Friday, April 08, 2011

Sweetshops for the Mind - controversial article in Metro on books, bookshops and publishers

Foreword from The Bookman:
When my copy of the splendid Auckland city magazine Metro arrives each month I always turn first to the book pages (edited by Poet/Librarian Iain Sharp).There are usually 6-8 pages in each issue devoted to book reviews and book features.

When the current issue (April 2011) arrived I turned up the book pages that opened with a somewhat polemical piece by Paul Litterick which I imagine will have stirred up something of a hornets' nest among booksellers, publishers and authors.
Metro has kindly agreed to let me run an excerpt from the story but if you want to read the rest then scurry off to your nearest magazine outlet and buy a copy. Aucklanders should be subscribing to the magazine anyway.

Sweetshops for the Mind
Just look at how they’re selling books these days.
By Paul Litterick.

We need to talk about bookselling. We would rather talk about books, of course, but the way books are sold affects the way books are published and helps decide what is published, so bookselling matters.

Every dedicated reader should spend some time behind the counter of a bookshop, selling books. You learn a lot. I did my tour of duty in Techbooks in Newmarket, a shop which sells books about everything but literature. It sells useful books, which tell you how to do things - how to use computers, how to be an effective business manager, how to stop smoking, the Easy Way. At Techbooks there is no pomp, no pretension, no poetry readings. A book has to do what it promises on the cover.

I was on the automotive counter, one day a week for several years. The customers wanted books which would tell them how to fix their cars, books about the history of cars and books about the cars they would own if they had the money. We sold what they wanted.

We also sold what they did not know they wanted until they came into the shop. This is the secret of bookselling. A man comes into the shop wanting a manual for his 1977 Ford Cortina Mark IV. He leaves with his manual, with another book about the history of Ford in Britain he found while browsing the shelves, that book by Kevin McCloud (for the wife’s birthday) and a book about helicopter gunships.

This is how the book trade works, selling people books they never intended to buy. In the retail world it is called “added value”. It is not just confined to books; added value is sought by every shopkeeper. But books are supposed to matter, for cultural reasons, so they way they are sold should matter to all of us.

But, you will protest, we buy our books from independent bookshops managed by their owners, people who really care about books. Yes, of course we do. We are nice people, literary people. We read reviews, we go to literary festivals, we talk about books, we join book clubs. We patronise independent bookshops because they care about literature. Besides, they are a lot nicer than Borders, which is full of teenagers and tourists.

Yes, of course, but the nice bookshops we patronise are not above selling us books we did not intend to buy. What other kind of shop would allow its customers to browse for so long? And look at how the books are displayed. They are not just on shelves but on tables, lying flat, just asking for you to flick through them. Others stand on top of shelves, at just the right height for you to come face-to-face with them. Some of those on the shelves will be displayed face out, so you can see the cover: if a bookseller cannot get rid of a book, the simplest way to sell it is to shelve it face out.

Most importantly, the books are everywhere, filling every space of the shop. The display in the contemporary independent bookshop is modelled not on the library but on the sweetshop. The bookshop is a land of Cockaigne, a place of abundance and leisure, where nice people can take refuge from the world, where everywhere you look there is something desirable. Of course, you have to pay for anything you want to take away; but it can all go on the credit card so it does not seem like spending money at all.................

Read the rest, (the above excerpt is about one third of the whole piece), in the April 2011 issue of Metro.  It will entertain you, it will make you think, it may perhaps even make you a little angry.
The writer has a bit of a swipe at two fine Auckland independent bookshops - Unity Books and The Women's Bookshop - as well as at independent publishers, and authors. But is he writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek?
Let me know what you think.

Paul Litterick's blog here.


Claire G said...

The piece in its entirety is less about bookshops than about genre-isation and book design. However, with regard to bookshops, I dispute the author’s implications in the following:
1. "the books are everywhere, filling every space of the shop. The display... is modelled... on the sweetshop."
Books are bulky, and most good booksellers who serve many people will have a lot of books. What’s more, most booksellers pay rent, and every bit of space they pay for must be used.

2. “The literary bookshop is becoming a thing of the past. At Unity Books, the philosophers, PoMo theorists and Dead French Males are confined to a single narrow bookcase, labelled 'brainy stuff'... sort of funny, until you reflect on how relentlessly middlebrow is the rest of the stock. Meanwhile, the Women’s Bookshop has cookbooks in its window display.”
Bookshops, like news media, reflect what people want. Some have particular values and interests that they promote, whether brainyness or feminism. But can you blame Unity for having a smaller selection of ‘brainy books’ if they don’t sell? And should the Women’s Bookshop restrict itself to only fun-free aspects of feminism?

The cover of this Metro issue illustrates exactly what Paul is really writing about: prettiness (or sex) draws people in, and it sells. Writers/publishers/booksellers/magazine retailers just have to hope that consumers will do what’s allegedly done with Penthouse, and read the stuff inside that has some substance rather than just perve at the pretty pictures.

transpress nz said...

Auckland is big enough to have successful niche bookshops such as Techbooks (cars and computers), Unity (literature), Parsons (art and music), Boat Books (maritime) - but they need to have enough titles in the shop to make people want to spend time browsing, even if 95% of them are only spine out. What is his point, everything should be visible from one vantage point like a fast food menu?