Today sees the launch of this year’s @booksaremybag campaign, (and by happy coincidence is publication day for my two new books; Snow, and Saint Death, which I have already mentioned here. The launches of both these books will happen in great indie bookshops: Mr Bs in Bath and John Sandoe of London.)
Critics (the kind who like to think they believe in free markets) often argue that publishing and bookselling is not a special case, that they are and should be subject to competition just like any other business.
I disagree. I maintain that books represent a unique, vital and irreplaceable wellspring of the cultural life of a country. I maintain that we either think these things are important, or we don’t. In the UK, as elsewhere, the free market argument won the day, but that doesn’t mean it was the right decision, and it doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with this viewpoint.
Here in France, where I live, they have a different attitude to the importance of books. Over a decade before the Net Book Agreement was scrapped in the UK, the equivalent happened in France. Within a very short time, however, the decision was reversed as the damaging impact on the book industry was only too clear. This is why, walking down many a street in Paris, you will see a wide variety of independent bookshops.
And all this happened before the existence of a well known internet retail giant, the impact of which has been to create a near monopsony in the UK book retail market. Once again, in France, though things are by no means perfect, steps were taken to protect the traditional bookseller from the total onslaught of the free market.
This is why, those of us who love books and understand that what make them unique as a ‘product’ is their very variety, should always try to gently nudge our friends into making the switch to buying books in traditional, bricks and mortar bookshops, every once in a while at least. That wonderful browsing experience cannot be found anywhere else – the chance to stumble upon something unexpected, to have something thrust into your hands by a keen bookseller; none of this happens online.
Finally, I want to shamelessly plug the values of the publisher of the book mentioned above, Snow. Little Toller are so small it might even be overstating the case to call them a micro-publisher. Despite their size (or do I mean because of it? I suspect I do) they are producing some of the most beautiful and important books of Nature writing anywhere at the moment. I urge you to hunt their books out in your local bookshop – you will find the conjunction of the two things (a real book in a real bookshop) to be utterly delightful.
I started out my career working in an independent children’s bookshop; it was so much more than a place to make money. Yes, that was it’s primary purpose to the owners, no doubt, but they also saw that it was a hub of the community, a valuable resource for local schools, a venue to host author events and so to stimulate discussion and even a place to provide somewhere warm for mad old Mr Doggett to pass his Saturdays when the care home dispatched him out into the wide, wide world. All of these things are worthwhile, I think, but as before, we either think these things are important. Or we don’t, and they vanish.
“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of physical evidence we have that people are still thinking.”