Should the state subsidise bookstores?

Paul Raven @ 14-11-2009

Here’s some food for thought from occasional Guardian book-blogger and Clarion graduate Damien G Walter. We all know that the book retail industry is in a bit of a pickle on both sides of the pond, but have you considered that it’s one of the few cultural spheres which receives no government assistance? Perhaps the state should step in and support book retailing in the same way as it does theatres, concert halls and museums? Take it away, Damo:

… these problems are all symptomatic of a fundamental crisis at the heart of both book-selling and publishing. Books and reading, among the most fundamental cornerstones of our cultural (and hence spiritual) life, have in recent years been allowed to slide into existing as a purely commercial industry. In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.

Would Waterstones be better able to fulfil our cultural needs beyond selling books if it received subsidy to do so? Would independent bookshops flourish if they could access grants to support their existence?

Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?

The obvious response to this (at least from me) is “isn’t that what libraries are for?”, but the counter-response would be “yeah, and when’s the last time the government increased library budgets with a focus on enhancing the experience of readers rather than drop-in internet users and community groups?” Over here in the UK, that was an awfully long time ago… and despite the best efforts of library staff up and down the country (plus some of the more dedicated borrowers), the situation gets worse every year. So maybe a strong campaign for increased library funding would be a better plan than suggesting recently-successful businesses go to the state with cap in hand… there’s plenty of recent evidence that state bail-outs rarely work the way they’re supposed to, after all.

How do you think the book retail industry can be rescued – if indeed it can (or should) be?

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12 Responses to “Should the state subsidise bookstores?”

  1. Dave says:

    Actually, I think the book retail industry is doing great — in every place I’ve lived over the past few years, my local bookseller has had better prices and a wider selection than ever before. Of course, my local bookseller is Amazon.com; “local” because of private postal outlets like UPS.

  2. Martin says:

    It certainly isn’t the most sophisticated analysis I’ve read, even striping out the unhelpful stuff about religion. The idea that theatre couldn’t exist outside London without subsidy is clearly bollocks. The idea that publishing is purely commercial equally so. And, of course, literature does receive public subsidy. You’ve mentioned libraries but leaving aside the MLA and local government there is also the Arts Council. Perhaps there is an argument to be had about relevative levels of funding – does opera really deserve so much? – but this is a poor jump off point for it.

  3. Robert Koslover says:

    Sigh. For some people, there is no business anywhere, of any kind, that doesn’t deserve a taxpayer-funded subsidy. “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” –Ben Franklin (according to http://jpetrie.myweb.uga.edu/poor_richard.html)

  4. Damien G Walter says:

    I’ve had a number or responses back about libraries, and I think your response answers many of them. Maybe more simply, libraries suffer from being ENTIRELY public funded, and all the problems that come with that.

    Dave – Imagine a town or city with no bookshops at all. Would Amazon really be a good replacement?

    Martin – Interesting that the religion stuff is unhelpful in your view. It comes from the comments made on the original Guardian blog, which clearly indicated that people were looking for community / social outcomes from bookshops that were much closely akin to what we generally go to church for. What does that suggest to you?

  5. David E says:

    “Dave – Imagine a town or city with no bookshops at all. Would Amazon really be a good replacement?”

    Speaking as someone who lives in a small town with only a very small used book store I say: Yes! Amazon is far better than any local book store. If I had to choose one or the other it would be no contest.

    “Martin – Interesting that the religion stuff is unhelpful in your view. It comes from the comments made on the original Guardian blog, which clearly indicated that people were looking for community / social outcomes from bookshops that were much closely akin to what we generally go to church for. What does that suggest to you?”

    I don’t go to a bookshop for a sense of community. I go there to buy books. Maybe things are different elsewhere but here bookshops are not community centers.

    As to subsidies I really don’t see the point. My book-buying opportunities have been expanded by online seller. If local sellers can’t compete with that then I’m fine with them disappearing. Though I see no reason they should–I buy locally if I can because there’s no shipping costs to pay. That seems to me to give the local book-seller enough of an advantage to compete successfully. But if not, then so be it.

  6. Evil Rocks says:

    It is unsurprising that an alumni of one failing set of business models (newspapers, paper books) wishes to see the government mainline money into his employers. All bookstore subsidies will do is stifle innovation and retard social change and progress. Besides, we want to chop down *fewer* trees per year, not *more*.

  7. David E says:

    Speaking of cutting down fewer trees, Evil Rocks, I wonder how the business of writing novels is going to survive when ebook readers become the preferred medium (I can imagine a generation or two from now people who grew up with ebooks as the standard way of reading looking back on the idea of checking out a physical book at a library as a repulsive thing: “handle some unwashable germ-ridden thing that’s been handled by hundreds of people? Eehhh!”).

    When a book is easily transferable and replicable information rather than an object how are we going to get people to actually PAY for it? I wonder whether writing novels will then become what short fiction and poetry are: something nobody can make a career of.

  8. Evil Rocks says:

    Yes, that does seem to be a bit of a challenge. I’m glad that my checkbook doesn’t depend on a faltering economic device.

    I don’t know man, get a real job and write in your spare time until you get famous enough that people are willing to buy your work? Nine Inch Nails makes it work. I plan to write for my entire life but I’m not silly enough to think that I can make a living at it – ever. Maybe at some point someone will track me down and ask me for a few thousand words on a topic of my expertise, but I’m not about to count on that American fame-game crapshoot to put rice and beans on my table.

    I point to dudes like Charlie Stross, who built a career while writing on the side and still make plenty of money running around to various conferences, writing presciently about the near-future. The pie is slimming, man, and the answer is not government handouts to every industry threatened by technological change. The answer is to be a smarter capitalist, not to ask the government to make the game easier.

    Somehow, people like Thomas Pynchon still manage to sell their tomes. Neal Stephenson has gainful employment at a research and development company. Maybe it’s not that it will become impossible to make a living as a writer, but that the market for pap and genre fiction is about to collapse, leaving only a market for dedicated fiction readers. You’ll note that Billy Collins makes a living writing poetry. Maybe not another soul in the states does so, but is that not simply the shrinking pie at work?

    Griping and moaning about the world changing quicker than your business models can adapt is all well and good if your industry has a lock on employment and the governments ear (car companies in the United States, f.ex.). Artists, writers and musicians have neither a lock on employment nor a governmental ear to whisper sweet crony-capitalism message into.

    Besides, we’re talking about art for consumption. It wasn’t too long ago historically that art was made by people as a way of entertaining themselves. I’m much more in favor of a return to “art as self-entertainment” than continuing to prop up the “art for consumption” industry. I enjoy writing, I do it because it pleases me, and I don’t really ever expect to make any money at it. I watched my mother struggle at that for 10 years while growing up – no thank you, sir. I prefer a profitable career to support my habits and hobbies.

  9. Damien G Walter says:

    Hmmm…I sense a fundamental bias against state subsidy for the arts in your responses! The fact is that the arts have always required some form of subsidy to exist…be it from the state, patronage or advertising. They all come with their positives and negatives. So the question is should bookselling continue without, and its my belief there is a strong case for independent booksellers receiving support of that kind so they can strengthen the role they play in communities.

    E-books will only strengthen the position of writers. Its the middle men in publishing who are at risk. In fact the outcome of e-books is most likely to be a more even publishing sector, where more writers make a living but fewer make a fortune.

    Sorry that you have such pessimism towards your career as a writer Evil Rocks. I think you’ll probably discover that writing is every bit as much a full time job as any other career you might pick, and really no more or less secure than any other creative, competitive industry. And there are a lot more people making a living at it than you think! Neal Stephenson certainly does…he works on space research because he wants to, not because he is desperate for the money.

  10. David E says:

    “Hmmm…I sense a fundamental bias against state subsidy for the arts in your responses!”

    No, this isn’t even about subsidizing art (I have no problem with that—in fact, as an artist, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of that money come my way). What I’m not for, because its totally unnecessary, is subsidizing a DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM that’s losing market share to an alternate distribution system.

    I can think of lots of better things to do with those tax dollars-including subsidizing the arts.

  11. Martin says:

    What does that suggest to you?

    That you’ve read something that isn’t actually there into the comments on the Guardian article and that you’ve failed to adequately explain why libraries aren’t the perfect mix of books and community / social outcomes that you seem to want.

  12. Walt says:

    I’ll disagree that the arts have always required subsidy. The vast majority of art today receives only the patronage of the consumer and depending on how one defines art this may hold true throughout history.
    I’ll miss bookstores and would rather hang out in a good one than any other kind of establishment. It’s a shame that as book access increases bookstores decline.