Heading into the Unknown

Why your next book purchase needs to be from an unknown publisher

“A lottery win may make a huge, tangible life change – but it isn’t etched on our hearts in the way a small act of kindness can be.”

In 1919, Jack Cohen sold leftover groceries from a stall in London’s East End. At the end of the first day, he had made £1 profit – the equivalent today of around £50. It took Jack five years to turn his stall into something of a brand, and in 1924 Tesco’s was born.

Jack’s background was tough: he was the son of poor Polish Jewish immigrants, and survived the sinking of HMS Osmanieh in 1917. He used his demob money to set up his first stall and worked seven days a week alongside his young wife to make it a success. In a hundred years, Jack’s idea developed from a small market stall to the third largest retailer in the world.

‘But what do large supermarket chains and books have to do with each other?’ I hear you cry. I could have gone with the whole ‘from tiny acorns’ saga, but I thought Jack’s story was interesting enough to merit inclusion. The point is that everyone starts somewhere…

“Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she published her own books.”

Which would you rather: appear at the start of someone’s success story and help them along their way, or stroll in when all the work is done and offer some applause from the sidelines? Life is dotted with small acts of kindness that hold us together: the notes left by strangers hidden between the leaves of books; the handing over of a still-valid ticket for a car park; the flowers picked from a field and left on our doorstep. A lottery win may make a huge, tangible life change – but it isn’t etched on our hearts in the way a small act of kindness can be.

Books published by Indie publishers – that is, independent publishers – are not necessarily any less valuable than those by trad (traditional) publishers. They are just the writers who haven’t found a publisher for their work and who have decided to beat their own path, and to rely on countless acts of kindness by total strangers. Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she published her own books. So did Proust. ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ received 121 rejections, ‘The Help’ 60 rejections. Nobel prize-winning Samuel Beckett started his writing career with a series of rejections that included the particularly disheartening response, ‘a book, such as yours, which makes real demands on the reader’s intelligence and general knowledge has less chance than ever of gaining a hearing.’

Stephen King, Dr Seuss, William Golding, Anne Frank, JK Rowling… The list is endless (and frankly alarming).

Let’s be honest: many books don’t need publishing. These days, when it is so easy for anyone to cobble together a few sentences and declare it A Book via the likes of Amazon, there is a lot of rubbish to be trawled through. There’s a saying that everyone has a book within them – but really, a good percentage of those just shouldn’t see the light of day. It can take hours of searching to find that perfect book.

“Feelings and experiences the reader thought were unique to them suddenly become shared, books expressing what was, until then, inexpressible.”

But imagine the joy if you were one of the first to find an absolute gem. Imagine if you found a book in a shop on the fringes of a high street – one of those wonderful bookshops with teetering stacks that threaten to cascade to the floor as you squeeze past – and imagine you loved that book. And told your friends about that magical little find you made. And then, years later, you stood on a train station platform and looked up to see a poster advertising that same author’s latest book. You would know that you had made a difference in somebody’s life: you held them up and helped them shine.

Readers are not merely consumers, and the real purpose of books isn’t to provide décor or to keep up with what everyone else has. First and foremost, books can form a connection between two strangers: a writer can reach out to a reader and make them feel less alone in the world. Feelings and experiences the reader thought were unique to them suddenly become shared, books expressing what was, until then, inexpressible.

But it is a symbiotic relationship: just as the writer gives so much to the reader, so the reader can give back to the writer. By taking the time to discover people pushing tirelessly to be heard, by reaching for the unknown, and by sharing with others when something truly special is uncovered, readers can make a real change. Ultimately, it is buyers of books who set off a chain of events that dictate the contents of the shelves of other readers, and that is surely the most wonderful way to start bringing about change in the world.

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