Second-hand and other book shops - thinning out the stocks

All bookshops are great. Let's not forget that, They do, after all sell books. Even most branches of Waterstones have a few at the back of the shop. I'm exaggerating a little there - as the UK's last mainstream book chain standing, they have a necessary part to play in the cultural life of the nation - even if it is a little irking to find them increasingly dedicated to toys / film merchandise /  colouring items / stationery / chain coffee shops than to maintaining some depth to the shelf stocks. Nevertheless though, all bookshops, by definition, are good. 

That being said, there's also shops that sell books that aren't bookshops. Supermarkets feature prominently here. Deep price cuts skew the perception of the value of a book, and the Tesco/Asda offer might not stretch much further than the current bestseller lists and the occasional disconcerting pallet of the zeitgeisty book-of-the-year, but they at least offer some convenience as well as - more importantly - putting books out there in public, attracting attention in a more visible way than the window display of your local independent.  

Then there's the secondhand shops.  First, the book specialists, be they tweedy antiquarians or chirpy one-street-back-from-the-High-Street post-breakdown downsizers. Then the specialist charity-run shops, like Oxfam's bookshops. Then your everyday charro with its single bookshelf of Jean Plaidy historicals and early Jeffrey Archers. And then the oddballs; pubs and supermarkets with a windowsill or a dump bin of donations, usually associated again with a charity.   

And then there's the remainder stores like The Works; whole shop units dedicated to remaindered sock, to publishing industry hubris and to retail buyers' folly. Often as not nowadays these have crept into the pound shop chains, where a supply of as-new books are as likely to be found as off-brand liqueur chocolates and flimsy gardening gloves.

And that's before you get to the internet. Or libraries. 

The thing is, books are everywhere. Old books, new books, re-read books, books that should have never felt the press of Gutenberg. All of them competing for attention, for sales, for shelf-space, for landfill, for reasons to exist. 

So, here's the question. Are there too many books? Do all books have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of finding another reader? I don't mean books in the sense of the title, but of the copy. Do we need so many of the darn things? Isn't it time for a cull? Should books be coppiced, like woodland? Sustainably farmed? Or should they, like pigeons and rabbits, be allowed to reproduce uncontrollably because they have some kind of a right to life?

The more I think about it, the more I'm in favour of a little management. I'd start with some second-hand books, and here's why. Too many of them don't produce a return for the writer and for the publisher. Fewer second-hand copies can only be a good thing for publishing as an industry and for writers individually and as a collective. Let's start a little weeding, and let's start with ourselves. 

I spent five years (a few hours a week only) as a books guy in the local Oxfam. I daresay that experience has flavoured my outlook here. I'd guess that a good half of what was donated was unsellable for one reason or another. Too many charity shops end up spending too much time sorting out other people's rubbish. That may be the price of the donation, but it chafes at the soul. 

So, to commit the tiniest of revolutionary acts. Next time you're weeding out a carrier bag of old holiday reads or whatever for the Cancer Research folk (other charities are available), think this: who benefits from this book being bought again? If there's a genuine utility in the donation, by all means make it. If there isn't, then consider your recycling options! 


My novel The Prospect of This City is available either in paperback from me (signed copies if you prefer!) or in ebook or paperback via Amazon.   




Libraries as work-spaces for writers, and more.

I don’t use libraries as much as I ought to. At least, not for the purpose of borrowing books. I’ve got all-too-used to simply Googling for the books that I want and either buying them straightaway or sliding them into a wish list for picking up later. And that’s a habit I should really get out of, for a bagful of reasons. I’ll try to get to them in this post.

I live in a town without a bookshop. Yes there’s a handful of charity shops that sell books (and the pros and cons of the second-hand book market to writers are a post for another time), and there’s a branch of a well-known high street newsagent and stationer and a supermarket, though their shelves don’t stretch much beyond the current bestseller lists. But there’s no bookshop. And the town’s not been able to sustain a dedicated book retailer for over 30 years – we can’t necessarily blame the behemoth Amazon here. That’s not helped me though in defaulting to the internet when I want/need a book.


What I do use the library for, though, is a as a place to work. Our town’s library has a great little reference / local studies room. The papers, a selection of standard reference, works, lots of local history. Plus, best of all, a table, some chairs, and a power supply. I’m best at motivating myself when writing to be somewhere out of the house and the library suits me just right. Not too many distractions and just the right amount of background noise.

I’ve got some previous with this as well. In an earlier life I did a couple of Open University courses – a BSc and then an MA – and the best way for me to get some studying done was to take my books down to the library and crack on with it. That’s not to say that I can’t work at home (I’m at home now, for example), but I’ve always been able to get more done if I put myself in an environment that’s work-specific.

So it’s off to the library I go. It’s not an overly fancy or huge place; there’s no café onsite, the WiFi is iffy and you have to go and ask for a key if you need to use the loo, but the staff are pleasance, it’s never too busy, and you can rent DVDs for a pound a week. Plus there’s the books. What’s not to love?

Also, with the library membership I get access to a range of online databases (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a godsend by itself), there’s a scanner and a printer / photocopier if I need one, and there’s usually a shelf or two of out-of-circulation books that’s at least worth browsing through to see if any of them are worth picking up.                  

I’m lucky in that I don’t always have to plan ahead or save up if I want to buy a book; I can go and buy it without worrying. But that to some extent does me a disservice. Online buying is great if you know what it is that you want to buy; but it’s not the be-all and end-all. For one you don’t get that sense of browsing you get in a real-world book shop; and this is something that you can replicate in a library. Yes, you can look for something specific, but you can also be taken by surprise in a way that’s not easy to do online. And, of course, the author gets paid for the book’s loan through the Public Lending Right Scheme. You don’t get that from a second-hand sale.

I’ll be in the library tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do something a little different and take a tour round the shelves and see what’s in stock. I think I’ve talked myself into it. 

My novel The Prospect of This City is out now, and is available from me in paperback (signed if you prefer!) or in both ebook and paperback via Amazon .