Or. at least, what they were reading on the 17.34 from Victoria to Peckham yesterday. The young man sitting next to me was reading Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The one opposite was reading Murakawi’s 1Q84. The young woman who got off the train in front of me was reading a Virago Modern Classic, but I couldn’t see which one. I found all this evidence of serious reading very heartening and it’s very nice to know that people are still reading Greene’s comic masterpiece. These were all actual books.
What was far from heartening was arriving at St Pancras at the week-end to find that Foyle’s had closed. I’ve spend many a happy quarter of an hour in that shop and bought many a book. There’s going to be a branch of John Lewis instead. This is sad news for those of us who regularly arrive at and depart from this station. Now there is only the very limited selection of books available from W. H. Smith. It’s a sad sign of the times, that a station the size of St Pancras International doesn’t support a proper bookshop. .
For quite a large proportion of my life there have been only two ways to get hold of a book that one wanted to read, either through a library or through a book-shop, which essentially meant W. H. Smith if you lived in the sticks or maybe a second-hand book shop. No remainder book shops, no charity shops, no internet. My recent experience of reading the work of one particular author, new to me, has been a thought-provoking contrast. The first novel by Christopher Fowler that I read was THE WATER ROOM, which I bought a couple of years ago in a charity shop in Bristol, encouraged by my friend and fellow writer, Kate Ellis, who said she liked his books. I did enjoy it, but didn’t seek out any more. Then a month or two ago I spotted another of his, THE VICTORIA VANISHES, in my local Oxfam shop, remembered it had a nice review in the Guardian, and bought it. This one I enjoyed a lot: it reminded me of Edmund Crispin’s novels with its echo of THE MOVING TOY-SHOP and its range of eccentric characters but it also had an atmosphere all its own. I was contemplating buying another, when quite by chance I popped into a remainder book shop in Bakewell and found two more for only £2 each: BRYANT AND MAY ON THE RAILS and BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE. Both are excellent and I was hooked. By now I had four books in the series and I was feeling a bit guilty that the writer isn’t benefiting more from this so I bought the next one, BRYANT AND MAY AND THE PROPERTY OF BLOOD, as an ebook from Amazon for around a fiver. However I was still feeling a bit guilty because I had resolved to cut down on purchases from tax-dodging Amazon, so for the next book I went into Waterstone’s in Sheffield. I was disappointed to find they had only the books I’d already read. However the following week I found WHITE CORRIDOR in Foyles on St Pancras station and bought that. So it’s only on the sixth book I actually bought a hard copy from a proper, old-fashioned bookshop. Incidentally, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect the writer will get a better royalty from the ebook than from the paper copy. Several other thoughts occur to me. Amazon has a big advantage because it can stock so much more than a bricks and mortar bookshop and if you buy an ebooks you can have it in seconds. I don’t have a bookshop within walking distance so that is a factor. Same is true of the local library, though I could have gone when I was in Bakewell. I intend to buy the other books in the series in some form that will put money in the writer’s pocket, because I really like them and think it’s only right. But part of the reason that I feel that way is because I am a writer, too. If I wasn’t, that might not even occur to me. On the other hand, anyone might buy a book in a charity shop, reasoning that they haven’t lost much if they don’t like it, and then go on to buy the author’s other books (or even decide to make a TV series of them – as happened with one of Anne Cleeve’s books). So it’s a complicated picture, though it strikes me that as more and more people buy ebooks – sales have already overtaken hard copies – there will be fewer and fewer paperbacks for charity shops or second-hand book shops. It will take a while to make an impact, but I think it must in the end. For now though it’s the case that books have never been available so widely or cheaply. For the reader it is great. I am not so sure about the writer.