Borrowing a line from a Lesley Riddoch podcast, they got a vote but we got a movement; there’s something about the last month or so which, ok defeat in the vote wasn’t a desired outcome, but it might be good in the long run as Scotland’s Yessers strive to be more just, more community-minded, more invested in the growth of a modern and fair society to prove to the waverers that an independent Scotland can prosper. This commitment to big ideas and big commitments from organisations and individuals is perhaps the most exciting development of all.
Working in books, we like to think that we deal in big ideas and the fine details of life, However, I was a little surprised when I recently saw the hashtag #bringbackthenetbookagreement appear on Twitter, and even moreso when I saw that its author was Kevin Williamson, of this parish and someone whom I’ve found to be involved in a number of brilliant artistic ventures. For those that don’t know, the Net Book Agreement was a formal understanding between UK publishers and booksellers on what the price of a given book should be, or at least should not fall below. It was declared void by Major’s government in 1994, and shortly after book prices were slashed on the high street, by large bookstore chains, and finally to today where you can get a book posted to your front door for less than the price of Skinny Chai Steamed Latte, via Amazon. Let’s also acknowledge that tumbling prices and Amazon’s service has made books accessible to those who couldn’t afford or couldn’t get to a good bookshop like never before. So getting rid of it was fine, right?
Hang on. The flip side of that, and I think this is where supporters of an NBA are speaking from, is that making a living through the creating and selling of books is harder than it has been for more than 100 years. As books have become cheaper, advances and royalty rates for writers have dwindled to an anorexic level, and Amazon’s ability to get a book to you in a matter of days, or seconds if you’re an ebook fan, has seen bookshops of all sizes, but most importantly the independents disappear from our town centres and local parades. So, about-turn, the NBA should be brought back to ensure that people who contribute to a society through literature can afford to live in that society, right?
Well, no, I’m not sure it would. The problem for the whole publishing industry and those of us involved in it, is that we – or at least the big artillery who should have been up front fighting – slept on the job, and lost the battle on price and convenience. I strongly believe the genie is out of the bottle, and putting some kind of price fixer back in place won’t do any service to the readers, writers, booksellers or publishers of Scotland. Citing examples from Europe, as progressive Scotland does effectively, doesn’t account for Germany, France, Denmark and more, never having reneged on their equivalent NBA, never mind for France’s heroically aggressive stance towards Amazon. More than a generation of readers are accustomed to getting their books at basement prices, and to put the premium back greatly risks those readers turning to other sources of story and information. In a digital world in which the expectation is ‘free’, an NBA II would be approaching kamikaze.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply saddened by the demise of independent bookshops (less so at the demise of Waterstones under Downton Daunt (last par)). While lucky enough to live in Edinburgh, there were few nicer ways to spend a day than a bookshop crawl from my place of work just by the Canny Man in Morningside all the way down to the Shore calling in at all of, some of The Edinburgh Bookshop, Edinburgh Books, Main Point, Word Power, Elvis Shakespeare and others. And I doubt I’d have got through my studies in Glasgow without recourse to Voltaire and Rousseau. But we must get away from price-fixing as the way to sustain literature in a new society.
Looking straight at the balance sheet, a savvier approach to tax regulations from government, that forces Amazon to obey the spirit and laws of the game, would help to close the gap between the cost of a book from your local bookshop and from an Amazon having to reduce how much its loss-leaders haemorrhage. The strongest hand that bookshops have though is expertise, service, and local presence. The passion and depth of knowledge of a good bookseller for your reading habits is something that the most enthusiastic employee of Tesco, or the most sophisticated algorithm of Amazon has no chance of matching.
In a digital age, there’s no obstacle to a modern bookshop or author to be known about, visible and in touch with their audience as a human being, and ultimately pushing their wares into the hands of those they feel would benefit. It is that which people are willing to spend more of their money on. The age of the publisher, author or bookseller going home to a gold-plated house has gone (if it ever existed), in much the same way that it has for the music industry. Books can learn from music as the live music scene has surged since Napster nuked their model. Indeed, this is already well under way as it’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the number of festivals from Wick to Wigtown, never mind the catalogue of readings and Q & As in bookshops, bars and village halls around the country.
Bookshops have an opportunity to re-cast themselves, ironically in a retro fashion, as a meeting point for debate on the future of society. Rather than trying to stack the chips back in our favour, putting books and bookshops back at the centre of society, aggressively if needed, is what will enshrine the value of books and those who provide them.
In response to a risible clickbait piece declaring the glorious end of publishing at the hands of Amazon by Matt Yglesias; David Ulin in the LA Times wrote;
Books, in whatever form, serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, for the culture, bigger than mere commerce, something that shouldn’t just be bought and sold.
and I think that’s something we can all agree on, how we do it requires forward thinking.