Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Bookselling heads for a merry Christmas - For all the kvetching about the digital era, the books world's vital signs are looking very healthy
At the end of a week in which Google announced the launch of its long-awaited e-reader, and at the end of a year in which the digitised text swept all before it (sales of ebooks in the USA now approach $1,000m (£638m) you might think that the game was up for traditional publishing, or that the conventional book was history.
Not a bit of it. Three items of current, unrelated book news suggest that now – as never before – the printed word remains in rude good health, despite the merchants of doom.
First, there's World Book Night, the great book giveaway scheduled for 5 March 2011, and masterminded by Canongate's Jamie Byng. Put aside the inevitable carping that such a bold and imaginative scheme is bound to excite. The headline news is that the reading public will be getting tens of thousands of free (rather good) books courtesy of Seamus Heaney, John le Carré, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, and several others. What's not to like?
Next, I note that Random House is currently cleaning up in the British non-fiction bestseller list with the ghosted autobiography of a little furry animal of Russian extraction, the meerkat Alexsandr Orlov, star of the meerkat.com TV advert. Nothing new here. JR Hartley, the old chap who starred in the 1983 Yellow Pages advert in search of a book about Fly Fishing later became a genuine bestseller when an enterprising publisher commissioned a faux-fishing classic. Again, an example of consumer preferences for the quasi-literary entertainment in book form.
Finally, on a slightly more elevated note, Hilary Mantel, 2009 Booker-winner has written Ink in the Blood, a short memoir of her recent terrifying post-operative hospital experience last summer. Fair enough: it helps to be a literary prize winner, but the speed with which her publishers (Harper Collins) can get Ink in the Blood into circulation (actually, as an ebook) in time for Christmas is yet another illustration of a vigorous book-reading marketplace.
The instinct to express thoughts and feelings as narrative prose is so much part of our DNA that bookselling (in some form) must remain one of the best bets in the portfolio of contemporary capitalism. The one odd thing about the contemporary IT revolution (apps, ebooks, iPad etc) is how few (if any) twenty-something entrepreneurs seem willing to exploit the extraordinary cultural and commercial opportunities afforded by the new technology and take on the established publishing giants. At the moment, Canongate seems to have the field to itself. Perhaps that's why its innovations are so exuberant.