Shrinking volumes

As academic bookselling declines, Susan Bassnett sees hope for authors and readers alike in web publishing.

January 10, 2008

A friend of mine recently published her first book and rang me excitedly to ask whether I thought my university bookshop would be willing to take some copies. It wasn't the first time I'd been asked that question and, suppressing a hollow laugh, I explained how university bookshops had changed since the days when we were students and were expected to buy the books prescribed for all our courses.

Several aisles of our smallish bookshop are now given over to T-shirts, souvenir mugs and pens, and general bric-a-brac. When you go in, you see shelves of bestsellers and displays of cards. Wander down the aisles and there are shelves with a few essential academic books. Somewhere there is a tiny, inadequate section with books written by university staff, and a decent section of books for children, probably aimed at patrons of the arts centre where the bookshop is located.

In painting this bleak picture, I am not singling out my local bookshop for criticism. After all, we still have a bookshop on campus where staff are brilliant at ordering in books. But the bookshop reflects the dire state of academic publishing generally, because the brutal reality is that students no longer buy books, and bookshops must diversify to remain solvent.

Several factors underlie the demise of academic book-buying. One, obviously, is the internet and the use many academics make of downloadable materials. Students are increasingly given reading lists consisting of essays available on the web, partly because it is a convenient way of accessing material and partly, also, because of the astronomical cost of many titles. A book of mine published last year was priced at more than Pounds 50, with the paperback over Pounds 20 - far too high for students.

In the changed climate of reading, sales are often so absurdly low that many publishers have started taking a tough line with authors. Once, not so long ago, a postgraduate could expect to publish a good doctoral thesis, but today you have to advise your students to forget about a book and aim instead at a few articles. As for conference proceedings, which have never sold well in the UK, the prospect of finding anyone willing to publish even a stellar collection of essays is probably zero.

Over the past few years we have seen a series of takeovers as small publishing houses have collapsed and sold out to larger conglomerates. The same thing has been happening with independent bookshops, so what we have is a small group of publishers and booksellers controlling a declining market.

It is not the same everywhere, however. In Bologna, I went into Feltrinelli's, a huge Aladdin's cave of a place with thousands of books and shelves full of Italian translations of recent works in other languages. In an English bookshop you will roam fruitlessly looking for new books that may have appeared in other languages because translations don't sell well and publishers are loath to commission them. After an afternoon in a good French or Italian bookshop, the range of titles on sale in a UK equivalent seems depressingly narrow.

Yet figures show that English people do buy books, and although borrowing figures are way down in public libraries, due at least in part to increasingly restricted opening hours, books are being read. The question is which books are being bought and read, and the answer can be found by looking at the blockbuster novels on sale in supermarkets and, increasingly, in university bookshops. We are witnessing a dissociation between books and higher education, and this is having a major impact on academic publishing and on the production of books.

Is there any ray of light in this gloom? Well, the future is obviously with the internet, and although I am too old to enjoy reading online, my children and students seem to do so with ease. Academic online publishing is still in its (relative) infancy, but as time passes and it increases in status perhaps writers who long to publish a book with an academic publisher will change their expectations and opt for the web. After all, it is surely better to be read by many than only by the few who can afford to buy your book.

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