I’ve been guest blogging again… this time a quick thought on W H Smith.
With the launch of her Pottermore website, has JK Rowling turned her back on the institutions that have been so supportive of her over the last few years, namely bookshops?
Rowling has stated that her Pottermore project will be an interactive website where fans can “share, participate, and rediscover” the adventures of Harry and his friends, in what she describes as “an online reading experience unlike any other.” But where does that online reading experience leave the thousands of booksellers up and down the country who helped turn the Potter series into a publishing phenomenon? These are the booksellers who opened at midnight, dressed up as witches and wizards, and sold barrow-loads of books, swelling the coffers of Rowling and her publisher, Bloomsbury.
Since the launch of the Kindle and other ereaders, I’ve often thought that it would take a big publishing event to push these devices further into the mainstream. Just as the Coronation in 1953 helped to boost sales of televisions in the UK, will the clamour for digital-only Potter-product push the sales of ereaders up to the next level?
Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a 40-year-old about all of this, when I should be thinking like someone half my age. If the average Harry Potter reader was eight when the first book in the series was published in 1997, that same reader would be 22 by now. They would have grown up with the internet, be used to smartphones, and would most likely expect a sizable degree of interactivity in their leisure activities. Many of them will have younger siblings, who will have had the printed books passed down to them, and now they’ll be ready for new story-lines, new features and new ways to consume them. Will they kick books to the curb and demand interactivity in everything they read? I guess we’ll find out in October.
The bigger picture here is that without an easy, cost-effective way to offer digital Potter-product, high-street bookshops will, for the first time, be left out of the rush. There’ll be no dressing as wizards to promote this slice of Potter, and no queue down the high-street to buy it.
On a visit to a friendly local bookstore earlier this week, I got my hands on a Flipback. I hadn’t heard of them before, but apparently they’re ‘the next big thing’, or ‘the next big little thing’, as publisher Hodder would have it. Flipback books originated in the Netherlands, where they were introduced in 2009, and Hodder have big plans to expand sales across Europe, with the small-format books being introduced into France, Spain and the UK later this month.
Flipbacks are sideways-bound books which incorporate a lie-flat binding. The pages are printed on very thin, Bible-like paper, and the small size means that the books easily fit in a pocket or a bag. The thinness of the paper and the titchiness of the format even means that you can read one-handed, leaving your other hand free for, um, anything you like.
My first impression of the Flipback was that the size of the reading area is slightly bigger than a smartphone, and slightly smaller than a Kindle screen, with a typeface that mimics the sort of lettering found on digital devices. It was nicely tactile and easy to hold, and, as with any new format, I’m sure it’ll ignite a fair bit of interest in the casual book-browser.
There seems to be a bit of a print-based backlash against the digital book at the moment, with Lane Smith’s It’s a Book popping up in bookshops everywhere, and publishers aiming at book-lovers by producing deluxe versions of well-loved titles, such as Penguin’s Clothbound Classics. I think that the Flipback will join this backlash, and will be bought by readers who are keen to identify themselves as battery-free paper-based book-people, helping to keep ‘proper’ books alive. There will be 12 titles at launch, aiming at a wide demographic of readers, including Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, One Day by David Nicholls, and Misery by Stephen King.
Now, I love printed books, and I love bookshops, but I’m not willing to mark myself out as either a digital or printed-book person. I think there’s space for both in the marketplace, and it’s a marketplace which is, for me, a full-time student on a limited income, dominated by price. And it’s price where I think the Flipback falls down.
Lets look at one of the launch titles, One Day by David Nicholls. My local independent bookshop has this title on sale, in paperback, for £7.99. Amazon has a new paperback copy for £3.98, including delivery. The Kindle edition is £4.99. The Flipback version is the most expensive of the lot, coming in at £9.99. As much as I genuinely like the Flipback format, I can’t really justify spending the extra pounds. Add in the fact that most of the launch titles are already in the marketplace, available in second-hand bookshops and libraries, and the 10 quid price-point starts to look a bit silly.
Perhaps I’m being a bit tight on the Flipback here – it’s a fun new format that’s attractive, and it’ll get people talking about books and going into bookshops, which is no bad thing. But let’s keep things in perspective. The answer to the Guardian’s rather silly headline – “Could this new book kill the Kindle?” is a simple “no”.
Some good questions asked by all contributors, and some good answers by Patrick. Read the discussion here.
There should be an interesting debate going on over on the Guardian website tomorrow, with independent bookseller, Patrick Neale, engaging in a live webchat about independent book selling.
My questions are:
1. How important is it for booksellers to add value to what they sell, such as by offering signed first editions, or having author signings?
2. To what extent do increasing rent and rates impact on forcing independent bookshops from the high street, in favour of bland retail chains?
3. As well as the importance of face-to-face contact, how important is social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in promoting what booksellers do?
4. How do you think booksellers can stop customers browsing in the shop, and then buying more cheaply online?
5. What genre of the book market do you think will transfer to devices such as the kindle?
6. Do you see there being a backlash against digital reading devices, with publishers producing books that have a value and resonance not just in their contents, but their worth as desirable objects?
7. Does the industry need a successful Waterstones, and what would happen if Waterstones disappeared?