What started as little more than idle curiosity back in February 2011 became a real interest as my mini-tour of bookshops, talks and festivals progressed round some of the gentler parts of England. Most of the bookshops were Waterstones, but then again most of the bookshops are Waterstones, for the sign of the big W dominates the high street book trade. So what is it that was once so idle and is now so fascinating? Simply the number of people who mentioned that they had or were considering a Kindle.
This was not a scientific study, there are no tabulated results, the conversations were not recorded for better analysis. But, as if you hadn’t guessed it, the numbers grew significantly as the tour progressed. Not that all these people actually meant a Kindle when they said they had one, they meant reading books electronically on a whole variety of devices. Yes, most were the Amazon Kindle, even more were devices using a Kindle app, but some were other tablets like Sony and Elonex; one lady even swore by her Kobo. One or two were sensitive about giving their particular machine its proper name, but for most Kindle has become to e-readers what Hoover was to vacuum cleaners. And despite Hoover’s relative decline who will ever speak of Dysoning the carpet? No, Kindle is with us for a long time to come.
Some Kindle users were a little shy of admitting they had one, as if it was somehow not fair to me as an author promoting his book that they might go home and download a copy rather than treasure my signature in a paper version. On the contrary, I explained, I would be delighted if they read the story in any format, even a borrowed format. After several conversations another reason for reticence became apparent, one to which I’d been quite oblivious. These e-book users still loved paper books as much as the next person, still enjoyed bookshops as much as they had always done. But instead of buying a book or two when they had done with browsing, they headed home to buy online.
What a fantastic shop-window Waterstones and those few remaining independents are providing for Kindle and its like: all the pleasures of the book shop, packed shelves to browse over, a comfy chair to sit with a coffee and sample something that takes your fancy, a chat with a knowledgeable assistant or another reader, why, you can even meet an author most Saturdays. And all with not a penny spent in the high street. Well, that’s not quite true. One Saturday in August I watched as someone chose to buy my book via their 3G download right there in the shop. Then, as I could not sign their e-copy, they asked me to sign a card as a memento of the occasion. Immediately I understood their wish to be discreet, it felt as if I had been complicit in theft from the shop, biting the hand that fed me.
Not everyone is a Kindle fan. Many swore they would never ever use such a thing, that books were meant to be handled, treasured, passed on to younger eyes. They saw bookshops as such brilliant places they couldn’t understand how anyone could not think so. To a man (or, more usually, woman) they decried the loss of so many independents, while praising the staff of the particular shop they were in. Few if any thought that paper books would disappear, in the near or distant future, because some people would always want to hold a book and turn paper pages. They may be right, but only if such people keep buying enough paper books to make it worth someone’s while to print them.
And the thing about Kindle users was that they pretty much all said they too loved paper books. And bookshops and browsing and chatting and how they hoped there would always be paper books, but the sheer convenience of their e-reader, well, with Ryanair charging by the ounce to fly to the sun, who would take a paper book?
Look out for the next post in this series of reflections on the summer tour: Devalued Words – Are Books Too Cheap?