Globalising the second hand book trade

Bookstores are largely dead – killed by Amazon and the ereader.

Especially when you consider the logistics – in a country such as Australia, at the arse end of the world, electronic delivery is always going to trump shipping containers full of dead tree media around the world.

Yes, there are still some independents, who still have shelves well enough stocked to give you that frisson when you come across something new and unexpected, but each year they get fewer and fewer.

Which is a problem, as it’s one of the ways that small Australian publishers have managed to compete in the local market against the global behemoths of the publishing world.

If people can’t see your product, it might as well not exist. And even if they buy the electronic version, being able to see a printed version in a store can be the clincher that makes them buy it.

If people just search on websites they lose the happenstance thing – they might find what they’re looking for but they sure as hell won’t find the things they didn’t know they were looking for.

And of course there’s the second hand bookshop – they used to be small cramped shops with mismatched bookshelves smelling of must, cats, and gauloises with a classical music station for background sound.

No more. While some shops hang on their stock is poorer, less interesting, and no one smokes now anyway. Globalisation and the internet have done for them too. Sites like Abebooks and Thriftbooks, which started as a way of putting you in contact with individual second hand stores have inadvertantly led to the creation of these massive bookbarns, large tin sheds somewhere were rents are jawdroppingly cheap and employment is hard to come by.

And these bookbarns need stock – they’re about shifting product – so they tend to hoover up all the remaindered stock, liquidated stock from failed stores, house clearances, library stock disposals and the rest. And they’re good at it – order a book from them and thanks to that Victorian miracle, the postal service, it will reliably arrive in a week or three.

This is why we have a second hand guide to central Australia that came via a US bookbarn from the Edmonton public library system in Canada – something which, if you think about it, makes no sense at all.

And because operating costs for the overseas vendors tend to be lower than in Australia – cheaper rent, cheaper wages and taxes, and a postal service that does not require you to sell your children into slavery every time you wish to send a book by mail, not surprisingly any local operation finds itself outcompeted by the bookbarn vendors in the UK, Ireland, and the US.

For example, as it’s Christmas, I’ve just posted a book as a present (yes I am cutting it fine, but that’s life) It cost me $10.70 to post. I’ve also just ordered a book of about the same size and weight from one of these massive retailers in Ireland via AbeBooks – all up, that book, including postage, cost me eight dollars. No Australian vendor popped up when I searched, but I could have got it from a second hand store in Auckland for about twenty five bucks all in – three times the price.

So, not surprisingly, the local second hand trade is also dying.

In one sense, it’s good, it gives the buyer lower prices and more choice, but it also means that locally published short print run books (and most local books have short print runs) become more and more difficult to find, either new or second hand.

I don’t have an answer to this – public libraries are also being squeezed and increasingly fail to provide local authors and publishers with a platform to advertise their work, or inspire someone to track down a second hand copy of a book they’ve enjoyed.

It’s difficult, but it’s a problem ..

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grenfell, Bushrangers, and Ben Hall

Last weekend it rained. Seriously rained.

But by Sunday morning it had cleared enough for us to consider a drive out. We tossed a coin between a loop inland or a dash down to the coast and back for a walk through wet drippy coastal rainforest.

The inland trip, with its promise of perhaps picking up some fresh cherries and apricots won out and we took out on a loop out up to Grenfell and back across the old gold country of New South Wales.

Australia, before the discovery of gold, was a violent lawless miserable place, with misplaced convicts and their half educated progeny trying to scratch a living from an unforgiving landscape, fearing the understandably frightening aggressive and sometimes violent aboriginal populations they’d displaced, while at the same time being ruthlessly exploited by a small coterie of landowners – the squatocracy.

Gold, or rather it’s discovery changed all that. Men (and some women) chose life in the goldfields where there was money to be made from mining, from sex, from drink.

Gold changed everything. Not just miners, but everyone out to make a buck streamed into the goldfields.

Suddenly there was more to life than endless labour, and for the first time, the promise of escape from a world consisting solely of cabbages, sheep and potatoes. Money meant you could buy things, and perhaps aspire to drink tea out of a china cup rather than a battered tin mug.

Lots of people started from the goldfields – as a for instance, Henry Lawson, the poet and journalist, was born in a mining camp near Grenfell and went to school in the area.

Entertainers and exotic dancers, gloss that how you will, were shipped in from overseas to entertain the miners and separate them from their hard won cash. And of course, where there was gold and cash, there were men willing to risk a firefight with the troopers to steal it before it could be safely locked away.

It’s why in these old gold towns there are huge nineteenth century bank buildings in among the pubs and shopfronts, all seemingly too large and too ornate for the town as it is today, the towns having been built in the good times before the miners went away. It must have been quite a sight, these big brick bank buildings, hotels with their iron lace work balconies and shops with their grandiloquent shop fronts all touting for business and surrounded by an untidy scatter of shanties, tents and sod huts.

And certainly there were bushrangers in the area.

Between Grenfell and Forbes there is a small range of hills where allegedly Ben Hall and his gang hid out while planning an audacious raid on the Forbes mail coach. Ben Hall was a bushranger in the 1860’s and had a liking for raiding the packhorse trains taking gold from the goldfields down to the railhead.

There’s a small cave where they are supposed to have sheltered – in fact as it’s at the top of steep rise, too steep to get horses up it’s probably more myth than truth. If anything, they probably used it as a lookout as it has good view out over the Forbes road and they could have seen the dust plumes of the mail coach and the troopers.

After the Forbes raid, Ben Hall came to a bad end, shot by state troopers while resisting arrest. Most of the gold was recovered, but not all. Frank Gardiner, one of Hall’s accomplices, and possibly the brains behind the raid, escaped hanging and was deported, leaving to run a bar in San Francisco.

There’s always been a suspicion that Gardiner came to an arrangement with the troopers and that perhaps the missing gold was his share from the raid which he used both to pay off the troopers and to set himself up in America.

The truth however is probably not quite so simple. Gardiner did spend a fair bit of time in jail after the raid so it’s not as if he was let to escape. All in all there’s a bit of a mystery there  – not quite as exotic as searching for Butch Cassidy in Bolivia, but interesting never the less.

If you want to follow up, my trip note are online as an evernote share

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Latin and colonisation …

As we know, Latin didn’t die with the western Roman empire. It continued in use as the language of the church, and by and by became the language of scholarship.

After all many of the Renaissance masters and later wrote in Latin – not Greek, Latin, as a lingua franca for scholarship, for science, for medicine.

And this of course meant that there was a cohort of educated men, and I’m afraid they were almost exclusively men, in every generation.

This Latinity of course served as a tool to control access to knowledge – if a book was in Latin, and you didn’t know Latin you couldn’t read it. And even when books were published in English, French or what have you, sometimes medical texts had footnotes in Latin, or indeed allusions to things that gentlemen did not discuss, in Latin – I’ve even seen one case where the Latin footnote had embedded note in Greek to make it even more obscure.

And of course these latinate individuals went out in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to be colonizers, and often tended to see themselves as new Romans, and saw the colonized through the lens of their latinate education, as barbarians, or in the case of obvious other highly educated cultures such as those of India and southeast Asia as something akin to the Roman view of Hellenistic culture.

It’s also why we get strange abberations as the suggestion that the Masai were descended from a Roman auxiliary cohort that went feral – purely on the basis of some superficial resemblances between Masai military organisation and the late Roman army and the predeliction of the Masai for red cloaks.

So we have a question – what was the impact of classical studies on European colonisation and what, if any is its influence today?

As they used to say in exam papers, discuss.

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lucius Hiberius

I’ve just been reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which to my shame I have to admit I’d never read in full before.

Which is a pity, for while it is a work of fiction, it was treated in Medieval times as at least being partly true, and was used by Shakespeare as a source for Lear (and probably some others)

The interesting thing about the book is that while some of it is clearly made up Geoffrey repeats stories known from Nennius and Gildas, suggesting that he had done some research and possibly had access to other, now lost accounts. This does not mean that he had access to some books now lost, but he may have heard tellings and retellings of older stories and blended them in.

About two thirds through the Arthur stories Geoffrey introduces the character of Lucius Hiberius (or in some texts Lucius Tiberius), Procurator of the Senate of Rome who writes to Arthur, King of the Britons, in quite rude terms requesting that he pay fealty to him.

There are things about the story that are clearly wrong, for example there could have been no king of Iceland as Iceland was unknown to Europeans at the time, and the king of Spain has a Muslim name, Ali Fatima, which predates the Muslim conquest of Spain by around two hundred years.

But other aspects of the story are puzzling. Some of the Senators have proper sounding Roman names, including ‘proper’ triple names such as Gaius Metellus Cocta, and Lucius Hiberius, when initially defeated is counselled to wait for reinforcements from the Emperor Leo, and of course Lucius Tiberius is identified as Procurator of the Senate, and in his letter refers to the Republic, which was a Roman fiction used to describe the state in even late Imperial times, suggesting someone had some familiarity with the organisation of both the late Roman state and the Byzantine exarchate in Italy.

Some researchers have identified Lucius Hiberius with Tiberius Constantine who reinforced Ravenna, intervened in Frankish affairs, allied himself with the Visigothic kings of Spain and generally attempted to assert the authority of Byzantium over the post Roman west.

The reign of Tiberius Constantine also roughly coincides with the presumed time of the historical Arthur – which is also kind of interesting.

Tiberius was also heavily involved in wars against Parthia and in Mesopotamia – all even more interesting given Geoffrey’s inclusion of various middle eastern rulers among Lucius’s allies.

The use of the term Procurator is also interesting – suggesting a letter from a senior state official and not from the Emperor himself – again what might happen if the letter was sent by the Exarch or on orders from Byzantium.

The story itself is clearly fiction. But enough of the details sound right to suggest that perhaps there was once a Byzantine embassy to the Romano British ruler or rulers of Britain requesting them to pledge allegiance, and perhaps also at the same time there was an expeditionary force from the Exarchate that tried to push north into Gaul and extend its boundaries.

We will obviously never know. Reconstructing history from Geoffrey of Monmouth is a bit like reconstructing the history of the Russian 1917 revolution from Dr Zhivago and Mikail Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’ – we would be able to identify some events as real, some as probable, and some as fictional, and we would never be quite sure as to which of the latter two were which.

Or for a more modern analogy, trying to reconstruct the story of the Viking incursions into Northern Europe from the screenplay of Vikings but with no access to the sagas or the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

So is the case of Lucius Hiberius – some of the story is fictional, but some also sounds true, feels true ….

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sighelm and Indian pilgrims to Jerusalem

Some years ago I became quietly obsessed with the question as to whether an Anglo Saxon notable ever made it to India. The jury’s still out as whether Sighelm managed the journey, but everything I’ve read since has convinced me that it was more than possible with a whole commercial network crisscrossing the Indian Ocean from East Africa to Oman to India, to Sri Lanka, plus extensive trade networks via Alexandria and Gulf to Byzantium and the west.

And today, another pebble to add to evidence – today’s BBC magazine has an article about an Indian pilgrim refuge in Jerusalem that’s been operating since the crusades.

The fact that one man could do it 800 years ago suggests that others attempted the journey, and perhaps not only sufis but other people of other faiths on pilgrimage, travelling and buying space on ships with merchants.

So, did Sighelm get to India?

No idea, and I doubt we’ll ever know. Could he have ? Almost certainly.

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A political mockingjay

Today’s Bangkok Post reports that a Thai cinema chain has declined to screen Mockingjay - the latest in the Hunger Games series.

Hunger Games was incredibly popular in Thailand, and the three finger Hunger Games salute was used by anti coup protesters immediately after the coup as a means of mocking the military. In a nicely Orwellian touch, the military responded by making the three fingered gesture illegal when used in public.

There’s of course the political protest story here, but there’s also another story – about how a globalised media influences the iconography of protest, in just the same way that protesters in Tharir square in Cairo held up signs saying ‘Game Over’ when Mubarak fell.

Five, ten years ago this wouldn’t have happened. It would have been flags, banners, and slogans screamed through loudhailers.

Globalisation and the communications and internet revolution is changing the world, but not necessarily in the ways we expected (or predicted) …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Greeting cards and thank you notes

Amanda, J’s niece, has a daughter who’s just turned three.

Old enough to appreciate that she’s had a birthday so we sent her a card (we also have a glove puppet for her but we were totally disorganised, so we ended up ordering one of these print on demand and send express cards at the last minute – the glove puppet will have to wait until Christmas), reckoning that she’d appreciate one of her favourite cartoon characters.

Well she did. Now in the old days her mum would have helped her send a thank you note – say a set of scribbled orange blobs claiming to be a picture of something, and J would have stuck it fondly on the fridge.

Well, that’s so last century. We got a text message with emoticons. Given she’s three I’m guessing her mum might have helped her a little.

Which was nice. Provoked the same fond reaction, even though it didn’t end up on the fridge.

But that actually opens up a bigger question now that the card sending season is coming – even if you send people physical cards (albeit ordered from said print on demand  people), what do you do about the ecards, text messages and so on you get in response?

You could print them out, but that seems a bit boring. I have an alternative idea -I’ve got one of these cheap $10 media display units, so I’ll convert them all to jpegs, save them to a USB, and autoplay them on the kitchen tv. I could even be a bit kitsch and add some festive music.

Yes, it’s a bit naff, but at least it’s fun …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment