A very experienced and brilliant publisher recently said to me that he believes publishing is on the brink of a new golden age. I agree with him. This is why.
Publishing has always been and always will be about the reader more than anyone else. The reader is, we must never forget, the one who puts the money into publishing. Without readers buying books, there would be no publishing industry. The reader is, therefore, the most important part of the business.
Take me as an example of a reader. I read a lot. Always have (useful for a publisher/author/agent, you might say). And yes, I am sad that bookshops are disappearing so quickly. Of course I am. I have spent many happy hours in bookshops. When I was younger I treasured the time I spent in Waterstones in Cambridge, just looking around, dipping into books here and there, discovering new ones or spotting ones I already knew. Book tokens – they seem so old-fashioned now – were my absolute favourite birthday or Christmas present because they meant I could buy a few more books and that made a book nerd like me incredibly happy. But today, as more and more bookshops close down, what can I do to get the same thrill? Can anything replace that experience for me?
Well, yes. These two things can: ebooks and Kindle vouchers. I know that’s heresy to many people but talking purely as a reader (one of the ones who put the money into publishing), the arrival of some gifted cash in my ebook account gives me exactly the same feeling of excitement as those book tokens did twenty years ago. I keep a list of books I want to read and on my Kindle, iPhone or PC (whichever is closest to hand), I read the first few pages of those books and then decide whether or not I want to pay for the rest. I’ll then read the book when I finish whatever I’m on now. As a reader, what could be better? Samples brought straight to me, wherever I am. Whole books brought to me, wherever I am, whenever I want them. The book nerd in me who loved going into Waterstones in Cambridge with a ten pound book token back in the early nineties is in heaven right now because I have such easy access to all this wonderful material. I literally can’t imagine anything better. Why? Because it wasn’t the bookshop I loved. It was the books in the shop. Now the books are simply in a different place. A place which is ridiculously easy to get to. Without leaving my home I will never, ever run out of things to read, and that includes print books too, if I want them. How on earth can that be a negative thing? Well, the flipside of this new golden era is that bookshops will feature on our high streets less and less and that is indisputably sad. But is it bad? For the people who run the shops, yes. But for readers (still the people who put the money into publishing) no, it isn’t.
The sad truth is that in the wider scheme of things in publishing, bookshops are being evolved out of existence, especially the small ones. Like the horse and cart or the fax, their business model fits perfectly in a different era, one disappearing further into the past every day. Today they don’t sell many books and for me, as a small publisher (I am part book nerd, part book businessman), selling books in ones or twos to little outlets is romantic and nice but in terms of profit made and time spent on each sale (packaging up the books and then posting them), it borders on pointless. I know this sounds heartless but I have much more potentially profitable things to do with my time, because this is not a hobby for me. My aim, as publisher of Silvertail Books, is to sell as many books as I can. That is the only way my business will be a success, the only way I will pay the mortgage, support my family etc etc. I can’t spend time on anything which doesn’t contribute positively to my business. For example, I can’t afford to worry about how I can help small bookshops survive. For another very different example, I officially don’t care about how Amazon runs its tax affairs, as long as what they do is legal, which it is. If something isn’t going to help me sell books, as neither example will, it’s parked, permanently.
Why, then, am I so delighted that one particular independent bookshop in one particular place is stocking a few copies of one of my books and will be putting a poster of the cover in the window? There is a faint whiff of hypocrisy here, you might think. And you might well be right. The answer is simply that I hope this will help me shift copies of a certain book. The book, by the way, is Clapham Lights by Tom Canty and the shop is Clapham Books which is in – you guessed it – Clapham.
I might not be single-handedly securing the survival of a swathe of independent bookshops (which, to be clear, I would love to be able to do but know in my bones is beyond my powers) but what I am doing is engaging with one in what I hope will be a mutually beneficial project: raising awareness of a book in the area it is named after and where its story is based and thus where it will have the most traction with its readers. This will, I hope, lead to lots of people wandering in and buying copies.
I will end with a message to all residents of and visitors to Clapham: if you’re in Clapham and want to buy a brilliant book based in Clapham and named after Clapham from a shop in Clapham, then Clapham Lights is available from Clapham Books on Clapham High Street. They even have signed copies.
Both the book nerd and the book businessman in me are happy with that.