Innovation in bookselling is dirty, complicated - and flourishing

Innovation in bookselling is dirty, complicated - and flourishing

Eight hundred words are very few to get heavy on the subject of innovation in bookselling, so I will focus on two things: a book I just fell in love with, and my experience as the co-owner of an independent bookshop - Desperate Literature, Madrid.

The book is Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s latest release, Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature: “an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of nonconforming and radically innovative literatures in the UK and beyond” (editor Isabel Waidner). I would like to mention this book for two reasons.

Firstly, it is dedicated to intersectional, innovative and, quite simply, excellent writing. The authors are mostly, as Waidner puts it, “lesbians, trans women, (gender) queers, some gay men. Many of [them] are BAME, working-class, women, migrants, or from a background of migration.” It wrestles experimental fiction away from its too-often white, middle-class roots and represents lived experiences that are scarcely (though perhaps ever so slightly increasingly) seen in mainstream publishing. Furthermore, Dostoyevsky Wannabe is making zero profit out of the book, all in order to distribute it as cheaply as physically possible. Challenger thinking, indeed.

I'll pause before I tell you the second reason I love this book, because first I would like to say a little about Desperate Literature, and what running an independent bookshop has taught me about innovation and the selling of books.

Since we opened in 2014, it has become ever more apparent to me that literary innovation works through and against not only literary traditions but prevailing cultural norms and the market economy - and, furthermore, that this has very real and embodied consequences for writers, publishers and booksellers alike. We cannot discuss one (innovation) without the other (capital).  

Just two aspects of running Desperate Literature serve to illustrate the point. Firstly, it struck me only as recently as last month that it has been at least a year since somebody walked through the door and asked the question, mouth agape at our apparent brazenness for daring to run a physical bookshop: “Amazon gonne kill your business though, right?”  A few years ago, we heard this almost every week. Why no longer?

Perhaps it’s that, with the establishment of ecommerce as a permanent and incontrovertible feature of the bookselling landscape, the need for physical spaces dedicated to literature - within which literature can be shared physically, as something that has flesh and is passed through hands and minds - has been ever more accentuated and accepted.  Madrid alone has a flourishing zine/indie scene, with at least three festivals dedicated to independent publishing - Hostia un Libro, Libros Mutantes and Graf. If you’re ever here, you they’re not to be missed.

But the counterpoint to this relationship between online retail and physical bookshops is that books are often treated, or at least in my experience, as something of a ‘luxury item’. As trimmings, as signifiers of cultural capital (a horribly cynical interpretation of John Waters’ famous ditty: 'If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck'em!') - and that probably accounts for why we get so many first dates through the door that don’t actually look at books, never mind buy them. I don’t mean to be snarky: obviously, consumption is not obligatory on an individual level. But it is obligatory for our survival, and therein lies the crux of a bookshop’s (or any established book trader’s) complicated and contradictory relationship with literature.

When I started out I was naive enough to believe that I wouldn’t have to become a full-time bureaucrat in order to survive, nor that this role would induce terrible anxiety. The tension exists between remaining solvent - which means being willing to sell books as luxury items or weighing that experimental title against the Hemingway that will sell more quickly - and actually celebrating, reading and promoting (innovative) literature, that which has always required time, dedication, and active reading rather than passive consumption.

I know that this tension is shared by almost everybody participating in the ‘culture industry’. It can be horrible, frankly, and it’s for this (the second) reason that Liberating the Canon caught my attention. This anthology offers the perfect example of independent publishing that cuts right across all the tensions I have just mentioned, honestly and in celebration.

For one thing, it’s published and distributed entirely through Createspace (Amazon). When I first figured that out the pompous indie bookseller in me raised an eyebrow. Amazon again? Really? But this is what I appreciated about encountering Dostoyevsky Wannabe in general, because if their content is challenging literary norms, their dedication to producing and distributing innovative literature at the lowest possible cost for the greatest number also challenges the righteous belief that us indies somehow hold the moral high ground away from the corporate hubbub.

We don’t. We’re deep in it with everybody else. Using our factory built laptops to access Facebook and Twitter in order to hustle just like everybody else, all the while trying to take our lived and contradictory experiences to create something that challenges the systems of oppression around (and within!) us, molding all of this into a joyful protest.  

My point? Innovation is flourishing, but it’s dirty and complicated, and thankfully so.    

Desperate Literature hosts weekly events, roaming writers, drunken chess evenings, spontaneous dance parties and is currently running a pretty snazzy literary prize for short fiction. Prizes include €1000 and a week in the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, plus events at Desperate Literature, Madrid and Shakespeare and Company, Paris (please see our Eligibility and Conditions page for details). For more information and/or to enter, click here.