Once & Future

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

March 16, 2011

Panicked Ranting in eBooks

Everything is not just going to be okay. I don’t care what publishers, the Globe and Mail and Margaret Atwood have to say.  Increasingly I am finding that the scope of the ebook debate is being narrowed and dominated by certain interested parts of the book chain.  Sure, many things about the ebook are wonderful.  And they aren’t imminently going to destroy any part of publishing, Canadian literature or culture.  But it’s a precarious perch the ebook sits on, and none of the interested parties seem aware of, or willing to discuss, this fact.

Over the last couple of years I have had and expressed grave concerns about elements of a theoretical digital future, and though I sit and wait patiently for these issues to surface, we seem to be coming further and further away from them.  It’s because these are Big Picture issues that seem to exceed the scope of any one publisher’s five-year plan, or an author’s concern over becoming published.  So listen, let me be crystal-clear about my fears.  Do feel free to direct me to the appropriate pat answer.

EBOOKS ARE A TOP DOWN PRODUCT.  Cory Doctorow or Joey Comeau’s latest schemes to retain control over their own art, distribution and sales included, ebooks are a highly specialized commodity which do not exist but for the grace of large corporate entities.  I can not write an ebook without the help of HP, Adobe and Microsoft, and you can’t read one without Sony, Kobo, Apple or Amazon.  Whoever wrote that file, however you read it, you are depending on technology which probably won’t work in five years, let alone fifty or two hundred. Big companies made the bed you lie in and their future is your future.  Do they represent your interests? This is of archival concern of course, but it’s more than that.

I am concerned about the current format wars.  A number of players – Apple and Amazon chief among them – are attempting to monopolize the ebook market.  Proprietary formats and a “leasing” model to their business plans mean that their products are not transferable and adaptable to infinitely new reading devices.  Eventually they will either “win” – gain a large enough permanent market share that it’s worth it to publishers to continue producing multi-format ebooks – or “lose” – fail to get that market share, and give up the project.  Those defunct and discarded formats represent loss of information.

Amazon scares the bajesus out of me, not because they’re the biggest competition to any bookseller at the moment, but because their business model looks unsustainable to me.  Books, unlike many consumer products, aren’t as easy to force into a discount economy.  For starters, it really matters to a reader whether their book was written in Canada or in China.  So while maybe you can look the other way and buy cheap, slave-made rubber boots from Walmart because, you know, they were only $5.99; you aren’t going to read a book by some faceless cheap labourer just because it’s cheap.  At the end of the day, you want the new Philip Roth book and that comes with certain costs.  Roth is a big one – the man would like to get paid.  Producing his book comes with more costs: editing, formatting, design, marketing, publicity.  These aren’t assembly-line skills and believe me, if they could be easily outsourced to Indonesia, they would be.  As it is publishers have cut back on all kinds of former publishing necessities like editing and fact-checking because they need to keep prices down.

So Amazon’s predatory insistence that the price of books has to come down has a floor.  They will never go lower than a certain point.  Where that point is is a huge battle ground right now, and it really doesn’t benefit Amazon at all.  People who try to comply go out of business, and people who stand firm either go out of business or keep prices up.  The author, who is ultimately the product you are looking to buy, just goes to the standing publisher who can give her the best deal.

I have news for you, bargain-hunter: when Amazon sells you a new book for 50% the cost of the same book from an independent, it’s because someone is losing money.  They’re either trying to create a loss-leader, a hook, or they’re trying to artificially force other publishers to “compete” with that price.  Nowadays, they’re trying to sell ebooks at a loss so they we can all jump on board the Kindle and they can either make money on the technology alone or they can win the format war.  It’s a big friggin’ gamble.  If they lose, they fold up.  And guess where your ebooks go?  You never owned them, friend.  And if it doesn’t seem likely this is going to happen in the next five or ten years, wonder where Amazon will be in fifty years, after your lifetime of book buying.

Yes, that might not matter to the buyer.  It has been pointed out that the types of ebooks sold tend to be transitory desires.  The kind of book you might leave in a hotel room.  If you lose the “library” to a technology upgrade or a corporate bankruptcy, maybe you don’t care.  But I’m skeptical of this idea of the two-tiered book market.  Why on earth would any corporate publisher continue to sell paper books when all their money comes from selling frontlist blockbusters in ebook format?  Ideology?  And to whom would they sell these paper books anyway?  Bookstores are the real vulnerable partners in the book chain.  We don’t make or sell ereaders and, as of today, in Canada, we can not sell ebooks.  We can only sell paper books.  If even as many as 20% of my customers switch to ebooks, I go out of business.   Without meat-space bookstores selling dead-tree books, the market for real books gets more and more marginalized.  So you might not care about your digital book collection, but will publishers continue to support the paper book “backups”?  An even smaller market means the cost of the book goes up – again – which leads to even fewer buyers.  Amazon may or may not consider it worth their while to deal in “premium” Real Books.  Buyers may prefer digital books to the inevitable POD (print on demand) ones, which remain hideous.

Obviously we’re not there yet.  Many, many people still prefer real books.  But it drives me nuts when I listen to discussions between publishers and writers, for whom, frankly, the question of digital-or-not-digital is moot, since their product is the content, not the format.  They seem to forget the roles of other parts of the book chain.  Typical, for people whose vested interest in the product vanishes the minute it is sold.   Where are texts without bookstores?  Without a second-hand market?  Without reliable archives?  Under censorship?  To people who can’t afford to upgrade hardware every 5 years?  Does it matter to them?  Not a whit.  As long as the frontlist sells, somehow, to someone, through anyone.

Now I want to stipulate that I don’t feel my apocalyptic vision of the digital future is in any way inevitable.  But I think it will be if we keep treating Amazon and the big book chains as the benevolent godhead of book distribution.  Publishers do this, writers do this, and increasingly, customers do this.  Doctorow and Comeau aren’t just desperate writers who can’t get publishers, they’re authors who glimpse the danger of a book future where the control of big companies isn’t questioned.  They are also, unfortunately, dependent on Our Corporate Overlords to produce their product, but at least the first glimmerings of awareness are there.  The digital future is going to be bleak unless we question the health of a market run by a few players.

We all know the possible solutions.  We need to settle into an open-source ebook format which can be freely exchanged between platforms.  We need to open the market up so that independent players can sell the same ebooks that the big chains can.  We need to stop pushing for ever-lower prices on texts.  Publishing and readership will remain healthy if and only if we consciously address the format’s weaknesses.  Tell me exactly what is being done to make sure these texts last. To guard them against censorship. To allow small and large publishers equal access to readers.  To manufacture, distribute, and dispose of the delicate and expensive ereader technology equitably.  To protect all of our joint investments if, god forbid, some discounter’s insane scheme to control the industry doesn’t quite pan out.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment: What Purpose Do Booksellers Serve, Anyway.  Maybe by then I’ll have rooted out some answers for you.

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 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!

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?

May 19, 2010

BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities”

BookCamp T.O. seemed to me to be peopled by three types of people: 1) representatives from publishing houses (often, publicists) 2) technology/new media geeks and 3) commenters and critics – i.e. bloggers.  I certainly felt I was there in my capacity as the latter, and so the sessions I chose were those I thought would speak to me and my vocation best.

So I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final session of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online”.  Far from being concerned with community-building or readership, this session wound up being about leveraging existing community in order to generate sales.  Tan Light of Random House pointed out to us that social media, while “free”, is extremely time consuming and thus requires a lot of man hours.  So, by building (or finding) self-sustaining communities, you basically have an engine that will generate that labour for you.

Needless to say, from this “community as marketing tool” standpoint, most of the discussion focused around what to do when the community is saying bad things about your company or product; how to manage or minimize the things you don’t want the “community” to be saying.  Customer service!  Transparency!  Smiley emoticons!  Okay, that last bit is mine.

I’m sure the publicists in the room were thrilled.

But for my part, the session left a bad taste in my mouth.  Is that what I am?  An unpaid publicist?  Is that what we’re building all these “communities” for?  To sell books?

This has been an issue with “free knowledge” rhetoric all along.  The “knowledge economy” is supposed to save us from economic collapse, but who along the knowledge production chain gets paid?  If I am participating in a critical community which is hashing out important issues in, say, bookselling and then a media giant comes along, scoops up the buzz and the discourse and the leads we’ve worked up and prints it in their for-profit newspaper, we (the critical community) have produced the bulk of the knowledge to be sold by a third party.  This is part of the problem with copyright in general: What right has anyone other than the content producer have to make money off of an intellectual property?

But someone should make money – I don’t advocate reducing people whose talent is for knowledge production to slaves or hobbyists.  If what you do is write or make music or draw or think, you should have the right to make your living off of it.  You don’t owe it to “society” to give away your product for free.  And you certainly should be annoyed if you do give something away for free and someone else capitalizes off of it.

So I wonder how the blogger model fits into the new economy.  Blogging is almost always done for free. The Quill & Quire profiles a number of “big” book bloggers in their latest issue and we learn that among them are only two who actually make money from it – BookNinja and GalleyCat.  So what’s in it for the rest them?  I hate to be so crass, but let’s be honest: sure, there’s an element of fun and community to it, but most bloggers have some back-of-the-brain idea that blogging will net them something in the long run.  Money?  Legitimacy?  Popularity?  A job?

“Hits” are a big deal.  We let our stuff be quoted, linked and promoted elsewhere, often by companies who use our influence to promote a product of theirs that we’re lauding, because there’s an expectation we’ll get traffic in return.  The Quill’s article suggests the legitimacy of blogs like BookNinja and Maud Newton comes from being cited by “real” news sources like the Washington Post or the New York Times.  Great publicity for the bloggers, right?  But Maud Newton isn’t underwritten by a media conglomerate and she doesn’t run ads.  Major media sources use her work, and in return she gets…

On the one hand, it’s nice to imagine that most of us are blogging for the altruistic purpose of “contributing to public dialogue” or “making a difference”.  Maybe we really love Canadian Literature and want to see it succeed, or we feel strongly that new transmedia projects will make the world a more equitable place.  But fact is, this is a time-consuming practice.  Blogging as a form of philanthropy is, like all philanthropy, the privilege of the already-underwritten-by-someone-else.  As we move into a future where blogging is an increasingly legitimized form on journalism, and “real” newspapers are dropping like flies, there’s really nothing just about a blogging model that expects the new journalism to come from generously employed hobbyists with a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak.  If we as a society value the knowledge production they’re engaged in, we’ll find a way to make this their full-time job.

I sort of wish I’d gone to mesh  ’10 because I think there might have been more opportunity for me to learn about these issues.  But then, I have a job I had to attend, and a toddler to take care of.  My exploration of media issues isn’t being underwritten by anyone, so I’m left musing to myself in my “spare” time.  Hopefully I haven’t fired way off the mark this time – what do y’all think?  How do you reconcile your status as unpaid publicist; dharma bum?

May 17, 2010

Book Camp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. I: Book as Object

Two of the six sessions I attended at BookCamp T.O. this weekend have given me real meat for thought – a pretty good ratio, I think.  The other four, to give you a quick summary, went down like this:

The EBook in Academia was somewhat hijacked by someone who seemed to have no idea why we were there; meanwhile the “good” discussion mostly concerned open-source movements which, while academically exciting, wasn’t very useful to the thirty publishers in the room.

The Literary Grassroots session was alright, but the absence of Taddle Creek’s representative left a big gap in the discussion.  Lots of handwringing, no real information on how a literary publication might stay viable in this environment.

CBC’s Canada Reads panel featuring JK, Kerry Clare and Steven Beattie was excellent, but there’s not much more to say about it.  Good format, lots of community involvement, we look forward to continuing that involvement!

I also sat in on a discussion on bibliographical metadata, a subject about which I knew nothing.  Well, now I know something!  Not very useful to me as I am not in publishing, but nevertheless gave me something to think about about the costs/challenges small publishers face if they want to be part of this big globalized industry.

The 11:30 talk on “Book as Object”, on the other hand, was fascinating.  What was fascinating was that the room was packed with people. They lined the walls and sat on the floor.  Maybe word got around really quickly that Anstey president Neil Stewart had brought along a free handout, a beautifully bound blank notebook that reads “NICE BOOK CAMP BOOK” on the front cover (this may or may not beat the wine Michael Tamblyn fed his Kobo session).   But more likely I think we were experiencing a bout of nostalgia.  Few of us went into English Lit or Publishing or whatever with the intention of bringing about the obsolescence of the codex, but years of reality checks later that’s what we’re doing for a living.  I think people wanted to hear there’s a future for the object, even if most of us won’t really be working with them.

Certainly, the book-objects Neil Stewart and his partner Aurélie Collings were not the sorts of things most of us could ever create.  Stewart works on commission, producing limited edition fine letterpressed editions which are absolutely works of art.  His bindery employs 18 people, among them printers, sewers, binders and designers.  This is high-end craftwork in addition to publishing.  Stewart told us of a limited run he did of Margaret Atwood’s The Door featuring a relief print “keepsake” done by Atwood “in her kitchen with a spoon”.  Two were auctioned off for charity and fetched, according to Stewart, $1600 (Abebooks.com reports they went for $2000 and $1800).

Aliquando Press's The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy - $65 CDN.

But buying private press books needn’t be that expensive.  Compared to buying art, Collings rightly points out, these books are downright cheap.  Actually, they’re affordable even when compared to frontlist trade books.  Many private presses have books in the $65-$90 range, including Barbarian Press’s Rumour of a Shark by John Carroll ($75), Aliquando Press’s The Quest for the Golden Ingots by Maureen Steuart ($65), or Frog Hollow Press’s The Book of Widows – Contemporary Canadian Poets: Volume 6. New poems by M.Travis Lane (Deluxe Edition) ($60).  This is not appreciably higher than frontlist hardcovers have come to cost – consider that John English’s Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is $39.95, while I bought the Modern Library’s Adventures of Amir Hamza for $57.00, or the new Library of America Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor at $50.

In fact, the print runs of both a private press book and a non-blockbuster trade book might not be that different.  These days a new Canadian author can consider themselves lucky if they sell as many as 1000 or 1500 copies of their book.  In reality, most Canadian fiction trade books sell 200-500 copies – well within the range of a limited edition run.  This isn’t to say there’s no difference between publishing with a private or craft press and a commercial one – the differences between publishing with a small or large press were discussed at length at That Shakespearean Rag a couple months ago – but buyers who love the book and authors who love to be published in book form need not necessarily panic.  The private press model is almost as accessible, available and affordable as the conventional one.

Of course this doesn’t mean all publishing can be replaced by small or private press work, but it does seem to support Stewart & Collings’ thesis that there is potential for a healthy fine publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  We all still love books.  There are people out there who publish beautiful books (often 100% Canadian content I might add, right down to the paper and cloth).  We don’t necessarily have to pay much more for these books, nor are they any more scarce than most new literature.  All we need is to discover some of the book availability that exists out there beyond Amazon.

Most private presses are just that – private – and you need to make a little effort to seek out their work, but it’s not rocket science.  Most have webpages, however basic.  Trade organizations like the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) keep lists of membership.  And best of all, they go out to trade shows like next month’s Toronto Small Press Book Fair (June 19th 2010) where you can gawk and browse and even (*gasp*) buy to your heart’s content.

Neil Stewart repeated his assertion  that he didn’t want to be “all things to all people”, and I think that’s fantastic.  One of the best things about new reading technology is the diversification of work available: nowadays, there’s something out there for everyone, no matter what your taste.  Private presses fit very well into this new personalized world.  Next time you need to buy a gift, consider a book object that really is irreplaceable.  Your gift-ee will probably just download the latest Ian McEwan or Peter Carey onto their iPhone anyway.  Try something different.

May 11, 2010

My BookCamp T.O. Itinerary

This Saturday, May 15th, the University of Toronto’s iSchool will be hosting the 2nd annual Book Camp T.O., an “informal unconference” whose theme this year is “Book Publishing Is Going Digital, Now What?”  At the time I signed up, only 10% of the sessions were booked, few sessions moderators had stepped forward and we weren’t quite sure what were were going to un-confer about; but nevertheless the event was sold out after only three days.  Now the sessions are booked, the participants are listed and it looks like the event is going to live up to our expectations.

And yes, I will be there.  Quote: “…participation and conversation is what we will strive for, rather than a more static event with formal presentations.”  This suits my outspoken and eloquent (read: pushy) tastes very well.  My itinerary, subject to change without notice, will probably be as follows:

9:30 eBooks in Education and Academia — the glacial revolution

This is my nod to participation.  John Dupuis and Evan Leibovitch of York University will lead the session, but I will bring my three cents worth as an academic bookseller with pretty comprehensive knowledge of how academic eBooks are interfacing with their reading public.

10:30 Writing about Writing

I expect this session, led by Stuart Woods (Editor of the Quill & Quire), Amy Logan-Holmes (Executive Director of OpenBook Toronto) and Conan Tobias (of literary journal Taddle Creek) to be packed to the rafters with bloggers. Who’s with me???

11:30 Obscure Objects of Desire

Okay, I’ll be honest with you:  this session is the primary reason I’m attending BookCamp.  The blurb: “Before Gutenberg, books were fetish objects collected and hoarded by the elite. Are we headed back to the future? A session on all things paper, printed, bound and beautiful. A text is not a book, which is another way of saying that a book needs to be more than a “content delivery platform”.  A book that is well made and sensitively designed satisfies the reader, pleases the author and reassures the archivist in ways that digital (so far) cannot.”  Preach!

2:00 CBC’s Canada Reads

It’s not clear what Rosie Fernandez intends to do with this session, but I’m in.  I think the bloggosphere’s contribution to Canada Reads has been singularly influential – the integration between web and radio content is likely to get even more blended.  Let’s see where this goes!

3:00 The Onset of Exhaustion: Publishing in 2010

Led by Alana Wilcox of Coach House Press, I think this will address an aspect of the digital revolution that is being under examined so far: so, okay, technically we can address most aspect of the publishing trade with new media technologies, but how top-down is this model? Not every publishing house is funded by Bertelsmann. Is publishing in the global digital future feasible for everyone?  Good damn question.

4:00 Building and sustaining a community of readers online

Of more interest to bloggers.  Actually, neither this nor any of the other 4pm sessions excite me tremendously, so we’ll see if I even bother.  Maybe this will be a good opportunity for a wind-down martini?

March 19, 2010

On Reviewing, and Reviews

The latest Quill & Quire (probably the best issue in years, and worth a read if you can find one) features an essay from Richard Bachmann, recently retired bookseller, in which he says the following:

The other…concern is the disappearance of avenues to tell people about books.  Superficially, it might seem that the new media have made available more channels of information than ever before.  I don’t believe this is an advantage.  Having a multitude of un-vetted book blogs is not quite the same thing as real discourse.”

He is lamenting, as most of us are, the death of newspaper book sections in particular, but more central, “legitimate” literary reviews in general.  I agree with his sentiment and maybe even his statement.

There are a lot of book blogs out there.  Even in the small sub-category of Canadian Book Blogs By Readers there are seemingly endless choices.  It’s easy and fun to read and review books and most of us do it.  But how does this add to the literary or publishing ecosystem?  I am absolutely guilty of talking more than I listen – I write reviews as if anyone might care, but I actually tend not to read blogs which simply review books.  Maybe this reflects my own interest, but I tend more towards blogs which provide “original content” in the form of essays and analysis rather than reviews or links elsewhere.  Where I do read reviews, shamefully, it tends to be to compare that reader’s thoughts to my own on books I have already read, rather than to evaluate a book for potential future purchase.

It isn’t that I don’t read reviews elsewhere either.  I am a fanatic reader of the TLS and frequently order books I have seen covered there.  Why should a book blog review be any different?

But it is different.  Bachmann is quite right – though a few comments to a blog post might constitute a very limited dialogue, this is nothing compared to the edifying and influential exchanges that occur through the TLS’s (or NYRB‘s) letters pages.  There’s a certain feeling of witnessing cultural formation before your eyes that you get from a “legitimate” source that feels lacking in blogs.  The conversation is too, to use Bachmann’s word, “diffuse”.  While this allows for wider coverage, it also pulls the conversation apart into disparate, self-selecting pieces.  Do writers Google themselves to see which blogs have reviewed them?  Do they care?  Would they respond to criticism?  Will anyone defend or contradict them?

What do we provide here?  I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are either book bloggers themselves, or else publicists.  We’re people on the production, rather than purchasing, end.  Are we capable of reaching a wider public?  Do we help?  Publicists are certainly betting that we will – there’s a real upswing in promo copies going out to bloggers I’d reckon.  Whether this is speculation on the publishers’ part or if they have data to confirm that our special form of word-of-mouth actually translates into sales, I don’t know.

A suspect there’s a benefit to our coverage of small releases, based on my own limited data.  Publicists – take note!  My review of Frank Newfeld’s Drawing on Type is one of my most-viewed reviews, and certainly one of the most searched reviews.  That is to say, people search for “Frank Newfeld” or “Drawing on Type” and find my review.  On the other hand, my review of Val Ross’s Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic has been viewed three times as many times, but almost never because someone was actually searching for “Val Ross”, “Robertson Davies” or anything that might actually suggest this book.  So my review of Drawing on Type was probably more effective, from a publicity standpoint, than was my review of Robertson Davies.  This is probably because very few “big” reviews were out there, and my limited contribution was all that could be found.

This does not, however, suggest that small press publishing benefits from the bloggosphere.  We’re still talking about tiny numbers, and no conversation.  My review, after all, was not especially flattering.  Where’s the rebuttal?  I have been debateably harmful to Porcupine’s Quills’s sales.  This is not a healthy literary ecosystem.

But these are my limited numbers.  Perhaps some of you have had different experiences?  Do you read reviews online?  Do they make a difference to you?  Do we render a valuable service or a poor replacement?

September 30, 2009

A View From the Front Line

Ah, ebooks.  The literary bloggosphere’s favourite subject.  One of my favourites too, but today I have a little bit more to offer than hysterical doomsaying: today I would like to report the results of a case-study I have informally conducted over the last month.

Under the general header of “ebooks” we actually have a number of issues.  Amazon selling popular hardcovers for $9.99 for their Kindle is a wildly different issue than Google scanning orphaned academic works, or textbooks converting to digital, expiring formats.  It is the latter I have had a startling new experience with – the former, and other issues, can wait for another post.

I work in a bookstore, one which specializes in academic texts – that is to say, books on subjects of remote and specialized subjects, hard to find but invaluable to the very small audience.  I challenge anybody in Toronto to find a better and more well-stocked selection of the works of Giorio Agamben or Jean Baudrillard.  Of Anthony Giddens or Hannah Arendt.  We have an African Literature section that, at this writing, exceeds five bookshelves.  Our best-selling title of September 2009, so far, is Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice.  You get the idea.

In order to finance our indulgence in this very small, specialized field we also carry course books and, occasionally, text books for the Toronto universities.  I am absolutely sympathetic to the plight of the textbook publisher.  Textbooks take a lot of time and expertise to publish and then sell only to a limited audience; that audience is absolutely hell-bent against buying the product and do everything they can to buy the books used.  Textbooks wind up expensive and publishers feel pressured to release “new” editions as frequently as they can in order to gain market share back from the used market.  If anywhere in publishing there is an ideal place for an electronic book, this is it.  Students get the books cheaper than they would the printed version, publishers have fewer overhead costs, and the limited licensing allows them to keep the product up to date and salable without the cost and nonsense of printing a whole new edition.  And, there’s no textbook to move into the used market and become next year’s competitor.

Well, here is the front line reality.

First, a note on my research methodology.

We have the textbook for a large graduate program – roughly 1200 students.  The book comes in two formats: a physical textbook just like we all remember from school, and a “code” which retails for $30 less than the book and which gives the student access to the book in an electronic format for 12 months after the code has been activated.  (The physical book also includes the “code” for the e-version bundled with it.)

Every student needs this book in some format or another.  The book they used is custom published for them, and we have the exclusive right to sell it.  So if the students want the book, short of buying it directly from the publisher, they have to come to us.  The book is a new publication this year, so not only are there no used versions available, the students would not have been able to inspect either the physical or the electronic versions before buying.  Further, I am one of only three people who ring books through the cash register and I am nearby or present even when I am not physically doing the selling, so I can safely say I have seen the vast majority of those books actually sold.

How did 1200 students choose to purchase their textbook?

After one month we have sold approximately 900 physical books.

We have also sold approximately 8 “codes” for the ebook.

Two of those ebook purchasers later returned to buy the physical book.

Now, it is true that at first – for the first 100 books, let’s say – I was selling the hardcopy book pretty hard.  I gave the students the full run down of all the ways that the e-version was lacking.  But after it became clear that overwhelmingly they wanted the book in any case, our tactics switched – suddenly we were hard selling the ebook to absolutely no avail.  We ran out of the hard copy book at one point and even though we still had hundreds of the ebook codes in stock, nobody wanted them.  They all left their names for hard copies.

What can we say about this?  Despite the usual caterwalling about the price of the textbook, it wasn’t, apparently, enough to persuade them to use the ebook even though it was $30 cheaper.  The students were turned off by the look of the thing, a flimsy envelope of cardboard with a scratch-off number on it.  They talked about how they couldn’t read on a screen.  How they needed the book with them in class (despite having laptops with, presumably wireless connections).  Some didn’t like the fact that after 12 months they would have nothing to show for their purchase, as the license to use would have expired.  The two who bought the textbook after trying the ebook both didn’t appreciate that they couldn’t print it out – I guess they thought they could create their own textbook at home.

But first and foremost, they didn’t like the price.

Yes, it was $30 cheaper than the textbook.  But it was also still over $50.  Hundreds of times I heard the phrase “For that much money, I might as well get the book.”   This one blindsided me, I’ll admit.  I know students that will drive to downtown Toronto from Aurora to return a book because they found it for $3 cheaper on Amazon.  I thought a $30 savings was a no-brainer.  So, apparently, did the textbook publisher.

This is going to be a tricky one for the publisher to negotiate, because even an ebook of a textbook isn’t going to get much cheaper.  Students have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the majority of the cost of a textbook isn’t the paper (and how often have I heard “wow, all that for such a small book?” or “But it isn’t even hardcover!” as if the book is a bag of almonds bought from the bulk store and priced by weight).  A textbook is – or ought to be – a high-end work of scholarship requiring one or more highly educated people to devote several years of their career to write.  The book needs to be peer reviewed and fact-checked by equally-qualified people, then marketed and distributed as usual to a very limited audience.  In short, you need to pay for the intellectual property, not the paper.  Eliminating the paper will yield some savings but will not reduce the book to a $9.99 blowout.

(It bears mentioning that this illusion that an ebook is etherial and costs nothing to produce is perpetuated by Amazon, who keep their ebook prices artificially low for some unknown but no doubt nefarious reason.  Novels are also created at great cost of time and effort and should also cost something, regardless of dead tree content.)

So this year, at least, the book held its ground against the rising tide of electrons.  Is this representative?  Did the textbook publisher mess up in some other way?  I am going to be satisfied saying that I no longer consider the battle for the textbook market cut, dried and determined.  I suspect the publishers will cry themselves to sleep over this one.  We’ll see what they come up with next year. ..

August 8, 2009

Via Book Patrol…

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