December is, traditionally, a moment when those who write and review books express seasonal good cheer by puffing their friends’ latest work in the newspapers’ Christmas recommendation lists. A few take a more self-promotional approach, preferring to remind the world of their own intellectual sophistication by selecting as their book of the year an obscure, ferociously serious work, preferably written in a foreign language.
This year, though, something different is in the air. There is a sense that in the close, self-regarding world of books, all is about to change. On the high streets, the ghostly shipwrecks of Borders bookshops, once the symbols of a bright new dawn of publishing, with their vast stock of books, their special deals, and their coffee shops, now stand empty or are holding miserable everything-must-go sales.
At Christmas parties, publishers, not given to optimism at the best of times, gloomily discuss the latest round of closures and redundancies. Last year, the industry’s main hope for profit lay in ghost-written confections put out under the name of celebrities. The public has quickly wearied of those meagre rations but, when you ask publishers who is standing by to replace Dawn French or Paul O’Grady, the response is uncertain. “Sebastian Faulks?” they say. “Nick Hornby?” But there is a note of doubt and despair in the voice.
Senior publishers like to blame others – greedy agents , disloyal authors, bullying booksellers, the fickle public – for this state of affairs but, in their hearts, they know that its true cause dates back to their own decision to abandon price maintenance in the mid-1990s. In the name of the glorious free market, the big bookselling chains were then able to squeeze independent shops out of business by ruthlessly undercutting them on the bestsellers which once kept the industry going. Then the supermarkets played the same trick on the chains. The result can be seen in the collapse of Borders.
It feels like a moment when the established structure of the industry, the way books have been commissioned and contracted over the past century, may be about to change in a fundamental way. Beyond that, reading is under wider, cultural pressure. As local councils all over the country look to make savings in their budgets by closing local libraries, the minister responsible, Margaret Hodge, makes wishy-washy, jam-tomorrow statements about relevance and the need to modernise. Libraries might think of selling books online like Amazon, she has said.
Under successive Labour governments, the idea, once a bedrock belief of the party, that reading can provide an escape route from defeatism and deprivation has somehow been lost. This week, it has been reported that the teaching of literature in schools, particularly to children from poor backgrounds, is in steep decline.
There is a way in which each of us can respond to this round of bad news. A book has always been the best kind of Christmas present. If well chosen, it can give more pleasure per penny than almost anything else. Now book-buying is something of a cause, too. If challenging, talented authors are not published, if daring editors are not employed, if enterprising bookshops close down, it is disastrous for our culture and our collective future.
Giving books – bought, where possible, from a good independent bookshop – is an all-round Christmas good deed.