From earliest childhood, I hungered for books – far more vocally in fact than I hungered for food given what an atrociously picky eater I was. Books tended to come via my mother – even those selected by other relatives tended to have been guided by her. A treat was getting a new Ladybird book; I remember my mother handing one over after an overnight trip away and being filled with joy (I was approximately three years old). Even better was when my Grandpa found a copy of Tubby and Tootsie while out at the newsagents – my mother’s loathing of that book shoved it up speedily to being one of my favourites. I never really thought about where my books were bought – I just wanted more and I wanted them all to be mine. Given that a family rule was that books I had already read, whether at school or from the library, could not be bought, there were times when I was filled with horror when I had found a book that I loved that I knew I would have to part with. After seriously regretting handing over discarded childhood books to my younger cousins, aged nine, I promised myself from now on I would keep them all. Cue Gollum-esque glower.
The Saturdays of my childhood tended to feature lengthy trips to Waterstone’s, crouching by the shelves and attempting to read a book without cracking the spine, or else window-shopping the picture books. My mother sourced my reading material with detective-like precision and with the able assistance of the store-to-store ordering function – hard to find books were dragged to our local branch and every December, I would receive a giant parcel of books and then dance with glee. These were the days of the Net Book Agreement, books cost a certain amount and one did not question that. In the new millennium however, things have become rather more complicated and I wondered if anybody else felt the same. Suddenly, the options for where to buy books have expanded exponentially – but yet, rather than this being something to rejoice in, it leaves me feeling as if I am in the midst of a Moral Dilemma.
I was about fifteen when I discovered Amazon – having just got a debit card, suddenly I could actually buy things online. I had always vaguely heard of Ebay etc but somehow or other it always seemed like an odd thing to do given that there were shops out there. It was highly exciting when I realised that the books would not come to me rather than vice versa. I remember getting up very early on the day the fifth Harry Potter book came out, not wanting to miss the postman. Things began to change though from round about this point onwards. The Net Book Agreement went – suddenly supermarkets etc were practically giving books away, Waterstones started doing their own special book vouchers as opposed to the nice normal ones that everywhere else did and people started talking about the Demise of the Book Shop. Then came the Kindle, the Kobo, the Nook and all the other e-readers which apparently heralded Book Apocalypse.
I’m not looking to have a conversation about Kindle versus hard copy – I own a Kindle, gifted to me by my wonderful godmother after her own novel was published on Amazon. It generally travels in my handbag and I like the way that it speeds up my reading given that I’ve cut out all that pesky page-turning business plus as a book blogger and reviewer, having access to an e-reader is essential. However, I have met several people who say that they try not to use Amazon to order books, citing the appalling way that they treat their staff, concerns over the longevity of the bookshop and the rise of scary global corporations. I have had universally positive experiences of Amazon as a consumer; whenever books went missing in the post (something that happened a lot when I lived in Essex) I always got a full refund, orders have always come in a timely fashion and nothing has ever been damaged. Yet, increasingly I hesitate about using the service – even though they are the fastest and the most likely to have whichever long out of print book has caught my fancy.
I find myself feeling guilty about buying books cheaply on the Kindle because I know that this is eating away at the already slender margin of profit which authors are making. It is getting much harder for authors to make a living just from writing and talented artists are not getting the breaks because publishing houses cannot afford to take a risk and invest in them while they are building popularity. Authors such as Ian Rankin would never have gotten their start in today’s publishing climate. As a passionate reader, I want to be responsible in the way that I read, to not make the problem any worse. I have started going back to the library after a very long hiatus but when one’s literary tastes tend towards the obscure, I do get fed up of the apologetic look on the librarian’s face as they mutter that yet again, they don’t stock the book I’m looking for. I also wonder too about the authors who are struggling to be heard in the clamour of online self-publishers – I get so many review requests every day, there are not enough hours in the day for me to respond to them all, let alone actually read their books. I used to feel overwhelmed by all of the authors wanting attention but increasingly I remind myself that the site is a solo operation and that it started being about the things I wanted to read and should remain that way. Still, it worries me that worthwhile authors are not able to find their fair share of the limelight. In this increasingly global society, somehow, rather than there being more space for everyone, it seems as if our world has shrunk.
So I wanted to ask – does anybody else consider where their books come from? Can anyone recommend a fair and ethical source? Or am I just jumping to the worst case scenario – a Cassandra prophesying the End Of Reading As We Know It?