Thursday, April 2, 2015

not a paperback kind of girl

I rarely buy hardcovers. I can count on one hand how many I've purchased in my life (I can still feel the weight of Grisham's The Runaway Jury on my belly as I read late into the late 1990s night). Certainly lately, as a Buddhist trying to move away from covetousness and all-out greed, steering clear of paying over £15 for a book suits my attempt at living a simplified life. Borrowing books is good, from friends or the library (although then I can't mark them up or make notes in the margins). Finding a used copy on the internet saves resources (although I get into dodgy ethical territory when I sign onto tax-dodging Buying a paperback is cheaper, allowing me to (allegedly) direct more of my income towards donations to charities and Big Issue purchases.

But there's another side to this argument, and it has to do with loving reading, and it has to do with the sensuality of books, and it has to do with supporting local bookshops. And a little to do with delighting in Lena Dunham. Dunham is my hero, a woman almost six years my junior whose prose and person delight me and lighten the load of my self-loathing. She's written a book, and it came out in September 2014, and it still hasn't been released in paperback. After being on a two-week retreat during which a slew of suppressed early-adulthood-martini-drenched memories surfaced, I knew I couldn't wait any longer to read it.

When I decide it's time to buy a brand new book, I go to The Book Hive. Norwich's independent bookstore, they have everything you want (including a Wes Anderson photobook I now have my eye on), and if they don't, they'll get it delivered by the next day. They give you a stamp on a loyalty card when you spend over £10. When I buy a book there, I'm doing three things:

1. I'm patronising the place itself, saying yes I want you to exist, I want to be able to walk in here and find piles of books with beautiful covers, climb up a curving staircase, sit down or kneel or squat to reach a shelf and find something to flip through, to remember a bit what it's like to be in Shakespeare and Company or Topping and Company.

2. I'm supporting the staff, saying yes I want you to be paid to be here, to share your knowledge of reading and writing and words, your banter and your slightly-intimidating eyewear.

3. I'm keeping my money in Norwich, not flitting off to an off-shore tax-free account or out of the country.

How much did all this cost me? Well, anywhere from £5.10 to £7.53. Dunham's book cost £11.89 direct from Amazon, or £9.46 if I had it shipped brand new from the US. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon dreaming of the coffee and cake I could have had for £5.10, or thinking about how £7.53 is almost the cost of a movie at Cinema City. But instead I think of it as a separate purchase, a mini-investment on its own, one that I decided to make in conjunction with the book. The Book Hive gets some of it, and also the publishers, editors, office staff, typesetters, and Dunham herself. My partner reminds me, "We tend to make our decisions as consumers, not as workers. We only work in one context, but we consume in all kinds of contexts; we want our work to be valued, but we don't consider the workers who create what we want to consume." I do value the craft required to build a book, to design the cover, to find the words and put them in the right order and choose the paper on which they're printed. I value those who pack the books and bring them to this lovely shop on London Street; I value the space and the solace; and I value the workers who wait there for us to come and patronise.

Which led me to wonder: how much of all of this infrastructure is dependent on hardback revenue? What would have happened if I'd waited for the book to come out in paperback?  Much cheaper for me, of course, but then who takes the hit when the price comes down? I vaguely understood that the mark-up on a hardback was more than a paperback, but percentages and figures alluded me. The chap at The Book Hive explained that further print runs are determined in part by how well the book sells as a hardback. So again, I'm supporting my dear Ms Dunham by purchasing now rather than later. I also found this helpful article from sci-fi author Brandon Sanderson that articulates how royalties to the author are generally higher for hardbacks, both percentage-wise and dollar/pound-wise. So all the above arguments hold, but with double the money for all those involved. Rather than scraping by on paperback royalties, perhaps I can accord the authors the income they're due by choosing to buy more hardcovers.

I've got my eye on Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. Miranda July's The First Bad Man. The Wes Anderson Collection. And perhaps I can read them sooner rather than later, not because it's indulgent, lavish and cowing to craving, but because the money supports the work of people I aspire to emulate, places I want to exist in the world, and provides a tangible and comforting weight on my belly in bed at night.