Bringing An End To Bibliophobia
Blame the information age; I have a tendency to overshare. Flicking through Amazon Books I stumbled upon (yes, honestly, I really wasn’t looking for them) the comments section for some of my more experimental novels. If you’ve only read the Bryant & May series you have no idea how perverse my mind can be. And there it was, a review of ‘Plastic’ which chucked my own words back at me. Viz; ‘When a book takes six years to write, you know there’s something wrong with it.’ This is a statement I chose to make myself, but a reader picked it up and ran with it.
Now, ‘Plastic’ is a deeply peculiar novel of which I am still immensely proud. It mixes the sinister, the satirical and the silly in equal measure, and has (if I say so myself) some cracking one-liners. But it doesn’t play to the stalls. As a consequence, no bookshop stocked it and it vanished. But then that’s what happens to most books, because bookshops don’t have the space for full ranges of authors’ novels and buy their stock from publishers who push lead titles to paid-for front tables.
Until a revolution happened.
First of all, questions were asked. What is a bookshop? Apparently users of WH Smith didn’t think of it as a newsagent or a bookshop, but regarded the chain as an all-purpose mini-Woolworths where they could also pick up the odd book. Waterstones, on the other hand, were real bookshops in their eyes – but many would-be readers found the chain too upmarket and intimidating.
The definition of a heavy reader is someone who buys six books a year. But the very people who use WH Smith and won’t go into Waterstones often read a couple of books a week – making them far heavier readers. Both groups were asked this question: If WH Smith and Waterstones were celebrities, who would they be? The answer came back; Smiths would be Jeremy Clarkson and Waterstones would be Nigel Havers.
I’ve never especially thought of Waterstones as being upmarket, or anything other than a good bookshop. But clearly there are people who are intimidated by its atmosphere. Bookseller James Daunt was quoted in the New Statesman;
‘Most people are not fully aware of how close Britain came, in the autumn of 2011, to losing its bookshops. After fixed prices for books were abolished in the mid-’90s more than 500 independent stores closed, unable to compete with the discounts offered by supermarkets and internet retailers. Long-established chains such as Dillons and Ottakar’s foundered and were subsumed. In January 2011 Waterstones, the only remaining chain devoted exclusively to bookselling, closed two bookshops. The following month, it closed nine more. Waterstones teetered on the brink of administration.’
To save itself, Waterstones had to slim down fast, re-energise its stores and stop the crippling sale-or-return policy. To create better bookshops, they had to stop allowing publishers to buy space in them. Instead the shops would order their own books. They made each branch autonomous – indie, in fact, so that the chain was effectively no longer operating like a chain at all.
It worked. As e-book prices jumped and e-book readers switched back to book-buying, the bookshops benefitted. Now Britain’s bookshops are thriving again.