As anyone who is following me on Twitter will likely know, I have just started a social media campaign called #WhatsABookWorth.
I had the idea at a forum called Did Anybody Ask The Author?, run by author and life-coach John-Paul Flintoff. The event was a day-long brainstorming session involving some thirty authors and publishers which explored ways to improve the business of publishing for authors.
I imagine we all went into it with particular bugbears. Mine is around the perceived value of books. Or rather, the gap between what we as readers know to be the immeasurable human value of books to us, and their “real” monetary value in the marketplace.
Part of this is the downward pressure on book prices from Amazon, a company which funds its low prices through tax avoidance, business practices that come close to extortion, and the willingness of Wall Street to allow it access to finance without the irksome necessity of delivering profits.
Plus, of course, as an aspiring publisher and the key driver of the e-book economy, Amazon has a vested interest in destroying the economic viability of the book trade.
Publishers have played their part too. In fact, the ongoing betrayal of the high-street retail book trade by the publishing industry is one of the more shocking and depressing parts of the affair.
But, more generally, publishing has proven itself unwilling or unable to say anything of any meaning with regard to the price and value of the things they produce.
The reality is that a book represents extraordinary value – and extraordinary value for money. You can buy a book for around the same as a couple of cups of Starbucks, or a couple of drinks, a couple of magazines, a couple of Big Mac meals, and so on, and so on.
For the cost of a disposable moment a book gives you something that will live with you forever.
In marketing parlance, books are the ultimate low-cost premium product. But who ever says that?
For publishers, pretty much all marketing is trade marketing. Money is only directed at driving sales for a particular product – the new Harper Lee, for example – not to support the category itself.
Which wouldn’t matter if the ecosystem of the category wasn’t being eaten away from inside and out.
So, to return to where I began, I was talking about all of this with John-Paul and Dan Kieran of Unbound, who was also at the event. Dan was talking about how much his life had been changed by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and we agreed we should all talk more about the capacity of a book to influence and change and inhabit our lives.
I simply cannot imagine my life without books – fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. Characters, events, places, turns of phrase – real or imagined – people my own experience and imagination so thoroughly that to erase them would be to black out the sun.
The words of men and women I will never meet – long-dead and living – evoke and articulate my own joys and sorrows, losses and loves, with a sharpness that is so human and alive the recognition and sense of fellow-feeling that comes from acknowledging that fact is vivid to the point of pain.
A book is a conversation with the author, with the past, with the present, with oneself. We walk among the words and they walk among us, in us and between us.
A book is a magical thing. We fail to treasure and celebrate them at our peril.
If you’re reading this, you probably agree. Come and join us.
NB It is perfectly true that the same problems currently bedevil other kinds of art – most obviously music. If anyone wanted to start a #WhatsASongWorth campaign, say, they would have my blessing and support!