Saturday, 12 November 2011


A wonderful elegy for Peter Campbell in the LRB; Mary-Kay Wilmer capturing the eccentric nature of this journal; and describing a culture that was perhaps more common in the publishing world thirty years ago than it is today.  The LRB part of that odd market which the corporates have undermined, and Kindle may yet destroy; that world of the often patrician publishers, unconventional sellers, and obsessive buyers. 

An excellent book that concentrates on the sellers, analysing the ongoing battle between the independents and the chains (first department stores, then the large discounters, and finally the behemoths like Barnes and Noble, and the beginnings of Amazon), captures that world in its title: Reluctant Capitalists.  In her final chapter the author leaves the future open.  She could not have predicted the collapse of Borders and the decline of the giant chains; while the end of books was not even considered a possibility - it shows just how fast the internet has changed the consumer world.  James Meek in the LRB sees the Kindle as a sort of removal van for the large book collector, and thus a threat to marriage – the stability that mountains of stuff provides will vanish making it easier to move house and therefore separate.  He qualifies this of course: a few walls of books will still be a necessity; just enough, perhaps, for a long-term relationship.

My own view is that Kindle will continue the trend which started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement; gradually removing the number of chain stores and independents as the ordinary buyer, who buys only best sellers or the broadsheet recommendations, and then mostly for presents or holidays, is captured by the cheapest product.  Thus before the abolition of the NBA most independents had a section of the current bestsellers – fiction, cooking, travel etc – which kept them financially solvent; Xmas time their crucial period.  Once the large chains could discount that income vanished, and these shops were replaced by cafes and hairdressers; the large collectors not numerous enough to sustain them. 

Watching this happen during the 1990s it felt a terrible irony each time I read the propaganda about how the removal of this agreement was in the interests of the book lover!  Sure, we saw the rise of Waterstones, and its (at least initially) large and interesting stock; though those few years of idealism where quickly undercut my market forces; the rise of the supermarket discounting and the take over by Amazon.  And it is easy to forget just how many quirky and individual bookshops were lost during this time – do you remember the best bookshop in London: Compendium?  While many books have never been discounted; like most of the ones I buy, for example - because they are not quite popular enough.  

Meanwhile the second hand shops were undermined both by the reduction in the cost of new books and the rising property prices that inflated rents.  For the obsessive reader free market libertarianism has meant their books continue to rise in price; while the sources of cheap alternatives are slowly disappearing.  The history an object lesson in the divergence of business practice and rhetoric; with anti-state harangues and appeals to populism camouflaging corporate expansion; a sort of business imperialism, that while benefiting the majority, who have no particular interest in a particular niche or market, massively affects the specialist, who is too small in number to resist. 

The rise of Amazon initially had an opposite tendency, as the vast increase in the size of the market generated much larger incomes for the second hand trade; for as an owner once said to me: now very few books are destroyed, because there will always be someone in the world that wants it.  This seems the current situation, and arises out of what is now the traditional impact of new technology, opening up new possibilities, until market forces closes them down.

And the future….  Kindle, like Apple and Google, suggests a new model of consumption, where digitalisation reduces costs; so everything becomes more available and cheaper; but the texture and feel, the intrinsic worth of the object, is lost.  So that books may disappear and only the machine will remain.  Some people are attracted by the idea…  The rise of the art bookshop and the new independents, with their highly selective stock, are early reactions to this trend; where the book, or the shop itself, is self-consciously treated as an art object.  As Laura J. Miller shows this is an old strategy to protect the small bookshop against its large predator; but expect this tactic in time to be undermined – Borders stole the community bookshop clothes of the local independents, and sold them across the globe.

In the same edition the egregious Niall Ferguson calls the LRB “notorious for its left-leaning politics”…  What he means is that it has remained unusually humane in a media world that is increasingly ugly and nasty; and where he now makes his fortune.  His bluster and threats sum up the man.  I’ve got one of his pieces on my workshop table ready to dismantle; this letter will soon join it; although a brief word here is in order.  When the LRB started it would have been a respectable part of the British establishment, leaning towards its left-liberal side.  Its politics has hardly changed since 1979.  So for a popular historian, who has presented programmes on the BBC, to make such a statement shows just how far to the right this country and its culture has moved.  What used to be seen as the fantasies of lunatics is now mainstream discourse.  This should worry us all.

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