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Books: The Future is Daunted June 8, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

It’s been a long time since I last gave vent to my skewed polemic – at least in this forum – but all good things must come to an end. And the end in this case is the completion of an oddly unsettling draft of a book I was paid to write, and as the job I thought I was moving onto directly afterwards has evaporated, I find myself with a window of opportunity through which I can now fling the stored-up bile that’s been festering these past few months. So abundant is this that I will probably be scribbling something every few days, so watch out…

But let’s begin with the news that the seriously loss-making Waterstones book chain has recently been acquired by a Russian oligarch, Alesander Malmut, who has entrusted the boutique bookseller, James Daunt, to run it. Ill-informed wannabe bibliophiles such as I allowed a smidge of relief at this news, because Daunt’s six London outlets are what good bookshops should be: comprehensibly stocked; well organised; knowledgeably and enthusiastically staffed. And because they are all in affluent areas such as Belsize Park and Marylebone, they attract well-heeled, middle-class punters who can live with his no-discount policy. But Waterstones has almost 300 branches, many of them in soulless shopping centres where discounts are essential to get people into the shops to buy a limited selection of heavily promoted titles.

Recent newspaper interviews have revealed that contrary to previous suggestions, Daunt will not be ending Waterstones’ discount policies and he acknowledges that adopting the ‘neighbourhood bookstore’ model that works so well for leafy Hampstead will be a tough call in, say, a dying shopping precinct in Hereford. He also is mindful that Amazon are selling more e-books that paper ones and tantalisingly promises that Waterstones will ramp up its own online business whilst claiming, rather naïvely in my view, “When people say books are dead, I don’t recognise that. Why wouldn’t you want to spend half an hour in a really nice bookshop?”

Well James, because they don’t have the time and inclination, or at least not enough of them do even if, as he also claims, “a good bookshop introduces readers to books that they otherwise might not have encountered.” And the key here is ‘not enough of them’ because there aren’t sufficiently well read, slightly genteel readers that his own bookshops profit from to make Waterstones work. And with the cost of just living, i.e. eating, traveling and paying the utilities rising inexorably in these straitened times, which casual reader going to buy a paperback, even discounted to £5.99 when they can get it at half that price for an Elonex e-reader they’ve just bought for eighty quid from, well, Waterstones?

I accept that I’m not as avid a reader as many of my friends, so Daunt may be right and I may be wrong, but what is undeniable is that according to comprehensive research by the National Literary Trust, one in four 11 year-old schoolkids can’t read properly, and according to the Evening Standard, one in six adult Londoners is functionally illiterate. The Standard’s research also revealed that one in three children doesn’t own a book yet 85% of them own a games console. Although you and I of a certain age and education may regard these statistics as little else but lamentable, they should be giving Mr Daunt sleepless nights.

He must also be mindful of Wellington College’s recent decision to dispose of half its library books in favour of providing e-book access to its students… or at least those that won’t be functionally illiterate by the time this policy kicks in. In enraged response to this news, my new friend and professional scribbler (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, ex-Wellington student), Terence Blacker commented in his Independent column, “A book, in its traditional form, provides, unlike any other medium, a direct, private and personal form of communication – imagination to imagination, brain to brain. It is unmediated, beyond the control of bosses, teachers, big business, politicians. It is an experience which can change lives. Reading by computers is entirely different. The communication between writer and reader is de-personalised. The surprise element – ‘I picked it up, read it’ – is almost entirely lost, and it is from those startling moments of discovery that real reading (and intellectual freedom) derive.”

James Daunt might well agree, but I wonder if he or indeed you may come, however reluctantly, to the conclusion that ‘traditional books’, and in their wake, printed magazines, will inevitably become extinct? For example I read in the latest issue of InPublishing magazine (the printed version, naturally) that increasing numbers of magazine subscribers – admittedly as opposed to casual buyers – want digital versions of printed magazines: 37% in the case of computer titles (not much surprise there perhaps), but also 22% of women’s celebrity magazines.

But if literacy as we know it is on the wane what will these magazines look like? Websites is the obvious answer, where gobbets of colourfully presented information in words of few syllables pander to the short attention spans of people who grew up glued to their games consoles and without books. And books themselves will exist only as glorified, or even simplified video games. One could argue that this is a good thing because it will give employment to the thousands of people laid off when Waterstones, like my local bookshop (see Better Read Than Dead blog, March 1st) go out of business and the printers, distributors and most of the traditional publishing houses who supplied them lay off now redundant staff… provided of course that they can re-train as website or video game developers. As for the rest of us who can’t or won’t, well we’ll be all the poorer, both financially and culturally.

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1. Paul Blezard - June 9, 2011

Thought-provoking stuff as ever, Mark. I have mixed feelings about digital vs paper reading. I like both, although I have yet to read an actual book on line. One part of me says that ‘any reading is better than none’ while the other half agrees with your worst ‘Grumpy Old Luddite’ predictions. …
…..And the irrepressible pedant in me pipes up with “Pah! Williams doesn’t even know the difference between straightened and straitened and a spell-checker won’t enlighten him either!”
Paul the pedalling pedant from Ham
PS Straits of Dover, Straits of Gibraltar etc…..

markswill - June 9, 2011

Well I agree on all counts, Paul: it’s a bit of a conundrum. And wrist-spanked correction duly attended to.

2. WTK - June 9, 2011

Well thought through, beautifully written, and on point as always. Unfortunately, the bile, or the passion, won’t suffice to remedy the perceived ills of publishing. It will all be digital in the near future and books will be quaint collectibles in the distant future, taking their place with hand-painted pottery, hand-ground telescope mirrors, roto gravure presses, copy machines, steam tractors, clipper ships, blunderbusses, and much of the other stuff that people stash in their attics and sheds. I assume within the decade we will see ‘tablet’ displays with scratch-n-sniff tabs emitting that musty mildewed smell with the sound of pages turning. But, will those same tablets be able to smudge ink on our fingers and give paper cuts? Now, that is the question…

3. jan buxton - June 9, 2011

Interesting, Mark, although I am not so sure that the shift to digital media will go too far even if it goes too far for Waterstones. I suspect that the analogy should be that of the much-anticipated demise of radio once television started to take hold rather than the tussle between formats that saw off Betamax or the succession of digital storage: wax cylinder – vinyl – reel-to-reel tape – cassette – CD – DVD – flash memory & hard drive.

However, surely what is most important for bibliophiles is the availability of the words not whether they are on paper, slate or screen? Admittedly I also have never read a whole book electronically and have printed out electronically delivered magazines (to read in the bath.)

Yet I have had more success browsing on Amazon and buying from them real paper books than the numerous books I’ve picked up from traditional bookshops and often never read more than a couple of pages. I like Amazon’s facility for reading a few pages but I like more their ability to sell me out-of-print books that I have been unable to find anywhere else.

I think that you hit on the real threat – declining literacy. If reading is a difficult chore rather than an interesting pleasure for future generations then books of any format will inevitably decline.

markswill - June 9, 2011

Thanks Jan, and glad you got my final and perhaps most depressing point. But I am trying to get my head around the idea that our generation communicates in a way that the ones behind us may actively and justifiably see as being redundant: maybe they relate, or will in the future, by some weird technology-induced osmosis?

4. WTK - June 9, 2011

Hmmm, I looked through my last 6 orders from Amazon and noticed that 4 were sent from dinky little bookshops spread throughout the US. Maybe Amazon increases sales from small bookshops, not mega-titles of course, but for out of print and low volume titles. It’s unlikely that I’d travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to buy a used book…

markswill - June 9, 2011

Well Mr T you have a point: I’ve just HAD to order Thomas McGuane’s latest tome from a shop in Alabama via Alibris, but that’s because it hasn’t been published here in the UK due to poor sales of his previous works. I blame the (mis)reading public!

And further to your earlier comment, you might want to check out my reply to Jan Buxton’s comment, above. Or not, as the case may be.

5. john dickinson - June 10, 2011

As an older generation (where the hell did all that time go?) reader I always enjoy Mark’s ruminations. The hard copy v digital argument will, as we all know, sort itself out all in good time. I enjoy searching out books on my electronic reader – and buying them inexpensively – sometimes for nothing – but I find the actual reading experience greatly reduced for some reason. Surely it can’t be a touchy feely thing? For a biker!. So I still by books as well.
I have thought of scooping some pages out of an old rubbish book and settling the reader into this – would this have the desired effect???

6. Jonti Walker - June 12, 2011

As always an interesting read and thought provoking! A big thank you. I recently messed up my cordless phone and downloaded the handbook to try and find a solution. In the end I gave up and spent 10 minutes hunting for the paper instruction book which was so much easier to read, hunt through and find what I needed to sort the problem. Long live paper books! BTW my Pdf honda civic repair manual has 1,200 pages – impossible to find anything in it quIckly!! (Ok so some bright spark will point out these are technical reference books well so what?)

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