I went to a thanksgiving party on Saturday afternoon (hosted by an American PhD in the Exeter School of Psychology; we don’t generally celebrate thanksgiving in Britain), and, in the course of my rounds, I was asked what I did for a living. Right now, I replied, I’m a writer.
“Mmm. How’s your book selling?”
I usually reply something along the lines of ‘steadily’ or ‘the next one will be a bestseller’, and then retreat to the kitchen for a quick beer. The short answer is that, for me – a British novel writer kicking around 2005 AD – there is only one way to sell books in sufficient quantity to afford the private island I deserve. My book would have to be available in bookshops – on the shelves, mark you, not via the Special Phone. As of right now, people generally do not buy from the Internet. They buy in bookshops. Sure, Amazon is a powerful beast, but it’s browsing capabilities are lacklustre; you won’t be enticed to read a new author.
On this subject, I’ve just read a good (biased, but good) article on Guardian Unlimited about an upcoming decision by the Office of Fair Trading (an independent British body responsible for the oversight of mergers, etc.) on whether the Waterstone’s bookshop chain will be permitted to take over Ottakar’s, a rival chain.
The perspective of the authors and publishers – and, by extension, I would think readers too – is that this merger will lead to a severe limitation on bookselling diversity in the highstreet. Buying decisions will fall ever more greatly into the hands of Scott Pack, the chief buyer for Waterstone’s, and the man about whom writers whisper to their children late at night: “Be a good boy or Scott Pack’ll getcha.”
According to the article, Waterstone’s choose about 5,000 books each year to promote. How do they select them? Well, the same way Ikea might select a product: How fast and how much has the most similar product sold?
Is this a bad thing? Nobody would criticise a business for acting in the interests of its shareholders, but I think it is fair to point out that the sales impact of book is only tenuously related to its literary merit (with the usual caveat that measurement of the latter is problematic). With such a target-driven policy from a force that dominates the market, the effect on publishing – and thus literature, however you define it – will be slow but immense. (I’m reminded of the RAE, but that’s a post for another time.)
It will get even harder for young pups like me to get their books under the noses of customers, where they can pick up a copy, thumb through it, smell the pages – all the stuff you can’t do on the web. How hard is it right now? Well, I’ve already related the story of how I’ve tried to get my book in local bookshops. After four or five trips, my local Waterstone’s failed to stock Déjà Vu despite an expressed intention to do so. Someone ordered copies and, a few days later, one of the Waterstone’s staff called me in a state of some distress to complain that the books had not yet been collected. Well, question, but why the fuck are they calling the author to complain about one of their customers? Answer: Because if books in Waterstone’s don’t fly off the shelves, the shit will eventually find its fan. It doesn’t matter that this is my local bookshop, and local bookshops have traditionally been the first outlet for books that, given time, have ‘taken off’. These books are the tortoises mentioned in the Guardian Unlimited article.
If Waterstone’s get to take over Ottakar’s, expect less diversity, fewer publishers willing to take on new authors, and steady shift of consumers away from the highstreet shops towards the Internet. Why? Because readers still want to be challenged. Because some people thought the Da Vinci Code was shite.