I recently read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and if you want to read the full review, go to Mostly Fiction.
Just a brief synopsis. The plot concerns a bookshop in Paris which sells only ‘good’ books. A marketing strategy you cynically ask? Well perhaps, but the shop is the brainchild of two idealistic, avid readers, Van and Francesca who are both disillusioned with the publishing industry and bookshops. From this disillusionment, the idea grows to open a bookshop called The Good Novel that sells “All the books no one is talking about”–this boils down to selecting titles that may or may not be in print but are some of the best books out there.
I initially felt a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I could see an elitism forming right before my eyes, and I bristled at the idea of people telling me what is and isn’t good. Of course it would be naive to think that this isn’t already taking place in the book world, and so I empathise with the frustration of these fictional characters. After all, I recently went to what is considered a decent book shop armed with a list of books published by the smaller publisher houses. I came back empty-handed. The idea of elitism, by the way, is addressed by the comparison of The Good Novel to any niche bookshop–let’s say a shop that sells only SF or mystery novels.
I relaxed when Van and Francesca asked 8 mostly under-appreciated writers to form a secret committee with each member submitting a list of the best 600 books they’ve ever read. The books are crossmatched, a master list is generated, and the bookshop is then stocked from the master list. The plot follows what happens to the shop and its owners, and as you can imagine some people (rejected authors) are rather pissed off when they discover (the horror, the horror) that their books are glaringly absent.
OK, now to the stuff I want to mention here. The story is a mystery, but underneath the mystery are some really interesting ideas about publishing; hence this blog post. The bookshop creates a place that readers naturally gravitate to for their books. Van says:
“We are aiming to reverse the precedent between supply and demand. It’s not demand that’s going to lead, but offer. People will come through the door of the bookstore because they know they can find a rare selection of novels there, in addition to the regular titles they might be looking for. And then they’ll visit the website in a similar frame of mind.”
I chewed that over. Supply and demand…supply and demand…and then I started thinking about how, in the last few years, my spending habits have changed when it comes to the books I buy and read. For example, I rarely buy in bookshops anymore. Why? Because the ones I go to don’t stock what I want. While I still enjoy the small poky bookshops, the bigger chains are nightmares for readers like me. There are kids running around screaming, piles of sticky unshelved books, and there are far too many copies of books I know I’d loathe being shoved in my face. Plus the fact that even though there’s lots of stock, there are very few books that actually have much appeal.
I used to go the library and look for favourite authors or through the new releases. My local library has become an unpleasant place to hang out, and the selection seems narrow. Part of this explanation could be that at this point we are talking about sheer cumulative reading. Here’s an example: I read a lot of Simenon. My library has a few volumes on the shelf but I’ve read them all.
That takes me back to the sorts of books I am looking for. These days when it comes to new releases I seem to be most interested in the books from the smaller presses. Just as I know Harlequin does not publish anything I’m interested in, over time I’ve identified publishers who consistently produce books that match my tastes.
Europa Editions published A Novel Bookstore. It’s a French book and according to those in the know, only 3% of the books sold in America are books in translation. Perhaps the current wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers will change that number. I hope so. Not that I am interested in stories of women who get sanitary towels shoved down their throats, but I think that it may cause publishers to ease up a bit and start looking for other books that might sell as well.
Bitter Lemon Press, Serpent’s Tail, Pushkin Press, OneWorld, Dedalus, Hesperus, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books Classics are all publishers I try to follow. I know I’ve left out some names. The smaller presses don’t have the money or the clout of the big houses, and what’s even more annoying they sometimes don’t even appear in the bookshop. So publishers if you read this, GET A SUBSCRIPTION NEWSLETTER GOING through your website. If you want us to buy your books, then connect with us. I don’t buy every book that comes from NYRB, but when I get their newsletter, chances are I’ll buy something.
Another idea that came through in A Novel Bookstore was the idea of subscriptions (as in a type of book club)–customers sign up and then are automatically sent titles from the bookshop . In the case of the fictional Paris bookshop, this was a bit dodgy as people could feasibly have already read some of the titles on the shelves. But again, this got me thinking. Hard Case Crime had a book club (Hard Case Crime is on hiatus at the moment as Dorchester moved solely to e-book format). I was a member of the Hard Case Crime book club, and it was a really great idea. I never knew what they would send me every month, but I can tell you that I was never disappointed.
And now a final observation. I read a fair number of crime books. I’m not in publishing so I’m not in the know but I can tell you that something is happening in the world of crime fiction. I hope it’s a movement. Crime publishers are connecting with crime writers and crime readers. Are readers of crime fiction more organised or are they just more devoted? Here’s Stark House Noir who are producing some classic noir that’s largely forgotten along with their first exclusive novel Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella.