The writing is on the wall

Bookshops, publishing houses, high streets, libraries and literary festivals were all used to popularize books in the past. But today, apart from one medium, the rest have all suffered a major setback owing to the internet. Award-winning authors and renowned publishers discuss the demise of the book trade.

The Last Rare Bookshop

Melvin Clark, owner of Bournemouth’s last rare and second-hand bookshop explains the collapse of his industry because of the internet.


Middlemen not needed

The rise in online readership has coincided with the collapse of the high street bookshops. Borders UK has closed down, while Waterstones are in retrenchment.

John Mitchinson, who was the first Managing Director of Waterstones says, ‘The old model is wasteful. Quarter of the books published are destroyed every year. Only one in five books that are commissioned back their advances. The average author earns £16,000 a year; take out the top-10 and its only £4,000.’

Digital author Michelle Dry explains why it makes more sense for authors to go digital: ‘Published authors earn 10% of the revenue generated from their books because a lot of money is lost between the final edit and hitting the racks in bookstores. This money goes to a literary agent, literary editor, publisher and for shelf-space, printing, marketing, sales, inventory, etc.’

Authors, like Dry, have realized that by publishing a book online they can pocket 70% of the revenue they generate from book sales. With websites like Amazon, Smashwords and Kindle, the process of self-publishing online just got a whole lot easier.

But Dr James Pope, senior media lecturer at Bournemouth University, believes that it is only a matter of time before the online publishing fad wears off: ‘The power of publishing houses cannot be underestimated. They will never go completely out of business. They have the budget to get you noticed, to present you at festivals and fairs, get you on TV and radio. In a while we will settle back to organisations doing a better job for a writer than a writer can do for themselves.’

Libraries need a makeover

If people prefer buying books online, does this mean they prefer reading it at home as well. What, then, does this mean for libraries in the UK?

Dr Pope believes that we are currently witnessing the slow demise of libraries because the government will not support media developments that will help sustain them. For example, he would like to see it as a place where people can go to access iPads and work on the latest digital technology.

But a state-of-the-art library in Poole fails to attract customers even though it has reinvented itself beyond books.


The curious case of literary festivals

Now when you assume that the book trade is dying and libraries aren’t getting footfalls, it’s almost a given that literary festivals too would suffer the same fate. However, the situation seems to be exactly the opposite.

Sue Luminati, who organised the Poole Literary Festival last year, said, ‘Literary festivals in England are massive. There are loads of them all over the country. They tend to be smaller, lower key events.’

She adds, ‘When you see an author speaking close to you, it broadens your mind, uplifts you and does everything good festivals should do. Festivals today are doing literature, music and food, so it’s not only a literary festival.’

Mitchinson, too, believes its the face-to-face connection with authors that works in favour of literary festivals.

Dr Pope compares this to the music industry in the UK. He says, ‘All of the record companies are really keen to get in on live music. Collecting albums is not what it used to be; people are spending more on going to live music festivals. Maybe that’s the same with literary festivals. It just means that the emphasis has shifted from sitting at home and reading to interacting and discussing about writing and reading.’

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About Sherwin Coelho

MA Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University. This website is my Masters production project. The aim of this project is to focus on technology and how it is changing the landscape for publishers and artists because of the death of newspapers, magazines, books, CDs and DVDs. Some may argue to the contrary, but I’ll aim to explore how fast the game is changing, what people think of it and whether it is a good or bad thing.

Posted on July 3, 2011, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think it’s really sad to hear that the book, in the most traditional sense of the word, is dying. However I do see the appeal in a festival. e.g I’m far more likely to treasure a signed copy of an author’s work than a digital copy and a book in hand does feel more real.

    I think an attitude shift is needed where the technology is not necessarily than the tradition, it’s simply different and meant for a different audience.

    Would I buy a Kindle over buying a bunch of books? No. Would I read on a kindle in a library? Sure.

  2. Interesting article. I liked the point at the end about literature, like music, becoming more interactive.

  3. Interesting. I enjoyed the observation of the success of Literary festivals irrespective of the downfall of book reading.

  4. Well framed and deep thought… Technology is not just condensing the world, it is changing the meaning of objects! That said, there is no way I would read a book on Kindle. just does not hold the same thrill for me…

  5. Godfrey Borges

    As much as i would like to lug around paperbacks on a backpack weekend trip, it makes more sense to just have my entire digital library available on an e-reader. I have been reading books on the computer and on hand held devices for the past year or so. I get more choice about what i want to read(i do not want to be stuck reading the same book..not to mention the weight of lugging it around!) There was this one trip where i spent a lot of money buying books( i got around 11 i think..) and then almost broke my back lugging them around Goa. It all about being mobile now. That said i agree with your comment about literary festivals its more about connecting with people discussing opinions..maybe a photop with the author 🙂

  6. It’s become clear in our increasingly digitized world that print is no longer at the top of the textual hierarchy. Instead of fearing these changes, we should use digital mediums in innovative ways within different contexts.

  7. It’s truly hard to replace the feel, smell and beauty of a bound book but it’s honestly upto the readers to determine the fate of paperback books. Gone are the days where I could say I used to huddle up and read a good “book” it’s mostly reading a good e-book now blinking endlessly into my laptop, what with sites like 4-shared and other “free e-book download” sites that just might even put the kindle to shame. I do appreciate the finer observations in this blog like how state of the libraries even do fail to capture interest, (People do have books on their cell phones for crying out loud) while book fairs and literary fests seem to garner a lot of footfalls – where everyone clambors to get to the author who curiously won’t have anything to sign on but their kindles…:)

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