On the Left Bank in Paris, there was once a famous bookshop called Shakespeare & Company, where members of the Lost Generation - Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and others - used to gather frequently. There is something sad about the fact that just as the name of this group came from a feeling of aimlessness after the first world war scattered European culture into ever-fragmented pieces, the end of their bookshop-made-home was the German occupation of France,and the members of the Lost Generation lost sight of each other in the turmoil. It is said that the bookshop was eventually closed because its owner, Sylvia Beach, refused to sell the last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer. This is, of course, an emblematic lesson in independence having a price.
Before his “office” was closed so tragically, James Joyce published Ulysses with the help of Sylvia Beach and in it he mentioned another bookshop: “She, she, she. What she? The virgin at Hodges Figgis’ window on Monday looking in for one of the alphabet books you were going to write. Keen glance you gave her.“ Hodges Figgis is one of the oldest and largest bookshops in Ireland, established in 1768. Until not long ago it was not only the largest, but the largest independent bookshop of the country, eventually bought by HMV Group, the owner of Waterstones, among others. The golden-green walls are the same, as are the endless possibilities of wandering between the sections, and the new owners were no fools - they kept the vast 60,000 in-store stock. So does ownership matter eventually?
Books for profit and chain stores for power
In the beginning, all bookshops were independent, of course. Britain and the industrial revolution might seem like an odd cradle for the chain bookshop business, but it was precisely the British railway boom that gave a great idea to William Henry Smith in the 1820s. Young William Henry inherited a prosperous news vendor from his parents in Little Grosvenor Street, London, and decided to extend the business to station bookshops for the sake of bored customers looking for something to read on a long train journey. Euston was followed by outlets in Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin and Liverpool. By the 1850s, WH Smith & Son, the first-ever chain newspaper and book distributor as we know it today, had begun.
WH Smith as a company was the key financial success that enabled the younger William Henry, partner of his father, to dive into politics and become the First Lord of the Admiralty and the leader of the House of Commons. Thus selling cheap paperbacks, called “yellowbacks” at the time served no educational purpose - Smith was a notorious opponent of free education, for instance - but was rather a smartly calculated, strategic enterprise aimed at the accumulation of family wealth and status. But why would this matter as long as they keep selling books we need, moreover establish a predictably stocked, convenient network of stores?
As readers we are customers for Amazon, WH Smith and the like, with desires and interests rendered more or less predictable from a market research framework. And there is certainly not much point in sticking to our arcane uniqueness when Amazon’s suggestions work just fine for us most of the time. Our likings and yearnings can be modelled, after all, and the main problem is not with a service trying to do so. Shopping in the global marketplace also puts us into a world of abstract space and time, where distance and time both collapse and our least mainstream books land on our doorstep in a day. One could certainly argue that without Amazon or AbeBooks, niche books might be sitting on shelves for years until their few hundred interested readers accidentally find and rescue them. Those who live in remote places with little or no access to decent bookshops, Amazon and the like remain their only option to access books, as long as independent ones do not try to embrace their methods, such as having an online searchable database.
The position of control reaches to the level of content
There are two rather serious problems, which both lie more in the position of monopoly than in the actual policies of such giant enterprises. One is that now a previously unimaginable pile of metadata has been collected, these online stores feel like Noah’s ark storing a few copies of any book ever written. Of course, if you leave the safe haven of major languages, you very quickly discover the sleight of hand nature of this strategy, but then it becomes rather easy to fall prey to the national equivalents of Amazon, which often simply copy the business model of that for small monolingual markets. Once you accept this dictated diversity as real diversity, the pool where you get your ideas from becomes controlled by something other than your own curiosity and some serendipity.
The second problem also stems from the scope of control these companies have over the market. If they are merely financially motivated, they can indirectly damage the production of certain types of content. As all chain stores and online stores sell us content mediated and materialised by publishing houses, and because their relations with their customers, us, have to be safely maintained, their best strategy to improve performance is to get a stronger grip on the publishers - and through them, on authors. The logic of such enterprise does not care about the extra cost we all have to - and should - pay for quality literature. Unless writers are able to afford to write difficult and niche books, they simply cannot do so. And if a smaller publishing house is squeezed harder by Amazon and the like to ship faster, sell cheaper and pay more co-op fees, they are less likely to be able to commission great books, the publishing of which would require other dispositions than financial interest. Here is where authors, readers and publishing houses are damaged equally and the argument of Amazon being able to sell more obscure content than your small town bookshop loses its appeal.
There is nothing more telling about this than what Brad Stone recently told the New Yorker. Amazon had a campaign called the Gazelle Project to pressurise small and vulnerable publishers to offer better terms, based on the idea that “Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle”. Needless to say, as soon as this bit of information went public, Amazon renamed its agenda, according to fake-neutral corporate-speech, the Small Publisher Negotiation Program.
The problem with such overarching monopolies is that they have a hold on the publishing landscape, they make us think we have real access to any content we want. Moreover, their strategies, such as their recommendations, offers and bestseller lists make us read the same to a previously unimaginable extent. They also indulge our assumption that the less we pay, the better deal we make, divesting ourselves from real literature that would require real spending in the long run - see Amazon’s recent battle with French publisher, Hachette. The ultimate sign of the publishing industry undergoing the greatest change is that, for these giants, the ultimate best sales scenario does away with the publishers themselves. Thus Amazon has announced its Amazon Publishing venture; likewise in smaller countries such as Hungary, where the book sales landscape is monopolised by two companies, both of which have entered the publishing business as well.
Independence beyond nostalgia and romanticism
Defenders of the independent bookshop movement often speak from a rather anachronistic angle. There is no doubt that personal connections with store owners, author-audience meetings and turning bookshops into something more than a sales venue are a great and important aspect of reading and writing. It is much more nurturing to be able to spend quality time browsing books and talking to fellow readers and writers, and there is something profoundly different in this than, say, strolling around a local, artisan soap shop. Ideas are intimately connected to reading, and reading and writing are still sides of the same coin. Choosing the next book to read is thus inseparable from your next step as a thinking and communicating being, and will have an impact, for better or worse, on one’s surroundings. Maintaining places with genuinely unique stock selection criteria and suggestions tailored to your needs beyond the bestseller recommendations has an undeniable importance. But all this could still be dismissed as the sentimental yearnings of a not-so-down-to-earth subculture.
This is where independent venues have an important card to play. As long as we believe in the importance of diversity as a facilitator of unexpected new ideas, it remains important not to allow that cheetah to kill the gazelles. It is not merely the cry of literary elitism, knowing that Saramago’s Blindness or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow had to be published before they won the Nobel Prize and started to make a profit. It was years of labour and the need for publishers who could take a risk in the first place, before they could become established names. Closer to the core of the mainstream, someone like Neil Gaiman could not have even thought about Anansi Boys without having access to African mythologies and folk tales. He wouldn’t have written the book and neither he nor us would have known what we missed. Although squeezing the publishers and, through them, the authors is not explicitly causing a certain democratic deficit, as it does not ban anything per se, the collateral damage for ideas to be able to come into existence is undeniable. Unexpected connections are in the core of any creative endeavour and are by default hostile to monopolies, both financially and intellectually. There might be new ways of financing the birth of great works, be it crowdfunding or state protection of minimal book prices, but as of now authors and (especially small) publishers need space to breath, away from profit-oriented pressures. We need the Sylvia Beaches to gather their favourite authors and to spot the next Ulysses. If we, the readers, can indulge our senses in such places and get back to the old-fashioned, bittersweet search for the next book, all the better.