Books: The Future is Daunted June 8, 2011Posted 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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