The life and afterlife of books

It’s a painful thing for a publishing person to admit, but books aren’t forever. Sometimes they aren’t even for life, and hardly even for Christmas either. Plenty of book trade people still think of themselves as unworldly carriers of the intellectual flame, and custodians of the world’s great spiritual treasure house; but the more successful ones will admit that plenty of the 100,000 titles published annually in the UK are fast-selling trash, or worse still, slow-selling trash that sits balefully on bookshop tables and fails to recoup the huge sums paid to the D-list celebrity who nominally wrote the darn thing. As a bookish teenager, one of my most disillusioning experiences was a Christmas stint in one of the great family-run bookshops, now long gone: we stacked the Jackie Collinses and John Grishams like so many cans of beans, and did our best to direct those good souls who started their enquiries, helpfully, with “I’m looking for a book,” perhaps followed by “It’s got kindae a purple cover.” (“Oh aye, that’ll be the Maeve Binchy, dumpbin to your left, madam.”) Doubtless all the true book lovers were cooing over the fine bindings on Infirmary Street, and possibly even buying them, but we knew our customers: tired, harassed, sair heid and sair feet, in need of easy answers, that’ll do fine for Auntie Mary, aye? We’d made a sale, and Auntie Mary would at least feel that someone had given her some thought, even if she never got past the kindae a purple cover.


Book buyers – and booksellers, not to mention publishers – make mistakes. Every publisher would love to have the prestige of a Gaston Gallimard, and the commercial astuteness of an Allen Lane (the original Emperor Penguin); and yet is fated to be reminded over and again of all those commercial smashes that were rejected by one publisher after another (nobody mention boy wizards). For every publisher and bookseller, there are surprise hits and disappointing misses, readers’ mental appetites being curious and unpredictable things:  after all, if it’s predictable you want, why not sell groceries, or better still petfood? For every book buyer, too, there are the purchases which aren’t exactly as billed, or don’t live up to expectations or the promise of their first few pages, or drift into your life as well-intended but ill-matched presents, only to stick on the shelves like limpets, near impossible to dislodge. Even the most devoted bibliophile (especially the most devoted bibliophile) must eventually admit that certain volumes have outlived their usefulness, have been superseded or are simply too many.


I still find it hard to throw a book away; even the trashiest, or most battered, or most outdated and obviously redundant bring on guilty pangs out of all proportion when they are consigned to the bin. It’s more difficult than you would think to recycle books, too: many authorities are unable to process the mixture of papers, board (stiff cardboard, in hardback covers), textiles and glue that comprise most modern books. No wonder secondhand bookshops are thriving: I understand Oxfam is now Britain’s fourth biggest book retailer, surpassed only by Amazon, WH Smith and Waterstone’s.

oxfam bookshop

Bookshops, publishers and libraries of course don’t have the bin option, or the secondhand bookshop fallback  –  a few spare review copies may be very gratefully received, but a consignment of unsaleable Christmas turkeys in February when the returns come in is another matter altogether. Instead, there’s a whole mechanism of trying to shift the hard-to-shift by discounting, usually at one remove through bargain bookshops and outlets (high street bookshops, those curious mirrorworld places given to deep-discounting  current bestsellers, are far more squeamish about selling off hard-to-shift backlist: is it the admission of failure, or the way it makes full-priced stock look expensive?). Recycling, too, operates under rather special conditions at trade level. An admirable charity, Bookaid International, ships surplus books to developing countries, although they’re rightly picky: good quality, up-to-date fact books that are globally relevant will always be welcome, but they’ll be even less pleased to see your Christmas turkeys than the local Oxfam shop, especially when the turkey in question is a minor UK celebrity’s ghostwritten biography. Otherwise, the last resort (usually for unforgivable printing misdemeanours, of the sort that involve the more expensive sorts of lawyers) is to have a book pulped; which is to say, not only writing off the costs and potential profit of producing a book, but paying a substantial fee to have it turned into recyclable material – a mortifying process altogether.


For all that, I do believe in throwing books away from time to time, or recycling them, or at the very least calling on them to justify themselves. Some years ago I oversaw the reorganisation of two local school libraries – libraries of much sought-after primary schools, full of the book-minded children of ambitious, highly literate parents. To this day I feel my greatest achievement wasn’t the buying of quantities of new books (although we did that too), but persuading the schools in question to throw away boxes and boxes of outdated reference books: my rule was that we should keep nothing over twenty years old. At the time, that felt brutal, even Philistine – but as soon as we piled up the discards we knew we were right: it wasn’t so much the factual inaccuracies as the fusty design, impenetrable text and lamentable picture reproduction; enough to discourage any contemporary child, and make them see books as an effortful, frustrating, mediocre research tool at best. Twenty crates of discards later, we could also see the contrary virtues of emptier shelves: children came to the library, were far more easily able to find what they wanted, spent less time searching for it – and so were encouraged to come back again.

Do I apply these lessons at home? I’ll leave you to guess.


Can I recommend one or two books that will see out reorganisations and justify themselves with ease? Well, of course I’d make a case for all the authors I have reviewed over the past three years. From recent reading, though, Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night was one of the most satisfactory books I have read in a long time: Hardinge matches Sally Gardner (especially in I, Coriander) for imaginative reach and descriptive mastery, not to mention a marvellous fiery-bright, shrewd, plain-speaking, stubborn-loyal heroine. Clearly I’ve some catching-up to do before I get to Hardinge’s Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song. Incidentally the Carnegie (winner to be announced 22nd June) has a particularly strong shortlist this year, tending to favour older readers with a darkly compelling Sally Gardner (Tinder) and Geraldine McCaughrean‘s masterly The Middle of Nowhere with its brilliantly arid, unfamiliar, unsettling Australian setting. The 2013 shortlist was also a vintage year, with Sally Gardner’s chilling Maggot Moon a deserving winner against stiff competition from R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, Elizabeth Wein’s Codename Verity and Nick Lake’s intense, hallucinatory In Darkness. A glance at the Carnegie’s full honours list shows that the judges have been consistently on the money for a good 50 years, and it’s heartening to see winners from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s still loved and admired and constantly in print.


So: stock up on your Hardinge – I think she is something of an outside chance for the Carnegie, but no less worth reading. Stock up on hardbacks where you can; not everything is produced in hardback these days, so it’s either a measure of publisher faith or publisher trying-it-on, and it only takes a very little pre-reading to tell the genuinely interesting and likely-to-last from the expertly-packaged trash. If you were to insist I choose six authors in the former camp, after some soul-searching I think the answer would be:
Joan Aiken
Sally Gardner
Philip Reeve
Marcus Sedgwick
Jonathan Stroud
Diana Wynne Jones

…no! Wait! Neil Gaiman! Ursula Le Guin! Oh, this is impossible. Then again, it’s not a bad thing to buy now and decide later: you will at least help to keep some more or less deserving authors, publishers and booksellers afloat. And if you do come to regret your decision, well, there is always that Oxfam shop.


Postscript: What fantastic news that Chris Riddell has been appointed as our next Children’s Laureate. Riddell is not only an inspired illustrator, both in his prolific partnership with Paul Stewart (The Edge Chronicles, Far-Flung Chronicles, Muddle Earth, Barnaby Grimes and Wyrmweald) and for numerous other acclaimed and intriguing authors, but also a mercilessly ego-piercing political cartoonist and marvellously inventive author in his own right (Ottoline, Goth Girl). Perhaps most importantly for the post, he’s a born communicator and enthuser and, without any affectation at all, a genuinely nice man. Hurrah!


One comment

  1. I enjoyed this discussion immensely, and was gratified to see at the end of your piece that you rate a good many of the authors of YA and children’s fiction that I do.

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