Saturday 9 January 2010

What did Borders ever do for us?

We writers spend a lot of time grumbling about the chain booksellers. We don't like the way their stock is largely celebrity crap and bestsellers, we don't like the way publishers have to pay to have titles put in prominent positions or included in 3for2 or BOGOF deals and we are cynical about the booksellers' 'personal' selections. We don't like the way they ignore backlist and midlist, and that the staff are sometimes less knowledgeable than we would like. (We like supermarkets even less - by using popular books as loss-leaders they have stripped bookselling to the bone. One small cheer for Tesco recently referring potential book-buyers to a local independent bookseller, but otherwise they are the leeches of the bookselling world.)

But now Borders has gone, we are bemoaning its loss. Why? Does the loss of Borders matter to children's writers?

The loss of Borders matters greatly to me personally. For many years, I have written in the Starbucks cafe in Cambridge Borders. I knew the staff of the cafe (one was even an ex-student of mine). They would bring me extra, free coffee if they could see my book was going badly. They would make my regular order as soon as I stood in the queue and have it ready by the time I was at the front. I could sit there for hours, collecting books from around the store to work from and drinking one or two coffees, sometimes having lunch there as well as breakfast. I spent many Saturday mornings with coffee, ideas book and muse playing with new possible books. Some were written and sold, some died soon after conception, some are abandoned half-developed but may yet be resurrected. Or maybe now the place of genesis has gone they are doomed to the eternal limbo of unfinished books.

I have probably written in the region of 30-40 books in that cafe. Now, before you throw up your hands in horror at this flagrant abuse of the bookshop, let me point out that if a book proved to be useful enough I almost invariably bought it, even though Borders was the one bookshop in Cambridge that didn't give me a discount. (Heffers/Blackwells - 10%; Waterstones - 10%; CUP - 25%) And, of course, Borders later made money from selling the books I wrote there - it was a symbiotic, not parasitic, relationship.
Borders was also the place I met up with my bints when we were shopping - 'meet you in Borders kids' department/cafe in an hour' - haven't replaced that yet. And of course the meeting often led to book purchases.

Why Borders? Well, Starbucks had large work tables with electricity sockets and, as long as you had a *$ card, free wifi. There was a high level of tolerance (of sitting for hours with one coffee, of taking endless books into the cafe).
But I did not have a blind devotion to Borders. If one of the other bookshops had had a more suitable cafe, I could well have preferred it - it was a choice of this particular Borders over the other local options for reasons of work, not book-buying. The layout attracted students and writers. It was easy to strike up a conversation with someone working on their A levels or revising for their finals, or also correcting their page proofs. For people who work alone all the time, that's a valuable fragment of community.

For my purposes, Borders was often better than the library because (a) I could mix books and coffee and (b) it had the most recent books, while the library was better for older books. (There are good reasons why I often need to refer to the most recent books, so please don't tell me it is inconsistent with what I just said about backlist: many publishers insist books in the bibliography of a children's non-fiction book are less than five years old.) Cambridge University Library has practically everything, but the most recent books are still going through cataloguing and are not available. A lot is on closed shelves, so has to be ordered - no browsing there. Cambridge Central Library has just reopened after being closed for about a millennium. It's good, but too recent to have earned a place in my work life yet. It could still do that.

Does the closure of Borders matter for children's writers in general? I'd say it does, but how much it matters depends on what you write. Some books are chosen largely by browsing - trade picture books and older fiction, for instance. Others are largely chosen by reputation, recommendation or on the basis of marketing. School textbooks and schools and libraries books are often ordered directly from publishers or from intermediaries selling directly into schools and libraries. For browse-buys, Borders was vital. For the last category, it was insignificant.

Sales of some of our books will drop as a consequence of Borders closing, especially in towns where there is not another large bookshop. Many (all?) branches put on events for children - story-telling sessions, signings, readings, tie-in entertainment for launches and films. These helped to bring in customers and sell books - our books. Once in the shop, people bought other books besides those being launched or promoted. Some independents do these events, but many are too small to have much space for them. Amazon is a very useful resource, but largely so for adults, not children (at least not the younger children I write for). Children who would sit on the floor of Borders and look through dozens of books before choosing one will not sit hunting through Amazon to find a book to buy. For many children, no bookshop=no book purchase, or at least no purchase of their own choosing. They may ask for a book they have seen at school, or that a friend has liked, but the serendipitous discovery of a wonderful book no-one else in their world has ever seen needs a browsable bookshop. Even a bookshop with BOGOFS and 3for2s and miles of Twilights and Harry Potters and staff who ask 'how do you spell that?' when I ask for Simone de Beauvoir (OK, that was Waterstones, not Borders - Borders had already closed). If I ask my bints if they want anything from Amazon when I'm ordering stuff, they rarely do, or they can name only one or two books they want. If we go into a bookshop, they come out with armfuls of books.

So I am mourning Borders, professionally and personally. It's yet another loss at the end of a very bad year, the loss of my way of working as well as a bookshop, the loss of a shared workspace at a time when so many shared things are being stripped away. My heart goes out to the staff who have lost their jobs there, of course. I also feel I've lost my job there, even though no-one paid me to turn up :-(

Sunday 3 January 2010

'Kindlemania' and the e[lite]-book

There's an interesting quirk of language: e+lite=elite. e-books are both books 'lite' and books for the elite. Is the God of language laughing at us?

So the Kindle was the 'most gifted' Amazon item at Christmas. 'Most gifted'? Huh? Sales of e-books outstripped sales of paper books on Christmas Day. Well, durrr. They would. Normal people are not off buying things on Christmas Day (except those who do their sales shopping without getting crushed), because those things are not going to be delivered any more quickly than if you bought them on Boxing Day - unless they are music or e-books. If I were being uncharitable, I would say that the Kindle is targeting illiterate people who don't want to spend time with their friends and families. But that is not my point. My point is the hype. And Amazon has to fall over itself to talk up the Kindle as it has a matter of weeks in which to sell this dinosaur of a product before Apple launches something much cooler that will make the Kindle look like a cassette player.

We are being encouraged to believe that e-books will soon replace paper books in most forms, that they are cool and everyone wants them. (Encouraged by the producers of e-book readers and e-books, notice. Hardly an unbiased group.) Writers, publishers and booksellers are warned that crisis looms because the predicted dominance of e-books spells a rise in free or cheap content that will not sustain the publishing industry. I am not going to challenge or support this view today, but step out of the stream for a moment to look around.

It's all very well for we middle-class bloggers and consumers and techno-tarts (yes, Cory, I'm looking at you) to say this is the 'way forward' [groan] for text. Not for books, note, which don't need a way forward - they are paper and ink objects that are quite happy keeping still - but for text, which is part of the content of books.

If I were a person living on a run-down council estate in Glasgow or Exeter or Liverpool, or if I were even more unlucky and were poor in a country with no social housing and no free healthcare, I dont' think I'd be jumping up and down at the prospect of getting an e-book reader of any kind. I don't think I'd be excited that the next blockbuster (pretend I want to read a blockbuster, all right?) would be cheaper on my iPhone than on paper (but not as cheap as in the library, where it's free). If I lived in a slum in Sao Paulo, or Delhi, or Ulan Bator, or herded goats in Afghanistan, would I give a damn if you told me I could read Dan Brown's latest in transient electrons? Or would I cherish my comic or my copy of the Koran printed on hard-wearing paper, still mostly readable even if one page was spoilt or fell out? E-book readers and e-books are - whatever else they may be - an indulgence for wealthy westerners. They have their uses in some areas - I don't deny that (hey, I published a ground-breaking e-book in 1992). But they currenntly exclude more people from reading than they include. In a lower-income household, if there is one e-book reader, who will get to use it? Possibly not the five-year-old who really needs to read.

Other technological advances began with the elite and spread to everyone - television, radio, telephones. But there are still more people in the world without telephones than with (there are about one billion phones), and phones provide something that is not available without technology - the ability to speak to someone far away. Bringing phones to the poor in LED countries improves lives. I'm not convinced bringing e-book readers to them would - not yet. There is a non-technological solution to reading,which there isn't to long-distance chat. First you need to teach people to read. Once they can read, then decide whether they are better off with one fragile object that can hold lots of texts until trodden on by a goat, or a few key books that can be read again when you have wiped the goat shit off the cover. First, slates and chalk; then paper books; maybe then electronic books, or maybe not.

The much-vaunted rise of the e-book would not matter if it were not for the predicted crisis in publishing. We might not like it that some people can afford cool stuff and others can't, but it's the way of our world and unless we (the 'haves') are prepared to change it we have to live with it. But when cool stuff pushes out essential stuff, there will be many, many victims who fall into the gap between having and having-not. Neither is this an example of another industry bleating that progress is killing its income. Publishing is an essential industry - we can't afford to lose it, just as we can't afford to lose the fire service or farming. People - especially children - need books, like they need polio vaccines and they need milk and vegetables.

Publishers are not philanthropic organisations. If they can't make money from paper books, they won't make them. If they don't make them, there will be a generation in which a large percentage of children (and so inevitably adults) will be denied reading. We will have a new illiterate poor, in developed and developing countries. School libraries are throwing out paper books and installing computer terminals in their place - but in a library with 4 million e-books and only 10 e-book readers/computers, only 10 pupils can read a book at the same time. In a library with 20 paper books, 20 pupils can read at the same time. In a house without an e-book reader (because the parents don't reador can't afford one), a child can't read either if there are no paper books. I can give a book to a child who can't afford one, or whose parents don't see the value of buying one. There's no point in me giving an e-book to a child who doesn't have an e-book reader or an iPhone.

Literacy has been hard won (and not won by enough, yet) - it is too precious to throw away because we privileged people think e-books are cool. There is a social responsibility to sustain paper-based publishing until e-format reading is properly accessible to all. And all includes those who don't live in our gadget-rich culture, but who still benefit from our publishing industry. When a street-child in Mexico can read an e-book, and a nomad in the Gobi can get access to an e-book, and a child-prostitute in Moscow can use an e-book, then we can afford to let paper publishing die and surrender it to market forces. But not until then.

I am aware that e-books allow people who have access to technology to read books they coudn't afford (see my earlier conversation with an e-book pirate in Pakistan), and I am not anti-e-book - but I am very much pro-paper book. If you are pro-paper-book too, join Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.