« It's Official. Nick Cohen Gives People Nightmares. | Main | The Further Adventures Of Krtek The Mole »


Hi Scott

As usual, a very thought-provoking post. I wonder if I might add some thoughts?

I think the fundamental difference between books and music is that books are unmediated. Of course some people argue that books mediate between the mind of the writer and mind of the reader. What I mean is that you don't need any equipment to read a book; which, for the past sixty years or so , you have needed in order to listen to music. Our parents were the first people to appreciate music through recordings or broadcast; prior to WW2 there was folk song and orchestral performance. For me the portability, like the lack of mediation, are both components of use; and the music biz will never get over the mediation problem.

Your exception for cookbooks is astute, but it's only true of 'cookbook as instruction manual'. We note the rise of cookery writing over the past few years, Toast, Kitchen Confidential, and The Man Who Ate Everything, etc.; and at the same time the collapse of Haynes Publishing. Culinary writing is alive and kicking, but vastly different to its antecedence.

I have a friend who is an architect who tells me the point is not far off where image quality, and accurate library tagging, will take online archtectural publishing ahead of hard copy; at that point he will stop buying all those beatiful expensive phaidons and T&H. I don't know enough about this to argue, but I like your point about the parallel editions; Who's Who does this already i think.


Drew Mishmash

Great post.

I've been busy converting my old LPs and cassettes into mp3 files. It's incredibly time-consuming but very satisfying. The kind of thing you do when, as a translator and editor, you've lost most of your work because the people you worked for for nigh on 20 years (namely the British Tourist Authority) have now decided to concentrate on putting their material on a website rather than in printed form. Funny you should mention travel guides: I am also in the process of losing a third of my income thanks to a travel guide publisher going under.

Btw, to lie, lay, lain = to recline > to lie open = :-)
to lay, laid, laid = to put down > to lay open = tut, tut!

Unless you're American, of course. LOL!

Bela - my grammar is terrible. You will find my posts riddled with such mistakes.

Drew - I agree with you on cookery literature, a fine artform. And then there is also the cookery porn enthusiasts. People who love just holding and admiring beautifully made cookbooks.

Great blog post. I hadn't really thought about the changes digital technology would bring but can see how your examples would work. Johnson's comments are a bit scary though, if he thinks book superstores are doomed, and he should know, then retail is a bit fucked.

There's also legal volumes and medical textbooks etc - the kind of things that need constant updating with every passing year and are far too heavy to carry anywhere. To have it all on a little updatable e-reader, how marvelous. Of course, I never require a legal or medical textbook or any other kind of book that provides me with information as opposed to fun, so I reckon I will be a luddite paper-lover for some time yet.

I agree with Gerry Johnson and I think that during the next few years we'll see quite a few closures before high street book retailing settles down to its natural limits. During the last 25 years, over 400 new bookshops - most of them 4,000 sq ft or more - have opened. Even without the internet and the post-NBA free-for-all, this expansion couldn't have continued ad infinitum.

Ottakar's were probably the first victims of this new trend. Contrary to what some people believe, Ottakar's was an efficient, well-run company and its like-for-like sales were better than Waterstone's for many years. However, little ships sink more quickly than large ones and Ottakar's didn't have the scale to withstand the sudden downturn in high street sales that took place in 2005. I think the writing was on the wall in July 2005, when the sales of the new Harry Potter book were significantly lower than the previous book in 2003.

I wonder how Waterstone's will fare during the next few years? If anyone can get them through the next few years, Gerry Johnson is probably the man to do it. I just hope that HMV's shareholders are willing to stay the course.

I'm not sure about reaching a tipping point within six months, but I'm glad that Gerry Johnson has openly acknowleged what many of us have been muttering about for the last year. I just hope that my sales budgets for next year will reflect this new realism.

The only way in which Waterstone's will survive is by rationalising, disposing of the big box superstores which were never going to be cost effective, and doing what a bookseller does best - hand selling quality books.

The idea that Waterstone's must try and match every special discount offer from the supermarkets is pure madness.

The digital business, as regards general book publishing, is a total red herring. With music there has to be a manufactured "receiver/reader" - humans have evolved with a rather nifty technical "receiver/reader" for books, the brain and eyes. In fifty years time the idea that basic digital downloads will be 'state-of-the-art' will seem rather comical - I don't know what technological advances are ahead, but I feel sure that the main profitable use of digital download (in the next decade) will be for technical and academic texts. Just remember what happened with many of the internet start-ups : they had no market, and neither, at the present time, does digital downloads for books (thanks to the human "receiver/reader").

Without wishing to sound like a total kiss-ass - I agree entirely with Scott's points.
On the music front the portability/variety observation is entirely correct in my experience. Even the most cynical music fan who bemoans the periodic artificial resusitation of the music business by new formats has been won over by the incredible convenience of the download/mp3 player - as have musicians-why spend a fortune on printing 1000 CDs when you can stick a tune up for download for next to nothing and let the whole world hear it?

The e-book upload with hardbacks idea is one I look forward to as it makes perfect sense.
As for the cookery books - who needs 'em, I am a genius in the kitchen (ahem).

The paperback book is the banana of the entertainment world...cheap, perfectly packaged, eminently portable...although it really could do with being waterproof/able to float a couple of inches above bath water...

Some good points. As Scott has mentioned, the music/digital revolution isn't really directly comparable to what is happening with books. I think that at the moment the way that the book industry is affected by the digital age has more to do with how we buy our books than in any changes to books themselves. We may buy books off Amazon and Play instead of from bookshops, but the books themselves remain largely untouched.

I also think it's very interesting to note how this affects prices. When I go to Play.com, the CDs and DVDs are scandalously cheap, probably because file-sharing technology means that any canny PC user can download a free version of any song/album/film they want, and the industry has to respond accordingly. Whereas the books on Play are not much cheaper than books in the high street, because at the moment there's no real digital alternative to reading a book. Sure, a lot of books are available as PDF files, but at the moment that isn't going to compete with a proper book.

As lots of people have mentioned, this will all probably change when decent e-readers are available. I've never seen one in person, but I imagine that they would have to be pretty amazing to compete with a book. A book is portable, easy-on-the eye and technologically fantastic. To compete, e-readers would have to be equally portable, technologically simple (no complicated softare and constant battery failures), and most importantly, easy on the eye. Most people don't read extended chunks of text on their PCs because after 20 minutes or so, your eyes begin to hurt.

I can imagine that at some point in the future there may be e-readers that are no bigger than a paperback, have interfaces that are as easy on the eye as reading paper, and in which you might be able to store 10,000 novels. At which point, books might be under threat. But until technology can compete with the simplicity and user-friendliness of a paperback, books are probably safe.

Lance, that is a great line: 'the paperback book is the banana of the entertainment world'!

I am somewhat surprised that nobody has mentioned the planned HMV review due for the middle of this month (Ides of March) when store closures across the chain (inc Waterstone's ?) as well as job losses are anticipated, plus an increased product range for the merchandising outlets.

All this alarmist talk about digital downloads is taking attention away from the lack of positive direction from the HMV/Waterstone management.


@Clive - I'm a bit out of the loop so hadn't heard about HMV. But you are right, the biggest problem for bookselling is getting the punters through the doors and buying; thereby protecting the jobs of the booksellers.

@Marie - I think the time is coming soon for very technical books like the Medicine Fromulary, to become a pre-subscribed download service, may be to PC maybe to e-reader , and cease to be hard copy at all.

Sad news today about Gay's The Word - is the commercial property business really telling me the London cannot support a feminist bookshop or a gay bookshop? sheesh!

Drew Mishmash

Scott, sorry a bit late to this thread. You are right on the money as usual. I was at the Ret Wk conference, and heard Gerry speak (he was one of a panel and responding to questions rather than giving a speech). His overall tone was of course more measured than the dramatic headlines quoted. As a bookseller with music sellers for colleagues, he is probably more spooked by the whole digital download threat than a standalone book retailer. But then again not every music retailer has adopted such a dinosaur (or is it ostrich-like) mentality as HMV (until recently)! March 13 is the date when their survival plans are unveiled.

My guess is that Gerry is desperately trying to not make the same mistake Alan Giles made a few years back by underestimating the rise of digital media, and in doing so has rushed to the extreme!

Spot on Scott.

Good article, Scott. I am seeing increasing sales in our e books (Rowmark,business titles)and believe this is a sector that will continue to grow. I have long had the idea of personalising our business books, by that I mean readers can choose chapters from different books on line, and create their own business book containing only the information they require, which they can then download to their e reader, just haven't found anyone who can help me turn this into a reality yet. Any ideas? By the way apparently there is a Waitrose somewhere that has ordered in my latest marine mystery, In For The Kill, but where it is I do not know - certainly not locally. If anyone spots a copy in a Waitrose store, perhaps they'd let me know?

Thanks to gerry's ethnic cleansing programme i'm about to be unemployed 3 and half years of my life i'll never get back !!! thanks GERRY.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Books

Currently Reading

Kindle Sampled

Quick Flicks

  • Jonathan Powell: Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts

    Jonathan Powell: Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts
    Part-memoir, part-how-to-guide, this book, by a chap who has negotiated with terrorists in Ireland, Sri Lanka, Palestine and elsewhere, looks at why it is vital that governments talk with terrorists rather than attempt to destroy them. A measured and fascinating book. (****)

  • Geert Mak: In America: Travels with John Steinbeck

    Geert Mak: In America: Travels with John Steinbeck
    The author travels in the footsteps of John Steinbeck, 50 years after the authors 'Travels With Charley' book, to see how America has changed in that time. I liked the fact that this was just as much a social history as a fan's reenactment. (****)

  • Joanne Parker: Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain's Hidden Landscapes

    Joanne Parker: Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain's Hidden Landscapes
    I'll be honest, it took me a while to work out what this book is about. The author takes a fresh look at the British Isles through a variety of different maps, analysing what they can tell us about this country of ours. So she looks at a caver's map, a map of ley lines, of flight paths etc. Quite short, for a non-fiction book, and I'll definitely be reading on. (****)

  • Ian Mortimer: Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth

    Ian Mortimer: Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth
    I like the idea of this book, a history of the previous millennium broken down into centuries, a chapter for each, and focusing on human development across that time. An engaging read so far. (****)

  • Ken Liu: The Grace of Kings

    Ken Liu: The Grace of Kings
    Cracking opening set piece in this alternative China/Japan mash-up fantasy novel. (****)

  • Constantine Phipps: What You Want

    Constantine Phipps: What You Want
    A novel told entirely in verse, rhyming couplets in fact. It is a brave move, and I applaud the author's courage, but, for me, the story just wasn't interesting or well-rounded enough for me to bother reading on. (**)

  • Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale Retold

    Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale Retold
    Part of a series of Shakespeare plays retold by modern authors. They call this a 'cover version' in the introduction, which I find appealing, but the story is a bit of a slog so far, to be honest. (***)

  • Stephen Jarvis: Death and Mr Pickwick

    Stephen Jarvis: Death and Mr Pickwick
    Got quickly and totally sucked in to this novel about the chap who first came up with The Pickwick Papers. A ripping yarn. (****)

One You May Have Missed

  • Ian Holding: Unfeeling

    Ian Holding: Unfeeling
    Unforgettable novel told from the point of view of the son of a white Zimbabwean farmer whose land is reclaimed by an armed mob. I thought it was an oustanding debut and am surprised the author didn't go on to bigger and better things.

New Arrivals

Big Mouth at the Movies


Dipping Into

Now Playing

Books Read: 2015