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Thomas Bloor

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Melvyn Bragg’s recent radio series on the story of writing (In Our Time on R4) explained that writing was, in its earliest origins, an accountancy tool. As the new technology of its day, this complex invention was perhaps even more revolutionary than recent transformations wrought by the development of the internet and the arrival of digital formatting. I lack the knowledge to do more than guess at the impact early writing made on the daily lives of the accountants, store-keepers, farmers, royal treasury assistants etc. of the ancient world. The economics of the publishing industry over the past thirty years however have shifted and transmogrified before my eyes. Change has been so rapid that even to the casual observer this has been quite easy to track. When I was a youth, back in the 1970s, bookshops were not that common. There was only one that I knew of in the London borough where I grew up, and that was a bus ride away from my home. If I wanted any kind of serious browsing at all I had to go in to central London, to Foyles, which, with its multiple floors packed with shelves, all groaning with books on every conceivable subject, seemed then to be quite unique. There was also the Net Book Agreement, which meant that all retailers agreed to sell books at the recommended retail price. The abandonment of this agreement, plus the rise of the giant bookstore chains such as Borders, Hammicks, Waterstones etc. led the way for a new world of three-for-two offers, heavy discounting and, eventually to stories of beleaguered independent bookshop owners stocking their shelves by popping in to Tesco to buy up copies of the new Harry Potter, which they could get cheaper in the supermarket than from their usual supplier. The changes didn’t end there. Of the chains mentioned above, now only Waterstones remains. The publishing world, having released perhaps too many books, has now drawn in its horns. A worldwide financial crisis, coupled with huge uncertainty over the possible effects of the seemingly inevitable digitization of the printed word, has made the current climate an uncomfortable one for many publishers, authors and agents. And more change is on its way that much is clear. The one constant, as far as I can see, is that people’s appetite for reading matter, for the stories, information and knowledge contained within what was once a tool for creating a tally of jars of grain, remains undiminished.

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