Jim Duffy: Bookshops clear their shelves for the self-help generation
I’m in a privileged position. I’m about to publish my first book. Writing a book is so much fun, especially if you know the content and are at ease with what you are writing. But the really interesting thing is thinking about what happens after you pen your 50,000 words. Where will your book sit on the bookshop shelves, if it manages to get there at all?
And this is where I made an interesting discovery about you all.
I ventured out into a couple of well-known bookshops. Both are UK-wide outlets and I would guess they own about 90 per cent of the off-line book-selling market. By that I mean I don’t think anyone sells more books than Amazon, which are in essence digital or online sales.
When I sat down at my typewriter to write my book - okay, it was my Mac - I did not really contemplate where my book would sit in the bookshops. I knew that the content would straddle business, entrepreneurship and self-motivation, but I wasn’t too fussed about categorizing it too early on. But what I discovered when I looked inside the bookshops was fascinating.
The business section of a bookshop used to be fairly large. Business books were always seen as a bit more upper class or a bit more serious, with a certain sense of gravitas, so it was a section that took up quite a bit of floor space. I recall visiting the business section when I was a student and there were oodles of paperbacks and hardbacks that you could buy from myriad writers. A lot of the business books were by Master of Business Administration (or MBA) types. There were of course books on marketing, selling, finance and other niche areas. Oh, and strategy - there was always a ton of stuff on strategy. In the nineties, strategy was the new black and there were a whole range of books in this sphere. The business section was bursting with titles and grandstanded in many bookstores.
Why? Well, in essence, these books were targeted at the business people who could afford to buy them. Having the latest strategy book in your briefcase or on your desk showed that you were ahead of the curve, a player and keen to do well. So, business books sold and they sold well.
But to my amazement when I looked in these bookshops recently, the business sections had shrunk. A decade or so ago, the business section was five panels wide and rammed with books. But, now it is just one panel wide. You can stand in one spot and browse them all. Whereas, a few years ago, you could walk around a whole section and browse. So what has happened? What has replaced the business section, and more importantly where is my wee book going to feature?
I would suggest that the shrinking of the business section is down to the internet, with so much content available free of charge, and business more than any subject is front and centre on the web. As soon as something comes out that sounds interesting or sexy in the business world, amazing and insightful articles go up online right away.
Let me just test this. I’m going to Google: ‘digital marketing’. Yep, I got 84,000,000 results in 1.19 seconds. I won’t be buying a book on that then. I think also this audience has changed, and that is reflected in the type of books that currently sit in the business section. There are a lot more on leadership and growth. Everyone wants to be a leader now instead of a strategist.
But just what has replaced the business book section? Who or what has had the audacity to knock the heart out of that behemoth? Well, I was amazed. It’s called self-help! This generation, regardless of age, is now plugged into self-help in a big way. You can get everything from yoga to mindfulness, to authenticity, to achieving happiness.
Personally, I think the best way to achieve happiness is to stop trying to achieve happiness. The shelves are awash with books that will help you find your inner you, your inner karma, and a new perspective on life. It’s pretty positive stuff. There are a whole new generation of writers who have tapped into our veins to inject self-reflection and optimism into our lives. Instead of strategies for business, we now have strategies for life.
So what does this say about us as a generation or as book buyers? I think the dream that the baby boomers had of utopia, money, security and good health in old age is coming to an end. There is too much volatility and uncertainty out there. Their offspring do not share their out-of-date dream. Add to this the need for millennials to create social impact in what they do at work and it all makes sense. Profit and money and the watches they wear have less meaning for them. So their version of success is very much different from that of their parents and grandparents. Everyone is looking for something different, something more personal that they can hang their hat on or believe in. And self-help is filling this gap.
There is no doubt that bookshops are still great places to visit. Buying a book in this way is still fashionable, albeit Amazon’s click-and-go system is also terrific. But our choice of what to read is definitely trending in a different way. You book-buyers out there do like a bit of self-help, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing in today’s world.