Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Wednesday whereabouts

The independent bookshops

Well, folks, the new year has got off to a cracking start.

Richard Charkin, CEO of the huge Macmillan empire, has kicked off a debate on his blog about the welfare of the independent bookshops -- i.e. shops which are privately owned, stand-alone businesses, not part of the great high-street chains. (Link from Clive Keeble, who is a debate participant.)

Charkin takes as his text a letter which was published in the Bookseller. He adds that, in his view, the issue needs to be debated 'more formally than through the Bookseller or on this blog.'

Following the appearance of this post, numerous members of the book trade commented, Charkin responded, and so forth. It's all there for you to read.

Whether you're a book buyer, writer, publisher, bookseller, librarian, or book-trade van driver, I recommend that you do read this debate. It will tell you a great deal about the current state of the book business in the UK. It is also relevant, I think, to other countries, though circumstances will differ somewhat.

Personally, had I ever been tempted to set up a bookshop, I think I would have been deterred by three factors.

First, the financial risk, which speaks for itself.

Second, the administrative complexity. You get just a sniff, during the Charkin debate, of how complicated the book trade is. But the average bookseller can reasonably expect, during the day, to be asked to order, specially, a paperback at £8.99, very possibly from some small publisher that he has never dealt with before.

If the bookseller can get this book from one of the big wholesalers, Gardners, or Bertrams, that isn't going to be too much of a problem (though there will be precious little money in it). But if it's not available from them, the bookseller has two options. He can lie, and say that he can't get it. Or he can go through the palaver of contacting the publisher, getting it sent, paying the invoice, and so forth. For an absolutely trivial sum of money, to do a favour for a customer.

About forty years ago I was told that, twenty years before that, the massive London County Council never bothered to check an invoice under £50 because it wasn't cost-effective to do so. But today booksellers are dirtying perfectly good pieces of paper, and writing cheques, for sums far smaller than that. It seems to me, from what I've seen of it, that book-trade paperwork is one of the least cost-effective devices ever invented by man.

The third factor which would put me off being a bookseller is the sheer physical effort. One book is OK, but a box of books is damned heavy, and someone has to heave them about.

No. On the whole I think I would rather be driven mad by writing books than by trying to sell them.

Meanwhile, Clive Keeble also points out that retail analysts are not thrilled by the prospects of the high street's future in general, and by bookshops in particular. Waterstones is owned by HMV, a firm which is described by Richard Ratner, of Seymour Pierce, as 'the living dead.'

Short reports

Alan Furst has a new book out; or at least, I hadn't noticed it before.

It's Celebrity Big Brother time again, folks. And what I want to know is, which publisher is going to sign up Jade's Mum? Or has she been done already, and I just didn't notice?

The Sobol award, which offered big prizes for wannabe novelists, if they coughed up $85, has been cancelled.

Back in May 2006, we did a post here about UK book packagers Working Partners. Now Brandon Robshaw, who has a contract with them, describes how the business works in the Independent.

Richard and Judy have unveiled a list of eight books for their book club in 2007. I find myself quite uninterested, but the trade will be watching these selections carefully.

Jeffrey Archer is to publish a 'reinterpretation' of the story of Judas Iscariot. Doubtless, Archer being Archer, he will claim staggering originality, but in fact many thoughtful people have reached similar conclusions a long time ago. Examples: theologian Hugh Schonfield, novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. And -- ahem -- I had got the same idea as Schonfield et al when still a schoolboy, so it can't be very difficult.

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, reports that some big agents are setting up arrangements to help their clients market their books. She writes: 'Today -- with marketing departments at [publishing] houses already stretched thin and, it must be said, plenty of whining and complaining from authors and their reps about what happens to books once they get into the corporate pipeline -- traditional houses frankly need help.' Isn't that wonderful? You finally get a contract and then you need to get your agent to do the marketing.

I have just re-read Dr Sarno's book The Divided Mind, and I consider it to be the most important and useful book that I read last year. A recent comment on my post by Casey illustrates the situation nicely. When it comes to getting the message, some people, e.g. Casey's sister, have selective hearing. They just don't listen, because they think they're being accused of being weird. Sarno's whole point is that the pain-generation mechanism that he describes is not unusual or neurotic; it's universal, normal, and probably inevitable.

Later note: If you are interested in learning more about Dr Sarno, there is now a wiki-type site which contains a great deal of useful information. In particular, it contains many first-hand reports by former pain sufferers who explain how Dr Sarno's ideas, and his practical suggestions for treatment, have helped them to feel better. I warmly recommend it. The web address is


Clive Keeble said...


Many thanks for giving so much exposure to the plight of the indies.

I would also suggest that those who are interested in the original thread on Richard Charkin's blog might care to look at yesterday's topic and comments "Wheeling and Dealing" and today's "E Commerce"

Having a dodgy back is one of the "wounds" which we booksellers endure : but, all in all life is very kind to us.

JodyTresidder said...

"Jeffrey Archer is to publish a 'reinterpretation' of the story of Judas Iscariot..."

I trust awful Archer's scholarly chum (the one who has provided the research, mentioned in your link) is prepared for the Brit tabloids to rummage through his personal life...

Should be fun!

Andrew O'Hara said...

An interesting debate between the latte crowd and the trench fighters. I suspect neither is right and that both will be surprised over the next few years.

chap o'keefe said...

Having a vested interest in the selling of books, particularly to libraries, I find the debate on Richard Charkin's blog disturbing. But then I've been disturbed for more than ten years. The marketing of books in the UK these days is a complete mystery to me.
Why, for instance, would Tesco list online my next book, due out end of March, but ignore my current? (And no, if you try emailing them, they won't tell you or pass on your query to their buyers.)
Another mystery is how the libraries decide what to buy/not buy.
So, too -- broadening the debate -- is the British PLR system. I can't claim it because although I'm British-born and -educated, I'm not resident in the UK any more. Which means folks get to read my books, if they care for them, for free. Of course, if I was the son of one of the WWII aircrew responsible for dropping the bomb on a primary school just a few miles from my birthplace, I would qualify for British PLR. Seems EC residents can have it; Commonwealth can't. Nor Americans. All those horrible people, in fact, upon whom Britons counted when the chips were down during my childhood.
And although GOB would prefer to be driven mad by writing books than selling them, one has to follow the other in our brave new world, I'm afraid -- not just for the self or vanity published, but for authors with reputable publishers. I spend heaps of time putting together online promo material not just for my own books, but for others' issued in the same genre fiction series. Seems the publisher and library supply firms believe the library buyers don't want to see, or need, such material. So the authors and their keener readers must put it together themselves.