In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, firemen are employed not to put out fires but to start them. This famous and chilling reversal has come to mind more than once of late as one highly paid conglomerate publisher and bookseller after another has spoken or written about the future of books in Britain. You might imagine that such pampered executives exist to serve genuine readers and writers, and to satisfy the interests of people prepared to spend a fair amount of time, thought and even cash on books. Wrong.
Today's corporate weather-makers hate "book-lovers", as they sneeringly refer to them. They despise curious readers committed to the range and quality of what they buy, such as those who bother with books coverage in intelligent magazines or newspapers such as this. Instead, extra resources will now go into snaring the fitful attention of affluent but apathetic semi-readers who, deep down, believe that, in the deathless words of Philip Larkin's "A Study of Reading Habits", "Books are a load of crap." Ah, but those non-readers made an exception for The Da Vinci Code. So let's have much more of the same brain-shrinking junk. What was it that Bradbury's firemen burnt? Good books, of course.
These feather-bedded pashas spend a lot of time (as the modern elite invariably does) angrily accusing anyone who disagrees of "elitism". The pretext offered for their looming onslaught on standards and choice will be the need to expand the book market beyond its loyal but increasingly "mature" base. Right question; wrong answer.
The lesson of Richard & Judy - that ultimate talisman for the trade today - is that quality sells by the shedload when you give it an approachable platform. I suspect that R&J's genius has been the ability to re-ignite the passion of an army of light, lapsed or lazy readers, not to persuade folk who never will enjoy books to purchase, say, The Shadow of the Wind in its hundreds of thousands. Every well-run industry - not to mention political party - knows the risk of neglecting its core audience. But if crass actions follow the crass words lately heard from the chiefs of publishing and bookselling, then committed readers will end up looking about as attractive to them as a cloth-capped foundryman would have done to Peter Mandelson and the New Labour backroom boys.
The book market certainly needs to expand. What it requires is creative innovation, not mad downmarket plunges. For a start, publishers have to think harder about how to reach the hordes of critical consumers of film, TV, internet and pop culture who should be reading books as sharp and savvy as all the shows, sites and bands they adore. The new Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (edited by Paul Simpson, Michaela Bushell and Helen Rodiss; Rough Guides, £7.99) offers a delightfully off-the-wall example of how do to it.
This is a diamond in the rough, but a true gem all the same. Almost 300 wackily enthusiastic mini-essays introduce mad, bad and dangerous-to-know writers, from Ballard to Burroughs, Highsmith to Houellebecq, Sartre to Self. Entries follow on key cult-fiction landmarks from A Clockwork Orange and A Confederacy of Dunces to (gulp) The Wind in the Willows, with a final round-up of larger-than-life characters: James Bond, Holden Caulfield, Dracula, Lolita, Satan...
I love all this enough to forgive the absence of Fahrenheit 451 (Malcolm Bradbury but no Ray Bradbury? It must be a pipe-smoker's cult.) The guide deserves a home in record, DVD and games stores as well as in all the usual outlets. And it ought to be displayed alongside a shelf or two of titles by the authors it describes. It's high time that this frequently shambolic trade stopped scorning the "book lovers" who pay its bills, and began the hunt for new ones, in new places.