Monday, 21 February 2011

The Death of the Book Store...Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it’s just the first round....

What we are currently experiencing is adjustment to a revolution, albeit one in a velvet glove. eBooks won't be the demise of the high street book store nor will they replace paper books.  The publishing industry has had problems long before the current rise in eBook popularity and a lot of those problems have been enforced on book shops by the publishing industry who have in turn bounced back some pretty unsustainable business practices. 

I love eBooks and I love paper books, (As long as they come from a sustainable source, are not mass produce in print runs that don't support demand and return to be pulped or used as even more landfill) to say that one will replace the other is not credible.  What we are however seeing is jostling for position.  We may well see one format become the 'Alpha male' as it were, and this may well be the upstart eBook. Publishing needs to look at itself and how it operates.  The demise of the high street book store could just as easily be attributed to publisher greed in selling product at ridiculous prices to supermarkets.  I am all for the democracy of both business and reading, but when consumers expect paper books to be only £1 what message does that send out. If you couple this with the blanket bombing of stores with product from the leading five or six publishers in the country you can quickly see that the whole structure of both publishing and high street retailing is based upon a fragile and vain turnover system which was started in the 19th century.

It is odd that publishing house eager for cheap sales in supermarkets is happy to do this at the expense of the stores which have been the foundation of their growth. We are left in the UK with one dedicated chain of bookstores, Waterstones, and they are trying to turn around some poor trading figures. Publishers have bitched about the high rate of returns they have seen from Waterstones but did they support those myriad of titles, did they create a demand for them or were they sent to their fate on a tide of apathy. Much of publishing has grown complacent and now it is struggling to come to terms with the new order. I believe given enough time Waterstones will get their house in order and return healthy trading figures, whether publishers let them is another thing.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Libraries and the smug majority…

Time to be contentious. The argument in the UK is raging about possible closure of libraries because of spending cuts brought about by the legacies of the recession and the god awful mess that the banking system brought the country to. Everyone is up in arms. People have organised events and stunts where libraries have been cleared of books and we all feel good. We all have that smug sense of worth we have when we buy a copy of The Big Issue.

There is no doubt that libraries form an essential part of our community. For some they are the only connection that people have either with the outside world, the world of art and literature and even the virtual world through the installation of computers with internet access. For others they are a lifeline to finding employment or entertainment or both. None of this I doubt for a second, but what I do doubt is the sincerity of the privileged, and I include myself in this group, to really care. Because if we really cared, libraries would be full, book shelves would be empty and funding would exist to ensure that there was no need to target them in the first place.

I have a library card, I have donated some of our titles to the library but I cannot tell you the last time I used the card. I am as outraged as every right thinking person when I hear that libraries may face the axe, but in all honesty what have the majority of people who are up in arms and so vocal now, actually done to support the system in the past. Yes, it is better to do something now and be vocal, I agree but I can’t stand the holier than thou attitude being flounced around the chattering classes about how dreadful it is and what they are going to do to support it. It is almost as though they are looking for praise for making a stand, but like me I wonder when was the last time they actually used a library.

If we are to be moral champions and guardians of vital community services such as libraries then we have to have the conviction beyond the battle and beyond the possible victories and defeats. We have to support not just the libraries but our communities. If councils want to make cuts let them start at the top and not at the bottom. Chief Executives earning hundreds of thousands of pounds, the minions under them hiding under cover till the storm passes, the actual waste, the cars, the expenses…there is plenty of places the axe can fall before it robs communities of its library, but we know it won’t.

It’s hard for me to truly understand the value of a library now as a person who buys his books, who has turned his back on libraries for his reading pleasure, but what I do know is that they make a difference to many lives. I gained a love of reading from libraries because I could not afford to buy books as a child. I loved the atmosphere, the sense of discovery in finding a new book or author. The fact that I could actually ask for a brand new book to be ordered and then be placed on a list and wait anxiously until the day when a postcard would drop through the letterbox telling me my book was available for collection.

This is why I am against library closures, because I know they make a difference now, as they did when I as a child was an avid user.  However, I feel as though I have betrayed the library service and placed it in this position of jeopardy. The painful truth is, and it is a truth that every person protesting about potential closures must face, is that we cannot be fair weather fighters. We must become long term supporters, true advocates of literacy in the community and we cannot allow ourselves to betray our community once more, nor should we let those who put libraries in this position escape punishment as they have. I no longer want to be a part of the smug majority. This is not an issue about feeling good about yourself, its a time for reflection and honesty about how we have let this situation arise and proving through action that the voice of the community is heard, and that this voice is saying to councils the length and breadth of the country that if you close a library be prepared to be voted out of office. Libraries and their closures should not be a point of political brownie point scoring or party blame. We know who is to blame and it will only be the action of the masses that will stop the closures. Beyond that we have a duty to ensure they are not put in a position of risk again.