Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Truth about Bookselling

I have been reading a fascinating insight into the UK Book trade from a book lent to me by my wife, “if you want to learn about today, then you need to understand yesterday.” The book was published in 1964 by Pitman is called ‘The Truth about Bookselling’ and was written by Thomas Joy, past President of the Booksellers Association.

On the economics of bookselling he says, “Still many booksellers, like Oliver Twist, 'ask for more,’ and the main reason is that booksellers are faced with ever increasing overheads rents, rates, light and heat, wages, etc. Of course publishers, too, have this problem but the publishers fix the published prices of their books, which must cover their own overheads, and it is argued that they could also take into consideration the need of the bookseller to meet his overheads and price their books to enable them to give better terms to booksellers. The result would be substantially increased published prices. Shopkeepers live in difficult times, particularly small shopkeepers, and it will be increasingly difficult for them to remain in the main streets, with the enormous rents required. “

40 years on and the words could be written today. Even more interesting was his writing on the reasons for the Introduction of the Net Book System and his references to statements from The Society of Authors, Publishers Association, Publishers’ Weekly all in 1897 – exactly 100 years ago.

“In the latter half of the nineteenth century, and increasingly in its last twenty years, the trade in new books was so seriously affected by the uncontrolled competition in discounts given to the public from the published price of books that it could not be carried on at a profit and often entailed loss, the financial return being insufficient to cover working expenses. As a result the number of booksellers keeping stocks of high class new books steadily diminished, and men of ability, who otherwise would have followed the family tradition and a love of literature by becoming booksellers, were diverted to other lines of business. This result was detrimental not only to authors, publishers and booksellers, but also to the general public, including schools, libraries and institutions, who could not find adequate facilities for seeing and purchasing books.”

The world has moved on and there is no going back. However, it gives an interesting insight as to how little has changed over the years. It will be good for someone to dig up the Brave New World report in 40 years and see what the impact digitization had made. I believe it will be significant over that period and the reader then will not be able to relate that world to today.