As we wait for the troubles at HMV to play themselves out, and for a possible deal to be done over Waterstone’s, there’s an uncomfortable feeling that books could be in danger of vanishing from our high streets.
OK, not all books. There are plenty in the supermarkets, and you can find them in Early Learning Centres, and Mothercare, and gift shops, and all kinds of other locations. WH Smith has 50 new branches planned in the coming years, and there are some brilliant indie bookshops that are thriving and keeping the flame alive.
But in terms of a broad, varied range of books, widely available in a dedicated bookshop – well, Borders has gone, and Waterstone’s (which has already announced it is losing 20 shops this year) could well have to thin down even further. Coming after the closure of Borders shops in the US and in Australia, and the collapse of the Angus and Robertson chain there too, it adds up to a sobering picture.
As for the public libraries on our high streets, they’re either being closed, or their book fund is being cut, having probably been starved for years anyway – and as I heard author Alan Gibbons remark the other week, “A library without books is a room.”
Certainly, publishers are worried that books may be becoming less visible as we go about our daily business. There are fewer chances for us to catch a shop-window glimpse of the debut novel by the exciting new author they’re desperate for us to discover, or to stumble across the cult writer on the table inside. And if we’re not seeing books as often as we did, there’s a fear that out of sight is out of mind. When Borders went, publishers believe that while some of the sales they made migrated to other retailers such as Waterstone’s and Amazon, some simply disappeared. The people who really liked Borders, or happened to have a convenient one nearby, simply stopped buying as many books after the chain collapsed. Not good news.
Meanwhile, for people who love browsing – that most traditional book lover’s pleasure – the squeeze on the high street is very unwelcome. How can you immerse yourself in the world of books – trawling shelves, leafing through volumes, thumbing pages, discovering an author you never knew you wanted to read until they fell into your hand – if a visit to a well-stocked shop becomes a rare luxury?
Of course, with the dawning of the ebook era, it’s possible to love reading and never visit a bricks-and-mortar bookshop at all. According to Brian Murray, HarperCollins CEO, that’s what’s happening in America already. It’s now possible for up to half the sales of certain new books to be digital. Murray says that some of the heaviest book buyers have migrated entirely to ebooks; they just download what they want, and that’s that.
All well and good, you might think, particularly if you’re a genre reader with specific tastes – but that’s not the answer for everyone. And while browsing online is possible, the received wisdom at present is that people will go online if they know for sure which book they want, but prefer to head to an actual bookshop if they don’t. They still like nosing around.
Publishers are already trying to compensate for the bottleneck developing between the books they publish and the people who want to buy them by engaging with readers directly, through their websites, through book slams and literary festivals, or through supporting reading groups. Simon Prosser, publisher of Penguin’s literary imprint Hamish Hamilton, publishes an online literary magazine, Five Dials, and co-directs the Port Eliot festival each year. “You’ve got to do everything possible to reach readers and encourage readers; to cheerlead,” he says. Meanwhile authors are making themselves accessible as never before through Twitter and Facebook, and new spaces are opening up for book talk – not least on the Guardian’s own expanded site.
But the local, physical bookshop is hugely important, and everyone knows it. As we wait for news on what will happen to Waterstone’s – and whether Tim Waterstone really will be buying back his chain – we should keep our fingers very firmly crossed for a positive outcome.