Oxfam Bookshops – the work of the devil or a third sector marketing initiative?

It seems that Oxfam are opening bookshops everywhere now and that there is some discussions as to their motives. Presumably it is to sell second hand books, but perhaps the underlying reason for them wanting to raise money is more sinister?

I am a writer and a reader. Actually I’m an author, in that I have been paid for published work. I make that distinction for a reason: I’m going to talk today about the wobbly fuzzy illusionary line that some people like to hold up as a division in the publishing industry.

I’m no expert (in publishing), I’m a mere observer. When I began to write I assumed that I would send in a manuscript and it would be considered seriously and in depth and that my writing was good enough and I would be signed up and published. Over the years, as I got to know about the dynamics of the industry, traditional and self publishing arguments, writer/author dichotomy, the gatekeeper/censorship discussion, I became aware of the way the industry worked. At first I didn’t agree with it all of it but I finally realised that if I wanted to publish my fiction I would have to either fit in with the industry or not bother writing to be published any more. And I must write.

Even so, I still have a little fly buzzing round my head (mostly in the form of twitter streams and blogs that reinforce it) that buzzes that pesky wannabe writers *never get it right*, mithering agents and publishers and creating ever growing compost heaps… sorry slush piles from which publishing experts pluck a money spinning product every so often. Most authors,agents and editors in the publishing industry, and the ones I would want to work with, are up front and impeccable in their intentions. I frankly wouldn’t want to work with anyone who wasn’t equal and fair, or anyone who rubbished colleagues (or anyone else) or intentionally created a hierarchy. Thank goodness most of the publishing world don’t.

But on the whole I love the publishing world, even with it’s transparency and it’s little wobbles. Most recently, I have savoured the ebook discussions and wondered how this would affect authors and publishers, both financially and practically. The whole digital new age of publishing wobbled the hierarchy for a while until everyone realised that in fact money could be had for the industry – after all everyone has broadband and a credit card and the quality of books – even ebooks – could still be decided by those who already have that occupation and the spectre of self-publishing was dispersed into cyberspace again, at least until the next time.

Now it’s Oxfam’s turn. As a reader, I am fully aware that second hand books are sold at car boot sales and in charity shops. And second hand book shops. Also, being a business person I realise that these sales do not a) register on the book sales monitoring service b) make any money for authors, agents or editors. Oxfam’s marketing venture into bookshops is most likely an endeavour to make money for charity and support it’s organisational aims. Most companies, especially charities, and more in the economic climate of today, would be applauded for this initiative.

Unfortunately Oxfam seems to now equate to the devil. Even more unfortunately this seems, from several quarters, to relate not to the fact that every second hand book that is bought in Oxfam is the potential loss of a sale from Waterstones or Smiths, but to the fact that Oxfam is usurping other smaller charity shops ON PURPOSE.

Now I can see how this blurring of the illusion to shift the focus of evil onto the competitor is enticing, after all, it is the bedrock of marketing and branding, but quite frankly it is insulting to the intelligence. Are we really to believe that Oxfam’s sole intention is to Primark the smaller competitors into submission? More to the point, are we really supposed to believe some members of the publishing industry who are complaining about this point, when what they really mean is that a formerly invisible way of buying books that does not make them money is being marketed successfully?

To be fair, Oxfam is a money making business and it’s marketing strategy probably is to corner a large part of the second hand book market. But if I replace ‘Oxfam’ with ‘Watersones’ and take out the words ‘second hand’ I don’t hear anyone moaning. So clearly the issue is the sale of second hand books.

There is another way of looking at it. It’s a bit like the downloading argument, the ‘try before you buy’ aspect of marketing. As long as second hand books (or e-books) are available, people will buy them. In a world where not many people buy books anyway, second hand book shops are a kind of free sample arena for authors, who should and probably are delighted to see their book there. It’s yet another marketing opportunity, after all, someone who had read and loved your first book sencond hand is more likely to buy your second as soon as it hits the shelves? Right? Of course, it doesn’t make you any money or let your agent or editor know the actual sales figure for your book, so it’s a kind of ‘out-of-control’ marketing, if you get my drift? Out. of. control.

But at the end of the day someone has read your work and that was the aim when you wrote it and got paid for publishing it? Wasn’t it? Surely no one is annoyed that their book, which has previously been bought via the industry money generating route is sold in a charity shop, with the proceeds going to disadvantaged people?

So it’s not authors who are annoyed about the issue of second hand books. Who is making all the fuss then?

It seems to be the ever more wibbly wobbly world of publishing. As I mentioned earlier, I love the publishing world very much, it’s socially constructed like a strict parent watching over our little creative endeavours. I especially love the little tantrums it has sometimes and the sweeping generalisations about it’s employees (writers) that are so uncommon in other areas of business. Just the other day I read somewhere, I forget the source, something along the lines of the only people who complain about the industry are those writers who have not yet had their work plucked from the slush pile and become authors, because they are bitter. Actually, there probably is some truth in that as authors would be afraid to complain about the hand that feeds them, would they?

So that’s my opinion. Partly as an author and partly as the CEO of a thriving charity – I have a foot in both camps here. I use my writing to enhance my career, as a marketing tool. I run my own business and expect competition. I’m a social and market analyst. I relish every marketing opportunity, tangible in that it makes me or my business, which supports education and learning, money directly, or intangible, in that it promotes me and my business. There is a whole third sector out there, charities who started off with charitable aims but who are now forced via funding bureaucracy and rising cost of living and the recession, and lack of volunteers, to operate in a competitive business environment. Why shouldn’t they employ market analysts to make them (and their benefactors) more money? Why shouldn’t charities employ people who are good at their jobs and pay them fairly? Why shouldn’t Oxfam act like larger bookshops? I have an inkling that the two little words – profit margin – are causing a little wobble now.