Tuesday, 9 June 2009

My Guilty Book Buying Secret

Most of you who know me will know that I'm a bit of a serious reader. I always have one or two books on the go, and if it looks like I'm about to finish a book without one to follow it up I start to get very anxious. One of the best things my history teacher ever taught me was to never leave the house without a book in your bag (thanks Mr Mealing!) and I have kept to this rule, even if there's no room in my bag for anything else, or I know perfectly well I won't have any time to read while I'm out (except of course that there's always time to read, even if it's just the brief 30 seconds when Marty is in the pub garden having a fag).

Having been a bookseller for a long time, and now working for a sort-of small publishers, I love bookshops. Like all good, decent people. Recently though, I have been doing a very bad thing.

I have been buying books off the interwebs. You know the one. Named after a really big load of trees.

This makes me sad, because when I worked in a bookshop, buying books off the internet was really only one step up from buying them from a supermarket (which is always evil, by the way). Not because Amazon really is the devil, mind, but because when the book trade struggles it's the proper bookshops that get it in the neck, and find it difficult to compete- bookshops have to persuade you to get off your bum and come in the shop after all, whereas Amazon just needs you to roll your eyeballs over the screen.

However, since leaving the bookshop and entering the big wide world of being a bookbuyer, I have discovered the way in which Amazon really kicks the ass of bookshops- range. Like I said, I'm a serious reader. When I discover a new author I like, I tend to go through their back catalogue, as I am with China Mieville at the moment. I wanted to read Iron Council, and given that Mieville is a pretty famous sci-fi/fantasy author I thought I wouldn't have any trouble finding a copy in my nearest bookshop.

Did I buggery.

The bookshop nearest to me is small, so perhaps this is slightly unfair. Mieville writes huge honking doorstops, and you just can't always give up that much of the shelf to one author (believe me, I know this very very well). But once I started to look I realised that not only were there lots of very important and obvious genre books not represented, but that the shelves were exactly the same as they'd been every time I'd been in over the last 6 months. If I was waiting for them to stock more than just the most recent Charlie Parker P.I I would be waiting a very long time.

The problem is (and this is something else I know from personal experience) too much emphasis on the sort of books that arrive in crates and piled in pyramids at the front of the shop; the Richard and Judy choices, the latest celebrity biography, the newest novelty book in the vein of The Dangerous Book for Boys. If you want the first part of Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy you're stuffed, but if you need 20 copies of a ghostwritten biography of a vacuous celebrity twat you're laughing.

This is dangerous for bookshops because, dare I say it, the people who read the celeb bios and misery memoirs are less likely to be the sort of readers who need a book in their bags at all times, and are therefore less likely to be back in every week for their fix.

I fully understand the need to supply the "watercooler books", but the terrible truth of it is; if I can't get the book I'm after, eventually I will trawl the interwebs and discover how easy it is to roll my eyes over lots of books I hadn't even thought of buying, and bookshops (beautiful, amazing, irreplaceable bookshops) lose a few more sales.

Come on! I'm an addict, be my dealer.


  1. Great post!

    I do all of my book buying - and I buy books in quite some numbers - via Amazon because of the price. If my local Waterstones has a book for £12.99, chances are it is on Amazon for a significant discount. Importantly, I think, if I buy the cheaper book on Amazon, the author (whom I want to support) still gets exactly the same royality. So If I can spend £50 and get 7 books on Amazon while only able to get 3 at the brick and mortar bookstore, I've supported more authors and send 7 their royality instead of just 3.

    It's something of a double-edged sword, but while I want to support both authors AND good bookstores, I have to say I lean more towards sending authors a royalty and pleasing their publisher than adding to the profits of a bookstore.

  2. Jen - I totally agree. I love my crime books and generally tend to shop on Amazon as unless I go to the massive Borders on Oxford Street I cannot get everything I want.

    As to the post before - I work in music royalties and know there are some issues over whether writers are getting the same royalty for items bought from the net as they would from somewhere like HMV but if that is how it works in the book world, I am pleased.

    But I do understand the sentiment of buying on the net - why would I buy a CD from HMV for £15 when I can get it for £9 on Amazon or even on HMV's own bloody website?

    I think the sad reality is that music and books will soon disappear from the high street and will instead be replaced my internet shops. Unlike clothes they do not need to be bought in a shop and on the net you almost do get the option to try before you buy (certainly in the case of music). It's sad but true.

  3. @urban_fox I think you're right in that high street shops will change (they'll have to), but rather than internet shops, I think they might become brick-and-mortar/digital delivery hybrids.

    The problem with books is that they take up a lot of room, so a store can only hold and display so much stock (which was Sen's point). But what if I could walk into ANY bookstore, and choose between a hardcover novel for £15.99, or that same novel as an eBook for my iPod for £6.00? As a consumer I get the choice and the author/publisher/store gets the same cut (due to the inherently lower costs of eBooks). It also means I don't need to trawl bookstores looking for a title in vain, only to end up ordering it online (where I should really have been looking in the first place).

    Of course this starts a whole argument over paper books versus eBooks, which I don't really want to get into, but given the ubiqutousness of electronic readers now (the iPhone and iPod touch being far and away the largest market right now), the book selling market is already started to move in that direction.

  4. I remember seeing something a while back which was king of like a printing press that would sit in a bookstore. You'd go in, select the book you want and it would print a copy there and then for you to buy. I can't remember what the deal around covers and stuff like that was, but it could be a good compromise between the cheapness of buying online and the immediacy of buying in a store, plus it would give smaller stores a vastly bigger selection. As it is, apart from new comic trades in Forbidden Planet and the occasional impulse buy ('I must buy a book NOW!') I do pretty much all my shopping online.

  5. One thing I always find with book shops is that they don't appear to be terribly discerning about exactly what they stock in any particular genre.

    SF / fantasy is a perfect example of this. As you say if you go looking for a China Mieville books (which I love btw)you're going to be hopelessly out of luck. But this isn't because Mievilles books are doorstops (if that was a problem then surely Peter F Hamilton would be selling the big issue now), its because SF is a genre repleat with movie and TV tie in dirge.

    For every Iain M Banks you might find there'll be 500 Dan Abnet Warhammer books *spits* or Kevin Anderson Star Wars novels. For every Asimov you'll find 50 Dr Who or Halo books its just bloody rubbish that no one buys, but with a recognisable brand the book seller goes for the potential of guaranteed return through brand awareness.

    That crap then fills up shelves and removes the space for good books. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle then, with more tie in crap being bought for to get a quick buck but actually driving away the core customers which means overall a loss in profits and so the cycle starts again

  6. Sometimes I think that range is an even bigger issue than price- if I decide I want to read a book and I find it in a Waterstones on the way to work, I'll probably buy it regardless of a discount or not (paperback mind, I'm not made of money)If it's there I want to read it straight away rather than waiting a couple of days for delivery. ;p This is why losing me as a customer is a bad idea; the celeb bios and Richard and Judy books are always massively discounted and no one makes very much money from them, whereas the books I buy are nearly always full price.

    The last Harry Potter book for example was so deeply discounted that no book shops made any money from it at all, one of the biggest selling books ever!

  7. To be fair it is partly to do with the size of the books (as I vididly remember trying to fit the poxy Peter Hamilton's out). Mostly bookshop operate on a "core stock" system (remember that Ally? Those were the days) where books are given grades- A = must stock 5 copies, b = must stock 2, c = stock 1, D = stock 1 if you feel like it, and booksellers have to try and get everything to fit around this.

  8. speaking as the manager of an independent... Use your local shop or it will disappear - And then people like me will be forced to wander the streets looking sad...

    I would say to all of you, though, if your local doesn't have something, tell them - or, rather ask them - any good independent will order things in quickly, and if we see a genuine enthusiasm for something that we've missed, we'll - because we don't have a head office

    Not just for me, but it will be a tragedy if high street bookshops disappear, because apart from anything else, if Amazon have a total monopoly, they won't be discounting anymore because they won't need to.

    Of course, if your local is rude, unhelpful and/or incompetent, then shop elsewhere with a clear conscience.. Just try them first.

  9. This is true! And shop at Roy's book shop because it is all proper and lovely, and run by people who really love books.

    I'm booking a week off work Roy, can I come and hang about in your bookshop?

  10. You know, I wish I did have a small independent bookshop somewhere close by that I could go to and be a regular at. We just have chain stores around here - one of the downsides to living in the centre of town.

  11. Really interesting comments here and - sad to say - it has only made me want to go online and buy China Mieville books! (Any recommendations folks)?!

    I would hate to see the book shop disappear entirely, not just because we need physical paper books in my opinion, but because the good ones are not just shops but places where like-minded people can go - almost like a community in and of itself. Unfortunately, apart from Charing Cross Road, I don't know where any good ones exist in London.

  12. Very true! Bookshops are much more than just places to buy books, and I don't believe proper print and paper books will ever truly be replaced (as someone who has to sniff that new book smell with each purchase, I won't be going over to the kindle any time soon).

    Laura, read Perdido Street Station, and then The Scar :) They're both meandering giants of books but very very good.

  13. Interesting comments.

    But I still argue that me buying 7 books for £50 from Amazon is a better option than me buying 3 books for £50 at a bookstore. Why should 4 authors miss out on their sales and payment simply because a bookstore needs to pay high street shop rent and staff costs?

    Sure, bookstores vanishing would be a tragedy and bookstores are a vital part of any town, BUT their business model needs to change somehow. As much as I LOVE browsing a bookstore, I'm still going patronise 7 authors at Amazon instead of 4 authors in store because I'm more interested in supporting writers rather than an individual store.

  14. Is that because you're a writer though Adam? ;)

  15. Yes, price is one thing we can't match in a shop - and the fact that WHS and Waterstones keep trying is why they're failing and becoming more boring (they have to order way too many copies of obvious things to get the publisher discount, and so every shop looks the same..) -

    But when there isn't much of a difference in price -- my hope/advice/plea is this... If you have a good shop nearby, use it! And try ordering through them - a lot of shops can get things next day, and don't charge postage (and we don't lie about when things will turn up..)

    Someone mentioned the Print-on Demand machines - yes! - I think that's exactly the way it will go, and that's what will keep the shops relevant and exciting for longer..

    Jen, you're always welcome to come and work here!

  16. Hmm, can I have a job in your store Roy? I'm moderately priced and would even move house :-)

  17. Nothing right now, sorry! But I will show this blog to my colleagues to threaten them... "You see? I could replace you in a heartbeat - a heartbeat!"

  18. Oooo don't tempt me Roy, I still yearn for a bit of proper bookselling :D

  19. Oh, I just love bookshops. I'd live in one if I could - build a little house out of piles of fiction: history tomes for furniture, travel guides for windows (think of the views!).

    My fave shop is the one on Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen. They hardly ever have what I want, but are excellent at ordering titles in - which always arrive within a few days.

    I *did* find one of Steven Savile's books just waiting for me on the shelf once though - that was weird, as I was actually visiting the shop to see if they could get it for me (we live in strange times). I had my very first "do I look THAT old" moment there too - when ordering in one of Simon Messingham's books, I was asked if I was his mother: cheers!

    As for tinternet buying: not unless I really, really, REALLY have to.