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Deborah Lawrenson

This is a terrific - and timely - debate, Cornflower, and thank you for getting it going.

For innovative publishing ideas, check out Irish crime fiction writer Declan Burke, who is a seriously good writer and journalist who writes with searing (and often hilarious) honesty on his Crime Always Pays blog (www.crimealwayspays.blogspot.com) about writing and getting published.

Now he's come up with a viable plan to publish his latest novel, A Gonzo Noir - praised by John Banville among many others - as a co-operative venture. Do have a look. If anyone can make it happen, he can.

Darlene

I work for a library and it has been exasperating to watch it become more about big business than the books. An email yesterday announced that we are now selling water bottles with our 'brand' label. Times change but I do wish it were more about the books than promoting what has become the library as a corporate image. Thank you for the space to rant...now I'll go off and think of something constructive.

LizF

Another excellent piece and yet more food for thought, thank you.
The point about there being a lot of books out there but not necessarily what the reading public wants, is well made.

Dark Puss

Karen, let me also commend your interesting posts and the debate that followed (and follows). You make an interesting assertion:

"but what is actually on offer is smaller in terms of variety than it used to be"

Do you have any evidence for this? It doesn't match my perception but as I know perfectly well my perception is sometimes very far from reality.

"Can we buy and borrow more books, talk about them on blogs and to friends, join reading groups or hold charity bookswaps at work (anything to get books moving)."

I can certainly buy and borrow more books but I won't be able to (I mean of course give up other things to make more time) read them! I can join more reading groups and then regularly fail to contribute for similar temporal reasons. Again I ask the question about evidence that "books moving" is an issue? How do I know which books you want me to move in particular and why?

Dark Puss

LizF, please see my questions below; do you have any evidence you can provide to support that assertion? What books does this heterogeneous mass called the reading public want and how do I find out what they are?

Cornflower

I refer you to the comments on the original post, specifically those concerning midlist writers.

Dark Puss

I have read with great interest every comment on the original post at least twice. I see nothing that tells me that overall variety has diminished, just that for some individuals, for whom I have every sympathy, they appear to be being rejected for no apparently good reason.

Is there something I can see that might tell me that I can no longer find as many different authors of books on, I don't know, mediaeval mystery novels as I could have done in the 1980's or 1990's. Every time I go into a bookshop (and that's pretty much every week) I am constantly amazed at the variety on offer. If I am to lobby publishers, booksellers and libraries, and I am happy to have a go at all of these I feel I need some hard evidence to put before them as they are very likely to throw some back at me if I don't.

Cornflower

If you look at the figures above you'll see that between them, books & stationery chains (i.e. not Waterstone's but WHS etc.) and supermarkets have 44% of the market, and it is chiefly their power to determine what publishers bring to that market that we are talking about here, and what they sell is, on the whole, uninspiring.
Bookshops themselves of course stock a much wider range than do supermarkets, but what is typically promoted front-of-shop (in the chains) is still very limited, very same-y, and presumably that's because they have sold that space to the books with the biggest marketing budgets, which tend to be 'of a type'.

LizF

No incontrovertible evidence, Dark Puss, I have to admit.
The point I was trying to make is that judging from the points of view of the bloggers whose posts I read on a regular basis and those who comment on them,(the reading public rather than the don't-know-one-end-of-a-book-from-the-other public) the vast majority of them do not read the celebrity tomes/misery memoirs/sub-Twilight/sub-Dan Brown/fluffy pink covered chick lit/TV inspired type of volumes that fill up a lot of the shelves of the high street book selling shops.
Readers are heterogenous with a wide range of interests but you wouldn't guess it from the front line shelves of the big name national chains. A real shame if, like many towns, that is all you have available.

Dark Puss

Dear LizF thank you for your reply. National Chains - a fair point, so how do we change that aspect (the one-horse town)?

m

For all we complain about the big chains, I grew up in a one-horse town before they existed and there was nowhere to buy books except a few skimpy shelves in WHS. My nearest bookshop is possibly the nation's feeblest branch of Waterstones - but it's still infinitely better than anything we had in the 70s. Those well-stocked independents that we get so nostalgic about simply didn't exist everywhere.
As readers, what are we grumbling about? It's never been easier to buy books when you can contact any seller in the country without getting up from your desk.

Ros

And yet, those books sell in large quantity. I think it's pretty unfair to dismiss the majority book-buying public just because their taste in reading material is different from your own.

Ros

I think I'm another one who would need more evidence to be persuaded that there is a problem.

There are a LOT of books still being published and as far as I can see, across a very wide variety of genres and styles. And if you are a reader interested in finding these books, it's never been easier - blogs, free sample chapters online, as well as traditional media reviews, book clubs and so on. You don't even have to make time to visit your local bookshop to order the book and then trek back a week or two later to pick it up - you can do it all in a click of a button from your computer and have it delivered to your door. If you read ebooks, you can have a book on your ereader within seconds of having decided to buy it. So I find it very hard to agree that 'readers are being denied the products they like and want more of'. As a reader, I'm pretty sure that if no more books were published for the rest of my life, I'd still find plenty to read from the things that are already on my TBR list or ought to be. So I'm not at all worried that while publishers are still churning books out that I'm somehow going to run out.

Sure, there will be some great books that don't get much publicity, and no doubt many good to moderate books that don't get published at all. But these days, as many of your commenters have pointed out, authors can do a LOT to promote their own books, and can even take responsibility for publishing their own books if they have to. And I'm also unconvinced that there was some golden age of publishing when all the writers who deserved to be published were.

And, finally, as I said in an aside to someone else upstream, I really don't like the implied literary snobbery which dismisses the kind of books sold by supermarkets (still only 20% of the market) or in the promotions at big bookstores. People are entitled to their own choice of reading matter. You may not want to read a celebrity biography (and neither do I) but I don't see any need to suggest that they are not real 'readers'. There is obviously a much larger market for what you call 'sliced white' than for the rather more rarefied artisan bread, judging by the sales figures, yet you suggest that 'readers on the whole are discerning, we are the equivalent of the buyer of artisan bread - though of course there is still a co-existing market for 'sliced white' and the like.'

Publishing is, and always has been, a business. Sentimentality about paying higher prices to keep midlist authors in a lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed is pie in the sky nonsense.

Cornflower

I agree that it's never been easier to buy books, and that's a source of joy to me!

Cornflower

I hope my comments aren't tinged with any sentimentality here, nor is any snobbery implied.
Re. the books 'we like and want more of', they are the dropped midlisters we were talking about the other day, the people who have written books eagerly awaited by those who've read their earlier work and which are getting 'rave rejections' from publishers who are either keener to take a chance on an unknown in the hope that they will be the next big sensation, or play it safe with the all too similar titles typical of the supermarket.
The readers I referred to as discerning are the sort of people who follow book blogs, join reading groups, attend literary festivals and take a wider interest in the world of books than those for whom a book is a quick, not overly-considered purchase to be popped in the trolley with the weekly shop.
I mentioned that the two markets co-exist, and so it should be - hopefully in a state of balance that takes account of the tastes and needs of both groups. If, as has been asserted by the writers who commented, publishers' decisions are increasingly driven by the supermarkets and the WHS-type shops, imbalance is the result.

Litlove

I'm a keen reader who will buy about 150 books a year, read just over a hundred and am stockpiling shamelessly as I'm not keen on ebooks. I am sure that there is a wide variety of books out there, but the problem is getting to hear about them. Bookstores and supermarkets tend to carry the same titles. Amazon, which is great in many respects, doesn't always manage to provide me with the information I'm seeking. I was a bit horrified a few weeks ago, when looking at their new releases page, to see how same-y all the covers were. The majority of books looked similar because they were all catering to the same tastes, and much as I will happily read genre fiction, I like to read more broadly than that. I've been blogging for 4 and a half years now and read blogs widely - and have read more widely thanks to them, although mostly in American fiction. But there are still only so many hours in the day that anyone can devote to surfing the net. I just know there are great books out there, and I do get frustrated sometimes that it's hard to hear about them. For me, this is the imbalance that's being discussed.

What I wish is that the publishers would club together to provide a joint online newsletter, say fortnightly, which detailed all their new releases. Just a couple of lines of summary and an image of the cover would do. That way I could at least keep up with what's coming out.

Ros

I'm not sure what you mean by 'balance'. Publishers and booksellers are driven by profit, not by some greater cultural objective. If a lot of people will buy category romances, chick lit and celebrity endorsed books (which is what I mostly see at my local supermarket), that's what they will put on the shelf. If a lot of people bought literary fiction then I'm sure they'd be happy to sell that too. But they don't. Books in top 10 bestseller lists are often only selling a few thousand copies a week, so I'm guessing that midlisters are selling only a few hundred. For a shop to maximise its revenue, it can't afford to keep stocking a wide range of books that only sell occasional copies. It's not that they have made an arbitrary decision not to sell books to 'discerning readers', it's that there aren't enough of those readers to make it worth their while. And if there aren't enough readers to make it worth the retailers' while, then there may not be enough to make it worth the publishers' while. That's why, I'm afraid, it does seem sentimental to me to suggest that the market can be overridden in order to provide for the needs of a small group of more discerning readers. People don't make money on those kinds of book - authors rarely do, retailers rarely do and publishers rarely do.

I do think that there will be new and creative ways of 'artisan publishing' which will allow some authors to make their books available in small quantities at higher prices, but I don't think that large publishing houses or retailers will be the ones to do this. And it won't work for everyone.

But also, I'm still really unconvinced that the imbalance you've mentioned even exists. You never seem to have any difficulty keeping your tbr pile well stocked, for instance. I'm sorry for those midlist authors who are struggling at the moment, but I honestly don't think that writing is ever going to be a viable career for very many people other than the likes of Dan Brown and JK Rowling. And in a time of recession, I'm not at all surprised to hear that publishing houses are becoming more and more reluctant to take any kind of risk. Book sales are down in almost every category and I expect they will continue to be low until things change in the wider economy.

Barbara

I'm very impressed by the cogently expressed arguments of both Cornflower and Ros here. I agree with Ros that you can't expect the book trade to be less market driven than any other form of retail. I also dislike the slight snobbery implied in disparaging the kind of books sold in supermarkets. I once heard two women discussing Penny Vincenzi as animatedly as anyone at a literary festival or on a blog, might discuss Wolf Hall. The fact is, the book buying public is much larger than it used to be. You may feel that 'more means worse' but those (like me) who want something better, have no problem finding it.

Margaret Powling

I'm befuddled and dizzy after so much discussion which I admit to flicking through as I might the pages of a novel I'm browsing, seeing whether it's one I want to buy ... but I applaud not only Cornflower but also all who have entered into this discussion. Well said, one and all.

Cornflower

I have no gripe with what the supermarkets sell, I'm just sorry that publishers are rejecting other, good, work (and prejudicing the chances of books they do bring out) in concentrating on that sector and meeting its demands; that's what I mean by balance, or lack of it.

LizF

Ros, I'm sorry if my comments lead anyone to believe that I am dismissive of people's reading tastes as that is very far from the case - I'm just pleased that they ARE reading books!
My comment was related to being faced with the same books being promoted so vigorously at chain bookshops that it is difficult to get past them - particularly at this time of year when anything other than best seller list publications are often hard to find (a bit like a decent choice in birthday cards for anyone born in November and December!)

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