Death by a Million (paper) Cuts.

Tonight (5th March) is the much-touted inaugural ‘World [sic] Book Night’.  There are numerous booky events planned throughout the UK: signings, readings, seminars and TV pieces, all taking place this evening.  Good stuff.  But the mainstay of the project, the centre-piece of this literary banquet, is a giveaway of one million free novels (25 proven bestsellers chosen by various (and anonymous) publishing Olympians (through a non-disclosed selection procedure)).  Since it was announced last year, the giveaway has garnered vast public and political support, and I want, want to see it as a good thing; I want to add my voice to the myriad choir of bibliophile supporters; – but I just can’t.  WBN’s big book giveaway elicits a feeling of unease, even dread, in my belly; a feeling that is threatening to rise up and manifest itself in a vomitous stream of bile and anti-sentiment.  I’ll try to restrain myself, but no promises.

I’m well aware that opposing the book giveaway is to move decidedly against-the-grain of the blogging majority: on-issue, but off-trend.  This post may prove to be the proverbial final nail in the coffin of my blog’s meagre popularity.  Scratch that: this article will see my blog’s reputation sealed in an iron sarcophagus, which itself will be dipped in a vat of cement and jettisoned off the side of a funeral barge into the Mariana Trench, never to rise again.  But who said blogging was a popularity contest anyway? … 

With so much at stake, please allow me a few words of mitigation before I plant my flag too firmly in the sucking mud of the capitalist position.  Firstly (and brace yourselves for a shock with this late-game revelation): I love reading.  I love books.  And I want more people to love books.  I despair that in a jury of my peers, there may be one, two people with whom I can talk about books.  You can move that figure into the paltry decimals if the conversation turns to the stranger and more difficult aspects of fiction.  So promoting reading, debate and the novel (whether artefact or ‘e’) and encouraging discourse about books is a good thing in my eyes.   The socialist in me (who’s becoming more and more vocal these days) would love free books for everybody all of the time.

But almost as much as I love books, I love book shops.  And not just the small and charming indies that form the staple of my bibliophile diet.  I like the big, cavernous, labyrinthine high street ones too, where I can browse for hours, and where I have to self-censor in the face of ten equally attractive editions of each individual novel.  For me, buying a book is as much a histrionic and performative display as it is economic (more on this later). 

I also have a personal history with bookshops, one which will likely colour this post.  Just under two years ago, I was employed arranging deckchairs on the Titanic that was Borders Books UK.  I adored my job, and have many fond memories – but my presiding impression of our store’s final months is black and sinister.  I remember being irreconcilably upset, and even now, years later, dwelling on it for too long is a dangerous undertaking, which threatens to pull me into the slough of despond and drown me in sad memories.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the book retail and publishing world is in massive decline at the moment.  Borders is no more, Waterstones are rumoured to be halving the number of sites they carry this year: BBS has gone out of business, Books etc has vanished from the UK, and a reported 2000 Independents have closed down since the onset of the recession.  Partly this is the fault of the ‘Current Economic Climate’; but below-cost selling and loss-leader competition from the likes of Tesco and Amazon et al has also been immeasurably damaging.

At Borders we waged many long, difficult battles with publishers, begging them to shave a few pence off the wholesale price of books.  But publishers struggle too, and they would never budge on their price points for us, citing the CEC as their reason.

Now, to discover that publishers are giving away one million books for free almost defies belief.  Many publishers have been lobbying parliament for years in an attempt to have price-fixing introduced into the UK new book market – to protect the industry and the writers from the malicious loss-leading tactics of supermarkets. (Price fixing schemes have proven a runaway success in both Canada and Germany, where the majority of booksellers have managed to comfortably weather the economic maelstrom with no ill effect).

Understandably, people are thrilled by the giveaway: we all love a freebie.  But several authors have expressed their concern (they won’t be receiving any royalties from this, and given that most writers’ incomes are miniscule anyway, their concern is reasonable); booksellers are utterly outraged.  Flooding the market with (approx) eight million pounds of retail stock and concurrently stripping it of all retail value by delivering it to the consumer free of chargewill directly remove money and investment from the book retail sector.  As things stand, bookshops are struggling to compete with heavy-discounting: competing with a million FREE books is just impossible.

What’s more: the books that comprise the giveaway aren’t obscure or esoteric novels making a last-ditch attempt to find public recognition: they are heavy-hitters of the fiction world (Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman, David Mitchell etc.).  These novels are the financial mainstay of the book shop: it is revenue generated from sales of these books that allow book shops the luxury of selling the more obscure, difficult, non-mainstream novels.  Book shops need this revenue stream.

The WBN giveaway perpetuates a strange notion that book retail has some private and non-disclosed source of extra funding, and isn’t reliant on physical sales to turn-over profit.  Publishers, authors, booksellers and printers need to make a living, and a public consortium giving stock away for FREE (capitals used becuase, frankly, I’m still trying to convince myself that this is actually happening) is not going to reinvigorate the market: quite the opposite, I’d imagine.

Of course, there’s a strong ethical argument for the giveaway, and I fully expect the more passionate moralists out there to accuse me of being a Luddite.  I want more people to read; literature shouldn’t be the closely guarded secret of a privileged social elite: but I don’t think that giving away a million free books is going to spark the reading revolution that the WBN organisers would have us believe.  The moral/social benefits of this scheme are dubious at best, utter bullshit at worst.  But the damage to bookshops is real. 

Instead of the great readerly resurgence predicted by the WBN committee, the giveaway is merely preaching to the converted.  The likely outcome of the project is that 20,000 middle-class volunteers will distribute their 48 book allotments out among their mates and families.  There are no protocols in place to ensure specific, worthy demographics are able to take advantage of the giveaway.  Supplying charities or libraries or schools with cut-price books is one thing: a misguided and un-regulated free-for-all on a million units of stock is altogether a more menacing beast.

The giveaway devalues books, and furthers a notion that they are free to write, publish, print and distribute and are therefore not worth paying for.  Bookshops (especially indies) will be the ones paying for this giveaway, and I can’t help but feel that WBN is a great big Fuck You to bookshops. 

Giving away a million books is just the laziest way of inspiring people to read.  I know from experience that reading isn’t the cheapest of interests, but rarely is it so expensive as to be prohibitive.  There’s a disappointing perception that books are boring, difficult, unglamorous, time-consuming, obtuse or elitist: and these are the reasons that people don’t read: the WBN giveaway does nothing to tackle such problems.  It’s a naivety to think that throwing freebies at the public is going to convert the masses to reading, or be the progenitor of some new literary intelligentsia.

And sure enough people will rush to grab these free books, but I worry that these will be the same kinds of people who browse bookshops for hours, take advantage of the knowledge of staff, make long lists of potential purchases… and then go home and buy their books from Amazon to save meagre pence, as if bookshops don’t need their custom.  It’s a fundamental example of the old adage ‘to know the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

I love bookshops: I enjoy the long browse, and the visual delight inspired by the sheer amount of books in one place.  I love that two strangers, people who, on the surface, may have nothing in common, can bond instantly and with depth when two hands both reach for the same novel.  And I think this is worth protecting and standing up for.  The book shopping experience is unique, and it’s part of what I pay for when I buy books.  Buying books has become histrionic again – it’s political.  The experience offered by bookshops – community and discourse and unapologetic intelligence – is worth paying for: it’s fucking valuable.

I apologise for the polemic tone of this post.  And I know my opposition to the giveaway is going to anger some, but there we go.  This article isn’t a resistance to charity or the free exchange of ideas, and I still believe that encouraging non-readers to dive in is a noble endeavour.  But this is the wrong way to go about it.  Why don’t you go into your nearest bookshop and give the booksellers a hug?  Something tells me they’re gonna need it.


6 responses to “Death by a Million (paper) Cuts.

  1. I understand your worries, but I don’t think that many of the people I gave my book to had bought one in the past few years. The sad fact is that many of the population just watch TV in their leisure time and have forgotten the pleasure of reading. I hope that a few of them try my book and remember how much they enjoy the experience. Hopefully a few of them will then actually go into a bookshop/library and pick up another book.

  2. Just caught up with this post. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head that WBN was well intentioned but essentially misguided. Completely agree that it’s probably current, middle-class book lovers looking to exchange with one another, rather than converts to reading. In my opinion the most important thing is protecting writers and the culture that bookshops bring to high streets. Clearly WBN aimed to win new supporters but as you say, there must be better ways of doing it. Brilliant as always; far from being put off I loved the passion of this.

  3. I am with you 100% on the joy of browsing in bookshops, but maybe we have to move with the times? Living somewhere where books (and bookshops) aren’t readily available, the kindle and online book shopping looks more and more attractive (although I can’t bring myself to buy a kindle just yet). On the plus side, those sorts of innovations do open up reading to a wider audience through the web even it it doesn’t conform to our ideas of what is pleasurable about browsing in the bookshop. On the subject of whether they should give books away for free, well I see exactly where you’re coming from. However, I doubt the publishers have agreed to this out of the goodness of their hearts. More likely someone has produced a very convincing cost benefit analysis somewhere along the line. . . . .

    • I think there’s space for online and highstreet bookselling. I’m not against e-books or online selling at all: especially where it provides access to otherwise unobtainable books. (a few months ago I wrote a post here about how foolish it is to flat-out reject one format over the other (paper or ‘e’)). I know there are lots of good reasons to buy books online. I actually have an e-reader: but I bought a PRS-650 (which is great) instead of a Kindle.

      I’m just too suspicious of Amazon and their business practices to invest in a kindle atm. (they have bullied several publishers in the past, by removing the ‘buy’ button from their books unless they cave into their wholesale pricing demands). There’s a strange content lock on non-Amazon e-books too, which can be difficult to get around without software mods (for e.g. there are no external memory ports on the Kindle).

      Plus, Amazon e-books are formatted to exclusive AZW format files: which means that you HAVE to have a Kindle to read e-books bought from Amazon: effectively locking competitors out of the e-reader market. Amazon is the only e-book store whose books aren’t cross-compatible with other e-reader devices.

      Also, their approach to DRM is strange. Last year, Amazon remotely deleted copies of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ from Kindles because they’d had a disagreement with publishers: even though people had paid for the book. Dodgy stuff. I don’t want Amazon remotely accessing my library and removing/altering things once I’d bought them. The fact that the book in question was 1984 made things feel especially sinister.

      E-books are great, and I don’t begrudge them at all, what I oppose is the below-cost sales tactics and loss-leading that some online retailers use: which I consider a malicious business practice that blocks competition. Price fixing on physical books has proven incredibly successful in many countries, protecting culture and business. Sorry, rant, rant, rant…. 🙂

      I think making reading more accessible is a great idea: it’s not the agenda of WBN I have a problem with, just their methods. As I say, giving away free (paper) books in this volume is likely to be damaging to bookshops, and they need all the help they can get at the moment.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting all: it means a lot to me. x

  4. I thought you made some pretty persuasive points actually. The whole exercise seemed to me probably misguided. I don’t really object to it (I’m not in the trade) but I’d be amazed if it does anything at all to promote reading. I think as you say all it will really achieve is a few bookshops not selling books that were already popular and their bread and butter.

    If the giveaway were of overlooked writers capable of being popular but unjustly forgotten that might be different. A giveaway of stuff that would sell anyway though just doesn’t seem that useful to me.

    • Many thanks for commenting. Indeedy, it’s now well over a week since the books were given away, and I’m yet to see any signs of the predicted ‘reader revolution’; as far as I can tell, there aren’t bagillions of new bookish converts flooding the streets and the bookshops. Maybe it’s going to be a slow-burner….

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