Saturday, November 26, 2011

Does the Fate of Bookshops Rest on the Fate of Books?

Recently, I went to Berwick St in Soho with a DJ friend of mine who was in London for a few days. Once hailed as having the greatest concentration of record shops in Britain – back in the 1990s Berwick St had more than 20 independent stores – the strip was even celebrated on the cover of an album by Oasis. But, when I visited a few months ago, the scene was a far cry from those ‘glory’ days.

A scant few audiophiles sifted through overflowing racks of secondhand records and CDs. Signs advertised albums for 10p. I politely flicked through bent cardboard and cracked plastic, feigning interest while my friend searched for any loot he might strip from the wreckage. It took me only a few minutes to abandon any interest.

I was struck by how relatively quickly the concept of “browsing” had moved from shelf to screen. Through no fault of its own, this record store had become a room full of junk. While I waited for my friend I asked the assistant for his predictions on the future. “It won't be long before all these places around here will be replaced by a string of coffee shops."

This struck a particular chord with me because only a few days earlier the research partner I have been working with here in the UK, if:Book, announced its plans to transform a project we’d been working on together, an experimental community based bookshop, into – you guessed it – a coffee shop.

Well, not just a coffee shop, but an experiment in finding new ways to attract people to visit spaces where, for a modest expenditure they can enjoy a variety of reading experiences. In this case it happens to be a rather unpretentious café above the local library. Here there’s lots of light, some large tables to work or read and wifi. There’s also a wall of books for sale (a mix of big name and local self published products), and community noticeboards which advertise, amongst other things, courses in digital literacy, book making and creative writing. So, it’s not just a coffee shop but a literary social space.

If Berwick St left me wondering: are bookshops – spaces easily as beloved by their public as record stores once were – eventually to suffer a similar fate? The ifBook experiment ‘cafe/bookshop in the library’ made me speculate on whether this might be a possible solution.

In his book Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? Graham Jones attributes the closure of independent stores to the new market landscape in which record companies put online retailers and supermarkets ahead of independent outfits. But corporate greed and agglomeration are only one side of the story: customers have turned away from traditional shopping experiences in favour of online services. Even the local video rental store has now vanished from our streets because of these changes in consumer behavior.

When we talk about the current challenges facing bookshops, there is implicit in this a concern that what such struggles really demonstrate is that books are becoming less relevant in our everyday lives. But is this necessarily the reality?

Research I’ve been working on rather gamely claims to consider what might happen in ‘the bookshop of the future’ and many of these blog musing draw upon the qualitative research I’ve conducted over the past 6 months with seven small, independent London-based book retailers and their customers. Based on what I’ve learned through these conversations and observations I want to propose that, contrary to logic, a bookshop, even without (many) books on the shelves really can be more than ‘just a room’? to its customers.

The idea that bookshops have important symbolic value as well as a commercial role is evident in any analysis of popular media. In books and films the bookshop also regularly features as site for charming and whimsical personal encounters (think of 84 Charring Cross Rd, or films such as You’ve Got Mail or Notting Hill). Bookshops are rather like holidays, not only because they are associated with relaxation and escape but because, as with taking a holiday, what we value most of all about them are the affective associations they engender. Bookshops are spaces for their patrons’ fantasies about their preferred engagements with their preferred kinds of literature. They evoke feelings. This being the case the idea of the bookshop is arguably more valued than the actual store on any particular street corner.

This popular discourse contributes to consumer opinion on the value of bricks and mortar book stores. And so, even as sales of iPads and Kindles grow every year, and more customers turn to online shopping, bookshops are as beloved (if less patronized) as ever. In Laura Miller’s study of American independent bookshops she reflects on the cultural value that attends the work of the bookseller, suggesting that “in the valorization of the work of the bookseller there is a clear sense that books are exceptionally moral objects deserving of protection from [destructive] forces.”

This is why the loss of our bookshops is greeted with even more concern and scandalized outrage than the disappearance of retailers such as record stores or other high street retailers because access to books is understood to contribute so much to a healthy society.

Miller observes that independent stores have worked hard to harness the sense of community and being ‘in touch’ that customers anticipate, using this to set them apart from their conglomerate competition. These activities allow small, local stores to account for their undiscounted prices, and also give customers that much desired sense of being ‘in touch’.

But, however nice it is to have a ‘sense of community’ this doesn’t address the realities of our daily habits. I have no doubt that you and I both support the notion of community, we both value the democracy engendered by literacy, we both want local small businesses and local artists to succeed. We both like nice coffee. We both also buy books online. I myself admit that I do almost all of my book purchasing online — partly these are ebooks for the ease of travel and research, but also because printed books cost a lot of money. Customers I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. They enjoyed browsing but often returned home to buy a book online at a discount. Or download it.

There is unquestionable convenience to the online system, but also, some new pleasures. Customers I spoke with told me of the value of the internet as a research tool for reading, of the pleasure and positive feeling of finding out about books via online networks. Here’s a typical comment: “I confess I get most of my recommendations for reading these days via things my friends post online; on Facebook, or Twitter, whatever. Maybe it’s a link to a book review of something new and I think, oh yeah, that looks interesting…Before I know it, it’s on its way to my house.”

It’s not just that interesting things aren’t happening inside small bookshops, but these days much of it isn’t traditional book buying and selling.

In the sites where I’ve been conducting field work I’ve noticed some small but significant changes. The internet and digital social networks are being used not just to link people with common allegiances who are geographically distant but also proximate. Several of the stores I work with understand that the majority of their online network is locally based and tailor their digital identity to reflect this. So for instance, one store I visited maintained a popular Twitter identity that kept followers up to date with day-to-day activities in store, from the boredom of the daily commute, to frustrations ordering stock or indecision about lunchtime sandwich selections. Even if you’re not in-store it’s easy to keep up to date with the daily life of the bookshop. This store recognized that it wasn’t reading books or critique of books that suited social networks, but being around them in a very quotidian way that was the key. This same store also manages a slate of after-hour events that have almost nothing to do with books (quiz nights, sewing classes, music, comedy and most recently even an Avon evening). These cases illustrate how the old idea of community support and being ‘in touch’ can match with the immediacy and novelty of digital networks.

As definitions of “reading” and “readers” have expanded with digital communications its very like that the bookstore’s ideal customer might not even be someone who would describe themselves as having that traditional “passion for books.” Yet, they find their social and cultural tastes and allegiances well catered to by the store and its wider network. These are the book store’s new potential customers.

Bookstores need to take greater account of this change, emphasizing their role as social spaces for people, rather than store houses for stock. The bookstore’s continued ability to generate affection, even among those of us whose actions end up undermining it, perhaps speaks less to our love of books and reading and more to our desire to feel ‘in touch’ with our local environment, via the symbolic value books and bookshops represent. Bookshops need to give people ways to connect online and reasons to leave the house that don’t rely solely on the sale of their primary product. To survive, bookshops need to do something many record stores did not, that is, reinvent themselves as physical destinations within a broader network for reading, rather than being only in the business of book selling.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

3Cs Workshop: Create, Curate, Consume

One very interesting strand of discussion at our recent workshop related to the change that digital culture has had on our ways of thinking about participation in culture.

To put it very simply, the internet has reshaped our expectations about who gets involved, where and how. At the workshop my attention was directed to a recent lecture given to the British Council by the journalist Ben Hammersley. You can read a transcript or watch a video here. Hammersley explains the way that the internet is shaping the thinking of younger people. It’s a change in thinking he typifies as the difference between a network and a hierarchy. I won’t go into detail explaining what Ben explains very well in his lecture – here I want to reflect on how we might think about how making books and selling them can fit into this new network model…

From my perspective this notion of hierarchies vs networks is very useful for understanding what has changed for readers (and consumers) of books. Once, bookstores were heirarchical places where many people didn’t dare to enter lest they be looked down their noses at by a stiff-looking shop owner who had organised the store (or not organised the store, as the case may be) to suit themselves. Book shopping for most of the 20th century could be an alienating business. Many people just gave up. Would rather buy a book at a news agent or a train station or (later) a supermarket to avoid the discomfort of an antisocial exchange.

This is not so today in a culture increasingly organised according to the network model. Networks not only encourage but necessitate participation from a diverse population. You can’t actually engage with Facebook, for instance, unless you understand that you need to be connected to others. The experience of buying a book today is nothing but networked. Of course, there’s the obvious stuff – buying books online via Amazon and Book Depository… These are networks for books, certainly. But a networked bookstore doesn’t mean an online store. Many online stores are not very well networked at all, or at least, networked in only the most simple ways. Arguably there are much more interesting examples of how books are used, bought, sold and made according to the network experience.

Ironically, I think some of the better, earlier examples of a networked bookstore were actually the big bricks-and-mortar chain stores like (the now defunct) Borders. These stores were a real revolution for consumers in the 80s and 90s because they broke down the hierarchical model for buying books. With their open plan and huge range they made browsing shelves a pleasure. This produced a set of ‘accidental networks’ as browsers zig-zagged around large stores for hours following the associative networks of their shopping fancies (e.g. you find a new book or an author because you’re looking for another and discover it shelved nearby, or because one thought leads to another which reminds you of a long forgotten title you’ve always been meaning to read, etc etc)

More than these accidental networks, the big chain stores really hit it big by encouraging physical networks inside their walls. The introduction of coffee shops encouraged customers to sit down and hang out for a while. They reversed the expectation that booksellers were snooty and intimidating; they broke down the hierarchies that made readers and browsers feel insecure about their interests and opinions. These stores made people relax by offering them other nice experiences to complement their browsing, particularly coffee shops. In the café people could enjoy the atmosphere of books, make a small investment (the price of a cup of coffee), and then move on with the rest of their day. The bookstore was an ambient place where experience could be absorbed, not spoonfed.

Of course, as the internet proliferated across the world and online retail became legitimate and popular the consumer value system changed. Consumers reassessed their motivations for entering a bookstore. Many books were easier and cheaper to obtain online. Both the network and the value system underpinning it changed. The social and ambient aspects that made the big chain bookstores pleasant were being well satisfied in other locations (in real life and also online). The big bookstores lost the allegiance of their network of customers in deference to the economic hierarchies (and we can see now where that has got them). To quote Ben Hammersley, the glue that holds individuals together across the network is “interest, it’s belief, it’s cultural allegiance.
 And those cultural allegiances can be anything from religion or hard-core politics down to the fact that you and I really like vampire novels and those lot don’t. Or we are Star Wars and they are Star Trek. […] We increasingly find that our allegiance – our social allegiances, our political allegiances – are to people who are likeminded but nowhere near us.”

This is certainly true, but I want to stress the point here that these networks are equally effective and important in creating allegiances closer to home. And indeed, more and more the internet and digital social networks are being used not just to link people with common allegiances who are geographically distant but also proximate. In the small bookshops where I’ve been conducting field work I’ve noticed this happening in almost all cases. Using online networks, these stores involve customers in their community even while they’re not in the shop. This might just be via news updates on Facebook or Twitter, but it also involves more experimental forms of networking: managing events in the store after hours (not necessarily book launches, but quiz nights, sewing classes, music or comedy performances – stuff that has virtually nothing to do with books and how to flog them). The motivation here is to cater to the drives of the network that supports them. Today, a customer at a small independent bookstore needn’t necessarily even be someone who’d identify themselves as a great reader. Instead they find their social and cultural allegiances well catered to by the store and its wider network. Bookstores, it turns out, may not be about books at all…

The bookshop is an ideal place to explore networks because at heart they represent not a place to buy books but a place for engagement. In 1960 an American sociologist Edward Shills said of the bookshop, it is a “place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a “civilized art” but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.” Being in touch with the world now very often takes place via the internet but theres no reason for bookshops not to continue to involve themselves in the conviviality and conversation of these modern networks. Bookshops can be one place (in actual geographic place and also digitally) that nurture the social and cultural networks facilitated by life after the internet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pop ups and downfalls

A few bits and pieces of relevant bookshop news turned up over the last few days -

Here's a pop up project happening in New York in autumn that is trying to engage with the idea of giving public space a literary quality. The Uni project is a portable space based on a system of cubes. The books inside the cubes are only the beginning of the concept. Partly a library, the project will act as a venue for readings, talks, workshops and screenings - all organised in partnership with various local organisations. Because it's lightweight and portable it can be moved around to suit the location and the requirements. Have a look at the website to see how the Uni project can function and you'll see how the same principle would work for a pop up bookshop.
The Australian website Crikey also had a couple of very interesting articles over the weekend addressing the demise of the bookshop in Australia. First was Matthia Dempsey's essay (reprinted/revised from a version originally published in Kill Your Darlings) about the consumer's obligation to shop responsibly. This is a subject I'm going to be writing about in more depth very soon - Are book consumers going to take on ethical purchasing practices in the same way that we have embraced other responsible consumer practices like fair trade, free range and so on? It certainly seems as if book sellers think so. The Melbourne newspaper The Age ran this story about the news of an Australian/New Zealand version of the original US 'Indie Bound' scheme that encourages shoppers to use local independent retailers.

The other piece that caught my eye addressed the downfall of the REDgroup (who were owners of Borders in Australia and the local Australian book retailer Angus and Robertson). Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the disintegration of these chain bookstores is that, in the words of publisher Michael Heywood (quoted in the article), Australia has "become a nation of independent booksellers overnight."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Sufficiency...

A few days ago I went to visit the wonderful bookstore the Book Barge while it was moored on Regent’s Canal just behind Kings Cross station. I had some idea of what to expect having read some recent news coverage but one thing that had escaped my notice was that the barge’s adventure up and down the canals of the UK is an experiment in what might be called “book-sufficient living.” For six months the floating book shop is making a tour of the country “living off books for the entirety of the trip, bartering stock for food, accommodation.” The hope is that this radical experiment will draw attention to the plight of independent booksellers, prompting readers to reassess the value of books in the wake of the massive discounting trends of online and supermarket retailers. If book shopping could be understood not only in terms of the market value of price tags but more directly in terms of a book's value as an item equivalent to, say, a meal or a warm shower perhaps this would bring price considerations into better balance when readers decide where and how they want to buy a book.

The Book Barge @Large experiment offers an interesting example of the way in which it is possible to reinvigorate public interest in visiting the bricks and mortar (or in this case, wood and water) bookshop. The barge is a USP. But the problem is not getting customers but getting sales. Thanks to chain stores and internet retailers readers have grown to expect discounts and, indeed, many people believe that they are being cheated in some way if a store sells anything at full price. This means that even though customers enjoy browsing the independents, many people seek out discounts when it is time to make a purchase. It seems to me that by trying this “bartering for books” experiment the Book Barge presents customers with a way to think beyond this basic reduction to market principles. What if the exchange wasn’t strictly financial, but still economic? An experiment like this provides a useful corrective to the easy acceptance that all economies come down to capital - some run on other currencies. And in demonstrating this the Book Barge illustrates that the triumph of the discount isn’t inevitable. As Laura Miller points out in her book about US independent booksellers:

“the production, circulation, and consumption of goods can be organized in many ways, and even in the modern world, noncapitalist forms exist, sometimes temporarily, sometimes as a pale memory of earlier irganizational types, but nonetheless, not that difficult to find.” (10)

You can read more about the ideas that inspired the Book Barge @Large adventure here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

'Business as Usual!' Amazon and Book Depository

Here is the blog post I wrote for the great Melbourne journal Kill Your Darlings a few days ago.

It seems not a week goes by without some important book retailing news going down in the UK: first came the announcement that James Daunt (the man responsible for the successful chain of London independent bookshops that bear his name) had been appointed as head of the faltering Waterstone’s chain. Then came the announcement that this year’s National Booksellers Award was presented to a supermarket. Now, the Book Depository, the online shop beloved of cheapskate readers around the world has been sold to Amazon!

Since the revelation the Book Depository have been working hard to dispel the notion that the company’s purchase by Amazon will have any effect on their service. On Twitter the company responded to a flurry of tweets from worried customers assuring them it was “business as usual”. The company has “no plans to change the shipping policy” and will "continue to operate independently". In the UK this news has been greeted with alarm for what it signifies for a company proudly championed as an innovative British independent bookseller.

The notion that the Book Depository represents the face of independent bookselling might come as a surprise if you’re an Australian familiar with our recent debates about online bookselling and the problems posed by the Book Depository to our local booksellers (GST and free shipping in particular). In the UK though, where the recession is having notable effects on retail generally, the Book Depository is regarded as a British success story: a plucky David rather than a greedy Goliath. And, with the exception of some dissenting voices – notably offshore independent booksellers, like our own – customers have seen it in these terms too: “I liked you better than Amazon :(“ tweeted one customer after the announcement.

One reason for this attitude is that the Book Depository has always made the most of their accessibility; not just in the obvious sense of existing only online but by virtue of offering customers the ultimate in transparent online retail: no false promises about availability, no registration to purchase, no shipping costs. The Book Depository credits its success to a “long tail” strategy of providing its customers over six million titles (selling “less of more” rather than “more of less”) and the slow creep of their positive word of mouth. Two words in particular: “free” and “shipping.” For this reason alone it is well loved by its users, celebrated as an online retailer that serves customers, not its own ends. Of course, if this were the reality it would make rather poor business sense.

According to an article in the Guardian dissecting the details of Amazon’s acquisition, the annual turnover of the Book Depository has almost doubled in just the last year (up to 120 million pounds). In 2009 the company could boast of doing at least fifty percent of its business with offshore customers. In 2010 the Book Depository received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade.

The announcement of Amazon’s takeover disrupts this idea that the Book Depository is, or can remain, a customer driven enterprise. After all, selling your business to the company that already has 70% of the market is not going to serve the best interests of customers (no matter how many chipper “no plans to change!” tweets are made). The UK’s Office of Fair Trading will investigate the deal, analysing if the merger could produce “a substantial lessening of competition” in the UK book market. How the buyout it might effect the BD’s offshore market is anyone’s guess. The more conceptual problem here is the misapprehension by customers (and retailers) that bookstores anywhere, of any size, will be any more independent from the global retail market than any other industries – it’s always business as usual.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On Publishing as a Moral Economy

Here is a copy of the paper I delivered on Friday at the Moral Economies of Creative Labour conference hosted by CRESC, at the University of Leeds...

Anecdotal wisdom tells us that as an example of a sound business model the publishing industry is flawed. Before even a page is printed, vast amounts of time and sums of money are spent without any guarantee that anyone will like–much less buy–the product. Taking this as a starting point, this paper examines the degree to which publishing reflects a moral rather than a market economy.

Andrew Sayer explains the moral economy as the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and structured by moral dispositions and norms; he also notes how those norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures.[1] Changes in publishing over the last sixty years -- particularly the ever larger mergers of once independent, small houses demonstrate precisely this process. Economic imperatives have encroached on a trade that prided itself on being, at least partially, unmotivated by economic imperatives in deference to the greater cultural ‘good.’ The veteran US publisher Joseph Epstein, for instance, advances his belief that in spite of these changes, at heart…

Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal, these people would probably have chosen other careers.[2]

Epstein is just one among many of his era who have written memoirs eulogizing their old industry, although he is perhaps unique in not abandoning hope that the new digital economy offers great promise for publishing to return to its roots. His optimism comes partially from the fact that he believes the real motivators in publishing are intangible things like the autonomy, satisfaction, craftsmanship, and fellow feeling engendered in the activity – not the outcome.

In Sayer’s lexicon of the moral economy these are “internal goods”:

… those [things] which are internal to a practice […] such as the specific achievements, skills, and satisfactions of participating in sports, art, music, academic study, cooking, or medicine, or which, alternatively, are internal to relationships, such as a friendship or parenting. […] Whereas the internal goods of making music, intellectual work, friendship, or cooking, etc are specific to each relationship and activity, the external goods [fame, money, etc] are less related to their character.[3]

In trade publishing, as I’ve said, the ‘internal goods’ that were the drivers of the moral economy have been devalued. Unsurprisingly, discussion of this devaluing has itself taken a moral tone: fingers are pointed in various directions:

- At the neo-liberal business logic of multination media conglomerates that require mind-boggling growth figures to be created out of thin air

- At the industry – agents, authors, buyers, wholesalers – who have surrendered to market logic in spite of their better judgment.

- And, at readers who act as sovereign consumers with little regard for the politics of their purchasing.

Less discussed however, are the positive moral interventions that are already occurring in those areas of publishing less invested in the logic of supply and demand and the fluctuations of the market.

In the rest of this paper I want to focus on evidence for the maintenance of a moral publishing economy by offering a case study of small-scale, independent publishers in Melbourne with whom I’ve conducted fieldwork in the past 18 months. The approach I have taken with this work is empirically grounded, drawing on the local contacts in Melbourne’s very energetic small publishing community. Participants in my research are all members of the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC). Formed in 2006, in an attempt to formalize the communities that have developed in Australian independent publishing, SPUNC brings together a range of small-scale cultural publishers (many located in Melbourne) in order to develop collaborative schemes that respond to the kinds of professional challenges common to small enterprises (esp. things like marketing, publicity and distribution). In this sense SPUNC demonstrates something that goes beyond Epstein’s ideal of a return to the cottages: SPUNC’s emphasis on the value of shared experience and shared resources put to the service of business sustainability demonstrates Sayer’s principles of the moral economy. Namely, that internal goods (things like building relationships, values, culture, skills) are understood in their relation to external outcomes (like profits).

In this respect, my research confirms data found in Mark Banks’ work on the moral economies operating in Manchester’s cultural industries. These ‘creatives’ are

self-consciously engaged in forms of practice that contain ideas about what is ‘good’ (and therefore ‘bad’), [and] exhibit moral ways of acting towards others.[4]

Banks’ essay draws attention to the (often overlooked) moral/ethical motivations for cultural industries work – And yet, the economics of the cultural industries, like economics everywhere, are intimately tied to moral judgments. Words like “free” and “fair” are words about morality, not economics. Recent transformations in capitalism also illustrate that morality is reestablishing a firmer footing in economic discourse and practice: the rise of ‘social entrepreneurs’ and ethical consumption habits (which can mean anything from fair trade bananas to second-hand clothes shopping) demonstrate morally diverse business models with diverse orientations to the market. My intention today is to provide some empirical evidence of these practices in publishing.

The data was collected via email interviews conducted throughout 2010; with 16 publishers taking part. There’s not room to debate definitions of independence so here let me just provide SPUNC’s definition based on their member base:

Independent publishers operate on scales ranging from break-even only, [to] publishing one or two titles a year, up to 40 or more titles per year.[5]

This range demonstrates the degree to which independent publishers walk the delicate line between curating their content and commercial concerns. Often writers, poets, and designers themselves, their business is primarily non commercial – although not non-professional. They are eager to satisfy their own creative and business needs and provide an opportunity for others; many work without pay.

A colleague of mine, Mark Davis, has written about the work ethic in this professional community, noting that,

the motivations that drive it tend not to include the accumulation of financial capital... They are motivated, rather, by social and cultural values that are pursued irrespective of their ultimate market worth. The wilful altruism of small publishers cuts across the belief, central to economic libertarianism, that people are motivated primarily by rational self-interest.[6]

These qualities were – as I’ve noted – once not unique to the small indie presses; independent once meant Random House, Harper, Knopf, Simon & Schuster... These were houses run by individuals who owned their businesses outright and built their lists on the basis of their own judgment and values. The president of SPUNC noted something similar when she explained the shared philosophy of its members, saying,

there is pretty much one over-riding purpose that they share. Regardless of their size, small publishers love to provide a location for writing that doesn’t or can’t find a voice in the mainstream media. Which isn’t to say that any of their output is restricted to the independent scene, but it does shed light on one thing: small press publishers are artists of sorts, and what they seek to publish is an expression of their artistic temperament, their values towards ideas.

It became apparent in fieldwork that publishing, as expression of ‘values towards ideas,’ was also an expression of a broader set of social and cultural values. Although participants explicitly rejected the notion that their work was “political” in any sense, they did regularly voice the opinion that the books, magazines and journals they produced were designed to celebrate not only diversity of talent but diversity of opinion and accessibility.

[This publication] is very anti-mainstream, it celebrates being different and weird. … A big motivation in me publishing is to be able to put diverse points of view or unusual/different/non-mainstream/non-commercial voices out in the world – I think that’s really important.

A recurring theme was publishers’ resistance to producing material that could be misperceived as overly exclusive and artistic. Accessibility and inclusion were high priorities for publishers, not just for the obvious reason of maximizing audience. Rather, participants felt that their publications should be inclusive in order to further debate and discussion and to demonstrate the publisher’s commitment to a shared set of principles and standards. These are comments from a publisher who explains the charter devised before beginning to publish:

We talked about being for any forms, as long as the work is engaging and intelligent. We also talked about being for work with genuine insight and honesty. We talked about being against derivative, uptight polemics and diatribes. And against vacuous writing and art that trades on a currency of cool.

Throughout, a sense of community, strong social and cultural ties and a regard for the ‘can-do’ and creative ‘atmosphere’ of Melbourne were cited as incentives to action. Melbourne’s diverse configurations of social and spatial relations, underwritten by a rich history of creativity, were often alluded to as a source of inspiration and value:

[…] the audience we hope to interest with this work are much more attuned to the non-traditional tumult of creativity happening in people’s houses and the back rooms of clubs… The amount of wonderful material of all varieties being produced even just locally sometimes feels like some incredible roiling ball of gas at constant threat of explosion.

And another:

This camaraderie is one of my favourite parts of the current culture of indie publishing in Australia and particularly Melbourne. …With so many other new independent publishers I’ve never felt rivalry or jealousy or anything less than support; we swap information, give each other a hand up, publish each other and do lots and lots of chatting about the industry (and what the future industry might be).

These statements demonstrate evidence of non-instrumental motives for work, particularly prioritizing a sense of a binding community born of shared geography, shared cultural interest, shared professional skills and shared commitment to a set of moral values about publishing.

It was the discussion of funding that provoked some of the most interesting data regarding moral economies in the creative industries. Where one might expect grants and funding opportunities to play an important role in the support of small publishing, participants rejected this idea outright. Saying, for example,

We find grant dependence problematic. We want to try to make the publication as efficient as possible, not wasteful with expenses. The first issue was completely funded by us.


…[Funding is] damaging, because magazines have less of an incentive to sell copies to readers, which to my mind involves publishing electrifying writing of one type or another – whether that’s writing that’s challenging, or writing that’s popular.

On one hand sentiments such as these point towards a neoliberal consciousness: the market is the ultimate arbiter of value; publications should sustain themselves on the basis of their success in the market. But opposition to funding schemes is also motivated by a moral opposition to a system that is deemed ‘bad’ for both readers and writers:

a lot of the Australian headspace has to do with this “Fair go, mate!” idea: a prevailing sense of blanket fairness that is actually nuanced and uneven. […] you have this grant culture where the problem is even embedded in the text of the applications: they want to see that you’re providing a space for young Australian voices. So it’s about young writers, not young readers – which is what you’d think the writers might want anyway. …So in general, a generous and ostensibly great space is made within which writers can be published, and not a whole lot of space is dedicated to readers.

Small publishers like this reject funding because they believe it nurtures the status quo – asking recipients to perform a particular creative identity (the “young Australian voice”) and encouraging them to think only of themselves rather than their audiences.

In the early stages of fieldwork I wondered whether this anti-funding position was simply one (extreme) example of what is often referred to as ‘indie cred’ or status positioning; whereby members of a social/cultural group nominate an alternative system of value against which to distinguish themselves from the mainstream. However, in the case of independent publishers, the evidence pointed away from this motivation with respect to funding. These publishers reject the idea of accepting grants not because they reject economic imperatives to their creative projects, (indeed, they are up front about wanting their products be popular with paying audiences), but because they believe that grants devalue the internal goods to be found within their practice. To return to Sayer’s analysis – he points out that status needn’t be the only reason producers and consumers seek to distinguish themselves from the wider field of production.

the struggles of the cultural field include competing claims about the valuation of objects and practices themselves and about what is good for us, not necessarily in order to change actors' status by raising the (exchange) valuation of the cultural capital associated with them, but because they care about the objects and practices themselves.[7]

For these small publishers, accepting funding positions them in an unacceptably amoral relation to the wider social field of writers and readers – That is, the current funding system requires its beneficiaries to abandon the moral contract between readers and writers. In this way, small-scale, independent publishers who reject the funding model believe they are making a declaration of principles, rather than a statement about their cultural capital:

the best way to support my causes is to put out the best magazine that I can twice a year and otherwise STFU [shut the fuck up].

For these publishers instrumental and non-instrumental values reinforce each other; there is no shame to acknowledging the business of their enterprise because the business is instrumental to the success of the creative and community-building project.

As a business venture publishing has been, from its earliest beginnings, a practice that incorporates aspects of the moral economy. However, these new independent publishers don’t voice any desire to return to the Golden Era of Random House and Knopf romanticized by Epstein and others. Instead, they advocate a business approach sympathetic to modern moral/ethical standards. In the words of Johnny Temple, head of the successful US indie publisher Akashic:

It’s a good thing that our culture has moved on from those days in the 50s and 60s and that now there is a much greater diversity of voices that can be published. We need to embrace cultural and technological change. It’s our mandate to keep up with the time and stop wishing that culture had stopped evolving 40 years ago.[8]

Because of their size and the flexibility of their production methods these small scale publishers don't often feel the reverberations of the larger economy to the same degree; this has meant that over the last five years small scale publishing has continued to grow, bucking the wider industry trend. This is certainly the case in Australia where SPUNC’s membership continues to grow, and the creation of similar organizations in the United State, such as the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the UK’s Society of Young Publishers point to comparable growth in other locations. These operations and their slow sustained growth provoke important questions about: the cultural industries and the presumed primacy of their commercial imperatives; and the limits of consumerism and market logic in our practices of cultural consumption, pointing towards to a strand of morality embedded in the relation between creators and audiences.

[1] Andrew Sayer, “(De)commodification, consumer culture, and moral economies,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21 (2003): 341-357

[2] Joseph Epstein, Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present and Future (New York: WW Norton, 2002) 1.

[3] Sayer, 347.

[4] Mark Banks, “Moral Economy and Cultural Work” Sociology 40 (2006):455-472. 456.

[5] Kate Freeth, “A Lovely Kind of Madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia” SPUNC, Nov 2007. 3.

[6] Mark Davis, “Literature, Small Publishers and the Market in Culture,” Overland 190 (2008)
 (19 Mar, 2008) .

[7] Andrew Sayer, “(De)commodification, consumer culture, and moral economy,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21 (2003): 341-357. 350.

[8] Jason Boog, “Media Beat: Johnny Temple,” GalleyCat 28 Feb, 2011 <>.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Books to Watch Boys By, or, what I've learned from

Part of the Future of the Bookshop Project involves considering how books and bookshops are imagined in our culture. Reading over this section of Laura Miller’s study of bookselling in the US got me thinking–

“in creating an inviting environment that facilitates social interaction, the bookstore may be encouraging people to associate the act of browsing, and possibly even reading books, with socializing. …The fact that many individuals choose to spend time reading in a quasi-public, consumption oriented place such as the bookstore suggests that Americans may see reading as an activity that can be both social and solitary, as much an adjunct to other activities as an escape from them.” [135]

The concept of semi-public reading reminded me of the Tumblr HotGuysReadingBooks. As an internet phenomenon what does it tell us about how we think about books and reading as a social activity (let’s leave aside what we think about guys for now)? First up, Miller is right: HGRB provides documentary evidence of the way in which reading is taken as a quasi-public activity (not only when one is reading in a comfy chair in a bookstore, for instance, but when 'hot guys' are photographed in public settings reading books and then these images are uploaded to a Tumblr, a blog, or some other online social space). Is there more to this than just the usual social networking drive to document the minutiae of our lives on the internet?

To me it seems significant that watching boys read is regarded as a very particular form of entertainment in itself. Even though the point of the site is arguably about ogling hotties, there is also an undeniable trace of ‘the literary’ here: the boys featured fit a particular type (a few are muscle men, but most are handsomely bookish and winsome), they are posed or captured candidly in locations we like to associate with reading: cafe lounges, trains, stairwells, libraries and bookstores. In these scenes books are an accessory, or a backdrop, for the fun of the social entertainment (in this case, ogling boys). There are plenty of other examples of this in our culture as well. Consider the bookshop cafe, or the hotels and bars furnished with books; here the books are part of the social atmosphere of fun as much as they are the entertainment in themselves.

This points to the way in which our idea about what books symbolize is slowly evolving. Critics like David Reisman have emphasized the book’s value in society as a vehicle for privacy but, like many other forms of private activity that have been shaped by their encounters with digital culture, it seems that books are now also understood as social tools. Of course, books have often been used as markers of our identity. But in the last twenty years books have taken on a more central role in our entertainment culture – Oprah’s Book Club is the obvious example, but think also about the number of television shows, films, websites, youtube videos, blogs, Tumblrs that have sprung up which celebrate books as 'scene setters' in the drama of our social lives. In particular, books and bookstores are not only associated with Romantic ideals about self-development and discovery but also another kind of romance - the romance that HGRB also taps into - books as tools for negotiating romantic attachments (see also: You’ve Got Mail and articles like this). Books and heartache probably seem like a more natural fit, but websites like HGRB demonstrate that books are also associated in the public mind with the leisure, fun, and diversion that social networks provide.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Future of the (Chain) Bookshop?

The last week has been spent making plans for research and fieldwork for the Future of the Bookshop Project. Some recent news here in the UK has been helpful in guiding my plans:

Sainsbury's (the supermarket) was awarded the UK Bookseller of the Year award this year. A surprise move, and one that frustrated many booksellers...

The head of a chain of independent bookshops across London, Daunts Books, has been appointed as managing director of the faultering national book chain Waterstones. This article from the Observer sets the scene quite well, I think. And this earlier piece from the Spectator offers some cogent arguments for why there are problems in thinking that local success can extend across a nation.

Further afield in the US, I was pleased to find out about the success of the Fleeting Pages experiment in pop-up bookshoppery too.

Having considered these events and the current situation for bookselling in the UK I'm now fixed on a plan for fieldwork that should generate a great deal of interesting data. It seems likely that (pending approval) I'll be working on at least six different locations: a pop up shop, a community independent, a local 'indie chain', a national chain, a supermarket and an online retailer.

I've already begun work with the pop-up and tomorrow will visit a local independent bookshop in North London where I'm planning to make it there in time to catch children's story hour.

Finally, more photos like the one at the top of this post can be found here

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Emerging Writers Festival and Melbourne, a city of literature?

Last week I was a (virtual) guest of the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne. (Lucky for me since I'm currently in London and it would have been difficult to be there any other way.) This year the festival is really expanding its digital component and as a part of that myself and Daniel Wood were asked to pen a few thoughts about what is happening to Melbourne as a City of Literature. As part of an ongoing project with Kirsten Seale at RMIT we've been considering how the 'City of Literature' could engage more directly with the city itself. You can read on, here. And be sure to go through all the way to the comments where you'll find a bunch of great thoughts, proposals and provocations...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Reader

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of attending the one day symposium run by if:book called The Reader. For some reason this blog ate my post about it and I've only just discovered that this entry was never published. So, here it is now, a little late but no less interesting. You can check out some of the Twitter stream to get a sense of the day. Even better though, the director of if:book Australia, Simon Groth has kindly allowed me to repost his opening welcome. I thought it nicely captured the spirit of things, and the video link Simon mentions, below, offers some interesting food for thought regarding how readers search for narrative no matter what... A question I'm currently considering for my own work with Gerard Goggin on the effect of mobile media and how authors/readers/developers collaborate to create novelistic stories to be read on phones, tablets, etc.

So, read on...

Remember when electronic publishing was daggy? Stephen King tried it and had to abandon the story in progress because too many cheapskates were reading his stuff for free. Matthew Riley tried it. He sold ad space on his book. Once.

It seemed as though the whole digital publishing industry had risen and fallen. Amazon was widely ridiculed on the introduction of the first Kindle in 2007. Not only was ereading dead, so the story goes, but they were trying to capture the imagination of readers with a piece of technology that looked like a broken air conditioner vent. They were right about the latter at least.

‘No one,’ went the conventional wisdom, ‘wants to red on a twitchy little screen.’

Of course, as we now know, that statement misses the point entirely. Arguments between books and ebooks, paper and screen are the sideshow. Something bigger is going on here and it’s not about containers.

The new landscape of publishing has been described as ‘disintermediated’, in other words that authors no longer need publishers or other intermediaries to reach readers. In one sense this is true.

What we’ve seen, however, is that neither authors nor readers have not abandoned the traditional model entirely, but rather have spread out along a continuum in which author choose the level of control they wish to have in publishing their work and readers choose their level of engagement with a particular writer or work.

As digital publishing progresses, the number of strategies available to connect authors with readers has multiplied.

In the past, authors had to rely on publishers, distributors, booksellers, and so on because that was the only game in town. Readers too had to rely on this system again because it was the only game in town, at least in any significant way.

But things are changing. Web-based retailers and author services for example have opened more two-way communication with aggregated readers’ responses, which frequently find their way back to the author. And then we have blogs and social media that act as a direct unfiltered link between authors and readers.

This change has thrown a lot of traditional roles in the air.

Printers have the opportunity to work directly with authors or anybody else who wants to create printed material with a broader range of services and products in smaller print runs.

Booksellers and libraries have the opportunity to delve even deeper into community building and author events.

Publishers (and smaller publishers in particular) have the opportunity take advantage of cheaper production tools and offer a range of services to authors and readers, blurring just about every role in the old model, but in the best case maintaining the editorial input that’s critical to creating works of quality.

Authors have the opportunity for greater control over how they present their work and to engage more directly with the business and more meaningfully with readers.

And, rather than relying on critics or publicity, readers have the opportunity to form their own communities, recommending authors and titles to each other.

James Bridle said recently that books are achieving the condition of music. He was quoting, but I’m attributing it to him. Books are becoming something in the air, text and images, ideas unencumbered by the limitations of ink and paper.

This is an incredibly exciting development for readers.

This is a shift in power.

Traditional publishing relies on a small number of gatekeepers: people whose job it is to mediate what is deemed publishable and what isn’t. As Mike Shatzkin points out, today:

[Publishers are] still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it.

Though I suspect the days of the corporate multinational trade publisher—at least as we know it—are numbered, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing. Australia is lucky to have a rich diversity within its publishing industry and those who dare to reimagine their role will be in the best position to reconnect with the people who make all this possible: readers.

This is the real shift. The power wielded by the old gatekeepers is drifting further and further and towards the community.

This is everybody’s gain.

I like talking about readers, much more than talking about writers or editors or publishers or anyone else associated with books. It’s one of the reasons we have called today The Reader. All those other terms are exclusive, in part defined because of who they exclude. Reader is the one genuinely inclusive role. No matter what else you do, whether it’s in the book industry or not, whether you even read books or not, you are a reader.

In the context of authorship, we frequently refer to humans as storytelling animals. I think that’s half right. We are also story-absorbing animals. We are narrative animals. This film is pretty old, it dates from a 1944 psychological experiment by Heider and Simmel, but it illustrates the point beautifully.

In the experiment, subjects are asked simply what happened? In response, they told a story. Probably the same or similar story to the one you just concocted as you watched. Very few people see that film for what it is: shapes moving across a field.

So ingrained is our need for stories, that you might have cause to wonder about those people who don’t see a story in that film. What the hell were they watching?

We don’t just like stories, we need them. It’s a need that exists independently of any object no matter how important. It existed before the book and it may just exist after it too. Maybe. And with the need for stories comes the need for the creation of stories, the collation of stories, the preservation of stories, but above all the reading of stories.