Friday, January 26, 2007

SHOOTING THE BREEZE

SENSIBLE BOOKSELLING
By Eric Forbes

THIS IS WHAT I KNOW FOR SURE. Bookshops (and book distributors, for that matter) must learn to be more responsive to changing literary trends and the reading habits of book buyers and readers if they are to stay competitive in the bookselling industry.

Bookshops must not be slow to respond to the needs and demands of book buyers and instead learn to be more responsive to major literary prizes, especially the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book Awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, among others. Do not underestimate the value of book prizes and the longlists and shortlists that accompany them every year. These are tools you can use to your advantage in bookselling. Interests in and exposure to these prize-winning books are at an all-time high all over the world at the moment. From an economic point of view, booksellers should milk these moments for what they are worth. Extract as much mileage as possible from these lists. Say what you will, literary awards do drive the sales of prize-winning books and have repercussions on other books as well—both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, nonfiction. They can gain a competitive advantage over their competitors by being knowledgeable about what’s on the minds of consumers of literature and anticipate prize-winning books.

On whether literary prizes have a valid place in the literary world, Matthew Kneale, author of English Passengers (2000), says: “I think they are useful because, at their best, they encourage an interest in good literature. I think people will always disagree on whether prizes go to the right books but the very fact that there is a debate will encourage people to read good books whether they’re on a list or not. I think they have really helped British literature in the last 30 to 40 years just by the very fact that they’ve made a lot of good books popular and that just wasn’t the way 20 or 30 years ago. You didn’t find many supposedly literary books on bestseller lists, you didn’t see them in the bookshops. Now you do and that’s got to be a good thing.” The importance of the role literary prizes play in shaping public taste has been acknowledged.

Of course, we must be wise to the ways of the world and not discount the fact that there are many books that somehow fail to win literary prizes but are nevertheless excellent. There are many factors that affect the opinion of judges, sad to say. Many of these excellent books are never promoted at all. Many a time books that are unfavourably reviewed are actually quite good. Booksellers must make an effort to discover these gems.

Bookshops must learn to connect more closely with the consumers of literature by learning about their literary tastes and preferences and being the first to introduce them to books they will want to buy and read. On this count, most bookshops fail, simply because they do not understand and anticipate the needs and wants of their customers. Another winning factor that bookshops lack is service, one of the oldest ingredients of sensible bookselling.

Book buying is a tough business to be in. It is not just the matter of buying books and displaying them. Effort must be made to sell them. Sufficient books must be sold before new stocks can be purchased. Otherwise, the business will not be able to sustain itself in the long term. Knowledge of books helps, of course, but such knowledge only matter to a certain extent because the Malaysian market is very different from the U.K. and U.S. markets. There are always local variances to consider in your purchase decisions. Books that you think are excellent or those that do well in foreign markets may not make a dent at all in Malaysia. There are only so many copies you can sell for each title. There are only so many copies of Booker Prize books you can sell here. However, there is not much structured planning in the buying of books because book buyers are usually bogged down with paperwork and other extraneous matters. Book buyers must arm themselves with knowledge and do more research to make more rational book-buying decisions.

There’re lots that Malaysian bookshops can do to improve the bottom line. The core of the business is books, and that’s where local booksellers should focus on. But I guess the simplest thing is always the most difficult for most people. Educating the reading public is imperative, not just pandering to the lowest common denominator. Bookshops must make an effort to recommend books across all genres and to encourage customers to experiment with authors or books they are not familiar with. Bookshops must also learn to promote books that are yet to be published by building a sense of anticipation (and sustaining it) in consumers towards future releases.

And I do understand the reality of the marketplace: the fact that bad books sell very well is not surprising. Sell them by all means, but don’t neglect the good stuff.

Colourful shopfront displays and newspaper advertisements go only so far in enhancing sales. These do not exactly ignite book buyers’ passion for books. Service and merchandising are the way to go; these are the factors that give booksellers the edge over the competition. Genuine book readers like booksellers who care about books just as much as they do. Serious book readers want bookshops with character that offer choice. Floor staff must be passionate and knowledgeable about books. There’s nothing like walking into a bookshop and stumbling upon gems that you simply must buy.

For instance, Kiran Desai’s triumph in the recent 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction would drive the sales of both her books, The Inheritance of Loss (2006) and Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), which would in turn revive the sales of her mother Anita Desai’s substantial backlist, which consequently would affect the sales of the fictions of Indian writers in general: Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Suketu Mehta, Pankaj Mishra, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Michael Ondaatje, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, etc. Besides an impressive backlist of fiction titles, many of these writers are excellent nonfiction writers as well.

Another excellent example is Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk who recently was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature; he has written seven novels, five of which have been translated into English, and a memoir which should attract more readers or collectors. All the titles in his backlist are in the process of being reprinted, not forgetting his next book, Other Colours: Essays and a Story, a collection of nonfiction essays, that will be published in September 2007, while his next novel, The Museum of Innocence, should be out in 2008. The passing of such writers as Stanley Kunitz, Naguib Mahfouz, Eric Newby, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Styron and Pramoedya Ananta Toer in 2006 and Ryszard Kapuscinski in 2007 are all excellent opportunities to sell books by these authors.

Bookstores must realise that there’s also money to be made from old titles as long as they are promoted properly. The fact is, there’s always money to be made from the backlist. Let us not neglect the classics while we are enjoying the contemporary stuff. It’s time to bring out those great books languishing on the shelves at the back of the store and put them where they belong. There’s a goldmine from forgotten or neglected gems from the past.

Books nowadays do not remain on the shelves long enough for readers to discover them or for the books themselves to discover the readership they deserve because of the dynamics of the marketplace. Sadly, many of these books have disappeared, many without a trace. Perhaps changing literary tastes and the increasing reluctance of publishers to keep in print books that can never sell by the truckloads are responsible for this sad state of affairs. Some of these books should be rescued from obscurity for the enjoyment of new generations of readers. Some of these forgotten gems include the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Shirley Ann Grau, Graham Greene, Rosamond Lehmann, W. Somerset Maugham, Kate O’Brien, Dawn Powell, J.B. Priestley, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Taylor, Eudora Welty, Richard Yates, etc. Literature buffs ought to discover or rediscover these. Not discovering these underappreciated authors and their novels is their greatest loss.

It’s a fact that there are people who buy books not to read but to collect them. We tend to buy more books than we can read. One lifetime is just not enough for us to read all the books we want to read. We wish we could read all the books we would like to read but time simply won’t allow it. Most book buyers are hoarders; they regularly buy books which are then put away to be read at a later date.

Bookshops tend to live a separate existence from the mainstream of literary activity. They do not seem interested in literary festivals, readings, booktalks, author appearances, etc. They are nowhere near where the pulse of the activity is. Such literary activities should do wonders for Malaysian bookselling in the long term and, thus, should not be neglected.

Bookshops must realise that they are not just making a sale for today only. You know, there’s such a thing as creating new readers by educating readers today so that they become discerning book buyers and readers in the future. The education of future generations hinges on this simple plan. Think about it and you will understand what I mean. Bookselling, after all, is both a business and a public service. You really can’t get any nobler than that.

Eric Forbes is an editor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years. He can’t imagine doing anything else.

7 Comments:

Blogger bibliobibuli said...

amen to this eric - am so frustrated at not being able to buy at least trade paperbacks of booker short and longlisted books. i want them all!

but it isn't just the bookshops which are slow to respond, it's the book distributers too. i wanted to buy copies of shortlisted books for friends' birthdays at silverfish last week - only to find that they were waiting for copies of all of them - no stock in the country!!

you're right too - the bookshops lose the sale, because when is interest in these books going to be as high again?

but then book purchasing is a pretty tough business to be in ....

btw - your blog is changing and wondered why? - love to read your opinions - you're good, y'know!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

The problem with bookshops is that they don't stock all the shortlisted and longlisted titles and display them together during Booker Prize season. If you want them you will have to go to all the bookshops in town just to get the full set of novels. Imagine the lost sales! Of course, many of the bookshops do not have any Booker books at all. And you're right about the book distributors as well. It's the same old vicious circle at work again. Bookshops and book distributors must learn to anticipate demand and to do that they must focus on what's happening in the book world today and tomorrow. These are all missed opportunities from a business point of view. Yes, book purchasing is really tough, but then .... And Sharon, thanks for your kind words.

Friday, November 03, 2006 7:25:00 PM  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

think the book industry should clone you so there could be eric the bookbuyer as well as eric the editor

(and i actually suspect there might be room for eric the writer too)

i was reading an indian litblog and apparently it has been much harder to get the shortlisted books over there which suprises me

i can understand bookshops and distributors not wanting to bring in books they will find it hard to sell (and then having to reduce to clear at warehouse sales)

but some books were a pretty good bet all year - even before the list was announced (i bought many of the books for the british council library before the list came out for e.g based on the buzz in the review pages and the waterstones magazine)

sometimes also you have to create the demand, stir up the excitement

i think kino does it well with their featured books on a particular topic

Sunday, November 05, 2006 2:16:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Book buying is a tough business to be in. It is not just the matter of buying books and displaying them. Effort must be made to sell them. Sufficient books must be sold before new stocks can be purchased. Otherwise, the business will not be able to move forward. Knowledge of books helps of course but such knowledge only matter to a certain extent because the Malaysian market is very different from the U.K. and American markets. There are always local variances to consider in your purchase decisions. Books you think are excellent or those that do well in foreign markets may not be able to sell here. There are only so many copies you can sell for each title. There are only so many copies of Booker Prize books you can sell here. However, there is not much structured planning in the buying of books because book buyers are usually bogged down with paperwork and other extraneous matters. I must agree with you that Kinokuniya is on the right street when it comes to professional bookselling in Malaysia.

Sunday, November 05, 2006 7:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Eric.I read hardy,chaucer, pepys,dostoevsky, tolsty,fitting in a busy life and recommend,The shipping News, also a film with Kevin spacey.I,m probably flogging sand to the arabs here but if by some miracle you aren't familiar with it then I've done my job.
Yours sincerely ,
Mrs, Jayne Cook.

Monday, November 27, 2006 1:57:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Eric,

Thank you for your insightful posting on sensible bookselling. I agree fully with what you have written. Booksellers are not always sensible and it accounts for the sad decline of smaller booksellers in Malaysia.

The bigger bookstores are taking over. I am more familiar with the bookstores in Singapore because I live in Johor Bahru. I would pop over frequently to do my bookshopping there. I notice that the staff in Borders do have a section where they recommend books they have read. In others like Kino, MPH, TIMES, it is run just like a supermarket.

Attendance at book launches are poor except for self-help books and books on how-to-be-a-millionaire. I guess one have to appeal to the lowest common denominator if one is to survive.

Personally, I do not know whether literary prize lists affects the book buying behaviour of the majority of malaysian and Singaporeans readers.

Monday, January 29, 2007 2:19:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Hello Alex - Bookselling is a very challenging business.

Yes, attendance at book launches are bad except when self-help books and books on how to be filthily rich are launched. Yes, the lowest common denominator rules in our society. A sad reflection of our society's state of mind.

Literary prizes do affect the book buying behaviour of Malaysians and Singaporeans but only to a certain extent.

Monday, January 29, 2007 3:41:00 AM  

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