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March 03, 2007


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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.

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  • Ingrid Winterbach: The Book of Happenstance

    Ingrid Winterbach: The Book of Happenstance
    A lexicographer is working on a dictionary of lost Afrikaans words when she is distracted by the loss of something closer to home: her collection of rare shells. An unusual novel which deserves a wide audience. (****)

  • John Banville: The Sea

    John Banville: The Sea
    I tried, I really did, but most of this just washed over me (pun noted but not intended). Interesting in places but ultimately a bit dull. (***)

  • Robertson Davies: The Lyre of Orpheus

    Robertson Davies: The Lyre of Orpheus
    The final part of the Cornish trilogy. Perhaps not quite as joyously entertaining as the first two but still marvelous in its own way. (****)

  • Barbara Graziosi: The Gods of Olympus: A History

    Barbara Graziosi: The Gods of Olympus: A History
    Charts the history of the Greek gods from their origins through to the present day. Informative and entertaining. (****)

  • Roberto Bolano: Monsieur Pain

    Roberto Bolano: Monsieur Pain
    Short Kafka-esque romp which becomes somewhat vague and rambling in the second half. Started well, and promised much, but didn't quite deliver. (***)

  • Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

    Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
    A collection of stories from the psychoanalyst's couch. It was interesting to take this peek into other people's lives (and minds) but it did get a tad repetitive by the end and the lack of any real resolution in most cases left me feeling short changed. (***)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
    This is good, very good in places, but I had some issues with it. Also, it is 250 pages too long. (****)

  • Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

    Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
    A study/expose of the Scientology 'religion'. I think it tries to be even handed but it is hard when the founder is quite clearly a con-artist and the beliefs are so fucking daft. Mind you, not much different to all the other religions out there. An absolutely riveting read. (****)

  • Charlie Hill: Books

    Charlie Hill: Books
    Patchy, and sometimes very silly, satire of the book world but I couldn't help but enjoy it immensely. (****)

  • Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium

    Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium
    A bunch of Greek blokes, nursing hangovers from the night before, decide not to get pissed and chat about love instead. Quite sweet really. Nice accessible translation too. (****)

  • Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake

    Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake
    Robinson seems to reinvent himself with each book. This time he has written an exemplary literary thriller. The clever bastard. (****)

Currently Reading

Kindle Sampled

One You May Have Missed

  • Benjamin Parzybok: Couch

    Benjamin Parzybok: Couch
    Three flatmates try to dump an old couch but the couch has other ideas. Bonkers but brilliant.

Big Mouth at the Movies

  • : The Usual Suspects

    The Usual Suspects
    My son's cinema education continues with this classic which, it pains me to note, is nearly 20 years old. It still holds up but what the fuck was Pete Postlethwaite doing with that accent? (*****)

  • : 20,000 Days on Earth

    20,000 Days on Earth
    Quite wonderful. Witty, insightful and beautifully shot. I am not a huge Nick Cave fan but this is one of the best music documentaries I have seen. (*****)

  • : A Single Man

    A Single Man
    Every bit as beautifully heartbreaking as the book. Quite brilliantly done. (*****)

  • : Behind the Candelabra

    Behind the Candelabra
    It is, essentially, a straightforward TV-movie biopic but elevated above the norm by two wonderful central performances. (****)

  • : The Great Gatsby

    The Great Gatsby
    A really terrible movie. Stupid choice of framing device, ridiculous over-acting that doesn't even work as a bit of camp fun and none of Luhrmann's usual witty pizazz. Painfully dull. (*)

  • : The Way, Way Back

    The Way, Way Back
    Bittersweet coming of age movie packed full of great performances. Do watch this if you can, it is great stuff. (****)

  • : Jaws

    Watched this for the first time in years. At night. On a beach. A great evening of open air cinema. Glad it stayed dry. (****)

  • : Twilight

    I have not read the book but watched this with Martha, who has. It's OK, nothing special but not terrible. It totally failed to convince me of that there was any chemistry between the two leads, though, which rendered most of the plot a bit tepid. (***)

  • : Boyhood

    Rarely has a filmmaker taken on such an ambitious project and produced something so subtle. A genuine masterpiece. (*****)

  • : Under The Skin

    Under The Skin
    Fucking weird but highly effective. (****)

  • : Greetings From Tim Buckley

    Greetings From Tim Buckley
    A reasonable attempt to tell the story of Tim and Jeff Buckley which got better as it went on, and the concert scenes are great, but it lacked a strong enough narrative to really work. (***)

  • : Stoker

    Directed by the bloke who made the original Oldboy and written by the chap from Prison Break. Very dark story. Looks and sounds amazing. (****)

  • : Lifeguard

    Off-beat, somewhat dark indie movie about a women who quits her job as a journalist to go home and be a lifeguard. Great soundtrack. (****)

  • : Bel Ami

    Bel Ami
    Occasionally threatens to be good but ends up a somewhat diluted and antiseptic version of what is actually quite a dark and spiteful book. Shame. The story is great though. (***)