Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Friday, January 22, 2010

MPoaF: Making a Book in the 21st Century

Well, one way of making a book anyway. The Espresso Book Machine is already installed here and there, including a few bookshops around the world, I think. Is this a possible saviour for a handful of the doomed bookstores I was talking about last week? I'm a bit dubious, but you can see why they'd want to give it a try. Any straw you can get hold of probably looks appealing when you're sinking fast. It is quite clever, I suppose, and it's fun to watch a book coming into existence like that.



I'm not sure it really offers much defence against the e-book advance, though. Much as I hate to dwell on the gloomier aspects of this revolution, it's stayed on my mind this last week, so a couple of further hints at what the future holds:

As pointed out by Simon in the comments on the last post, Waterstone's, the UK's last big chain of dedicated bookstores is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They plan to turn their backs (partially) on the dreaded celebrity biography and give individual store managers more control over what books their shops stock and promote. It's an idea I can get behind, but will it stave off the coming storm? Somehow I doubt it. Might prolong the life of some of their stores, but can't see it saving large numbers of them in the long run.

20% of digital book buyers apparently stop buying print copies entirely. Can't make up my mind whether that's a higher or lower percentage than I would have expected. One thing's for sure, though - it's a chunky enough number (and one I'd imagine is only going to rise) to put a big ugly question mark over the viability of all bricks and mortar bookshops once the digital habit has spread a bit further through the reading population.

Lots of digital books are illegally downloaded. A staggeringly unexpected discovery, I'm sure you'll agree. Reading about it a bit more widely, it's not obvious the study's findings are exactly robust, since there's a lot of extrapolation and sampling involved, but maybe I should just be pleased to see that fiction titles are actually amongst the least affected. (But in this case 'least affected' still means thousands and thousands of copies). Again, one thing's for sure: the numbers will only rise once on-screen reading of books becomes a more widespread and deeply entrenched norm. What effect it'll have on the financial stability of the whole writing business remains to be seen, and I'm instinctively doubtful of anyone who claims to know.

And as for publishers ... well, all I can say is I'm glad it's not my job to spend all day trying to figure out where all this is heading, and whether I'll still have gainful employment when it gets there ... I'd be in a perpetual cold sweat.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Role in the Demise of the High Street Bookstore

In 2009, my answer to the question 'Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed?' underwent a subtle but significant change. (No one has actually asked me that specific question, by the way - after all, who cares what I think? Well, I do, so I have regularly asked myself the question).

Anyway, up until some time in 2009, when pondering an answer to this weighty self-inflicted question, I would have to think about it a bit. Kick a few ideas and scenarios around in my head. Weigh up the exact wording of my response. And end up with: 'Probably.' Which I would then dress up with various caveats and qualifications.

For a while now, however, my answer has not been something I need to think about too much. Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed? Yeah, pretty much.

I'm still going to stick one or two qualifications on there, though, just to be picky. By 'bookshops' I mean mostly - but by no means exclusively - the big stores that reside in every town centre in the UK. By 'doomed' I mean headed for a potentially savage reduction in numbers and, for the surviving outlets, a future rather different from their recent past. Timescale-wise, I'm no real futurist so who knows? The evidence in the UK would seem to suggest that it's already underway: Borders UK - a small but not insignificant chain - went under late last year. Waterstone's, the last big dedicated bookselling chain, has just announced really horrible Christmas trading figures, at a time when most other high street retailers have been posting surprisingly good numbers. (I've no idea how WH Smiths, the other long-established biggish beast of high street book sales is doing, but they're not solely reliant on books for revenue so may not be so vulnerable).

I really, really like bookshops, so this is not a change I instinctively welcome, but it would be silly to ignore my personal contribution to the hammering these bookstores have been taking. Because I'm definitely part of the problem. A tiny, tiny itsy-bitsy little part of the problem, for sure, but I'm in there doing my bit to destroy their business model. I'm only human, and the forces arrayed against the poor old bricks and mortar bookstore are powerful enough to suck even me along in their seductive wake.

The price- and convenience-appeal of online shopping (not just for books, of course) is too much for me to resist, a lot of the time. Although I'm far from poor, I'm not rich enough these days to be entirely uninterested in the unit cost of my reading habit, and there's a lot to be said for being able to acquire the objects of my desire without having to even leave my house. Result: it's at least possible that in 2009 I spent more buying coffee in bookshops than I did buying actual books. And much as I like coffee (and tediously expensive as it is in such places) I don't spend nearly enough on it to keep Waterstones or any other cafe-equipped bookstore in business for long.

If it was only the competition from online sellers that the stores had to face, they could probably hang on in there. But the supermarkets have driven a coach and horses through the established price structure for bestsellers, destroying what used to be a central plank in the financial viability of dedicated bookstores. I am, at least, innocent of any complicity in this development, since I have never bought a book in a supermarket, and hope I never will. (Which is fairly easy for me to say since, to date, they don't sell the kind of books I tend to read).

And there's the third, and probably most dangerous, club bludgeoning the bookstores about the head: e-readers. Late last year I played around with one in a shop, the first time I've ever really done so with proper attention. And - sacrilege! - I found myself thinking: 'You know, I could actually read a novel like this. It's quite a pleasing bit of kit, all in all. And it would be kind of cool to have hundreds of books in your pocket ...' I might even buy one, one day. (They'll have to be both even better and cheaper, though). And that's really bad news for bookstores, because I'm a paper and ink guy through and through. If even I'm wavering ... well, the end is surely nigh. The real breakthrough for digital books is a little way off yet, but one things for sure: the market for them isn't about to start shrinking any time soon..

I expect there will still be some shops that make enough money solely from selling books to keep going - quite possibly they'll be local, brilliantly managed independent shops with a specialist interest. And there will no doubt be plenty of places that sell books alongside all kinds of other stuff. But I'm pretty sure we're in the twilight of the ubiquitous, big, dedicated bookshops in prime retail locations we've all grown up with. Eventually lots of them will go the same way so many of the music stores have gone, and the way the movie rental shops and the video game stores will probably go in due course. (Is it my imagination, or do all these places, when they close down, get replaced with mobile phone shops? Is there some law about this I'm unaware of? Is there no upper limit on the density of mobile phone emporia an area can support?)

It's just change. It's the way of things these days. Business models, even whole industries, come and go. No point in getting gloomy about it, or too nostalgic for the way things used to be - particularly when I, along with millions of other perfectly well-intentioned folk, am helping to propel the change. But there's no getting away from the fact I'll miss knowing that I can find, somewhere in the centre of every reasonable-sized town in the UK, a big open shop filled with rank upon rank of shelves stuffed with thousands and thousands of books (and pretty much nothing but books), and having the sense of being on the threshold of a great storehouse of knowledge and entertainment and craft. And cruising the aisles touching the books and turning them over in my hands, admiring them as objects. I hope that when these places are gone - or at least much rarer than they used to be - their absence won't be an excuse for people to forget how important and magical books with paper pages are (were?).

But as I said before, I'm no futurist. So who knows?

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

New Year, New Things

So, everyone: welcome to 2010. (A week late, I know, but it's the thought that counts, right?) I hope you enjoy it, and that it delivers at the very least a respectable portion of all that you hope for.

Starting a new year with a new experience can't be a bad thing, I reckon, so you won't hear any complaints from me about the wintry onslaught that has subjugated the British Isles. There's been no sign of the grass on the lawn outside my window for over three weeks now, buried as it is beneath a gleaming white blanket of snow. Nothing remarkable for many of you, of course, including those living at the same latitude as Edinburgh (approaching 56 deg N, for the record - roughly the same as Moscow and the Aleutian Islands), but it's exceptionally unusual round here, where the peculiarities of climates both macro- and micro- mean most winters are all but snow-free. In fact, I don't remember seeing anything quite like it in my life.

I'm a big fan of the big freeze. Everything looks just that little bit unfamiliar and exotic. It feels like we've all travelled to some other place - one quieter, more beautiful and imbued with a faint, cold magic - without having to move. The sound of deep snow crunching underfoot seems to me vaguely romantic and wild and fantastical.

A new computer arrived in my house. I didn't really want one, but the old one was accumulating software glitches and idiosyncracies that nothing seemed to rid it of, and to be fair it was a few years old, so I bit the bullet and went shopping. Turns out PCs have got a whole lot better since I last bought one. Who knew? I mean, have you seen these flat screen things? They're all ... flat and stuff. Amazing.

Anyway, one consequence has been a big clean out and reorganising of my feeds, which gives me an excuse to flag up some new, newish or not new at all podcasts that might be of interest:

1. Tor.com has added a new podcast - the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy - to complement their existing audio fiction one. Both can be found here. The G's G to the G promises to cover a wide spectrum of geeky interests, so should be worth following. (First episode doesn't do much for me, since it's mostly about Left 4 Dead 2, and my gaming days are more or less behind me, sadly, but I'm not letting that put me off).

2. The iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast is my graphic novels and comics-related listening of choice. For any of you out there with a liking for that medium, it gets a great big thumbs up from me. (As does their video podcast, if you're a visually oriented sort).

3. Naked Archaeology offers monthly news and views on archaeological research and discoveries. Quite interesting, if you're into that sort of thing. It's a spin-off from the very well known and jolly good Naked Scientists podcast, as is the newer and potentially interesting (but I haven't actually listened to it yet, so don't blame me if it's rubbish) Naked Astronomy.

And lo, the new year brings a new look for Fall of Thanes. This is the cover for the US mass market paperback edition, due out very soon. And it is, IMHO, a thing of beauty. Possibly my favourite 'look' for any of the trilogy so far. And that's saying something, since all the way through, I've really been jolly well taken care of by the Orbit folks responsible for prettying up my books.

The new year also brings free pdfs of books. Free pdfs of 11,000 books to be precise, including quite a lot of famous ones (and a great many not very famous at all ones, I suspect). They're available at The Book Depository. Now, personally I can't read novel-length stuff in pdf form. Can just about manage a short story, but that's about my limit in that format (and even then, I'll be hoping it's a short short story). But you might be different, so go knock yourself out. It doesn't look that easy to actually find some of the freebies, admittedly, but even right there on the front page, there's links to free Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and others.

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