Power To The Bookworm

Every year when the Wordfest comes to Cambridge, I like to attend the publishing industry panel. In these past few years of rapid change, it’s been fascinating to hear how publishers are responding to the crisis in the economy and the advent of the digital revolution. When you see the editors in the flesh, it’s even more fascinating to witness the frustration and the excitement they so clearly feel in a business that’s fuelled by passion and full of opportunities but beset by so many awkward challenges. And here’s another thing that I’ve noticed – editors (like policemen) seem to be getting younger and younger. What’s more, this is a business dominated by women, smart, efficient, extremely competent young women, which seems to mean that the male editors are unorthodox types, more performative than your average business man, more eccentric, and (in my experience) the ones that carry the burden of negativity, whilst the women forge determinedly ahead. In the panel yesterday there were two women and one man, and when presented with the question which his female colleagues had unhesitatingly answered, essentially a question about what he did, the man rubbed his face vigorously with his hands, puffed out his cheeks, shook his head, gave us the whole mime show of the arduous task that was explaining the publishing world to the general public. When he did speak, he was evidently a highly intelligent person. But repeatedly over the session he wanted to talk about the mystery at the heart of publishing, the impossibility of figuring out the book market. It was all most intriguing.

What came out of the session most clearly was that the way books are sold has changed so much, publicity and marketing departments find themselves at sea for the first time in many decades. The most significant change in publishing this past year has been the demise of the high street bookstore. In the UK, Waterstones is the only chain bookseller still standing, with a few branches of Blackwells about the place and then the remains of the plucky independents. With fewer retailers promoting fewer books, one editor commented that ‘it feels like the stakes are really high’ for each book they try to market. And the man pointed out that although no one really likes to say it, bookstores fear that they are simply unpaid showrooms for amazon. How many times do customers go into the store to look for a book, and then order it online for the discount? He said he wondered whether amazon would one day buy Waterstones and turn it into a kind of bookselling Argos. For those outside the UK, Argos is an odd shopping experience whereby you look at the catalogues in the front of the shop, fill in an order form and your goods are delivered from some mysterious warehouse out the back. Everyone in the room knew just what he meant when he said this, and our collective blood turned cold, I can tell you.

So, with fewer bookstores, how are publishers to reach their customers? For over a century now, bookshops have been the middle man in the book world, and publishers have sold to them. Now publicity departments find themselves in the odd position of needing to reach their customers directly, but how is such a task to be accomplished? Evidently, social media seems to be one possible way, and publicity departments now keep up their facebook pages, and tweet, and work more closely than before with book bloggers. But those of us who book blog know just how enormous the book blogging world has become. How can any of us really have any influence? One of the editors spoke about the way that publicity has become ‘the art of lighting small fires’, in the hope of gathering a virtual community around a book. The man pointed out that publishers have always had two methods of connecting with the reading public: newspapers and word of mouth. Now that newspapers carry so few reviews, they are obliged to turn to word of mouth in the form of social media, without any sense that it will be effective. He cited a recent book in which the author details his research into the ‘cascade’ effect responsible for huge successes like Harry Potter or Stieg Larsson – and in which he concludes that no one has any idea how they happened. If you can’t even figure out with the precise science of hindsight what makes a book sell, you can hardly predict future sales with any certainty.

Publishers are having to face some inconvenient truths: firstly that too many books are being published, and secondly that most books sell less than a 1,000 copies. Books are strange consumer goods because of their potentially huge and dramatically changing lifespan. Moby Dick, for instance, sold only 600 copies in the UK during Hermann Melville’s lifetime. In more recent times, The Hare with the Amber Eyes had fewer than 1,000 subscriptions when it was first published. It isn’t easy to be that responsive with a product, and ebooks are still not proving to be the solution to the industry’s troubles. More research suggests that the customers who buy 99p ebooks are effectively the customers who used to frequent remainder bookstores. They are not about to buy the second higher priced book by an author whose work they have enjoyed at 99p; no, they would prefer to read a different author and stick with the 99p price label. I don’t think we readers realise quite how much power we have over the market, and that we will get the book world that we are prepared to pay for. Genre becomes ever more popular with publishers because genre readers tend to be loyal, happy to buy the next Lee Child or Barbara Taylor Bradford novel that gets released. But literary fiction readers are, according to the editors ‘highly promiscuous’. They only want to read the next big thing. Try to make sense of a literary fiction writer’s career! the man said. That author could have a huge hit with his first novel and then simply disappear off the map.

So, what this session made me realise was how much publishers need readers to help them out at present. And we need to take a good long look at our reading habits and think about what they tell the industry. Publishers want nothing more than to please us, and so we can have no reason for complaining: we get the books we deserve. If we want books to be published, we have to buy them, or check them out of the library a lot. We have to spread the word about books that are good among our reading friends, and we have the option of giving feedback directly to publishers in a way we have never been able to before. I’ve heard of bear markets and bull markets, but this is the bookworm market; we should use our powers right now, or we will lose them.

Thinking about it, I felt that the greatest drawback to reading is the amount of time we have available for it. There are so many books I want to read, it’s impossible to find the time to give to them all. When the agent asked the editors as a final question what they would change to make their lives better if they had divine powers, they found it hard to say. But oddly enough, I felt they should be asking for the literacy hour we impose on schoolchildren every day to be extended to the workplace. If everyone had to set aside one hour a day for reading, think what that would do for the adult book market! I know, it’s not likely, but then we were allowed to play at being divine for our answers, and given the mystery that is publishing, that’s probably the only way we’ll find them.



26 thoughts on “Power To The Bookworm

  1. Could I have literacy hours please? Like two or three a day? Four or five would be ideal but I don’t want to be greedy. Seriously though, sounds like an excellent program.

    • Who do you think we should lobby to get this introduced? I can’t guess how much social good it would do – all the pretty rivalries and disappointments and snarkiness at work would be forgotten as people enthused about what they were reading to one another. Four or five hours is surely not too much! 😉

  2. This is totally fascinating and I would have loved to have been there to hear it all! I hate to admit I am one of those people who have turned mostly to ordering online for simple reason that the books I want most to read can be found more easily online. I am all for promoting the books I love and think I probably do my part (and maybe the part of five or six other readers) in terms of checking out books and buying them. But it must indeed be hard for publishers to know where to turn or how to market considering how much the industry has changed and with so much self-publishing going on. I get daily requests from authors who have self published books–and am already overwhelmed by choice–I just have to kindly decline them. Time is my problem too–my reading appetite is far bigger than my stomach–I have so many books, library books, newspapers and magazines piling up daily–to say nothing of blog and online reading…just thinking about it makes me feel at a loss. Anyway–lots of interesting things to think about. Was that the only session you went to?

    • Your comment made me laugh – between us, I think we are on a noble mission to save the publishing industry! 🙂 But it was really interesting to realise how much the market has changed lately. Not having the bookstores between publishers and readers is just a huge difference. Oh and don’t feel too bad about amazon, because one of the editors did confess that it was a good deal for the publishers, too. We are, after all, buying more books because we CAN get hold of more obscure titles.

      I went to this session and to the debut writers panel, which was chaired by Ali Smith. She was so lovely and generous to the writers – she must be exactly who you’d want to introduce you for your first public performance! And the books sounded wonderful, too (more temptation!).

  3. The bookselling Argos idea is an awful one. I already suffer from the way libraries are run in Switzerland (i.e. no browsing stacks, must order a book ahead of time and fetch it at a counter) so to reduce my bookbuying to a similar experience would be terrible.

    The literary fiction problem is one I think about a lot – there is so much discussion about the way that the model used by the bigger publishers has created much of this problem. I see smaller publishers able to respond more quickly to the changing markets and so hesitantly predict that literary fiction will ultimately find its home almost exclusively in smaller publishers.

    And yes, sign me up for mandatory literary hours!

    • Michelle, I think you are perfectly correct. Literary fiction will become the province of the small publisher, and if enough can band together to get some advantages of scale, I can see it as a model that would really work. But oh how dreadful not to be able to browse at the library! The UL can be a bit like that as all the recent books are locked away in some secret room and have to be ordered, but there are also stacks, too. And I think we possibly have enough people to petition for reading hours – perhaps we should go for it? 🙂

  4. Book publishers truly face a difficult situation. It seems like so few people read today. I read somewhere that the world has always been comprised of a small group of people who consider themselves readers, but I feel like the number of people who read these days is shrinking.

    I can think of few things I would rather do on a day off than sit and read a great book–or two or three great books. But most people I know think I am nuts for preferring to spend my spare time like this. They all have so much to do (errands, activities with their children, sports) instead of spend time reading.

    I feel sorry for people who don’t read because I think they are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures in life. (But then most people would say I am missing out on a lot because I enjoy spending my time reading books.) And I find that those people who read tend to be much more interesting than those who do not. There are exceptions to this–because one of my best friends never reads, and he is one of the most interesting people I know, but he is also intellectually curious.

    I would not want to work in the publishing world at a time like this with so few readers in today’s world. And I agree with you that we should have an etxra literacy hour built into our work day. But then my question is this: how many people do you think would actually be able to concentrate for a full hour to read a book? Unfortunately, I think that would be a small number.

    • Ali, isn’t that an awful thought – how few people would really benefit from an hour’s concentrated reading (or indeed be capable of it). My only hope would be that concentration is a matter of practice, and we can build up mental stamina the way we can physical. It would be very good for us all, I think, to have that sort of mental discipline in the day.

      You’re right that only a small portion of the population has ever read. Books were expensive and rare, and literacy used to be so low. Then if there was a golden age of reading, it was probably in the 30s and 40s, before so many other competing leisure interests were invented. But I do agree that the readers I know tend to be more interesting, and more sympathetic and considerate than non-readers. I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions, though, including your friend. Perhaps you could encourage him to read by pointing out to him how immensely interesting he would be if he did! 🙂

  5. It would be brilliant if companies had a period of quiet reading time. We had this thing when I was in school called “Sustained Silent Reading”, and it was BY FAR my favorite part of the day. It was what I was doing under my desk anyway, but teacher-sanctioned!

    • Lol!!! I used to read over my friend’s shoulder because she was always reading under the desk: Catherine Cookson and Virginia Andrews mostly, who turned out to have more in common than I at first thought! I think we should lobby for sustained silent reading – how peaceful would that be every day! 🙂

  6. You mentioned “they are simply unpaid showrooms for amazon” – sadly that is so true. We have one independent near us but that has found its sales dropped so much the owners sold out and the new owners are turning it into what is ostensibly another independent booksellers but what in reality is a children’s play area where the events and the sale of childrens’ book outlet. Apparently children’s books are selling better and easier in the shop itself. Whether that is a national phenomenon or just a local one I wouldn’t know. The end result for us adults is less choice on the shelves themselves, less incentive to browse and buy and no doubt, eventually, the demise of the bookshop (as an adult one) altogether.

    • I suppose that’s because children’s books still need to be looked at – for the quality of the illustrations and the language level used. It is a dreadful shame, though, particularly as one of the editors on the panel said that customers are more adventurous when buying in a bookstore than when buying online. I do use amazon, but try to split my purchasing between online and the two bookshops in Cambridge. I don’t know that it will do any good but I can but hope.

  7. What a wonderful post! I love the quote about “lighting tiny fires” and it is sad to know that publishers don’t have any magic solution to ensuring that good books get the attention they deserve. I’d like to see publishers printing fewer books and concentrating on the ones that are really special. An adult literacy hour would be fantastic too!

    • I think publishers really will cut back on the number of books produced, Jackie, only they will fight a great deal over what is deemed really special, because that’s such a subjective thing at the end of the day. The problem is if the decision is taken on the basis of what will sell lots of copies. At least no one can predict accurately what will sell, either, so we are probably spared wall-to-wall genre fiction! Well, probably. And wouldn’t an adult literacy hour be great! I’d just love that.

    • Ah, well, it comes from Judith Butler and her theories of ‘performative identity’, basically the idea that we have no innate core of identity, only a number of different roles that we perform, all of which are accompanied by specific sorts of gestures and language acts. I always thought it was an intriguing theory.

  8. Fascinating, Litlove. My kids have “dear”, drop everything and read, at school. We should all have that. Our lives would be saner. Sitting around and reading is as important as having meals together. I bet the happiness quotient would jump!

  9. What a fascinating discussion. I am so interested to see what the next 5 years will bring to the publishing industry. You are quite right about us getting the books we deserve and I also feel the responsibility of indie stores becoming fewer and fewer as I have been guilty of using Amazon as a way to shop for books and fit it all in to my busy schedule. I thought I was only doing it for convenience at first and quickly realized that Amazon was responsible for so many stores closing. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley in California with so many educated people and yet there are very, very few bookstores of any kind for the number of people we have. It is all a bit depressing but I am hopeful that we are discussing this and we can all take some kind of action to turn the tide or at least determine what the future will look like.

    • Kathleen, I so agree that discussing what’s happening in the book industry is a really useful way forward. Publishers can actually see what we are saying now, and they are paying attention. I have no doubt that we could work it all out together! Don’t feel too bad about amazon – it has had huge advantages, like opening up the backlist to everyone, and providing books in areas where there are few stores. And publishers make a lot of money out of it too. But the lack of bookstores does change things, and like all changes, that means good and bad outcomes all mixed up together. But there are enough people longing to publish books and enough of us longing to read them to give us all hope, I think.

      By the way, I am still unable to comment at your blog – the box for comments never appears when I visit you. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong and I hope I work it out soon!

  10. While I hope printed books will never perish, I have to admit a lot of promotions now has gone online. As you mentioned, previously newspapers and magazines were effective means with their book reviews, nowadays, those are the businesses that need to struggle to survive. Considering even the NYT editor hinted the demise of their print version. So now, there are book trailers online, there are authors who reach out to readers directly, there are as you said the social media, and lots and lots of book groups online. I hope publishers can soon adjust to the new normal and think of innovative ways to market their products… for I’m one die hard printed book fan. 😉

    • Arti – me too!! Whenever I actually talk to publishers, I can see that they do their job out of love and enthusiasm, and they are just longing to find the next brilliant author and get his or her books out to the reading public. So I really hope that we readers can give them all the help and support they need to figure out what we want. Things change all the time, and I do feel that difficult as this period is, it’s also a time of great opportunity for readers and publishers to talk to one another. I just keep my fingers crossed!

  11. Pingback: Remainder bookstore | Manaartstudio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s