In the week sandwiched between the Booksellers Association’s terrific Bookshop Day and Super Thursday, it may be churlish to point out the trade’s fatal flaw, but I’ll do it anyway. Actually, don’t blame me: at The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference two weeks ago, Georgina Atwell, founder of the children’s books reviews website Toppsta, said one of the most frequent questions she is asked via Facebook is: “Where can I buy the books?” I was reminded of it earlier this week when Faber’s children’s publisher Leah Thaxton tweeted that the comment made by Atwell “still haunts me”. She is not alone.
Atwell’s point was not that she should provide better links to online booksellers (there are links on her website), but that from within her audience (particularly those on Facebook) there was a genuine lack of knowledge about where to find the books featured on the site. On this theme, in an interview with The Bookseller, Man Booker Prize literary director Gaby Wood told us that when recruiting judges she is conscious of reaching readers. She says “we are trying to bring high-quality literature to as many people as possible”.
We live in an age when there has never been greater access to books and writing, and yet at the same time, never has the visibility of physical books been under greater threat. Despite the uptick in Nielsen BookScan’s sales figures this year, there are fewer high street bookshops today than there were yesterday, fewer public libraries and fewer school libraries (still not made a statutory requirement in England by the government).
We are not short of initiatives that have tried to address these issues—World Book Day, Quick Reads, World Book Night—or efforts by publishers to market direct to consumers— HarperCollins UK’s launch of events listing website BookGig this week is another good example—and yet somehow it still surprises us when a book breaks out beyond the book-buying set, as Fifty Shades did four years ago and Harry Potter before that. That alone tells you the size of the market. The task is, as Atwell puts it, both “frightening and encouraging in equal measure”.
We have, of course, come a long way. At a Booksellers Association conference held in the 1980s, there was a discussion about whether a range bookshop could work outside of the major cities in the north of England.
But, as Brexit showed us, there is more to do, and we have never had more tools at our disposal with which to try and do it. Penguin Random House UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon told the Guardian this week that publishing risked becoming irrelevant if it did not better reflect society with a more diverse list. We all have a role to play not just in publishing widely but also in finding new ways to find new readers for books old and new.
Read Georgina Atwell's blog on how many families are slipping through the net when it comes to book-buying here.