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ImageLast night, while feeding my newborn baby at 3.30am, I finally finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I feel quite relieved in a way, as it’s been a long time coming. I bought the book when it first won the Man Booker prize in 2009. Everyone was raving about it; it had won a huge literary award; it dealt with a period of history that I love. It sounded like a book I would love.

I began to read it, but then I gave up. It just didn’t grab me; I found the writing quite dense and the huge cast of characters confusing. I made excuses then put it aside. A few months later, I tried again. Then I tried again for a third time. Finally, I put it back on my bookshelf along with other books that I have abandoned, unread: The Children’s Book by AS Byatt, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Street Sweeper by Eliot Perlman. These are all books that I should like, if reviews and prizes and hype are anything to go by, but I don’t.

When Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall was released recently, I found myself reaching for it on the bookshelf. I’d read interviews with Hilary Mantel, seen pictures of her at the Tower of London, the place of Anne Bolyn’s execution. The reviews have been fantastic and the hype was huge. But I put it back down again: it was ridiculous to buy a the sequel to a book that I had found unreadable. I was determined to give Wolf Hall one final chance. This time, I flicked to and from the list of characters and family trees at the front of the book, and I concentrated. This time, once I adapted to the voice of the book, it was compelling. It was still challenging, but I loved the style of writing, the complexities and density of the book and the politics and personality of the main character, Cromwell. I certainly didn’t find it an easy read, but I ended up enjoying and respecting it.

I never would have read Wolf Hall if it wasn’t for the accolades and the hype. I’m glad I did.

Thinking of hype and marketing brings me to another book…Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. I haven’t read this book, and I don’t intend to: it’s just not something that interests me. Friends of mine have bought this book, and many say it’s not very good, but they still read the second and third in the trilogy. Some say the ‘writing’ is poor, and the responses remind me of the reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or even the Twilight trilogy. There seems to be a need to cut down an author who has sold squillions of books. Is it envy? Is it snobbery?

And so we’re left with the two sides of hype. First, the literary blockbuster that everyone says is brilliant, the thick novel that sits in prime position on our bookshelves, possible unread, because it’s a book that we should read and should like. Second, the book that sells millions and millions of copies on hype and word of mouth, but it’s a book that we feel the need to criticise and tear to pieces. Neither would be as successful without the publicity they have attracted.

With all the concern about the demise of books and the publishing industry, we should be celebrating anything that gets people into bookshops and into the pages of a novel. A flurry of new ‘erotica’ books is now on the shelves in the same way that vampire stories were popular after Twilight. This is good for authors, good for publishers, and good for bookshops. And of course, good for readers who may come across a book that gives them entertainment, escapism and even education.

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Today I drove with my baby to a local, independent bookshop which is also a coffee shop. There is a cafe at the end of my street, but I preferred to go to the effort of driving to this specific place because I love the atmosphere of being surrounded by books. While I waited for my coffee, I browsed the shop, and afterwards I browsed again and bought myself something new to read.

There has been a lot said recently about the end of bookshops since the collapse of REDgroup and the closure of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores. Ebooks have been blamed, as well as internet based companies such as Amazon and Book Depository who are able to sell books much cheaper. I am a very active reader and spend hundreds of dollars a year on traditional books. I also have a Kindle and read e-books, and I have to admit that I do also buy books online from the websites I have mentioned. As a writer, I am aware about the need to protect the publishing industry and the bookshops, and from this, the authors.

When I write, I like to think of myself as a typical reader, and therefore a typical book buyer.  I have been thinking about the way I buy books, and what this could mean for the future.

It has been a long time since I bought a paper book from one of the chain stores. For me, the shops are often not very welcoming, their stock is often not to my taste, and the staff are not obviously book lovers who can help me and recommend appropriate books. There are times when I have shopped there: mainly if there is a particular book that I have decided to buy, eg as a gift. I tend to use them more for non fiction books too.

Most of my books come from the independent bookshops, and here in Australia, there are some fabulous ones around. These are shops that welcome browsing, they have a great selection of books other than the top 10 genre fiction which seems to dominate the chain stores, and they do ‘extras’ for their customers such as running book clubs, author events, gift wrapping, handwritten book recommendations etc. The staff have actually read many of the books and clearly love to help you find the perfect book. I almost never leave one of these shops without opening my purse. These are the shops that give me a thrill: other women may get excited about a shoe shop, but show me an independent bookshop and I am there.

As I said, I do also buy e-books. I have a Kindle, and really like it: it’s great for travelling; if I finish a book at 11pm and want a new one, I can download it instantly; and it’s perfect to read while I’ve been up feeding the baby at night. The books are cheaper, yes, but the downside is the loss of the physical book in your hand and on your bookshelf. I am getting annoyed with comments associating ebooks with some kind of evil. The reality is that the technology is there, and we use our computers/phones/tablets for everything in our lives, so it is naive to expect books to lag behind. We as authors, and publishers, need to think how we can use it to our advantage rather than whingeing about it. I am also going to get the new iPad when it is released, and one of the selling points for me is that I have seen some wonderful animated ebooks for children on it that my daughters would love: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, etc.

Ebooks for me will never replace physical books, but they are an adjunct to them. I will always buy my favourite authors and local Australian books on paper, the kind of books that I am either proud to display in my bookshelf, or will probably read again, or will pass on to others. I will also buy beautiful books, such as special editions, books with illustrations, and hardbacks. But if there’s a book that I want to read, but that I suspect will not be ‘special’ to me, then I’ll buy the e-book.

With online purchasing, I think that the main attractions are convenience and cost. If I am buying a gift for someone who lives interstate or overseas, I will almost always buy it online as it saves me having to go to the post office, and pay for postage costs. And as much as I agree with the arguments about parallel importation, it is really hard to go past the fact that some books are about 50% cheaper online from overseas including delivery.

I don’t think that the bookshop is dead, but rather than the book industry, like every other industry, needs to adapt to the changing world. It reminds me of the outcry when MP3 files and iPods became popular – now most of us download music when we want a new CD; and increasingly we can now download movies and TV shows from the internet rather than going to the video shop. Times are changing, and we need to keep up.

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