I was reading in the paper at the weekend about Lady Antonia Fraser’s holiday in Mexico. She got converted to Kindle when she saw all the beautiful people using them. She realised she was the only one who was reading a dog-eared paperback and that when it was finished she wouldn’t have anything else to read.
I understand her sentiment and remember when I was travelling around Asia the problem of what to read was never far away. Sometimes I’d do a book swap and end up with some sub-Hobbit abomination. I remember reading Peter Carey’s terrible book about a mouse (it’s Peter Carey so it has to be good, right?), and am stilled scarred from reading A.S. Byatt. There were times when a Kindle would have been a lifesaver.
But then I wouldn’t have made serendipitous discoveries such as Howard Kunstler’s the Geography of Nowhere (which I got in a guesthouse in Flores) or the works of Jose Rizal or R.K.Narayan, which I first read after trips to bookshops in the Philippines and India. I would have missed out on the weird randomness and social interaction of bookswaps, bookshops and book-spotting. I’d have had the convenience of a thousand books at my fingertips but there would have been losses as well.
Dewi Lewis made a similar point when I talked to him about small publishers last month, that for all the new methods of distribution, marketing and selling, bookshops are still essential to the selling of photobooks.
Many people liken the rise of small photobook publishers to music and fanzine culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time. I remember the local element of fanzines, the obscure records and the labels that printed them. I also remember the record shops where you could buy this stuff, the shops in Stockport and Manchester where I used to buy them, but also the fact that every reasonably sized town in the UK had its own alternative record store where you could get local fanzines, records and the like. And that localness, that sense of place is what made fanzine and music culture so special. Manchester, Liverpool Leeds, Brighton, Coventry all had their own particular qualities that made them special. The music and the fanzines were the voice of the cities they emerged from.
In that respect, the new wave of small publishers is nothing like the fanzine and music culture of the 1970s and 80s. For one thing, it doesn't have that essential local element. Secondly, much is made of the necessity of the book as a printed thing, something that is tactile, something you can touch and feel, but that rhetoric is contradicted by the lack of availability. There is online distribution of books, but not the shops that stock them. In the UK, there are some big city galleries and speciality bookstores where some books will be stocked but the unless you live in London the availability is strictly limited. The other major way of showing work, bookfairs, is very much a London thing at present.
In effect publishers are producing something tactile that can’t be touched. And when you have books printed on newsprint, eccentric bindings and printing techniques that can be patchy, one does need to see before one buys.
Big bookshop chains are not the solution – they have their own problems and seem unable to compete with the monster that is Amazon. So what about small bookshops? Will they be able to meet the needs of small publishers? And will they be able to do so on a truly national, not just metropolitan, scale? I hope so.