James Daunt provided good value when he delivered the opening address at the Bookseller’s Futurebook conference this week. The Waterstones MD and Boring & Noble CEO – I’m sorry, that should be Barnes & Noble… no, actually, let’s leave it as Boring & Noble because that’s more or less what he said. Actually, it was even worse. He described the current B&N stores as “crucifyingly boring”, which is about as damning as you can get. And he added: “And the one thing you cannot be in this age of Amazon is boring.”
But his message was ultimately positive. “If you make the stores look good, if you fill them with the right books and if you have good staff, then shopping in those stores becomes a more pleasant experience than having a delivery through your letter box.”
He drilled down to considerable detail and said that part of the “reimagining” of Barnes & Noble meant asking “what books do I need to have that sell other books. The shops need to be curated in an unflinching manner, with books carefully off-set against each other”.
He concluded with a rallying cry. “We – Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, independents – have to stand on our feet and use our brains, our wit and our personality to create points of interest on the high street…” – and if that happens, coupled with an online offer that has personality too, then bricks and mortar can be anything but boring and can more than meet the challenge of Amazon.
British/Irish author Kit de Waal, was named Futurebook Person of the Year and urged publishers to “take that leap of faith with your black, gay, trans, other, different, disabled, rough around the edges, northern, junior assistant”. She echoed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous ‘danger of a single story’ syndrome by adding: “What else would they bring to the editorial table? What else do they have to contribute apart from their identity? Don’t continually ask your black member of staff questions about diversity and difference. You might find they’re really, really good on cookery books and sci-fi. We are all more than our labels.”
Now then, changing the subject, if you can’t sleep at night, you can always try thinking about different attitudes to book pricing across the globe. You’ll be off in seconds. Yet the topic remains oddly fascinating. Why do France and Germany keep fixed prices when other territories have abandoned them? Is French and German society so very different from the UK?
Germany’s Borsenverein, its publishers and booksellers association, has just published research into its fixed price system and concluded: “Germany’s system of fixed book prices and the extensive landscape of bookshops it supports play a key role in the dissemination of books as essential cultural goods, while also fostering the quality and variety of books available to consumers.” It also noted that “while the number of independent bookshops in the UK fell by roughly 12% between 1995 and 2001 after the abolition of fixed prices there, Germany saw a decline of only 3% in the 1995 to 2002 period”.
The horse has long bolted on this topic in the UK, of course, but it remains a live issue in many territories. As to the why, for Germany at least the celebrated translator Jamie Bulloch, who took part in the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Translators Programme this year, observes: “The social market economy, which has been a principal feature of the Federal Republic since its foundation, has clearly influenced the values of the country’s citizens. It seems as if many Germans seem quite attached to what is small and local, which is why you will still see extraordinary markets thriving in medium-sized towns, as well as independent bakeries and butchers.”
It has been autumn awards season and two of the book trade’s own have been honoured. Novelist James Patterson, who has become as well known for his book industry philanthropy as his writing, received a National Humanities Medal from President Trump for his contribution to the arts and humanities, and departing American Booksellers Association chief executive Oren Teicher received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community at the National Book Awards in New York. Teicher said he accepted it “on behalf of the thousands of indie booksellers who perform that special act of magic of placing the right book into reader’s hands”.
Finally, Guinness World Record officials were on hand at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE earlier this month to validate the world’s largest simultaneous book signing. Let’s hope they will also be on hand in Tapei, Taiwan on 31 May 2020 when Eslite’s 24-hour bookstore there will close for the first time since 1989. Wait a minute, has any physical shop, let alone a bookshop, ever been open for that long?
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.