Boyd Tonkin: Simples people – or mad fools?

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The Independent Culture

I have not yet had this conversation with a distinguished foreign publisher, but I fear – or even hope – that I soon will. So there's no harm in rehearsing the likely moves...

Distinguished Foreign Publisher: "Good to catch up with you again. So what's selling well in the UK? Autumn, peak season for the hottest titles, no? One of your sexy British blockbusters maybe? That Ken Follett, he really travels well. Jamie Oliver, I could do good business with him. Or perhaps a serious novelist? But Martin Amis took one helluva beating for his new one, didn't he? And you guys didn't sound over the moon about Ian McEwan. What's at the top of the bestseller lists, then?

Me: If you really want to know... It's A Simples Life by Aleksandr Orlov.

DFP: "Fantastic! A Russian memoir – or is it a novel? Very soulful. Why did no one show me that one at Frankfurt? A moment please... I know my English grammar is not so perfect, but is there not an error with the agreement of the adjective?"

Me: "A deliberate mistake. Faux naif. It's a work of fiction, actually, written in a Russian-accented English."

DFP: "Charmant! So tell me, what's the deal? Escape from the Gulag? Hard times on the collective farm? Post-Soviet social crisis among heroin addicts in Siberia? The confessions of a guilty oligarch who wants to return to the land as a second Tolstoy?"

Me: "Not exactly. It's the autobiography of... a meerkat. With stories of his relatives."

DFP: "?"

Me: "Suricata suricatta. From the Kalahari desert in Africa. But this is the life story of a Russian meerkat. Supposedly written by himself."

DFP: "??"

Me: "Though some people suspect it was really a publisher called Val Hudson."

DFP: "Oh, now I understand. You are not quite so insane. An animal fable! You British love them. Jungle Books, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, Watership Down... I can sell that. Show the little ones how the big world works with the help of some loveable furred creatures, yes? Quite a sophisticated genre I think. Why a Russian meerkat, though?

Me: "Umm... the meerkat was famous already."

DFP: "A famous meerkat. Interesting. What for?"

Me: "He stars in a series of TV commercials."

DFP: "Don't they just run in and out of holes and stand on their back legs?"

Me: "This one is a CGI animation. He tells his family history. Wearing a smoking jacket. In front of an open fire. The idea is that his ancestors migrated from the Kalahari desert to Russia..."

DFP: "???"

Me: "...and then fought a great battle with the Mongolian mongoose army in the Urals before going on to make a fortune in Moscow..."

DFP: "I need a cigarette. Outside? OK, outside... But what is the product he sells?"

Me: "It's not a product as such. It's a price-comparison website. Not Er... that's the joke. People think they sound alike. With a Russian accent. The website has boomed - the meerkats earned millions."

DFP: "This 'memoir'. So it's a bestseller?"

Me: "Number one some days this week. People queued outside bookshops to buy early copies, like they did with Harry Potter."

DFP: "In France, la rentrée littéraire, it means Michel Houellebecq. In Germany, Herta Müller or Peter Handke. In Britain, a talking meerkat from a TV advertisement. In a smoking."

Me: "A Russian meerkat. And an immigrant. With roots in Africa. Very multi-cultural. Very 'New Britain'. Next up, the Olympics..."

DFP: "Lunatics? Simpletons? Children? Or a nation of lunatic simpleton children."

Me: "All of the above. Like Monty Python. Or Mr Bean."

DFP: "Who's selling the rights?"

Face time that needs its own book

How often do you come across a film screenplay you really want to read again? Hardly ever – though Faber has (or had) a smart list of cult-movie scripts, from Woody Allen to Quentin Tarantino. One new release that should merit this rare format is Aaron Sorkin's quicksilver dialogue for The Social Network: the knife-sharp biopic about Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg, right). Sorkin's words do all the glinting and flashing while David Fincher's direction mooches darkly around Harvard in winter. The West Wing writer's screenplay also edits its source – Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires – with focus and ferocity. I'd be his cyber-friend.

Pay a fair price, e-whingers

In tough times for everyone, it rather sticks in the craw to have to defend higher prices. But with e-books, the principle is plain. At long last, Amazon seems to have halted the race to the bottom on titles for its Kindle reader. After months during which charges for e-book bestsellers often plunged to sub-magazine levels, the digital giant has agreed on the "agency model" with Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin. The publishers will set the price, and the retailer will keep to it. Similar deals will no doubt follow. Cue a blizzard of complaints on Amazon forums about the injustice of having to pay more than few pennies for a work that enshrines the skills of authors, researchers, editors and (even digitally) designers. Talent and experience should cost a just amount of money in a commercial marketplace. Professionals deserve a fair reward. This whingeing, petty, adolescent sense of entitlement to culture and entertainment for free has almost proved the death of recorded music. It must not happen with books.