Writing and reading for pleasure – Part Six | Douglas Burcham

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Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure. This month part six is about a shopping spree of book buying related to memories of school economics. 

 

The two sub elements of my writing and reading that give me the most pleasure are:

  • Meeting with other writers face to face or online.
  • Acquiring books.

While on a fortnight’s holiday in Tenby in September my shopping spree for books provided me with a snapshot of the book trade.

At school my first term of Economics for GCE left me all at sea. Then the building blocks fell into place. I recall Utility, the concept of the differing value of a glass of water in the Sahara rather than the Lake District in Wales, supply and demand, pricing, monopoly, diminishing returns and unintended consequences.

 

BOOK SUPPLY 

Some questions and answers

  1. How many books have been written since Guttenberg? – Many billions? 
  2. How many of these books survive? I had overlooked how many great books have been destroyed because of ideology. The Euphrates River ran black with printing ink from destroyed books. 
  3. How soon will it be before supply exceeds demand? Are there now more writers than readers? Who knows? 

The supply and demand of books has changed in my lifetime from relative price-driven scarcity to abundance.

In my youth there were few books in the family home. Public libraries were where books lived. My first library readers’ ticket for the neo-Georgian East Finchley Library and its good-looking library assistants was a passport to a place of delights.

PIC 1

Thanks to J V Keogh

Although I still have the family bookcase, I cannot recall what books were in it in the 1950s. Christmas presents always included a few books varying from the eagerly awaited Giles Annuals (charting social history) to Enid Blyton, Biggles and some one-offs.

From my midteens I became a regular library user for fiction by Conan Doyle, Denis Wheatley, Ian Fleming and non-fiction books on war, trains, boats and planes. Having older brothers meant I got some hand downs. My eldest brother used to be a member of the Companion Book Club with the neat hardback books with a simple label on the spine for the title and author. Many of these can still be seen on the shelves of shops selling used books. 

PIC 2

SN Books Norfolk

Towards my thirties, there were thrillers, until the law of diminishing returns set in with fatigue towards the end of this period. Interest in non-fiction continued, plus text books for further and professional education. The dense nature of set mathematics books (Tranter and Blakey) compare poorly to spacious modern books in colour.

In the years to my sixties, I recall non-fiction prevailed, particularly biographies; children’s books, like the well illustrated tales of fantasies and fairies and the Richard Scarry books. To my shame, I do not recall reading much to my children, so I’m passing on a bad family tradition! Given the state of my bookshelves, I must have bought books from Smith’s and numerous independent bookshops all at full price under resale price maintenance. I also recall buying books from brightly-coloured catalogues which used to appear in the works office because both supply and demand were limited.

Coming up to the 1990’s and beyond, the bargain bookshops such as The Works provided many opportunities to buy inexpensive non-fiction, and also charity shops which must have been there all the time.

During this time, supply must have been balanced with my demands and my willingness to pay the asking price for purchases. After the millennium, books have become abundant and I cannot help but think supply may be exceeding demand. Just how many warehouses and self-publishers’ garages are full of unsold books? The speed at which some recently published books appear in the Works at low prices is a reflection of the times. Prices have fallen because of this and the economies of production. My perception is fewer writers are making a living from writing but the number of writers has increased. Are those who are mega-successful very rich?

Since starting to write in 2010, I have purchased more fiction and books about how to write and I have made use of Amazon for both new and used books. By not buying many books from independent bookshops, I have to my shame contributed to their demise.

A quick calculation shows over 4,000 books on our 180 foot of shelves at home. So my wife and I do not need anymore … but we continue shopping as I am driven to do so, and the cookery bookshelves grow longer despite iPad ease of reference to recipes!

I assume e-books will eventually reduce the supply of printed books filtering their way onto the used book market. A chart on an article about Blurb shows a PWC chart of e-books being 50% of all book sales by 2017.

 

DEMAND 

I always look forward to holidays as an opportunity to locate books in new places and find browsing for books a relaxing and enjoyable activity.

I did not need any special clothing or shoes … just my reading glasses and some cash. I also had a half-used WH Smith’s token for £13.14.

For a start in September, I had nothing on my “books to buy” list, so any I bought were unplanned and by random demand wherever my journey of real (rather than electronic) book browsing happened to collide with a book I saw which took my fancy. So the full cover design, spine words and blurb on covers did come into play.

My first port of call is Albie Smosarski,  in his shop Cofion ( welcome) near the NT Treasurer’s House. Albie is there with a smile and a laugh. He, like me, does not know why the longest running construction project in Tenby seems to have come to a halt. I squeeze into his shop feeling as if I have put on weight since my last visit, but now the books have moved closer together and the return isle has been blocked by an avalanche of books. I buy a copy of Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road. My best purchase at his shop two years ago was Ann Gash’s book A Star to Steer By. I want to re-publish this as an e-book.

Next stop is the delightful Tenby Book Shop. They still stock my first book Ywnwab! on their shelves. Thanks again to them for their support to new local and visiting authors. I notice Phil Carradice has published yet another book.

I go to Tenby Museum where there is a good quality used bookshelf.

I then move on to the Market Hall bookshelf. There are several books here I have read. I notice pricing is slightly more than charity shops, which I move onto next. There are books on the British Red Cross, Cancer Relief, Air Ambulance, Elderly Care, Salvation Army and Tevonus. The latter with their exciting display for breast awareness week of brassieres in all shapes and sizes in pink, through red to purple. They win my best-dressed window award 2014 as mentioned in the local paper. I misread it as — best-dressed widow — to start with!

I go into WH Smith and find a heavily discounted Alan Coran book, and DVDs of Tony Blair’s autobiography read by Tony, so I buy them and then I have £3.14 left.

 

What do I make of all this book supply? 

The supply of books, especially used and discounted new books, is good in Tenby.

Given my stock of unread books I did not have to buy books and regard the numeric outcome of this shopping spree as unusual. My purchases are excessive even for me. The weather was good so I cannot claim there was nothing else to do!

I did not purchase any Kindle books while away. I would much rather read a printed book while on holiday, especially in hard cover and large print, sensing the magic so missing from an e-book.

All the books I viewed have gone through a traditional publishing approval gate. I did not notice any self-published books on my holiday.

During the last decade, large supermarket chains have started to experience change with competing chains stocking a more limited range of food and household products. Bookshops have continued to decline and Amazon has grown. Supermarket customers apparently buy some seventeen items in each shop — the same number of books in my picture lower down in this article.

In economic terms, I wonder about Amazon being a monopoly or a marketplace improving the balance of demand and supply through aggressive pricing.

The shock of my holiday was when I was able to buy five hardback books for 50p at a Pembroke charity shop — not rubbish books but hardcover best sellers in their day.

I suppose I am not a good customer of traditional bookshops because I prefer to buy many used books at low prices rather than fewer new books at high prices or even discounted prices. If I listen to my conscience I know I am not helping bookshops and I will regret losing them by not using them.

There used to be a bookshop in my home town called Books Furnish a Home or something similar. I wonder if books no longer form an essential ingredient of furnishing a home. What do readers think?

I also do my bit for current supply because I have a strategy that for every printed book I buy, I recycle two. So for my 25 books purchased in the last two months, 50 go to recycling — ten gone already.

 

PRICING 

Pricing is a big factor in the demand and supply model. I have friends who never buy books, sourcing all by borrowing from libraries and friends. I know others who buy new books and only look for 25% discounts and seldom buy used books. Within this spectrum, I regard myself as a fairly mean (Yorkshire), not average, book buyer believing I acquire/read more books than average.

There appears to me to be an oversupply of books because even charity shop prices are depressed when compared to 2013 levels. I would like to know if Amazon / World of Books used book sales are down since 2013.

Being in oversupply affects prices and where used books end up. Standing in the Cinema at Hay on Wye in 2009, while looking at the external bookshelves hardly sheltered from the weather, seemed the pits to me.

Inspecting ranges of new fiction hardbacks indicates a cover pricing range of £16 to £20. These same books are discounted by supermarkets and chain bookshops to 50% or buy-one-get-one-half-price offers to 25%. Editions published in paperback show a hard level at £8 with offers at two for £7 or buy-one-get-one-for-half-price. The royalties to writers for all their hard work appear insufficient.

 

Unintended consequences – What’s ended up in my shopping basket? 

PIC 3

On another hobby horse of mine, the standout covers to me are Alan Coren (silver on red), Keith Floyd (white and blue on black), and Bill Bryson (black and white on red).

Seventeen books (3 new and 14 used), Fiction, 8 books, including 3 short story books (excluding Tony Blair) — non-fiction (9 including 3 biographies). The books at new cover prices could cost you over £300. Even the paperbacks would cost over £70. I had 32p change from £40.

  1. We die alone – by David Howarth – 50p (FIVE STAR READ). I read The Shetland Bus for GCE English Literature “O” level in which Jan Baalsrud was betrayed when landing in German occupied Norway. We die alone traces his walk to Sweden. An amazing story of survival. I find I have a copy of this book already, so I will recycle or give it away as a present.
  2. Survive the Savage Sea – Dougal Robertson – 50p (FOUR STAR READ). Original price 1/6 in 1949! I purchased this to help me with background to my fiction and non-fiction books about sailing. After taking the above photograph, I found a nice little Pelican book on Sailing (purchased in a charity shop for £3.00) containing all the technical terms in densely printed text and it was much more informative and deeper in content than more modern colour books on sailing. Both these books will probably stay on my bookshelf.
  3. Pat Barker’s Ghost Road – £3.50 (FOUR STAR READ). I read this one after I found it at home. I had the first book of this trilogy, Regeneration. Both these books will probably stay on my bookshelf.
  4. Woman’s Hour Short Stories – 50p (THREE STAR READ). My review of writing progress has led me to the conclusion that all my fiction will be written as novellas in the 18 to 20k word range. When I wrote my million draft words, I realised for better or worse my writing is a collection of interlinked short stories. Nothing special. I will recycle.
  5. Hilary Mantel – Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. New, £7.49 (FOUR STAR READ). I have never got on with her award winning novels but I have enjoyed listening to her life story, and I also enjoy when she is on BBC Radio speaking about writing. I am so pleased I am reading a book by her and enjoying it despite the book being a collection of previously published short stories (apart from the one of the title). It is a brilliant title — for marketing — about a woman who people seem to either love or hate with very few on the middle ground. The former will no doubt be pleased she did survive and the latter less so. I purchased this new with my £3.14 Smith’s book token balance, plus £5 with some change. One for the permanent bookshelf.
  6. Bill Bryson – Shakespeare. £4.00 (FOUR STAR READ). I had a writers’ group short story competition entry to do with the theme Shakespeare 2014. Bill, as usual, has found some amusing odds and ends which have triggered my thoughts of a story structure. I am a casualty of being put off the Bard taught Shakespeare at school without my interest being raised. One for the permanent bookshelf.
  7. Stephen King – Cycle of the Werewolf. £1.00 (FOUR STAR READ). At last a very readable short story-book by Mr. King. I love his On Writing but find all his other books too slow and long. Shawshank Redemption is however on my best films list. This will be recycled.
  8. Ian McEwan – The Children Act. New using £6.79 of my book token (FIVE STAR READ). I have many of his books and aspire to write as well. I heard this book read on BBC Radio 4 and I wanted to read and savour it more and I was not disappointed. He appears to have a stalking problem. It’s nice to have a book without lots of spurious and often inaccurate review quotes. This will be kept.
  9. The Weekend Novelist – £1.00 (THREE STAR READ). This is not really my kind of read but I was intrigued because the book had been read and scrawled over with some entertaining comments. This will be recycled.
  10. Desmond Begley – Windfall. Part of 10p bundle (THREE STAR READ). I had never read any of his books before. I found this to be quite tightly written but maybe a little dated and thriller fatigue has tripped in. It has already been recycled.
  11. The Essential Dave Allen – £4.00 (FOUR STAR READ). This was a laugh from start to finish. I even had a laugh with the shop assistant when I paid for the book! This will be kept.
  12. The Storyteller – Harold Robins. £1.00 (THREE STAR READ). I’ve never read any of his books. I found this one on a charity bookshelf in a wood. Some interesting dialogue. This will be browsed and recycled.
  13. Alan Coren. More laughs. New £5 (FOUR STAR READ). An interesting first chapter, written as a conversation between his son and daughter, telling their fathers life history and discussing how they will tell the story. So I am hooked in but wonder when I will find time to finish it. This purchase was funded with my Smith’s book token. I will keep this one.
  14. Jeffrey Archer – Best Kept Secret. 10p in a 50p bundle (THREE STAR READ). I started this but my interest was not maintained after a good build up of tension in the first chapter. I’ve already recycled this book.
  15. Jeffrey Archer – Collected Short Stories. 10p in a 50p bundle (FOUR STAR READ). I read most of these stories before. Because short story writing is my preferred subject, I will read it again with my editor’s hat on to see the developmental structuring. I’m undecided whether to keep this one or not.
  16. Keith Floyd. 10p in a 50p bundle (THREE STAR READ). I browsed the book and I have already recycled it.
  17. Simon Jenkins – England’s 1000 Best Houses. £4.00 (THREE STAR READ). This is a coffee table book. It is useful as it goes beyond the National Trust and English Heritage. I already used it as a guide because we like to call into country houses on our way to and back from holidays and visiting friends and relations in England. I will keep this one.

In summary, from the above detail, I am likely to keep 9 books and recycle 7. I am undecided about one other. Out of a potential 63 stars, I have already had 25 stars of enjoyment!

 

LAW OF DIMINISHING UTILITY

In an economic desert, the one book to keep me amused – Dave Allen.

Following my purchasing spree, I have had several weeks to recover from this exciting spree of browsing and buying followed by a few reading delights, then offset by thriller fatigue, fiction boredom and non-fiction disappointment. Fortunately I have seen few new or used books to buy.

 

NEXT POST

Enough of economics – it’s back to writing and matters I have put off writing about for too long.

DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 novella word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several books totalling 900,000 words of unusual fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes.

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