Monday 21 September 2009

You don't know what you've got till it's gone...

Clearing out my mailbox I noticed a week-old newsflash from The Bookseller on the forthcoming demise of Chambers, properly Chambers Harrap, and owned by Hachette since 1992. Basically the internet has kicked the feet out from underneath reference publishing and Hachette are cutting their losses. It's deeply ironic that Chambers' fortunes were made on providing cheap, accurate and accessible information to the masses; from Chambers' website:

Education, and making information available to as many people as possible, were always priorities for William and Robert. In 1832 they began to publish The Chambers's Journal. This was a weekly, 16-page journal containing articles - many of them written by Robert - on subjects such as history, religion, language and science. It was an immediate success; within a few years the weekly circulation had risen to 84 000 copies, and it put an end to their struggle to survive although they still had to work hard.

The Chambers's Journal was followed in 1834 by Chambers's Information for the People. This was a series of sheets on subjects such as science, maths, history, geography and literature, bound in sets. Eventually around 170 000 sets were sold, amounting to over 2 million individual sheets. This publication also saw some success abroad; a US edition was published, and it was translated into French (under the title Information pour le peuple) and - more surprisingly perhaps - into Welsh.

These publications were followed by an educational course, an encyclopedia and, in 1872, the Chambers Dictionary.

I must admit to not having supported Chambers on one occasion when I was a bookseller: I seem to recall the rep coming in and my deciding not to go for one of the larger Chambers titles. This was almost certainly based on sales figures, though undoubtedly if we'd been stocking the Chambers and Bloomsbury dictionaries at the same level as we did Collins and Oxford, they'd have been a good deal better. Well, I regret it now.

On the other hand, I always had the feeling that Chambers was a bit fusty, a bit old-fashioned, or (to be brutal) past it - though this was a superficial impression and I never made a detailed comparison between the actual content of a Chambers dictionary and that of its competitors. (I did compare the other three around 2003 and liked the Bloomsbury best on grounds of writing and layout.) While this may seem groundless, as a retailer I think you do get to have sense for books and publishers just as you do for people, and I wonder, given this wholly regrettable news, if there wasn't something in that. (See below.) Should Chambers not have been better prepared to weather the internet? Is it really altogether a case of asset-stripping by a big corporation? - though I never under-rate big corporations' innate capacity for greed and mendacity.

There's an interesting synchronicity between the content of Chambers' latest blog post, which refers to the practice of 'churnalism' - the replication of the text of a news item in multiple publications without any attempt on the part of hacks to reshape, expand or develop it - and an example of same in the reporting of the Chambers story: if you look at the pieces in the Scotsman, Herald, Bookseller and BBC you'll see they are almost exactly the same. Who wrote the original? Presumably it came from an agency.

In fact the timing of the blog post is so fitting that I can't imagine it isn't a subtle dig on the part of the poster, though I imagine it will be lost on the bean-counters at Hachette.


An earlier post comments on the redundant repetition of the the last word of an acronym, as in my pet hate, 'ISBN number'. On hearing it used, I regularly had to prevent myself from emitting a Morse-like snarl against the offender and pointing out that one does not speak of the CIA agency or the FBI bureau.


A more directly personal effect is that that's going to be 27 more book people out of a job - which of course I do not welcome in a general sense - and all applying for the same kind of positions as me. While I do have a job at the moment it's not going to last for much longer, and I dread being back on the dole. This is yet another reason why little of my online time is currently spent socialising, chasing intriguing literary-oriented stuff, or blogging - all of which I'd much rather be doing.


On YouTube, Orson Welles on cold reading: at around 2:00 he begins to explain how it is that one's surface impressions become more than that.


Seen on the wall of a library recently:
A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.
- Jo Godwin
Which in my sometime experience ought to carry underneath it the sign:
Library staff will be happy to help.

Recently read and recommended: Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios; Harlan Ellison, Spider Kiss. Not recommended: Ian McEwan, The Innocent; Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear; Honore de Balzac, The Vendetta. Not sure: G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.