Sunday 12 August 2012

Who cares about books anyway?

When James Daunt described amazon as “the enemy”, and “a ruthless money-making devil” perhaps the book loving world was naïve in rushing to characterise him as a champion of physical books, battling against the mighty power of kindle.
“Like any good retailer, he is really just interested in what people want”, one of his supporters claims.  Really? Has he listened to what customers are saying in Waterstones, as I have done on over thirty separate occasions so far this year? Has he visited the High Street and appreciated the frustrations – and genuine fear – in the stores. The chain has reinstated strict Head Office control of discounts. One store manager described a visit from a regional manager as “like a school ofsted” another told me they were “told off” for having books displayed in “the wrong place”. Daunt says “We shouldn’t dictate” to the stores. What does he mean by that, I wonder?
Despite assurances there would be no more store closures, Luton have lost their Waterstones, as have Tiverton and recently Epsom. John Betjeman famously wrote of Slough:
        It's not their fault they do not know
        The birdsong from the radio,
        It's not their fault they often go
        To Maidenhead

Betjeman regretted writing the poem, intended as a protest against 850 factories being built in Slough.  But the Waterstones in Slough has closed – as has the one in Maidenhead. Betjeman describes England’s industrialised towns as a taste of “Hell”. Strongly worded – as is Daunt’s description of amazon as a “devil”.
Daunt has now made a deal with amazon, and introduced a misguided events policy, stopping successful signings that gave sales a significant boost, and attracted customers into stores for an experience they cannot get online – face to face meetings with favourite authors.  In a move reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Daunt seems to be overseeing a desperate rush to commit suicide.
Daunt is a public school educated Cambridge graduate, and an ex-banker. He may be a book lover, but he is first and foremost a businessman. While it is easy to criticise him for overseeing the demise of our last surviving major bookshop chain, he is not responsible for the world we live in.
The real problem Waterstones faces is that it is not supported by sales. If Mamut withdrew his £53 million sponsorship, the chain would fold overnight.
However much we bleat about mistaken policies from the top – and I have done my share - the reality is that readers are not buying print books on a scale that makes physical bookshops viable. James Daunt apparently hastening the demise of physical bookshops as we know them is a demonstration of his business acumen. As with politicians, we get the bookshop MDs we deserve.
Ray Bradbury was writing in a different era when he said: “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture; just get people to stop reading them.
Perhaps the end of the physical bookshops is irrelevant.  E-books are encouraging more people to read. Maybe the sea change doesn't matter. But let’s at least be clear and open about what is taking place, so that no one is surprised when Waterstones change from a bookshop to a kindle store.
And if we don’t want that to happen, we have to react before it is too late. Daunt is impotent to halt the flood of e-books, and has made a sound business decision to swim with the amazon tide. Only readers can buck the trend. Stop buying books in charity shops. Buy a book in a bookshop today. Buy another one tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Consider books when working out what you can afford to spend this month. Sacrifice one bottle of wine, one packet of cigarettes, one hairdo, to buy a book. And buy a book for a friend, while you still can.
Or are we all saving up to buy kindles for Christmas?


Unknown said...

This is a very important topic. I buy 99% of my reading as e-books and not because I don't like the cost of paper but because I don't live near any English bookstores. I will retweet.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks for commenting, Clarissa. I'm glad you agree it's an important topic. We need to have more open discussion about what's happening.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks for attempting to comment, Dot. I suspect the computer thought you might be a robot because you made too many attempts to post your comment. (Assuming you are not a robot...?) Your comment would be welcome if you want to try again, but there may be a word limit?

DT said...

Thanks for such an important post, Leigh. As you say, it falls to every writer and reader to do what they can. It's nigh on impossible to unpick the ebooks debate, or the issue of some charity shops undercutting the book trade. We need to become responsible consumers, and to support local writer events.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know my own feelings. I love having huge numbers of real paper books around me, but the kindle is certainly convenient in a lot of ways, and helps me save some space on those crowded shelves. Still, I would hate to see physical bookstores go. I've spent so many pleasant moments of my life in them.

D.J. Kirkby said...

I buy digital and paper books. I would be sad to see bookshops close but I do wonder if they are their own worst enemy sometimes.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks for commenting, Derek. We can only do what we can, but if we don't support bookshops far more than we do at present, they won't survive. Maybe that's inevitable, but I hate to give up!

Leigh Russell said...

I'm like you, Charles, I want both! And I do believe there is a place for e-books and print books - but we need to spend money on both...

Leigh Russell said...

Very true, DJ Kirkby - I don't think the bookshops are helping themselves right now.

Leigh Russell said...

An article in the Huffington Post claims to tell us 'How to Save Bookstores'
"1. Be financially sustainable"
Thanks, Huffington Post!
Here's the link -

BernardL said...

I have a Kindle Fire. I can convert a manuscript over after editing into the finished product a reader will see to do a final check. I can then bookmark, highlight, and save any errors made to edit on the original manuscript anywhere I happen to be. As far as a writing tool, it's like quality control on a final line assembly before publishing.

As a reader, I can take a library of books with me anywhere I go, and add to it in seconds. Kindle books also incorporate linked indexes to each chapter. You are a click away from any passage. If I'm following an author, I can be notified the moment a new offering is published. Over the decades I've spent countless happy hours perusing books in a bookstore, but trying to save them in this day and age is comparable to bringing back VHS recorders to compete against Blu-Ray players. With Print-On-Demand a book can still be printed, but that demand will eventually disappear as well. I definitely sympathize with you, Leigh, but other than a few battles, the war is over.

Leigh Russell said...

You may be right, Bernard, (well, of course you are right) but I shall battle on for a while yet nonetheless. I promise I won't object when you tell me that you "told me so"! I will give in gracefully when I have to. Just not yet.

BernardL said...

I'm not much of an 'I told you so' type guy, Leigh. If I was my kids would have disowned me by now. :)

I think you're doing the right thing for something you love. There's nothing wrong with that, and it certainly will not hurt you as an author, because your books are already offered on-line. I support your position, but it's in danger of being overrun by the cyborg army. :)

Leigh Russell said...

The cyborg army... !!! Scarier than my books! Thanks for the comment, Bernard. Always good to hear from you.