Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Plus ça change ...

Novels in a Polish bookstore                                       Image via WikipediaAlthough things seem to change very rapidly in the publishing arena, little has altered in the reader's world, except the sheer volume of choice.

Examining the statistics seems amazing to those who know little about the machinations of book publishing. Who on earth is going to read all those millions of books? If one were to count the readers in any single country, one would not find enough to consume the enormous numbers of books being created by the day.

One would have to eliminate those too young to read or purchase books. Or those with financial restrictions that do not allow them to buy a cheap children's book. One must eliminate the illiterate. And remove those who simply do not read or buy books. A proportion of the population borrows from the libraries that are still standing. Some have not touched a book since school. Many chuck books out with childhood, like so many highchairs, strollers, nappies and bottles.

Reading is not for everyone. Although literacy levels continue to rise, they have little to do with whether that literacy applies to book purchasing - people read other material. They do not have to read books - there is enough material around that needs deciphering. The amount of reading one has to do in an interactive game, for example, is tantamount to a small novel.

I stood in Big W yesterday - a department store that carries everything, from hammers and nails to chocolate and dinner sets and toasters, shoes and fishing rods. I waited by an enormous dump bin crammed with cheap paperbacks and looked at the book section, crammed mainly with celebrity cookbooks, sporting biographies and bestselling novels by household name authors. The store buzzed with shoppers, but the book department was almost deserted. Already shrunk to a quarter of its previous size, and occupying floor space equivalent to a large lounge room, it was the only quiet spot in the store.

Interesting. I watched browsers (all female), who gravitated without fail to the colourful children's section.

The digital entertainment section buzzed. Dozens walked away with appliances as I watched. I lost count of the eReaders taken off the shelves, and an assistant promptly came to replenish the shelf with Kindles.

I realized that the sales predictions of the industry would apply mainly to online bookstores. Few were making their book purchases as I looked. In the entire shopping complex, two of the bookstores were no more, and the one left was pushed into a corner, and contained only three shoppers when I came up in the lift.

Different from other years? Marginally. I knew what was going on online - I have watched it all year, for a number of years now. Just because readers have shifted where they buy books does not mean they do it any differently. Even the fact that a large number of bought books remain unread stays the same.

The hardworking author might do well to examine what is happening. I leave the conclusion to them - whether they see the changes in quantity of available books - competition - as heartening or depressing depends on their ability to bring their books to the notice of readers, and the ability of their words to retain their attention.

Reading is alive and well - that is not the issue. It's the over supply that makes authors wonder where all this might go in the next five years or so.

What are YOUR predictions?
Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. I have no predictions, I'm afraid, Roseanne. It seems the arrival of the e-book has changed how books are bought and read irrevocably. I just spent a pleasant half hour in Dymocks - I went into buy a promised book for a three year old - but found myself browsing the fiction section after I had made my selection. The difference between the book buying experience in a large department store and a dedicated bookshop was immense. Instead of books crammed on the shelves they were set out to catch the eye - and they did. A friendly assistant offered help and when he saw I had gravitated to the fantasy section he suggested a first time author he had enjoyed. There was only a handful of shoppers, both male and female, and the experience was restful and enjoyable - and, to judge by those ahead of me while I waited to pay, I wasn't the only one who went out with more books than I intended to buy.
    I will be buying an e-book reader in the near future for purely practical reasons but I'm certain it will never provide the years of pleasure I get from a good book as I reread and reread it.

  2. There is indeed oversupply, but there has always been an oversupply of books. Most of them are bad, but most of them have always been bad. I think the difference today is that an average author cannot simply rely on a publisher to do most of the work involved in publicizing a book. The author now really must do the heavy lifting of marketing and publicity that a book needs if it is to survive. Without that, you are quite correct I believe: Their book will quickly sink under the raging seas of books and more books, and drown unseen and unmourned.

    I believe each book now absolutely depends on a network of people willing to champion it in ways large and small, realizing that a generation ago books were similarly dependent on the support of a small cadre of book reviewers and librarians.

    It was librarians, in fact, who were entirely responsible for Harry Potter's survival and ultimate success. The original publisher, Bloomsbury, printed only 500 copies (I've heard it said that the actual copies SHIPPED were about half that) and sent most of them to librarians, praying that they would recommend the book. (Need I say - they did.)

    This is the age of authors very much casting their bread upon the waters. Which can pretty challenging when you come to the end of your loaf.

  3. For some, the loaf is shredded into very fine crumbs and dispensed with care. Others lavishly scatters large morsels of promoting efforts, risking burn-out.

    We shall all be remembered, no matter how we perceive today's challenges, as the pioneers of the literary digital age, and they will marvel at our ingenuity.