My favourite children’s bookshop has just closed down citing impossibly high rents and rates. The Lion and Unicorn in Richmond has been a crucial part not just of my life since we moved here 30 years ago, helping my children learn to read, love and devour books. It gives a very special identity to this corner of the town. Just across the street is an adult bookshop, The Open Book, to which lucky children graduate in due course.
But it won’t be there to perform the same magical task for my grandchildren – leading critical young minds to question, discover and love learning. ‘Bookshop corner’ now boasts a new restaurant and the usual selection of hairdressers, cafes and clothes shops. No more Saturday afternoons with long queues of excited and eager children waiting to speak to an author – their own celebrity idol – and ask not just for a signature in a book but why he or she wrote the last adventure in a particular way or will the hero triumph in the end? I know how much that contact matters because I’ve been in that queue and seen how the book written by someone my daughter had just met was transformed into a treasured object, quite different from any book her teachers could possibly recommend.
This engagement with authors, I believe, helping children understand the creative process and that the product isn’t just another packet of cereal, is crucial in forming lifelong habits of discovery.
But this is not just a little local lament. All over the country bookshops are closing. The Booksellers Association reported that in 2012 the total number of independent bookshops on the high street declined for the sixth year in a row. During that year 73 closed but – a glimmer of hope perhaps? – 39 opened. One of the most dramatic statistics to contrast with this is that at the same time, in fiction, digital book sales were up 149%.
As an author I cannot afford to be, nor am I, entirely opposed to buying books on line. Many of the 9,000 or so members of the Society of Authors believe Amazon has boosted both their sales and their profile, while self-published authors praise Amazon as the great new hope which enables them to see their work published (albeit as an e-publication) and gives them a higher percentage of royalties, sometimes as much as 75%. We have (almost) all occasionally enjoyed the convenience of ordering a book we just thought of at midnight or taking a Kindle or iPad on holiday loaded with dozens of books. So let’s not pointlessly waste time wishing we could put the genie back in the bottle but instead let’s work with digital, let’s see it as a second best, a poor alternative.
Meanwhile, let the fight back begin, the campaign for real sales. This, authors must spearhead, so that Amazon does not dominate the entire book-producing industry, from publisher to bookseller. If their domination succeeds, there will not only be fewer high street bookshops, but fewer publishers, fewer agents and, all too soon, fewer books. The best independent bookshops boast enthusiastic assistants who will guide you to a book you may not know existed, a book that may never sell more than a couple of thousand copies, a rare gem of whose existence you wouldn’t otherwise know if you relied on online algorithms telling you ‘this is a book we think you will enjoy.’ How dare a computer presume to know what I will enjoy?
The main thing authors can do is to engage more with bookshops, not just locally but find those that have a connection with some aspect of your book, perhaps where a character went to school or committed a murder. Authors must not see this as a chore. You can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t enjoy meeting people. I know you won’t be paid for it (directly), and it’s time consuming, but engaging with your readers is a truly enriching experience. They will tell you things about your book (yes, even if it’s a novel) you didn’t know were in there. Giving talks about Wallis Simpson I am constantly told snippets of gossip, mostly unlikely. But one or two pieces of information imparted after a talk have led on to exciting new discoveries.
Authors’ appearances help to sell books. Before a talk people often say they really mustn’t buy any more books. But after the talk they do buy. They want it not only signed but often dated, with a record of place and perhaps even a personalised inscription: ‘To Mary, who may find some echoes in this story.’ The book by then has enhanced value; it contains a little piece of you.
Festivals mostly (but not entirely) book celebrities or prize winning authors but there is a gap in the market, which enterprising bookshops can fill, for the energetic, less famous author to tell a story.. Perhaps three novelists with a common theme could band together, and the Society of Authors is always happy to help trying to put author and bookshop together. Of course with a novel such as Rachel Joyce’s inspiring Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a campaign to have a talk in every town where Harold stopped is obvious, but the strategy can be applied for other books too.
Some bookshops are already event happy. If they don’t have the space they work in conjunction with a library or school. But the harsh reality is that those which do not exude a warm, welcoming feeling will not survive by making customers feel it’s their duty to support their local bookshop. To become an exciting destination, booksellers may need in addition to enthusiastic sales assistants, a coffee shop on the side, a comfortable place to sit and read or related gifts.
I’ve been lucky to experience two of the best. Silverdell Ice Cream Parlour and Book Shop in Kirkham creates bespoke ice creams and for my biography of Jennie Churchill they came up with the most delicious Manhattan Cocktail flavoured ice cream, which I was allowed just a tiny sample of before my talk. Mr B’s Book Emporium in Bath has devised a ‘Reading Spa’ voucher which entitles the lucky recipient to a one-on-one book chat in their sumptuous Bibliotherapy Room with an advisor over a mug of tea or coffee and slice of delicious cake. Your bibliotherapist will introduce you to a tower of books specially selected to suit your reading tastes. How brilliantly inventive is that!
Publishers can help by emphasising the physicality of books as beautiful objects that must be held, touched and admired in a shop by creating fabulous end papers, silk ribbon markers or even offering special personalised extras if you buy it from a bookshop. Local government can help by providing parking concessions -perhaps a scheme whereby customers who buy £20 worth of books get free parking or a free parking day? This is really part of a wider cultural debate and I believe the habit of culture should be as much a fundamental aspect of the environment as is, for example, the country’s architectural heritage. High street bookshops, local theatres, libraries all underline the importance of books, culture and learning and we need to fight to have towns and villages with character, identity and depth which show we have an interest in the future of that world for the next generation.
But a final piece of advice for authors. When a reader approaches explaining that they won’t be buying your book today as they already have it on an e-reader, stop making them feel guilty, feel sorry for them instead since it won’t be signed, they can’t put post it notes on pages they want to remember, and it won’t furnish a room.