Saturday, October 28, 2006

Like many readers of these pages, I suspect, I am the sort of person who can never have too many books. Even though I organize occasional clear-outs from my overloaded shelves (am I really ever going to read that 10-year-old Booker Prize winner again, especially as I never managed to finish it the first time?) it is never long before I run out of space again. And I am not talking about review copies, either. Yes, I receive some of those every month, but they are easily outnumbered by the secondhand titles that I just seem unable to stop buying.

Not that I spend much time in shops, not nowadays, anyway. When I was younger and had a lot more energy — and no children — an expedition to Charing Cross Road was the perfect way to fritter away a Saturday.

No more. Today, although I make the occasional sortie to the thrift store a few miles from my home, I am like everyone else: I stare at the screen and rummage through Amazon. Yes, I do miss the element of serendipity, of stumbling across a forgotten shelf at the bottom of a dusty staircase, but that is a price worth paying when I know I can almost always find what I set out to buy.

As for buying a new title face-to-face, that hardly ever happens unless I am stuck on a train station platform with time to kill and nothing in my shoulder bag. As in America, you see, homogenization and mass marketing are edging aside the small, independent outlets. Every town, it seems, now has its glossy emporium, windows stacked high with chick-lit bestsellers, Nigella wannabes and soap stars’ autobiographies.

Depressing, very depressing. Some of the Borders outlets in the West End are rather more of a pleasure to visit — you at least feel you really are in a bookstore rather than an overpriced supermarket — but, all in all, Amazon gets my vote.

Which was why I was particularly interested in an article by the Sunday Times cultural critic, Bryan Appleyard, on what could turn out to be the future of the trade. One possibility, he noted, was a move to electronic books as exemplified by the new Sony Reader, the center of much discussion at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. Yet for those of us addicted to the smell of ink on paper, the notion of downloading a text onto a miniature computer screen lacks a certain romance.

Mr. Appleyard was much more intrigued by another bright idea, called POD (publishing or printing on demand). As he explained,

“The problem with traditional publishing — and the reason publishers are so weak in relation to bookshops — is simple: stock. Publishing a book is, in cash-flow terms, an absurd way to do business … Publishers have been forced to take fewer risks. Their cheap-to-run backlists can survive on small sales, and the mass market will look after itself. But the middle element in the equation — consisting of the new, the risky, the strange, the difficult, the ambitious, the non-generic, everything, in fact, one values — has been squeezed out …

“In POD, an author delivers his manuscript and the publisher edits, designs and sets it on a computer, but doesn’t actually print any copies at all. Instead, it simply waits until somebody buys one. At that point, the book — a proper one, on paper, with proper binding — can be made on the spot and delivered through, for example, Amazon or direct from the publisher. Alternatively, the buyer can get it from a printing and binding machine rather like the current digital-photo processors. The latter method is the obvious one, and Starbucks is indeed looking at it.”

Could it all be as simple as that? I hope so. As I write this, I am waiting for Mr. Appleyard to explain matters in more detail when he appears, later this evening, on a TV talk show. No, not the British equivalent of Oprah, but yet another example of how technology is transforming the way we exchange ideas. The channel I am talking about is called 18 Doughty Street (which is the London address where the station has its studios) and in the last couple of weeks it has emerged as Britain’s first political Internet TV station.

Once again, as in the POD phenomenon, we are talking small is beautiful. Created by two of the country’s leading bloggers — right-wing commentator Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential site, — the station hopes to become a focus of serious, grown-up discussion. No celebrity antics, no big-haired presenters (and no talk radio-style fire-breathing either).

On-air in the evenings from Monday to Thursday, the low-budget, would-be Fox News is a lot less glossy than Brit Hume and Co.’s operation: all you really get is talking heads, potted plants and the occasional video clip insert.

Still, Doughty Street represents a potentially intriguing challenge to broadcasting orthodoxy. As even BBC executives will admit now, the corporation consistently fails to give fair and balanced treatment to voices that do not subscribe to the conventional, metropolitan worldview.

As regular readers of this column will be aware, coverage of America is a particularly, er, problematic area. With any luck, Doughty Street will go some way to repairing the damage. Giving air-time to bloggers as well as MPs, it brings the spirit of the pamphleteer (yes, all right, and sometimes the geek) to the cosy world of studio punditry. If you want to sample it for yourself, the place to go is What was it that man once said about tuning in and dropping out? Well, here’s a new way to be a rebel.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times and keeps a weblog at

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