Stealing Books Is OK?

The Daily Telegraph had an article written by Mike Wright on 17 May with which I disagreed. It was titled, “I’m proud that people steal my books, says Trainspotting author.”

Mr Wright covers social media and related policy and tech issues for the Telegraph.

Irvine Welsh

Wikipedia says that “Irvine Welsh (born 27 September 1958) is a Scottish novelist, playwright and short story writer. His 1993 novel Trainspotting was made into a film of the same name. His work is characterised by a raw Scots dialect and brutal depiction of Edinburgh life. He has also written plays and screenplays, and directed several short films.”

The article says, “The author of Trainspotting has said he does not mind fans stealing his books because he still gets the royalties. Irvine Welsh, the author of what is often cited as ‘the most shoplifted book in history’, said the accolade is a ‘source of pride’ and he is unconcerned if people keep stealing his books.

In an interview, he revealed that he gets paid whether his tomes are bought or stolen because the stores have to cover the cost to the publishers. He revealed the financial loophole on the podcast Midnight Meets with Colin Murray. Speaking about Trainspotting, Welsh said, “It is a source of pride that people kind of nick it. I always get some wee yob that comes up to me and goes, ‘I got your books. I stole them all.’

“I say, ‘well look, I appreciate that because they usually go to the bookseller on a sell or return basis. So if they don’t sell, the bookseller can’t return them to the publisher. That means I get my royalties. So I appreciate you stealing them because it means double sure that I get paid.’ Fabulous. It’s brilliant. It’s unbeatable.”

Welsh, 62, rose to fame with his 1993 bestseller, which was made into the Danny Boyle-directed film starring Ewan McGregor and Kelly Macdonald. The novel has since been cited as the most shoplifted book in the UK and Mr Welsh said his other titles, such as The Acid House, Filth and Porno, are also frequently the targets of theft.

The novel Trainspotting itself deals with book theft, when its heroin-addicted protagonist, Renton, admits to a judge that he stole books by the existential writer Soren Kierkegaard. However, Renton manages to avoid a jail sentence by telling the judge that his petty larceny was not aimed at feeding his drug habit but by his curiosity about the philosopher’s ‘concepts of subjectivity and truth’.

An actual list of the most stolen books in Brittan, compiled by The Times in 2009 from interviews with independent booksellers, found the London AZ the most popular with shoplifters.”

If one of my books were the target of shoplifting, I can imagine having a discrete sniggle about it with a couple of friends, but I certainly wouldn’t mention it in public. As Welsh admits, the booksellers are the ones who end up paying for the author’s royalties. And for an author to crow about his good fortune at the expense of those who are otherwise trying to make money for him seems insensitive and ill advised.

What About Racist Childhood Classic Books?

The Washington Post has an article, dated 16 May 2021, that I had to read. It is under the byline of Valerie Strauss who is an education writer who producing The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. 

Most of the article quotes a post by Philip Nel, who is the author of “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: the Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books” a 2017 book that helped launch a conversation about racism in children’s books that led to a recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six of the prolific author’s books. Nel, is a professor of English at Kansas State University and director of the children’s literature program there.

Philip Nel

Mr Nel’s post is quite long quite long, so I have produces excerpts below.

“Because any culture you grow up in seems natural and inevitable, sometimes you simply don’t see. On the morning of March 2, I heard that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was withdrawing these six books, via a text from my friend, professor Sarah Park Dahlen. And I immediately thought: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!” will be withdrawn for their racist caricatures. They were.

But what were the other three? I saw “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” on the list, and thought: Well, Dr. Seuss often uses exoticism and foreignness as a punchline. Were there examples in these books? Yes, there were. But “On Beyond Zebra!”? That’s a personal favorite, one of Dr. Seuss’s most avant-garde books. It invents an entirely new alphabet, reminding young readers that this language they’re learning to read is arbitrary and slightly ridiculous. What could possibly be objectionable?

In rereading, I realized the book’s caricature of a Middle Eastern man was … a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. I had not seen the illustration as a caricature until Dr. Seuss Enterprises pointed it out.

I’ve written a lot about Dr. Seuss, and about racism in his work. I’ve written about blackface minstrelsy’s influence on “The Cat in the Hat.” My book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” began the conversation that led to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision. You’d think I would have noticed. I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t see what I didn’t see.

When you grow up in a racist culture, you won’t see all the racism — it’s just part of the world in which you live. If you have only ever seen a polluted ocean, then that’s what an ocean looks like. Only when someone points out the pollution in the ocean or the racism in the culture, do you notice. And begin to ask questions.

But cancel culture nostalgists never ask or answer the questions. What in the culture are they defending? And why not instead celebrate books that, instead of perpetuating harm, represent people of any heritage with respect?

Why not break up with your favorite racist childhood classics? Maybe doing so will break your heart a little.

But, to quote a line attributed to Rumi (but which is probably not him), “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”

That “breaking” is what reflective nostalgia allows. It allows you to reassess what you once loved. It allows you to meet new favorite books celebrating the diversity of human experience.

That’s not cancellation. That’s cultivation. That’s healing. That’s love.”

I can remember that as a child, my mother used to read classics to me, and among these ‘classics’ were several books by Joel Chandler Harris, whose books were produced in the 1880’s and were based on stories told by southern US plantation residents.  Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop’s Fables. Uncle Remus is a kindly old freedman who serves as the principal story-telling device, passing on the folktales like the traditional West African story-teller to children gathered around him. Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a character prone to tricks and troublemaking who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the ‘tar baby’ amiably but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the tar baby’s lack of manners, punches it and kicks it, and becomes stuck.

I certainly agree with Nel’s comment that when you grow up in a racist culture, one doesn’t see the racism. Was my mother a racist? Yes, I have no doubt. And while, as a child I loved Br’er Rabbit’s exploits, I didn’t read Harris’ books to my children.

Are Celebrity Authors Hogging the Market?

The Sunday Telegraph, today, has an article by Craig Simpson entitled ‘Shun the celebrity authors like Megan publishers urged’. With its photos of celebrity authors promoting their children’s books, I had to have a read.

Mr Simpson is a reporter with Daily and Sunday Telegraph covering arts, culture, history, heritage.

Madonna reads her latest children's book 'Lotsa de Casha' to children in a bookstore
Madonna reads her children’s book Lotsa de Casha in a bookstore in New York City 

The article says: “LEADING children’s authors have hit out at publishers trying to “swamp the competition” by continuously commissioning new books by celebrities such as the Duchess of Sussex.

Sales figures obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show authors like Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton still sell millions more copies than any modern-day celebrity, with the exception of David Walliams.

The duchess is among a number of famous faces who in recent times have written a children’s book, alongside the likes of Madonna, Frank Lampard, Idris Elba and the Duchess of York.

Earlier this month it was announced her first title, The Bench, would be published by Penguin Random House, and the June release is inspired by the “special bond” between her husband Prince Harry and their son Archie.

But children’s writers have pointed out that many end up being “absolute disasters” and that better authors are being repeatedly ignored.

Gareth P Jones, who won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012 for The Considine Curse, believes the e financial success of literature produced by dedicated writers should prompt publishers to prioritise quality over celebrity.

He said: “Meghan isn’t unique in wanting to write a story inspired by her children or pets or, in her case, a bench. Lots of parents do this.

“The ones who are not famous but good writers sometimes get books out of it. The ones who are famous but not good writers always get books out of it. I think the list should be seen as a useful u reminder to publishers that the fame of authors should not be the main steering factor when it comes to signing new book books. “Children’s literature matters. It matters to the industry, to the young readers and to the future of our society. Most celebrity authors get such whopping advances for their efforts that I’m not sure book sales or long longevity are important factors for the them.” A list of the top children’s au authors since 2010 compiled by Nielsen BookScan analysts shows only one celebrity writer – Walliams – in a top 20 list otherwise dominated by writers like Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and JK Rowling. Separate sales figures focusing on 2019 alone featured just three celebrity authors in the top 20: Walliams, Tom Fletcher and David Baddiel.

Walliams has written 26 books for children netting more than £100m, of which he is estimated to have taken home £10m. This puts him alongside some of the UK’s highest earning authors, such as JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson.

Lucrative advances for celebrity book deals – many of which are believed to be in the millions – compare with some as low as £2,000 for lesser-known children’s authors.

“It’s so true that writing good children’s books is not an easy wheeze,” said the author of children’s thriller Waiting for Murder, Fleur Hitchcock. “There have been some absolute disasters over the years – remember Madonna’s? Some sell on the name and fizzle out, but some are so aggressively marketed that they swamp the competition.”

It seems to me that the complaining authors have a point. I have read lots of children’s books: as a child, to my children and grandchildren. The good ones are enchanting; the poor ones are boring. What’s the difference? It takes more than good verbal skills to write for children. (Some celebrities would fall at this hurdle). It also requires a special variety of imagination that can bring to life the complex feelings of a particular age group. Moreover, patience with multiple re-writes and a commitment to high quality standards are necessary.

Perhaps with the leverage of their name in mind, some celebrities see children’s books as an easy, short way to a big payday. If so, they will be disappointed.

TikTok Madness

There is an article on the Good E-Reader website on May 4, 2021 by Michael Kozlowski that mentions 5.8 billion views of book reviews. How could this be?

Michael Kowlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times. 

Mr Kowlowski said, “TikTok is a social media platform for creating, sharing and discovering short videos. The app is used by young people as an outlet to express themselves through singing, dancing, comedy, and lip-syncing, and allows users to create videos and share them across a community. You might be familiar with various TikTok challenges that dominate the news or Youtube.  One of the biggest new trends is a href=””>BookTok, where old and new novels are going viral, thanks to a new wave of book-loving influencers discussing their young adult literary picks.

Here is how BookTok works. People use the hashtag #BookTok a produce a minute long video recommending books. Scroll through #BookTok and you will see in-depth spoiler-filled reviews, colour coordinated bookcases and even a user acting out a literary battle scene, complete with a sorceress dress, horse and bow and arrow. Books with teenage, star-crossed lovers are popular too with users obsessing over what fictional characters make the best boyfriends or fantasizing about their dream date.

Fantasy is currently dominating amongst Young Adult readers, offering a form of escapism from the mundanity of everyday life. It enables readers to envision alternate realities or societies that do not compare to their own, fascinated by the idea of an otherworldly experience- mental teleportation. Book-lovers have repeatedly voiced their support for series such as “The Folk of the Air” and “A Court of Thorns and Roses”, with most ‘BookTokers’ discussing them across the app.

The #BookTok hashtag has racked up over 5.8 billion views, and some authors have seen a tenfold increase in book sales for works that are often decades old. Even bookstores are jumping on the trend. The Barnes & Noble website now has a BookTok page dedicated to the most popular books on TikTok and its American stores have introduced allocated sections displaying titles that have gone viral on the platform.

In a recent press release, NPD Bookscan said that meaningful book sales occur when titles are featured on viral BookTok videos. “Backlist titles like “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara, and “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller, both received sales boosts in the first quarter of the year. In fact, “The Song of Achilles” sold 10 times the number of units in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same time period last year. “While many BookTok videos are pushing young-adult titles on to bestseller lists, the phenomenon has also carried over into adult fiction.

I really approve of this trend, it gets people reading. When researching this story, I found so many people saying the last time they read a book was in high school, for English classes, but due to people making reading cool and fun, it encouraged them to read more, which is never a bad thing.”