Are Bookstores Here to Stay?

April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Two days ago on 15th April 2013, at The London Book Fair, Authoright’s Gareth Howard conducted the discussion entitled ‘Are Bookstores Here to Stay?’ between Sam Husain (C.E.O. of Foyles) and Philip Jones (Editor of The Bookseller).

On the whole the word bookshops was used rather than bookstores. We, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, tend to use the word ‘shop’ more than the word ‘store’.

In recent years many independent bookshops and some large chains have closed in the UK. Can bookshops survive? Both Sam Husain and Philip Jones agree that they can but not as they are now.

It must be remembered, Sam Husain said, that a bookshop is a business, but it is a business that must do more than merely sell books to people. Bookshops must add value. In other words, the bookshop must create an experience for the book buyer. How is this done? To a degree, by training staff. Foyles invests resources in educating its staff. If staff are knowledgeable about books, they can sell them better. And to survive, Mr Husain believes, bookshops must become better at selling books.

Philip Jones buys books from bookshops that he did not know (when he went into the bookshop) he wanted to buy. Trained staff can open up the world of books to buyers, can introduce unknown writers to buyers. But there is no staff to guide Philip Jones online. Who can advise him there? What has he to go on? Only, if anything, the purchase patterns of other buyers. For him, buying online is a narrowing experience. He is unlikely to discover books he did not know about before going online.

But knowledgeable bookselling is not enough. Bookshops, like everyone else in the publishing world, must expand their remit. Bookshops, Sam Husain believes, must create a cultural space. The era of ‘curating’ a bookshop has dawned.

Now, in bookshops a broader range of events (than the traditional book signing) is emerging. Such events must pay for themselves. Should there be a fee? Or should the admission be the purchase of the author’s book in hardback or paperback? So far, it appears, audiences find it more acceptable to buy an author’s book rather than pay an admission fee. Clearly in different parts of the United Kingdom, there will be different attitudes about what is an acceptable admission charge. Booksellers are finding out, by trial and error, what works best in their area.

It was also suggested that bookshops should be involved earlier in the product (book). It is an interesting idea but it does make the bookshop’s job a more involved one.

Some time ago (perhaps in The Bookseller) I read that 75% of books sold in bookshops are from display stands near the entrance. Therefore, many books on shelves do not get a look in. Sam Husain is developing his backlist: another area to be exploited.

Philip Jones sees no reason why there would not be room for all, for the bookshop and for online purchases. But he does feel that bookshops need help: the government, to encourage their growth and to preserve a high street, should introduce financial incentives. After all, bookshops enrich our culture. The more informed and supported booksellers are, the more enriched we book buyers are.

After listening to this discussion, a member of the audience quibbled about the price of books. How, he wondered, could bookshops justify charging so much more for books than an online shop. He suggested buying a book (or was it renting a book?) for five pounds and returning it after a month. Sam Husain’s response was that such a transaction, not being a purchase, would not work in a bookshop.

The question surprised me. The seminar had just provided answers. Bookshops charge more because they must pay enormously high rents, certainly in London, train staff and discharge all the usual overheads of a high street business.

Is it simply that people baulk at paying a reasonable price for books? Is it still the case, as George Orwell found it to be, that people prefer to spend money on cigarettes than books? Alison Baverstock in The Naked Author came to a similar conclusion. People appear to have less trouble paying for a round of drinks than a book.

Perhaps bookshops need to educate the reading public about book pricing: what exactly are they paying for? The better buyers understand and experience the process, the readier they will be to pay for it.

In the book world, things are changing fast. There are unexploited opportunities for bookshops. But bookshops, like literary agents and writers, must do more and be more to survive.

Authoright curated the Authorlounge at the London Book Fair 15th -17th April 2013


Judging books by the Spine

April 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

When I look for detective fiction in crime sections in charity shops, I glance at the spines of books. If the spine is thick, I conclude that the book has been printed recently and it will not be one of the classic crime titles which I am looking for. The modern printed book is a chunky affair. Often spines impress themselves on my vision as being an inch thick and more.

The following two paperbacks have a cover size of about 10.8 cm x 17.7 cm (4 1/4 x 7 inches)

Harlan Coben’s Tell No One (Orion 2001) seems to be a representative size for a current best seller (crime fiction) and Edward Grierson’s Reputation for a Song (Penguin 1955) for a crime novel of its time.

Tell No One (210g) has a total word count of 80,272 (232 words per page) and is 346 pages long.

Reputation for a Song (110g) has a total word count of 104,808 (397 words per page) and is 246 pages long.

Tell No One is chunky not because its story is longer than that of Reputation for a Song’s but because fewer words are printed per page. So a thick-spined book will often contain significantly less words than a slim-spined book.

If there is no need for the book to be chunky, why are they made so? Have publishers concluded that people will buy chunky books sooner than slim ones? Do readers feel they are getting more value for money? Do they feel a glow of pride when reading a thick book? Do they believe they are reading hundreds of thousands of words? And do they scorn those who seem content with their paltry thin-spined book?

Perhaps that is nonsense. Why then are books so chunky?

* I make no claims for absolute accuracy but for aimed-at accuracy. To get an average word count, three pages of full text were counted and then divided by three.

Do Granta, Vintage and Penguin weigh their words?

April 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

Consciousness about respecting the environment often seems to be detached from any true principle of thrift. Although more books are printed on papers that come from sustainable forests, such books seem to be getting bigger. Are stories getting longer?

A look at four books which have a cover size of approximately 51/2 x 8 inches*:

1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics 1995)

Weight: 250g; Total word count: 135,040; and story pages 320 (422 words per page)

2. The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller (Granta Books 1999)

Weight 250g; Total word count: 73,890; and story pages 242 (305 words per page)

3. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (Vintage 2003); paper from sustainable forests;

Weight: 270g; Total word count: 128,152; and story pages 386 (332 words per page)

4. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (Penguin 2009); Forest Stewardship Council Certification;

Weight 430g; Word count: 202,270; and story pages 565 (358 words a page)

If the following three books had been typeset as Sense & Sensibility:

Alone in Berlin 479 pages, instead of 565

The Land of Green Plums 176 pages, instead of 242

Norwegian Woods 289 pages, instead of 386

To get an average word count, three pages of full text were counted and then divided by three. In all cases, the total word count will exceed the actual word count. However, the discrepancy will be greater with The Land of Green Plums, as many paragraphs were preceded by a number of lines of blank space.

Both Sense & Sensibility and Alone in Berlin had a number of explanatory pages. These additional pages were not included in the story word count but do add to the weight of the book.

Although a domestic weighing scale is not 100% accurate, we may still safely conclude that too much paper is being used to produce books.

*I tend to think in the imperial system but find weights easier to write in the metric.

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