Last year I gave a talk to an academic association in leafy north Oxford. As an honorarium, the £35 they gave me was derisory, but then, apparently, they are ‘poor’ (as any association will be which only charges £2 entry). As a book token, however, £35 seemed a lot to spend. I went today to browse in Oxford’s oldest and most famous bookstore, Blackwells, without quite knowing what I was going to spend it on. Some big art book, perhaps, or a leather-bound antiquity.
The sound hits you as you walk through the door, like there is a party going on. As you go upstairs, however, it begins to sound more like the school refectory. It is, of course, the coffee shop where classics used to be, where once you could sit and browse Loebs on the window seat untroubled by anyone. Now it’s a skinny latte shouting shop. Fine. Bookshops need to diversify, after all, like everybody. But the rearrangements confused and confounded me.
Here I put my hands up and admit I haven’t been in a bookshop for a couple of years. Cripes! Call yourself an author?? Yes, I do, and like most authors desperately broke, so I shop online. The thing is, I am not emotionally attached to bookshops. Too many memories of being rejected by stuffy staff, whether I was trying to get them to stock my books, buy my secondhand books, or consider a talk. Some, I have to say, have been really nice, those at Blackwells amongst them, but the overwhelming majority play authors as cats play mice, seeing how hard you bounce before you die. So I feel as if I don’t care if bookshops go down, although I expect I shall sob with nostalgia in an old folks’ home one day. But as I went through Blackwells today, it came to me that this institution will not – barring accidents – outlive me.
This is what I found. A literature department which could not point me to early Irish literature (but found it in the end under ‘languages’), where the titles I was after were not to be found; which could not understand why I should want a CD of Beowulf spoken in Old English; which had tables stocked with same-old-same-old. I’m not sure if all this reflected on Blackwells or on the University but it seems that studying Eng Lit here must be a very dull affair. I nearly fled at that point but decided to labour up another floor to classics and history. After all, I had £35 to spend. In the classics department I immediately found some titles I wanted to buy, slim books, not much more than pamphlets, in the Osprey series. Picture books, in effect, related to Celts and Romans who are my current area of interest. Fine! Good way to spend £35, even if you don’t get much to show for it. I took five titles from the carousel and went to sit in the window seat (hooray – it still exists, along with the Loebs!) to compare them and see if I wanted all and, if so, how much that was going to tot up to. I began examination…
Two of the five were smart and presentable and passed my ‘Must I Possess You?’ test, but three were just horrible. Cheap productions on cheap paper with muddy print not quite properly aligned on the page. I checked the publication page and found these were ‘print-on-demand’. I can’t see any excuse for p-o-d books to be so nasty. I decided – the gods of the Celestial Library forgive me – to buy the nice ones and come home and buy the others online for, get this, those cheap ‘n’ nasties were priced at £12 and £16 respectively and were both shop-damaged.
If publishing and bookselling are not to fall to the ground like dead elephants, causing the whole land to shake, they need to act quickly. We are a literate, savvy public and can see right past those glossy (or, indeed, matte) covers to the cheap, yellow paper within. If we are going to be diverted from the seductions of the eBook, we need our physical books to be beautiful and affordable (or at least, good value for money). The industry needs to be quick for the poachers are almost upon the herd.