it’s Christmas! show you care

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Ach, I wanted this picture to go bigger. Well, clearly here in Baroque Mansions we have a vested interest in Salt, and we want it to succeed. Friday is the last posting day for Christmas: still time to order! I’d like you to order my book, of course; but there are others, many others, all deserving of being given to your gran – or wife, or brother, or gay lover, or kid, or babysitter, or friend. Click on the picture and it will take you straight to the Salt shop.

Where there is a 30% off sale!

And you can order from Amazon into next week, I think. Though it might be nice to favour another online retailer if you can.

The blogosphere is full of Christmas appeals – save the book! Of course the blogosphere is also full of people who have published a book in the past year. And many of us are hoping to have a publisher still extant when it comes time to publish our next book. This may seem like a histrionic thing to say, but the market is driving book publishing like never before, right now, and the only way for a book to justify its existence in the current climate is to make money. Forget Tiny Tim: we’re all put out to earn our keep now.

Writers have always had to find readers, and the money to publish their work. John Clare had to raise private subscriptions to a certain level before the publisher (or bookseller, as it was then) would touch his work. You could say he was finding buyers. But his real problem was that he was poor. Back then there was a system, and practice, of patronage. It was accepted by all and sundry that the arts – which weren’t yet called The Arts, by the way – were a good thing. Everyone knew there were reasons why art and literature exist – are necessary – besides being a money-making scheme, or something to sell. This idea lives on only in the existence of bodies like the Arts Council.

The recent clampdown on arts funding in the UK means that, even before news of the credit crunch started to hit, we spent 2008 reeling from news of this or that quite major independent press losing its funding. The whole notion of arts funding now is undercut by the idea that if it isn’t commercially viable – “if the people don’t want it” – it “shouldn’t” be kept afloat; a notion that “if nobody’s reading it it can’t be that important anyway”. This is the thinking that, I suspect, underlies much of the Arts Council’s current policy – wherein fewer, but larger, grants were given, to larger (“more viable”) organisations. It was the small ones that were squeezed. Daedalus was saved. Anvil was saved; I’m reviewing two of their books for Poetry London. So that’s good. By major, by the way, I mean they publish writers who could be considered relatively important, with international reputations, etc.

Back in the day that might have been the tiny magazines that originally published so many of our current classics, the presses like Hogarth Press (in its original, Leonard-Woolf-in-the-barn form) or even whoever it was who published The Waste Land with its print run of 5oo.

Even Shakespeare may have been the man of the masses, the hoi polloi may have flocked to his plays (in the days before movies) – but his plays were never published until 1623 – fifteen years after his death – and it took until the eighteenth century to give him a scholarly edition. He went right out of favour in the neo-classical era – Ben Jonson was yer man then – and had to be revived by Johnson and the Romantics. So, not exactly the Celia Ahern of his day!

You’re getting what I’m saying. But why buy that non-bestselling book from, say, Picador? Picador’s doing fine, part of Pan Macmillan, and you can get it all over the place – Waterstones, Borders… but the lists even here are being squeezed. Novelists who write perfectly good books that maybe don’t sell huge numbers are finding it increasingly hard to get their next books published – the publishers want to see investments recouped pronto! None of this shilly-shallying around for four books or so to let someone get into their stride and develop a fan base (what used to be called a readership). So even a seemingly successful, though not in the top ten, Picador-or-whover-published novelist may be under some vague threat. Buy his or her book.

And even the successful one, whose future is assured, do you think that happened by people not buying their books?

It goes without saying that if you can – if there still is one near you – you should buy from an independent bookshop instead of the ubiquitous behemoth chain. I think particularly in America people are comfortable with the idea of a chain, it implies brand reliability, but on the smaller canvas of the UK you can really see what the loss of professionalism has done to the book trade. Really – bookshop? Chain? Smell a rat!

Either that, or go in and order those pesky titles you want that they’re not allowed to stock because of central ordering directives. Make them get them in!

By the way, as we wrap up on 2008 it’s worth remembering the crazy idea Jeanette Winterson was going on about a few months ago, that if you buy secondhand books you’re somehow taking rightful income away from the author. The tragedy of it. Like as if fashion designers got a cut from the “good as new” shop.

Support your local second-hand book dealer. Imagine if there were none left and you had to pay full price for everything! (Imagine their little secondhand kids, going to sleep on piles of blankets on the floor because everyone was buying all their books in Waterstones. Now that would be terrible.) But above all, please remember one thing. The benefit of buying books for Christmas presents (aside from the benefit to the recipient) is not that you’re somehow financially supporting writers or helping publishers to get rich. It’s not just to give people money. It’s so literature and books can exist. There is no substitute for ideas, and it isn’t so long ago in the scheme of things that only rich people could easily afford access to them. You just have to participate in it so it can still be there.

And I know I’d rather get a lovely new book than some nasty old acrylic scarf or cheap bath bubbles or something. (Then again, the acrylic-scarf-makers also need to eat.) (And by the way, I only like dark chocolate.)

List of books of year (read or unread) to follow.

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