Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 20, 2014

The state of my bookselling, 2014

I am still a bookseller. It is March 20th, 2014.

Everybody is surprised, me included. Every day customers wander through the door and look at me, startled, saying, “You’re still here!” My boss opens the till from time to time and demands to know who we have robbed, because cash appears to be accumulating. Our bills are paid. Our suppliers are satisfied. I have a normal, stable, middle-class job, and will hopefully soon be buying a house in downtown Toronto.

I am still a bookseller. Unlike, unfortunately, many of my colleagues. Toronto’s bookstore fatalities this year include the World’s Biggest Bookstore, the Annex branch of Book City, and the Cookbook Store (who will be having a farewell potluck this Sunday March 23rd starting at 11:30am). The culprits are Amazon and Toronto rents, the latter enemy being, likely, the bigger problem.

Courtesy of Biblioasis, who understand about having books on shelves.

Yet, I am still a bookseller. We are lucky to pay stable, and low, rent here. We carry unusual things and have a fiercely dedicated (and, frankly, solvent) customer base. We probably aren’t going anywhere, though some days I worry about the publishing industry’s ability to fill my store with books. As the midlist converts to e-formats and specialty books move to print-on-demand, it can be difficult to stock our bread-and-butter – the complete works of Immanuel Kant, for instance, or Will Kymlika. One of the few true benefits of a meat-space store is that we are right here, right now. If a customer comes in and asks for Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, they mean now. Not, “Sure, we’ll take your order and that will be print-on-demand, non-returnable once it finally shows up in 3-4 weeks.”

This is the single weirdest shift I have noticed in the last 5 years. Books are getting harder for us to get. The same technology which is supposed to be making everything available to us all the time is gumming up the works. Books are getting much easier to get in one way: digitally, through Amazon. The process from writer to publisher (often the same person) to reader has become streamlined through the one fat Amazonian tube.

Optimizing your publishing process to slip down that river makes sense. You’re likely to make the bulk of your sales that way, especially if you are a smaller publisher without the means or the publicity to get your books onto bookshelves internationally. The time and effort required to then get your book into other distribution chains often isn’t worth it. A token effort – maybe checking the “extended distribution” box on Smashwords or Createspace, which in practice means making the book available as a POD title through Ingram – puts the book out there in a technical sense, but it will not be fast or cheap for the purchaser. And let me tell you, if it comes with the “non-returnable” caveat, we won’t buy it at all.

The only way we compete with Amazon is by having books on the shelves, not books in potentia in a database. On the flip side, the only way your reader is going to discover your books is by seeing that book. Maybe they’re seeing it mentioned on Twitter, or maybe they see it crop up on their friends’ Goodreads feeds – or maybe they see it on a bookshelf in a store. Amazon is a fantastically bad tool for book discoverability. George Packer did a wonderful job of breaking down Amazon’s arcane and for-profit search algorithms in his piece, Cheap Words. The long and the short of it is, readers can discover your book if you pay for it, or if you have some fantastic grassroots momentum going on. Otherwise, godspeed. You’re on your own.

Or, it might be worth the extra effort to make the book easily and readily available to actual bookstores, few though we may be. Booksellers are on your side – Amazon is not. We are book lovers, actual readers. We sell books not because we are looking to make a buck – though don’t get me wrong, my mortgage will be paid by that buck – but because we have made a genuine effort to understand your criteria, and we want you to enjoy the book we have suggested. We like what we do, and we are good at what we do. I guarantee that a single indy bookseller can hand-sell more copies of a book they loved than a reader can Tweeting that recommendation to their 250 followers. Both methods have their place, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say three-quarters or more of our customers come in without a specific book in mind. Like customers in a restaurant, all they know is they want something to read, and they’d like to see what we have, imagine the taste of each likely candidate, and to pick what they feel like at that moment. Maybe they have a craving for a specific read, but mostly, they don’t. They trust the bookseller, listen to what we know about the book’s content and accolades  and they go away with something unexpected.

That’s what I do, because I am still a bookseller. For a little longer, anyway. So long as we can keep getting good, well-made books at a reasonable price in a timely manner. This is the 21st century – that should be easy, right?

December 12, 2012

Five Big-Idea Holiday Best-Sellers

My bookstore is an unusual one. We are a trade bookstore, but we have a disproportionate number of academics and intellectuals as customers and this has flavoured our stock. So when I look at other peoples’ round-ups of the biggest books of the season I often feel left out. We don’t sell a lot of fiction, so that pretty much leaves us out of the true bestselling loop, nor do we sell the usual celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, self-help scams or whatever else serves as the mainstay of most big bookstores.

We have our own bestsellers here, books I rarely see on other lists but which clearly resonate with a large percentage of the people who walk through the door. These are often big idea books: trade books still, intended for a general audience, but not quick reads for casual readers. If you have a heavy thinker on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than the following off-the-beaten-path works!

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

Steiner is a huge name in literary criticism and has been since the 60s, but my first encounter with him was through Eleanor Wachtel, whom he told in an interview that he felt there wasn’t much interesting going on in novels anymore (I’m paraphrasing). For a big reader of contemporary novels, this was a jarring thing to hear from someone who seemed to know so much. Steiner did admit he felt poetry was going places, however, and now he offers us a book giving full literary credibility to philosophy, to the act of philosophizing. The idea is remarkably new and Steiner has always been a pleasure to read. This is a must-have for the literary critic.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism by Judith Butler

Butler is a most un-classifiable academic, writing about gender, race, violence, politics, philosophy and anything else that seems to catch her fancy. At the end of the day, however, she is a literary critic, seeking to give us the tools we need to think critically about all those things we tend not to. Her latest, and by far the most popular new work of hers we have carried in a long time, tackles the Israel/Palestine problem. She mines the public sphere for support for her theories of cohabitation and ethic of social plurality, which is at the heart of her other work as well. You can’t write a word on the topic without being controversial, but Butler seems to be offering a good tool for critique without having to criticize.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Okay, a little Can-con. The Inconvenient Indian hasn’t been out as long as some of these others, so it hasn’t sold quite as well in terms of sheer numbers. But the way it is flying off the shelf now, I think is deserves a mention. King sells well here as an essayist, if not as a novelist. His Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories is among the all-time top-selling Canadian books we have in the store, so it’s no surprise that the people who thought so highly of his last collection would come seeking the latest. The collection is funny, smart, insightful and a desperately-needed addition to Aboriginal Canadian history. King deserves to be better recognized as one of this country’s most important public  intellectuals. On top of being a top-notch writer he is an engaged political figure, an academic and now a film-maker. When we speak of Margaret Atwood, we should speak of Thomas King in the same breath.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

I picked this list three days ago, and so of course that’s the day Charles Rosen picks to die. I don’t mean to suggest I had anything to do with it, but honestly? Really? Freedom and the Arts is now officially Rosen’s “last and best” work, at least that’s what we’re calling it today. Rosen was one of those incredible people who just happens to be best at everything, and excels everywhere he chooses to allocate his effort. Rosen is best known as a pianist and a music writer, but this collection of essays covers everything from music to literature, philosophy and academia, and does it all with a beautiful word and a deft mind. I hate him for it, but this collection is just masterful.

Memorial : A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

There are some years when re-worked versions of Homer are a dime a dozen. I feel like Christopher Logue’s offerings weren’t that long ago (All Day Permanent Red was published in 2004) and David Malouf’s Ransom was actually published yesterday (i.e.  2010). And yet Oswald’s kick at the can is an incredible work. She seeks to memorialize in prose all two-hundred-plus people killed over the course of the Iliad, and manages to do so in a smart, sparse, 81-page poem.

November 12, 2012

University Press Week!

It’s University Press Week! This must be a new designation because in the past I have honoured university press books in a haphazard way, apparently at the wrong time of year. My efforts to get some Canadian university press books on the Canada Reads longlist was a sad failure, but those savvy folk at the Association of American University Presses have brought this one down in time for Christmas shopping. I have more than my share of opinions about what you should gift your loved ones with this year, so with no further ado, I give you three amazing university press offerings sitting on shelves right now!

Harvard University Press’s Jane Austen Annotated Editions

Emma is the third in Harvard University Press’s Annotated Jane Austen series, and every bit as beautiful as the previous publications of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. The whole oeuvre of Austen in these hardcovers would be magnificent on the shelf of any collector, but be warned that no paperbacks are currently forthcoming. These are lavishly illustrated editions beautifully assembled, and would barely hold together in a less sturdy format. But at $35-$40 each, who could complain anyway? Harvard, by the way, seems to be going whole-hog into these amazing annotated editions. An annotated Frankenstein also appeared on our shelves this fall, and is no less recommended.

Northwestern University Press’s World Classics Series

I think one of the greatest services university presses renders is in keeping lesser-known works of great literature in print in good, well-edited and produced editions. Northwestern University Press has a number of these series, but I have a special spot in my heart for the World Classics. They have editions of the poetry of Pushkin and Pasternak, a lovely new Divine Comedy of Dante and Rilke. Lesser known additions include Anne Seymore Damer, Ivan Shcheglov, Luigi Meneghello and Ilya Ilf. These books are paperbacks, but exceed Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics in quality by a mile. If you like NYRB editions, you’d love these.

Yale University Press’s The Woman Reader

Of course, most of what university presses tend to publish are academic books. This doesn’t, however, mean inaccessible, specialist books. Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is what Yale considers a “trade” publication, but this is a step beyond “books for anyone”. It is a historical overview of how women read, and have read, over the ages and cultures complete with endnotes and citations. But the book is anything but dry: Jack’s prose is succinct, funny, and totally readable by the non-specialist. Yale has a great backlist of similarly academic-but-enjoyable books on books, including Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the RenaissanceMargaret Willes’s Reading Matters and Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading.

October 23, 2012

Book-Lover’s Guilt

In case you weren’t feeling glum enough about the imminent closure of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, last night we got the news that Canada’s largest independent publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, has filed for bankruptcy.

The news brought a chorus of astonished gasps and moans from Twitter. Nobody likes to see things like this. Good, experienced publishing people could lose their jobs. Writers could lose their publishers. Their books could go out of print. Oh, and something about the cultural contribution too. Canadian culture, supporting our own, something something.

Of course, if everyone who was so sad to see them in straits actually spent money on their books, they might not be so bad off. That was the first thing I thought, in any case. Oh man, when was the last time I bought a Douglas & McIntyre book, anyway? The summer of 2010, Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gardner? July 2010. Cigar Box Banjo, Paul Quarrington, for my husband’s birthday. November 2011, Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre, for Canada Reads. That’s $80 in two years. No wonder they’re going out of business! Why didn’t I pick up Daniel O’Thunder, Lightning, The Book of Marvels when I saw them? And why didn’t I buy them all at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore?!

The fact is I can barely feed myself and my children, let alone every writer, publisher and bookseller in Canada. But that doesn’t prevent the lingering guilty feeling that I somehow should have tried.

My coworkers and I sit here scratching our heads this morning, wondering how this could have happened to D&M. They have a phenomenal list. We bring in – and sell – almost every single book they publish. What more must a publisher provide? Great, well made books that people want to buy. Isn’t that the formula? How can that fail to pay the bills?

Admittedly, I live in a bubble. Our bookstore sells books nobody else can manage to move. My customers are heavy readers who – bless them – never ask about the prices, just pay them. My friends are heavily educated and literate, with a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to supporting the local. My 276 Twitter followers seem to be 200 authors, 75 publicists and my mom. The millions of people who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t know who they are.

So maybe out there in the real world, D&M’s excellent books are going unnoticed. Maybe all the “buzz” the journalists, bloggers, reviewers and publicists claim to be out there is being generated by review copies and good intentions. I’m a bookseller and a blogger, after all.  I have my share of books given to me, and what I buy I often buy at cost. Maybe I am to blame after all. Do we excuse ourselves from buying books because we feel our endorsement, our “word of mouth” is worth more than the $19.95 we’d spend on the book? I wonder sometimes. I don’t know how else to reconcile the contradiction I’m seeing. We all love and “support” these books, and yet the money isn’t there. Are the readers – the ones who don’t work for the publishing houses, who don’t get their copies for free – there? Are they reading our reviews and buying the books? Does buzz equal sales?

We’re troubled, this morning, about what this could all mean. If a Douglas & McIntyre can’t make it, I wonder if anyone can. Does a publisher need to be propped up by a mega-bestseller (and does a Canada Reads winner not suffice)?

October 1, 2012

An Anniversary of Sorts

The shortlist for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced this morning, which in a bookstore means a rapid once-over of the store and the orders to see what we have and what we need get into stock. We managed 1/5 this year; not our worst year. In doing my research, I happened to notice that it has now been 10 years since I started working in the bookstore. The shortlist of 2002 was the first I ever worked on.

We’ve never been the kind of bookstore to attract bestseller-like traffic, but we do pride ourselves in keeping a long backlist. So while we didn’t sell many copies of that year’s winner – Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe – we do still have it in stock. Looking back to that 2002 shortlist, I’m pleased to see we actually still have 4/5 of THOSE books. Maybe this is a testament to the lasting value of those books, or maybe we’re just slow on the uptake. But if ever you’ve doubted the strength of the books that make a Giller shortlist, look back:

Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe
Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York
Lisa Moore, Open
Carol Shields, Unless

Ten years on, those choices hold strong.

So I suppose what I’ve learned in ten years of bookselling is that however random and unworthy a list may or may not look at the time, only time can really bear it out. Those jurists are no fools, and what is today unknown to us might be classic tomorrow.

September 26, 2012

Back From Leave!

I do mix bookselling and parenting. A little.

I’ve been back at the store exactly one month now, launched from the relatively peaceful life of the stay-at-home mom into the bustling world of trade bookselling successfully. We’re at the height of our busy season now, receiving and selling thousands upon thousands of books for the 2012-13 university year.  Even so, I have had more time to read, write and think in the last 30 days than I had in the previous 320.

I am pleased to find that very little has changed here. In fact, books still sit on the shelf exactly where I left them one year ago. The same customers come looking for the same books, the same professors ask us to provide the same books for the same English students. From the news I’d found on the Internet it had seemed as if the book business was changing entirely every week I was away, and I’d wondered if I’d even have a bookstore to come back to. Ebooks continue to find their place in the market, publishers fold and get sold, and Amazon continues to come up with new innovations to destroy us all reinvent bookselling. But no, now that I’d back in the belly of the beast, I see very little has changed after all.

Part of the stasis I’m seeing seems to come of the differing aims and ideas of bookselling’s players. Amazon introduces same day shipping, but ever more titles are shifting to print-on-demand. Ebooks continue to gain market share, but our students are discovering the format’s limitations. People are still buying books in bookstores, and demographically it seems likely to continue for some time. If ebooks or internet sales are ultimately going to put an end to my line of work, they aren’t doing so quickly, at least not until they get their acts together and form a unified plan of attack.

There are two big reasons people continue to come into the shop, and neither one of them is because of the patient and romantic respect for the time-honoured profession of bookselling. As much as individuals wax eloquent about the community services and individual attention neighbourhood bookstores provide, at the end of the day every one of you succumbs to the convenience and savings offered by Amazon or Chapters-Indigo.ca. Very few people really boycott big online sellers. To do so requires some sacrifice on the part of the book-buyer, and we’re not a people who are generally fond of sacrifice. To cite a recent example of the disconnect between professed love of independent booksellers and the reality of the indie’s powers I offer up Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. This memoir of Rushdie’s years spent under fatwa has been, in publicist lingo, “hotly anticipated” to the point where it was classified as an embargoed title, meaning there would be no advance reading copies and no shipments of the book in advance of the release date. Logistically this tends to mean that stores who order enough copies of the book to receive sealed boxes (containing perhaps 12 copies) will get their shipments on the release date, but if you have ordered fewer than a box worth, you have to wait until the cases have been cracked and individual copies can safely go out. In our case, because we ordered only five copies, this meant we received our books on September 24th rather than the 18th.

So while on the one hand, Rushdie crafted an open love-letter to independent booksellers for their support of Satanic Verses while he was under fatwa, in reality, most independent bookstores miss whatever mad scramble the publisher thought there would be for this book. Will the buyer wait? I had a few requests for the title on the 18th, but I have not yet sold any of the copies which came in on the 24th. I suspect, no she won’t.

Yet people do show up and we do sell books. The biggest draw is convenience. When we have the books, they are on the shelf right there. You don’t have to wait, or order. You pick it up and start reading that minute. For students this is especially relevant, because often it doesn’t occur to them to buy the book until they are three days from an essay’s deadline. They can’t wait. This is, of course, one of the biggest draws of the ebook as well – there you don’t even necessarily need to leave your home to instantly receive your book. Yet whatever market share we’ve lost to ebooks we’ve made up for by the loss of older competitors. Chapters Indigo don’t seem to carry many books anymore. One desperate student calling to confirm we had his book in stock informed us that the closest copy Chapters had of Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey – surely an easy-to-find staple if ever there was one – was in Stoney Creek. The ease of “finding a used copy” has also tanked, as used bookstores around the GTA go belly-up. A few monster used bookstores don’t make a suitable replacement either – while ten small stores might have an Odyssey each, that doesn’t mean one big one will have ten copies. We have books, so people come to buy them.

The second draw remains a fundamental mistrust of ebooks. Consumers may be warming to the idea, but in my experience, many ebook readers have mistaken ideas of what an ebook is, and what rights it gives them. Several people have tried to return ebooks to us because they discovered they “could not print them out”. For a student or academic, having a paper copy – even in fragments – is still key.  You need somewhere to scribble your notes. You need a copy to bring in to the exam. You need to copy a chapter for your students. These consumers also have mistaken ideas about to what extent they own the “book” they’ve bought. They want to lend it out, to sell it when they are done. They need access to it even if they’re having technical difficulties. It is apparently easier to phone me than to reach tech support for many ebook publishers, and I find myself trouble-shooting my customers’ reading experience. This is in no way my job, and while I like to be helpful I am reluctant to be yelled at when a customer is, for whatever reason, locked out of her book. Loathe as I am to ever refuse to help a customer, I begin to wonder if I should even admit I know anything about ebook difficulties. To own up to any knowledge seem to be to invite blame. To avoid headaches, I recommend paper books every time.

So I don’t know if it will last, but as of today the bubble holds strong. People read, and we facilitate reading. The thrill of a new release, a new find, or a new favourite hasn’t gotten old for the customers or for the seller. I count myself lucky that I can still be in the business now, and I hope to still be here in 15 years. And beyond? I’m not willing to forecast, just enjoying the good weather while it lasts.

March 30, 2012

My Response to David Mason – Huh?

I really do enjoy my subscription to Canadian Notes and Queries. It is probably my only periodical – outside of Chirp – which I happily renew every year without even having to consider it.  I love Seth’s design work. I love the featured cartooning work. I love the often arch and argumentative nature of many of the essays. And I love that they give space to David Mason, really the only space in any Canadian periodical given to an antiquarian book dealer. But,

Dear Mr. Mason,

You lost me with your latest contribution, “Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1“. I sorrily admit I didn’t understand a word of it. I followed you as far as the admission that antiquarian booksellers are snobs  - agreed, and good for you! – but the following generalizations about trade bookselling sounded outright made up.

Which booksellers, pray tell, were you referring to? I’m not sure if you’ve looked around lately, but there aren’t a lot of trade booksellers left, and those still standing don’t bear any resemblance whatsoever to the characture you’ve drawn. “…what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade.”? “new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers”? “You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong.”???

The above quotes represent three total untruths about trade bookselling featured in your essay.

Just this week Ben McNally delivered the 2012 Katz Lecture at the Thomas Fisher on the topic of Is There a Future (Or Even a Present) for Bookselling? which included a learned history of the book trade. Yesterday I attended new book creator Andrew Steeves‘ lecture on “The Ecology of the Book” which also consisted, largely, of a history of the book trade. Even I am a new book seller and a book historian, not to mention an antiquarian book lover and collector. The booksellers I know – those who remain – are very knowledgeable people who are in no way the peddlers of pap you seem to be describing. I think you and I can agree that Chapters/Indigo is not staffed by “booksellers” so let’s leave out their lack of participation in the larger world of books – unless it was actually that straw man you meant to burn down, in which case I’d feel better if you’d been a little more clear.

We bear the antiquarian trade no ill-will. In fact we continue to foster relationships with used and rare sellers. Our remainder tables continue to be pillaged by scouts and dealers, and we offer deep discounts to some favoured dealers who will take away our overstock by the box. We know that the antiquarian dealers do us the same service we do them – redirecting customers who erroneously visit one or the other of us in search of “nice copies of…” or “cheap copies of…”. I send my customers to you weekly. I hope you do us the same courtesy.

As to this business of publishers’ returns policies giving us a free pass… well, perhaps it is this which stuck in my craw the worst, as I hear it again and again from everyone, customers, academics, and now you, who should know better. The ability to return a limited quantity of books allows us nothing but the merest bit of breathing space. We have to remainder or toss books too. We have to vet the vast, vast floods of new books which are solicited each year into a good, salable collection of which we can return no more than 15% and, even then, which we often have to return at great cost to ourselves in shipping and brokerage – especially brokerage. Choosing which books will sell requires not just an intimate knowledge of every author, publisher and subject we cover, but of our customers and their interests, price points, and whims. Every book we buy is a gamble. Unlike you, who can pick up certain Modern Firsts at a good price without having to think about it, we have to speculate on the market of every book which comes through the door. And we can only be wrong 10-15% of the time.

Further, if we feel a social responsibility to pick up and flog new, upcoming authors and presses with no existing market whatsoever in the name of encouraging local talent and the potential cultural giants of tomorrow, we do so by the grace of this returns policy. Not that we send books back to small and independent publishers – quite the contrary, we have a policy of keeping these books whether they sell or not, out of respect for the limited resources of their publishers. But we can do it because of the returns to larger publishers who can afford it, which will let us free up some cash for zero-gain experiments.

I cannot imagine what point you will eventually make with Number 2 of this series after making such an artificial distinction between booksellers in Number 1. If your intention was merely to point out how very learned you are, I salute you but suggest that you do not become more learned by painting us as less learned. I’d like to suggest that a more useful project might be to make common cause against the real outsider in our field, the entirely algorithm-based online bookseller who is undermining both our businesses by selling entirely unvetted, undifferentiated texts based on price point alone. But that’s another post.

In conclusion, I think you’ll find those booksellers among us who remain in business in this difficult age are a hardy bunch, creamier than whatever booksellers of yesteryear you’re remembering. We each have our bodies of knowledge about aspects of the objects we dedicate our lives to.  We are aware of how we compliment each other – have we kissed and made up yet?

Thanks for you time,

Charlotte Ashley

P.S. I would love and prefer a job in antiquarian bookselling. If you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable and neurotically dedicated apprentice, you just let me know.

June 3, 2011

“Extras”

“Value added” is one of the hardest things for me to accept in our consumerist culture.  Unlike, apparently, everyone else on the planet, I don’t see a lot of stuff I didn’t ask for as added value.  If I want a cup of tea, I just want a cup of tea.  I don’t want a 24 oz tankard of tea, even if it costs the same amount.  If I’ve just eaten a lovely dinner, I don’t want a huge slice of cake even if it’s the most delicious cake in the world.  If I need to get my daughter around town, I don’t need a 45-lb monster stroller with a coffee holder, on-board books and toys and seventeen different kinds of covers for every conceivable combination of rain and wind.  Call me old-fashioned.  I even knead dough by hand.

The publishing industry is of course in no way exempt from this practice of pushing all kinds of extra stuff on you along with your book.  The textbook publishers are the most aggressive with their packages: you can’t buy a thing now that isn’t shrink-wrapped along with a guide on how not to plagiarize, a code giving you access to online content, and a DVD.

We are assured, as textbook sellers, that this extra content costs us nothing extra, but students are extremely suspicious. The most common question we get about textbook packages is “Do I have to buy the whole package, or can I just get the textbook?” Assurances that the cost of the textbook alone would be the same do nothing to calm them. They see the extras as a “hidden cost”. I don’t totally disagree with them, but the cost that concerns me isn’t monetary, it’s environmental. I don’t use the extra material, so it invariably winds up in the garbage. What a waste! The extra packaging used for a class set of 200 copies of a textbook is enormous.  But that’s just me.

Trade publications are getting on board with extra content too.  Nearly every frontlist literary publication from a major publisher now comes with a reader’s guide, an author interview and “topics and questions” for bookclub discussions.  I used to find this addition patronizing but I admit now I’ve become sort of blind to it. One regular customer recently asked me (tongue in cheek, I hope) if he were to tear out the extra material and leave it at cash, if he could have a discount? Even in jest the lurking suspicion that this stuff comes at a cost remains.

In both cases, the extra material provided by publishers is treated, at best, with resigned tolerance and at worst with suspicious anger. I have never, not once in 8 years of bookselling, had a customer pick up a book and say “Oh goodie! A free author interview! I love extra stuff!”  So what is this all about?  Why are these things being pushed on us?

Part of it, of course, is a publishing industry flailing for something to justify their prices to a public which doesn’t want to think much about real costs. I appreciate this. Maybe the $74.95 they ask for a writing guide will seem less painful if it’s gussied-up with all kinds of extra paper.  The $106.95 film text can pretend the DVD that comes bundled with it adds $29.95 of “free” value.  (In the latter case, by the way, the publisher is so determined to hide the real cost of the textbook that they refuse to sell the text without the DVD, even if both the course instructor and mediating bookstore refuse to buy the text with it.  “But it’s free!” they insist. That the instructor doesn’t like the teaching style the DVD uses or prefers the students didn’t crib their exam answers from the “extra” content is no matter to them. Free is good, right?  Who can deny that?)  Prices are high and nobody likes that, but maybe if it looks like the customer is getting more, it will hurt less.

This model, though, is wrong-headed. It isn’t working and the simple reason is that the only thing most customers care about is cost. They don’t want the same high prices with more value thrown in, they want lower prices without a lot of bells and whistles.  Is this unfeasible? I won’t pretend to understand academic and textbook pricing schemes. Pearson Canada puts the price of every textbook up every year by about $5 even if it’s the same printing of the same edition of the same book they’ve been selling for ten years.  Does this reflect a real increase in their costs? I don’t think customers care.  They’re furious.  A new InfoTrak doesn’t make it better at all.  If anything, the extra content looks like an extra cost and customers won’t hear anything to the contrary.

I love colouring these. LOVE.

Some publishers seem to manage to keep their costs lost AND offer useful extra content for free.  I’m just in love, these days, with Dover Publications.  Yes, these are hideous cheap books often based on old, abridged, and out-of-date texts.  But they serve for some purposes and for those purposes they seem to be a great deal. $3 for a real book beats the heck out of a free online document every time.  Dover also offers some great online content for, again, free. All you have to do to get free samples is drop in your email address.  You can get sheet music, colouring pages, puzzles, short stories, and reference sheets and none of it costs you anything – you don’t even need to make a purchase to go with it.  I think this is brilliant marketing because frankly, now my daughter and I are addicted to Dover colouring books and we’ve placed orders for several of them, even though we could just keep downloading and printing out colouring sheets.

The difference is that nothing has been pushed on us.  The free content isn’t a condition of a more expensive purchase.  We’ve been given a choice rather than being upsold. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but for the customer the feeling of control and respect is a big one.  People want to know what they are buying and why.  “No no, trust me, you’ll love this.” just makes people angry and they feel manipulated.  And you know what?  If you can lower the price of the book by a couple dollars by leaving out the blasted guide to plagiarism, you’ll be saving everyone money, time and grief as well as the environment.  Slap an url on the back page – they can read the plagiarism guide online for free. Even if they don’t buy the book.

May 25, 2011

Blame the Bookstore Month

Another week, another round of articles about the death of the independent bookstore. This round has been precipitated by the announcement that the Flying Dragon Bookshop at Bayview & Eglinton will be closing its doors within a month or two, despite having just won the 2011 Libris Award for ‘Specialty Bookseller of the Year’ from the Canadian Booksellers Association.  The tone of the response has probably been shaped by Flying Dragon’s assertion that they simply don’t want to adapt – “at the end of the day we realized that for us, it was all about the books and the tactile, sensory experience they [books] provide.” says their blog.

Last week I responded to Natalee Caple’s assertion that clinging to the old conception of “book” is elitist (or at least hegemonic). This week I see similar claims being made by Amy Lavender Harris over at Open Book Toronto in her article “Authors of our own Misfortune: the Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto“.  They both speak of a resistance on the part of booksellers to embrace new technology.  Well, I’d like to address a couple of the misconceptions that seem to underline this stance.

1. Independent bookstores in Canada can not sell ebooks.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again.  We aren’t resisting ebooks (much).  We’re not failing to adapt.  We are simply not able to distribute ebooks.  Publishers will not sell them to us.  Big ebook distribution schemes like Google eBooks don’t have Canadian rights set up yet (and may never).  To sell ebooks bookstores and publishers would need to arrive at an agreement as to how to track, sell, and remit for digital rights and so far, it appears to me as if publishers are not putting bringing independents into the loop as a top priority.  Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google, with their internal programmers, have come up with a scheme for them, and publishers simply need to sign on the dotted line.  No independent has the resources to develop such a scheme.

2. Believe it or not, not all customers are clamouring for ebooks.

A short anecdote. Last year we had a professor order through us a book for his course, a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories. The only available edition was a cheap, cheap Dover, but it was also available free online.  So we ordered far fewer copies of this book than others, thinking students would just read it online or download the ebook.  A foolish decision, it turns out, because the students overwhelmingly wanted the “real thing”.  It wasn’t the nature of the book that deters customers: it’s the price. When the price is low enough (in this case, less than $3 CDN) they want the real book every time. Converting to a cafe/event space with a few “display copies” of books would not be serving the interests of the customer.

3. “Local” is a geographic term. It has little meaning on the internet.

Everything that makes an independent bookstore great is dependent on meat-space.  We curate specific collections tailored to our customers. We provide the service of a conversational, knowledgeable bookseller who knows the stock and can help you find or choose the right book.  We bring cultural events into your local neighbourhood.

An independent which goes whole-hog into ebooks isn’t going to be able to offer these things for very long, especially when one of the chief advantages to ebooks is the fact that you can buy them from home, or, really, anywhere you want.  I question the value of a “store” which is, essentially, an empty space used for occasional events where a bookseller is made available for advice. Perhaps my customers are unusually skittish, but they want to be left alone to browse and hide in the stacks until they require my advice.  If I didn’t offer them books to browse, they’d shop from home. Books have a small mark-up – 20-40%.  Driving customers out of the shop would quickly make the space a waste of time and money.  Once I am online only, then what?  What value am I bringing to my neighbourhood? What makes me different from Amazon?

***

I am beginning to suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Independent bookstores are a specific business – we are a physical space containing actual humans who sell physical books.  Ebook sellers are something else – no space, no humans, and no books.  Which is great, but it’s just not the same business.  A farmer who decides to sell condos on his land isn’t “adapting”, he’s getting out of the farming business.  None of the value of a farmer has been retained in the change.

So, okay, ebooks are fab for a lot of things, like staying in your house, saving your money for some non-book-purchase, and saving shelf-space for some non-book storage.  But can we not kid ourselves? There’s nothing to this product or paradigm that benefits someone whose skill, whose vocation, whose livelihood is to know, identify, recommend and sell books.  We still have a use, but it’s to offer all those things ebooks don’t require.   Maybe the future is better off without this middleman; maybe readers don’t need curators or trusted local experts. That could be. But we can’t be blamed for wanting to maintain our vocations.

ETA: Navneet Alang adds another voice calling for the circumvention of the traditional bookstore.  To which I say, the Type/TINARS model is certainly one way to engage in literary culture, but I’d argue that both are supported by a particular set of people. Youngish literary types – writers and publishing folks for the most part or I’ll eat my hat – who enjoy the “scene” and, collectively, can support probably one such store.  I’m not convinced the average reader has much interest in carving a social life out of this (hip, trendy) literary scene per se.  I certainly don’t. I read books for a lot of reasons, but a big one is because parties and social functions scare the bejeezus out of me and I’m much happier curled up with a book in the company of my family.  Again, the skittishness and stoic browsing stance of my regular customers leads me to believe this model would serve, at least, my customers very poorly.

April 15, 2011

The Sadness of Books We Can’t Sell

There’s a depressing side to returns season. It comes near the tail-end of the fiscal year, when we can delay the inevitable no longer and have to send back books which we’d been holding on to as long as possible for sentimental reasons; books which “should” sell.  What’s maybe more depressing is that books that don’t sell usually fall into very specific categories, and so maybe as booksellers we should learn simply not to order from these lists.  After all, our job isn’t to snobbishly insist readers should be reading one thing or another, it’s to provide them with a good choice of things they might be interested in. So why, after years of failing to sell some of these books, do we keep ordering them? Optimism, I suppose.

Young Adult Literature Not Featuring the Occult

This is an especially sad category considering the wealth of absolutely amazing Canadian YA lit being published. I have no doubt that companies like Groundwood Books do stunningly well through the school and library markets, but we sell precious none of them off the shelves.  Children’s books – picture books – do very well, probably because it’s parents who buy them. YA fiction featuring vampires, wizards, witches, time travelers and talking animals also do just fine. Classic children’s novels like The Secret Garden, Five Children and It, Swallows and Amazons and so on also do fine (though, again, often purchased by grand/parents).

But good, insightful plain fiction aimed at young adults?  Forget it. Not that that stops us from filling the shelves with Glen Huser, Polly Horvath, Alan Cumyn, Tim Wynn-Jones and Paul Yee.  We just have to send them all away again at the end of every year.

Chinese Literature

Literature in translation goes through fads and phases until a region has accumulated a critical mass of Nobel Prizes or Booker Internationals.  These days Middle Eastern literature is starting to come into vogue. And, you know, great! Fabulous books like Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun are getting well-deserved love, and Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East ed. Reza Aslan has been a surprise best-seller for us.

But oh man, China. Its day in the literary limelight has not yet arrived. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel prize in 2000, the first Chinese writer to do so, but I defy you to name offhand a single book of his (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, and even then nothing looked familiar).  We do bring the translated books in – A Cheng’s King of Trees, Bi Feiyu’s, Three Sisters, Jiang Rong’s, Wolf Totem and much more – but they don’t go back out again. Tuttle Publishing is even doing wonderful new editions of “Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature” – The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey Into the West – which we have valiantly kept on the dusty shelves these past ten years, to no avail.

Post-Soviet Russian Novels

You’ll be surprised to know that Russian literature didn’t die with Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn!  Despite forays into internationally renown territory like Victor Pelevin’s contribution of Helmet of Horror to the Canongate Myth series (which also brought us, among other things, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad), I think I’d be safe in saying that post-soviet Russian novels are being completely ignored by Western media, critics and readers.

But there’s plenty to be had. NYRB has published some of the best offerings (though, see below), including Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx and Vladimir Sorokin’s The Ice Trilogy (which I cannot wait to read, for reals).  Plenty of Pelevin’s books have been translated and published by big, international publishers.  But buyers?  Well, not here.

NYRB Classics

We don’t sell none of these, so maybe this isn’t a great example.  But we do tend to order absolutely everything they publish because their books are so damn good, so when it comes time to return and we’re sending back most of them, it looks particularly bad.

NYRB publishes some truly under-represented bodies of work, like literature in translation outside of your usual Nobel laureates and international bestsellers and literature from the 20s and 30s not written by Faulkner, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  Perhaps, then, this is why they tend to be slow in the selling. It’s hard to sell Elizabeth von Arnim as “frontlist” or “new” when she died in 1941 (and doesn’t have the cheerleading squad that Irène Némirovsky has), even if The Enchanted April is in a beautiful new edition and a wonderful book.  People haven’t heard of her, and they’re more likely to pick up the new Cynthia Ozick or Eva Hoffman.

Always exceptions, of course. As I mentioned, Arabic lit is all the rage around these parts nowadays, and NYRB brought us Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, which sells like those proverbial hotcakes.

Oh well.  I suppose if it weren’t these books, it would be something else going back!  There are so many books and so little time. Maybe when I finish sending all these lovelies away, I can get to work reading some of the survivors!

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