Spreading

Since Cory Doctorow posted the dismissal story on the excellent Boing Boing yesterday there has been a lot more discussion on this matter (Boing Boing also has an interesting related article on companies who have fired staff over blogs – a worrying trend). Quite a few more comments posted here and a number of other web sites discussing the matter now.

I’ve also had some very kind emails expressing sympathy, outrage and support from a wide variety of people, many of whom I have never met, including some people who I can’t name because they work in the book industry in the UK (indeed some actually work for Waterstone’s all around the country) and I don’t want to cause them any problems – nonetheless it was very kind of you to get in touch with me, thank you. Kind words from several writers and editors I have worked with have helped cheer me up. One editor generously commented that I had helped increase the awareness and sales of some of their imprint’s writers. It’s nice to know that so many people appreciated my efforts in bookselling, even if my own company ultimately did not.

As the ostensible reason for my being dismissed was that my sarcastic rambling were bringing the company into disrepute (a rather flexible and nebulous term) this whole shameful debacle has been something of an own-goal for Waterstone’s. The thing is, they must have anticipated that the story would become more widely know if they fired me. Both my union rep and I pointed out that potential bad publicity could be an outcome if I was fired (in a general manner, we certainly did not threaten them with such a tactic).

As this move was supposedly because they felt I was causing harm to the company’s image why then would the company make this move which could only result in more discussion and coverage of their actions, which most folk seem to agree was heavy-handed? It seems to fly in the face of the argument that they were trying to protect their public image. Quite a number of people have expressed their disgust and their intention to go elsewhere for book purchases, so this whole thing has been an enormously counter-productive move and one which need not have happened had reason prevailed.

Among the latest folk discussing developments(not enough time and space to list everyone) are: The Community At Large, Scribbling Woman, The Republic of T (which also has an interesting piece on an international blogger’s rights ‘bill‘), Detrimental Postulation, Cyber Junky, Foreword.

More discussion

More discussion online here at Diverse Books and also on Edinburgers (where opinion is mixed, so let no-one accuse me of not putting in links which include people who do not agree with me – that is in the nature of free speech after all).

In response to some of those there who consider that I am to blame for my current woes, I would re-iterate once more that this is an incredibly heavy-handed response. I did not set out to attack the company in some systematic manner – if I had wished to do so then I could have; I did not. In fact I have over eleven years done much to publicise the company in a variety of ways, nor has my work quality been questioned. You would think therefore that someone with so many years of service would be treated a little more fairly.

Surely the sensible thing would have been for my manager to have a word with me and warn me that the company found this unacceptable? Bearing in mind there is no specific policy on blogs etc, only a very vague ‘bringing the company into disrepute’ which could be interpreted in any way the company sees fit. I and the union offered to cease if it caused such offence and to accept a warning and suggested a clearer policy be issued to guide other staff in the future, but this was disregarded.

There is also the issue of how the company became aware of a minor blog. They would not tell us, even at the hearing, who made the complaint and the nature of it. I think I should know who my accuser is and what they took exception to. Especially since the blog clearly states that it is satirical in nature. It raises issues such as why are companies monitoring their employee’s personal time online (the union has told me of another case where the same company has dealt harshly with a staff member over a web issue (not a blog)) and does a work contract hold sway over your personal life outside of work. I also asked if I were to repeat such a tale in the pub to a friend and the wrong person overheard it would that be a disciplinary breach? By the way they are interpreting the rules, it would seem to me it would, which would be a shameless invasion of your freedom of expression. In the event I did not receive an answer to that question either.

Regardless of personal feelings however, it was a very silly action to dismiss me in this manner since it has made things far more visible, which given the company did not want online discussion to begin with is ironic. If this has been dealt with in a quieter manner I would not now be urgently trying to find a new job and Waterstone’s could have saved themselves from bad publicity and from losing a long-serving and experienced member of staff who always tried to increase the diversity of the range, support good, new writers and encourage others to read them via reviews, author events, nmedia appearances and a book group. Now does that sound like the actions of someone who was setting out to really rip apart the company image? Complaining in a humorous way about a bad day at work is not exactly high treason now, is it?

Fired by Bastardstone’s

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Frederick Douglass

Over the course of the Woolamaloo Gazette I have posted on a wide variety of subjects; sometimes on books, movies or simply the city of Edinburgh; often on topical and troublesome ones. This however is one of the most difficult I have ever had to write. Shortly before Christmas, in the spirit of that season, my manager at Waterstone’s asked me to come into the office. Within a few, short moments I was told that for comments I had posted on this web site I was now subject to an enquiry to determine if I should face a disciplinary hearing for ‘gross misconduct’ because I had ‘brought the company into disrepute’. I was informed (more than once) that this could cause my dismissal. I was suspended on pay and escorted from the premises of the bookstore I had worked in for over  eleven years.

Because of the holidays the disciplinary hearing was not held until yesterday, Wednesday 5th (although the company tried to hold it right before Christmas, which gives you an idea of their mentality; the union told them no). I could not really talk about it here while the process was ongoing – I am now free to discuss what happened for the brutally simple reason that Waterstone’s dismissed me from my job yesterday. They took great exception to my mentioning of work on my blog. They said I had violated the rules and brought the company into disrepute. I think by their actions they have brought the UK’s biggest book chain into disrepute.

Anyone who has been a regular reader of the Gazette will know that I do occasionally mention my work life, although it accounts for a fraction of my written output. Like many folk I am not always happy at work (I have good days too, I don’t go in miserable all the time as I’m sure former colleagues would attest if they could) and me being me when I mention bad days or annoying occurrences I do so in my own satirical, sarcastic, comedic style. I often put many things into a basic narrative form, add characters etc. So I would coin terms such as ‘Bastardstone’s’ and have a character called ‘Evil Boss’ (my equivalent to Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss – in fact I compared head office directives to being in a Dilbert cartoon). I once referred to a chum and former colleague, Olly, when he found a full time IT job after his graduation as being a successful member of the Escape Committee at work. This was brought up at my hearing yesterday. My protest that this was (to me a bloody obvious) spoof on the Great Escape didn’t seem to cut any ice. This will give you an idea of what I faced.

I pointed out that I had not set out to deliberately ruin the company’s image. In fact I don’t think I have even inadvertently; if I had wished to do that then I would have been running less satirical and far more biting comments on a rather more regular basis, rather than commenting from time to time about a bad day at work, a grumpy manager or the like. You’d think I had run a sustained propaganda campaign of subversion.

I pointed out that I did not let my annoyances get in the way of performing my duties at work (indeed no complaint was made about my work) and that, like many bloggers it was therapeutic to vent steam outside of work. I pointed out that I posted these comments in my OWN time, writing in my OWN home for my OWN blog. It’s not linked to any official Waterstone’s site and does not reflect their opinion but mine. The site clearly says (twice) on the header that it is SATIRICAL and that it is my ‘mumblings and rants’. I expressed my own OPINION in my own time, something I am legally entitled do (the European Convention on Human Rights, part of Scots Law since the devolved parliament was brought in expressly guarantees this right). I told them I felt they were violating my civil rights. I told them I have informed my MSP because of this.

Long before full universal suffrage in this country we still had stinging satire (recall those Punch cartoons among many others) – it is an accepted part of our culture and one of the ways individuals have to remind large organisations, be they companies or governments that we too have a voice and a right to use it. People have used satire, sarcasm and humour to make points for centuries. Today that freedom is enshrined in law.

I pointed out that I had over my eleven years promoted Waterstone’s in many ways, sometimes on my own time. I have organised and hosted more author events with more writers for the enjoyment of more book-buyers than I can recall. I have written for the guide books which Waterstone’s had printed on various genres. I have appeared in print media and broadcast, talking on the BBC in my own time about literature, introduced as an expert bookseller from Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. That’s publicity you can’t buy. I had contributed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Waterstone’s still sponsored them. I told them that there were numerous authors who would tell them that I had been an excellent ambassador for the company. I even defended them when the company was attacked in the Scottish press for not supporting independent Scots publishers (oh the irony). None of this seemed to matter to Waterstone’s yesterday.

I asked why, if the company did not like me commenting about work on my blog they did not simply have the branch manager have a quiet word with me? Should that not have been the proper way to deal with this? I told the hearing that if this had been done I probably would have refrained to keep the peace. My union rep also brought up this point. We did not get a proper answer to this question. We asked how the blog (which is not exactly high profile) came to their attention and who lodged the complaint. They didn’t know. Enquiries were made during and adjournment. We asked again afterwards. We were told that they were not at liberty to tell us this. So I do not know who my accuser is, which seems rather unfair to me.

I pointed out once more that I was outraged that a company seemed to think it had the right to tell an employee what opinions they could articulate in their own time. I asked if I repeated some of the articles they found offensive in the blog to a friend in the pub would that not also be defaming the company by the logic they were employing here? I was not answered. I pointed out that this was like the Thought Police and invasive of my rights. I was told that if I discussed anything to do with work then I was representing the company and must conform to their rules. Obviously I dispute this strongly – this is like saying we have a new feudal system where companies are the lords and employees are mere serfs who they own. How can I possibly be considered to be representing the company on my own site in my own time? In fact do not most companies around the world have riders attached to their email saying explicitly that any comments within are not necessarily those of the company? So why do they assume I am talking for the company on my own site in my own time? That makes no sense to me.

I am not a serf; I am not an indentured servant. I am a free man with the right of freedom of expression. The company does not own me, body and soul – conforming to their rules at work is to be expected, but in your own time and space? How can anyone be expected to go through their personal life in fear of saying the wrong thing? No-one should.

This has left me dreadfully upset. That a company I have given so many years to could treat me in such a brutal manner is despicable. That a book company thinks so little of the primacy of freedom of expression is alarming. I pointed out that Waterstone’s has stated publicly several times in the past that as a bookseller they believe in the freedom of expression and not in censorship. In fact a campaign was mounted a few years back which had banners along the lines of ‘what did Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot have in common? They feared the power of the written word. Celebrate Freedom of expression with us.’ Some folks may recall it. I asked if this was actually meant or was it simply cynical marketing? I was not answered.

I have never been fired in my life until now. I have never even been unemployed – I worked my way through college (that’s when I began at Waterstone’s). Now I find myself having to urgently try and find work at short notice, I find myself worried about my financial security, my bills, my mortgage and how to get another job after eleven years of service and where that will be and when. I find myself having to consult with my union over what appeal or action we can now take against this company for their despicable, dishonourable actions.

Fortunately my family, my friends, fellow bloggers, fellow reviewers and writers have been offering me sympathy, advice and support. Times like this, they say, are where you find out who your friends are. Well, I have found out I have a lot of immensely good friends and they have lifted my spirits remarkably. I’m not alone.

And other bloggers and readers, new to this site, you too should pay some attention here because I’m not alone and these shameful actions affect more than just me. These actions have implications for everyone who blogs and works, which, let’s face it, would be thousands of us. If my rights to the freedom of expression can be ignored in this manner then so can the rights of any worker’s. You also have to ask yourself who is listening to you? Who is reading what you write and passing judgement? Is it acceptable for companies to be monitoring what their employees do in their own time? To act as if your employment contract controls every aspect of your personal life outside of work?

The free expression of opinions and thoughts is the most primal of our democratic rights. Our entire culture is based around it. The book trade could not exist without it. The internet would not exist without it. Blogs would not exist without it. Once upon a time a man was executed for translating the Bible into English – considered a dreadful heresy and, more importantly, a threat to the power and control of the authorities of the time. Eras change, but the notion of powerful groups trying to subvert the ability of others to communicate remains constant. That’s why we have laws and rights.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These are not idle words. They are not some dusty old phrases liberals like to mention from time to time. They are as vital to our free, democratic way of life as water and air.

The word is already spreading beyond my family and friends. A lot of people are thinking about this and asking themselves if this is a company they want to deal with. That is not for me to say; it is for them to decide – but you should certainly be made aware of their actions when deciding.

Other friends and bloggers have already spoken out on this and I wish to thank them very, very much for their kind words and generous support. Friends closer to home have dragged me out for food and drink and movies to cheer me up. There’s nothing in this life like knowing you have people who care for you and will always help you. It’s humbling, it’s inspiring – it sustains you when all else seems dark and I thank you all so very much.

There are more than I can properly thank here, but here are some of their writings on the subject already expressed: Ariel; Matthew; Lili; Nil Desperandum. Many more have emailed me. I really can’t express my gratitude enough to you.

Dummies

Customer: “Excuse me, is this a library?”

Me (regarding the massive sing which says ‘booksellers’ and numerous other company logos all around): “er, no, this is a bookshop.”

Later that same day…

Elderly gentleman complete with cravat: “I’m looking for a book. I don’t know the name of it but I think it is a biography by Steven Coe about Brian Johnstone.”

Unable to find such a book I ask if he is certain of any of these details. Hmm, maybe it’s Bryan not Brian? Nope. Stephen Coe not Steven? No. Find a biography of Brian Johnston the cricket commentator. Nope, not it. Okay, need more solid information to help you. Book is just out. No, I need actual information to search for you. Old eejit now tells me he is going to a launch for this book and needs a copy because his preview hasn’t arrived from the publisher. This is of course, my fault. Is miffed I don’t know what he doesn’t bloody know, as most idiots are. He then ponders it and thinks it may be written by Sebastian Coe. Er, the former Olympic athlete turned Tory politician? This is when you realise your customer knows nothing, is guessing and won’t admit it. Still your fault for not knowing what the book they don’t actually know themselves is…

You’d think if you were reviewing the book and going to the launch you’d know what it was bloody called and who wrote it, wouldn’t you? Is that too much to expect? He makes a call after wasting my time for ten minutes and it transpires he is after a new book by Jonathan Coe called Fiery Elephants, a life of B.S. Johnston… How do you forget a title like Fiery Elephants???? Anyway, I check the new info and find it is due to be released the end of this week and neither we or our other Edinburgh stores have received the book yet. He nods then asks where we keep it. I explain once more the book is not yet published and we do not have it in yet, adding it should be due in the next few days. He nods again, fingers his cravat (which can get you arrested in some parts of Tennessee you know) and asks which section we have the book in… Took four times of re-iterating the same sentence to get him to understand, at which point he moaned that we did didn’t have the latest books… I tried to point out that the book isn’t published yet, which is further evinced by the fact he is going to a launch for the book in a couple of days, an event which, in bookselling terms, means a party when the book comes out… He shakes his head with disgust and buggers off finally…

Large, middle-aged, fat American man (with very loud and fat wife who bellows to him right across the bookstore – decorum rating: nil): “Where have y’all got the books on whisky at?”. They’re in the Drinks section at the end of Cookery on the first floor. He looks puzzled, wrinkles his Neolithic brow and asks “drinks section?” Yes, there is a section on drinks at the end of the Cookery books section. “Drinks?” he asks again, clearly astonished. Where does he expect books on whisky to be? In the children’s section? Okay, maybe he’s from Kentucky or something and that is where they keep them. He chews it over for a further moment then seems to realise that I have actually told him how to find what he’s looking for and lurches off, laughing to himself and saying ‘drinks’ repeatedly before hollering at the top of his voice to his fat wife on the other side of the bookstore that he’s going upstairs. She naturally has to bellow back that she’s going to wait here. Very kind of them to let most of Princes Street know that.

And to round off the day, a customer in is late fifties or so being served by my Virginian chum Kate as I come behind the till. Being a nice chap I bag their books while she rings them through the till. First ‘gentleman’ (I use the word advisedly) remarks loudly to his friend and to Kate ‘what is that?’ while looking at me. Now you can imagine this sort of thing would bug most people. He then goes on to say that ‘in his day’ booksellesr looked very different and were smarter in shirt and tie… Thought about remarking that the Victorian era ended over a century ago and that in my day people were free to be different without rude people commenting so crassly. Then again, maybe I was brought up more politely. Instead favour the old arsehole with stern and disapproving look which he doesn’t like, but he can kiss my magnificent Celtic ass, before adding in my day people were taught to have better manners.

Oh, I love working with the public. And people wonder why do I want a new job? How could I give all of this up?

Big Read

Today we were trying to set up a display of 100 books from the BBC’s Big Read in the bookstore. A list of thousands was eventually whittled down by votes to 100 (the autumn sees the top 20), although unfortunately it covers only novels. The Beeb has done a pretty good job in pushing the Big Read however, and even if these compilations are a little useless it is still good to see literature being highlighted and celebrated so publicly.

Glancing over the list today – see the BBC web pages for the whole list – I was not terribly surprised to see a lot of the usual suspects cropping up, as they have in all the other lists compiled during my years in the book trade. To be sure there are some damned good books in there regardless. Animal Farm, the Great Gatsby, David Copperfield, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, Winnie the Pooh and others. As someone who has long been immersed in the consciousness-expanding genres of SF and fantasy I was delighted to see how many such titles are in the list (proof if any be needed that these are far from being minority interest niche genres, so publishers, booksellers and writers please pay attention and stop ghettoising them).

Obviously Lord of the Rings is in there (it came top in the Waterstone’s book of the 20th century a few years back). Terry Pratchett is in there (as he should be, being one of the biggest selling authors in the UK) and he tied with the wonderful Jacqueline Wilson for the most titles nominated. Stephen King is in there (although personally I detest the Stand as a piece of overblown, simple-minded tosh), the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, Raymond E Feist’s Magician (from the days when he was good and not milking tie-in novels to his games). Animal Farm and 1984 are excellent examples of fantasy and SF respectively to push the envelope of socio-political commentary and cautionary warning – plus they are damned good tales to boot. No apologies to the shocked literati out there gasping on their TLS – those Orwell novels are SF&F. Alice in Wonderland, Brave New World, A Christmas Carol, Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, Hebert’s Dune, Peake’s excellent, brooding masterpiece Gormenghast, Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide and Rowling Harry Potter novels (although personally I loathe them). Niche genre my butt! How many of these account for the top sales in the UK and abroad?

The fun of work

Another overloaded day at work – far too much to do for the new month’s campaign and not enough booksellers. For this I got out of bed at 6.30 am on a wet and windy morning?

On the plus side however, Matthew came past (hiding from his exams? Er, I mean studying outside?) and we are making a fair bit of headway on the important matter of what cartoon alter-ego each member of staff has. I was hoping for Bugs Bunny (childhood role model) but fear secretly I have more in common with Sylvester the Cat (suffering succatash!). So far we have a Pink Panther, Chucky from Rug Rats, Penelope Pitstop, the Ant Hill Mob, a Power puff Girl, Elmer Food, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian and Pepe le Peu. Surrounded by the finest of world literature and the collected sum of all human knowledge, we discuss important matters, we booksellers.

We also had a visit from Iain Banks who is making a brave attempt to read all of the SF prize shortlist entries I had on display. I asked if he is working on a new SF novel and it transpires Iain is working on something even more important – a book on whisky. Normally he isn’t overly keen on research but he seems to be enjoying his research into uisge betha. Heading off to the Western Isles (home of the finest single malts in the history of humanity) he enlisted the willing aid of fellow local scribe Ken MacLeod as a native guide. We can only hope Iain is successful in persuading the publishers the book should be launched here in Edinburgh and not London – and that they remember to invite the local bookselling fraternity, naturally.

No, really, it isn’t science fiction…

After a few days of being unable to post on the Gazette I’m back and it feels good – thanks for sorting it out, Ariel.

Just reading this month’s issue of Stephen Hunt’s SF Crowsnest – an excellent online resource I’d recommend to anyone interested in SF&F (comes as a monthly digest with links to articles, so you can read what appeals to you only if you wish). Anyway, what is in there but Stephen discussing the same point I had made in a news article on the Alien Online last week: when is SF not SF? Answer: when the broadsheet newspapers review a novel set in a dystopian future where humans may become extinct by their own actions, but it is written by a Booker Prize winning ‘literary’ author.

For those who haven’t read either article, Stephen was talking about a lengthy review in the weekend papers of the excellent Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s new novel, Oryx and Crake, from Bloomsbury (publisher of Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and forthcoming Wolves in the Walls, so people who do well from SF&F sales). As Stephen observed, the reviewer took great pains to ensure the readers of their august newspaper were not reading about one of those disreputable SF authors – and obviously the Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t SF either… Nice to see the mainstream press are still convinced if it is ’literary’ it can’t be genre fiction. I hate seeing my predictions coming right sometimes…

Reminds me of a very posh old geezer who came into our bookstore on Princes Street and asked for a copy of an author he arrogantly said I’d probably not have heard of – Mervyn Peake (duhh – I work in a bookstore, numpty-heid, it’s a fair bet I know alot more about authors than you ever will). He was looking for Gormenghast and was utterly (Gormeng)aghast when I showed him to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section that I run. No, no, no he muttered – fantasy? I don’t think so… So obviously Gormenghast is a real place, presumably next to the rabbit hole that takes you to the Red Queen’s realm… Bollocks to them all – I am an SF nerd and I’m proud of it! I read challenging fiction, concepts that challenge my intellect and characters that explore the human condition, just as all good fiction does but SF is far more free in it’s interpretation.

Bloody customers

Oh dear, back to work today after a week of leisure and pleasure. After a mere few hours back in the bookstore I realise just how enormously unsatisfying working in the Borg cube of our individuality-is-irrelevant chain is. Not helped by a stream of incredibly stupid questions from customers.

For example I had a gentlemen show me two editions of a Graham Swift novel. One edition (both are paperbacks) is clearly marked as five pounds and ninety nine pence. The other is equally clearly marked as six pounds and ninety nine pence, but with a bright yellow sticker proclaiming “two pounds off.” What does our incredibly incisive customer ask? He asks which is cheaper. No, I am not kidding. And you thought we would only get smart customers in a book store, right? I am afraid we get plenty of people who have obviously just consumed a couple of retard sandwiches for their lunch. One to file with the customer who returned a book called Mexican Cooking because it wasn’t what she thought it was. Presumably she thought Mexican Cooking was actually a book about the wildlife of the Galapagos. Where do they come from? And why do they all bother me?

In order to find ways to deal with the working day we poor booksellers have to find ways to lighten the mood, to amuse ourselves. Making fun of customers and rubbishing their literary choices is one way (yes, we pass judgement on everything you buy). Today I found a new way to keep myself amused at work. I find an Asian tourist who is browsing some of our books and stand near to them then beginning coughing and sneezing. The look on their face is priceless. Yes, I know you are all thinking how sick I am, but just go on and try it. Those who work in areas of high tourism will enjoy it.