The world of bookselling…

This voyage began when I counted up the number of friends I had and realised that even if every single one bought a book, I was still going have to find a way to sell books to that mysterious entity known as the public. Still, I could see a real upturn for my social life, since being a writer is a bit like locking yourself in a box and throwing away the key. It would give me a great excuse to ‘get out more’…

“It’s not what I expected.” This is how Thor Noggson described the source of the Nile, having set off years earlier for the North Pole. I said this too, about the world of bookselling.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a pre-austerity world of busy high streets and lots of shops, including lots of bookshops often run by very and knowledgeable people. So I set off to explore my local towns and see what remained of this lost world…

These days, it’s a bit like Jurassic Park mixed up with the Mappa Mundi; and the law of the jungle applies. The High Streets are sadly dilapidated and filled with pound stores, charity shops and empty spaces. And yes, there are some scary monsters out there – between them they have gobbled up most of the small bookshops. The biggest monster is probably Amazon who ate the arms and heads by supplying everything the shops did, and more, without the need to leave your house. Then the supermarkets ate a chunk of the bodies by selling popular books dirt cheap. Meanwhile the charity shops, like large neighbourly rats, nibbled the legs away by selling large quantities of cheap second hand books. And then the big high street chains gobbled up anything that remained in a decent location – eg Waterstones gobbled up Ottakars, who had in turn gobbled up Dressers, etc, etc.

So there aren’t many small bookshops left, and those that survive are often mainly selling mostly second hand books with a few new books of local interest. Even the big companies have circled the wagon trains in order to survive. There are very few book wholesalers left because they too have also gobbled each other up. The survivors avoid competition with each other by specialising in one thing eg fiction, academic books, or library supply. Then they demand horrendous discounts to stock your book, and supermarkets and high street chains get their stock from these wholesalers… the net result is an endless downward pressure on the price you can ask for your book.

But, hey ho, there was an upside to my voyage. The monsters aren’t all bad; if you’re clever enough you can get a piggy back ride and use them to sell your books, especially Amazon, but only if your book is good enough. And the big chains bookshops are still full of helpful people, even if their ability to help local writers is more limited by company rules. Plus, I did get out more, and found that one town I had thought of as a real tip, the armpit of the northeast, had a delightful and historic town centre.

Maybe all this is a simply the result of the digital revolution. The paper book may not be dead yet, but most of the people who buy paper books are no spring chickens… I feel an ebook coming on, but not yet, I tell myself, I need to sell a few more paper ones first. So at the end of this voyage I realised that what I needed was… a cunning plan. Where the hell is Baldrick when you need him?


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