An open letter to Amazon: Things have to change.


Re: Things have got to change.

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to offer my thoughts on the current state of play in the direct publishing market.

Never before in the history of publishing have so many had the opportunity to publish their own book. Certainly, vanity presses have been around for a significant amount of time, but I am talking about real, "Here's your book's ISBN and a store-front, so your book is now a saleable commodity" publishing.

It is an exciting place to be.

Gone are the days where an independent author would have to pony up for a minimum of a thousand books, which when delivered would take up residence in a handily cleared garage... or spare room, or form the foundations for a good sized coffee table.

Gone are the days when an aspiring author had to enter the lottery that surrounds literary agents-publishers-book-store-owners, and their ability to see a quality product, or product of potential. Or, quite frankly, (and just to add another layer of prize winning bonanza) each segment's inability to keep their desk in order so that every manuscript got read.

The last couple of years have heralded a new wave of publishing, allowing folk to simply write their opus and hit publish.

In short: The best thing about today's new publishing situation is that everyone can write and publish a book.

The worst thing? That in today's new publishing situation, everyone can write an publish a book.

The Balkan Express - Slavenka Drakulic

The Balkan Express:
Fragments from the
other side of war.
I am ashamed to say that I only remember the war depicted in this book as little more than an intellectual enterprise. It was given to me by a friend of my wife's as we had just come back from a holiday in the region, and she thought I might be interested.

In 1991, when the short essays in this book commence, I was 19 years old, and living in Melbourne, Australia.

I remember the news coverage, as limited as it was, showed in point form the actions of one group of people visited upon another group of people, all of whom were on the other side of the world.

News was like that in Australia in the early nineties. It's probably not much better now.

As one of the other reviewers on states:

This book was published in 1993. This makes it hard to read, since several times Drakulic talks about the war being "almost over". When one knows that the worst in the former Yugoslavia was yet to come this makes this depressing book even more depressing.

It's true. This is a hard book to read, not because of Drakulic's lack of writing talent, she writes supremely well, but because it describes the real hardships of everyday folk trying to go about their lives, while the dogs of war slaver in the streets below.

This is a great if somewhat humbling read from someone who was there, but with no political agenda. Just a person whose world crashed around her, leaving her not overly interested in the political why, but definitely the personal processes that happen when war is all around you.

Read this book, it will make you ask again and again: 

If we are supposed to learn from history, why do people repeat these atrocities?

I remember 1999 and what happened in Kosovo far clearer than I do the destruction of Yugoslavia in 1991.

Melbourne took plane loads of Kosovo refugees and I remember watching them disembark via a TV report.
It struck me then that refugee is a divisive term: Years of seeing African refugees starving in shanty towns had given me a pretty solid idea of what a refugee should look like.

The Kosovo arrivals looked like me, they wore the same clothes, same shoes, all looked healthy.

I remember saying to my girlfriend (now my wife): They could be passengers getting off a plane after any domestic Australian flight. These people aren't refugees, they could be us.

A counterpoint to the passage above re: Drakulic's belief that the war was almost over, 5 years and hundreds of thousands of lost lives before.

The Light Between Oceans - M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans
M.L. Stedman
I really wanted to like this book, and on balance it is a good one. But there are some real clanging issues that hold it back.

It is set in the 1920's at what was then an Australian outpost. For the most part it is written in a modern voice - which I don't mind, what I do mind is that the author would go from writing a beautiful, descriptive passage (truly mesmerising painting of landscape and characters) then in dialogue the modern voice would continue until for reasons I can't fathom she seemed to periodically release her inner Steve Irwin. Terms like "doing your 'nana" or "give it a burl" are certainly colloquialisms of the time, but seemed shoe-horned into the text as a reach for Authenticity.

It's probably something that wouldn't be noticed by non-Australians, but adding such terms in the context that they were delivered is akin to writing an American Southern States epic in a modern voice, and then dumping a couple of "y'alls" in as some lame reach for authenticity.Or a Canadian book with some poorly placed "Aboots"

The other clanger, and this one unforgivable, is her switch between past and present tense. While I am aware that this is a technique to create immediacy and drama. It wasn't well applied.

I'd be there on the island, nothing existed but for the words and the image-scapes, and then the tense would change and I would feel like I'd have to interpret it to past and.... BAM I'm back in my reality holding a book. The Island gone and I am having to think about the context/tense/reasons why she chose to switch.

The colloquialism issue could have been resolved by picking a couple of obvious characters - like the boat guys - and made them as Steve Irwin as she liked... it would have given space and presence to the novel without looking like trying too hard.

The tense issue? Unforgivable.

The premise is a good one, the concepts of moral accountability; the isolation that might make people make decisions that they would not have had they been firmly attached to a community, rather than isolated on a rock and away from prying eyes, makes for some pretty hard questions. 

One of which is how not being accountable to the view of a community could sway a situation.

The technical issues though hold this book back for me, although I can see that the book has already gained a lot of traction so I am likely to be firmly in the minority on this. Nonetheless: even though the premise was immense I can only give it a 3 out of 5... at best.