Sunday, December 07, 2008

Dumb it down


I had almost forgotten that it was nearly Christmas. That is one of the many joys of no longer working in bookselling. No more late opening, no two-day Christmas break and, best of all, no bad-tempered customers venting their anger at me.

I made the mistake of going shopping in Brighton today. Everyone was in such a bad mood, resentfully lugging several carriers bags of presents. One man even told a pigeon to 'Fuck off!' because it was in his way. The shop assistants were all surprisingly jolly, but it was the insincere mania of people who were terrified of losing their jobs.

Like most other areas of retail, Christmas is make or break time for booksellers and in recent years the atmosphere has become increasingly desperate, as the chains try to compete with the internet and supermarkets. My last Christmas was a soulless experience. All of the key buying and marketing decisions had been taken out of my hands and I was left with checklists, planograms (telling me what shelves to display particular titles on) and KPI (key performance indicators) reports.

This was a great pity. I used to really enjoy the casino atmosphere of bookselling at Christmas, gambling thousands of pounds of someone else's money. I usually got it right and overall, my empoyers made more money when they trusted me to know my local market.

Another unfortunate development in the book trade has been the dumbing down of the Christmas bestellers, something that Ian Jack commented on in an excellent article in Saturday's Guardian:

'The newer development in publishing is the ruthless determination on all sides - publisher, book chain, supermarket - to sell books at Christmas beyond the audience who usually buy them. That has called for a different kind of book.'

The result is a depressing selection of celebrity memoirs and tv tie-ins, marketed as ideal gifts because, supposedly, we all like Dawn French/Julie Walters/Jeremy Clarkson etc. Caustic Cover Critic has written this superb summary of the year's Christmas bestsellers, of which there is only one title that I would vaguely consider reading.

These books will dominate the front of every chain bookshop because although no head office would admit it, they know that many Christmas customers doesn't know how to look for a book in a bookshop.

These titles will naturally be sold at huge discounts. However, booksellers will ensure that their overall margin is protected by selling the more upmarket bestselling titles at full price, as the middle classes aren't as price conscious. I suppose the charitable view is that this is a form of progressive taxation.

In the meantime, after year of reading first-rate books bought in secondhand shops, I don't see any reason why I would want to visit a chain bookseller again.

11 comments:

pierre l said...

What you say is generally true, but I know of one chain bookseller in Brighton which employs a lovely blogger and writer of short stories. I will make an effort this Christmas to go and encourage her shop (even though it is not my local branch by any means).

Steerforth said...

You're quite write. The Brighton shop is excellent. I think that the chains have some wonderful booksellers who are passionate about reading. Unfortunately this wealth of talent is all-too-often stifled by the retailers who have moved into bookselling.

Steerforth said...

Freudian slip. I meant to say 'You're quite right'.

JRSM said...

So which of the ten would you buy--The Big Book of Top Gear, right?

BTW, just got my 2nd-hand copy in the post of David Karp's 'Leave Me Alone'. Huzzah!

Tim Footman said...

The standard argument is that the big-selling idiot titles subsidise the riskier, better books. But I've heard people in publishing argue that we should be so pathetically grateful for this arrangement that we shouldn't even criticise the latest ghosted turd by Jordan, Beckham, Katona, Rooney or whoever.

Andrew O'Hagan best summed it up; he'd slagged off Miramax films, to which their PR oik responded that without Miramax, there would be no British film industry. O'Hagan responded thus:

"...if somebody doesn't like your book, there's no point in going on the radio to tell everyone what you're doing to keep people in jobs in the publishing industry. You defend your art, if that's what you're inclined to do, otherwise you take it on the chin and shush."

The bestsellers may well stop the wheels falling off the publishing industry entirely; but as books they're mostly meretricious shite, and it doesn't do anyone any favours to pretend otherwise.

Steerforth said...

What a great quote. I shall remember it for future use.

It may be true that without this Faustian pact, publishers wouldn't have the cash to spend on the riskier literary titles. However, has recent glut of misery memoirs and celebrity biographies been matched by an investment in new writers? I haven't noticed any great literary renaissance.

How did publishers survive before the likes of Ms Katona decided to bare their souls?

Publishers are raking it in, but booksellers aren't. In order to compete with Tesco and Amazon, Waterstone's and the other chains have to discount titles to the point where some are almost sold at cost price.

I'd like to see booksellers stop chasing the bottom end of the market, but they're too frightened of losing their market share.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

About five years ago some kind soul gave me £40 of Waterstone's book vouchers for birthday/Xmas (being one of those December birthday people). I spent about 3 hours wandering around my local (4-floor branch) finding enough to make it up to £40, such was the uninspiring selection.

I am the backlash Steerforth. And I'm not alone. But then I don't suppose you'll be returning to bookselling in a hurry!

The Poet Laura-eate said...

As for supermarkets and airports, forget it, I'd NEVER buy a book there. And the only books I buy on Amazon are those I can't find anywhere else, but I always give the terrestrial shops a chance first & also buy at least half my books secondhand anyway.

Ms Baroque said...

Well, Jeanette Winterson et al. would say that if you buy books second-hand you're doing authors out of their livelihoods. But then, with half the good stuff OP what are you going to do. And anyway, the bookdealers have to feed their kids too!

I was in Borders Islington the other day and it was a depressing sight. It wasn't even just the Christmas books: the fiction shelves for 5-9-year-olds were full of what you could only call brand products, with nary a real book to be seen.

John Self said...

Well I continue to stand up for chain booksellers, mainly because before Dillons (as it then was) and Waterstone's came to Belfast, we had one tiny bookseller, Mullan's, which closed at 12 noon on Saturdays.

As a result, mindful that I would like Waterstone's to stay in business, I've been shopping there as much as possible and have bought very few books online recently. I never have any trouble finding things I like: on Sunday, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, today the new Vintage Classics triple-decker of Henry Green's Nothing, Doting and Blindness. Oh and a new one of those Penguin Gothic Reds each time I visit (if you're reading this, Mrs Self, JRSM made me do it).

I might be worrying unnecessarily, as someone in Waterstone's once told me that their Belfast branch was one of the most profitable or highest grossing in the chain (come to think of it, that's probably my doing anyway).

On a more general point about retail, figures released yesterday showed that consumer spending was down 0.5% in November year-on-year - a much better figure than was expected. And this was before the VAT cut and every store offering 20% off everything in store. So people probably would have spent even more if prices hadn't been reduced, and figures would have been up year on year. We'll never know.

Steerforth said...

Well yes, Waterstone's still have a fantastic range of books. I'm just judging them by their own standards. 20 years ago they had an even better range and their front of shop area wasn't clogged-up with television tie-ins.

I wouldn't want them to go under (I still have friends working for Waterstone's), but I would like to see some radical changes to the management structure and company culture. No more middle managers from M&S please.

I was patting myself on the back for spending a whole year surviving on second-hand books until Ms Baroque reminded me about royalties. I suppose the answer is to ensure that authors also receive royalties when books are resold.