SHOOTING THE BREEZE
Eric Forbes looks at Malaysian bookshops and suggests ways they can excite and educate the reading public
THIS IS WHAT I KNOW FOR SURE. Bookshops (and book distributors, for that matter) must learn to be more responsive to changing literary trends and the reading habits of book buyers and readers if they are to stay competitive in the bookselling business.
Bookshops must not be slow to respond to the needs and demands of book buyers and instead learn to be more responsive to major literary prizes, especially the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book Awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, among others. Do not underestimate the value of book prizes and the longlists and shortlists that accompany them every year. These are tools you can use to your advantage in bookselling. Interests in and exposure to these prize-winning books are at an all-time high all over the world at the moment. From an economic point of view, booksellers should milk these moments for what they are worth. Extract as much mileage as possible from these lists. Say what you will, literary awards do drive the sales of prize-winning books and have repercussions on other books as well—both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, nonfiction. They can gain a competitive advantage over their competitors by being knowledgeable about what’s on the minds of consumers of literature and anticipate prize-winning books.
On whether literary prizes have a valid place in the literary world, Matthew Kneale, author of English Passengers (2000), says: “I think they are useful because, at their best, they encourage an interest in good literature. I think people will always disagree on whether prizes go to the right books but the very fact that there is a debate will encourage people to read good books whether they’re on a list or not. I think they have really helped British literature in the last 30 to 40 years just by the very fact that they’ve made a lot of good books popular and that just wasn’t the way 20 or 30 years ago. You didn’t find many supposedly literary books on bestseller lists, you didn’t see them in the bookshops. Now you do and that’s got to be a good thing.” The importance of the role literary prizes play in shaping public taste has been acknowledged.
Of course, we must be wise to the ways of the world and not discount the fact that there are many books that somehow fail to win literary prizes but are nevertheless excellent. There are many factors that affect the opinion of judges, sad to say. Many of these excellent books are never promoted at all. Many a time books that are unfavourably reviewed are actually quite good. Booksellers must make an effort to discover these gems.
Bookshops must learn to connect more closely with the consumers of literature by learning about their literary tastes and preferences and being the first to introduce them to books they will want to buy and read. On this count, most bookshops fail, simply because they do not understand and anticipate the needs and wants of their customers. Another winning factor that bookshops lack is service, one of the oldest ingredients of sensible bookselling.
Book buying is a tough business to be in. It is not just the matter of buying books and displaying them. Effort must be made to buy the right kinds of books in the right quantities and to sell them as fast as possible. Sufficient books must be sold before new stocks can be purchased. Otherwise, the business will not be able to sustain itself in the long term. Knowledge of books helps, of course, but such knowledge only matter to a certain extent because the Malaysian market is very different from the U.K. and U.S. markets. There are always local variances to consider in your purchase decisions. Books that you think are excellent or those that do well in foreign markets may not make a dent at all in Malaysia. There are only so many copies you can sell of each title. There are only so many copies of Booker Prize-winning books you can sell here. However, there is not much structured planning in the buying of books because book buyers are usually bogged down with paperwork and other extraneous matters. Book buyers must arm themselves with knowledge and do more research to make more rational book-buying decisions.
There’re lots that Malaysian bookshops can do to improve the bottom line. The core of the business is books, and that’s where local booksellers should focus on. But I guess the simplest thing is always the most difficult for most people. Educating the reading public is imperative, not just pandering to the lowest common denominator. Bookshops must make an effort to recommend books across all genres and to encourage customers to experiment with authors or books they are not familiar with. Bookshops must also learn to promote books that are yet to be published by building a sense of anticipation (and sustaining it) in readers towards future releases.
And I do understand the reality of the marketplace: the fact that bad books sell very well is not surprising. Sell them by all means, but don’t neglect the good stuff.
Colourful shopfront displays and newspaper advertisements go only so far in enhancing sales. These do not exactly ignite book buyers’ passion for books. Service and merchandising are the way to go; these are the factors that give booksellers the edge over the competition. Genuine book readers like booksellers who care about books just as much as they do. Serious book readers want bookshops with character that offer choice. Floor staff must be passionate and knowledgeable about books. There’s nothing like walking into a bookshop and stumbling upon gems that you simply must own.
For instance, Kiran Desai’s triumph in the recent 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction would drive the sales of both her books, The Inheritance of Loss (2006) and Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), which would in turn revive the sales of her mother Anita Desai’s substantial backlist, which consequently would affect the sales of the fictions of other Indian writers: Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Suketu Mehta, Pankaj Mishra, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Michael Ondaatje, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, etc. Besides an impressive backlist of fiction titles, many of these writers are excellent nonfiction writers as well.
Another excellent example is Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk who recently was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature; he has written seven novels, five of which have been translated into English, and a memoir which should attract more readers or collectors. All the titles in his backlist are in the process of being reprinted, not forgetting his new book, Other Colours: Essays and a Story, a collection of nonfiction essays, that was published in September 2007, while his next novel, The Museum of Innocence, should be out in October 2009. The passing of such writers as Stanley Kunitz, Naguib Mahfouz, Eric Newby, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Styron and Pramoedya Ananta Toer in 2006 and Ryszard Kapuscinski, Norman Mailer and Grace Paley in 2007 are all excellent opportunities to bring the work of these authors to a new audience.
Bookstores must realise that there’s also money to be made from old titles as long as they are promoted properly. The fact is, there’s always money to be made from the backlist. Let us not neglect the classics while we are enjoying the contemporary stuff. It’s time to bring out those great books languishing on the shelves at the back of the store and put them where they belong. There’s a goldmine from forgotten or neglected gems from the past.
Books nowadays do not remain on the shelves long enough for readers to discover them or for the books themselves to discover the readership they deserve because of the dynamics of the marketplace. Sadly, many of these books have disappeared, many without a trace. Perhaps changing literary tastes and the increasing reluctance of publishers to keep in print books that can never sell by the truckloads are responsible for this sad state of affairs. Some of these books should be rescued from obscurity for the enjoyment of new generations of readers. Some of these forgotten gems include the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Shirley Ann Grau, Graham Greene, Rosamond Lehmann, W. Somerset Maugham, Kate O’Brien, Dawn Powell, J.B. Priestley, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress), Eudora Welty, Richard Yates, etc. Literature buffs ought to discover or rediscover these. Not discovering these underappreciated authors and their novels is their greatest loss.
It’s a fact that there are people who buy books not to read but to collect them. We tend to buy more books than we can read. One lifetime is just not enough for us to read all the books we want to read. We wish we could read all the books we would like to read but time simply won’t allow it. There are also other responsibilities of daily life to contend with. Most book buyers are hoarders; they regularly buy books which are then put away to be read at a later date.
Bookshops tend to live a separate existence from the mainstream of literary activity. They do not seem interested in literary festivals, readings, booktalks, author appearances, etc. They are nowhere near where the pulse of the activity is. Such literary activities should do wonders for Malaysian bookselling in the long term and, thus, should not be neglected.
Bookshops must realise that they are not just making a sale for today only. You know, there’s such a thing as creating new readers by educating readers today so that they become discerning book buyers and readers in the future. The education of future generations hinges on this simple plan. Think about it and you will understand what I mean. Bookselling, after all, is both a business and a public service. You really can’t get any nobler than that.