The importance of libraries as free, open, accessible, democratic spaces has been underlined on both sides of the Atlantic in recent days. It was a small, community library in Birstall, West Yorkshire in which the Labour MP Jo Cox chose to hold her weekly constituency surgery and outside which she was so tragically killed on 16 June. Across the Atlantic, the American Library Association has been holding its annual conference in Orlando, Florida, this week (23-28 June), barely two weeks after the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Responding to that tragedy, and in words that that apply as much to the UK, the ALA President Sari Feldman said: “Our nation’s libraries serve communities with equity, dignity and respect. ALA will carry this legacy to Orlando. In defiance of fear, ignorance and intolerance, the library community will continue its profound commitment to transforming communities by lending its support.”
Bookshops have an important community role too, and the revival of this sector seems to be continuing. Certainly, physical bookstores are talked about more than ever before. Faber Chief Executive Stephen Page believes bookshops “have now returned to the heart of the modern writer-and-consumer-focused book industry”, and they are now “understood to be a key part of a new ecology that is giving great confidence to publishers” who love the role they play in discoverability.
Waterstones opened ‘Harpenden Books’ in Hertfordshire in April, Daunt Books (aka ‘Little Waterstones’) is to open Marlow Books in the Buckinghamshire town in August, a handful of US indie publishers have their own bookstores (eg Milkweed Editions opening in Minneapolis, Melville House already in Brooklyn) and in New York, blogger Noelle Santos is planning to open The Lit Bar in the South Bronx next year.
Booksellers in the US will have been encouraged by figures from the US Census Bureau which showed that sales through bookstores increased every month from January to April inclusive this year, compared to the same period last year. That news coincided with data from the New York-based book audience research body, the Codex Group, which found that among nearly 5,000 book buyers, the number of ebook units purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016.
Codex’s President Peter Hildick-Smith has coined the phrase ‘digital fatigue’ to describe the migration back to print. He talked about the inability of reading devices to deliver a quality, long-form reading experience. The survey found that 25% of book buyers – including 37% of those aged 18 to 24 – said they wanted to spend less time on their digital devices. Nearly 60% of those who said they were reading fewer ebooks gave preference for print as the main reason for returning to physical books.
Interestingly, commenting on Hachette’s purchase of UK mobile games development studio Neon Play, CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson said that “ebooks are so similar to print books that they barely count as digital objects”. That suggests that publishers aren’t doing enough to make ebooks different. Hely Huthchinson said that what people wanted from digital was “more interactivity”. Some might say that perhaps the only interactivity people want with fiction is simply to lose themselves in the narrative, though digital surely suggest myriad new ways of approaching narrative, as with Iain Pears’ Arcadia app (Touchpress) which offers the reader multiple story lines.
The ebook maverick Kobo continues to go its own way. Its charismatic CEO Michael Tamblyn revealed how the company made a conscious decision to let others engage in a “very expensive fight for control of the US market” while it “quietly expanded into every other single country that looked like a candidate for digital growth”. He told The Economist’s Canada Summit in Toronto that, as a result, the majority of Kobo’s revenue comes from outside the country in which it was founded, Canada, though he noted how its “Canadian-ness” had allowed it to steal a march on its bigger rivals.”
He explained: “Publishers and retailers in France are particularly cautious about working with foreign retailers, especially related to ebooks, but our membership in La Francaphonie [the international organization representing countries and regions where French is the first or customary language] and sensitivity to France’s tradition of cultural protection helped to get us a partnership with France’s largest retailer FNAC and a very significant French business.”
But the quote of the week has to belong to Hiroshi Sogo, Kinokuniya’s Director of Import and Distribution. He said fixed prices in Japan helped prevent a “Trumpian dystopia”. Trumpian Dystopia! Cool! Sounds like a heavy metal band.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.