I’ve recently subscribed to the UK based Bookseller magazine. I grew up with this. There was always a copy to read at Stirling University where I did my year’s postgrad course in Publishing Studies in the mid 80s, and then at Hodder and Stoughton where I started off my publishing career. I indulged myself for a year or so in my early days of freelancing in Ireland too, but that was pre-internet and a year’s subscription was incredibly dear, due to the fact that it was a very chunky magazine back then. At least half of it consisted of the details of each of the thousands of books published each week so that the booksellers this tome was aimed at could get their orders in. There were also twice-yearly huge catalogues of new books too.
These days it’s a much more slimline volume. It must be ten years at least since I’ve seen a copy, possibly longer, but one thing struck me straight away. Not much has changed in the publishing world. Seriously. It’s the same names at the top of the lists - JK Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, Eric van Lustbader, Eoin Colfer, James le Carré to name but a few: the same types of book - non-fiction dominated by cookery books and biographies by young so-called celebs with not much to say, and adult fiction by spy thrillers and rather dreary, pretentious pseudo-literary stuff. The books still look much the same - Nick Sharratt or fairies and rainbows for kids’ books covers, and adult books with either the author's name as large as it can possibly be (if they're someone 'famous') or the title, and generally not much artwork. The covers are nothing special, and that’s a bit much given the hard time that’s given to indie book covers. I’ve seen plenty equally as good on Smashwords and my own clients never cease to amaze me with the quality of their covers as well as their writing.
This overall sameness of books a decade on is remarkable, but also depressing. It’s good that authors have a long shelf-life, both literally and figuratively, but I think this could be overdoing it. There’s no need for the same names to dominate so completely. They’re not the only ones who can write and I personally am not impressed by a good many of them. The indie world is so alive and vibrant with new writers, innovative ideas, enthusiasm and an overwhelming yet constantly underestimated level of talent.
Frankly it’s been quite a shock how little publishing has moved on it that decade. In the editorial to the first Bookseller I received this year, ebooks were referred to as “the digital slushpile”. There’s a distinct and, if not quite hostile, then a definitely distrustful attitude towards them generally in the magazine. Sony’s 20p ebook promotion is seen as “a faux promotion underwritten by false economics, with a sting it its tail”. Never mind that it’s getting people reading who might otherwise not have bothered.
That negative attitude is to be expected - this is, after all, the magazine for bookshop owners, although it’s been largely hijacked by publishers and freelance editors. The indie revolution is having an effect on mainstream publishing and on bookshops. Sales are stagnating. Kids’ books sales rose only 0.02% in 2012 on 2011 for example, yet children’s books show the most resilience to the creeping ebook tide. Very young kids aren’t going to be good ebook customers. You don’t mind your toddler chewing the corner of a chunky hardback and it (book, not toddler) will survive being dropped on the floor or down the loo, but not so a Kindle!
On the subject of kids’ books, the chart of bestsellers in the 1st Feb 2013 edition of the magazine showed that 8 out of the top 10 pre-school and picture books were by Julia Donaldson, another author who was writing a decade ago. Eight by the same author - that’s ridiculous! (The other two were Moshi monsters and Hello Kitty.) This implies that there’s only one author who’s worth reading for that age group and it shows the power of advertising and TV on the kids’ market. The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom were on TV over Christmas and that’s what has fuelled this rather crazy state of affairs.
The ebook is an unwelcome phenomenon for much of The Bookseller's readership, but it’s here to stay so publishers should be embracing it more enthusiastically. Bookshops are showing more adaptability by diversifying into games, stationery, jigsaws to go alongside their books, and increasing their children’s departments. They are becoming even more user friendly with more author visits and activities. That’s the spirit of flexibility that’s necessary in this day and age, and I wish them every success.
Am I getting anything positive from The Bookseller? Absolutely. News about what’s going in the industry, a feel for what the market is after (even though that is sadly more conservative that I’d like) and a general buzz of excitment about the book world in general. However, the distinct impression remains that the ‘traditional’ publishing scene is heading towards dinosaurdom unless it at least attempts to evolve.