Thursday, August 04, 2011

Are we becoming passive book buyers?

I was staying in London on Tuesday evening with an artist, and as always we ended up comparing notes about the art and the literary worlds. One thing she said to me was that she doesn't any longer go into bookshops to browse actively and look for new books, which she used to do all the time; nowadays she relies much more on recommendations from friends. She said too that her mother, an English teacher and huge reader, has also changed the way she acquires books: she's always taken a great pile of books for the annual family holiday (on which they were all due to embark), but nowadays it will be block deals, such as Richard and Judy recommendations, and in the gite in France she'll be handing out to others the ones she doesn't fancy...

I've written about this before, but the conversation strengthened for me the sense that we are becoming more passive in our book-buying, more subject to advertising and hype, and of the role that bookshops are being forced to play in this. I remembered that exciting sense I used to get on entering a bookshop, of entering a cave of delights, and which I rarely get now, instantly faced as I am with the three-for-two table and my choices ready-made for me. I know there are shelves and shelves of other books beyond it, but the psychology is quite different: I may previously have gone to only one section of a bookshop on any one occasion, but there was the sense that everything else was also on offer for later, or the next time, whereas now my focus is drawn to that central table, and there is the subtle sense, as in all advertising, that nothing else beyond it matters, or at least not as much...

6 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I also never go into a bookshop any more. Part of the reason is that there are none in the town where I live – in fact I’m led to believe there are none in the whole county (but that’s another issue entirely) – and so I’ve have to travel into Glasgow itself to visit one and my preference there would be the west end where there are loads of used bookstores which I have always preferred and not just because they’re cheaper although I’m a Scot and we are canny when it comes to spending money. To be totally honest I get more than enough books sent to me free these days which, as you will be aware of yourself, is a mixed blessing but it has also introduced me to a number of authors whose books I wouldn’t have looked twice at because they either have awful covers or more than 150 pages. I don’t know about other people but I’ve never been particularly swayed by what shop owners try to get us to buy what they need to push. Yes, I’ll go to the 3 for 2 tables but if I can only find two books I’ll put them back more often than not. I find online browsing suits my tastes and I have discovered writers and musicians online that I would never have come across in the real world. The nostalgic in me is sad to see them go – they were a part of my childhood, an important part – but I’m getting over it.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I think you're right - I used to love the Picador racks at the university bookshop in Lancaster, and would just try out odd titles. (I never read reviews back then, funnily enough.) Maybe its publishers as well, though, in that apart from a few smaller niche ones, I don't really have much of a clue. I do my browsing in Secondhand shops. So picked up a Jennifer Egan story collection cos I'd heard she'd just won a prize; and Jim Crace's "The Plague House" which had totally passed me by!

Jenny Wren said...

Do you think it's to do with the publishing industry/bookshops becoming much more savvy about marketing? Prizes, special offer tables and the rest are just forms of marketing after all. Or perhaps it's us becoming more aware of being marketed to?

Sue Guiney said...

Alas, I think bookshops have to stop being "just" bookshops and become community arts centres with lectures and signings and events and coffee. I guess bookshops have to become what libraries used to be and libraries, I guess, are just going away...very sad.

nmj said...

The 3-for-2 tables catch you like a benign(?) spider's web and unless you have a book in mind before you actually go to the bookshop, you will probably venture no further.

I tend to get books for myself from the library but when buying gifts I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised by what's on 3-for-2 but often it's books you don't really want and I cannot be the only one who buys the third book reluctantly, because you only really want two of them!

I still read reviews and discover great new writers online, here and there, so maybe I'm more a reluctant book buyer (that third book), than passive?

Hayley N. Jones said...

I browse! My local independent bookshop is fabulous - its fiction section is tiny compared to Waterstones, but it always manages to surprise me with a book (often a short story collection) that I would never have found otherwise. It's also a pleasant shop with a friendly atmosphere that is conducive to browsing.

I should point out that I shop for books in a variety of ways, of which browsing for unknown titles is just one (albeit the most pleasurable). I buy a lot of books from Amazon (usually when I know exactly what I want), Waterstones (for books I've heard of but am unsure of whether to purchase, plus a few surprises) and charity shops (I tend to be more adventurous, trying books I wouldn't normally buy). I love browsing and wish I could support my local bookshop more, but I'm a poor student and simply can't afford to buy all the books I buy at the RRP when I know I can save significant amounts of money by buying elsewhere.

I think independent bookshops need to focus on what they can provide that other retailers cannot. In the case of my local bookshop, they have friendly, helpful staff who can advise people and offer a free next-day delivery service for books not in stock. The books are all in impeccable condition and I always go there if I'm buying a book as a gift. They also make an effort to support local authors and show that they value customers - they even have a loyalty card which is stamped for every £10 you spend and you get a £5 voucher when you reach 10 stamps. This is why people in my town continue to use the local bookshop - and why it's been going strong throughout the recession and onslaught of e-readers.