Archive for the ‘bookselling’ Tag

Various articles and opinions

I have never known why time travel has held such an interest for me. I must have watched the Back to the Future trilogy over a hundred times. There was a time when I boasted that I could recite the movie by heart, and could answer any trivia about said trilogy. So I ran across this today: Charles Yu’s picks for the best time travel books, via the lovely Guardian. They are definitely worth a look.

Also, found on The Rumpus, is this article at the Telegraph about how to download e-books absolutely free. I think I talked about this in an earlier post. Back then, I cared about this job and it’s longevity, because it was in my self-interest to do so. Now, well. Let’s just say I have a more balanced view of e-books.

While I would never trade my physical books for e-books, an e-reader has an attractive and consolidated quality. Whenever I think of moving all my books, yet again, I suddenly get a desire to take a nap. I would do both, probably, if I had enough money for an iPad, which I don’t.

The main point that my bosses use in arguments against e-books, because they fancy themselves liberal and Marxist, is that e-readers are an example of conspicuous consumption, and that they alienate poor people making reading inaccessible to them. Anyone can buy a fourteen dollar paperback to. It’s literacy! It’s imaginative escape! It’s making you a citizen of the world! You could go to college! Oh wait, if your choices are between college and books, and you’re picking up the latest James Patterson instead, then your priorities are way off, mate.

Anyway, so let’s say you have access to these books, paperback, fifteen bucks for a trade size. The cheapest e-reader (and they’re going to get cheaper) is $150. That’s equivalent to 10 trade size paperback books. Now, if books are as easy to get as Adrian Hon says, then you pay $150 once and get thousands and thousands of books for free. Now, which is option is going to make you more literate?

I do realize that this argument leaves out some major points: like how are authors are supposed to make a living if their books are being distributed free on the interwebs; like how not shopping at your local independent business is bad for your economy; and how transferring every printed word into a data file lends itself to an inevitable apocalypse of Skynet proportions.

I do think that some authors may WAY too much money to begin with and could do with a little less. I also think that you can shop locally and online, you just don’t need to confess it to you local bookseller every time you log on to Amazon in an apologetic email. However, I do think we should watch the Terminator movies more carefully and learn something. James Cameron may be the prophet we didn’t know we had.

A couple of quick and odd stories

A customer calls, and I know who it was because of caller ID, and describes a card that he purchased here, in detail, and then asks me the most insane yet normal question. He says, “Inside the card is a little vellum sheet, should I write on that or on the cardstock?” At first, I want to say, “Is this the kind of thing you really can’t decide for yourself? It’s your card, write on it however you want! Crazy person!” Instead, I say, “Well sir, is the vellum sheet attached to the card?”. He responds that it is. So I tell him he should probably write on that. He says he’s glad he now knows how to “do it properly”. We hung up and I shook my head.

Another customer calls (on a different day) and asks me if we carry a monthly magazine that is all about small, die-cast collectible cars. First of all, weird. Second of all, how likely is it that a small bookstore would have something so specialized? Not very, not very. When I tell him that we don’t carry it, he asks me if I know anyone who does. I tell him no. Then, he asks me if I knew anyone who would know. I tell him that the larger bookstores might have some info. He doesn’t like that answer. So he asks me if there are any magazine stands around, referencing one about 30 miles away that has closed. I said I didn’t know of any others. He then tells me that’s disappointing, but it’s not clear if he means my lack of knowledge or that there aren’t any magazine/newsstands around. And what the hell kind of magazine stand propreitor would call a die-cast car magazine news??!!

I understand, to an extent, that bookstore employees may  have more general knowledge than someone say, in a clothing shop. But these requests are just odd. The first customer, wow. Just figure that one out on your own, buddy. The second, there’s this little invention, may or may not of heard of it, it’s the internet??? Yeah, probably find at least a phone number or something.

Other than that, here’s a quote from John Mortimer that I liked. It made me think about the advent of e-books and the difference between the written word and a data file.

‘Words are seen as unexploded mines, lying on deserted beaches,’ he wrote in a foreword to
Books in the Dock by C.H. Rolph, ‘which may be gingerly approached in the course of morning walks, cautiously examined, perhaps prodded with a stick; but ever likely to blow up in the faces of passers-by, destroying private property and changing the face of the landscape for generations to come.’

Though, I would like to see a Kindle blown up. What a great commercial for Apple. They could even use that lame sing-songy music in the background, and the stop-motion animation with a fuse being lit as the camera follows it up to the Kindle, blowing it up, and then it cuts to the Apple logo. Genius. Don’t steal it.

It’s been awhile… I know.

Life gets in the way of blogging, which I suppose is a good thing. So as not to get worn out on the first post after my unannounced break, here are some links.

At bookslut.com, for their 1ooth issue, Michael Filgate interviews Lee Rourke about his new(ish) novel The Canal, along with his thoughts about the role of boredom in modern life, and Rourke reveals a quite impressive knowledge of Greek mythology. (Of course, you should read the rest of the September issue, it always has books I’ve never heard of and really want to read.)

Also, yesterday, the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced. I was very disappointed not to see A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell on the list. I finished it last month and was completely enveloped by his writing, his plotting, everything.  It also happens to be the only one I read on the longlist, so perhaps my bias is showing there. The list is:

C by Tom McCarthy

Room by Emma Donoghue

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Two of these, The Finkler Question and In a Strange Room are not yet available in the States. I already plan on reading C, having loved Remainder about 3 years ago.  I will probably read Room and The Long Song, but for some reason Parrot and Olivier does not appeal to me. I am sad that Skippy Dies did not make the list, I really wanted a good reason to read that one.

Also, ran across this short piece via my googlereader from the Telegraph, about Sir Tom Stoppard’s death wish, which would actually be quite painful, but very poetic.

Lastly, I am very intrigued over the ire sent toward Jonathan Franzen by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, because of the glowing reviews of his new book.  She said that it’s easy to get a rave review in the NYT if you are  a “white, male, literary darling”, and argues that commercial fiction (like what she and Weiner write) should get more critical attention. In the HuffPo, she was asked why, she said,

Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

This is interesting. The authors she cites are considered writers of the “classics”, they were commercial writers at the time, because they wrote to make money, commerce=money for goods, but their books have lasted because they have universal themes that are still applicable today. Now, I’m sure that there are thousands of writers that wrote at the same time as Dickens and Austen that we have no clue about (see any Literature Doctoral dissertation title), but I doubt there was a distinction, as there is now, between commercial and literary. The thing is, Weiner, Picoult, and Franzen are making money, and a lot of it. Since Austen and Dickens were clearly writing to make money, as these three are, so they are all working in the tradition of Austen and Dickens. They want their books to make money and last forever.

I don’t want to outright criticize Picoult and Weiner, because I haven’t read their books. But I will say this: New York and it’s book reviewers and publishers live in a tiny world where they think they decide what the country will read and not read. Whether or not the actually do is up for debate, but its the game that must be played. If you want critical reviews, you have to write something that is able to be reviewed critically. You can’t rely on a formula to make you a crap-ton of money and then wonder why no one discusses the individual merit of your book. In the glut of books published every year, books are singled out by reviewers because they stand out from the rest. If your books follow the same basic format, you are not only lost in the lard pool of other formula writers, but also your work in no way stands out from the other books you have written. Just saying.

I would say look for upcoming reviews on David Mitchell’s newest, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest in paperback, and Jonathan Franzen’s very much praised Freedom but that might be a lie. Might be.

Some upcoming releases

In lieu of a review, because I haven’t finished anything recently. I’ll give you a preview of some of the good stuff coming out on Tuesday, 6 July.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome in paperback. Compared to his other behemoth The Stand, Under the Dome explores what happens to a small town in (you guessed it) Maine, when an impenetrable dome descends on the town. All the town’s secrets come seeping out, with no where to go.

Also by King, a 1oth anniversary re-release of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in trade paperback, with a much classier cover and a classier size.

Also in paperback (I think it took two years), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This one I read, and it was amazing. It’s a young adult novel with adult reader appeal. It takes place in the near future, the United States has been divided up into 12 districts. Every year, two people, one boy and one girl, are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games and compete for money and prestige for their district. They compete in a televised and controlled arena, and it’s a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen is chosen and she competes better than expected, despite her district’s lack of resources and poverty. Her character is very engaging and strong willed. It moves quickly and keeps the action up until the end. This is the first in the Hunger Games trilogy.

 I haven’t read The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn, though it is in my to-be-read pile. I read her earlier book, What Was Lost which was about a young girl, who had designs on becoming a detective, and when one “case” went very badly and she disappeared. She was never found. Thirty years later, a young woman working in a record shop sees something she thinks is a small girl on the security camera and she discovers a girl was lost at the mall, thirty years ago. It’s not really a ghost story, though the young girl’s “presence” is never really explained. More than this, though, What Was Lost is a meditation on the expansion of massive sprawling malls in the suburbs and how they have replaced small businesses. What her new one is about, I have no idea, but she’s an excellent writer.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

A Quick Update on What I’m Reading

No time for a full post today. I just wanted to give you a taste for what reviews are upcoming.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a monster of a book, but it’s for book club, so you can guarantee I’ll finish it. I’m loving it, I really don’t want it to end. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. I just began this morning, around 7 am. Now, that may just be too early for all the characters Faulks has running about. Or that feeling of the overabundance of characters may continue even in later hours reading.

Columbine by Dave Cullen. This book is compelling, interesting, well-researched, and a little  horrific. I’ve only finished the first part. The first part takes the position of a bystander, albeit  from many different locations, but one who doesn’t have any inside information. I feel like that is about to change.

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I was an evangelist for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a great read and book club book. And the US cover is to die for. I’m already loving her writing and have figured out that the contemporary character has postpartum depression (not giving anything away). Like in Vanishing Act, she has two stories of women intertwined and separated by about 40 years. I do prefer the young woman in the 50’s rather than the contemporary woman. Alexandra is far more feisty and interesting. Though I fear she won’t be given her due.

*Also, I’ve posted some more links to various book blogs I’ve discovered when I wasn’t motivated to write. So please give them a look. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

Thoughts on E-books

Having just finished reading a post over at Biblioklept on the changing front of e-books vs. printed media, I felt that I should write something to help me bring all my thoughts on the matter together.

Of course, I have an invested stake in printed books and traditional publishing. It’s my job. If e-books become the norm, I will probably lose my job. There is my bias. However, I also really appreciate technology. I have an iPhone, I am constantly mesmerized and exclaiming when I see or read about a new technological innovation. That being said, there are many things that bothers me about this e-book explosion.

First, as the mentally dexterous folk at Biblioklept noted, the economic consequences of the iPad are extreme. Books are cheap, not as cheap as they used to be, but under $30, usually. And that book is yours forever, to read, write in, share, hoard, do with whatever you like. Or, if owning books isn’t your thing, there is the library, free membership to county residents; one may borrow to one’s content. In either circumstance, it is relatively inexpensive to read. It gives you more per hour entertainment than a movie and costs less, whether you go to the theater or buy it on DVD. Reading is one of the least expensive forms of entertainment ever, which, in some ways, speaks to its continuous presence in our lives.

In recent months, there has been an eruption of e-readers on the market, coupled with price wars for e-books. While the electronic versions of books are cheaper (new book in hardcover retails for $24.99 to $26.99, new book in e-book format $9.99-$14.99) and consumers begin to think that this lower price is what books are actually “worth”, in order to access these “cheaper” versions, one must purchase a device that costs anywhere from $100-$500. While some people are already dropping that cash on books, most people cannot or will not. Requiring that kind of expenditure automatically keeps poorer people from accessing books.  It’s that simple.

Secondary to the economic aspects of this change is the critical response to this new slew of e-readers, that mainly piss me off. I understand hearing from critics on the outside discussing the digitization of books, lauding the technological advances and how this change will make books universally available.  But at the same time, in my trade magazine emails, the same opinion is found, “e-books are the future”, “if you don’t start selling e-books online as a small independent, you’ll be gone before you know it”, and “you have to keep up with the times and sell e-books because they are the future”. I don’t understand why you would want someone to buy something online instead of coming into your store. It is just as easy for them to buy an e-book online at their local independent as it is on Amazon. Sure, one may count on one’s regulars, but people who aren’t…it’s a toss up.

I often wonder if anyone remembers what happened in the music industry ten to fifteen years ago? When music became available digitally, and servers like Napster and Kazaa popped up almost immediately and people started downloading illegally. Then, all the musicians and record labels started condemning it. It still goes on, though it’s a little more difficult to get music for free. This is essentially going on in the book industry as well. Recently, the New York Times wrote that there were 9 million illegal downloads in the closing months of 2009. And instead of taking a moment to think about the consequences of digitizing books, the publishing industry and the authors are praising e-books and e-readers. They are actively promoting the technology that is stealing their money.

Third, and last, I promise, is the idea of worth that I mentioned above. With the recent price wars between Amazon and Macmillan (big ups to Macmillan for sticking it to Amazon), the facts over what books are “worth” has become more and more skewed. Concretely, a book is worth many things. Just a random sampling: the (maybe) advance the author received, the editing and revision process, the printing, the jacket copy and design, the marketing, author tours and events, promotional materials and Advanced Reading Copies, etc. etc.. Abstractly, it is worth more; the time and effort the author and all those other people working on the book put into it. What is that worth? I don’t know, their respective salaries, I suppose. Then there is even a larger question: what are books worth to readers? Some books are worth more than others, a personal example, Virginia Woolf is worth $400 while James Patterson is worth 50 cents, but that certainly isn’t the case for every person. Non-fiction books could be arguably worth more than fiction because they deal with (most of the time) facts and commentary on something that actually happened. But fiction contributes to our imagination and holds our childhood nostalgia delicately, before we knew or cared about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Or a book is worth more when one saves up to purchase it, or does research on it before checking it out in the library. Or a book that has a particular setting and is read within that particular setting and a particularly important time in one’s life. A book’s worth means nothing, and everything at the same time. Since we cannot decide on what books are worth more than others, we must rely on the publishers’ concrete estimations of what a book is worth. (A disclaimer: Publishers are greedy mofo’s. They’d cut any corners to make extra profit, but it’s the closest we’ll come to regulation.)

It is upsetting to have to constantly worry about the ascendency of e-readers when it seems, to me, such an obviously bad idea. I’m not advocating that we stop digitizing books and using e-readers, a kind of climate-change-inducing electric bonfire. I’m only asking that we take a second to ask ourselves what are books worth and why are we so anxious to get rid of a part of our history that has defined our individual and collective consciousness?

Sexism and Bookselling, with a post script on phone requests

Yesterday I was sitting behind the desk doing the mysterious things booksellers do behind desks and a man walks in. He is a reader. You can tell because he immediately engaged another employee in conversation and had a peculiar request. He wanted historical fiction that gave one a perspective that one hadn’t thought of before. So the (female) employee proceeds to tell him about 5 or 6 books, in-depth accounts of what the book is about and how it meets his requirements. He doesn’t go for them. She asks me, (I’m a woman), I give him a good, detailed description of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a review I’ll get to eventually). Nope. He didn’t want that either. The other employee takes him to another shelf and tells the customer that her husband read it and liked it. He buys that one.

Really? Really. After spending probably fifteen minutes with this man giving him detailed descriptions of books, he goes with the one a man picked, without even knowing what it was about. It was not as if the other books chose were “woman” books, they were all about war and adventure and man-stuff. He just wanted to read what a man read. Plain and simple.

Now, how am I supposed to sell to that kind of person? I promise you it is a type of person. Should I just say, “(male name) liked this one a lot” and not even give my opinion or any kind of sales pitch? How do you “learn” to sell to those kinds of customers? I cannot unmake my gender and because I cannot, I cannot sell to certain people (at least I can’t sell anything I care about).

Another question. Is it his fault? Do I blame him or blame the common wisdom that most readers are women and that women don’t read the same books or the same way as men do? Ultimately, he bought a book so I shouldn’t be upset. But how can I learn from that experience, could I have done something that would have changed it? I doubt it. And to save the ruminating, Reader, I blame him.  To be honest, an encounter like that just reinforces my misanthropy, especially those afflicted with gender myopia.

The other strange thing that happened was this: a woman calls asking if we are the college bookstore, I say no, she says oh and hangs up. She calls back and asks me for the number to the college bookstore which I say I don’t have. She then asks. me. to. look. it. up. for.  her. And of course, I do. But I was just flabbergasted. Who does that? Who asks someone to look up a number for them?

Another phone conversation, though not really a request but an extravagant example of the asshole sub-species. I’ll skip to the end. He says “I don’t mean to complain but everytime I call y’all, you never have what I want and I have to drive all the way to the other end of town”. I tell him that we have a quick distribution system to make up for any lack of books we have and can get books in a couple of days. He responds “So can Amazon, thank you, bye”. All I could say was “Yeah,” in the bitchiest tone I could muster. I wanted to say “Thanks for supporting your local economy, but don’t wonder when the roads are fucked and there’s no one to pick up the trash.” Or more succinctly, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”

It’s one thing to go to another bookstore or order your books online; but it is quite another to tell an employee of an independent that they don’t have the book and that Amazon is better than they are. That’s just plain rude and a bad example of a human being. But this is what passes for humanity in the cutthroat bookselling business. I swear, indie booksellers have to go out with switchblades up our sleeves for protection against attackers who want to deep discount books.

On Returning a Book to Your Local Independent Bookstore

About two hours ago, a woman, her husband, and her daughter (the only one of the trio who lives locally) came in and bought two very commercially available books, Dan Brown’s new crap-ton of bad writing tome The Lost Symbol and Mitch Albom’s self-help is still hip Have a Little Faith. When she was standing at the counter, she shared with me the fact that she could get these books cheaper and that someone named Alice would send her the book in the mail. She waivered, she wafted, she flitted and scrunched up her brow, and slapped the money on the counter. I was proud of her, she realized the importance of supporting a locally-owned business (even if it wasn’t hers and was her daughters’s community). I almost snapped at her husband when he said, “this sale must make your bookstore day” to me. I thought, yeah, you and all the other sales today. Jerk. But hey, mission accomplished, they bought the books.

Wrong. She brought them back, asking for a refund because she could get them 50% cheaper somewhere else.  I wanted to tell her she could go on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com, Sears.com, etc. etc. and get it for $8.98, but then she would have no soul. After all that worrying, hemming and hawing, she brought them back. I was really disappointed.

Two ideas spawned from this encounter. One, how do you explain the advantages of spending money in a local community when the customer doesn’t live in the community? They don’t benefit in any way from money kept in the local economy. They’re on vacay, and it’s all on a budget. This is one I’ve been working my head round for a while, since 40% of our customers are tourists. I’ve still yet to have an answer. Though, it may be related to my second idea.

Two,  there has been a price war between the major online retailers to discount the most popular books coming out this holiday season (it has even been covered on NPR).  James Patterson, Barbara Kingsolver, et al are watching as the prices of their books drop to below $10, some places as low as $8.98. Many analysts are saying that this will have a direct effect on independents and that independents will not be able to compete with these deep discounts. Yesterday, on NPR, an analyst made the point that if deep discounting becomes the norm, the value of books will go down, and independents will go out of business and we will see more of what happened today with my lovely little out-of-towners.

It is true that books are costing more these days. Even a few months ago, a hardcover book was anywhere from $22.99 to $24.99, maybe $26.99 if it was a biggie. Now, they are $26.99 to $29.99, and $32.99 for a biggie. Where did this come from? It came from the large chains (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million) who need to deep discount in order to stay competitive. However, they can’t make any money off $23-24 books so they negotiate with publishers to have a higher price and they still offer 40% discounts. Most people don’t pay attention to how much they’re paying if they’re getting a discount. So, you have bookstore chains driving up the actual price of the book and online retailers discounting the books until they’re cheaper than what it cost to make them. And then you have the independents, riding the wake between the huge barge out on the water and crashing on the beach, trying to stay afloat.

If publishers lose money, they will publish less authors. (It is already to the point that most publishers don’t take chances on new authors.) If there are less authors then there are fewer books, fewer books, less dissemination of knowledge, and eventually the extinction of printed books. I know this is a fatalist view and a little extreme, but things could change very radically while we’re all on Amazon searching for a good deal.

However, as I said before it’s not only the consumers who are to blame. The chains and discount stores made buying cheap the norm and now it is expected and in fact, engineered. To the chain bookstores, who have large web presences as well as brick and mortar stores, it doesn’t matter if a customer buys a printed book or an e-book anymore. They don’t need to drive people to their stores, they only need the sale.

We are in quite a conundrum here. It is so much more complicated than telling people “buying local helps support the local economy”. Because they may not live in this local economy, and if they buy all their products online or at other chains, what do they care if a locally-owned independent goes out of business? They buy all their things from faceless chains and discount stores.

So what do we do? We do smile, we don’t say “sure, no problem” when they bring it back. We look at them in the face, conveying the message, “I am judging you for your bad decision.” But we can’t say anything without offending someone, because as you have seen, the truth is offensive.