Christmas 2009 will, in the annals of the book trade, be the one that never happened: a low, dark point in publishing history.
The lead-up to the holiday is traditionally a season when publishers and booksellers can anticipate the boost of Christmas buying. This time it simply has not happened and the whole book industry is in turmoil.
In part this can be attributed to the recession, but there are various other factors in play, not the least being the demise of small independent bookshops that have kept the focus on the book as an individual product rather than a mass commodity. Among the chains, Borders and Books Etc. have tried to do the same, but they have failed to stay the course and have gone into receivership. The result is a knock-on downward spiral, damaging to the small independent publishing houses, who have to carry the brunt when they can least afford it. The effect is then to limit hopes even further for individualistic originality in the market place.
Within this crisis, the short-term drive has naturally become to focus all sales efforts on those books that are ‘sure to sell’. This is not the same thing as a measure of worth or quality. In the long-term it points towards an arid future where creativity is suppressed and excluded. There is also an inverted snobbery in the air, with attempts to brand a concern for books and their value as a form of élitism. In this atmosphere, with local bookshops and small publishers doing their best to develop survival tactics by whatever means are at their disposal, newcomers on the writing scene already find it extremely hard to gain space or recognition. Literary consideration and the encouragement of budding talent are left far behind in a scramble to promote solely what is seen as commercially viable.
In these post-Thatcherite times, we may as well adapt a phrase from Charles Dickens and say that the cost of everything is known, but the value of much is forgotten.
Where does the blame for this lie, and what is commercially viable in any case? There are many factors. One, probably inherent in the book trade for many years, is the problem of a lack of efficiency. From my own recollection, it is a matter that has always figured high, but unfortunately it is getting steadily worse. The arrival of bookstore chains in our city high streets highlighted the problem as they mushroomed at an alarming rate from the time of Mrs Thatcher’s advent as prime minister. Her monetarist gospel spread like wildfire across the UK, making the new religion of greed and profit a marker for business success, irrespective of its other effects. It gained a new momentum from an unlikely source. The Blair years proved even deadlier than those preceding them. The Blairite government, in its masquerade as New Labour, not only pushed the gospel of money-making to disastrous limits, but also, as we have seen, gave greed and gain a false respectability that entrenched a routine corruption of attitude among certain of our politicians on both the left and the right.
Another feature of Mrs Thatcher’s dictates was the starvation of funding for the public libraries. This funding was diverted instead to the grandiose service industry in the City. Literature and the arts were left to fend for themselves. It was all an erosion of the financial underpinning that made it possible to maintain diverse publishing programmes and the principle of free access to the printed word at what had been an enviable level in individual communities. The attack on the public libraries has by no means ceased under New Labour, and local authorities have often been positively encouraged to close some of the libraries in their care and, for those remaining, create commercial incentives that have little to do with books.
Running parallel with this process, the book chains elbowed small booksellers aside and starting many a gimmick to attract the reading public. ‘Buy two books, get one free’ became a common slogan. A war of discounts followed, and with it the industry’s efficiency sank to ever lower levels. The standard of sales staff employed became a joke, since it was evident in many cases that their knowledge of books fell below the national standard.
Until the book trade shakes itself clear of practices that wrongly target money instead of improving services, there will be little prospect of any recovery.
We should not be ashamed of preaching a different gospel, one that celebrates informed service, efficiency and the importance of the written word. The publishing of books was once considered to be among the most noble of professions. It helped to develop the mind and the cultural life of the nation. To divert, entertain, inform and self-educate are the truly democratic uses of the book as social artefact.
The fate of the independent publishers has often followed a pattern similar to that of the bookshops. In fact the roots of this change went back even further into the 1960s, when large publishing groups from the North American continent began to buy into London’s publishing tradition. It was a culture shock on several levels. Old family firms that were household names received offers they could not refuse, and the new brooms, as they came in, swept the boardrooms clean with a ruthlessness shocking to those brought up in the ‘gentlemanly’ assumptions of the trade. Eminent publishers found themselves put out to grass ahead of their retirement agendas. The Sunday Times and later the Times itself came under the ownership of the Canadian Thomson Group, which was soon adding book publishers to its portfolio, and trying to impose on books the sort of profit levels that it looked for from journalism. In a portent for the future, the power within publishing companies shifted from the pre-eminence of editorial flare and intuition to the rule of sales management and accountants.
It was not a bad thing in itself for the economics of book publishing to come under a fresh critical scrutiny, but there were losses and casualties too, not the least of these being an undermining of the relationship between publishers, editors and their authors.
The onward march of the conglomerates hastened this trend even further, as publishing became a mechanised industry, devoid of the very essence of that formerly valued relationship.
Can this basic transformation hold benefits for the cultural life of the nation? It seems unlikely. How long will we continue to be in this a long-drawn-out period where money-spinning celebrities corner the market at the expense of less ephemeral values?
It does not augur well to see Random House advertising for a ‘celebrity editor’ against the backdrop last month of the worst retail figures for the book trade in living memory. Yet it was this book trade that created the ‘gift book’, which revolutionised Christmas as a commercial phenomenon, perhaps the most remarkable retail innovation in the past 150 years and one achieved despite the systematic destruction of public libraries, the abandonment of reading as a required skill in educational performance (40 per cent of our children now leave school unable to read complex sentences), and the relegation of literary coverage in the popular media to afterthoughts in supplements listing television schedules.
Where the large chain bookshops are concerned, questions begin to arise over how helpful they really are to the book trade in the forms they take today. They seem to have produced a situation not dissimilar to the supermarkets’ relationship with agriculture, where the profits belong to those a long way further along the line from the primary producers (for ‘growers and farmers’ read ‘authors and their publishers’), who are squeezed into accepting lower and lower returns on their labour. Inevitably this involves devaluations of quality and lowered expectations on the part of the reading public.
In the media push, it is the obvious and predictable that tends to get into the foreground, while the less obvious, which needs more searching out, is relegated and left trailing.
Serendipity is one of the joys of reading, when you are led down a byway you never expected to travel, or you stumble on a book you never knew about that comes alive for you. In giving this sort of service to the reader, the book chains simply cannot replicate the advantages of the small independent bookshops, especially when these are imaginatively run and responsive to their customers within a local context. The purpose of reading was always to jolt us out of our tramlines. We need to find ways of restoring that slightly subversive edge.
Other questions go to the heart of the matter. To begin with, there are the massive discounts the book chains insist are necessary (45 per cent minimum, rising to 52+ per cent); the so-called ‘marketing fees’ they impose to promote new titles in front-of-shop positions (ranging from £500 to £3,500+); their absolute right of return of any unsold stock regardless of when it was ‘bought’; and generous payment terms (60/90 days after delivery).
In other words, they have no responsibility for any of the stock they buy, and no incentives to work with books as individual objects that need to be matched with individual minds.
Therefore it seems perfectly valid to ask ask how, with all these overwhelming trading advantages, we have still witnessed three major book chains collapse during the past ten years, owing a great deal of money to British publishers? The fact is that it is hard to see how main-street shopping centres can go on sustaining enormous, unwieldy chain bookstores for much longer, when these can never hope to match the performance of the discount-warehouse, e-commerce portals. Amazon, Play.com and the rest offer the customer better discounts, efficient, no-cost delivery and every book in print from accessible websites, with the ability to browse content, check on reviews, make comparisons and shop around. Why therefore should publishers support the chains, especially on the draconian terms the chains demand? The hope of matching quality with individual choice seems a more likely prospect within the on-line retail sector, where paradoxically it has a better chance of being consumer-led. Book marketing, book-buying and book-reading habits are changing in evolutionary ways along with technological development. The future will force many altered assumptions.
Leaving nostalgia aside, I mourn the passing of those individual publishing companies in Britain where the personality associated with them made an unmistakable mark. In retrospect, their generation seems like a golden age. From their various political, social or literary viewpoints, Billy Collins, Hamish (‘Jamie’) Hamilton, Jock Murray, Victor Gollancz, André Deutsch, Allen Lane, John Calder, among others, all published books for their times, sometimes defiantly. Their heritage has now mostly been swallowed by the publishing conglomerates, but to me those were the glory days of book production when the sheer individuality of the publisher rated so high that it left a mark to define the objective and essence of publishing valid for generations to come. We can never re- create that in our changed economic circumstances, but all trends outrun their use in due course and matters turn full circle.
Not all the signs are discouraging. People have become alert to the threat of library closures for reasons of ‘rationalisation’, and are willing to campaign to try to prevent it. While sixty-nine bookshops closed in 2008-9, as Rachel Cooke reports in a recent Observer column, thirty-four new ones opened their doors. Where the opportunities of a niche market are perceived, there is likely to be an enthusiasm and confidence notably lacking in the wider picture.
What the impact of the digital revolution in word reproduction is likely to be on publishing is still unclear. The economic realities and technological factors in the way books are produced have always been elements in successful publishing. George Eliot was denied the option of producing shorter novels, since the Mudie Lending Library, the Amazon of its day, made more money from three-volume novels, the DVDs of their day. There is clear evidence that what has happened with the music industry will be directly replicated within the book business, with problems to be solved of copyright protection, piracy, perceived rights to having everything free and the generation of income from the use of someone’s intellectual property.
A fresh vision is needed in the interacting roles of publisher and author as we move into this brave new world of uncharted territories. But the history of the book as object has shown remarkable resistance to extinction.
Let us hope Christmas 2009 is some sort of turning point for the book trade, rather than a one-way street sign. Personally I think it could be.