Last week’s news about Waterstones' acquisition of Foyles caused quite a stir within the industry. I love Foyles, I love Waterstones. I can only hope that this is a good move for the book trade as a whole. But, Daunt’s comment, "Together, we will be stronger and better positioned to protect and champion the pleasures of real bookshops in the face of Amazon’s siren call. It is an exciting and invigorating time in bookselling as good bookshops are rediscovering their purpose in the fight back against online and e-reading" did make me raise an eyebrow.
Real bookshops, ‘real’ books? Why as an industry do we continue with these arbitrary levels of ‘worthiness’ about how and where our readers buy and consume books? If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard the phrase, "oh but I love the smell of books", I’d be writing this next to a pool somewhere sunny. Of course people have their own preferences about how they read. Some people love reading in bed, others only read in the bath. We all know those people who only have time to read on holiday.
This is not necessarily what a reader looks like
Personally, I’m not pro any particular format. Despite the fact I may have founded a digital-first publisher, I’m format agnostic. My flat is full of books and my e-reader goes everywhere with me. I found difficulty focusing on a page for the first time in my life after the death of a close friend and turned to audiobooks as a comforting way of lulling myself to sleep with stories in the early hours of the morning.
People enjoying a novel shouldn’t place such importance on which format the story is conveyed in - whether it’s a beautiful cloth-bound hardback, an e-book downloaded immediately in the pub after a recommendation from a friend, or an audiobook with an incredibly cast narrator, the words are really all that matter. And they are still ‘real’ books, whichever medium they happen to be produced in. When I worked at Kobo we did a lot of research showing that our customers bought print books alongside e-books.
What frustrates me is the industry snobbery I’ve witnessed about how people choose to read. Having spent the last nine years working for various online retailers, mainly in e-books, I’ve seen it a great deal. When in highlights meetings with publishers, I often came across account managers who seemed almost apologetic about having to present bestselling commercial books.
What should matter, is working together to get people to choose to read at all. UK literacy rates are falling; libraries are being closed at an alarming frequency. Vital projects like Quick Reads struggle to get funding. A lot of people we could be introducing to the joys of reading are too intimidated to even enter a bookshop. WHSmith and The Works are often looked down upon by an industry which for the most part is dominated by a London-centric middle class. In many UK towns, these retailers may be the only physical shops where readers can buy books. Online bookselling gives people a greater access to books at the touch of a button.
Books are not necessarily an entertainment form that people are turning to in our increasingly busy lives. We shouldn’t be sneering if you happen to say you devoured the latest hot psychological thriller on a 99p Kindle Daily Deal rather than the latest Ian McEwan hardback. Books - all books - should be a pleasure, and not a guilty one at that.
As my co-founder of Hera Books, Keshini Naidoo, has said: "I don’t believe that ‘commercial’ is a dirty word – I believe that books have to stand alongside other forms of entertainment in our time-poor modern society. You should be as enthralled by a novel as the latest Netflix boxset or as addicted as scrolling through your Twitter timeline."
Books and stories, no matter what genre or format they are presented in, should be something we should striving to make as inclusive, accessible and enjoyable as possible. No real or proper about it.
Lindsey Mooney and Keshini Naidoo are appearing on the'What Readers Really Want' panel at FutureBook Live 2018, taking place on 30th November in London. Get your early bird ticket now.