Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Dull Post About the Book Industry

Every time I read the trade press, there seems to be yet another story about the growth of e-books. Yesterday alone, the Bookseller published two stories that have huge implications for everyone in the book trade.

The first article covered the 'World e-Reading Congress' in London, where Ian Hudson, the deputy chairman of Random House, announced that their e-book sales had increased tenfold in the last year. Hudson predicted that e-book sales "could exceed 8% of trade publishers' sales in 2011, and could reach 15% next year".

This is interesting, because on the one hand it demonstrates how quickly e-books are growing, but on the other it is a timely reminder that they still account for less than 10% of book sales. If you just listened to Amazon, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was nearer 50%.

The other story that the Bookseller published yesterday is also potentially very significant. Literary über-agent Ed Victor has established a new e-book and print-on-demand imprint, which will initially concentrate on making out of print titles available in a digital format. This may not appear to be earth-shattering news, but it shows that the line between agent and publisher may become increasingly blurred in the future.

So where does that leave the traditional high street bookshop? On they face of it, they seem doomed. E-book sales are growing exponentially, particularly in the more 'disposable' genres like crime fiction (over a third of the latest Jo Nesbø novel's sales were digital).

But although digital publishing may appear to possess the inexorable gravitational pull of a black hole, there are other genres that are far more resistant. For example, this:

I read 'Mr Wonderful' recently after a month in the Kindleverse and fell in love with the paper book all over again.

These comic strips are all available online and I'm sure that they'd be quite easy to read on an iPad, but it would be a very poor substitute for this beautifully-produced hardback, with its thick, sturdy pages, brightly-coloured illustrations and wonderfully absurd dimensions (fully opened, it measures 21" by 6").

I'm not suggesting that bookshops will be saved by bunging a few graphic novels on the front table, but if they are going to survive they need to reduce their dependence on paperback bestsellers and concentrate on genres where the book itself becomes a desirable object. It is this approach that has enabled 'high end' booksellers like Daunt Books to survive, selling hardbacks to people who are looking for quality rather than saving money.

It will be interesting to see what the new owner of Waterstone's does with the chain. At the moment, HMV are locked in negotiations with the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. HMV want £70,000,000 for Waterstone's - a sum they desperately need if they are to avoid going into administration in July - and gave Mamut a deadline of April 20th to close the deal.

But with each week, HMV's hand becomes weaker. Their share price is now around 10p and Waterstone's latest value is estimated to be nearer £35,000,000, so I suspect that Mr Mamut is quite rightly driving a hard bargain. Why should he pay over the odds for a 300-branch chain that includes a number a loss-making shops when he could hang on for a few weeks and pick off the most profitable shops?

I hope that both parties are able to reach an agreement before HMV Group collapses, for everyone's sake. Aside from the fact that several thousand jobs are at stake, the publishing industry needs a showcase for its titles and the large, range-holding specialist bookseller is still the best option.

I apologise if that was a very dull post. To make up for it, here is a chimpanzee on a skateboard:

35 comments:

Martin Lower said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I admit to not owning an e-book, or even trying one. For me, a book is so much more than a collection of pages with print on. I can see why an e-book would be useful if I travelled a lot.
Hopefully the good book shops will survive, I could spend hours (and a small fortune), in one!

Steerforth said...

Thank you Martin. I know that I can get a bit carried away with talking about the book trade and I'm not sure how interesting it is to other people, so thanks for reading.

sukipoet said...

I too found this post fascinating. On the one hand I think e-books will eventually take over and there will be but a few rarified "real" books around.

On the other hand I am with Martin: so far--have never owned nor tried reading an e-book.

So much could be said about this topic. For example what do writers think about all this? I wonder if print on demand publishing will mean tons of poorly written tomes will be out there to sort through.

Also interesting is money as the bottom line. Of course publishers always need to make some money I guess. But is that the main and or only motivation for contemporary writers? What a bout love of words and the shaping of words for arts sake. Or is that no longer something people care about???

Thanks for the laugh at the end.

Lucille said...

In haste. Did you see these?
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/30/rereading-great-food-series-penguin-cooking

LUCEWOMAN said...

Did you listen to the interview with Kate Bush on radio 2? She described her return to recording music via analog rather than digital technology. I see her as an 'artist' not a product like many of todays' musicians.I thought of her as I read your post.
You only have to watch a child looking at a book, how animated and inquisitive they become, to see how important the book is. If you want to be distracted, listen to the radio, if you want an experience, go to a live show. That's how I view the difference between books and e-books. There is, sadly, a place for both and the 'real' book will suffer for a while (but not for long.
p.s I didn't need to be entertained by the chimps, I have 3 of my own. So, your post can't have been 'dull'...

Tim Footman said...

Maybe if Waterstones put skateboarding chimps in their window, they'd enjoy increased footfall.

Jim Murdoch said...

Is it not possible that if all the giants fall we might see the rise of a new breed of independent bookshops? Now that might be nice.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I must say my slow reading speed is more a threat to the ongoing survival of the book industry than e-books, which I continue to retain zero interest in. In a world of diminishing attention spans and increasing levels of publication in all formats, I suspect I am not alone and feel duly guilty. However I buy just as many books as gifts, which alleviates my guilt somewhat.

Ironically there seems to be no let up in the number of students enrolling on Publishing degrees! I wonder what will become of them all.

David said...

I too found this post interesting. As I have posted here before, I am fairly anti ebook, and one of my reasons for that is the effect these things will have on bookshops.

To me, bookshops are not just a place to buy stuff, they’re part of my life. As a teenager I used to get the train to Manchester to visit Willshaws. When I was 13 or 14, we were on a family holiday in Northumbria and all the adults fell out over things I didn’t then understand. We spent a day in Edinburgh and I found a refuge in James Thin’s on South Bridge, buying piles of George Orwell and PG Wodehouse which I then read alternately.

Later on I was a student in Edinburgh and I used to go round to Thin’s when it got too cold in the flat. I still have some of their bookmarks, with their telegraphic address: “Bookman – Edinburgh”. So much more evocative than an email address.

You won’t any of that from Amazon or the iTunes store.

Martin H. said...

It's great to hear someone fighting their corner in such a balanced and articulate way. Your comment about how booksellers should "concentrate on genres where the book itself becomes a desirable object" is one that should be heard, loud and clear, across the industry.

That chimp is so more balanced than I am. *sigh*...

Little Nell said...

I agree with Luce (especially about Kate Bush). There really is nothing like the sight, feel and smell of a book. For the sake of my three year-old grandchildren, and those who come after, I hope that there will always be real books to read, treasure, share, pass on to others and give as gifts.

Michelle Trusttum said...

Steerforth - we have all sorts of Apple Mac gadgets in our house, which I love, but I absolutely will not buy an e-reader.

I agree books are so much more than a content delivery mechanism. They are often things of beauty in and of themselves. Many are so profoundly engaging, so defining, the thought of not being able to pull one out of my bookshelves and reacquaint myself with it, feels like loss.

Having watched the demolition of my husband's parents' house after the earthquake - the lamentations were: the photos, the books, the art. Thousands of titles destroyed, including a delightful volume of pen and ink drawings of various Christchurch buildings by his grandmother, published when she was just 18. Another family treasure: two slim volumes of poetry (often tortured) by another family member who insinuated himself into the Bloomsbury set. And then, of course, there were the collections of three generations of scholars, artists and avid readers.

I understand e-readers have a place - for travelers or commuters, even for manufactured stories - but personally, I don't think you read an e-reader, so much as process it.

I have tried (for the sake of argument) and found the experience limiting, irritating, and without pleasure.

Bollops said...

Don't apologise for dullness, Steerforth, I'm fascinated by all this stuff, and I have nowt to do with the trade.

Out of interest: is there any sign that people with Kindles are replacing books that they already had, as record collectors did with their vinyl LPs when CDs took over? Has there been a sharp rise in the number of novels being donated to charity shops, or sold on the 2nd-hand market?

My dream book shop would consist of all the things an e-reader won't handle very well: the graphic novels, art books etc that Steerforth wrote of, but also a vast selection of 2nd-hand books. Heavily illustrated non-fiction, and vintage paperbacks with their lovely covers. Children's books. And all cheap!

The Pallant House Gallery bookshop in Chichester comes close to my ideal (though specialising in art, of course), with new and 2nd-hand books mixed together. Shame they're so flipping pricey.

Steerforth said...

Michelle - I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like to see your in-laws' house destroyed - a terrible price to pay for living in such a beautiful country.

I must admit I've just read a Justin Cartwright novel on a Kindle and can't say that my enjoyment of it was any greater or less than the paperback edition of 'The Promise of Happiness', but I will always buy books by my favourite authors in paper format, as "books do furnish a room".

Jim - I can't see a renaissance of independent bookshops, as they don't have the buying power to get decent terms from publishers. If Waterstone's did go under (and there's no reason why it should, given the number of branches that still take a lot of money), a few independents would spring up in upmarket towns, I'm sure and many of them would do well - look at the success of Robert Topping's uncompromisingly 'old school' shop in Ely.

David - If I hadn't been corrupted by years in the book trade, I'd feel the same way.

Laura - I also meet people who want to get into publishing. I'm often intrigued by how little they know about what's going on on the trade - surely they'd do a little bit of research first? I usually try to talk them out of it, unless they seem really committed and focused.

Suki - Perhaps people are writing more for love than ever these days, as it's not a great time to make a living as an author. Whether that results in better books or not I don't know.

Lucille - Thanks for the link. The books look utterly gorgeous.

Tim - If Waterstone's were allowed to employ chimpanzees I'm sure they probably would (cue obligatory joke about paying peanuts). They certainly didn't seem to like people to think for themselves when I was there.

Lucewoman - No, I missed that interview, but I'm interested that Kate Bush is doing this. I love her music, but felt that her obsession with adding layers of digital effects got in the way of the songs and it's interesting that the two worst albums are the ones that she's now re-recording.

I'd like to lock her in a studio with just a piano - that's all she needs. The strength of Nick Drake's album 'Pink Moon' was its lack of artifice - just him and a guitar.

Little Nell - I think young children's books will resist the ebook revolution. Who'd want to read 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' to their child on an iPad?

Steerforth said...

Peter - That's a good point and I don't know the answer. I've replaced some of the paperback classics I've had for years but that's only because they're free and I've run out of shelf space.

I'll have to try and find out if the number of donations to charity shops has gone up. I know there was some concern that the recession would prompt more people to sell rather than donate, but all I see at this end are lorryloads of books arriving every day.

I struggle to keep up with it all.

I love art books too, but you're right, they cost a fortune.

Steerforth said...

I see that several comments and my responses to them have disappeared due to a fault at Blogger. If they don't reappear, I'll cut and paste them from an email.

Ms Baroque said...

Au contraire, I thought this was a really interesting post. But then, I have an interest. And I used to be a bookseller myself - I remember when Waterstone's was the shiny new 'high end' shop, you had to have a degree to work there, & they were supposed to lift bookselling to a professional standard. Can you believe it now?

I bought a Kindle. I immediately downloaded lots of free classics onto it, plus the £15, 1,000-page Penguin book of English Verse (from the beginning) and a load of pdf's of my own work, and review copies etc. What strikes me - maybe through the matte-ness of it - is its resemblance to the old horn books on which they used to teach children to read...

LUCEWOMAN said...

Something else which brought your ebook post to mind,
http://bookswept.blogspot.com/2011/02/dry.html
I have faith in Google's giant servers. I'm sure comments will all return (though only one returned for me yesterday).

Steerforth said...

Lucewoman - Thanks for the link. What a wonderful blog!

Ms Baroque - I worked for the original Waterstone's and was interviewed by Tim himself (actually, it was just a slightly awkward five-minute conversation which ended when Waterstone suddenly stood up and said that he was 'very pleased' that I'd joined them).

It certainly was very different then. I remember refusing to stock the latest Jackie Collins bonkbuster because it was "too Smiths". It would probably be Book of the Month these days.

Of course we only had 36 branches then, all of which were in 'upmarket' areas, so there was no need to dumb down. Thanks to the Net Book Agreement we didn't have any competition from the supermarkets and the internet was still several years away. Happy days.

Obviously Waterstone's had to change - their business model wasn't sustainable in the post-NBA environment - but HMV's approach was completely wrong. They seemed to think that booksellers weren't comercially-minded enough and started to bring people from other areas of retail into the business (including recruiting one manager from Burger King). The end result was that Waterstone's lost its authority as a specialist bookseller.

HMVs other great mistake was to underestimate the importance of the internet. Allowing Amazon to fulfill their online orders was a moronically stupid decision.

I hope that the Waterstone's saga has a happy ending, but I wouldn't bet money on it.

pinkyandnobrain said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and didn't think it was dull at all. I am really interested to read your informed opinion on the subject of digital publishing and the future of booksellers, so thank you.

I agree with you that focusing on qualities that exploit the essential qualities of physical books must be the way to go. As well as the existing takes on this, it could produce interesting ideas on how to use the form of book. I am reminded of Adorno's 'The Essay as Form' where he goes to lengths to convince us that the content/message itself cannot and should not be independent of its presentation and structure. Though this is of a different order of magnitude than he was thinking, I don't see why this shouldn't apply to the form of a book and its content.

An e-book is a different thing to a physical book and I think (hope?) there is room for both.

Little Nell said...

Now I know I commented on this post - how frustrating! My comments on other people’s posts have been swallowed up too :(

Little Nell said...

Also, re our recent conversation about Lanzarote, I have posted a little something on my blog about a wonderful ‘volcanic walk’. Have a look if you get a moment. Obviously this is not a comment on your post about the book industry - just using it as a way to contact you. http://hangingonmyword.blogspot.com/2011/05/lost-world-or-hidden-gem.html

Steerforth said...

I don't know what went wrong with Blogger the other day, but I see that a number of comments have been lost, so I've cut and pasted them from email.

First, David wrote:

I too found this post interesting. As I have posted here before, I am fairly anti ebook, and one of my reasons for that is the effect these things will have on bookshops.

To me, bookshops are not just a place to buy stuff, they’re part of my life. As a teenager I used to get the train to Manchester to visit Willshaws. When I was 13 or 14, we were on a family holiday in Northumbria and all the adults fell out over things I didn’t then understand. We spent a day in Edinburgh and I found a refuge in James Thin’s on South Bridge, buying piles of George Orwell and PG Wodehouse which I then read alternately.

Later on I was a student in Edinburgh and I used to go round to Thin’s when it got too cold in the flat. I still have some of their bookmarks, with their telegraphic address: “Bookman – Edinburgh”. So much more evocative than an email address.

You won’t any of that from Amazon or the iTunes store.
Then Little Nell wrote:

I agree with Luce (especially about Kate Bush). There really is nothing like the sight, feel and smell of a book. For the sake of my three year-old grandchildren, and those who come after, I hope that there will always be real books to read, treasure, share, pass on to others and give as gifts.

Then Michelle Trusttum wrote:

Steerforth - we have all sorts of Apple Mac gadgets in our house, which I love, but I absolutely will not buy an e-reader.

I agree books are so much more than a content delivery mechanism. They are often things of beauty in and of themselves. Many are so profoundly engaging, so defining, the thought of not being able to pull one out of my bookshelves and reacquaint myself with it, feels like loss.

Having watched the demolition of my husband's parents' house after the earthquake - the lamentations were: the photos, the books, the art. Thousands of titles destroyed, including a delightful volume of pen and ink drawings of various Christchurch buildings by his grandmother, published when she was just 18. Another family treasure: two slim volumes of poetry (often tortured) by another family member who insinuated himself into the Bloomsbury set. And then, of course, there were the collections of three generations of scholars, artists and avid readers.

I understand e-readers have a place - for travelers or commuters, even for manufactured stories - but personally, I don't think you read an e-reader, so much as process it.

I have tried (for the sake of argument) and found the experience limiting, irritating, and without pleasure.

Steerforth said...

And this is how I replied to the above posts:

Michelle - I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like to see your in-laws' house destroyed - a terrible price to pay for living in such a beautiful country.

I must admit I've just read a Justin Cartwright novel on a Kindle and can't say that my enjoyment of it was any greater or less than the paperback edition of 'The Promise of Happiness', but I will always buy books by my favourite authors in paper format, as "books do furnish a room".

Jim - I can't see a renaissance of independent bookshops, as they don't have the buying power to get decent terms from publishers. If Waterstone's did go under (and there's no reason why it should, given the number of branches that still take a lot of money), a few independents would spring up in upmarket towns, I'm sure and many of them would do well - look at the success of Robert Topping's uncompromisingly 'old school' shop in Ely.

David - If I hadn't been corrupted by years in the book trade, I'd feel the same way.

Laura - I also meet people who want to get into publishing. I'm often intrigued by how little they know about what's going on on the trade - surely they'd do a little bit of research first? I usually try to talk them out of it, unless they seem really committed and focused.

Suki - Perhaps people are writing more for love than ever these days, as it's not a great time to make a living as an author. Whether that results in better books or not I don't know.

Lucille - Thanks for the link. The books look utterly gorgeous.

Tim - If Waterstone's were allowed to employ chimpanzees I'm sure they probably would (cue obligatory joke about paying peanuts). They certainly didn't seem to like people to think for themselves when I was there.

Lucewoman - No, I missed that interview, but I'm interested that Kate Bush is doing this. I love her music, but felt that her obsession with adding layers of digital effects got in the way of the songs and it's interesting that the two worst albums are the ones that she's now re-recording.

I'd like to lock her in a studio with just a piano - that's all she needs. The strength of Nick Drake's album 'Pink Moon' was its lack of artifice - just him and a guitar.

Little Nell - I think young children's books will resist the ebook revolution. Who'd want to read 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' to their child on an iPad.

Steerforth said...

Finally, this comment came from Peter:

Don't apologise for dullness, Steerforth, I'm fascinated by all this stuff, and I have nowt to do with the trade.

Out of interest: is there any sign that people with Kindles are replacing books that they already had, as record collectors did with their vinyl LPs when CDs took over? Has there been a sharp rise in the number of novels being donated to charity shops, or sold on the 2nd-hand market?

My dream book shop would consist of all the things an e-reader won't handle very well: the graphic novels, art books etc that Steerforth wrote of, but also a vast selection of 2nd-hand books. Heavily illustrated non-fiction, and vintage paperbacks with their lovely covers. Children's books. And all cheap!

The Pallant House Gallery bookshop in Chichester comes close to my ideal (though specialising in art, of course), with new and 2nd-hand books mixed together. Shame they're so flipping pricey.


And I replied:

Peter - That's a good point and I don't know the answer. I've replaced some of the paperback classics I've had for years but that's only because they're free and I've run out of shelf space.

I'll have to try and find out if the number of donations to charity shops has gone up. I know there was some concern that the recession would prompt more people to sell rather than donate, but all I see at this end are lorryloads of books arriving every day.

I struggle to keep up with it all.

I love art books too, but you're right, they cost a fortune.

Martin Lower said...

I read this article in The Independent yesterday. I thought it may be of interest.....
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/philip-hensher/philip-hensher-domesday-lessons-for-the-egeneration-2283897.html

Sam Jordison said...

Comments are back! I wanted to say all sorts, but most of them have escaped my toddler-lack-of-sleep ravaged brain. Anyway, the most important thing was that this post wasn't dull at all. Was fascinating in fact. More of this sort of thing... (How's Derek, btw?)

Steerforth said...

Thanks Martin - a fascinating article. I completely agree with Hensher.

I once had a temp job as a library assistant and remember the 1986 Domesday disc, which was housed in an imposingly large machine. Of course, we can transfer the infomation from one format to another, but will that be practical as the amount of data increases exponentially? A lot of data will simply be lost.

I've embraced the digital age with open arms, but I will always have 'real' books in my house.

Steerforth said...

Sam - I was only thinking about Derek the other day. I haven't had much time recently to look at his diaries, as I'm stretched between sorting out my mother's move to Lewes on the one hand and my oldest son's problems on the other (a long saga which I won't go into here).

It's been so busy, I've had to drop my hours to a four-day week (I cheekily asked my employers for a pay rise to compensate for the loss of earnings and amazingly, they said yes).

When things settle down, I shall return to the world of Derek and Brenda.

Anonymous said...

Recently I read a magazine interview with Yoko Ono. She said that when she arrives in a new town, her first stop is a book shop where she can browse and pick up a couple of books or titles which take her fancy. This is a pleasurable activity which is totally unavailable on Kindle, because if you don't know what you are looking for, you'll never find it. Or perhaps you can browse (and I'm just too inept to do it), but somehow, just a title on a screen doesn't seem to me to have the same appeal as a book you can actually pick up and hold in your hand. Canadian Chickadee

Mizzkay said...

Bookseller was a favourite lunchtime read of mine when I worked for a book selling chainstore. However I now work for a charity and guess that our books end up with you. There always seems to be an unending supply of them donated, with each bag of donations containing at least half a dozen books. We are only a small local charity and have worked out that, on average, we have between four and five hundred books donated daily!
I do miss the new books though and still visit bookshops at least twice a week to look and more importantly smell them. They are such tactile things which an e-book cannot replace, perhaps run along beside but definately not take the place of.

Shelley said...

Not a dull post at all! As a writer, I much prefer it to the chimp. They're great on skateboards but not so much as readers.

JonathanM said...

Not a dull post at all. 6 years ago I hardly knew a graphic novel, now my shop is full of them and I love them to bits.

Did you ever know Dane the first manager in Hampstead? Had a period of turning down flatly any book that had foil on the cover.

Steerforth said...

Dane Howell? I never met him, but he had a reputation that extended beyond Hampstead.

Geoff Llewellyn said...

I knew and worked with Dane Howell when he was manager at Waterstones High Street Kensington (1985-6 when I was there as a recent university graduate). Everyone on staff at the time was a true book lover and the breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for reading were incredible.

Dane was an outstanding manger with an encyclopaedic knowledge of books uncanny ability to identify the titles customer's sought from the slightest clue about what was on the cover. There was certainly no tat in the shop. It might have been a bit snobby but it really was a place to go and browse and buy if you loved books. -sigh-

I continue to love books. these days I tend to buy in both paper and ebook formats. I want to see the book in the 'flesh' on my bookshelves but my Kindle (which has 61 titles on it at present) slips into my jacket pocket.

But I'm one of the converted. I'll continue to buy books forever, and couldn't live in a place if there wasn't a bookish nearby.