Once & Future

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

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!

March 3, 2011

Returns Season

It’s returns season at the bookstore.  It comes for all bookstores: it means our year-end is coming and we need to get as much unsold stock out of the store as is reasonable.  I know some big book chains who shall not be mentioned have had, in the past, a reputation for abusing returns privileges with distributors, but for us the right to return is a necessity of survival.

We stick to the rules – we never return more than 10% of our orders to the publishers – and I like to think it benefits everyone.  We gain the flexibility to gamble on unknown publishers or authors without fear of getting “stuck” with the book.  We can order quantities of books for university and high school courses that might otherwise be foolish (after all, when a prof tells you “I have a cap of 200 students” this sometimes means “… but only 44 signed up”, and nobody would ever tell us.  Not to mention the sometimes enormous numbers of students who choose to buy their books elsewhere, use the library, or flat out not read the book.  Anyone who thinks university business means guaranteed money is kidding themselves.)

We also have a private policy of not sending books back to certain distributors unless we really have to.  We will keep lots of things well past the return deadline because we really ought to have it on the shelf (nevermind that something like Roland Barthes’ Mythologies might only sell once every three years – we should still have it.)  We keep small Canadian independent publishers almost indefinitely because we feel bad sending the books back to them.  But on the whole, we need to be able to send back a lot of the stock every year to balance the books, clear out some space and cut old losses.

This is a dangerous time of year for yours truly. I can’t send a book back that I’ve had my eye on all year.  I have to “intercept” a lot of titles now as I feel it’s my last chance to get them before they go back.  And then there’s the sale books – oh yes.  Anything that’s past the returns deadline and considered no longer good for stock we cut to 50% or 75% off.  You better believe I get first crack at those!

As of this morning, the damage looks like this:

And this is why I’ll never own a house…

November 11, 2010

Will the Reader Wait?

In case you’ve been in a hole (or just not on Twitter) for the last two days, you’re missing a very interesting debate over Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize win for The Sentimentalists.  Her publisher, Gaspereau Press, is on the record as saying they won’t take any extraordinary measures to meet the demand for the book: they will continue to print the books as they always have and fill orders as they come.  This means an output of about 1000 copies a week.  Given a “normal” Giller winner can expect to sell 60,000-80,000 copies, there is some debate over whether Gaspereau is robbing Ms. Skibsrud of a potential windfall.

It seems to me that the crux of the debate is whether or not the reader will wait.  Do those books need to be on shelves next week?  Or will the readers wait to read them when they can eventually get a copy?  If Ms. Skibsrud will find her 75,000 readers over three years, that’s no big loss to anyone.  But if the delay causes reader interest to wain, everyone stands to lose.

I am spectacularly naive about what generalizable groups will do.  I can’t speak for “The Readers” anymore than I can speak for “The Voters”, whose motives and actions I manage to be blindsided by every. Single. Time.  I don’t know if The Readers will wait, but limited evidence seems to suggest that they won’t.

Everyone I know was reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall last year.  Nobody is reading it this year.  The book hasn’t gotten any worse, in fact by all accounts it is ten time the book that Finkler Question is.  Maybe everybody read it already?  We aren’t selling the paperback of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, last year’s Giller winner.  We only sell Late Nights on Air to students (who read it for Canadian Literature) and I’m not sure we even have a copy of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures in stock (ETA: we do, one copy, which has been there since 2007).

Actually, our customers don’t even look at our Canadian Literature shelves.  They look at New Releases.  I don’t think this is because they have already read everything in Canadian Literature, but I could be wrong.  I have on occasion experimented by placing a new copy of an old book on a New Release display.  This is a good way to sell books which have otherwise been sitting, gathering dust, for five years.  Any bookseller can tell you this.  Having your book “on display” rather than on a shelf is the best a writer can hope for, because the Reader seems to be drawn to shiny newness.  Even the independent reader wants to be In The Know.

I hope for Ms. Skibsrud’s sake that Gaspereau is right, and the readers will wait for her.  Certainly some will.  With any luck that number will be enough to pay off her student debts and buy her a year or two of leisure time in which to write another beautiful book.  If we need anything in Canada, it’s a solid class of working writers, undisturbed by a second “day job”.  I have my fingers crossed for you, Johanna.  I hope I’m as wrong about readers as I am about everything else people do.

November 9, 2010

A Quick Plug & My Thanks

One of my new favourite publishers is Seagull Books, the publishing-wing (pardon the pun) of the India-based Seagull Foundation for the Arts.  These books have recently become available in North America via the University of Chicago Press, and each and every one of them that I have seen has been a thing of beauty.

They publish mainly on “the arts”, but within that cachet are a great many profoundly important thinkers.  Among their published authors are heavyweights Adorno, Baudrillard, Todorov and Antonin Artaud.  The books feature beautifully designed covers, heavy decorative endpapers, dust jackets of odd materials and good paper stock.  They come in a plastic slip ensuring your book looks fresh off the press at the moment you buy them.

I’ve held off recommending them until now because the books did, however, have one (or possibly two) major drawbacks: many of the volumes use a heavy, coarse black material for the endpapers which reeks and stains.    The first thing you’ll notice when you pull the book out of the plastic is an overwhelming chemical smell.  The next thing you’ll notice is that the black “paper” feels as if it’s rubbing off on your hands.  Over time the smell does dissipate, but the paper (and this might be the fault of the book’s paper too, not just the endpapers) bulks and warps, and the book will never again lie flat.  Perhaps this was the early function of the plastic cover: to keep the book book-shaped.

BUT.  I am thrilled to observe that the latest printing of Baudrillard’s Why Hasn’t Everything Disappeared? has addressed these problems.  The black endpapers are gone, replaced by a nice textured beige material which doesn’t stink at all.  The book opens and closes more easily, indicating that the paper might not be as stubborn.  Everything that was good remains while all that was offensive is gone.  Form seems to have caught up with function and now I am pleased to encourage you to seek these books out at your local bookstore, even if only to look at what a beautiful book can look like.

November 2, 2010

One Big Question I Have About eBooks

Today I had a bookselling first: a customer asked me if we could sell him an ebook.  I knew the answer was “no”, but upon further reflection I realized I have no idea how we would even go about doing such a thing.  So I’m gonna ask the crowd to field this one.  Please help your friendly local luddite-cum-indy-bookseller here.

Can I sell ebooks? I mean, can any old indy bookseller even sell ebooks?  Are these just products publishers produce strictly for device sellers?  When we talk about “going to ebooks” are we actually saying “all future bookselling will be done by electronic gadget manufacturers?”

When I look through a publisher’s catalogue, they often give ebook ISBNs.  Who can order those?  What gets delivered to a bookstore (or chain) when they order that ISBN?  Does one need special hardware to sell ebooks?  I mean, how are these things delivered anyway?  Does one need a dedicated server to store them?  Does one ever have them in “inventory” at all?  Does one need a machine that prints out codes?

What format does an ebook come in? I gather each reader, unwisely but true, has its own format thus far.  What format would a bookseller get the ebook in? Can I sell both to Kindle users and to Kobo users?  What format does the ebook ISBN refer to?  Do publishers produce separate pdf & Kindle editions?  Has anyone ever noted any textual difference between them?

Can a customer “return” an ebook the way they could a real book?  Well, can they?

Wow, I really need an ebook 101.

 

October 22, 2010

Dear Publishers: It’s called a “slipcase”.

I’m thrilled to death that publishers are getting behind fancy private library editions; big, beautiful hardcover tomes for display or general celebration of bookness.  We’ve had a particularly meaty month at my bookstores – doorstoppers are coming fast and furious.  Northwestern University Press has published an all-in-one edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by the ubiquitous Burton Raffel.  Yale’s Autobiography of Mark Twain – volume ONE of THREE – weighs in at about 700 pages.  We continue to sell out of copies of Joseph Frank’s 1000-page abridged (from 2500 pages) edition of Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.

I love big books, I do.  I have a probably unhealthy attraction to works that exceed 500 pages; the more the merrier.  But if I may – as a bookseller and a collector – make a suggestion? These books look lovely sitting flat on a table, but as time passes they inevitably make their way to shelves where they must stand upright, or into paperback editions where they are nearly as thick as they are tall.  They puff-up, tilt and sag.  The Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace published by Knopf published in 2007 is probably a case in point – in paperback, the book inevitably looks old and used after a mere two weeks on the shelf.  It is too big.  The binding – especially in paperback – can’t hold shape with so many pages.

This is an easily remedied problem.  It’s called a slipcase.  You’ve seen them before, a nice cardboard sleeve that hugs two or more volumes together in one tight box.  Penguin released a beautiful trade version of The Arabian Nights translated by Lyons & Irwin in 2008 which housed three hardcovers in one slipcase.  See how manageable each volume is?  No slipping, sliding or flip-flopping around.  No puffy, humidity-soaked pages or disintegrating “perfect” binding.  And one wide canvas for all your design needs!

You can have your cake and eat it too: all-in-one editions without asking one binding to hold all those pages in one.  And wouldn’t it be nice? A 3-volume slipcased edition of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy?  Davies’ Deptford Trilogy?  Penguin, please, bloody Clarissa? We will all thank you for it.

October 20, 2010

Again with the Digital Books

Last year I posted in some depth on the subject of academic ebooks – a different subject entirely from frontlist/trade ebooks, let me state right up front.  We’ve had some difficulty selling digital books, and I thought I’d update for 2010, with a view on providing some data to academic ebook publishers.

IT ISN’T WORKING.  Whatever you are doing, stop.  This year, like last, digital “codes” for textbooks was a COMPLETE BUST.  Of one title, we have sold to date 750 traditional textbooks (which include the code for the digital book), and 2 copies of the “code-only”.  The response at the cash is overwhelming – absolutely nobody wants to pay $55 for “nothing” – a piece of paper that gives them access to information for 12 months.  They are willing to pay extra to “get something”.

Similarly, we thought we’d experiment this year with shorting orders of books which could be found online for free (the texts of which can be found at Project Gutenberg or similar).  Students want free books, right?  They love technology?  Once again, the response was overwhelming in favour of “real” books.  Paper books of open-source texts are so cheap anyway that students will pay the $3-$11 to get that “something”.  About the texts online we hear you “can’t make notes”, “I don’t like all that scrolling”, “At least I get to keep it this way”, etc.  The ephemeral nature of an ebook is not lost on these kids.  There is a value to permanence.

Now, there are things that could be done to encourage the sale of the digital book.  The paper books could be sold *without* the digital codes thrown in for free.  Given the ultimatum, more students might go for the digital book over the paper one.  Make the digital texts better suited to printing – that might help too.  But I ask myself, why?

For what are we trying to force digital books on the unreceptive audience?  And I do feel like I’m forcing the issue. Whether it be sending students away when we sell out of a book, telling them to “read it online” (one student has just now informed me that she wants the real book because they can bring a text to their open-book exam, but not a print out.  Another consideration.) or desperately explaining that the “Infotrak” online content isn’t costing them anything extra, and no, they can’t buy it without it; selling students on the idea of digital media is like pulling teeth.  The instructors aren’t onside either – we had one case where we had to send back 350 copies of a textbook because it came bundled with a DVD & online content the instructor didn’t want, and the publisher couldn’t understand why.  (There we sat on the phone having the most unproductive conversation: Them: “But it’s free.” Us: “But they don’t want it.”)

Why are we doing this? Audience reception is part of what has always made me uneasy about ebooks.  Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?  Was there some great need for a new way to read texts, thus came the ebook?  Were readers clamouring for this technology?  No, technologists came up with something new and they’re trying damn hard to sell it.  Publishers are a wreck, bookstores are panicking and readers are grudgingly trying to find a way to like the technology.  The only people who are happy are the technology manufacturers.

But another year, another step closer to the supposed internet generation.  Maybe next year will be the big year for digital delivery of textbooks.  Or maybe it won’t.  Maybe now that the shine has worn off, we can start having a serious discussion about what constitutes value added.  Right now the product we see looks like ill-considered trash to be thrown out with the cellophane wrapper.  Or maybe if the technology manufacturers are so keen on a Kindle in Every Backpack, they’ll start bundling those for free with the texts.  Just a thought.

ETA: Apparently I’m not alone!

October 1, 2010

It’s Raining Deluxe Editions!

I (and others) have observed over the last few years that the rise of the eBook might be a Good Thing ™ for those of us who love and value the art of the book.  Relegating most of the drivel published to an appropriately temporary medium might free up print resources for those things which benefit from a tactile existence – that is to say, it might widen and clarify the difference between works read unthinkingly to pass the time, and works owned to preserve and venerate the quality contents.  The books one wants to own and the books one wants to read are not always the same.  Perhaps the Reader would spend more on the former if they could spend less on the latter (insert snarky comment about the long-standing existence of libraries here).

I have absolutely no data to back up this claim, but I am starting to detect actual evidence of this trend.  Not that the flow of cheaply printed works of drivel has lessened any (maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t – I like to think we don’t stock or sell these things, so as a bookseller I’m pretty oblivious to them), but the availability of premium editions from mainstream publishers – that is, not from small and private presses who’ve been producing these all along – has really increased.  These books might not be exactly to the standard of an artisan private press work, but they certainly are striving to appeal to the sensibilities of collectors.

Harvard University Press’s new release Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition (annotated by Patricia Meyer Spacks) is a beautiful example.  The book is bound in ochre cloth with the most lovely wood-grained endpapers, and is lavishly illustrated throughout with historical references, diagrams and portraits.  It’s a non-standard 9 x 9 1/2″, and weighs a tonne because of the excellent paper stock.  Best of all, it’s fantastically affordable at $35US.


“Dover Publications” doesn’t bring to mind “quality editions”, so they wisely launched their latest enveavor under the imprint Calla Editions.  These hardcover editions are mainly reprints (as is most of Dover’s catalogue) of classic illustrated editions from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  But oh my goodness, who cares?  These are stunning reproductions of iconic editions illustrated by Golden Age artists like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Harry Clarke.  The list keeps expanding, too – I’m giddy at the possibility that I might someday get a big, beautiful edition of one of my favourites from Dover – E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, illustrated by Keith Henderson.  Once again, the price is right – the backlist thus far has come in at $50-$54 CDN per volume.

In honour of Puffin’s 70th anniversary, they have released these Puffin Designer Classics. These limited-edition runs of classic children’s books are drop-dead gorgeous in jpg form – I’ve yet to see one in person, though! I’ve pictured their edition of The Secret Garden because it is probably the most stunning – but unsurprisingly, I’d line up for their Treasure Island in glass-bottle slipcase!

Both Barnes & Noble and Penguin Classics are onboard, of course. I saw my first Penguin Hardcover Classic (left) in the wild at Type on Queen St. the other day, and it exceeded my expectations. Generally I’ve found Penguin Classics to be cheaply made, overpriced- and subjected to Pearson’s insane book packaging and shipping methods, which frequently end in bent and damaged books. But they weren’t messing about with these editions- the paper is more forgiving, the bindings are tight and of course, they look wonderful. Barnes and Nobles’ Leatherbound Classics (right) I can’t attest to – but they give a mean photograph.

In administrative news, I’m back! Apologies for the extended summer vacation – the bookstore has been a zoo busy lately, only now settling down to our usual, sit-and-read pace. I have a backlog of reviews, interviews and reports to kick out, so I hope you’ll be back. Happy autumn!

August 26, 2010

Distribution, Technology & Small Bookstores

I’m going to surface for a few moments here, take a few gasps of air before I dive back down under the apparently infinite shipments of books currently flooding into my bookstore. Though my brains have been near-fried by fatigue and repetition, my outrage gland is apparently unharmed. I’ve let bile build up there long enough, and I’m looking at you, distributors. I’ve had just about enough of your shenanigans.

I am not a machine. It’s true that I work like a machine, and I have a encyclopedic knowledge of my product that rivals at least some databases. I can do some pretty impressive mental math too, but the analogy pretty much runs out there. I am a mere, fallible human being who works with other human beings, interfacing only with human customers who, anachronistically, enter the store and speak with us to obtain the books they want. We do, yes, have a computer in the store. For nearly four years now, it even provides us with internet access. But we do not run industry-specific software and we don’t have an electronic inventory system. We don’t “scan” books (unless we’re trying to read them very quickly) and when we “look things up”, we’re doing so in reference books. Nevertheless we’re a vibrant, healthy and extremely viable independent bookstore.

So look, I get that maybe you need to use all of these things – databases, scanners, computers and Cylons – to run your business, but something is going on here that goes beyond mechanization of tasks. Technology has to interface with people somewhere along the chain. It is meant to serve us, after all, it ought to be decipherable. But we’ve grown lazy, or maybe we’ve lost some skills, and it seems to me that increasingly, technology does not interface with real humans anywhere along the line. The system is made, instead, to interface with other machines. This is highly irritating if one happens to be a human.

Let me be specific. I received an order the other day – a smallish one – of about 60 boxes, 1300 lbs. This order contained between 20-300 copies each of a few dozen titles. Now, a human would expect if one had ordered 20 copies of, say, Don Quixote, that they might be found in one box, stacked together.  Maybe two boxes if they fit more nicely that way.  A human does not expect that the quantity would be split up over six boxes, interwoven with dozens of other titles similarly dispersed.  In order to find a complete quantity, the human has to open nearly all of the 60 boxes uncovering one copy here, two copies there, all the time sorting the books into dozens of incomplete piles.

How does this even happen?  The only explanation I can come up with is that the books are spread haphazardly over a conveyor belt which winds its way around the warehouse.  Specially trained packing monkeys grab books they recognize as they rattle by.  I’m sure this is no problem at all if the bookstore is scanning each book as it comes out of the box.  A computer keeps track of quantities as they arrive, yup, fifteen down, only eighty-five more to locate of title 4 of 109.  If it shows up tomorrow, in another shipment, no biggie.  The inventory system has got your back.

The human, simple being that I am, is angry and frustrated.  We didn’t need an inventory system until the books started being packed by monkeys and itemized by an inventory system on the other end!  I fail to see whose job got easier: instead we’re both saddled with expensive (and fallible) infrastructure to encode and decode needlessly.

Another example. Much like the bank or the cable company, the publisher and distributor is now a slave to “the system”. I’m sure you’ve heard this one: “I’m sorry ma’am, the system won’t let me override the hold on your cheque.” “I’m sorry sir, the system bills you for the whole billing cycle even if the service was cancelled a day in. The system will credit you next month.”

We order thousands of trade titles into our trade bookstore this time of year, every year. This year, an unscrupulous sales rep sold one of our professors on the idea of a “pack” instead of individual books – several trade books packaged together for meager savings to the student. The ISBN generated for said “pack” came from the college division. Suddenly the books – the same trade books we carry every year – have become college books, with a college discount. Saving to the student? $4.85. Cost to the bookstore? $3000. Outraged, we call the publisher to ask what on earth they were thinking. “Sorry,” we were told, “The system gives short discount on college books.” But we could just return these packages and reorder the books separately and save the money, we cry. To fill the second order, they’ll probably actually have to unwrap those stupid packages. Why not just give us the trade discount and save everyone some trouble? “The system.”

I’ll addend to these two issues my ongoing complaint that Indigo/Amazon has trained customers to think like machines too. “I need a book. Can I give you the ISBN?” No, you can not give me the ISBN. How about a title? Author? You’d cry if you knew just how many of these customers don’t have the title and author. They didn’t write it down, see. They just took the ISBN. And if that ISBN is old, out of print, or doesn’t have Canadian rights? Too bad. If we were Chapters, I suppose we’d just tell you we don’t have the book and move on. Silly humans that we are, we go to the trouble of sussing out what you’re actually looking for. And how much easier that would be if we weren’t all expected to be machines.

I wonder if, as in agriculture, smaller bookstores are starting to suffer under this pressure to mechanize. I know booksellers are supposed to “get with the times”, but thus far I’ve heard this in the context of selling online, competing with ebooks, and providing services in addition to just selling books. But that’s the difference between telling a farmer he has to open a petting zoo and telling him he has to buy a $1.5 million dollar thresher. You don’t need the petting zoo to grow carrots. You don’t need a cafe to sell books. And the thresher?

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