Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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This is the way that British bricks-and-mortar bookselling ends: not with a bang but a whimper. Last year, many writers rose in indignation when Waterstone's bid £96m for the Ottaker's chain. Yet fulminations about the threat to our literary ecology, and even an inquiry by the Competition Commission, counted for nothing in the end. Last week, the two ailing contenders quietly slumped together like punch-drunk fighters. Waterstone's has swallowed its rival for £62.8m. Aptly, given the discount mania that has done so much harm to bookselling, the purchase of Ottaker's turned into a three-for-two deal. Waterstone's has picked up 141 stores for the price (in late 2005) of 94.

The rolling-out of 340-odd centrally directed Waterstone's across the land will make many serious readers give up on the retail chains - or rather, on our single monolith. But independent bookshops are shutting at the rate of two a week. They urgently need help, and the preferential terms recently granted by a sales consortium of independent publishers may only offer a slender lifeline. In the longer term, the future of most broad-stock bookselling will be online. Amazon now needs some smart competition from sales-led websites run by publishers, singly or jointly.

Should we regret the de-materialisation of the bookshop? According to a splashy manifesto by the US digital-culture guru Chris Anderson, quite the contrary. The Long Tail (Random House Business Books, £17.99) has quickly acquired the kind of ubiquitous buzz that rather contradicts its own central thesis - that "the mass market is turning into a market of niches". Propelled by technology, from Amazon to iTunes, "digital efficiencies" are leading consumers to a paradise of "infinite choice". So say farewell to the "short head" of the hit parade and bestseller chart (and, of course, to Top of the Pops). Instead, welcome the "long tail" of endlessly diverse books, tracks, movies and other products that will gratify the taste of unique individuals in a "niche nation".

Anderson's Utopian vision finds many of its decisive examples in the book business. They range from the online links that gave a second wind to Joe Simpson's climbing classic Touching the Void to the way that the Alibris data system transformed second-hand sales. How odd, then, that its major players have been running in just the opposite direction. Books always used to be the archetypal "long tail" sector, offering many differentiated items to smallish, eager audiences. To some degree that still holds, but the "short head" of populist hits has actually swollen. The squeeze on the mid-list, and the retail-driven pursuit of celebs and blockbusters, has thrust the industry into reverse. It begins to look more like the sort of mid-century "hit-parade" racket that Anderson deems as dead as the diplodocus.

So maybe there's a good reason why this often bookish treatise (which cites Raymond Williams and Walter Benjamin) never mentions The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown proved that there's life in the massive mass market yet. And the "long tail" idea needs a firm tweak before it fits a British culture still attached to the shared agenda and the common talking-point. From Lynne Truss to David Mitchell, we also enjoy mainstreaming the marginal voice. That cross-over can scramble any real distinction between "mass" and "niche".

Still, everyone who writes, sells or reads books should grapple with this argument. Despite its breathless, boosterish tone, it might make them feel less bereaved by the Stalinist economics that leaves a nation of 60 million with just one "name" brand of bookseller. In Anderson's online nirvana of "unlimited shelf space", every book will have a place in the pixillated sun. So readers of the digital world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. Or, in the British case, your chain.