifty-eight words on the subject. Right.
I’m not a journalist. I don’t pretend to be one, and have no particular desire to be one. But presumably when the Post and the Globe launched all this new online hotness, the idea, as advertised anyway, was to give us more and better coverage. More reviews, more interviews, more commentary and so on. In defense of the Post, they’re doing a better job than they were, and I had actually planned on linking to something of theirs today, but I’m too upset to be writing nice things, so it will have to wait a day or two. The Globe, I’m sad to say, was long on promise and short on delivery. Now, the guys who run the Books section over at the Globe are great, hard-working folks. No question. But why am I getting a marginally funny humour piece from Brian Joseph Davis when there’s real industry news to be discussed? I know Martin Levin is off on assignment somewhere, but give me a break. They just did a feature on romance novel cover art for crying out loud. There was that lovely opportunity to practice some journalism when Richard Flanagan’s great speech was published, but no juice there either. Where was the discussion of the underlying issues that led to the speech? Where was the analysis comparing the Australian and Canadian markets (lots to compare, I hear) and the inquiry on what it might mean to Canadians if such a precedent was set in a market like Australia? It wasn’t in the Globe, that’s for sure. I looked. Hell, I had to go to Google just to find the Flanagan speech once it was off the front page of the Books section, since the Globe‘s built-in search engine returned the same completely irrelevant results for every single set of search terms. MobyLives is run by a publisher, not a journalist. Somebody who is paid to make lovely books for us to read, not somebody, like our friends at the Post, the Globe, and the Ceeb, who are paid to tell us things about books and the publishing industry that we probably ought to fucking know. I should not have heard it there first.
The other thing, and no doubt you can’t wait to hear about it, is something that even MobyLives got wrong. The story here is not the protest. Let’s look at the headlines, shall we? First Moby: “Penguin boycott announced as furor erupts over strongarm deal with W. H. Smith” and “Support for Penguin, W.H. Smith boycott grows”. Now the Post: “Bookmarks: Scholastic controversy, W.H. Smith boycott, designing an author’s work”. The Globe: “Brit travel writers angry over Penguin monopoly in airport, railroad bookstores”. Now the Ceeb: oh, wait, right. Way to go Ceeb. Notice the similarities? To the book world, the deal itself should have been big, controversial news, and the inevitable protest a follow up. People getting angry over this nonsense is not the part that’s newsworthy. Hell, people not getting angry would have almost been more newsworthy, because then at least they could have been asked “what’s wrong with you? Don’t you know what this means?” This happens time and time again where protests are concerned, but given how much chatter there is about how independent book reviewers have to be, how they can’t merely act like publicity departments for publishers, it’s disheartening to see the real story being shoved aside because some folks got, justifiably, a little shouty. If they want to be journalists rather than glorified PR men, maybe it’s time to go gather some news. Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing where grizzled old newspaper men, proper reporters, are supposed to, if not scoop the blogs, then at least give us the experienced, insider perspective that only a real news gathering agency can? Christ on a bike.