Time to revive the Cult of the Book?

Recent visits to Japan, South Korea and the British Museum’s current exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China, have forcibly reminded me of the passion with which people have made and cared for books and the primacy of the printed book in the development and maintenance of civilised and cultured society. Perhaps we have Buddhism to thank for energising this commitment and passion, as faithful copying of scripture was at the top of the list of the ten essential religious practices in fourth-century India and the ‘cult of the book’ is clearly mandated in the early (first- or second-century) Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, which – still in print in many languages today – urges Buddhists to study and memorise devotional texts and to create or obtain a good copy and to care for it.

Some of the world’s oldest printed books (many from China), still reside in the libraries of the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, heavily guarded 24×7, as they have been for well over a thousand years, yet available to visiting monks, scholars and other visitors for study and reference over all that time. Books were always the first objects to be rescued from fire, which was – and is – a regular threat to these wooden buildings and many were lost, but many more added over the centuries. The early books are not only religious texts – poetry and philosophy form the subject of many and were equally valued. As the development of printing technology advanced from fixed woodblock printing to the introduction of moveable type, first made of wood and then metal (incidentally, the first books printed using moveable metal type were made in Korea in the early thirteenth century, almost a decade before Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in Germany in 1455), the early printing houses and the later publisher-bookshops became magnets for creative people and hubs for the development of ideas, culture and learning, with publishing as the engine of intellectual progress.

Rulers and governments have frequently attempted to control the power and influence of the presses – the Ming Emperors did so (by owning the presses and authorising all that they produced) and several countries attempt to do the same today, with the government of North Korea ironically heading the list. In contrast, it is heartening to learn about Paju, South Korea’s thriving Book City, 20 miles north of Seoul (not very far from the border with North Korea), where every building is part of the book business and 10,000 people are employed as part of a government-seeded business development initiative: South Korea is investing in its publishing industry, as part of its zest for technology-driven economic growth. Perhaps the next New Town in Britain could be a Book City?

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Independent bookselling is alive and (reasonably) well in Ireland!

What a joy to visit Whyte’s Bookshop in Schull, County Cork last week! See http://www.whytebooks.com/index.html for a little glimpse. What was particularly great about the shop was that the staff are passionate about books, writing, reading and bookselling. Despite the deep and seemingly endless recession in the Irish economy, books still sell and book club membership is on the rise, as reading is a relatively inexpensive leisure activity and one that combines pleasure, entertainment and social involvement. Parents continue to encourage their children to read and the Irish love of language and drive to communicate is never far from the surface. All this adds up to a successful, steady business, holding its own in a village with a resident population of less than 700 (plus a wider rural population and a seasonal tourist trade).

So, how do they do it? Well-located in the Main Street, this attractive little shop entices and encourages readers of all ages to come in and spend time in the company of books and other readers – there’s a tiny coffee bar, with books you can read even if your fingers are sticky with carrot cake, a delightful play area for under-5s – with books in with the soft toys and trains – a room upstairs dedicated to teen readers full of funky fun and teen fiction and a good selection of current, recent and classic literature and non-fiction filling the painted shelves in several small rooms with plenty of chairs and encouragement to browse, or chat…and to read. Heaven!

The book trade in India

It’s great to be on holiday – but when travelling in any country I find myself homing in on the book shops everywhere I go! In India it’s easy : there are quite a few, ranging from the well-stocked Chands in Kahn Market in New Delhi, where Indian publishers’ titles predominate and the larger British and US publishers are broadly represented, to the tiny Stationery Store in Bundi, which sells everything for school students, including textbooks, flash cards and ancient copies of British revision guides.

Chatting with the booksellers, it’s clear that the education market is in good health, as Indian parents become ever more keen to ensure that their children succeed in school (they need to get over 95% in their final upper sixth exams across 7 or more subjects to be awarded a place at one of the very top universities). Web-mediated educational materials have not yet appeared on the horizon here, perhaps because internet access is highly variable and not universally available. eBooks are growing in popularity amongst the middle class adults we meet, though: several people we’ve encountered have a Kindle in their pocket!

Internet book selling is also small in scale as yet and may remain so for a while to come, as one of the barriers to entry is the unreliability of the postal service, which is also prone to theft. Amazon India is recruiting, though – creating large numbers of jobs in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, so it may not be long before the Indian booksellers feel the effects of the new competition…maybe, Amazon plan to set up a secure courier service here, as well?

Beautiful books – my prediction for 2013

Reviewing the wide range of books received as gifts by members of the family this Christmas, I am struck that the quality of book production appears to have improved dramatically this year, compared with previous Christmases in the last decade. Top prize goes to Bloomsbury’s POLPO, by Russell Norman, handsomely designed by Praline, illustrated with georgeous photographs by Jenny Zarins and printed in China by C&C Offset Printing Plc. Sewn-bound, but without a spine, this large-format (slightly larger than octavo) book opens flat, making it an ideal recipe book, which is part of its purpose. Photographic repro is slightly disappointing, though. (It could be that the screen resolution for the pics isn’t optimised for the particular paper used; a lovely creamy matt coated blade). This is a delightful book to own – not just for its contents but also because it is a beautiful object, irresistibly opening at any page.

Richard Ingrams’ Quips and Quotes, published by The Oldie, also makes use of ivory paper (this year’s favourite paper?) and is nicely made by Butler and Tanner. Now here’s a thing: as it’s becoming economic to print in the UK again, will we see publishers – once again – taking more interest in the quality of book production and perhaps assuming closer control over the production process?

Here’s my prediction for 2013: printed books will become increasingly valued as attractive, user-friendly objects by book-buyers and readers, since the overwhelming convenience of eBooks will accelerate the shift to digital media for text-only works. This shift will leave more room in book shops, libraries, homes and offices for books that are not only beautiful but more attractive in print form than digital. And book reviewers might even start to comment on the production values of the books they discuss.

Publishers are, I think, waking up to the demands that this market trend requires – a commitment to good design, typography, skilled repro, careful choice of paper and high-quality printing and binding. Judging by the Christmas gifts we’ve received, the early signs are promising…

After Leveson

The whole shabby story that resulted in the Leveson Inquiry leaves ordinary mortals – that is, people with a clear sense decency, fairness and a deep respect for the rights of others to privacy – feeling angry that anyone could put the race to win a scoop or to publish the most outrageous story before these essential principles. Add to this the tragic suicide of nurse Jacintha Sandanha, who felt humiliated when she became the victim of a prank phone call from two Australian radio DJs in pursuit of a funny story for their listeners, and we begin to realise that the first Duke of Wellington’s exhortation to ‘publish and be damned…’ has become the everyday code of practice in some parts of the publishing and media industries.

These incidents and their aftermath raise issues for ordinary publishers – that is, publishers with a clear sense of decency, fairness and a deep respect for the rights of others to privacy – as the whole industry becomes tainted by the deeds of a small sector and potentially loses the trust of its readers, who used to think we had their interests our hearts. It also raises the spectre of legislation controlling the press and its information-gathering methods, which could adversely affect the freedoms of other publishing sectors to source and develop materials in new and creative ways.

In all the reports I’ve read since the Leveson Report was published, no-one has mentioned another simple – but tough – principle that prurient journalists could usefully jot down at the top of their notepads: with power comes responsibility. Perhaps this is what we now need to enshrine in whatever code of conduct or mandatory set of controls are now developed to protect people from journalists and news publishers – and to protect the prurient press from itself.

Whoever listened to the views of a publisher?

In all the hype that exists in the current celebrities culture that surrounds us, how do those of us who facilitate the communication of others decide to play our part? Clearly, some of us choose to fan the fire and increase the hype – in order to grow our sales and profit margins. Others look for a means to grow these in a more enduring way, perhaps even aiming to make the world a better place – by ensuring that what we publish is relevant, appropriately presented, available, accessible and affordable. Of course, the task includes good marketing! So today’s challenge is to create something that ticks all of these boxes and then make enough noise to get it noticed, whilst generating the profit that enables us to keep the creative process flowing…

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at different aspects of this challenge, explore what’s happening to publishing in this exciting and fast-changing digital environment and examine the impact of change and culture on the all-important relationship between publisher and content-creator.

I hope you will come along the journey with me – I’ll say straight away that I know I don’t have all the answers – but maybe you have some and will feel moved to contribute to the discussion?