featured literary journalism

The love of books

The hum returned to the halls of Olympia last week. After two years of pandemic-related cancellation, the London Book Fair was back “in person” at its usual venue in the west of the capital where thousands of publishers, agents, scouts — and the occasional author — from around the world gathered to negotiate, wheel, deal and chatter.

Spirits were high: after a record-breaking 2020, book sales in the major developed markets continued to rise strongly in 2021. Notable drivers of all that page-turning were adult and young adult fiction, the latter thanks in large part to BookTok and its vibrant community of readers posting recommendations on the short video app. All of which is quite something in an increasingly competitive attention economy.

Yet, as often with publishers, there is always something to fret about. If a few years back it was the march of digital devices, now production problems cloud the horizon. Exacerbated by paper and labour shortages, a shrinking pool of printers struggled to meet the increased demand last year, leading publishers to postpone new releases.

While consumers have been largely shielded from the price impact so far, Kristen McLean of NPD, which tracks US book sales, predicts that “supply-chain disruptions will come home to roost” in 2022.

And yet, such challenges notwithstanding, the chances are that we will continue as before to keep buying and reading books. Why this is so is explored in three new works about books that shed light on why the technology of bound pages remains so remarkably resilient. Whether for the cognitive and emotional rewards within their covers, our attachment to books as objects, or the potential for self-discovery afforded by browsing among them, each of the authors makes a case for the enduring appeal of this simple yet effective technology.

In How Words Get Good, Rebecca Lee tracks the journey of an idea “from the mind of the author to the eyes of the reader” (or the maw of a pulping machine, as the case may be). An editorial manager at Penguin Books, Lee offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the book-making process. She explains how “words” (anything from sentences to books) get “born” (written), “better” (edited) and are set “free” (published) — demystifying the role of copy-editors and cover designers, proofreaders and printers, translators and typographers.

Part of our reverence for books stems from their origins in religious texts — biblio and Bible share a Greek root — although the biggest destroyers of books are in fact publishers themselves. The industry’s economic model is not dissimilar to venture capital: a few bets yield a big pay-off when a book becomes a bestseller. For the rest, the portion of the print run that is unsold is returned by booksellers. Some of these are remaindered (sold at a discount); others are recycled (pulp to pulp). A few return to the earth, in their own way: some 2.5mn pulped Mills & Boon romance novels were used to surface the M6 motorway in the English Midlands….

Read the full review online in the Financial Times

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