Monday 1 April 2013

Posher, prettier, pricier, even perhaps more political

Bricks and mortar bookshops are fighting back against online and discount selling by redefining the printed book

At the end of March, Joanne Harris’s latest novel Peaches was published in paperback. I say novel but perhaps the singular is misleading. The Peaches sitting next to the checkout at your local Tesco, or stored in an Amazon stockroom, will not be the same as the book in your local Waterstones. In fact it will be a whole chapter shorter as Harris has joined the growing number of authors to have produced extra material for the use of the bricks and mortar bookshop only.

Waterstones (as perhaps should be expected from its largest chain of bookshops) has led the way in bookshop-exclusive extra material. Its edition of Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave includes an essay on Rebus by Rankin, The Hydrangea Sonata by Ian M Banks has an author interview and a glossary of his sci-fi terms, while Stuart Macbride’s latest novel contains an extra short story. In its non-fiction department, On The Map by Simon Garfield (the chain’s bestselling non-fiction book of last year) comes with a free pull out map, and The John Lennon Letters prints letters unpublished elsewhere. Waterstones is not alone in selling customised editions of books. The small independent bookseller Foyles has had great success with similar initiatives – such as retailing copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel Trains and Lovers with the added bonus of a small booklet containing the brand appropriate exclusive short story ‘All Change at St Pancras’ (one of Foyles’s six branches is located in London’s St. Pancras Station).

Waterstones PR manager Jon Howells links this emergent trend to the fight back of the bricks and mortar bookshop against the joint cyber threat of Amazon and e-books, ‘the more we can…. make people shop on in a high street bookshop the better.’ And it is easy to dismiss bespoke books as just one marketing ploy among many. But in doing so you would be mistaking it for something akin to a free eye shadow on a copy of Vogue. The fact is that, by marketing the printed book as an enriched counterpoint to the homogenous functionality of the e-book, we are witnessing the beginnings of a shift in the very values we assign to the printed book.

If one ever needed a reminder that the literary text is a much a product of material circumstance as authorial imagination this is it. As yet the extra material has been confined very much to the text’s margins. What makes Peaches especially worth comment is the way in which the extra material begins to encroach upon the main body of the story. According to Harris the extra-material can be read as an ‘an epilogue or even as the prologue to an as-yet-unwritten story.’ Will the readers of the Waterstones’ editions then, come away with a rather different view of her novel from those who have bought it from Amazon? Is the next step to have shop-exclusive variables in the story? Will the text revert to being as unstable and multi-various as that of a Shakespearean play? How long will it be before book groups are discussing the rival merits of the Waterstones’ version of the latest novel as opposed to the Blackwells’ one?

The printed book, therefore, begins to be coded not as something uniform or production line but as almost artisanal – like spelt bread from a local baker as opposed to Hovis sliced white. And because of this it is changing from the often unconsidered vehicle for a text to an artefact in and of itself – something reflected not merely in the content of the book but in its physical form. No more the cheap, mass production values of the Wordsworth Classics with their slapdash editing and thin yellow pages. These days books are made to grace shelves rather than merely be stored on them. In his 2011 Booker Prize acceptance speech, Julian Barnes declared his belief that the endurance of the printed book will be contingent on high-end production values:  “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

Barnes’s sentiments find an echo in Alexander McCall Smith, a great champion of the bookshop and printed book alike. He cites the Everyman series as an exemplar of attractive publishing. He says he is happy to do anything he can to help promote the cause of the printed book and he is optimistic as to its fate, ‘I’m not one of those who believe that the physical book is going to disappear… the physical book is a lovely aesthetically pleasing object and people want that… As is often the case with these changes they’re quite nuanced and not necessarily a simple picture.’

The same could be said of the changes being undergone by the bricks and mortar bookshops themselves. Over the last couple of months Foyles has held a series of workshops (some open, some for industry professionals) on the subject of the independent bookshop of the future. Ideas discussed have ranged from the installation of Yo-Sushi-style bookbars and 24/7 book dispensers on walls outside shops, to author-curated displays, membership schemes and writing rooms. Meanwhile, new Managing Director James Daunt is attempting to make Waterstones seem more like an independent bookshop. Its shops routinely play host to local societies, its cafes carry stock from local suppliers and books of local interest are flagged in displays. If the book is becoming more like an artwork, then the bookshop looks set to become more like a theatre - or at least a type of cultural hub. The twenty-first-century equivalent to the eighteenth-century coffee shop, perhaps?

Technological innovation can have a nasty habit of killing off what came before. The fate of HMV (itself a former owner of Waterstones) provides a recent lesson on the destructiveness of evolutionary technology. Yet there have been different models of change – television has not switched off the radio, cinema has not meant curtain down for theatre, and in spite of cameras, painting is still very much in the frame. These art forms might have been made more niche, more elitist - but still they survive. Posher, prettier, pricier, even perhaps more political ( a preference for a printed book purchased from a high street bookshop could just as easily be read as a rejection of faceless, corporate globalised internet behemoths as a fondness for paper) – is that the future of the printed book? Watch your bookshelves carefully - the physical book is shaking the dust from its covers and gingerly flexing its creaking spine. As it starts to make its way from the place it has held in popular understanding since the invention of the steam press, the question is where will it come to rest?


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