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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Do book shops favour best-sellers over the best reads?
UK book shops are limiting themselves to promoting best-sellers at the expense of providing consumers with a variety of titles, according to leading British writer AS Byatt.
The Booker Prize-winning author has hit out at what she sees as the deteriorating quality and range of literature on sale in the majority of UK book shops.
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she was saddened by the apparent triumph of marketing over choice on the book market.
High street booksellers have hit back at the accusations, with one saying: "It's our duty to promote exciting new books as well as keeping a good wide-ranging backlist."
Do you think book shops favour marketing over choice? Are you satisfied with the choice of titles on offer at your local booksellers?
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
I think this debate has slightly missed the point - one of the reasons books become "best sellers" is due to the amount of publicity and pushing they receive from book shops. Which books get the publicity and hype depends not always on the quality of the work but the deals done between publishers and book shops to market the books, so the issue really is that some very good novels will languish on the shelves virtually unnoticed while others are pushed into our faces - many people when faced with limited time and a large bookshop will naturally go for the big displays rather than search through the A-Z shelves.
No, you can't blame the book shops for putting business first, so it is up to us as consumers to be a bit more discerning in our choices by reading reviews and looking out for interesting new titles. As for the back catalogue of classics - most bookshops will find the book for you if you know what you want, so it's still possible to get the book you want even if it isn't on a "best seller" promotion!
And as for the mass merchandising of major titles, it is all about supply and demand. Putting a huge pile of books front of store does not guarantee a sale. You will find that the books that are piled up are the ones that the customers want.
You could make a tower 6 feet high of A.S. Byatt books at the front of every book shop in the country and you will still only sell a small amount!
The debate over the domination of the bestseller has been raging for well over one hundred years: in 1870, the German novelist Theodor Fontane complained to his publisher that, "The taste and mood of the public are being more fearfully obeyed than is necessary". To an extent, I think it is fair to say that the promotion of bestselling books can have a detrimental effect on the quality and range of books available to the reading public; moreover, I am not convinced that a book which becomes a bestseller always does so on merit - there is an element of luck involved, finding the right publisher at the right time. Why a book becomes a bestseller is thus an interesting question: is it because it has a certain elusive quality that captures the public imagination? Or is it down to aggressive marketing techniques? Are publishers "forcing" books onto us in the same way that we have Shakespeare 'forced' onto us at school?
Whereas I agree with Ms Byatt that choice is often limited in bookshops to a few bestselling books, and that these mainly represent a "dumbing-down" of our culture (though not always - Charles Dickens is a good example of a bestselling author who is now a classic writer), I fear it is a little too late to complain - the phenomenon of mass literature began in the 1840s, and the writers and critics at that time were just as appalled as Ms Byatt is now.
There is a general malaise in this country with books - publishers will not publish anything not already popular, sellers will only sell anything popular. Result: it is like the music industry, it is the same repetitive mediocre output - so no one buys it. Then they say book sales are falling! Where do the publishers and shops think the next "bestsellers" will come from - or will there be more Hello books?
I find it is so sad to read such comments such as "the days of high street book shops are numbered"- John, England. There is nothing quite like browsing leisurely and finding books you would not find normally. What does John want? The world to have no more shops and no more human interaction- just everyone stuck in front of a pc screen- what a sad thought. However I don't think it would ever happen, book shops are far too popular.
It's not the bookshops fault if the majority of the book buying public are only up to the latest John Grisham novel or Harry Potter story. As for choice, I find a certain online bookstore more than adequate.
I buy all my books online nowadays, and I've always been able to get the titles I want, usually with a substantial saving on the high street price. The days of the high street bookshop are numbered. You can preview books online and see other people's thoughts and recommendations, find out about the author, and get a far wider choice into the bargain.
Same as the record shop: you can easily get the pop chart stuff, or what's being plugged by Classic FM but you go a long way to find other stuff. Like it or lump it, it is marketing and it is economics.
I used to work at Waterstone's and there is no doubt that the range has fallen in their stores in the last few years, and promotion and discount of bestsellers has increased. Of course until 1997 there was no discounting at all, and what other retail business takes money off the stock they are selling best? There is also the competition from the internet, e.g. Amazon.
On the other hand, compared to when I was growing up in the 70's, the choice and range of books on sale on the high street has gone up beyond belief, so it is not all doom and gloom.
Sch Smith, UK
I think so yes. I personally find that browsing through a bookshop in more enjoyable than buying books over the internet though dealers such as Amazon or BOL, even though it is slightly more expensive. Browsing gives me a chance to discover new books I had not heard about. In recent years the number of non-fiction specialist books have declined in bookshops, even though the number being written is probably greater than ever. Its going to lead to the non-online bookshops diverging into being either generalist or specialist which is sad for minority books which being too a specialist group too small to warrant an entire bookshop.
Both of my local Waterstones have cut back on their stock of art, film, poetry and music books, not to mention their stock of Oxford, Penguin and Everyman's Classics. I visit them less now because it's less enjoyable to browse.
I have had a few occasions to buy some philosophical books by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Now, he has been rated as one of the greatest intellectuals in the 20th century and his essays on the Eastern and modern civilisation are unique. Each time I had to place an order with Waterstones to get these books. They are not readily available. Moreover, as these books were being brought from USA if the book was priced $8.99 there I paid 8.99 pound sterling for the same book thorough Waterstones. I surely think publication houses and resellers are working with rather marketing and sales in mind rather than the actual content of those books.
Discerning readers looking for quality books will surely be bright enough to be able to walk past the dazzling array of popular fiction to use the A-Z section and find the book of their choice. If Harry Potter, Jilly Cooper and Star Wars get people into book shops, maybe they will be encouraged to read more widely.
Can't help but feel Byatt's just a little bitter about her books not getting as much exposure as others. I personally don't have any issue with the way book stores promote their wares at all. Having recently started reading a huge amount - thanks to a lengthy commute to reach a new job - I've found that the range of titles on offer even in my local - quite small - WHSmiths is more than enough for me. Titles such as David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan, Jonathon Coe's The Rotters Club and Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth Mon Amour have provided me with a great deal of entertainment. Admittedly they're three new releases, but what do you expect? Book stores are always going to promote recent releases - like any kind of retailer - and they want those they do promote heavily to have a broad appeal.
Dex Fox, U.K
Obviously, book shops are businesses and need to make money. They simply provide what the market most demands. Those who seek books that are no longer sold in shops can find and buy them on the internet - some agencies even track down volumes that are out of print. And then there is always a good library.
Good books would not be bestsellers if they were not a good read anyway! I think there is a very wide range of books in most bookshops, and if you want a really obscure title, there are always specialist bookshops.
This is so true. Go into any bookshop today and you see displays of large piles of bestselling books - Chocolat, Birdsong, Bridget Jones' Diary, Memoirs of a Geisha, White Teeth etc. Look for something fairly well-known but less popular, authors like Hoeg, Chundra, Steinbeck, and even Mrs Gaskell, and if you're lucky you might find one copy that's well-thumbed and tatty! I love the Harry Potter series, but it's fair to say it would not have done half so well without the hype and constant promotion in shops.
Book shops most definitely favour best sellers over best writers. I read about four books a week. Casting an eye over the best seller list I can see the odd book I would read. However if you go into leading book stores the layout shoves these in your face. It is really hard to find a good writer that you are searching for and despite the joy of browsing in a bookshop there is an irritation when you cannot find a thing you want and are just faced with a load of chick lit.
I now buy all my books over the internet and go bookshop browsing some weekends for fun in specialist shops as I cannot bear this any more. I'll pick up the odd book here and there but I do my serious book shopping over the net as it is cheaper, easier and I always get what I want.
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