The Rise of the Non-Book Book

Alice Spawls

The new iconography of feminine purity: Our Lady of the Seven Salads, She of the Immaculate Complexion

On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays.

But it isn’t all about the books. Agreements with Costa and Paperchase, and the introduction of their own cafes in larger stores, are designed to make the shops more alluring. Gifts now seem to take up as much space as books, at least on the tables, where the prettiest paperbacks are distributed among Orla Kiely pots and enamel cups. There are horticultural tables, literary themed gifts (Penguin does a good line in pencil cases and tote bags), sewing kits and appliqué sets next to the craft books. Pets are reliably popular – see Dog Bingo – and natural history in the guise of faux-antique prints of fish and butterflies on notebooks and crockery. Something is working, because digital sales are down and those of paper and glue books are up, but the ephemera isn’t only disguising the books, it’s disguising the rise of the non-book book.

The Waterstones I went to on Easter Saturday was busy and cramped. Classics and new fiction were well represented on the ground floor. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City had a table to itself, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend was prominently displayed (neither writer’s other books were stocked). Upstairs it was a fight through the fancy goods and non-book products, piled high and heaped and scattered, to reach the scuffed shelves. People are still reading proper history in paperback: Hobsbawm, Judt, Snyder, Blanning and Clark made a sound showing. In Philosophy, Verso dominated with Gros, Groys, Feenberg, Berger, Bull, Žižek et al. A few Routledge spines stuck out between the works of Peter Cave – The Big Think Book, How to Outwit Aristotle – and a shelf of Alain de Botton. Women historians and philosophers didn’t get much shelf space, but Social Sciences included the complete works of Caitlin Moran and various other shades of femi-lite, most of them with hot pink covers (including Hot Feminist).

In Literary Criticism, with the possible exception of Orwell’s Why I Write, there wasn’t a single book that would feature on an undergraduate reading list. Instead there were gift books and bog books, light-hearted grammars, etymological entertainments and assorted compendia. Standing face out were Stephen Fry’s Planet Word, To the Letter, Gwynne’s Grammar, New Words for Old, Bill Bryson on Shakespeare, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (which surely started half of this), The Horologican, Creative Writing for Dummies and 102 Things to Do in Summer – topics include ‘raid a dumpster’ and ‘wang a welly’ – which might have been there by accident. Then again, who knows: in another Waterstones, I saw The Intellectuals and the Masses under A for Austen (its subtitle is ‘Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia’).

Nature writing continues its inexorable spread, with shepherds, birds, birdsong and coastlines prominent. H is for Hawk must still be selling well, and a new edition of The Goshawk sat next to it, but they didn’t have The Peregrine. For every H is for Hawk there are at least seven spin-offs. There were more design histories and big music books than art books, and most of them were catalogues; there wasn’t much art history or theory. Gardening may well have been the most comprehensive category, covering not only the practical (Grow Vegetables, Allotments, The Thrifty Gardener) but also the decorative (The Gardeners Garden, Shakespeare's Garden, Oxford College Gardens) and historical/critical: Onwards and Upwards in the Garden, The Brother Gardeners, Gardens of the English Working Class.

Cooking books entice and threaten in equal measure – How Not to Die, Keep It Real, Get the Glow, The Sweet Poison Quit Plan – making celebrities out of clean-living young women or, rather, providing something monetisable for a generation of Instagram lifestyle gurus. The covers are uniformly white with snapshots of the true subject – the blogger – caressing something nutritious. They look like a new iconography of feminine purity: Our Lady of the Seven Salads, Mater Dolorosy-cheeks, She of the Immaculate Complexion. The banking crisis claimed a small shelf of books, not half the size of the colouring books table; these pop up elsewhere too, especially in Spirituality and Belief, where Colour Yourself Calm and the Tranquillity Colouring Book were dotted between compassion, mindfulness and the road less travelled.

The Bookseller announced recently that it would begin previewing non-book products – gifts and stationery – for the first time. It pointed out that the stationery market and bookselling have long been closely aligned and it’s true that I can’t think of a bookshop that doesn’t at least sell cards. The Bookseller has mentions of Fancy Goods in their editorials going back to 1870s, when playing cards and journals were easing the margins of struggling bookshops, though the net book agreement made life easier for much of the 20th century.

More books are being sold now than before the policy’s demise in 1995, when the bigger chains (including Waterstones) began to flex their bulk muscle and offer discounts, but many bookshops have closed – at least 500 independents – and others, like Dillons and Books etc, have been folded into larger conglomerates. Physical books are selling better partly because publishers can still control their ebook prices, and set them high on purpose. The Waterstones deals and discounts aren’t as big and brash as they once were, the range in the larger shops is good and in the smaller towns they must be doing what they need to do.

But physical books aren’t the same as real books. You can’t read Hamlet, or Bloom or Kermode for that matter, if a bookshop only has Bill Bryson, let alone discover the books coming out from Pushkin, Capuchin, Serpent’s Tail, And Other Stories, Zero, Fitzcarraldo and Persephone, or from American and European presses. One of the few advantages bookshops have over Amazon and other online retailers is the opportunity they provide to stumble across something you never knew you were looking for. Books can function as gift objects, lifestyle signifiers, thematic attributes; they can be non-book products too, word-based diversions, colour-me distractions, bucket-lists, how-tos, extensions of celebrity brands. Putting something between two covers doesn’t make it a book, and putting them on shelves doesn’t make a bookshop.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Deborah Friedell: Amazon's Irresistible Rise · 5 December 2013

John Sutherland: The Great Net Book Agreement Disaster · 19 October 1995

Colin Robinson: Publishing's Demise · 26 February 2009

Peter Campbell: London Lettering · 12 December 2002


  • 6 April 2016 at 4:41pm
    martyn94 says:
    I grew up in Birkenhead, a town of around 100,000 people if narrowly defined, or 350,000 for the larger area. Rather more, I guess in the 60s when I tried to buy books there. There was one branch of W H Smith which gave much more space to doilies than to anything approaching a book. And the situation in Liverpool, over the river, was remarkably little better.

    In my perspective, the "rise of the non-book book" is only the slightest adjustment to what seems to me the most striking cultural advance in my lifetime (apart from decent food): the advance of the "book book" in places where they could never previously be got.

    If Waterstones have to adjust their business model a bit to keep on doing that, more power to them.

    And of course "non-book books" (almanacs and so on) have a long, distinguished, and fascinating history. So long as you can also get proper books, as seems to be so here, abundantly.

  • 6 April 2016 at 9:37pm
    Eddie Fez says:
    In which our intrepid reporter, smartphone in hand, unearths the storied tomb of the Waterra Stones...

    One might be forgiven for thinking the real point of this flaneurish stock audit is a passive assertion of superiority.

    Shops now stock stuff people buy, and niche interests are served online. Such is the sum total of the seeming catastrophe.

    Commerce doesn't come with a sense of intellectual responsibility, as the LRB so often tells us. Not a great surprise when the embattled intellectual negotiates a high street book shop as if it were alien territory.

    Nonetheless. Waterstones does stock Shakespeare, as of last time my mother gave me a book token.

  • 8 April 2016 at 6:13am
    farthington says:
    Whatever you're buying, buy it on High Street, and not on Amazon.
    Down with Amazon (and other corporate monoliths, especially those with appalling labour practices), up with the High Street.

    • 8 April 2016 at 8:50am
      martyn94 says: @ farthington
      The implication that the High Streets of the U.K. were studded with high-quality bookshops which were flourishing like the green bay tree until Amazon came along is just a fantasy. Waterstones are just as much a corporate monolith. But with the considerable merit that they, like Amazon, give access to serious books (as well as unserious ones) in many places where previously there was none.

      This delusion is even more entrenched in France, where I now live. And official policy is built around it. With the result that you cannot get books at a significant discount from Amazon, nor books in shops at any price in all but a few privileged spots.

      I tried to buy Piketty's "Capital au XXIe Siècle" in Paris a while ago.It had been a considerable success in France quite recently, and was camped out, in English, on the NYT best-seller list. But still unobtainable in my local bookshop, Gallimard, three branches of FNAC..... Guess where I bought it?

  • 8 April 2016 at 9:20am
    streetsj says:
    Now we have e-books no better product is suited to selling on line. The idea that you can't stumble across titles on Amazon is bizarre - of course you can (and I do). What's more, assuming there is an e-version you can sent a chapter for free (just like browsing in the shop), there is almost guaranteed stock in all but the most obscure titles and, fantastic for the publishers, you can buy a book the instant you are taken by a review, a mention, a thought rather than the next time you happen to be near a bookshop with the time to go in and see if they have the title you have now forgotten.
    Meanwhile for the tax conscious, you have to pay VAT on ebooks so the State gets its share too. What's not to like?
    (A few moments ago I bought a book just because it was mentioned on Twitter by a friend - I hope I get round to reading it.)

    • 8 April 2016 at 2:42pm
      martyn94 says: @ streetsj
      I think the truth is rather the reverse: no product is less suited to selling in bricks-and-mortar shops.There are just too many titles from too many sources, too difficult to categorise (let alone evaluate or recommend), and too many tastes to be satisfied, that no bookshop can cover more than arbitrary, and very small, parts of the ground. Except for the obvious current sellers that Alice Sprawls impliedly laments. Some shops are obviously better than others: either just huge, like Waterstones in Piccadilly (or Foyles, if it is true that it has become usable - I gave up decades ago), or a couple in Oxford or Cambridge which are pretty big and have a local demand for stuff that other places don't have (and relatively little demand for "non-books").

      People who lament the demise of independent bookstores paint a picture of a shop (about the size of a news-and-tobacconists) with a carefully-curated stock, representing the whole cream of writing in English over a few centuries (but also, of course, the edgy transgressive stuff where the jury is still out) presided over by a kindly proprietor familiar with it all. That hasn't been my experience, except where the shop has an explicitly very narrow remit (cookbooks, poetry, sci-fi...).

      I am not so sanguine as streetsj about the scope for serendipity on Amazon. It is better than nothing if you try. But word-of-mouth (or occasionally word of LRB) remains the most valuable guide.

    • 9 April 2016 at 12:42pm
      streetsj says: @ martyn94
      Is that the reverse?
      I agree with everything else you say.

    • 10 April 2016 at 7:58pm
      martyn94 says: @ streetsj
      I should perhaps have said " the other way about".

  • 8 April 2016 at 9:27pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I think the lads who are skeptical about the virtues of "ye olde corner book shoppe" are in the right. I worked in one of those once back in the 1960s, and it was far from idyllic (once the owner summoned me to a "confidential meeting", where, the paradigm of magnanimity, he told me he was increasing my clerk's wage by 10% - from a whopping $1.50 per hour to an obscene $1.65 per hour, and told me not to inform the other clerks - in spite of all this nonsense I liked the job on account of the people I met). Hate its bullying, author-discriminating, and omnivorous commercial appetite as many of us do, and skeptical of Jeff Bezos as a guru of commerce and "information", as many of us are, Amazon Books is still the first and most capacious path for locating obscure or out-of-print titles, including quite a few not written in English. (I'm talking about Amazon in the US here, but you can always search through Amazon France, Germany, Italy, etc.) The other internet book-search engines are fairly good too, and you can even find a rare title at a negotiable price on e-bay. Given the proliferation of both "real books" (of merit or mediocrity, with even the latter offering some topical interest to readers) and "non-book books", it really does seem impossible for a physical store to keep up with volume and keep their customers satisfied. E-books are another matter, and I'm way too old and fond of paper to give them a try, noting that bound paper will still be the final repository of accumulated knowledge and art (it's far easier to wipe out a segment of the internet or cloud than it is to burn down thousands of dispersed libraries).

  • 9 April 2016 at 2:05am
    harrietswift says:
    I read this post with increasing incredulity. Is the writer saying that the non-book ethos is only now being seen in the UK? American booksellers, shops, vendors, publishers, et al, have been wrestling with this issue for three decades! During the 1980s and 1990s I attended several American Booksellers Association trade fairs, then the giant annual book-a-palooza of U.S. publishing & bookselling. The takeover of non-books was always one of the top two or three laments (initially in those days, the cri de coeur was the decline of reading,then the takeover of corporate bookstores, and finally, the decline of all brick & mortar bookselling. And what's actually on the shelves? Bookstores have always reflected their clientele. A bookseller in a lower middle class mall in suburban Massachusetts would have a massive stock of auto repair books, cookbooks, and celebrity biographies, the polar opposite the Harvard Bookstore, just a few miles away. It has been ever thus. But not in the UK, if I understand this writer.

    • 9 April 2016 at 11:53am
      Eddie Fez says: @ harrietswift
      The situation is, and has been, no different in the UK. Coffee concessions etc are the only notable innovation of recent years.

      The author is either too young to remember, ill informed, or intends to provoke disagreement. Possibly all three.

      The only bookshops that might approximately conform to a "Golden Age" argument sold second hand stock. There are indeed less of these than there used to be, and those that remain, for the most part, are subsidised by online sales.

      I'm lucky enough to have a local second hand bookshop run by book runners and auctioneers of the old school, which doesn't sell online, and is comparatively reasonable, with interesting stock. This is now very rare, and I don't expect it to survive on these terms indefinitely. That's another article though, should we need it.

    • 9 April 2016 at 7:45pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Eddie Fez
      Eddie Fez is right here, too. When I mentioned the store I worked in during the 1960s, the fare on display at a good local bookstore included the top ten or twenty books from the NY Times best-seller list, the more recent works of well-known novelists, and a hearty sampling of older "classics", from Shakespeare through the well-known 19th century British and American writers. The specialized sections for flower fans, film fans, cookbooks, other special interests, etc. also took up shelf space. If you wanted an older title (no longer listed in the big annual "Books in Print" that booksellers and libraries carried), you had to go through 'an old hand' who worked out of the store's backroom. He or she used a network of similar old guys and gals who communicated through a weekly mimeographed newsletter. This listed older (used) books on offer and older books wanted by a specific customer. The seller set the price, to which the network guys and gals built in a 10-20% increase at both ends (e.g., a book on offer for $25.00 would then add 5 bucks for the seller's agent and 5 bucks for the guy from the local store who got it for you, bringing the price to $35.00 - the customer never saw the newsletter price, though I suppose you could subscribe to it and be your own agent). If you really wanted the book this mark-up didn't bother you. At the time the cost of a book from a bookstore selling freshly printed work added 40% to the wholesale cost charged by the publisher. Usually the store gave its employees a 20% discount from the final retail price set for customers. In a way the internet book trade for obscure books in print and older titles is just a faster, more widespread, and more accessible version of the old-guy network.

  • 9 April 2016 at 9:52pm
    westcoast says:
    Like martyn94 I grew up in Birkenhead in the 60s and I’m surprised that he didn’t know about Morton’s splendid bookshop in Oxton Road, a couple of minutes from W H Smith. My book buying habits started there with Jennings and Darbishire and Molesworth, moving on to Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Revolution, via Ian Allan locomotive books, Penoyre and Ryan The Observers Book of Architecture and much else. There was more to read in Morton’s than any nerdish teenager could ever get through. Martyn94 also says that Liverpool was “remarkably little better” than Birkenhead’s bibliographical wasteland. He should have visited Philip Son and Nephew, a comprehensively stocked general bookshop, or the two branches of Charles Wilson (from Rosemary Sutcliffe to N Pevsner Pioneers of Modern Design and Le Corbusier The Modulor, still a treasured possession), or the SPCK bookshop with its splendid array of Dover paperbacks, or Progressive Books (for New Left Review and, for example, the translation of Louis Althusser “Contradiction and Over-Determination”), and that’s without walking up the hill to the university bookshop. He could have spent a whole afternoon in secondhand bookshops around the city centre, perhaps stocking up on Everyman’s Library editions to suit his fancy. On the way home to Birkenhead he could have browsed the shelves at the Central Station bookstall: good for remainders and part works (and a few LPs).

    I can’t remember whether W H Smith in Birkenhead sold doilies. They certainly did sell books - a reasonable range of Penguins and Pelicans and a small selection of hardbacks. And of course the whole point about Penguins, Pelicans and Puffins was that they were available at stations and other non-booky outlets. Lewis’s Department Store in Liverpool had a book section, mostly of Penguins, and I bought my copy of Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd at the bookstall at Wigan Bus Station.

    I mention all this because the discussion above seems to set up a false distinction between the old world of “ye olde corner book shoppe” (Timothy Rogers’ phrase) and the new one of Amazon/Waterstones. I don’t recognise the caricature: my memory is that there was a complex and rich ecology of book retailing on Merseyside in the 60s, and presumably in other areas as well. Finally, it goes without saying that most of one’s teenage reading was of library books (graduating from the local library to Birkenhead Central library and then to the splendid Liverpool Central Library). Book buying was expensive for a teenager.

  • 11 April 2016 at 2:23pm
    martyn94 says:
    Perhaps I wasn't very persevering. I certainly remember Phillip Son and Nephew, and in my memory it was rather like a miniature Foyles (and not in a good way). What westcoast recalls as a "complex and rich ecology" seemed more like guerilla warfare to me. But the books he cites (and has evidently hung on to, which is more than I can claim from those years) shows that he is not exactly the book buyer moyen sensuel.

    I wasn't either (in those days, and evidently to a lesser degree). But then and now, I would have settled for a well-stocked, well-organised, well-lit and welcoming general bookshop, sized in proportion to its catchment area. And certainly stocking non-book books (Althusser could go under "True Crime"): how else do you get the punters through the door?

    I do, of course, agree that the Birkenhead Central Library was worth more to me than all of them.

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