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Whither the Bookroom?

I hope there is a long article behind the cut. It was originally published in Banana Wings, along with a several other related pieces. If this works I may put them up too...here goes.

 

It sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? Ou sont les neiges d’antan? Whither the book room? But it’s a question I think needs asking: whither the book room at UK science fiction conventions?

Of course, it isn’t just the book room any more. It’s the dealers’ room, and alongside the books there’s jewellery, costumes, craft works, toys and games, music and videos, goth and tons of other stuff. All good stuff, all welcome contributors to the conversation, but they aren’t what it was for and they aren’t why we’re here (and that’s why I’m not going to mention them again). We’re here for the science fiction dammit, and for a long time that meant for the books*.

Without books – printed in ink on paper^, bound, stored, transported and displayed for readers to find and buy or borrow - there would not be any science fiction. The galaxy-spanning, mind-expanding literature that is SF was born in books, has continued for over a century in books, and continues – alongside many other media - in books still. Books aren’t going to go away – they’re here to stay (or if not that is a different conversation). But their forms are changing, and the ways we make and find them are changing, and what happens to them at conventions is changing. And we need to talk about what is happening in the book room.

I’ve put some of the more background and meditative stuff that you might find interesting about this under other heads, which you can read or skip as the whim takes you. This bit is the polemic.

Science Fiction Books were and remain incredibly important to fandom. Conventions are organised and fanzines are produced by people who read them and write them and want to talk about them. Their authors are also their readers, as well as our guests and our panellists and our friends in conversation in the bar. Our conversations are about the books and informed by the books we share. Our games and quizzes and costumes and films and tv and filk all reference the books. Our history is written in the books. And our book rooms sold them to us when you couldn’t get them everywhere, and continue to do so today.

Will they continue to do so?

Conventions have had book rooms for a while in the UK. Rob Hansen suggested since sometime in the 1960’s, but he didn’t know exactly (maybe someone reading this could tell us?). Brian, whose first con was the first Novacon in 1972, tells me it used to be called Ken Slater’s Book Room, because it was just him+. Then over the years he attracted company: fans selling surplus books to other fans; and commercial booksellers: Andromeda, Fantasy Centre, At the Sign of the Dragon, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, and many others.

It was still the book room when I arrived at Seacon in 1979 to buy books from the hundreds of “Book Dealers/Hucksters Tables” in Hall 3 and Gallery at the Brighton Conference Centre. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s and well into this century, at every Eastercon and Novacon (and even at British Worldcons) the majority of tables offered books. At smaller conventions you would find Ken Slater, or the van der Voorts, or Rog Peyton, or all three. In the Nineties the bookselling chains joined in sometimes, and you might find tables stocked from a local branch of Waterstone’s or Forbidden Planet. You could buy books at conventions: new books, second hand books, magazines, comics. You could pick up catalogues, subscribe to magazines, place an order for a forthcoming book to be sent to you, ask knowledgeable booksellers for recommendations and advice, browse bookstalls stocked with books you had never seen for sale before, and talk to other browsers about the books you shared. The book room was an essential part of the convention, and everybody at the con would pass through it at some point.

Sometime this century this changed, although up until about 2005 (imho) you could be forgiven for not noticing. (2005 was the year of Interaction, the 63rd Worldcon, in Glasgow, and Paragon 2 the 56th Eastercon, in Hinckley, and there’s some detail below, for those interested in specifics.) The changes that are very noticeable this century can be summarised as follows: There are few or no new booksellers coming to trade at UK conventions. We continue to lose old booksellers. We see increasing numbers of specialist publishers bringing their own stock to sell direct to readers at conventions, bypassing the booksellers. And the book room is no longer essential and central to the convention experience.

We continue to lose old booksellers, and we are not attracting new booksellers. Why? The small (in relation to the business world) independents – Andromeda, Fantast Medway, Fantasy Centre - are closing as their owners retire or find business unprofitable (although in this respect they share common experience with independent bookshops more generally). There are few new bookselling businesses starting up: it is hard to sustain such a business in competition with Amazon, AbeBooks and the like. The internet traders, large shop chains and supermarkets that sell most books in the UK think of themselves primarily as distributors, and do not (in general) consider the marginal business of trading at conventions worthwhile.

We continue to see increasing numbers of specialist publishers bringing their own stock to sell at conventions, bypassing the booksellers. Specialist and occasional publishers of SF and books about and related to SF, and specialist arms of general publishers, have been taking tables at cons to sell books for many years: Interzone since the mid-‘80’s, the Women’s Press, Gollancz, PS Publishing, Beccon Publications, NESFA, the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation, Liverpool University Press and many others. Unlike the booksellers, new publishers keep coming. Why? In brief, because a publisher selling at a convention is engaged in purchasing, marketing and selling its books, works in the bar as well as in the book room, and values the conventional contacts with readers and writers for all three reasons. (By contrast the poor bookseller has only one string to their bow and must make all their return for the costs of being at the con on the books they sell.)

Why is the book room becoming less essential and less central to the convention experience? There are more books published, and it is hard to stock a bookstall with material that is not more easily, more habitually and often more cheaply obtained elsewhere (especially from Amazon!). It also seems that books no longer sell themselves to browsers seeking to buy (and there is too much to discuss on that point to unpack here). Time is a factor twice over: Time at conventions gets scarcer and busier and there is less time to spare for browsing; and as time marches on old readers first cease to buy, and ultimately cease to read. None of this would matter if new people took up bookselling at conventions, and new fans had only or mainly books to feed their interests in sf, and new readers were still accumulating piles of books, and if science fiction was still scarce in the outside world. If only…but the world is not like that any more. And so the book room continues to change.

There is one more change coming now that has not been very evident to date: the e-books are on the march. Many of us already read them sometimes. Some of us prefer them to books printed on paper. I believe that, for the next few years at least, books will continue to be printed in ink on paper, bound, stored, transported and displayed for readers to find and buy or borrow. But as the costs to publishers of acquiring, printing and distributing books increasingly become optional, the supply of printed books will decrease. There are already sf books available only as e-books pending orders sufficient to print-on-demand. When readers wanting new books buy downloads to an ebook reader rather than visiting a (bricks and mortar or on-line) bookshop to obtain a printed book, how will the book room fare then?

Some predictions for what they are worth. The numbers of booksellers and sales of printed books at conventions will continue to decrease. The numbers of publishers and writers£ marketing their books at conventions – not necessarily printed books, and not only or even necessarily in the dealers’ room - will continue to increase. There will still be dealers’ rooms at conventions, but you will rarely find piles and shelves of printed books to browse there, or a bookseller to point you at a book you did not already know was there.

Unless…

Unless what? Nobody knows. The world is changing very fast in many ways, and maybe something will happen to change the course of change.

If the day comes that there are no more booksellers at conventions, what will we have lost? We need have no fear that we will lose books: the cumulative activity of everyone who ever wanted to write or read a book will see to that. But I think we will lose something. We will lose the serendipitous discovery that comes when books jostle other books from different authors and publishers and eras; the accidental juxtaposition of book with neighbouring book; the glimpse of a cover that catches your eye; the sight of a book mentioned last night in the bar that prompts you to buy. We will lose a place where you can ask for a book that you knew you wanted and go home with a book you did not know you wanted. We will lose a place where people pass on books they have read to new readers. We will lose (perhaps have already lost) a peaceful place at the heart of the convention, where readers linger to browse among books at rest on their journey from writer to reader. We lose altogether a longer, slower conversation among the books we might buy but choose not to (particularly important, this, I think, as the world increasingly organises itself to offer only what it already knows we want). And we will lose our links to the time when people could make their livings buying and selling books. In short, we will lose some significant part of the conversation between the readers and writers of science fiction.

I do not think it is necessary to lose all these things. I think that if we still want the book room it will be possible for books still to be sold at conventions, and for booksellers, not publishers or writers or fans, to sell them. But we will have to want the books, and someone will have to want to sell them, and we will all – writers, publishers, readers and conrunners - have to adapt to the changes that will make it possible.

Will we call for the booksellers still? And will there be booksellers to answer the call?

These questions await their answers.

 

* And magazines and comics too of course, but I’m just going to let books stand for them all.

^ In deference to Greg’s feelings I will refrain from talking about dead trees.

+ And of course other people have argued that we owe British fandom itself to Ken’s efforts, but that’s a different topic.

£ And that’s another whole article in itself.


Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
inamac
2nd Nov, 2009 19:20 (UTC)
Oh good! You really needed to master the lj-cut for this!

My first thought when I saw your title was that you were going to discuss the rise of the small press dealers, who are a very welcome recent addition to con bookrooms - and, along with 'print-on-demand' sources I'd personally like to see a lot more of. No, the dead tree delivery mechanism is far from dead, but it's moving in directions that were never envisioned even ten years ago.

In fact, I think there's a good argument for programming in opportunities for the small presses and single-author publishers to set out their ethos.

As it happens it's not just at SF cons that this is happening - I've come across small press outfits at the major dog, cat, aeronautics, needlecraft and other specialist shows.
coth
3rd Nov, 2009 01:08 (UTC)
I will post the mini-essays I did write about different aspects of this, but there were several more that I didn't get round to. The small press and single-author dealers are very welcome, but the interests of the publisher and the reader are not the same. The publisher wants to sell their own published books, but no one publisher can satisfy a reader. The reader needs booksellers to offer books from many publishers.

I'm not surprised to hear that the same general processes are having similar effects at other specialist shows. But I can't help feeling that books have probably never been as central to cat and dog shows as they are to science fiction conventions.
vicarage
2nd Nov, 2009 19:51 (UTC)
I've been promising Brian I'd patronise him again when my unread pile had gone. Now it nearly has, but reading your article in the Novacon PR, I'm not sure I will. My attention span is shortening, and so many recent novels have been tried and abandoned. Perhaps its mid-life crisis, but life seems too short to consume rather than do, and my consumption is focussed on the comfort blanket of TV or the pithy summary of websites. Now I'm not sure what I should be doing, bar tourism, but conventional books seem to squeezed out of it all.
coth
3rd Nov, 2009 01:17 (UTC)
I've passed this comment on to Brian for his interest. My take on this is that reading is a way to participate in many conversations, i.e. it is 'doing', and does not necessarily qualify as consumption.

But I know what you mean about shortening attention spans - I spent several years abandoning books half-read. I put it down to tiredness. Now that I'm not trying to fit a full-time job into my working week as well as all the other stuff I do I've started to read novels again.

Meanwhile my remedy for what ails you would be to try fiction short stories (I recommend the Chiang collection I finished recently) and non-fiction - try Barbara Kingsolver's essays or Steven J Gould's.
vicarage
3rd Nov, 2009 08:00 (UTC)
My unread book pile included lots of non-fiction, mainly history, which is fine, but with the science I'm always conscious that things might have moved on. You mention Gould, who died in 2002, and as biology has moved, would I be reading his work for the insights, now dated, or the style.

I've finally started a book on Terraforming a friend wrote 14 years ago. Its been a guilty secret that I've not done so before. The techniques for planetary engineering are still applicable to our environmental problems, but I keep wondering if Wikipedia has a newer, if much less authoritative, slant.

Reading has been traditionally participating in conversations, but the feedback loop is slow. Now the blogosphere, while full of froth, allows much faster involvement and access.

I thought of commenting to your book statistics article with some numbers from the tv and video game industries, but it was to Wikipedia, not books I turned for numbers (though it has failed me so far)

I wanted to do a walk in Exmoor, Lorna Doone country, but it was the tv adaptation I rented. If I had gone for the book, it would have been a paper copy ordered through the library, not a download. No bookseller was really considered I'm afraid.

BTW your multiple postings might fragment the discussion, you might want to add one more to invite discussion, and make some of the others r/o
coth
3rd Nov, 2009 10:50 (UTC)
Thanks for that final suggestion, which I will do shortly.

Kingsolver's essays are not (perhaps) very timebound, or at least as someone still writing now it will not be so noticeable. Not sure about the Gould. But in both cases I think of them as thinking about the practice of science rather than the content of science. I read Feynman when I was in this mode, and his essays were 40 years old at the time. The slow conversation is just as valid.
ffutures
2nd Nov, 2009 22:43 (UTC)
It's a while since I've bought a new book at a con, but I do buy a lot of 2nd hand. I think that there's still a place for dealers selling the older and more obscure stuff.
coth
3rd Nov, 2009 01:24 (UTC)
You'd think so, wouldn't you? The question is whether that place is profitable, or whether the price of the second-hand book is so driven down by the over-supply of books generally that no-one can stay in business selling older and more obscure stuff.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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