Archives for category: Bookstores

Now this is important, and has obvious bearing on the world of literature. JSTOR Daily informs us that there’s a company in Britain, Carlings, which will sell you a dress for £30 which comes with the caveat “This is a digital product that will be applied to your photo, you will not receive a physical version of this item”. They also inform us, rather inspiringly if redundantly, that their digital collection has zero impact on the environment.

So you can now buy an item of clothing just so as to look good in your Instagram feed. Carlings will “tailor” your garment to fit your photo. It’s clearly a trend waiting to explode, and I’m mulling over whether to offer to sell readers of this blog analogous “books” . . . let’s say Nicholas Nickleby for starters. You’ll never have to go to the bother of reading it (it is quite long) because the text won’t be there — it’ll just be a photo of the book which you can upload to Instagram and thus gobsmack all your friends with your superior reading chops.

Oh, all right — I’ll do it. Here’s your book:

All you have to do is download the photo: just drag it to your desktop. The hand’s a nice touch don’t you think? Makes it look like you didn’t just download a cover pic from Amazon. Hey, for an additional 50¢ we can even offer you a feminine thumb.

This is a free introductory offer. The next book you want to “read” will cost you £5, not bad compared to the price of a dress, eh?

Oh, oh: just had a horrible thought: will I have to share the proceeds with the publisher? Perhaps I’ll just call the whole thing off.

Amazon is reported to be reducing the number of copies of books which they hold in their warehouses. The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) post links to the Publishers Weekly report about this. (Thanks to The Digital Reader and BookRiot.) The reason given is lack of space in their warehouses, which is fair enough. Amazon has been building new warehouses all over the place for years, and logically a slow-down has to come at some time.

Now, Amazon works by powerful algorithm, and is extremely sensitive to changes in demand. If a book gets selected for some book group, or gets a good review somewhere, and as a result a few people place orders, Amazon’s system may generate orders to the publisher calling in more copies. They want to be covered against the algorithmic “probability” that tomorrow a dozen people will order the book and so on day after day. A consequence of this is that any sudden jump in demand can result in the majority of a publisher’s inventory ending up in Amazon’s warehouses, even though these dozens of orders don’t actually come to pass. Many a publisher has been forced into a reprint they didn’t really need, when ultimately Amazon’s excess inventory wends its way back as a return.

On the other hand Amazon’s ordering patterns will tend to get baked into publishers’ sales assumptions, and a slow-down in ordering will have an impact on budgets. One publisher is quoted in the PW article as saying that in Amazon’s latest order quantities were down 75% compared with this time last year. That’s not nothing.

Is Amazon moving toward a position of maybe allowing a customer to wait a day or two for a book? Not necessarily. They can and do source books not only from the publisher but from wholesalers, especially from Ingram, so it’s quite possible that they figure they can maintain “instant” delivery using this sort of option. They also have the option, in many instances, of printing a book by print-on-demand, even in some cases where the publisher is still offering copies from inventory printed by offset. This set up will have to have been agreed to by the publisher, and is directed at keeping books continuously and rapidly available. Amazon, on getting an order from a customer, will go through a cascade of options on how best to source the book. In other words, having the book on a shelf in one of their warehouses isn’t their only option.

Now that I have started the hare in my own mind of Amazon’s possibly wanting to exit the book business, I can’t stop reading that speculation into any news about them. But that’s got to be over-interpreting things in this case, even if the IBPA piece does suggest that Amazon’s looking to favor items with a bigger margin this holiday season. Last Christmas season there was a bit of congestion around Amazon’s warehouses, with publishers unable to get delivery appointments to deliver their books. Amazon’s decision to carry a bit less stock is possibly just an attempt to moderate this chaos, with a bit of fingers-crossed hoping that there won’t be much of an impact on their deliveries to customers.

Can this work? There was a discussion in the comments section of a recent post of how the book publishing industry might set up a collaborative online bookselling site to compete with Amazon. I remain concerned about anti-trust barriers to an initiative like this by publishers, but bookstores — that’s surely a horse of a different color. But can a collaborative online store work without support from publishers? Would publishers see any motivation to support a new site as against Amazon? What form would any support take? Bigger discounts might not be universally popular, and avoiding that sinkhole is in any case one of the motivations behind trying to outcompete Amazon.

Apparently the American Booksellers Association has been thinking along these lines too. Their “store”, due to launch in January is named Bookshop and Publishers Weekly has a piece about the idea/plan. There’s a discussion at LitHub encouraging us to order from our independent bookstore which mentions the Bookshop site. (Link via The Digital Reader.)

My worry is that this initiative may end up lacking focus. A sort of affiliate merchant program like Amazon has, using local bookstores as the partners could perhaps work, but I’m not quite sure how this site represents that. Just distributing 10% to stores who’ve signed up as partners, doesn’t represent the same idea, does it? Merely offering to sell people a book isn’t enough, is it? Why wouldn’t people continue going to Amazon? Key to success must be driving traffic to the site: relying solely on people’s good will seems inadequate, especially for an organization which has spent years dissing on-line purchasing. Surely real discounts for purchasers are a requirement, necessary but no doubt not sufficient. Something more is needed, but what? And where’s the margin to fund incentives to come from?

The ABA already offers books through their site Indiebound, though apparently not too many people have taken them up on this. The site isn’t altogether user friendly, and you’d have to be fairly determined to buy books this way. Bookshop is claimed to be better.

As they say at Indiebound:

Why shop Indie?

When you shop at an independently owned business, your entire community benefits:

The Economy

  • Spend $100 at a local-owned business and $52 of that stays in your community. 
  • Spend $50 at a national chain and keep $6.50 in the local community.
  • Spend $50 online with a remote vendor with no sales tax collected and keep not one penny in your local community.
  • Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
  • More of your taxes are reinvested in your community–where they belong.

The Environment

  • Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.

The Community

  • Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
  • Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
  • More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.

Now is the time to stand up and join your fellow individuals in the IndieBound mission supporting local businesses and celebrating independents.

All true enough, but wouldn’t this tend to discourage me from going to Bookshop too?

Now I’m sure Jeff Bezos likes to read books as much as the next guy, but whether he wants to remain in the book business is something I’m less confident about. I should emphasize that I am inventing this theory out of whole cloth: I have seen no indications and have no knowledge of any idea that he’s thinking of abandoning the book business. I just doubt that there’s very much thinking about the book business going on inside his head nowadays.

This picture of that head is the lead-in for The Atlantic‘s fascinating article, by Frankin Foer, about Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology·Innovation·Publishing.) Books are just there in the picture, tucked away in the occipital lobe. My belief in the likelihood of his giving up on books is based on the vast array of other businesses, much more profitable businesses, that he’s involved in. “At any moment, [Amazon’s] website has more than 600 million items for sale and more than 3 million vendors selling them. With its history of past purchases, it has collected the world’s most comprehensive catalog of consumer desire, which allows it to anticipate both individual and collective needs. With its logistics business—and its growing network of trucks and planes—it has an understanding of the flow of goods around the world.” And then there’s cloud computing, and space exploration, and groceries, and movies and television too.

Of course just because they don’t make him a fortune is no reason for Mr Bezos to abandon books, They do after all provide another avenue to ever more Prime membership dollars. Maybe his company is now so huge that it’s hard to spend the few minutes thinking about the narrow margins available on books, and consider doing anything about it. And there’s that old sentimental pull: without books the behemoth would never have gotten off the ground. And I suppose book buyers also buy sneakers. As he says of their Hollywood activities “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” Shoes, note, not books.

Might one envisage Mr Bezos making his book business over to the book publishing community? Unlikely perhaps but when political pressure is applied on the monopoly front, much dodging and weaving can be anticipated. As Richard Hershberger comments at last week’s Ch-ch-changes? post something like the abebooks system run by Amazon might be a good way for publishers to get into on-line sales. The cost of building that infrastructure just seems prohibitive to me, even if the initiative could be mounted without illegal collusion. Could we accept it as a gift?

To us Amazon is a huge presence in the book business.* To the overlord surveying his domain books must be almost invisible.


* And they do publishing too.

This letter addressed to Jeff Bezos was posted on Twitter on 21 October.

Click on the image to enlarge the letter.

Mr Caine makes good points, and I suspect we all want to be on his side. But I fear the root of the problem is that there’s a basic conflict between his view of how capitalism works (or should work) and Mr Bezos’. His request for a leveling of the playing field can surely be met by the observation that the levelness of the playing field is exactly what is demonstrated by Amazon’s growth: nobody prevented Raven Book Store from setting up a distribution system that would take over the world. Raven didn’t do that; Mr Bezos did. Amazon may be huge today: but there was a time, just 25 years ago, when it was a little start-up. Obviously Jeff Bezos’ bet was the right one.

Now it is true that there are the beginnings of signs of possible changes in corporate governance. To quote The Washington Post of 19 August: “In a new statement about the purpose of the corporation, the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 192 large companies, said business leaders should commit to balancing the needs of shareholders with customers, employees, suppliers and local communities.” Can we imagine self restraint on the part of a big corporation? Maybe some form of self restraint which is designed to help PR imaging and thus ultimately sales. Businesses are (necessarily) all about business. John D. Rockefeller when asked how much money was enough is said to have replied “Just a little bit more”. I fear that’s baked into the system. But maybe we can look forward to some cosmetic changes. Amazon does have an interest in avoiding government scrutiny: any monopoly position invites such scrutiny. One suspects it won’t be coming about as a result of pie and coffee in Lawrence, Kansas though.

£30,000 in 11 months may not seem like super earnings, but it’s not chump change either. Darren Barr of Kinross, Perthshire has just got 25 months for his efforts in stealing 7,000 books from three Edinburgh university libraries. The Edinburgh Evening News brings us the story.

The three universities who didn’t notice that their books were disappearing were Napier, Heriot-Watt, and Edinburgh Universities. Symmetrically minded Barr sold the books to three on-line retailers, WeBuyBooks who paid him £10,612 for 1,995 books, Ziffit who paid £18,600 for 4,488 books, and Zapper who paid £1,238 for 253 books. Detective Sergeant Dougal Begg from Corstorphine CID is reported as saying: “This is one of the most brazen and high-value thefts from our universities that I can ever recall and the amount of money Darren Barr was able to make by reselling stolen books is staggering. Had it not been for the staff at Edinburgh Napier University raising their concerns about missing stock, we may never have uncovered what Barr was up to and even larger quantities of books may have ended up being taken from the institutions.”

The theft was unearthed when someone who couldn’t get the book in the Napier University library bought a copy from WeBuyBooks and found the library’s ID inside the book.

Gwyneth Paltrow has hired a personal book curator to set up a home library for her. All she needs now is someone to read the volumes for her, or maybe, more charitably, to her. Celebrity bibliophile Thatcher Wine (who knew there was such a job title) sort of covers the event in an interview at Town & Country. The photos make you shudder: you’d never dare take a book off some of these shelves! (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers of 27 August.) Mr Wine with Elizabeth Lane has written a book about designing and creating a home library; and we always thought you just had to go to a bookshop and buy some books you might like to read. Both authors work at Juniper Books, which appears to be — well — a personal book curation service.

Here’s their picture of the Paltrow library. The adjective which insinuates itself into my mind is almost contained in the actress’ surname.

This urge to get your books in order puts me in mind of Abdul Kassem Ismael (938-995). His personal library, allegedly 117,000 books, was said to have been carried around with him on 400 camels, making up a caravan a mile long. For ease of reference the camels carried the volumes in alphabetical sequence, thus comprising a living index. Not sure if my stash of the readies will stretch to hiring 26 likely lads to carry my library about for me. Just have to stay at home I guess. The story was recently sent to me in a link from LightSource, a Christian ministry site. (How does Jeremy find this sort of thing?) The tale was retailed by Alberto Manguel in his (to me anyway, rather disappointing) A History of Reading. (I’m amazed to discover from my BoB that it was exactly twenty years ago that I read it.) Somewhat surprisingly it is The National Security Agency which provides a reality check on this legend. According to them, and who’d dare doubt them, “However charming this tale may be, the actual event upon which it is based is subtly different. According to the original manuscript, now in the British Museum, the great scholar and literary patron Sahib Isma’il b. ‘Abbad [which apparently is another fancier way of saying Abdul Kassem Ismael] so loved his books that he excused himself from an invitation by King Nuh II to become his prime minister at least in part on the grounds that four hundred camels would be required for the transport of his library alone.” The piece may be found at Wikisource.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how it is that perfectly unassuming facts can take on a vivid fantasy life of their own. Is this natural selection at work? “Striking” dominant; “boring” recessive? The Selfish Meme?

Juniper Books is the brain-child of Mr Wine. As their website tells us “Juniper books was founded in 2001 by Thatcher Wine. Thatcher had always loved reading and collecting books, he began his journey sourcing one-of-a-kind and rare book collections for clients around the world. A few years later, Thatcher invented custom book jackets and Juniper Books’ customers fully embraced this new concept. The creativity and our line of “Off-The-Shelf” book sets have proliferated since then. Today we work with thousands of customers in 50+ countries, helping them rediscover the power of print.” So there you go. Sign up for the Books Everyone Should Own (BESO) subscription, at $550 p.a., and you’ll get a pretty novel each month to keep you in touch with the power of print. Those who want to sound like the head of Amazon could sign up for two subscriptions.

A few years ago I did a piece on curation. But this was about content curation. Juniper Books’ service might be said to be trying to duplicate the experience of going to a good independent bookstore, which could itself be described as a sort of diffuse curated collection of books. If you don’t have access to a good bookshop, maybe this service is enough to be going on with? Of course it’s true that many bookshops willl accommodate you with various subscription services. Heywood Hill in Mayfair have particularly elegant offerings. I wrote previously about the subscription model for books.

The antidote for the Juniper service might be Marie Kondo. It’s almost perfect: pay Mr Wine to put in your library: pay Ms Kondo to weed it out: pay Mr Wine to build you another library: call Kondo: Wine: Kondo and so on ad infinitum. For people with too much money (a group whose problems continue to be shamefully under-appreciated by the rest of us) this represents a small step on the way to alleviating the worry of what to do with all that cash flowing in the front door.


Ever seen queues like this to get into a bookshop? No wonder they don’t allow buses.

Unfortunately, when you eventually get there, this bookshop, in the middle of the Taconic State Parkway, turns out to be holding a little less inventory than you might have hoped. There’s actually a rather good Taste New York food shop up the road a bit, similarly placed between north and south carriageways.

Much too prosaically, the queue was simply the result of a rear-ending a little further up the road.

Amazon has managed to ship about 800 copies of The Testaments, the eagerly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, ahead of the embargoed world-wide publication date of 10 September. Well, of course this sort of “accident” is annoying, but will it really affect sales in your local indie store?

Shelf Awareness for 5 September has a lengthy story about the issue, quoting several aggrieved booksellers. They link also to The Guardian‘s account of the snafu.

There are of course book people who foam at the mouth when Amazon does anything, but if the punter’s ordered the book from Amazon, he’s surely not turning up in your store next week to buy a copy. One can sympathize with booksellers who are constantly on the defensive against the online flood-tide, but does this early release really cost them sales? Surely if Amazon shipped an order to a customer a week or two early it was because that customer had already ordered the book from Amazon. Pre-publication reviews, while generally discouraged by publishers, are unlikely to affect the buying decisions of Atwood fans — unless the reviews were really bad. (Here’s an early favorable quasi-review from The New Yorker.) Do people really upload bootlegged copies of new books — which they’d first have to scan to create a digital file of some sort? If they really do, would it not be fair to say that customers who’d buy such a bootleg copy would not in any case be customers of their local bookstore?

Adding insult to injury here’s an extract from The Testaments at The Guardian.

I wonder if trying to co-ordinate a publication date across the nation, not to say the world, may now be an utterly quixotic effort. In the good old days, when everything acted at a more deliberate pace, the publishing industry was able to pull this trick off with regularity, though even back then there were breaches — it’s just because we didn’t have social media back then to alert us instantly that we assume all was peachy clean. Times have changed though, and patience is not the cardinal virtue it once was. I expatiated on publication dates a few years ago: I see no reason to think differently today.

Obviously someone at Penguin Random House thought it would be a fun idea to try and pull off another pub date embargo. So — it didn’t work perfectly — but did anyone get hurt?

We should of course none of us hold our breath in anticipation of any disciplinary action by PRH against the Amazonian offender. People may think publishers are stupid, but they’re not suicidal.

Beware: the book you just bought from Amazon may not be what you expected.

On the face of it getting a screwed-up book like this doesn’t seem too much of a likelihood to a publishing person: of course if you want a proper version of George Orwell’s 1984 you should get it from the correct publisher. But of course most people aren’t tuned in to who publishes what: they just want a book, and it’s hardly surprising that most chose the cheapest one they can find. As this New York Times story by David Streitfeld tells us this means that, at Amazon, the customer is quite likely to be getting a pile of garbage. (Link via Jose Afonso Furtado.) Of course the main loser is the author, who isn’t getting any royalty from these counterfeit books.

One rather feels that Amazon maybe should be doing something about this. (Though remember that they were heavily criticized in 2009 when they removed copies of 1984 from Kindles because of a similar copyright issue.) It’s all well and good for these media behemoths to claim that they are merely conduits between provider and consumer, but if you went into a bricks-and-mortar bookshop you could expect that someone would have made sure that the text of the book you pick up would indeed be contained between the covers in your hands, and not some gobbledygook or other. Of course you would be paying full price, but still, I do think if you’re going to set up as a bookseller you need to behave responsibly. Just how this is to be achieved is beyond me, but these guys claim to be smart. Amazon has taken down a couple of the Indian editions the author of the article told them about, but they have no real overall solution as far as I can tell. They recently issued a statement saying “Today, there is no single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country that retailers could use to check copyright status. Retailers are dependent on rights holders to tell them where they have the rights for each title and for how long”!

Of course Amazon may in this area be laboring under the conceptual difficulty that when you “buy” a Kindle book, you don’t actually buy a book, you buy access to a file of a book. This might be seen as putting Amazon in a different relationship to its customers than a regular bookshop or publisher is when they sell physical objects. I wonder, the law being what it is, if this makes a difference in their duties to purchasers. But just because the ebook’s status may be different doesn’t mean you can just let the copyright issue in print books slide by too. No doubt this is a complicated problem, and, one assumes, a problem they’ve been working on for ten tears already: but they’re the ones making the money — let them work it out.

The Passive Voice’s story has a link to a Publishing Perspectives piece, which points out one way in which Amazon is actually exacerbating the problem by blurring the distinction between different editions of a book. They indicate that Mr Streitfeld writes  “Amazon sometimes bundles all the reviews of a title together, regardless of which edition they were written for. That means an unauthorized edition of Animal Farm can have thousands of positive reviews, signaling to a customer it is a valid edition.” The Passive Voice, ever anti-publisher and rabidly pro-ebook, suggests it’s the publishers with their “massive” profits who need to sort this. However as Michael Cader, quoted in that same PP post, points out, Amazon has created the problem and their response to criticism has basically been that of a naughty child: it’s hard; everyone does it; it’s your fault anyway and you should fix it.