It has been a while since I posted on this blog. When I considered deleting it entirely, there was a thought that I would be waving goodbye to a part of my life.
This blog was begun as an unofficial response to my work as a bookshop manager at the time. It wasn’t authorised by my then employer but was read and commented upon by fellow staff in the company and customers alike.
I no longer work in the book trade. Like many former booksellers, I now work in another industry entirely. Fewer than 5% of people in the UK read a book regularly let alone buy one. When compared with the literacy rates of other countries and the interest in literature in countries where an individual’s spending power is severely constrained, it is a shocking indictment of the value placed on education and cultural conversation in this country.
We live in straightened times and yet we do not appear to expect anything but a continuation of what came before. Perhaps because bookselling has seen such sharp decline since 1999 and that the decline of the British High Street in general has been largely under-reported, the current economic woes appear to be a surprise to everyone else.
Bookselling weathered several storms over the past decade and a bit. Unlike the publishing and book retail sectors in other European countries, prices were no longer fixed. The proportion of sale from each book declined as supermarkets – not the internet as you may expect – sold books as loss-leaders, that is, for less than cost price. Contrary to the opinions of experts, this is not competitive as such price cuts lead to long-term decline in re-investment. Logically, if you have more money left over after covering your overheads, you can develop new product and staff training. This ‘money left over’ is not profit until you’ve finished the process of paying for everything and that includes your long-term interests.
Another under-current that impacted negatively upon terms of trade between publishers and booksellers and ultimately consumers, was that the largest publishers in the UK are all public companies. The primary responsibility for listed companies is shareholder value and market share not profit and not long-term growth. There is no need to pursue long-term growth if the whole point of owning shares is to sell them for profit in as quick a turnaround as possible. Second, as market share determines how trade you are ‘taking’ from the whole market and therefore, your competitors, the actual sums devoted to reinvestment can be ignored. Up is good, a percent decline is not.
Economics cannot be so simply engineered. It is a fundamental part of society. If local governments are closing libraries, national government cutting the funding to special groups promoting literacy and the trading conditions are forcing the closure of bookshops, where do the poorest and least enabled gain access to reading content?
The problems that have beset bookselling will eventually feed back into publishing. The main problem that will assail large publishers in the future is mis-management of digital formats.
Charging too much makes the argument to use pirated versions of digital files more compelling. Charging too little leaves little to reinvest in tomorrow’s talent. Others still, particularly with those with little appreciation of what is involved in creating new stuff argue that people shouldn’t be charged for the content anyway. Treid telling that to a taxi driver? To a barman? To the plumber or electrician who you called to fix something in your house?
Giving away content online is very noble and trusting and fundamentally, relies on people’s honesty. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just exchange stuff? I do it now. I give fruit and vegetables grown in my garden to neighbours. One of my neighbours gives me mackerel he’s caught while on his boat; another bakes great cakes. I cut another neighbour’s lawn; I get a lawn of expensive power tools for DIY jobs around the house. It’s all great but it doesn’t pay the mortgage, the utility bills, the train fare to go see my parents or the nice restaurant meals.
Given the choice between paying for something that you can obtain for free elsewhere, what would you do? Only large companies like Amazon and Apple can engineer the distribution of content such that authors can get paid. Everyone else hands out digital files in a format that is easily copied.
There is a reason why things cost money and books are not expensive. If you’re willing to pay £10 for a cinema ticket that will enable you to enjoy arund 2 hours worth of content, why does more than 10 hours content which you can not only share without threat of prosecution but read again at any time seem so expensive at £7.99?
So here I am, doing something else. Learning a new trade. Now that I’m a producer and supplier, I’m on the other side of the fence from where I was at and it’s not easy. Every day there are reminders that the roots of the economic collapse we are currently enduring worldwide was begun 12 years ago, unleashed by some moron’s decision to allow banks to marge their investment and High Street operations.
One big advantage of being where I am now is that I have more time to think. I have more time to read, to study and to draw out the arguments and I haven’t been able to do that as much as I like for all of fifteen years. It feels good. This blog then will differ quite a bit from this blog.