• There’s a kind of hush, all over the world

    as publishers realise the full implications of the crumbling High Street for reader awareness. But as Jeong Ji-yeon, manager of this brilliant-sounding cafe in Korea says, what first appears to be a huge problem can turn out to be a wonderful opportunity for reinvention. That’s a really inspiring story.

  • In the library

    Up in London this week for a couple of days. I’m in a friend’s flat in a tower block in Tower Hamlets, and at the moment there’s a gale howling through the ventilator shafts that’s making the whole flat shriek. That’s going to make the journey back home on the A303 fun this evening. Out of one window I can see the now-empty Olympic Village (apparently turning into another corporate rock stadium this summer, ho hum), out of another the still-futuristic-looking twinkling Canary Wharf blocks, out of another the madcap Shard. It’s a beautiful skyline. I’m sitting here thinking about libraries. Plymouth Library used to be one of my favourite places when I was a kid (I was a swotty kid). I used to go there and be tested on the books I’d taken out, and you’d get a star or something if you read ten books. When I was about 9 I ventured upstairs to the archive bit to research a project on Sir Martin Frobisher, the Tudor explorer. I felt very grand. This week I was at the Faber digital conference, and Stephen Page, the Faber CEO, spoke very interestingly about the future role of libraries. Imagining a potential future where there are no longer any mainstream bookshops on the high street (which, to paraphrase John Lennon, is quite easy if you try), he was wondering where people will discover books. As our last post pointed out, the key issue going forward is what Will Atkinson, Faber’s sales boss, called the Discovery Gap: when there are no physical bookshops left, how do people find out about books? The internet isn’t very good yet at helping people browse possible book purchases, and somehow the social network side of books still isn’t very dynamic. One of the potential contributors to this area going forward could well be the library, emerging out of its current state of crisis (Plymouth Library, despite its extremely nice and helpful staff, is not the home from home that I remember) and becoming a social hub for citizens to come and engage with the idea of the book. The more you think about that, the more exciting and feasible an idea it is. It is likely to involve a separation of the library from its dependence on local authorities by bringing in outside parties, but if there is a binding vision for a library of the future which could be shared across the country, then this could be a really significant plug in the Discovery Gap: the library could reassert itself once more as the place where we go for knowledge and for creative advancement, the secular high street church. I hope we’re going to hear a lot more about all this soon. Meanwhile, let’s all renew our library tickets, and put on those earphones and listen to the naughty Mik Artistik with his own love letter to the library.

  • Why do people buy books?

    Some interesting new research coming out about the changes in the High Street vis-a-vis their online competitors. It’s summarised with links to other pages here and here. It’s well worth reading. What the research is showing is that the online reading sites like Goodreads and others aren’t very effective at generating book sales. They are nowhere near as effective as a visit to a bookshop. So what that means is that at the moment, people prefer to browse in a bookshop, then more than likely go home and buy the book on Amazon. If they haven’t got a bookshop to browse in first, they may not go to Amazon and buy a book, even if they spend time browsing Amazon (which isn’t very good at encouraging browsing) or talking about books on Goodreads and others. What all this research indicates is that in the new environment, all of us involved in the game need to have a greater understanding of the triggers which encourage people to buy. When I was running my last publishing company in London, the prime mover in all this was “approved recommendations”, which basically meant a Richard & Judy nomination, an Orange or Booker Prize shortlisting, that kind of thing: many readers would wait to be prompted by advisers they felt they trusted before they would go to purchase. All slightly depressing of course, but that’s how the world works. The next mover in the process was book design: research commissioned by Faber demonstrated that there was a physical dance which would lead to purchase: look at the cover; if that intrigued, turn it over and glance at the blurb on the back; if that intrigued, open the book and read the first para; if that intrigued, go back to the blurb and read it properly and look around the jacket for endorsement prompts (Richard & Judy etc); decide to purchase (which might mean put it down and go home and buy on Amazon). If that whole process gets taken out of the equation as high street shops disappear, then we face an entirely different purchase procedure. All very interesting and stimulating.

  • The price of words

    The Frankfurt Book Fair is kicking off again today, with pre-fair talks before the show itself opens tomorrow morning. This year, as well as talking about the strength of Brazil as a book market amongst other things, they seem to be talking about the price of books. This is an area which has become terribly confused over the last few years. First, the Net Book Agreement was toppled, which meant that publishers were no longer able to set the retail price at which books were sold, and so the more aggressive retailers such as the supermarkets began to use books as consumer price-plays: bestselling books like Harry Potter were savagely discounted as a way of encouraging consumers into the store in the hope that they would then linger and buy some loo rolls. Then e-books arrived, and Amazon’s Kindle spawned a wild rush of new digital marketing activity, which mostly seemed to revolve around either free e-books or very low-price e-books. I lost count of the number of publishers who used to say, with a sly and knowing wink, that such-and-such a book had got to the top of the e-book charts by the incredibly clever marketing tactic of offering it for free. “Then you lure in the reader, you see, and they will then pay for the next one.” Hmm. I’m not aware of that particular marketing ploy ever working, but I could be wrong. The overall result of this and most other areas of book marketing over the last 15 years seems to have been to reinforce in the consumer’s mind that books should be cheap, or possibly free. Which brings us to this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where they appear to be talking once more about the price of books, and whether the 99p e-book can possibly be sustained, and whether the market will tolerate increasing the price. Good grief. But at least they are talking about it, I suppose. The answer remains, to write words which are brilliant and important, and to make those words available to people who might wish to read them in such a way that the writer may sustain a living. Everything else is like Aristotle Onassis used to say: the rules are, there are no rules. The publishing industry hasn’t been very good at creating and/or sustaining rules about the marketing and distribution of words, so I think it may well be time that everyone else had a bash at it instead.