Is the Book Trade facing the Final Curtain?

November 23rd, 2009

I was a bookseller for 21 years, and books were in my blood long before that. Yet seven years after finding myself out of the business it is hardly recognisable and I’m beginning to wonder if it will still be there in another seven.

Increasingly I don’t feel the magic when I walk into a bookshop nowadays. I scan down the shelves and see endless identikit covers that seem to contain identikit writing. The old individuality that there used to be in the publishing industry has disappeared with the takeovers and amalgamations; the days of house styles, gentleman publishers nurturing their favourite sectors, and skilled editors who carefully built authors’ talents and helped them develop unique voices have all gone as the accountants and marketers have taken over. Earlier this week I was reading a post on Lynne Connolly’s blog about the difficulties for both authors and readers in an environment that is increasingly hostile to new, interesting and individualistic writing.

With the impact of supermarket sales of best sellers, the all encompassing reach of Amazon, and the electronic copying of large numbers of books of every type, the space where small and independent booksellers used to flourish has become more and more cramped. Now it seems that the big chains whose arrival helped force the quality stockholding booksellers like James Thin of Edinburgh, John Smith of Glasgow and Heffers of Cambridge into oblivion are now themselves being threatened. The BBC report of troubles at Borders makes grim reading, particularly the suggestions that they don’t have enough cash to last until Christmas. If Borders goes then apart from Waterstones, a chain that’s never been to my taste, there isn’t much left apart from Blackwells.

And of course that’s without even mentioning ebooks and the various readers such as the Kindle. Should they take off then the future of reading may be in electronic formats that you merely lease rather than own. In the same way that the younger generations have got used to mp3s and iTunes rather than the albums and CD’s that their parents enjoyed owning, we may be seeing the owning of books, those wonderfully sensual, tactile items that we book-lovers enjoy handling and turning the pages of, becoming a specialist activity rather than the mass proliferation that has allowed the near universal education that society has enjoyed for the last 40o years. And if the control of the electronic replacement is in the hands of a few media moguls rather than the variety of publishers and writers that we’ve become used to then that is a sobering thought indeed.

Entry Filed under: Books

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tweets that mention Are w&hellip  |  November 24th, 2009 at 11:27 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bill Marshall, Michael Bridges. Michael Bridges said: Are we seeing the end of the book trade as we know it? http://bit.ly/8o5vrE […]

  • 2. Miriam Wakerly  |  November 24th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I agree about some loss of individuality – in both style and content. Rather like the state of the modern High Street! I would not wish to deride specific genres but I did explore the vexed question of Genre in my blog, called Miriam’s Ramblings on blogspot.
    As for e-readers I am a booklover and the transition may be painful, but probably inevitable, just as word-processing took over from writing by hand years ago (for most writers); and emails largely replaced letters. However, I am sure there will be a demand for both print and e-books to coexist.

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