Since at least the birth of the Victorian penny dreadfuls, the cultural elite have been pontificating on what makes a “real book”. Can a pacy thriller really be seen in the same light as high-brow literary works? Does being lauded but not well-read make a book more real than a disposable “beach read” discarded, dog-eared, by the poolside?
While most people now accept that there is a place on the nation’s bookshelves (either physical or electronic) for genre fiction and narrative non-fiction alongside the classics, the debate still rages as to what can be categorised as a “real book” and with that question the very implication that somehow it is “not real” if the author has not progressed through years of struggle, crafting the art of the perfectly formed sentence.
There have been any number of articles written in the past couple of months decrying the industry’s latest moves towards what seem to be seen as not “real books”. The continued publication of books by YouTubers (which, as we saw in the The Bookseller’s recent article “Zoella is top of the vloggers”, have made over £15m of sales in the past 18 months) is another sign that we are dumbing down, we are told. And what of the other multimillion-selling recent phenomenon: colouring? Well, it’s enough to turn some pundits permanent geranium lake (Crayola reds) with rage.
But let’s just think for a minute about what the dismissal of these books says about our industry. In the coming years, for reasons both cultural and commercial, we absolutely have to reach out to a wider group of readers than the narrow population we currently serve; we have to employ a more diverse range of people; we have to find writers and other contributors from far and wide, and of many different types; and it does us real harm to condemn anyone merely for the kind of book they might be interested in. It is potentially commercial suicide to be dismissive of anyone who might buy from us. There is more choice than ever across all media and we have to provide book selections that people want to make when they are presented with so many ways to spend their time.
A book is a world of some kind. A closed book promises a little bit of magic—I believe that’s partly why print is thriving. Why is there such a trend for expensive and beautiful notebooks? Even these are worlds, in this case worlds waiting to be filled with whatever the purchaser wishes.
Books are, and always have been, used for many different purposes: escape, education, inspiration, entertainment, thoughtful gift. What is different now is that the zeitgeist products, brands and platforms are becoming larger and larger, and therefore more noticeable. They are apparently “skewing” statistics and making it look like our industry is growing more than it really is. Well, so what? Isn’t that wonderful? That we as an industry can signal that we are thriving despite so many years of “print is dead” messages? That we can take online worlds and make them real, tangible things that the fans love? That we can even, in the case of colouring, create trends?
As someone working in a company that publishes these books that are “not real”, I can tell you that they are put together with the same commitment of hard work, care and attention as any literary novel. The content is honed (the art inside the best colouring books is precisely that) and the specification and design carefully crafted. Indeed, in the case of many lifestyle books, more so, as the package itself is increasingly important.
Why are internet stars any less significant than those who have come before through other media? YouTube is just a place for people to find fans. The difference between online platforms and broadcast or news media is that the connection between a presenter and his or her audience is much stronger, meaning the audience is more likely to buy a physical manifestation of the star’s world. When Ebury published Dan & Phil’s The Amazing Book is Not on Fire it became a bestseller across the world. The tie-in theatre tour run by Penguin Live sold 40,000 tickets and the Penguin Random House audiobook was the fastest-selling in the UK last year.
Online platforms are not going to go away. Who knows what the next big place to become an online celebrity will be, but this is certainly not a flash in the pan. How wonderful that this new generation, who have honed their skills via YouTube and social media, still crave the legitimacy offered to them by appearing in print; that they are so democratic in their tastes. And how wonderful to have thousands of teenagers queuing to have books signed. Let’s ensure that the bookshops they are queuing at are as appealing as possible to those teens, so that they come back again and become book lovers.
I was in my local bookshop at the weekend and noticed how different it is now from the period pre-Christmas. In December, the tables were full of a wide range of different books—cookery, humour, colouring, autobiographies, “brand” author hardback fiction, books about chopping wood and books about tidying up. You name it, it was there. This weekend? Lots of worthy looking (though beautifully designed) literary fiction. Guess when the shop felt more vibrant? I know every retailer feels more buzzy in the lead up to Christmas, but you take my point.
We have an opportunity to continue creating a genuinely democratic world in which anything goes, a rich, gorgeous tapestry with something for everyone, where publishing is relevant and current.
Let’s do it—and let’s celebrate it.
Rebecca Smart is managing director of Ebury Publishing.