Saturday, July 31, 2010

the middleman

There have been some incredibly uninformed, provocative, and rude comments coming from the self-styled digital book visionaries lately.

Two pieces of Amazon news- a cheap new kindle, and agent Andrew Wylie’s announcement that he will sell some of his clients’ digital books exclusively through Amazon- were popular topics of conversation around the bookselling water-cooler this week.

Wylie describes his plan as a way to “eliminate the middleman,” meaning the booksellers and publishers who have patiently and often unprofitably nurtured audiences for his previously unknown authors for years. As if the complicated task of bringing a book to market successfully is just a matter of shuffling it along an assembly line, where greedy and unnecessary booksellers wait to grab the money as it passes by. Why don’t these authors follow their own logic and dump the agent, the ultimate middleman?

Another longtime insider big mouth remarked this week that “What publishers do is get books on the bookstore shelves,” and if bookstores cease to be the main places where texts are sold, publishers will necessarily become superfluous.

Granted, there seem to be a lot of otherwise smart people around the book industry these days who are desperate to sound like forward-thinking futurists. But the arrogant, ignorant dismissal of the value added by booksellers and publishers is insulting and wrong.

Unfortunately, we have done an awful job explaining the publishing process to the public at large. A misconception has been allowed to fester and take root- the idea that the main cost of publishing a book is the printing and delivery of it. Reputable journalists will blithely talk about how cheap e-books are to produce, ignoring two giant aspects of the investment: the editors who coax a good book into existence, sometimes over the course of decades; and the marketing specialists, who work like hell to make sure the author’s works get noticed.

And let’s not forget the role of those other pesky middlemen, the booksellers. I’m anxious to see how authors so enamored of digital books will fare without the heroic efforts of the bookstores and their events staff to promote them. My neighborhood bookstore hosts author events almost every day, and works like crazy to build audiences. I hope authors are thinking clearly about all the implications of the rush to digital. Goodbye bookstore events. Royalties may be the least of it.

The curatorial, gate-keeping function will become even more decisive in the days ahead, and smart marketing will become even more crucial. When any old file can be deemed a “book,” I will cherish my favorite stores and publishers even more for culling through the dross and offering me a discriminating inventory.

It’s easy to get a little unhinged as we transition to the new book reality, but like a lot of aspects of our lovely capitalist system, much is out of our hands. We can fret all we want, and we can and should make noise about principles that seem most worth defending (fairness, access to books for everyone). But ultimately, market, technological and cultural forces bigger than little us will be making the decisions.

Back in the 80’s, I chaired an ABA committee called the “Industry Standardization Committee.” This was a working group charged with getting publishers to do things like print ISBN’s on the backs of books, sort their invoices in some comprehensible order, and use non-lethal packing materials.

We issued manifestos, spoke at meetings, lobbied publishers and in general made a loud fuss for a couple years. But it wasn’t until a mega-chain and a mega-wholesaler decided they needed some of this consistency for their rapidly expanding systems that anything really changed. And then it changed with amazing speed. We got to enjoy the fruits, and can even claim a little credit for getting the issues on the table, but the big boys made the decisions.

In some ways it’s easier to talk about the bigger problems than the little, more immediate ones. It can be harder to figure out how to sell a particular book to a particular customer tomorrow than it is to speculate about a future where half or more of all book sales are digitized.

But I think our best strategy is to keep the focus on that small, daily battle for book sales, and let the future take care of itself.

One thing is certain: the coolest people in the book industry are all of us middlemen, and there won’t be many books worth having in any format without us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

where do I shelve this?

When reps and booksellers sit down to hash over forthcoming books, there are lots of angles to consider. While I see a few buyers who make snap judgments based on instinct and experience, most carefully pore over the metrics about each title that appear in the catalog: price, format, book dimensions, page count, and number of illustrations. I have been asked about paper weight. I have been asked about font and typography. But no topic comes close to eating up the appointment time consumed by discussions over category. That is, where do I shelve this book?

It’s a great annoyance to storefront booksellers that internet retailers don’t have this problem. Or, more accurately, can get around it by slicing and dicing subject lists so that a book comes up in infinite possible subject searches. Even when a title is floridly interdisciplinary, few stores can afford to take a physical copy for every section in which a customer might look for it.

I’ve presented dozens of titles from our new Fall 2010 lists that required some hard thinking about placement.

Yale’s fascinating new biography of Joe Louis (Joe Louis: Hard Times Man by Randy Roberts) could be shelved in biography, or sports, or even African-American Studies, since the focus is on meaning of Louis’ success to the Black community.

MIT’s excavation of Freud’s obsession with Mexico (Ruben Gallo’s Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis) has prompted the logical shelving question “Freud, or Mexico?” Our catalog heading suggests “psychoanalysis/Latin America,” a combination I don’t see too often. (For what it’s worth, my advice has been that this is of greater interest to the Freud customer than the Mexican history and culture customer, but what do I know?)

And Harvard’s new book from innovation guru David Edwards (The Lab: Creativity and Culture), investigates what art has to learn from science, and vice-versa. “Art, or science?” (Just to make it even more interesting, I try to remind buyers that the book has business applications.)

These discussions can be either enlightening or frustrating. Sometimes they start out enlightening and get frustrating. The “where to shelve it” conversation is really a stand in for the “who is this book for and do I have that customer” conversation. After a lengthy chat on this subject about a title last week, the bookseller sighed and said “the longer these talks go on, the smaller the order, right?’ And then she decided to skip.

Stores that are still organized on some variation of a Dewey decimal model- which is to say, nearly all- will inevitably have to ask and answer this question about every complex title. It’s not necessarily unreasonable. Some buyers interpret many possible categories as “publisher doesn’t really know what the book is,” though I think that’s rarely the case. And as long as the average bookstore customer expects to see these familiar categories in their neighborhood stores, figuring out the best home for a book is time well spent.

But last week I dropped in on a charming bookstore following a different model in the St Louis suburb of Webster Groves- Pudd'n Head Books. This shop seems to have subverted the whole category premise, and is reinventing mainstay bookstore sections in really interesting ways.

For instance, the Biography section, while not particularly large, is subdivided into more than a dozen sub-headings, some with only a few books in each. These include:

- Rising Above
- War Torn Children
- General bons vivants
- Remarkable Friendships
- Culture Clash
- Revolutionaries
- Eccentric Scientists
- Explorers
- Politicians
- Ordinary Citizens
- Dysfunctional Families
- Exceptionally Cool People

I can hear the immediate objections from traditionalists:

- How do you find anything? (Yes, booksellers are really forced to know their inventory and it helps to be small and selective ;)
- How do you decide if a book fits in more than one sub-category? What if it doesn’t fit any quirky sub-category? (This is marketing, not shelving books in a library, so there’s lots of leeway for creative license ;)
- Won’t a lot of small shelves make the sections seem incomplete? (On the contrary, my impression of that biography section was that it was huge, and I was shocked to realize how few actual books it contained.)

I’ve seen a few other stores take this approach, and as a bookstore browser I find it really appealing. A more selective and playful presentation begins to seem more like curating than traditional bookselling.

Every book on display at the Wexner Center Bookstore in Columbus Ohio looks as if it’s been hand-chosen.

Looking Glass Books in Portland Oregon has an appealingly offbeat inventory sensibility.

And though it’s mainly a used store, no bookstore is more compulsively eccentric than Monkey's Paw in Toronto. You are guaranteed to leave that store with books on subjects you never knew you cared about, in part because the bizarre organization exposes you to them.

As usual when I’m giving advice like this, the caveat is “easy for me to say.” But I’m an addicted bookshop patron as well as a rep, and increasingly, the stores I feel drawn to spend time in are the stores that surprise me.

And isn’t this the message we’ve been hearing from the experts? If physical bookstores are to survive they need to truly be destination spots, great good places where book people love to hang out, offering something the internet giants can’t. I’m not sure the same old tired, library style category headings and inventory organization fit that vision.

Monday, July 12, 2010

wearing bookstore love

I’ve always been a sucker for a good bookstore T-shirt, and a couple times this season I’ve worn my “Betty’s Bookshop” shirt to my appointment with Betty at her bookshop.

In the past I’ve avoided this because it felt a little tacky. Not tacky, desperate. Even though Michael Boggs at Carmichael’s in Louisville assured me that “we LOVE shameless pandering” when I apologized for practicing same by wearing the store’s shirt the day of our appointment, I worried that my enthusiasm might be interpreted as fishing for better orders. (As if booksellers could be bought so cheaply!)

But Carmichael’s quickly put me at ease on that score. And as a bonus I was offered the Carmichael’s staff discount at Heine Brothers coffee next door when they noticed my attire!

But after getting reassurance on wearing store shirts in-store, I began to fret about the trickier issue of wearing one store’s T-shirt while visiting another store. (You’re thinking the book business can’t be in such dire straits if this is what sales reps have time to worry about.)

One day in the Twin Cities last month, I wore my Common Good Books shirt (a nice, black, long-sleeve number) to my meeting with Sue Zumberge at the St. Paul store in the morning. Without thinking, I still had it on when I visited Magers & Quinn, a fine Minneapolis bookseller and a competitor, in the afternoon.

I was momentarily mortified, but I should have remembered what a collegial bunch independent booksellers are. I wouldn’t recommend wearing an shirt (if such exist) to a neighborhood bookshop, but at M&Q the Common Good shirt just got generous compliments.

Mary Magers said she was thinking about shirts for the store and we chatted about what makes for a good bookshop T-shirt. What are the design elements that would make me actually buy a shirt?

- Good, strong graphics that emphasize the store as a place.

- Good, strong colors. Black always works.

- The store location, a crucial detail! In the past it seems as if people have downplayed that aspect, but with localmania in full swing I’m happy to see names of actual towns on bookstore shirts and logos.

A short slogan or tagline is fine if it's part of the store brand. But please no goofy sayings. I’m sure I’m not the only potential buyer to get excited about the front of a T-shirt only to notice- just in time- some absurd slogan or saying across the back of it. I would not be caught dead in a “Reading is sexy” shirt no matter how much I loved the store.