Thursday, June 28, 2007

From over the pond

Do people even use that "pond" expression anymore? I've always hated it. And I'm using it. I blame the heat - my brain isn't functioning properly.

On that note, I'll keep it to a link and very little commentary. Via Shelf Awareness, here's a link to a story from the Herald in the UK, by Karin Goodwin, wondering if book clubs like Oprah or, in the UK's case, Richard and Judy, are hurting publishing. This is a bit like the Franzen debate that happened a few years ago, no?

This detail though is one of those things that doesn't entirely translate, even sounding completely nuts:
Each month, the supermarket's book club will select a book released by its partner, publisher Random House, and offer notes and reviews in the Tesco magazine and on its website. Tesco aims to make choosing a book as easy as grabbing a tin of beans or a pint of milk. Its initial choices sound interesting and intelligent. Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor, a historical novel about Lady Jane Grey, will kick off proceedings and Scottish novelist Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn will follow.
Yes, the grocery store is selling Random House books, selecting them for the busy shopper. This is making all of us wee idealists a bit uncomfortable as the whole book-as-product becomes a little too, ya know, real.

The article talks about this fear: "Publishers can no longer afford to take chances and authors who have enjoyed modest successes over many years are suddenly being dropped in favour of potential big hitters." I'm not convinced book clubs are entirely to blame for this phenomenon. Books are just further proof, like the whole electricity deregulation in Texas, that the competitive market creating better options is a myth. Everyone's striving for mundanity... not a word, is it? You get my point. Politics proves this every election. The more milque-toast, the wider your base. So of course big publishers do this, but book clubs are just kind of a funneling of the readership. Admittedly, they block that readership off even more, as some stray sheep might actually buy a different milque-toast book without them, but at some point, we may just be splitting hairs.

I think Mark Lambert of the Scottish Book Trust, quoted in the article, has it right when he says it's not the book clubs that are the problem, necessarily, as much as the supermarkets getting in on the market there. We have the bookstore chains to contend with here, but I don't think Wal-mart et al have really made a dent in the book market. I could be wrong, but it seems their book sections are weak. But if book clubs prompt people to go into an independent bookstore and buy the selection? I ain't mad.

Which goes back to an earlier post about Oprah not encouraging people to go to an indy for her books....

Monday, June 25, 2007

On used books and consuming in general

I'm kind of sorry to post again so quickly, as I was really pleased that the bookseller in question, Alex Green of Back Pages Books, commented on my earlier post! Feel free to scroll down and comment on that older post, if interested. Or at least read it, people, I mean honestly...

Anyhow, this Short Cuts article from Alina Tugend in the NY Times was interesting, on what to do with your old books. (I should note that I followed a link from the ever-interesting Bookslut to get there.) This is a constant problem of mine, and my partner is actually even worse. It's a meandering piece, but useful. I was particularly interested in Better World Books. Does anyone know anything about these folks? It seems smart and good to me, but is it secretly evil? Am I missing something or not thinking this one through? I'm going to investigate, but I'm very much about less consuming and downsizing right now.

While being into downsizing, I'm also trying to come up with a real ethos. I mean, I don't want to downsize in a way that leads to less support for the arts. I want to buy less clothes, processed foods, general crap, but I shouldn't cut down book-buying (or cds or dvds) necessarily. Right? I should just choose carefully, both what I'm buying and where I'm buying it.

I'm being influenced in part by a recent thought of volunteering with Conscious Consuming, which has a blog here, and by a typically-terrifying Mother Jones article, from the current issue which has not been posted yet, called "No Sex Please, We're Organizing." It talks about how Americans require storage now more than ever, how "7 square feet of commercial storage space now exists for every American," and how "Ashlee Simpson told People a 1,300-square-foot closet was the selling point of her house." Ugh, shoot me now. And on a more human scale, we know many people see a visit to Target or worse to be a nice Saturday afternoon out - many driving their SUVs there and filling them up with useless garbage they don't need.

So I'm trying to determine how to marry these two urges - to read and support a community of writers (and edit a few of them, when I'm lucky) AND to not buy useless crap. I think I can do it, but it's harder than just mindlessly spending and consuming. The good news is, I make hardly any money, like most in publishing, so I'm not exactly working with a lot at the start.

This is where one might insert a winking emoticon, just fyi.

Bookselling not entirely dead in Boston

Have you heard about this 1001 Book Project, sponsored by Back Pages Books, in Waltham, Mass.? The Boston Globe wrote it up, Shelf Awareness mentioned it today in their daily email, and Grub Street had put it in their "Rag" a month or so ago, because the author is one of their own.

This independent bookstore, Back Pages Books, is trying to sell out the first full print run of a new novel by local author Jon Papernick, called Who By Fire, Who By Blood, which is being published by something called Exile Editions (a Canadian publisher of "fine literature"). While it's a rather ambitious endeavor, I like the bookseller's attitude. The Globe article ends thus:

Green hopes the innovative effort will also inspire other independent bookstore owners not to give up in the face of Internet retailers such as

"We've got absolutely nothing to lose," he said.

(The article has some other interesting publishing notes in it, btw.)

We can only hope more independent booksellers have such strength of conviction and support voices they like. Of course, there's more to it then that, as customers have to agree with the bookseller's opinion...

Booksellers need to team up with independent publishers when possible to get books out there, but if they focus too much on obscure titles by small houses that look or even are self-published, they run the risk of scaring off customers. I can appreciate that. There are enough independent presses, as well as university presses, offering well-produced books that too often get overlooked by mainstream media and big box stores. And it's always nice to see independents get behind those books and turn a book that could easily disappear into a strong seller.

In the mix, a bookseller can include books self-published or published by such small houses that cannot afford to produce their books quite up to bigger house standards (shiny cover, awkward font, amateurish design, etc). That's not for every customer, but it's good to have as an option for the open-minded ones that want to read something that's not as common, maybe before the author becomes the Next Big Thing.

I admire the 1001 Book Project and hope more booksellers take notice and consider what they can do to both support new voices while also supporting their own store. I know it ain't easy for these folks...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kill the bookstores, then the books

When I worked at a barnes & noble, I was disconcerted at one point when a manager sat me down and explained how I needed to sell more discount cards. What was particularly troubling, besides this hammering of the frontlines to sell more useless crap to people, was that he explained that books do not hold much in the way of profit for the stores, so they were focusing more on the non-book merchandise - stationery, bookends, book lights, bookmarks... those last three becoming effectively useless once these chains successfully destroy book publishing, of course.

Before you accuse me of being some crying Cassandra, there's this article from Shelf Awareness, reproduced in full because they don't have a link:

Pottery Barnes?: B&N Expanding Home Products

Barnes & Noble is "making a big push in home furnishings," an effort that features an exclusive partnership with designer Jonathan Adler and selling Mitchell Gold furniture, according to the June 18 issue of Home Furnishings News. (For now at least, the full story is not available online.) Bill Miller, B&N's v-p of gift, said that the retailer aims to expand "home business" to 10%-15% of company revenues, up from about 6% today. "Because books [are sold everywhere], we're trying to make a stake in the non-book business," he told HFN.

Among elements of the change:

The Jonathan Adler line of pottery, frames and more will make its debut in September "front and center" in some 500 B&N stores.

The company has begun selling Mitchell Gold leather reading chairs in the seating areas of 10 stores--along with copies of Gold's book, Let's Get Comfortable.

A test of framed art in 18 stores that began last fall and was particularly successful in urban areas is being expanded to 65 more stores this month, including many in the Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle markets.

The selection of framed art will grow from black-and-white photographs from the Getty archive, National Geographic and Life magazine, among other sources, to artwork and prints, too.

The Botanique "seasonal home d├ęcor program with floral, archival images reminiscent of [B&N's] greeting card collection" has passed its test with flying colors, and another seasonal home program will make its debut in the fourth quarter.

B&N is also considering adding or increasing picture frames, mugs, lighting and storage and organization products in many of its stores.

And yes, it's worth repeating the quote from Bill Miller of b&n, echoing my old store manager: "Because books [are sold everywhere], we're trying to make a stake in the non-book business." They are not sold in as many places as they once were, Billy ol' boy, because your evil empire is destroying independents. And why? So you can move on to LOUNGE CHAIRS?!

The world's gone mad.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Not a good sign...

I don't want to be in publishing at a smaller press, always looking up at Random House as the sign of the future. I'd like to think smaller, independent presses are sustainable, just as independent bookstores will survive in a community while box stores will eventually get too large and topple like a house of cards.

Having said that, Sara Nelson, in her Publishers Weekly column, talks about all the recent "speed chess" happening at RH (that's outgoing executive editor Daniel Menaker's expression for it). You can look up the details, but her conclusion is obvious and yet worrisome:
At worst, the piling on of new jobs to longtime staffers with already full plates is a form of downsizing; at best, it might be that Random, like most publishers, will soon move its emphasis from the acquiring/editing side of the business to the less sexy but increasingly important distribution and marketing side. Editors and authors will always matter—somebody, after all, has to create all that “content” that will be disseminated in forms perhaps not yet invented—but the focus these days is more on selling direct, on digital “product” and on POD.

This is bad news, folks, but Naomi Klein was talking about this kind of sea change in places like the sneaker industry years ago. More money for marketing, less for development. In this case, however, the authors could lose out more than ever, and of course, so could the readers. Ever wander a B&N looking for a good book, and instead find tons of copies of a few bad ones?

Just want to make sure we're all looking out for this trend...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

You should see their LIBRARY!

Just tonight, I was imagining a world where people valued books like they do property...

Ya see, I'm increasingly frustrated by the value given to property, and by the way it's treated by the media. I ain't dumb, I know that property is more valuable because there is less of it. Basic economics and that. But that does not justify the way newspapers cover this subject in their Real Estate sections.

Witness the Boston Globe, a paper that was once thought of quite highly. Some of us locals really enjoy the regular jabs at the Globe provided by its snarky nephew in this city, The Weekly Dig. Their "Media Farm" column does a fine job skewering Boston's only broadsheet paper. But my point is that the Globe has officially, probably starting years ago, rolled over and played dead at the feet of area realtors. I read yet another mind-sucking, feckless article just today, in the big fat Sunday Real Estate section, that only confirmed this suspicion.

In the article, writer Gail Ravgiala alerts readers to a new development in South Boston that promises to bring some "edge" to this "area in transition." What really strikes me about this, how shall we say... giant pile of guano, is the superlatives, the endless celebration happening in these 6 or so columns. Some examples:

- "The three condo complexes that Utile Inc., a Boston architectural and planning firm where LeBlanc is a principal, helped design along the industrial seam between old South Boston and the new Seaport District are at once strikingly contemporary and comfortably in sync with historic buildings around them."

- "His firm, Turnstone Properties Inc. of Cohasset, teamed up with Robert Linn of Moskow Architects in Boston to create a building that walks the aesthetic fine line of fitting in and making a statement."

- "With their simple shapes and three- and four-story heights, the two modernist, dark gray buildings on the East Second Street end create a low-key link between the residential and industrial zones. The buildings also embrace green design and have state-of-the-art amenities."

- "The buildings are flush with the sidewalk, making them more in keeping with the existing structures than if they had been set back. The facades are dramatic but refined."

And when the fearless reporter starts to question all this wonderful goodness, this li'l development of heaven, she realizes, there's no need!

And how do the neighbors feel about the design?

"The most negative thing I've heard so far," said Neilson, "is, 'It doesn't look like my house.' We didn't want to mimic the past. We are just trying to create honest buildings. We made them neutral, not flashy, but they become significant nonetheless.

Done and done. No fastball by this gal! Consider this story... scooped.

Then you flip to the Ideas section in the paper, which covers books and thoughts and intellectuals and writers and events, etc etc... There is no such love. But then again, can you imagine if people wrote about books in this kind of way, for a major urban paper? No, in fact, as we all know, book review sections are getting cut instead. I don't know that Real Estate sections have such fear of demise. I imagine not.

Again, I know Real Estate provides more opportunity for profit. I can't imagine what the Globe makes whenever it posts its Home of the Week (this week, a nice former church selling to some lucky family for a mere $639k!). At the same time, publishers can't be bothered to buy ads in review sections to keep them alive. I know I've heard the discussion. Does it lead to any sales at all?

And these special sections are different from the front section that has general news. These sections have to earn their keep, appealing to a strong niche with a powerful industry driving it. Will books ever be a powerful industry again? Publishers hope to get "off the page" media mentions, in general interest articles or articles on fashion or education or even real estate, in those busier, more visited pages. It seems everyone wants off the book review pages.

I was with some writers this last week who shall remain nameless - and trust me, that's for the best - and one of them admitted to not reading the New York Review of Books' articles because they're too long. They ARE too long! Anyway, a fairly long conversation ensued about reading reviews, reading the New York Times and their Sunday reviews, and one wonders if things on books - newspaper sections, magazines, even blogs - can survive. Are books alone enough of a subject to keep the general public - not editors, not authors - interested?

Real estate is forever of interest. We're told it's security, it's what you do, it's how you get ahead, and at best, it's a risk that can pay off big. Books hold no such promise, and even worse, some people read books or read about books because they think they should.

In an age of media saturation and wireless networks galore, can something labeled BOOKS - hell, even a store - remain feasible?

And is everyone as freaked out by this thought as I am?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Book Expo

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Book Expo, which occurred last week and weekend. The New York Times article by Motoko Rich is particularly relevant, as Rich explains that "the battering ram of technology was back" at the Expo, following John Updike's screed last year regarding electronic texts.

Rich also mentions that Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, plans to give his next book away free online, as long as people don't mind navigated past advertisements. This is so friggin' gross. I know magazines do it, and I know I sound elitist, but is this our future?! Can we expect the next generation to download James Baldwin books for free, gleefully, and then read through Go Tell It on the Mountain with ads pushing skincare products and cigarettes mixed in? Gross.

And on another issue, to excerpt at length:

In a pavilion outside the main exhibit hall Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House and the creator of the Anchor Books paperback imprint, and Dane Neller, founders of, demonstrated their Espresso Book Machine, which can print a small paperback book on site in less than five minutes. “This could replace the entire supply chain that has been in existence since Gutenberg,” Mr. Epstein said.

Chris Morrow, whose parents founded Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., three decades ago, said he would be installing one of the machines. He said he planned to print local histories and Northshire-brand titles from the public domain, like “Middlemarch” or “Moby-Dick.”

“There are lots of challenges in bricks-and-mortar book selling, and I see this as a way of expanding our business,” Mr. Morrow said.

This seems incredibly wasteful to me. Morrow's point is well-made, that he can use it for local titles that are hard to keep in print, is appreciated - possibly because I've been to Northshire Bookstore and it's a great indie store. But the idea of just pumping out classics like Moby-Dick for people seems like it will create a lot of paper stacks for readers who may not lift more than 10 pages. I know, I know, one could say printed books are wasteful, but at least there's some art to them, no?

Ultimately, I think my problem with all this is the lack of community, and I know that's idealistic and naive of me, and I'm also aware that this is the same cry heard by the Future of the Book folks who want to create venues out of books. But I mean something a bit more hardcopy, if you will. Bragging that you're going to publish your book online for free with ads - that's just cold, hard capitalism. It's me the author giving it to you the reader - wink wink, we don't need these guys (ie publishers, booksellers), they're just driving up the price - with the nasty corporate hand as ads all through the text, mixed in as if it's okay because the reader can just flip the page. We need to see that such a system is not FREE! You as a consumer are paying when you have to look at ads.

And I don't know what to say about this Espresso Book Machine, which admittedly I would like to see in action. In some ways, it's similar to Caravan, which is more about downloading text (and audio) onto handheld devices. Caravan is just launching now at, I believe, select Borders and some indie stores. Public domain books are an important part of publishing, and as an editor I have looked to see if there are such books that I could bring out in a new edition, to make the house some money. That's damn near impossible at this point in time due to the many publishers with the same idea (and more money) and places like B&N doing their own editions, which I still maintain should be illegal, as a kind of monopoly. Look at the placement those stands get in the stores! Anyhow, this Espresso machine will add to the impractical nature of publishing public domain books, and to me that's a bit sad as publishers can do nice things with classics that this photocopier will not be able to do. Again, the sense of community, with publishers and new introducers and booksellers, is gone as the public domain product becomes a stack of paper to artlessly create.

There is community in knowing you have bought a book that others have, in that edition. We recognize the cover when others are reading it, or note that some editions are different. We like this edition of Ulysses over that one, we find that classic look of Cather in the Rye charming, we get annoyed when they slap a movie cover on a great book to promote the new film version starring Ewan MacGregor (it's always him, isn't it?).

But yeah, maybe I'm being too idealistic and naive. Maybe we should all go print on demand.

It's news but not news

Lissa Warren of Da Capo Press and Da Capo Lifelong Books has posted this article on the Huffington Post regarding the loss of book review sections. (As a sidenote, Da Capo needs to work on that website, it's a real snore.) Her point is that the hysteria around book review sections dying may make it seem like a new problem, but it's an old problem, but still a problem. No seriously, that's about it.

It doesn't make any leaps or bounds toward an answer, but it's good to keep the discussion in play. My partner and I got into a discussion about whether people are still reading, and I guess they are. From a publishing point of view, in terms of reading industry publications, one might think they're not, but that view is skewed by the big box stores that are never satisfied with their profits - they have shareholders to keep happy! they need growth! - and the justified grumpiness of some indie booksellers and librarians. But anecdotally, I think people are still reading.

Now people are clearly watching tv less and using the internet more, and this is creating a different kind of literacy. So the question becomes, what will this do for books and how should publishers prepare? Many suggest going wiki - including my friend from the ever-interesting University of Minnesota Press who, as galleycat reports, is doing a fun new wiki page for a new book called OurSpace. I was starting to see the way in looking at this page, but I still have reservations for this trend generally. And I'm not entirely on board with the Microsoft Reader gadgets just yet, though I know they're improving every year.

I'm still trying to figure out how to best play this heady mix of big box evil, online marketing, big tail theories, etc... Any suggestions are much appreciated.