Libraries, frugality and alternative futures

My daughter Alice works in Bexhill library.  Quite often she takes out a DVD and we all enjoy watching a film together in the evening.  She finds all kind of books, too (obviously).  Some of the texts on mediaeval background information she has brought home for me to see have been brilliant source material for the novels I’ve been writing this last year – set in fourteenth century northern England.

When I was a child, we lived in a village out in the country.  My father travelled abroad, away for home for months at a time; and for several years, before my mother could afford a car, we relied on the bus to go for our grocery shopping in a nearby market town.  On Tuesday nights the fish-and-chip van came to the village, and we’d wait patiently for it to arrive – a scruffy old green vehicle – to order our cod and chips (chips are US French fries) wrapped in old newspapers.   And once a week the mobile library came to our village.  I remember standing in that big van choosing a book from the shelves – I can recall the smell of the books, just thinking about it now.  I discovered Gerald Durrell’s writing for the first time in our mobile library.  We had very little money, and books were an occasional luxury purchase.  Borrowing from the mobile library, the school library and friends was the only way to get my hands on new books, until I started to earn my own money working in the evenings after school and at weekends, when I was fifteen.  Then I could buy my own books.  I remember buying St Francis’ Fioretti, Face Up With A Miracle by Don Basham, Free To Be Faithful by Anthony Padovano, and John Powell’s Fully Human Fully Alive, among others.  Those books changed my lives.  They shaped who I became.  I was never the same after I read them.

Now of course they would have moved me and changed me and shaped me just as much if I’d borrowed them from a friend or from the library, or bought them new or from a second-hand bookshop.  I think I got Face Up With A Miracle at the Bible bookshop in Frinton-on-Sea, where I was working in a residential care home for elderly blind people during the school summer holidays.

Later on in life, as I got my nose to the trail of simplicity, both frugality and environmental responsibility became very important to me, and I started to buy my books second-hand whenever I could.  On Amazon, I could buy a book for just a penny, plus postage – brilliant!  So I did that for a long while; but it isn’t what I do any more.

Here’s why.

Who’s your favourite author?  One of mine is Alexander McCall Smith.  He wrote The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series.  Some of his titles are fab just by themselves, before even opening the book: The Full Cupboard of Life, for example; or Morality For Beautiful Girls.   Alexander McCall Smith is a Christian, and his faith resonates through the kind and gentle wisdom of his writing.  I’m so glad his books are in the world.  I love C.S.Lewis too – always have.  Love his Chronicles of Narnia.

Imagine now that C.S.Lewis had written The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alexander McCall Smith had written The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and each had been submitted to a publisher and the writers had waited impatiently to hear if their manuscripts had been accepted, and at last came the letter from the commissioning editor saying (hooray!) they were going through to publication!  Result!!  Celebration!  And the books were duly published and went on public release, and people loved them.  Wonderful! 

But suppose those people who loved them never actually bought their own copies, but only took them out from the library.  Suppose, as good Christians practising frugality often do, they waited patiently for their turn to borrow the one copy that someone in their church had bought to lend all her friends.  Suppose, in the world as it is now with everything available on Amazon, they looked out for the copies being sold for just a penny and the postage.  That would be brilliant: they would have their own copy, devour the wonderful stories, staying up half the night because they simply couldn’t put the book down.  Long after they had finished the book it would be at work in their imagination, changing them, shaping them, lingering in their memory.

But there would be one thing different from the way things are, which is this: that would be the only Narnia story, or the only Precious Ramotswe story, they ever got to read.  However excellent and powerful an author’s writing may be, a publisher cannot afford to take on a second book if the first one doesn’t sell.

Everywhere in the UK Christian bookshops are going out of business.  There is no literary agent for Christian writers in the UK.   There are almost no writers of Christian fiction in the UK – and those there are have started flocking to the one UK Christian publisher who has revived a Christian fiction list.

Why?  Because UK Christians don’t buy Christian books – most of all, they don’t buy Christian fiction. 

Would it surprise you to know that (though my novels have sold thousands and thousands of copies) as far as I am aware, not a single person in my family has ever bought a single copy of a single one of my books?  With the blessed exception, that is, of my daughter’s American mother-in-law.  Would it surprise you to know that in most of the churches I pastored, in most cases the only copies of my books the members of the congregation bought were those I gave them as gifts to raise money for church funds?  And would it surprise you to know that every time I have a book published, my friends (with one or two precious exceptions) do not buy copies but ask me to give them a copy?

If it were not for the American market, and the Australian market (thank you Elvira!!!), my Hawk and the Dove series, originally published in the UK, would have been long dead and forgotten.  As it is, they have gone on steadily selling for 20 years.

The three new books in that series will be released this summer . . . this winter . . . and next summer.  These three new ones are books I am really proud of.  I have dug down to the depths of my soul for where the Word speaks in me of goodness, gentleness, truth, and the power of the Gospel, to craft those stories. 

At the present time I am writing another.  Again I have gone out into the stars and down into the earth and deep into my own heart to find and touch the reality I have tried to capture for that novel.  It’s been prayed into birth and it’s nearly finished.  I know without a shadow of doubt that my publisher will love it, and that it is as good as it should be.  And it won’t leave my hands – I will draft and re-draft – until it’s as good as it could be.  But whether it is ever published won’t depend on me, or even on my publisher.  It will depend on how readers choose to access the three that go before it – how many wait to borrow them from a friend, or take them out of the library, or look out for them coming up for a penny on Amazon, or on a giveaway on a friend’s blog, or in a competition in a magazine; and how many buy copies in the straightforward way – whether online or in a bookshop, whether in paper or electronic format.

I am so grateful for all the other readers who, with me, bought The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; because without them The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Kalahari Typing School For Men could never have been published.

Now I think libraries and second-hand bookshops and lending to friends and swap-shops are a really good thing.  Some people truly cannot afford to buy the books they long to read; and I say, by all means get the stories that bring the Gospel to life into their hands. 

I don’t want you to feel guilty if you only borrow and buy second-hand; and I don’t want you to feel coerced into buying books that don’t interest you.  I borrow too, and I also buy second hand.  And I buy only those Christian books that, on a flick through, genuinely interest me.   But I do buy some new; it’s part of my commitment as a Christian to do that.  And it’s also (in a good way) kind of selfish: I don’t want to wake up one day to find that all the books in the store celebrate adultery and power games and cynicism, and immerse me in a world of twistedness and corruption – what critics call ‘dark’ as though that were a good thing.  I want there to be more and more stories by those writers who know how to tell the story of the beautiful, the good and the kind – stories that shape the person I am into something better by filling my imagination with a world view that is worthwhile.  So I buy Book 1; and that way I cast a vote of faith in Book 2.  That’s the economics of the Gospel.