Wednesday, November 10, 2010

British bookstores a bit of a mess

I'm pretty sure that bookstore tourism isn't a real subset of actual tourism, but I'm doing my best to establish it as such. When I visited Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, I couldn't help but wander into each bookstore I came across just to see if they had my book, and where they had it placed.

The same urge has come rather naturally here during my time in the UK. Alas, as far as being a book tourist goes, it hasn't been all that great. Just as in, I've found the big book chains here to be disorganized at best and a dog's breakfast at worst.

I've gone into about half a dozen Waterstones in London in search of Sex, Bombs and Burgers and, despite the book officially being released a week ago, no one seemed to have it in stock. A number of stores said they had it on order, and at least one said there were problems with the supplier.

Nevertheless, the Waterstones stores I went into seem to do a good job at hiding their new books, making it difficult to find them intuitively. In Canada and Australia, the chain stores have computer terminals scattered throughout stores that let you look up the book you're looking for, and where in the store it's located. Not so in the UK and New Zealand.

Worse still is W.H. Smith, the other big chain here. Walking into those stores feels somewhat like going to a party supply headquarters. There's stationary and lots of other colourful stuff all nicely displayed, but the books - largely celebrity biographies - seem to be afterthoughts tucked away at the back of the store.
I'd been told repeatedly before that the UK book market is a big mess right now, and after seeing the state of stores, I believe it. I'm not sure how one is supposed to sell a book when the big chains make them so hard to find.

There are some bright sides, though. Sex, Bombs and Burgers is readily available through Amazon, and I did find it at Foyles, a well-known - and fantastic - independent book store in London. I'm told the indies do a much better job at selling books because, well, they still care about books. (Interestingly, Foyles has my book under its "History of Science" section, which is a new one. Other stores have had it under "Cultural Studies," "Technology," and/or "Pop Culture.")

Being a bookstore tourist is making me wonder about Canada. We have laws that essentially keep foreign book chains out of the country, a "cultural protection" rule I've always found to be rather stupid. However, given that our big mega-chain Indigo/Chapters does a pretty good at organizing and selling books, I'm starting to wonder if perhaps there are unseen benefits to this law. Something to ponder when I get home...


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