Friday, 27 January 2017

B is for Bookshops

     One of my simple pleasures in earlier times was to spend an afternoon meandering along Charing Cross Road, browsing in the almost door-to-door bookshops. Some of them still remain, with their stuffed shelves spilling out onto the pavement but this street is no longer the bibliophiles' Mecca it once was. Times have changed and their impact on bookshops is a microcosm of the metamorphosis of our civilization. Am I embarking on a nostalgic rant about the book bizz going to the dogs? Absolutely not; but I do want to make a few observations, from a writer's perspective, about how things have changed for good or ill and what that means for us.
     Let's start with the good news: the book is not dead. Despite the appearance of the 'entableted' word, all surveys show that most readers still prefer to turn the pages of a real book. Not only is there a tactile pleasure to be derived from this but it is, actually, easier to 'move around' between the covers - back-checking previous passages, using the index, making individual marginalia. We can still build up relationships with our favourites and recognise them by their size, colour and dog-earedness.
     That said, we have to face the fact that the book has become a commodity, and this is something every writer and particularly every fiction writer needs to take on board. The main objective of the marketing departments of the major publishers (and it only applies to the big boys; others don't get a look-in) is to have a new novel taken up by one of the big supermarket chains. They are the retailers who place the big orders. One in every five books bought is taken off a supermarket shelf. What can the aspiring author learn from this? That it's worthwhile looking at the bookshelves in Tesco or Waitrose. Like it or not, the supermarket bosses know what sells. So, am I suggesting that you prostitute your art by churning out wordage aimed at the lowest common denominator of public taste? No, but it's certainly helpful to know what the current public taste is. If you can support your latest pitch to a publisher with evidence that Asda are currently selling Roman history novels or political thrillers or whatever 'just like mine' you stand a better chance of getting taken seriously.
     Savage commercialism has impacted on booksellers (and therefore, authors) in other ways. Shops used to be places where writers could meet their potential readers. Many of them hosted signings and talks. Few now do so. That is because hundreds have been forced out of business by the chainstores and their discount policies, and few of those who are left can afford to put on social events. Of course, there are brave exceptions. It is well worth authors establishing and sustaining relations with booksellers, particularly if they can make local-interest connections with their books. However, to all intents and purposes this marketing opportunity has been closed to us.
     Going back to where we came in, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its glitzey new store, puts on some excellent author events. So do some Waterstones branches. But don't imagine you'll get a look-in there. They are not interested in honest-to-goodness writers. They only want big name speakers who will put bums on seats.
     That brings me to my next topic. C is for Celebrity. Watch this space.

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