Selling books

For the past couple of years I've been getting The Bookseller each week. The big feature that recurs time and again is the battle between book agents / publishers and retailers both high street and on-line. They seem like mad dogs scrapping and snarling with each other over the bones of some unfortunate animal.

The quality of books, or rather the content of books, the joy they bring to millions now and historically seems hardly to be an issue to these people. Of course the latest object of grab it and keep it from the others greed is the e-book. Respected business people seem literally to be foaming at the mouth, riding a wave of hysteria as they work on the prospect of vast future profits that may not ever exist.

At the same time as 'The Trade' is forecasting that half of all book sales will be electronically sold in x years time to the reader, x becoming shorter and shorter seemingly every week, it bemoans the 6.4% decline in UK book sales in January over previous January. And at the same time as The Trade does that, it bemoans the closure of high street booksellers for reasons of lack of sales, supermarket discounting, Amazon etc. No-one seems to have clicked - perhaps wants to have acknowledged - that the content of a book is it and everything. Content is rarely examined in The Bookseller beyond the usual fifty word blurb. You wouldn't buy a shirt or a can of beans without knowing the answer to the old "What will it do for me?" Make me look great / make me less hungry and tastes good; so how are you supposed to know what this book will do for you if all you know about it is that you (may have) enjoyed the author's last offering and that it sold xxx,000 copies last week?

In short, the world of books is in turmoil; commercial chaos personified; so I might as well add my own two penn'orth!

A friend recently lent me a book about Burns' verse and song. Great stuff, published fifty years ago and still giving pleasure. Two things occur. Our bookstores have been and still are wonderful oases of culture in this utilitarian way of life of ours. Why don't the high street bookstores leave the selling of new books to the supermarkets and the Amazons? Why not transmute themselves into used bookstores, adding 'sitting-room' touches to their interiors - couches, table lights, do-it-yourself tea and coffee facilities etc. You could then look at a book of potential interest in comfort before buying and taking it away to read at home then either add to your library or bring it back for re-sale.

Secondly, I noted that Burns' first published works were produced 'on subscription'. That is, he circulated friends and friends of friends by letter and word of mouth, building up sufficient advance guarantee of funding to cover the costs of print and publisher. Many others of his era did likewise. (William Blake comes to mind, albeit fifty years later). Because the web in theory makes it so much easier for the author to connect with his/her readership, why cannot today's authors do the same? If this gives the work that essential 'lift-off' word of mouth will take care of things afterwards if the thing is any good. As I've proven for myself it is relatively easy to lay out your book for yourself whether such book be printed on paper or transmitted digitally to its reader. The web makes cutting out the middle man so easy and the benefits of cost so obvious. So who needs W H Smith? Ditto Tesco? Ditto Amazon? ditto Random House? ditto, even, an agent?

So, in summary: new books for sale direct from the author; used books for sale in comfortable book shops. Why not?

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