How tenaciously we cling to certain traditions: true love and pension funds spring to mind. Also, books and book stores.
As we’re confronted with an increasing number of articles bemoaning the declining interest in the book and the precarious position of the bookstore, perhaps it’s time to face the fact that more creativity is needed when it comes to promoting the product.
Certainly, it’s hard work to punt the ‘real’ book. To run a book store means more than simply stocking the latest titles.
A book can’t jump off the shelf and introduce itself. A book may be judged by its cover, but a favourable first impression is often not enough to convince a would-be reader to fork out the bucks. With so many titles to choose from, readers need both titillation and guidance, ideally coming from knowledgeable people committed to the product.
It’s clear that the successful stores are those at which owners and staff go out of their way to be creative as far as promotion goes. They entice readers to encourage not only sales, but interest in reading, through hosting events, launches and interviews.
This creative and active promotion of books and authors will ensure that book stores not only stay open, but thrive as vibrant hubs at which readers can gather to celebrate both fiction and non-fiction. Marketing can extend to in-store installation of print-on-demand machines, to promoting book clubs, the emphasis all the time being on creating a buzz around the printed narrative. There has to be a little pizzazz.
This approach has worked too when it comes to book fairs. This year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival was hailed as a celebration of reading, but unfortunately the same can’t be said about the recent Cape Town Book Fair. It proved to be vastly diminished as a commercial trade exhibition.
Looking back with nostalgia to the first Cape Town Book Fair, a mere five years back, I recall the frenzy as readers, hungry for the inside story, couldn’t get enough of hobnobbing with local and internationally acclaimed writers. Readers queued – not so patiently – to hear their fave authors. Books were punted and feted and consequently people bought them.
This time around it was different. Poor acoustics in the aeroplane hangar of an exhibition hall at the Cape Town International Convention Centre meant that author events and interviews suffered from the lack of intimacy.
With stands exorbitantly priced, some at R55 000, no wonder fewer mainstream publishers, in a state of flux, said no thanks. I would imagine that book sales were, like the fair, nothing to write home about.
Through history the book has been scorned and denounced. It has survived banning, burning and indeed poor sales. But stories matter, whether passed down through the oral tradition, printed or digitised.
In fact, far more writers are now able to publish their stories, especially fiction, some to acclaim, others to great financial reward, by choosing alternative routes to traditional publishing. Consider E. L. James and Amanda Hocking. Both authors are self starters who’ve made fortunes primarily through e-book sales of their titles.
‘When it comes to downloading books on screen,’ says one of my teen daughters, ‘you’re paying for intellectual property. You’re cutting out the printing costs, rental for floor space, all those middlemen.’
In the face of my resignation that the book as I know it is flailing about in death throes, she placates, ‘Don’t worry mom, no way I could read The Great Gatsby on screen. But you have to face it, it’s like everything else. Why own the physical CD when you can have the songs on your computer?’
My son, all of nine, chips in, ‘Ja mom, you old people, you have to move with the times. It’s evolution. You have to get up to date with the term digital, ‘k?’ I console myself with the thought that my boy considers any person over 18 as a geriatric.
‘Hey, I have a Kindle,’ I defend myself. I like my Kindle. But I don’t love it.
My preference when it comes to reading novels in particular is to hold the weight of the published tome in my hands. As a sucker for the marginalised detective, I’m currently taking to bed Arkady Renko and Bernie Gunther, characters created by Martin Cruz Smith and Philip Kerr respectively.
I find turning pages of a ‘real’ book more pleasurable than clutching my Kindle. I stain pages with chocolate smears, leave in my wake dog-ears of intimacy as my heroes solve their cases.
I prefer the tactile quality of paper. I get a better ‘sense’ of a book when I hold the hard copy. But e-book reading offers immediate choice, better pricing, and will save our trees. As readers, we want ‘voice’, we want escape and entertainment. Ultimately what does it matter in what form it comes?
To quote Voltaire: ‘The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all.’
Book stores and festivals, even Amazon, can offer the world, but to promote a reading and writing culture, the Book must be prioritised. With so many potential readers unable yet to afford e-readers, the responsibility remains with those of the public who care about books to support events, purchase books, read, and share, in order to inspire new generations of readers.