Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ever Decreasing Circles

My phone rang today. Nobody ever phones me, apart from my wife, who likes to find things for me to do. I was almost grateful until I heard the unmistakeable acoustic of an Indian call centre: "Hi, I'm Steve MacDonald phoning from BT..."

They have phoned before. Each time, the caller has a strange, fake American accent that sounds like Stephen Hawking's voice simulator. Why would they train their staff to speak like that? Perhaps it's part of a cunning plan to seemlessly replace people with machines in a few years.

I politely ended the call and was plunged back into silence.

During the last month or so, I've found myself becoming increasingly nostalgic about the days when I was a bookshop manager. I think I miss the company of other people. Yesterday, my only visitor was a ram, which ambled nonchalantly around the shelving units before making a sudden, desperate bolt when it saw me.

But would I really want to go back? I know that it must be miserable running a bookshop these days, watching the sales gradually decrease each year. Amazon should just buy Waterstones and rename the shops 'Amazon Showroom'.

Sometimes I think of applying for a part-time job in an office. I'm not sure what I'd do, but I enjoyed the project management aspect of my last job and felt that I was reasonably good at it. It would be nice to work somewhere where my companions had opposing thumbs.

However, my alarm bells rang when a friend told me that in her former workplace, the boss had introduced a 'Onesie Wednesday'. Apparently, everyone in the office was expected to wear one of these:

Great if you like 'onesies'. Embarrassing and deeply offensive if you don't. I'd forgotten about the growing tendency for socially inept people in management to insist that their staff routinely humiliate themselves through 'team building' activities.

Ironically, it's a mental health charity. How depressing.

I suppose I mustn't complain about my working environment. How many jobs offer you the opportunity to watch two middle-aged men half-heartedly dismantle a grain silo?

 Another setback for the British space programme

But aside from the isolation, I'm worried that I might not be able to live by books alone. Sales have been rather slow recently and although I could blame it on the good weather, I also wonder if the secondhand book market is beginning to feel the effects of the Kindle.

When valuing books, I've noticed that an increasing number of backlist titles have been digitised. Ebooks may not be able to compete with my gorgeous, clothbound editions, but most of my stock veers towards the mankier side of tolerable, selling to people who just want the text at the cheapest price.

There is nothing to stop Amazon from making sure that their Kindle versions undercut every other copy on sale.

My other concern is about the supply chain. At the moment, there is a thriving 'penny book' business on Amazon and eBay, fuelled by donations to charity shops and book banks (my stock is the waste product of those businesses, as many people find non-barcoded books too labour-intensive).

However, as sales to continue to migrate to the ebook format - particularly for paperback fiction - the penny book market's future must surely have a limited lifespan.

Of course people will still want books, but the number who prefer print won't be enough to sustain the industry at its current level. The specialist antiquarian booksellers are safe, but the rest of us are probably in trouble.

I feel as if I ought to start developing a Plan B.

27 comments:

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Always good to have a Plan B! I am selling hardbacks and replacing them with e-versions. Part-time job in an office sounds good. Or how about managing a charity shop? (For money, of course.)

Steerforth said...

I think that managing a charity shop would push me over the edge into the dark abyss that lies beyond.

Ideally, I'd work a day or two in an office, working with bright, quirky people.

Anonymous said...

It's the strangest thing - but I was in Waterstones yesterday and the new stock seemed to be bigger, heavier, more extravagantly bound and far better designed than usual, as if the experience of having a 'real' book was interesting again. I saw cloth binding, luxury print effects and rich colour. Good quality paper, really interesting and intelligent design (not in the kids section) and books that were much more about the sensation of holding them. Cheered me up - we then went over to the Kindle section, I couldn't get the display model to work - ended up banging on the screen and shaking it to see if anything happened. I may be de-evolving.

Grey Area

zmkc said...

Perhaps you could start perfecting your eerily not quite American accent and then you could become the voice they use to record the responses of all the robots that will take over the call centres' business. Make sure you get a contract with royalties for all repeated use of your recordings though.

Steerforth said...

Zoe - I've been told that I sound as if I'm announcing a BBC Radio Four programme, so perhaps customers would prefer my tentative, slightly embarrassed approach.

It's pity about the nasal robotic voices, as the traditional Indian accent is beautiful.

Richard - I think that James Daunt is on the right track. I was in Waterstones in Brighton the other day and it looked fantastic. But I can't help feeling that it won't be enough to save the business.

HMV brought Waterstones to its knees and made a series of disastrous decisions. If they'd embraced the internet and really invested in it in the late 90s, when Amazon was still the loss-making new kid on the block, how different things might have been. Instead they spent every penny on opening more shops.

James Daunt has had to make some tough decisions and a lot of good managers - some of them friends - have left Waterstones during the last couple of months. He seems to be trying to keep the company in profit while it contracts to a more sustainable level, but from what I've heard, the next set of figures won't please Waterstones' Russian billionaire owner.

Annabel said...

I know you've never liked to mix actual business with pleasure on your blog - but some of us might want to buy some of your stock... Do you have a catalogue somewhere, or link? Go on...

Steerforth said...

Thanks Annabel. I'm hoping to launch a website later in the year. In the meantime, I'm just a shadowy figure on Amazon and co.

Sandra Morris said...

As a fellow self-employed person, I can empathise. Often the sense of isolation is not quite outweighed by all of the many advantages, although I'm probably not alone in envying you having a ram wander through your office.

I have to make do with Small Dog.

As an avid book-lover I'd give my eye teeth to own some of the books you showcase on your blog. Even if you don't want to commercialise it, you could let those of us who want to find you (and I've Googled exhaustively to no avail) know where you sell.
Every little helps.... as they say.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Amazon does have its place, I suppose. I mean, there aren't that many book shops nearby -- except one reasonably large second-hand one, so I am guilty of ordering from them.

But I did have an Amazon experience the other day that I would like to share. The Seattle Times had a glowing review of a new biography of the poet Denise Levertov. After reading the review, I wanted to buy a copy of the book. I wanted a new copy, not a used one, because I planned to give it to a friend who likes the late Ms. Levertov's poetry.

I ordered the book from one of Amazon's suppliers, and in due course it arrived. The book was new, but there was a snag -- it was also clearly stamped on the cut pages with the phrase "review copy -- not for resale." So how the supplier got it and why they were selling it was anybody's guess.

It didn't affect my ability to read the book of course, but the stamp put paid to my plans to give the book to my friend -- a nun who is a university professor, who I am sure would take a very dim view of such things!

BTW - the comment moderation for me is "dbookey"! Love, Carol

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I think you should tour schools and reintroduce children to real books/talk about the pre-electronic age. Just about every school has a decent budget for this sort of thing. Extra money, human contact and future customers all in one. You could adapt your sublime Ladybird book ideas as a powerpoint with a difference.

Rog said...

"Socially inept people in management"! Hahaha!!

I would have killed myself to avoid a "Onesie Wednesday" so am very relieved I got out when I did.

Have you thought about diversifying into "antiques and collectibles" - it has kept a roof over my head for the last six or seven years.

Steerforth said...

Laura - I like that idea. I could even do a double-bill with my mother, who remembers the Blitz as if it was yesterday. I gave a lecture to the Society of Sussex Authors a few years ago, but I'm not sure what they thought of it.

Rog - I'd love to, but I don't think I have 'the eye' for spotting a bargain and selling it on for a good mark-up. My one foray into the antiques business, a couple of years ago, was a bit of a disaster. It's a shame, as I have the storage space.

Flavia said...

Yes, do please run your own website and let us know about it. I've almost completely abandoned Abe, seldom use Amazon and am moving away from Ebay, to buy almost exclusively from individual online suppliers: largely Kennys, Awesome for 'modern' stuff, and wherever possible Leura local to here in Aus.

Steerforth said...

Sandra - I'm probably hard to track down because I use a different name at the moment. I have a nice logo designed for 'Steerforth Books', so maybe I'll switch over to that. I certainly need to do something, as people seem to have stopped buying books on Amazon. I don't know if it's because of the tax issues or simply the onward march of the ebook.

Carol - I would have mentioned the 'review copy' stamp in any description I wrote. I know that some businesses just use generic descriptions for lower priced titles, but I don't think "This book is good but may have some minor faults" is very helpful.

Re: the 'captcha' - Dbookey! I like that.

Flavia - My website will be a bit pants, I'm afraid, as I can only afford the cheapest option. Can you tell me why you have largely abandoned Abe?

Erika said...

I happily go to Abebooks and Biblioz before hitting up Amazon or other search options (I have them bookmarked). As a book junkie, both proper bibliophile type for specific authors or topics, and general glutton, I have absolutely no qualms getting used books or spending on that Must Have volume. The Kindle is primarily for books that I can't source elsewhere.

I do geek work, mostly from home, only in the office one day a week. The dogs are much easier to be around.

Steerforth said...

Erika - I've noticed that more people are using Abe than Amazon. I wonder how many of them know that Amazon bought Abe a few years ago?

Debra said...

I am a new person here, obviously...
Since I live in a non English speaking country, I have no qualms about buying at Amazon. (No, I didn't know that Amazon had bought Abe.)
What is particularly neat about Amazon, if you live in a non English speaking country, is the extensive comment section which is non existent in France. It is very helpful, and offers continuing intelligent discussion/critique of new and old books (yes, well, not all comments are intelligent, but some are, from my perspective).
On the decline of book buying :
My book buying has been dwindling recently for one very important reason : I am watching my neighborhood metamorphose from quiet suburb to anonymous urban addition, as it is swallowed in the big city. So, I am spending less time indoors with my eyes trained to the page, and more outdoors, gleaning what will be my last opportunity to savor a little green where I live.
How many of us have realized that even the best books cannot replace a walk in a quiet, green place ?
On Kindle : an answer to those who believe that reading is, and must be, for information, and can be rationalized.
Luckily there are many who do not fit into this pattern.
On voice patterns : I had a similar experience the other day, and it was eery. The physical person on the other end of the line really sounded like a recording. How sad. I told him so, too, and he giggled.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I am still laughing at your photo caption about the British space program.

My attitude about ebooks has not softened. I really hate them. I need to start hoarding books for the coming book apocalypse.

Like others who commented here, I would love to see you come out of the shadows and have a website. (Do you have any D.E. Stevenson or Richmal Crompton floating about?)

Steerforth said...

Thomas - I will emerge from the shadows, although my website will probably be a bit Geocities 1998.

However, I do have lovely 1930s-style header for it.

Daleaway said...

So you have the storage space/room to sell antiques?

Why not rent it to a dealer who can do the running round, purchasing, and pricing, leaving you to attend the store in his/her absence?

You'd get rent plus meeting people. If it is adjacent to your book area, you can do both simultaneously and call your establishment All Our Yesterdays or one of those twee names. (Scuse me). You could become a one-stop rural shopping destination, each drawing extra customers to the other.

Steerforth said...

Daleaway - That's a great idea, but sadly my place looks more like All Our Futures, in a post-apocalyptic sort of way. I'm not sure if the surly, limbless farm workers, the aggressive dogs and the rusting, abandoned machinery would appeal appeal to the average punter in search of 'olde England'.

I suppose we could turn the farm into a Call of Duty-style laser quest activity centre.

Canadian Chickadee said...

How about calling it "Cold Comfort Farm Bookshoppe?"

Maybe Joanna Lumley would even come to visit for the grand opening?

xoxo

Kid said...

I suppose part of the problem is that not all book readers are book collectors, so reading a book on Kindle is the easy, non-clutter option. Me, I just love books - looking at them, touching them, er, sniffing them, etc. (Perhaps I shouldn't admit to that last part.) You can't beat a book.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Now there's an idea ;)

Kid - You're quite right. Why keep a paperback thriller that you'll probably never read again? The Kindle is transforming the publishing world and some people have been remarkably slow to grasp the full extent of its impact.

Erika said...

Steerforth - no, I didn't know Amazon had bought Abebooks! There you go.

Kid - I, too, sniff books. They're all different, and there seem to be particular smells for particular periods. My WW2/austerity editions smell and feel so different to those of the early 1920s and into the later 1950s. Which again are so different to 19th century rag paper books. Holds true for different countries of origin as well. I love books for what they tell me on so many levels!

Debra said...

Being an extremely nostalgic person, I still have my favorite children's books.
When I look at one of those books, I can resurrect its smell. Some of those books still have the smell they had when I was... much younger.
But I don't think that books have the great variety of smells that they used to, do they ?
Unless I have stopped paying attention as much ?
You can never tell when... YOU'VE changed or when the infamous "reality" has struck again...

Tor Hershman said...

Mental health charity :-)
British space program :-)