Creative destruction for books

blackheath book

The old bookshop in Blackheath has been a part of my Village landscape in both the 60s and the 90s – Raggedy Ann’s,  Fenner’s (they had mad dalmatian dogs which would rush in and out of my parent’s house in Foxes Dale and my dad would to help fix their MGs and frog-eyed Midgets on Saturday afternoons), the other bookshop, and later Black’s Jewelry are also fondly remembered. A visit to London would not be complete without a walk around the Village and going to the bookshop (plus a stroll around Greenwich Park, a Charlton home game, and stopping at one or two pubs…). The news that it is for sale shows how the market for books is changing and becoming more fragmented.

E-books are the perhaps the most obvious factor. A recent blog – The flattening of e-book sales – argues that the growth of e-books is tending to decline because: e-books tend to be complementary and not substitutes for ‘real’ books, and that they are better suited to some types of books (that is, sotto voce, free books and popular cheap fiction); the  early adoption and novelty effect is wearing off, and the advantages of printed books have been underrated (the smell and feel of a new book, books as furniture), and the suggestion that tablets have been taking sales from e-book readers. And throw in some price-fixing, and the small price differential between e-book and paperbacks.

It is not so straightforward to separate out trends in e-book sales and the wider woes of the economy. But to me it does look much more of a lull than a change change in trajectory. The rise and fall of Nokia underlines how quickly global communications and the supporting technology are changing. Who knows that new new types of hand-held devices may emerge in the near future? Or the content that will be available? The music industry has shifted with the likes of Spotify and SoundCloud, and television seems set to make a much greater impact.

Perhaps education will be a new driver. The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit project ( and 100% free to use) with excellent mathematics, science, and other educational videos, for which a mobile app is available (http://khanapp.com/). The Udacity project is also an innovator in online collaborative education, which seeks to challenge the traditional mode of formal education. And Boundless are offering tremendous free on-line textbooks, which looks like the thin-edge of the wedge for traditional textbooks. In Catalunya high-school kids are now given a free laptop loaded with textbooks.

In Liberia in 2006-07 I met a consultant working for Google. They were looking at cities to wire up. Unfortunately they did not choose Monrovia. It would have made such a positive impact on a poor country and with half the population living in the capital. I wonder if 25,000 school-leavers would have failed the admission test to the University of Liberia had Google shown some more courage and had been more willing to dig deeper into their pockets.

Above all the ‘Internet generation’ is coming of age as Sunny Bindra explains:  

There is a very rapidly growing cohort of the population that has known no other way: these folks have always experienced the Internet, smartphones and apps, social media and ‘24-7’ connectivity…This is not just the usual generational change; technology and demography have come together to create a perfect storm in Africa.

The democratization of digital content will break the rigidity of book publishing, which will in turn put to the test the thorny issue whether an authentic African  literature (based also on local languages and cultures) was unable to emerge due to the rigidity of book publishing  – pace Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Prof Louis Gates – or whether the locals aren’t that bothered, and anyhow globalization makes this moot.

I read Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s novel Nairobi Heat, purchased on Amazon since I failed to find a copy in any Nairobi bookstore, and now I’m looking for his latest novel Black Star Nairobi. Thank goodness for bookshops.

UPDATE:

I have just read this article on secondhand bookshops

Even if bookshops survive, without secondhand shops the drive towards homogeneity will become almost irresistible. “Amazon recommends” over time works to drive us into fewer and fewer sheep pens, not to explore pastures new… Writer Ruth Ozeki recently described independent bookshops as a keystone species – the one on which the rest of the (in this case cultural) ecology depends.

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