Sunday, March 01, 2009

Barbarians at the Gates

As an observer of the woes to publishing and literacy coming from the effects of the global economic meltdown, I was dismayed to read that reading and book-selling in general are under severe pressure. In fact one of the reasons I’ve not posted for a while is that I have been busy keeping my own business interests afloat when many around me are looking for government life-rafts.

To cope with the despair and pervasive gloom, I find reading novels to be the best form of escape in these surreal times. In my opinion -- and that of many other observers -- reading is integral to a healthy society, especially in the young. However, even any positive news relating to books and publishing in today’s business environment is bittersweet. For many book buyers, there has never been a better time to snag bargains especially in the used-book market as many people cull their bookshelves, looking to convert printed words into cash. Last week Forbes reported that Portland, Oregon-based Powell’s Books is seeing a huge surge in people selling their old books. While bookselling has never been more challenging and the woes from the United States have started to spread to the United Kingdom, there was a surreal story that The Guardian reported on Saturday of a most bizarre book sale:
In the end it was difficult to say whether it was a book lover's wildest, happiest dream -- or a worst nightmare.

From dawn till dusk yesterday thousands of bibliophiles, not to mention a good few traders who were looking to turn a quick profit, plundered a giant warehouse brimming with free books.

Some loaded up their cars with mostly second-hand novels, biographies, reference books and magazines.

Others, including ones who had travelled hundreds of miles to join in the legal looting, drove vans straight into the heart of the warehouse and crammed in their choice of dog-eared treasures.

Those who had no cars carried books home in sagging bags and crates, pushed them away in shopping trolleys or in prams or wobbled away on bikes.

Tables, chairs, bookshelves were also carted out. The south-west had not seen anything like it since the scenes of plundering on Branscombe Beach in Devon when the container ship Napoli spilled crates of goodies on to the shingle.

The frenzy was the result of a book retailer moving out of a warehouse it leased on a trading estate in Bristol but leaving its books behind -- hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of them. The owners of the warehouse, which covers more than an acre, invited local people to help themselves to any books they wanted.

The Daily Mail opted for high drama and shocking photos:
The treasure hunters stand knee-deep in Danielle Steels, Len Deightons and Jeffrey Archers, hoping to find more exotic literary fare.

This is the scene at a huge book warehouse whose contents are being given away after they were abandoned.
Seeing the photographs makes me wonder if the barbarians really are inching over to our gates. The Chinese have a famous proverb which doubles up as a warning “May you live in interesting times.” Seeing those photos reinforces my view that we certainly do.

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Blogger Dave Zeltserman said...

Ali, while not directly related to book publishing (although they regularly ran book reviews), I find the shutting down of the Rocky Mountain News incredibly sad and distressing. This was really one of the nation's great newspapers, one that I grew very fond of during my time in Colorado, and I can't feeling we lost something significant with the demise of longh standing (almost 150 years) newspaper.

Sunday, March 1, 2009 1:33:00 PM PST  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

That's terrible news - I actually read The Rocky Moutain News in the mid 1980's as I lived in the Mid-West while studying for my doctorate.

This is just terrible news, thanks for alerting me


Monday, March 2, 2009 4:03:00 AM PST  
Blogger Dana King said...

There are a couple of ways to look at this. While it's disconcerting to see this many books abandoned, there are obviously a great many peopleinterested in them. This may reflect more on bad business practices than on the demise of reading. Publishers were laying people off with abandon at the end of 2008, yet adult fiction sales were actually up a little bit. Is it that people don't read, or is it the powers that be in today's publishing don't have a clue how to run such a business, and are trapped in an out-of-date business model?

Friday, March 13, 2009 11:40:00 AM PDT  

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