Does radical bookselling have a future?
| Nik Górecki |
This is an article looking at the future of radical bookselling and publishing. You’re reading it on a screen, it’s published in an online-only journal, I haven’t been paid to write it, and you aren’t paying to read it. In order to access it you haven’t had to go to a physical location, or to interact with a human being, and when you close the tab on your browser it’ll take up no space in the material world. All of which has become so normal as to barely deserve commenting on.
You may have already read one of a number of articles about the death of the newspaper, the death of the book, the death of the independent shop, the death of the high street, or even the death of politics itself. Usually these articles read like the Book of Revelation, listing warning signs of the approaching apocalypse, but with little faith in a second coming, and a bleak vision of the form the New Earth might take. Undeniably, there are huge changes taking place in the world of publishing and bookselling, but how these will pan out is far from certain.
As a bookseller at Housmans, one of London’s oldest radical bookshops, I’ve been trying to get to grips with what’s happening, and I don’t believe it’s all doom and gloom. There are some positive developments, and I think the world of radical bookselling/publishing is particularly well placed to survive, and possibly thrive, in the future. First, the bad news…
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the era of bricks and mortar bookshops, and the printed word in general, is coming to an end. The portentous news from the UK book world reads like a countdown to doomsday. I’m going to run through some of the key omens:
- The continuous closure of bookshops, small and big. Since the closure in the UK of the US chain Borders in early 2010, Waterstones remains the one national book chain store, and it too would have folded, had it not been rescued by a Russian oligarch. If massive chains with their economies of scale can’t afford to operate, then what chance is there for small independents? Half of all independent bookshops in the UK closed between 2005 and 2011.
- An ever-increasing amount of books are sold online. In the US 61% of all book sales are online, and that figure is likely to rise further. These are sales made directly at the expense of bookshops. If the virtual mode of bookselling becomes dominant, it becomes increasingly likely that the economic model for bricks and mortar bookselling will become economically unviable by comparison. The relatively small margins made on book sales already struggle to cover the expenses of overheads (such as wages, utilities, and rent), costs that are greatly decreased for online retailers.
-The accelerating rise of e-readers also has the potential to affect the book world in the same way the mp3 has affected the music industry. Not only is it taking business away from shops, but will likely lead to high levels of piracy. Musicians have attempted to compensate by increasing profits from live gigs and merchandise, but this isn’t an option for many authors.
-The attempted monopolisation of book selling by Amazon. There are a host of reasons why Amazon is bad news for the world of bookselling, but it is the manner in which they pressure publishers to sell their books at such a large discount as to, in some cases, leaving publishers and authors with no payment at all for their sales, that might do permanent damage to the book world. The unrepresentative low prices Amazon offer, are only possible because they exploit staff, publishers and authors. Normal bookshops may look expensive in comparison, but the prices are fairer.
There are some factors here that are relevant to all small business, particularly the cost of overheads compared to income, whilst other stresses apply equally to all independent booksellers, whatever their specialism. Radical bookshops have a range of qualities that put them in a unique position, and so may be particularly resilient to these changes.
By the late ‘70s most major towns in Britain had at least one radical bookshop, but they have suffered a similar fate to other independents, and now we are left with something in the region of 20-odd booksellers of different types that can be termed ‘radical’. The majority of these have existed for many years. The fact that they have weathered the storm so far demonstrates resilience, which may be attributed to their structure.
Many of these bookshops are run in a way more akin to campaigns, with the goodwill of volunteers, or the sacrifice of committed workers. Such bookshops are not run to make profits for share holders or absent owners, they exist to promote ideas, and from a basic business point of view, this makes them better able to survive financially, as profits, if there are any, are kept within the business. Often, funds are scarce, and to stay afloat some receive donations from the public, or from political organisations. Others may have managed to secure a position where they no longer have to pay rent, or to pay a peppercorn rent on a council owned property.
But the analogy between a bookshop and a campaign carries beyond internal structure – for a radical bookshop to survive and grow, it has to campaign in a similar manner, and be spreading its ideas, and getting involved in the community at every level. This isn’t easily done with overworked staff and limited resources, but it is a common and essential feature of radical bookshops. Corporate businesses try their hardest to fabricate a sense of loyalty and community with their customers, but for radical booksellers this is second nature, with genuine comradery existing between all the interactions that a shop needs to function.
As well as supporting the campaigns of others, radical bookshops desperately need the support of campaign groups. Of course radical bookshops need to keep reaching out to new people, but if they had the loyal support of all those currently involved in the movement, they would be in a much healthier position than they are now.
The human relationships and networks that radical bookshops enact daily have helped the shops survive thus far, and these relationships need to be developed further in order for there to be a revival in our sector. Radical booksellers have recently come together to form the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). It is hoped that this will be a platform which will allow booksellers to help one another, and also to build better bridges with publishers, authors, campaign groups and readers. The ARB’s first initiative has been to launch a new book prize, The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing, with the intent of raising the profile of radical publishing and bookselling in the mainstream. Despite the amount of good writing available online, there is still a need for the longer-form book, and the statistics show that people are reading more books than ever before. I’m positive that radical books still have an important role in stimulating thought and action.
Some think that paper books will disappear completely. A more common assumption is that many mass-produced, mainstream books will be printed in far fewer numbers, whilst more niche titles (perhaps already printed in lower quantities) are likely to continue in print. Some of these books may be particularly well produced, art objects as much as books, but with new digital printing technology it is also possible to produce regular books at small print runs relatively cheaply. Looking at data for e-book sales, a trend becomes visible: it is mass-market thrillers, romance and self-help titles that make up a disproportionate bulk of the sales. It is possible that political titles may continue to be preferred as paper books. That would be good news for radical booksellers and other specialist shops, but more problematic for general booksellers (large or small). It is quite possible that the paper book world will shrink and survive as a more specialised form.
It has been very encouraging to see two new radical bookshops opening in the last year, Hydra in Bristol and The Peoples Bookshop in Durham. Hopefully a third, Book Bloc in London, will be opening soon. In the face of all the bad news around the book trade, the groups and individuals behind these projects felt that it was possible to start successful radical bookshops, and so far they have been proved right.
Taking Up Space
I’m convinced of the importance of the role played by radical bookshops in the wider political struggle. The value of turning the space of the bookshop into a place where authors and campaign groups can meet with the public is more important than it might at first seem. The increasing homogeneity of high streets means that the visibility of alternative politics is being pushed to the margins, and the enclaves of cyberspace. Politics is fundamentally about human relations, and the radical bookshop plays a crucial role as a space where people can meet and interact with one another and with ideas. Anecdotally, the bookshop has been the place where many people began their political journey, as it allows for a less intimidating way to make contact with radical politics than might be possible in another setting.
One of the weaknesses of leftist politics is its lack of visibility and approachability; the opportunities to come into contact with critical ideas within the physical world are few and far between. This is part of a wider trend of the privatisation of public space, the gentrification of communities, and the corporatisation of culture. The radical bookshop allows the possibility of walking into a world where alternative ideas to that of the mainstream are at your fingertips – it’s a place where radical politics can take up space. This is true of the book itself – it’s a physical object that you might encounter on a friend’s shelf, on a bus, or in a library. The same cannot be said of digital files stored away on a hard drive.
As the progression to the virtual continues, existing in the real world becomes an increasing luxury, and those with money and power come to increasingly dominate. Radical books and bookshops stand against that trend. Housmans, the bookshop I work in, was opened in 1945. Its history is one of its most vital assets. The Left needs to have its own traditions, institutions, and landmarks: physical spaces through which to mark victories and losses, lessons and achievements. Radical bookshops can play a small, but very important role in that.
Rally and revive
I’d just like to finish by restating the call to please support radical bookshops. There’s a variety of ways that can be done, from spreading the word around your friends/family /colleagues/comrades/campaign group, adding a link on your website, volunteering your time, donating resources, sharing expertise and ideas, and above all by buying books at radical bookshops. The wider book world may be in trouble, but radical bookshops can continue with your help. If politically sympathetic people rally behind their local radical bookshops there is no reason why we couldn’t see even more new bookshops springing up in the near future.
Nik Gorecki is a co-manager at the long-standing radical booksellers Housmans Bookshop in King’s Cross.
India Rose Harvey is an artist and illustrator. You can find her work at Dont Complain.