Back to the future

<p>Waterstone's was founded in 1982. Then in 1983 Granta published its first and most influential &quot;Best of Young British&rdquo; list identifying a new generation of writers. There was perfect congruence of readers' taste, a growing chain of booksellers at which to buy the books they wanted and influential advocacy from a trusted source. Fortuitously, I had joined Hamish Hamilton in 1981 and I remained in publishing until 1998, a time that seems like a golden period for literary fiction and serious non-fiction. With hindsight, the growth of Waterstone's was what made it possible and many of the writers who came to the fore then remain influential now. </p>
<p>Today's mantra that the consumer is always right flies in the face of experience. Consumers like to be advised. We all know that the advocacy of &quot;Richard &amp; Judy&rdquo; led to the rise of book group fiction (Will Boyd is singular in being the only author who was selected by both, justifiably appearing first for his excellence and secondly for his accessibility.) And the fact that books were increasingly available at supermarkets at the time helped to democratise book choices.</p>
<p>Amazon is now ubiquitous, and promises access to an almost limitless range of books. But its recommendations&mdash;which work well for specialist areas of interest&mdash;are only useful for genre fiction, and not for general fiction. The most potent driver of sales is the bestseller list, which is also the default promotional tool for almost every other retailer, so bestsellers sell more than ever before. In America, which is ahead of us in e-commerce, it's also worth noting that the top-selling e-book downloads turn out, unsurprisingly, to be the books in the bestseller list too.</p>
<p>The challenge now must be to keep books visible and to find new sources of recommendation. Recent attempts to evaluate shop space according to stock turn will not show the appeal to a customer who comes in to browse before they buy, and three-for-twos are not focused recommendations that drive customers to experiment with something new. So it's good to feel that Waterstone's wants to get back to its original values. And there are a growing number of wonderful independents and smaller chains like Foyles and Daunt which promise some return to the rich diversity of the bookselling scene in the 1980s and '90s.</p>
<p>And it's great to see the industry accepting the challenge of advocacy not only of a diverse range of specific books, but of the act of reading itself with the wonderful World Book Night initiative. For one day next year books will be top of the cultural and news agenda and, thanks to Jamie Byng and his team's energy and ingenuity, publishing is going to be taking back the night as well as the day.<br />
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