Friday, March 29, 2013

Goodreads Joins “Amazon family.” Please.

Peek at the Staff Picks Shelves From Indie Bookstores All Over America

Once, when I was a bookseller, I sent out an April Fool’s fax announcing that a German conglomerate was buying Random House and was turning it into a cog in a quest for worldwide media domination.  It seemed so preposterous that it was funny, until it happened a couple years later. 
I wanted to do an April Fool’s blog post today but Goodreads and Amazon beat me to the punch.  And we don’t even have to wait to find out the joke is on us!

I’m not usually very big on sharing lists and book reviews.  They bother me for the same reasons book clubs do- for me, reading is mainly a solitary experience and I cherish that.  I will respond to recommendations from friends and booksellers if they come at me in a haphazard, serendipitous way, but I’ve always been suspicious of attempts to formalize what I guess we now have to call discoverability.

But I’d slowly been won over to Goodreads because it seemed clean, neutral, and because a growing number of bookseller friends have been posting their interesting reading lists and it was a convenient place to check in on them.

Convenient, but not essential.  Which is why it won’t be a great sacrifice to delete my account. 

One of the clever things about social media is that it facilitates backlash when something ugly or sneaky is underway, and I can’t think of anything nastier right now in the book world than the prospect of this behemoth acquiring even more intimate knowledge of my buying habits than it already has.  Enough is enough.

I don’t begrudge the Goodreads entrepreneurs their decision to sell.   The phrase “social media” may imply some sort of common good philosophy, outside the reach of filthy lucre.  But like everything else under capitalism, even a somewhat charming and innocent website for aggregating reading lists has its price.  Sure, partnering with indie booksellers, libraries, book media or other players would have been more in keeping with that collaborative ethos so bragged on by young techie entrepreneurs.  But then, money is money.  

Selling out is an old story.  I remember twenty years ago when the owner of a much beloved eccentric retail institution in Milwaukee, a drug store with a lunch counter that attracted a spectacular clientele (more here) sold his store to a mega chain.  Jaws dropped all over town, how was this possible?  But it happened, and, as many fans predicted, nothing remotely like it ever surfaced again. 

So Happy April Fool’s Day everybody.  And if you’re a Goodreads user who will follow the site into Amazonland, good luck with that.  Me, I’m going to sharpen my book-scouting skills by keeping my eyes and ears open in what are still the best places to pick up reading ideas-bookstores. 

As I said in my now deleted Goodreads profile:

I think of the staff at my favorite neighborhood store as “my booksellers” the way one might have a tailor or a gardener or a masseur (none of which I have.)  They know me well enough to suggest things I didn’t know I wanted, and I know their tastes well enough to take note when I see them recommending something out of my usual arena, thus expanding my horizons in a way “Customers Like You Also Bought” is incapable of doing.  And the chance to eavesdrop on book chat among other staff and customers affords other book avenues for exploration.

[By the way, if you want to save your booklists from Goodreads before deleting them, go to “import/export” under My Books and you can download them into an excel spreadsheet.  “Delete my account” is at the bottom of Settings.]

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Eccentric retailing: crazy like a fox or crazy like crazy?

The backlash against homogenized, industrialized, cookie-cutter retailing is in full swing.  You see it in the embrace of the local and sustainable; you sense it in the glorification of retail authenticity, even and especially if it includes business practices that seem unbusiness-like; you can read it in the cottage industry of business books arguing that the key to a customer’s heart lies in not seeming so desperate to get there.

As consumers, we’re so sick of being managed and sold to, and we can only look forward to the heavy hand of the digital marketplace reaching ever deeper into our souls in coming years.  So we eagerly embrace shopping experiences that feel like something more than slick gimmickry designed to get you to buy.  There’s something uniquely nauseating about mega-banks that only want to be your friend.

For the book industry, achieving an irrational, on the fly business persona is an easy fit.  It’s playing on our home turf.  Despite the decades of mergers, downsizes and attempts to standardize our world, many publishers and booksellers have clung to a DIY “we’ll do it our way” approach.  Perhaps this is because very few people enter the book world in search of some product to sell.  They sign on because they love books and reading, writers and writing.  Business plans, P&L statements, turn analysis and chirpy customer service bromides are all a necessary evil.

The book business is filled with eccentrics.  Like the retro diners that draw customers who expect and hope to be abused by sassy waitresses, some may actually turn a chronically cranky special order department, an extreme lack of amenities, or a lunatic inventory into a selling point.  It seems like bookstores are more personality-stamped than just about any business going today, with the possible exception of local indie coffee shops (though many of those have mastered a kind of fake authenticity.)

I’ve been pondering the line between eccentricity in business practices and plain craziness.  Can we really sort the charmingly counterintuitive and the economically suicidal into two neat piles, or must they of necessity bleed into each other a bit?

What got me going on this was an anecdote in a review by Michael Lewis (a wonderful writer) of Capital (a wonderful book) by John Lanchester (a wonderful writer) in the New York Review of Books.  Lewis is lamenting that cutthroat capitalism and money-grubbing have taken hold of contemporary London.  When he lived there in the eighties, he said, the city seemed to “exist for just about any other purpose than for people to make money in it.”

                “…the most extraordinary anti-commercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce.  There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVities’ biscuits.  One morning the biscuits were gone.  ‘Oh, we used to sell those,’ said the very sweet woman who ran the place.  ‘But we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.”

Though I can’t swear that this particular scenario plays out in bookstores, it struck a chord.  It’s both eccentric and a little crazy, or at least straddles the line.  But it’s charming, and I suspect Lewis found it endearing and continued to shop there.

I’ve been in many bookstores over the past couple decades.  I’ve worked in them and sold to them and patronized them, and a long roster of “crazy or just eccentric?” business practices come to mind.

There’s the wonderful store where you’re welcome to browse until you take out a pencil (or heaven forbid, a phone) and begin to take notes.  You will be pounced on by the proprietor and given a stern lecture about how bookstores have become showrooms for Amazon.  Perhaps you will be back, perhaps not.

There’s the new/used store piled so high with inventory that it’s impossible to turn around.  There’s a vague categorization, but new unorganized piles colonize every corner.  Luckily there is an inventory control system, but it resides in the proprietor’s head and on his Blackberry.  I’ve never met a better master at ABS (Always Be Selling) in the book business.  But I can’t help wondering whether potential customers scared off outweigh potential customers won.

There was the superb academic store, now just a good memory, where inventory was sorted and displayed by publisher rather than subject since it made stock checks and returns much easier (for the store, not the customer.)    Visitors to the shop would be met by a large dog and a front table full of rep and bookseller debris, including Indian takeaway lunch.  Charmingly eccentric or a little nuts?
The publishing side of the book industry has its own menu of incomprehensible business practices.  As I chuckled to myself about the London shopkeeper, I was reminded somehow of a peculiarity of academic publishing that drives retail booksellers and customers- rightly- insane.  This is an archaic textbook pricing model whereby you are charged more per book the more copies you order.  This is business counter-intuition at its finest, and there is a very convoluted and arguably rational justification for it.  But on the face of it, it’s hard to think of another kind of retail where the price per piece goes up the more you buy.  Lacking any shred of charm, I code this bit of eccentricity crazy.

Many booksellers find the freight policies of publishers deeply eccentric, and more than a little crazy.  I could say more but the subject is also deeply boring.

And- back to textbooks- there is the ongoing revolt among students over what they see as unnecessarily high prices and needlessly frequent new editions and updates.  The last place I got an earful about that was, of all places, at the US-Canada border crossing in Port Huron, Michigan last week.  When the young agent asked about my job and I told him who I worked for, he responded with a tirade against the high cost of textbooks.  (In truth, this seemed more crazy than eccentric, since there was a line of cars behind me.  But I've had more idiotic conversations at this particular crossing.)

When I was a bookseller, I managed the downtown Milwaukee branch of a small local chain.  The store owner, David Schwartz- who walked the high wire between shrewd businessman and crazy eccentric with great skill and love- had a pet peeve: he thought I let our staff spend way too much time indulging the street people, characters, and assorted downtown problem patrons who spent lots of time in the shop.  It wasn’t that I had a more generous spirit; I just thought he underestimated how hard it was to keep them away.

One man in particular drove David bananas.  He was nearly blind.  He was deaf.  He couldn’t speak.  He drooled.  He smelled bad.  When he came into the store we knew we were in for an hour of incomprehensible note-passing that always ended in stalemate.  He was forever in search of some elusive book and we were never able to identify it.  But what could you do?

One Christmas Eve afternoon, David made the rounds of the stores to monitor how things were going.  He popped in at a very busy time, and one desk had a very long line of customers.  At the front of this line, passing notes to our most patient bookseller and drooling on the impulse display, was our friend.  David headed straight for him and shouted in a very angry voice “YOU!  OUT!  OUT!!!”  The man was steered toward the door while the line of customers retrieved their jaws from the floor.  In terms of impression management, this store full of many once a year customers probably didn’t leave with the warm fuzzies.

It’s a tricky thing.  David was a mensch and anyone with a misleading snapshot takeaway of that scene would be missing essential background.  But true eccentricity in a retail setting can’t be tamed or branded in some top down way.   

Sometimes I’m not sure the people who are advocating the real, the local, the authentic know what they are asking for, or will be happy when they get it.  For a buying experience to feel honest, it may not necessarily feel “nice” in that plastic, have a nice day way.  If you want interactions with real people, you have to be ready for the realness.

But I’m pretty sure that more and more people will be craving real (as opposed to real™) shopping experiences in years to come, and bookstores are poised to be those spaces.