Should we care about the books people buy? If we are concerned, what should we worry about more—the quality of the content, the provenance of the author, the price paid (or discount given), or where it was bought and the format? Or, as librarian Carol Boswarthack said this week, should we mind just that people read?
The book trade has a robust ecosystem but not a fair one—as Orwell did not write, all books are equal, but some books are more equal than others. Not every sale distributes its proceeds evenly, not every book sold leads to growth in the market, or conveys the same benefits to the author. An e-book bought is not good news for high street bookshops, the sound of audio rising is a jab in the ribs for those booksellers who cannot sell it. As libraries are finding, not all publishers are happy with free e-book reading.
Others feel that sales driven by high retailer discounts, or a large marketing spend, risk casting too long a shadow over other—I think they mean "better"—books. The worry is that the very diversity of the sector is being undermined by the over commerciality of the big publishers and their juggernaut brand authors: that the brave publishing being done by smaller presses will forever remain in the foothills—unless boosted by a literary prize or two.
History is, as always, a useful guide. Commentators tend to think things were better in the past—or at least before the end of the Net Book Agreement—as if bestsellers back then were somehow hewn from better stone or worked their way to the top by the strength of their good writing alone. This week 20 years ago, Barbara Taylor Bradford held the top spot. Ten years after that, it was James Patterson. Before the end of fixed prices, Jilly Cooper (30 years ago) and Wilbur Smith (40) dominated the charts this week yesteryear. Today it is David Walliams, the comedy sketchwriter turned famous children’s author, who tends to bring out the worst in some commentators. At 86,001 copies sold, his latest, The World’s Worst Teachers, represents his third-biggest launch haul, and his biggest outside the festive season. The book represents 10% of the total children’s market, and 20% of kids fiction. It is little wonder that some look on his works and despair.
But publishing is not, and never has been, a one-note business (as this week’s crop of Rising Stars demonstrates). We all know that to thrive, the sector needs to broaden its publishing and its reach, with campaigns such as World Book Day, Independent Bookshop Week, Books are My Bag and #LoveAudio among the best examples, fronted both by authors and celebrities.
To be healthy, the ecosystem needs books at the top and at the bottom, authors big and small, famous and obscure, and publishers with the wherewithal and nous to publish at both ends. As a sector we would do well not to tell readers that they’ve bought the wrong book, or been hoodwinked into their purchases by publisher marketing spend or retailer placement. We should care what readers buy, but that they buy and engage at all is the most important thing. For now.