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.