Sunday, 7 March 2010
Falling in love with books
What is happening to books?
Even the most committed and enthusiastic writers and publishers have scare stories. On World Book Day I listened to a talk by Chris Hamilton-Emery of independent publisher Salt. He's gambled his own and his family's livelihood on the idea that books - including books of short stories and poetry - have a future.
My first job, for four months before university, was at Foyle's bookshop in London. The manager was said to believe all staff were potential thieves. He certainly acted that way. New staff members were kept away from departments in which they had any interest, so that members of the public tended to be served by ill-informed shop assistants. Our bags were searched from time to time, in case we were stealing the stock.
As a book-lover, I was placed in an office that was little more than a cupboard safely away from temptation and provided with a candle in a bottle. It was the three-day week and the candle meant I could work through power-cuts. In front of me was a large book with a list of the names and addresses of publishers, a stack of envelopes and a huge, unsorted heap of flimsy order-forms. My task was to reduce the backlog, place orders in the correct pigeon-holes and then, if they weren't collected, send them out in envelopes which I had to address. I felt a little like the would-be princess in the story of Rumplestiltskin. No-one from the shop had sorted the orders for the past six weeks - they had simply piled up waiting for someone to do something.
My allies were the publishers' representatives, who would find their way to my cubby-hole and help me to rummage. They showed me how to find my way round the pigeon-holes, which required expert knowledge about which publishers had merged and which clubbed together to share a rep. The reps also told me about their glossy new books and grumbled when the manager of Foyle's failed to see their sales potential. Occasionally they offered me free books from their back catalogues. Gifts included some lovely Loeb parallel texts, a hardback of Women in Love and a slim Samuel Beckett volume. There were lots of reps, mostly enthusiastic and never seriously in competition with one another. There were many bookshops and many buyers.
Those of us who worked there - mostly on insecure, temporary contracts - sometimes wondered how long Foyle's could survive on the strength of its famous name. We muttered among ourselves that it had lost touch with books and book-lovers - that its concern with making money was driving customers away and even encouraging them to shoplift, though the two store-detectives regularly hauled suspects to the manager's office.
Somehow Foyle's re-invented itself and survived - there's even a small, helpful branch at St. Pancras. Instead the small shops - small rooms in paradise to their devotees - quietly crumpled and vanished. Chains are collapsing too. Waterstone's survives but it's no longer the treasure-house Tim Waterstone created. Now any branch in any city is much any other. Bestsellers are piled high and 3 for 2 offers abound. Display space and promotions are paid for by publishers and it shows. I don't browse there often - what's the point? There's little chance of being surprised into a purchase or of falling in love with a hitherto-unknown book.
Bookshops and publishers always needed to make money. I'm sure that most of the people who start work in the book trade choose their career out of love. But something seems to have gone wrong. As modest publishing houses are swept up by conglomerates, I have to look very hard to find the books I like. Some authors - established, prize-winning authors - find that publishers won't take a risk on their work. Joolz Denby, who was recently short-listed for the Orange prize, is offering her novel free to readers as an email attachment. While publishers praise her writing, they're no longer willing to take a risk on a book that doesn't fit neatly into a marketable genre.
At least there are still independent publishing houses, like Chris Hamilton-Emery's Salt, though it's hard to find the books the smaller houses publish in Waterstone's, or W.H. Smith's (or Tesco). When I want to recapture the thrill of the bookshop, I have to head to London or Cromford - or go to one of the one-day-only independent press fairs where smaller, keener publishers who really care about books can display and sell their wares.