In July this year, I will have been working in the book trade, both as bookseller and publisher for 20 years. What began in 1991 as a way of earning enough money to visit Macchu Picchu turned, imperceptibly, into a career.
When I arrived, the ‘Teleorder’ of customer order files was the very height of bookselling technology. The ‘Teleorder’ was the sent from a computer that had green text rather than a GUI and you could only do it once a day. The books could take up to a month to arrive and when they did, I would slowly alphabetise them into the fiction section. To this day whenever I think of a writer, I mentally pull them down from those shelves, Iris Murdoch always warm to the touch. Her shelf is just above the heater.
I do look fondly on those times, I learned my trade in a gloriously analogue world and throughout my time in bookshops I’ve met a host of eccentric, talented and astute people who taught me much about the business and no small amount about the world. But things have changed. I look across at my iPad and think about the book I’ve just downloaded. It didn’t take four weeks to arrive from Burnt Mill but four seconds to arrive from Amazon’s data center. To wait four weeks now, for anything, seems just plain weird.
What’s even weirder though, is the thought that I might feel nostalgic for an eccentric and haphazard supply chain. I’m amazed by the emotional attachment we have to vinyl records*. In exactly what way was putting 2p pieces on the stylus to stop it jumping a superior audio experience? Are we missing the truly essential and what is it that we are really fearful of losing?
What really counts for me and I suspect most other readers is what I will think and feel when my eyes meet the words. The ideas and insights gained from the relationships I’ve made and the books I’ve read are the things that will last. The smell of books? Thats just the smell of dust isn’t it?
What I think we fear to lose is the community of publishers and booksellers as we have known it. The world of book fairs and seaside conferences. The truth is that there has always been some change and if uncertainty makes us cleave to such totems, we may never find new ones, which may be just as nourishing to us. Publishing, is a very human business, and it may be that we will simply find new ways to connect, just as intimate, only different.
The truth is its not all doom and gloom. What is really clear to me, is that people are showing no signs of giving up reading and have no intention of giving up writing. Therefore, whatever else it may presage, the digital revolution is not going to mean the end of our culture. No, it means that those of us who have made our living by shaping, presenting and delivering that culture need to figure out once more what value we add and adding it in the best way possible.
We stand at a moment in history not unlike the moment that Johannes Gutenberg’s press supplanted monks with quills as the best way to make a book. The monks went off to quietly brew beer instead. Much as I like beer, I think my choice would have been then, as it is now, to make books, in whatever way required by the people who read them.
This blog will be about how we are all now making that choice and how I think it will manifest itself in the years to come. I will write about the changes in publishing and what I think will and should happen, particularly in the realm of book marketing, a discipline that has rarely been properly understood in publishing, except by those who understood it intuitively.
There is, in this still self-consciously ‘traditional’ industry, a good deal of wisdom and insight that we need to retain but I will argue that the real kernel of that wisdom was once not ‘tradition’ but an entrepreneurial approach to the future. It is to that spirit that we should now turn, with energy and innovation.
I may, from time to time, deviate from the twin topics of publishing and bookselling. This is only to be expected, given that the world is a big place and books are only a reflection of it. I cannot guarantee that my family won’t occasionally appear or that I may vent about politics or indulge in a bit of pop culture trivia. I may just throw up some stuff I see that I like. Bear with me. Those of you who have worked with me may expect the online to reflect the slightly distracted nature of the offline, only without quite so much hand movement.
So I’ll be posting at least one longish piece a week, sometimes more as the mood or subject takes me. And observations and thoughts as often as feels right. I’ll get quicker. I might ask some friends to join in too, and I’m always going to be interested in your comments.
Though the industry’s collective voice over the past few years could often have been described as that of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, I for one, am excited. If the book world can have adventures, rather than just printing them, well, this would seem to be it. And why not be open to a little adventure?
I don’t think the time has come yet, to buy my ticket to Macchu Picchu.
*On occasion, I am guilty of this myself, though its got a lot to do with a nostalgia for skiving (ironically) computer science lessons every friday in the 4th year.