Saving Our Literary Culture
What’s the problem?
In truth, there are many factors that are harming our literary culture, and some that are helping to save it, but here I want to deal with one: Amazon. This is not merely a matter of corporate capitalism, though that is certainly part of the story, and we will all react differently to that term, but on Amazon’s role many of us can surely agree.
Nine months ago Vagabond Voices decided to stop supplying Amazon with physical books. This partly was to do with the way Amazon operates. The only channel of communication between Amazon and small publishers is cumbersome and wholly ineffective. Amazon can come to an agreement and then immediately flout it. Books are displayed on their websites displaying incorrect prices and claiming huge discounts for their price when in fact they are selling them at the Recommended Retail Price. It's clear that the corporation feels that it has a monopolistic position and can do what it wants. Beyond these relatively common abuses of power there are, however, very real structural problems that affect the whole literary community, including the person for whom the whole structure exists: the reader.
This is a literary site, and most readers quite reasonably ignore the financial and administrative realities behind their books. They like reading and they’re in search of the books they like to read. So I will keep this to the bare minimum: Amazon pays only £4 for a £10 book in nearly all cases, whilst a publisher used to get £6.50 for the same book. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just affect publishers; it also affects bookshops, distributors and, most importantly, authors. The bookshops, which for the most part continue to pay the £6.50 along with extra taxes the online giant is exempt from, have been going out of business, and many towns and indeed cities are not well served, if at all. Authors suffer in three fundamental ways: they get less money of course, because they’re taking a cut of the publisher’s revenue, they find it more difficult to get published, because publishers have become more risk-averse and once their first book is out, they find it more difficult to get readers, because readers find it easier to browse in bookshops and there are fewer bookshops in which to browse.
Many of the medium-sized publishers of the nineties have either gone bust or have been bought up by larger publishers. Eventually this leads to a lack of innovation, and readers who appreciate such things have to look to the past or now also to the increasing number of translated works.
Is it all bad news?
The damaging concatenation running from Amazon, publisher, bookshop and author through to the reader is exposed by those countries like France and Germany which have retained what we called the Net Book Agreement, which basically fixed the share-out of wealth and prevented the sale of books under the recommended retail price. Unquestionably this leads to a more vibrant literary culture, which eventually aids the large publishing corporations who helped to scupper the Net Book Agreement in Britain. What is innovative in one generation becomes the mainstream one or two generations later. So the corporations ultimately benefit from recent innovation which keeps the sector lively, and also from the sale of classics produced when that agreement was in force, though they would probably never admit it.
However, there are other forces at play and there have always been cycles going all the way back to the invention of printing. And there are political and economic cycles that affect writing and readers as well. We are very probably moving into unstable and therefore perhaps more intelligent times. It’s an ill wind…
And technology also has a say: the digital era that made Amazon possible also changed printing and so publishers no longer carry as much stock. This lowers their risks and allows them to publish books they may have shied away from a few years ago.
Although we are championing the physical bookshop – a space the reader can enter with no precise intention and encounter a selection of books chosen by others, curated by others – there are other online bookshops such as Wordery, which have a well-thought-out business model which allows them to make a profit while also paying the publisher that £6.50 for a £10 book, providing the purchaser with free delivery and paying UK taxes. We always have a Wordery button on our book pages which our customers can use to check who has the best price. They often undercut us, especially if you’re buying from abroad. Online bookshops are now often the only choice for many readers, and these ways of buying are not always destructive to our literary culture. Of course, many bookshops have their own online sales as well, as do publishers.
In this particular blog post, we’re not trying to persuade the possible customer to buy our books, but to change their buying habits so as to protect the ecology of books as far as we can in our own shakily neo-liberal era. Having said that, the next section will inevitably reflect our own experience and it does not pretend to be an exhaustive list of the good shops in what is still the civilised and well-mannered world of bookselling.
Where you can find good books
Although most of our books – generally cosmopolitan in nature – are sold in Scotland (proving that geography still counts for something), perhaps our best and most consistent customer from the beginning has been the London Review Bookshop, close to the British Museum and containing a fantastic selection of books on two floors. In London there are too many good bookshops to mention, but are some of them: Clapham Books, Daunt Books, Muswell Hill Bookshop and Foyles, which is a classic department store bookshop with a huge range.
Once there were political bookshops in every city and large town, but now they’re a rarity: Word Power in Edinburgh, News from Nowhere in Liverpool, and Bookmarks and Housmans Bookshop in London. These are very good but there will be others, though statistically probably not near you.
In our own Glaswegian howf, we have Hyndland Bookshop which manages to do everything in a tiny space (it’s surprising how many independents carry off this feat), Aye-Aye Books to be found at the CCA with an excellent collection of books on art as well as a great variety of things you’ll probably not find in many other shops, Glasgow University's own John Smith's, mostly stocking academic titles, and radical bookshop Calton Books; the Oswald Street Bookshop has sadly closed.
Across in Edinburgh, there is Blackwell’s South Bridge, part of a small chain often with an academic bent but here a well-stocked and varied shop with its own history well-known to locals, Golden Hare, another bookshop with a very distinctive range, the Fruitmarket Gallery, also very distinctive with an arts bent too, and Looking Glass Books is going through a hiatus and hopefully will be reopening its doors soon. Also worth noting is The Edinburgh Bookshop.
In the Highlands and Islands, the Ceilidh Place Bookshop has an extraordinary and well-curated collection. If you’re ever in Ullapool – possibly waiting for a ferry – you could do no better than to pass an hour amongst its shelves. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to browse, and it was here that I came across Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, the kind of book you’re very happy to chance upon. As it’s in a hotel of the same name, you’re never far away from a cup of coffee. If you take that ferry and land in Stornoway, you could visit Roderick Smith’s, also known locally as The Baltic. It has a wide range of literature and local history books. Further south there’s Taigh Chearsabhadh in North Uist with a similar function. Further south again, there’s the Celtic House, which I have never visited, but you can certainly find our books there and so hopefully many others. Again a local-history element. On the mainland there's The Bookmark, which is getting a formidable reputation through its shop and festival, and on Orkney there's Stromness Books & Prints, a customer of ours I have never visited which is famed for its agreeable bookishness and apparently not a computer in sight.
To list all of the fine bookshops in the UK would make for a very long post indeed (even longer than this one already is), so I’ll list only a few more and hope that those who I have missed do not take the omission personally. In the Central Belt there is Bookpoint, a supportive and well-curated shop with a growing annual book festival. In Fife there is East Neuk Books & Giftware. In Linlithgow there is Far From the Madding Crowd. The Forest Bookstore offers a pleasant and well-curated collection in the Borders town of Selkirk. Some more English bookshops of note include Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge, Little Ripon Bookshop in North Yorkshire, Madhatter Bookshop in Oxfordshire, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, Scarthin Books Cromford in Derbyshire, Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex, Wadebridge Books in Wadebridge, the friendly and well-curated Woodstock Bookshop in Woodstock, and Jaff & Neale in Chipping Norton. Finally, in Northern Ireland we have No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast.
The most important presence on the high street is Waterstones, which publishers rely on greatly, as only they can generate the bulk sales we need for survival. Fortunately it is helpful to small publishers and is willing to take a risk on innovative books by lesser-known and indeed unheard-of writers published by small publishers. The staff are genuinely interested in books, and they’re also accessible and willing to listen to publishers – a huge plus for an organisation of Waterstones' size. The company’s current policy is to allow stores to develop in diverse directions, and this is to be welcomed as everything in the book world is about variety, particularly in the case of the novel – variety of subject matter, variety of style, variety of beliefs. The only thing novels should share is their refusal to conform to a template. In this chaotic world of the book, flexibility and variety are a necessity and Waterstones is clearly experimenting with ways to achieve this.
Allan Cameron, founder of Vagabond Voices