Books: bound to fail?

Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha -
Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha -

There is no easy ride in the book trade these days. With online retailers like Amazon hoovering up ever more custom and high-street giants like Waterstones driving hard bargains with publishers, independent publishers and booksellers need to be more resourceful than ever to survive.

The exponential growth of Amazon and other online retailers and the role of supermarkets have played by stocking bestsellers as loss leaders have also hasted the demise of independent booksellers, the radical bookshop, of which only a handful still exist, and other local bookshops.

Even Waterstones had a difficult year last year, with a new stock ordering and delivery system, the hub, failing under the pressure of Christmas demand. The firm’s chief executive Gerry Johnson quit after a poor season’s results. And the shock of Borders spectacular bankruptcy affected many publishers, whose unpaid-for stock went down with the company.

However, books are not going out of fashion – but perhaps the traditional structures of book publishing and bookselling are facing their literary end.

Richard Jones, publisher of the small Bristol-based independent publisher Tangent Books, says: “No one’s really picked up on the sales that Borders would have made, no one like Waterstones or the like has benefitted, so we’ve taken a big hit on our future orders,” Jones says.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “I’m probably selling more books now than I ever have,” he says. “It’s just that the margins are less and less as Amazon and Waterstones demand bigger and bigger discounts.

“Perhaps 60 to 65 per cent of my sales are through the high street, of which almost all is through Waterstones, while around 40 per cent is online, direct sales or through independent bookshops,” he says. “But that figure has grown so fast I’d expect it to overtake the high street within 18 months.”

The traditionally slow-moving world of bookmen is changing with the arrival of new business models and technologies.

Take Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader, and the other models from manufacturers such as Sony and even retailer Barnes and Noble. Although between two and three million have been sold, this is still a tiny fraction of the book-buying public.

But it’s growing, and there are also another four million iPhone handsets, and other devices which can read eBooks. “The eBook is a completely new format, and it is only going to get bigger,” Jones says. “The Kindle is good for text, but the iPad suits graphical books too, which opens up the possibility of art eBooks, like the street art books I publish. If the bulk of the cost of producing a book goes is the printing and manufacturing costs, then that can be largely avoided.”

Is it possible to compare the upheavals in the book trade with those that the music industry has faced and continues to face with the combination of broadband internet, online file sharing, MySpace and digital downloads from services like iTunes?

“I think there is a similarity, but we don’t have a MySpace equivalent. The publishing industry is still largely reliant on the High Street or Amazon to sell the product.”

Internet entrepreneurs have not been slow in coming up with ideas, however. Several publish-on-demand services allow authors to by-pass the traditional model altogether and publish their books in small print-runs. The e-publisher allows authors to produce physical copies to be placed on the site’s online marketplace, or on other online retailers like Amazon, or in bookshops. Another site,, offers similar services and even links in to the popular online tools like blogs and image services like Picasa or Flickr in order for authors to easily assemble their text and image content. Considering that Blurb’s income grew from $1m to $30m in two years, and that the company now prints 300,000 titles, it is clear that this approach has struck a chord. Bob Young, Lulu’s founder, says he’d rather have one million authors selling 100 copies each than 100 authors selling one million copies each.

“It’s very liberating for people, obviously,” says Jones.

Other larger independents have joined forces to help themselves. Andrew Franklin, managing director of publisher Profile Books, was among the founding partners in the Independent Alliance, a group of ten larger independents including Faber and Faber, Canongate, Icon and Atlantic.

“It’s a bit like what organic famers and French wine growers do; you can’t compete with the conglomerates so you band together,” he says. “We try and combine the best advantages of being big with the important advantages of being small and independent: no bureaucracy, more nimble, better relations with our writers and buyers.”

The group offers better terms to independent booksellers, and saw their sales grow 60 per cent last year, expanding to become the UK’s fifth largest publisher.

“The alliance has greatly helped us [Profile],” Franklin added. “It would be a great thing to see other alliances in other parts of the trade, such as booksellers, or even in other industries entirely – local taxi companies, for example, banding together to fight off the likes of [large London minicab firm] Addison Lee.”

Some parts of the existing arcane publishing system need to be shaken up. For example, the nature of the sale-or-return ordering system means that books may be sent back to the publishers just as the same books are being ordered by customers and redelivered.

“If I’m supplying Waterstones in, say, Aberdeen, lorries bringing my books back may be passing other lorries on the way to drop off more copies of the same book,” Jones says.

The question is to what extent the high street will continue to flourish, when in many towns and cities the arrival of a Waterstones or Borders in the past has prompted a rash of closures.

Rob Coyne, from Bookmongers second-hand bookshop in Brixton, says that while there are ups and downs, trade is still stable. “We have quite a bohemian selection, I suppose: Kerouac, Burrows and so on,” he says. “We’re really fortunate that we’re here in Brixton where there is a strong community, but really it comes down to the fact that people will always enjoy the experience of shopping and reading in a room full of books.”

Something for Amazon to chew on.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


The rise of the thuggettes

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -
Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -

Society faces a surge of young girl criminals if it fails to intervene to tackle the reasons they break the law, a forthcoming report has concluded.

The study suggests projects and schemes aimed at young offenders should treat females differently by addressing the effects of the violent or sexually abusive relationships and family breakdown that often lie behind their offending.

The report by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT) research group found that while limited work in the US has shown “promising” results, there has been little take-up in Britain. Without this change, CfBT’s director Tony McAleavy said, “the figures seem to support the fact that the further into the youth justice system you go, the more likely you are to reoffend. It’s evidence that custody doesn’t work.”

One organisation has for three years put troubled teenagers back onto the right side of the law using – perhaps surprisingly – contemporary dance, and its results are impressive. One woman, Ruth, joked: “I was a majorette as a girl, so at least I have some dancing experience.” But after becoming addicted to heroin and crack, she has spent two years in prison. “My confidence was really low but, now, to be able to get on stage without using drugs is amazing, I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

The Dance United project based in Bradford accepts teenagers and young adults from across the north. Cohorts of around 10 to 15 are put through an intensive 12-week course, with a public performance after just three weeks.

They are drawn from prison and young offenders units, from youth offending teams and probation, and from local authority care. But on stage they look every inch the part, moving together in rhythm, with flowing costumes, subtle lighting and expressive choreography, their faces masks of concentration or calm.

Kathryn Brentwoods, one of the group’s dance teachers, said the skills required to perform a dance piece from scratch in such a short time tend to act directly on the needs and fears of the participants.

She said: “The programme is structured, very disciplined – they must be in on time, concentrate in class, and we don’t compromise on the rules. They need to learn to not talk or fidget, learn self-control, and to think before they act. This comes as a shock.”

Many will have problems with intimacy, personal space, touching and being touched from their experiences, barriers which are broken down by dance moves such as lifting and catching each other.

“We found we have to build up slowly to physical contact. We have to be clear about what is good touching and what isn’t. But they begin to build a lot of skills for life –confidence, negotiation, self-control, and teamwork,” she added.

Another of the group, Jaynie, 19, from Nottingham, has been in an open prison since December. “My friend had done it before, recommended it. It’s difficult, but I feel a lot more confident. I’ve learned how to control my anger, especially here when everyone’s a lot younger than me.

“It’s great to socialise with other people, where no one knows about you or why you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice that they can look at what were doing without disapproving of what we’ve done. You’re here on a clean slate.”

Ruth, 27, from North Wales, said: “The staff are really good with you and treat you well, better than the screws.

“I’ve learnt to get along with people really quickly. I’m quite turned into myself as a person, but I’ve got over that. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves. I love it.”

She hopes to go to college to study “something physical,” while one previous participant went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance United director, Rob Lynden, said the intense focus on the three-week project and discouraging talking about their backgrounds helped draw a line under their past.

He said: “It is designed to take them away from what is expected of them, where they are expected to be belligerent, problematic, where they expect to fail. Instead we can put them in a place where they can succeed.”

A Manchester University evaluation of the course found “a substantial positive impact with large numbers of participants,” and that almost three-quarters of participants re-engaged with education or employment, and reported better relationships in their personal lives.

Dance United, along with projects such as that run by Birmingham Youth Offending Team, are among the few organisations that have tried a new tack which McAleavy hopes will help cut the “alarming” rate of reoffending and high rates of self-harm among women in custody.

He said: “What we need is a much more calm and collected view about this, instead of a moral panic and media frenzy.”

“Undoubtedly people’s lives are blighted by youth crime. But question is this: will a 300 per cent increase in custody tackle youth crime? No, it will make it worse, because incarceration is strongly linked to further offending. Let’s have a debate about this and look for something that actually works.”

A common perception is that female offending is rising. Last month’s Ministry of Justice report, Women and the Criminal Justice System, fuelled headlines raging over “ladette culture.” The statistics showed a 22 per cent rise of crime over five years by girls under 18, with 251,000 arrests in 2006-07.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value, CfBT’s Tony McAleavy said: “There is no hard evidence for radical seismic shift in girls’ offending behaviour,” he said. “The issue is to do with the response to crime.

“More girls are in court and going to custody, but the report shows this is because fewer girls are getting dealt with by reprimands or cautions. It’s the response to crime that is changing, not the criminal behaviour.”

A more heavy-handed approach by the courts has seen a 297 per cent increase in custodial sentences for girls between 1992 and 2006, compared to a 56 per cent average for under-18s of both sexes.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, agreed that earlier interventions by youth workers had led to higher numbers: “We don’t draw any strong conclusions from the caseload data,” he said.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]