In 1954, the late science fiction writer (and former bookseller) Brian Aldiss wrote to the then-editor of The Bookseller, Edmond Segrave, to bemoan the lack of coverage about the shop floor in the weekly trade rag. In his 1990 memoir, Bury my Heart at W H Smith’s, Aldiss recalled arguing that the bookseller was the “backbone of literary life”. Segrave accepted the advice, and Aldiss created The Brightfount Diaries: a fictionalised diary about the life of a sales assistant. It later became Aldiss’ first published novel.
On the eve of the Booksellers Association’s annual conference, it is worth noting that Aldiss was right back then, and he is right today. And it is a message we should look to reinforce. There are plenty of new ways of selling books (and some of them are pretty darned shiny, effective and efficient), but none support the book trade ecosystem quite as well as a sale made via a dedicated bookseller. Bookshops are a home for books, but also a platform for authors; they offer customers a way in (to new books), but also a way out (to new worlds); what they do has become so important in today’s web world that the word “curation” has been seized on to explain it, though it is the unintended magic ofserendipity that is really their biggest weapon against the“everything store”. It is little wonder that in launching the Books Are My Bag campaign this year, the BA has got into bed with dating site eHarmony. Things happen in bookshops that algorithms have not yet replaced.
Of course, bookshops do this despite the continued pressure of online retailing, discounting and e-books, with Amazon’s Kindle chief David Naggar this week using the Daily Mail to kick off a new “row” over pricing by advising publishers to cut the price of e-books “for visibility” (though many already do). Amusingly, Aldiss did imagine Amazon in his columns - kind of. In reference to a book called Store of Gold, he told of a time when “Big Business has run wild” and where the characters “work in a giant store which stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week” and employees “sleep in gigantic dormitories miles underground”. He also anticipated how price would become the tool of last resort for some. One such character, wrote Aldiss, had the “soul-destroying task of writing 200-word reviews for the weekly publicity sheet of all failed books and books cut in price”. Of cutting your losses entirely, he also opined, “all publishers remainder, none do it with cocktail parties”.
What Aldiss might not have anticipated in 1954 was how important books and bookshops would continue to be even in this digital age. As the author Richard Flanagan puts it, as other media suffer through the change, “books remain to ask the questions”. Bookshops are where those questions really get heard.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.