Archives for category: Bookstores

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.

At Shelf Awareness Robert Gray brings us an article about a recent survey of independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Some of the highlighted findings are:

  • Independent retailers overwhelmingly ranked Amazon’s market power as the top threat to their businesses, and only 11% of those selling on Amazon’s Marketplace described their experience as successful.
  • 70% of small businesses said Amazon’s market power should be investigated by antitrust regulators.
  • 40% of retailers and 30% of manufacturers said there has been a significant merger in their industry in the last five years.
  • Independent businesses said they are paying higher prices and receiving less favorable terms as a result of growing concentration among suppliers.
  • 52% of independent retailers in cities reported that commercial rents have been rising faster than their sales. Only 6% said rents have been growing slower than sales.
  • In a market dominated by Visa and Mastercard, independent retailers are spending an average of 3% of their total revenue on swipe fees.
  • 41% of those that sought a loan in the past two years did not receive the funding they needed. This figure was higher for businesses that are new, smaller, minority-owned, or women-owned.

When asked which public policy issues are most important to their businesses, the independent retailers surveyed cited credit card swipe fees, Internet sales taxes, corporate subsidies and tax incentives, and antitrust policy in the top six issues for retailers, alongside healthcare policy and labor requirements.

Mr Gray’s article will eventually turn up at Fresh Eyes Now, his blog archive.

Well, Amazon is an obvious target, but the problem in an aggressively free market economy is figuring out what might be done about it. In a way complaining that company X does things better than you do is not really an argument likely to bring you support from the government, or anyone else for that matter. But there is obviously a problem here. For many book buyers the ability to get a book at a cheaper price is “a good thing” — but it’s surely not the only thing. Everyone (almost everyone who is in the book market) can go online and find any book at Amazon. That the book will be in stock and the price is liable to be lower than in the “real world” just makes the deal easier to accept. The positives there are obvious. Much more amorphous are the disadvantages. How much is it worth to provide employment for local bookstore workers; to support local business; to be able to browse and handle the books before plumping for a purchase; to benefit from the advice and curation of an experienced bookseller? I do suspect that many book buyers might opt for the second scenario, and be willing to give the go-by to the discounted price, but how would we know that? You can hardly run a survey of everyone who’s likely to buy a book in the next year or two, even if the results would be anything other than interesting, rather than a justification for some policy changes.

It is altogether possible that we are reaching the end of this particular road. If we want to allow people to do what the majority wants how can we justify preventing that? Buying books online is hardly equivalent to refusing to have your children vaccinated, or smoking in public. Maybe we’ll come to regret the loss of the independent stores (not just bookstores) after we have lost them, and ultimately demand that we get them back again. Just as in the early 20th century cities were engineered to accommodate the motor car, and in the early 21st century are beginning to be reengineered for pedestrians and bicyclists, so maybe we’ll get back the corner store after we notice its absence. But who wants to wait a hundred years?

I wonder what’s happening these days with Book Culture, a case in point. All the news seems to be old.

Also relevant in this context is the French experience.

Robert Gray says in his Shelf Awareness column for 26 July that he wasn’t aware of this 37-minute film until Open Culture sent him a post. Neither was I: but it has been viewed over a million times at YouTube in the three months it’s been there. It’s certainly worth 37 minutes of your time. As well as touring a bunch of impressive bookshops, the narrator takes you on a journey of discovering how to read more books before you exit the scene.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Shelf Awareness tells us about Book Club, a new bookshop coming to town. Books, wine, coffee — sound like a place to visit.

Shelf Awareness‘s July 17th story reads in full: Book Club, an independent bookstore featuring a café, will open this fall at 197 E. Third St. in Manhattan’s East Village. Erin Neary, who’s operating the business with her fiancé, Nat Esten, told EV Grieve that the book section of the storefront will carry a broad selection of adult fiction, nonfiction and children’s titles, as well as a variety of greeting cards and gifts. The cafe section will serve MUD coffee, among other items. The owners appeared earlier this week before Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority committee to request a beer-wine license for the address.

“Our vision for the space is a cozy, living room vibe: a place where you can enjoy a nice glass of wine or coffee while reading a book, but also a place for the community to come together for various events, such as author readings and signings, and literary trivia,” Neary said. “As East Village residents for the last decade, we’re committed to having Book Club be a celebration of the spirit and diversity of the neighborhood.”

 

Are bookstores a cultural good? And does this mean they should somehow be supported from public funds? Book Culture’s financial troubles make us think once more about public support for book shops. Mr Doeblin asks for a loan of at least half a million dollars.* Is this the only way to go?

With coincidental good timing The Economist‘s issue of 6 July includes an article about public support for bookstores in France. A law from 1981 bans the sale of any book at a price different from the price assigned by the publisher. The focus of the piece is just how the law should work in a digital world. “The fixed-price rule is meant to keep customers loyal to their local bookshop and out of the clutches of supermarkets and hypercapitaliste American corporations. But the advent of e-commerce and e-readers has prompted questions worthy of their own tomes. Can you fix the price of a book if it is part of an all-you-can-read subscription service? Are audiobooks books at all? And what of authors who self-publish?” In 2011 the law was adjusted to apply to ebooks. Used books are exempt, but of course you’re not going to have to check for fingerprints belonging to a putative previous owner when you open your Amazon partner package.

The argument against resale price maintenance projects is that they raise prices, or maybe more accurately, prevent them from falling. Britain got rid of its New Book Agreement in the nineties largely for this reason. Depending on your point of view this has been a great thing, or a national tragedy. Books are available in a wider variety of places, and sales have increased. Pricing is an essential tool for mass marketing, and bestselling books are more widely available and at lower prices than they were before the end of resale price maintenance. On the other hand as England’s Restrictive Practices Court foresaw, the number of stockholding bookshops has been reduced; although certain titles are cheaper, the price of most books is higher; and it has become much harder to publish titles of literary and scholarly value. I do believe that resale price maintenance does save bookstores.

I always feel I’m doomed to be on the wrong side of this argument about cultural goods. The trouble with state subsidization of culture like the opera, art galleries, symphony orchestras (and books, if they were subsidized) is that what gets subsidized is what we, the cultural elite, want to have subsidized, not what everyone might chose. I’m not sure I know what the masses would like to see subsidized, if such an issue was ever raised among them, but I doubt if it’s opera. I love opera and am delighted to benefit from state subsidization whenever I come across it, but I cannot really justify spending other people’s tax payments on making my seat at Götterdämmerung a bit less expensive. By extension, books.

Is there any way to parlay the fracturing of the book business represented by the growth of digital media and self publishing into some solution to the cultural good issue. Would it help serious publishing and serious bookselling if we were to have some form of resale price maintenance for print books? To some extent (a large extent?) print books are already a sort of elite product. A few years ago this would have been crazy to think this way: we were all worrying that print books were going to disappear before the flood of ebooks. Now I don’t think we fear this any longer. Do we have the confidence to say that print books are for committed print book readers, and discounting them is not essential to their sales success?

Part of me says “Yes of course”, but then another little voice says “Amazon, Amazon” and I have to admit that it may too late to think about saving any kind of widespread bookstore universe.

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* We need to remove from the conversation the Amazon New York HQ deal which Mr Doeblin explicitly cites as a justification for help for his business. This sort of thing is an entirely different kettle of fish. Whatever one thinks of it, states and cites do often give tax breaks to (mostly big) companies to attract them to move into their locality, or often to persuade them not to leave. The justification for this is that the large company will generate so much tax revenue, via corporate taxes, income taxes, sales taxes and so on that the subsidy is a mere sprat next to the long-term revenue mackerel. This has nothing to do with culture, good or bad. It’s all about money.

Book Culture, booksellers, have four locations in New York City: two near Columbia University, one near the Natural History Museum, and one in Long Island City. They are facing financial difficulties. Am I wrong to feel that they pushing it a bit in asking us to bail them out? The Columbia Spectator reports that the mini-chain’s owner, Chris Doeblin, claims they need $500,000 from taxpayers in order to stay open. We all acknowledge that there are problems with the economics of the book business, and obviously moving to a $15 minimum wage has a big effect on the equation. With 75 staff spread over four locations, it clearly adds up to quite a shock to the system when their hourly rate jumps quite sharply (if not altogether unexpectedly). Shelf Awareness of 3 July tells us Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris is working on the case. Will this do anything? Mr Doeblin says his landlords have been cooperative, so my normal reaction to bookstore problems, “blame the landlords”, isn’t the appropriate one here.

A report in Fast Company has Mr Doeblin justifying his request for help by citing the deal negotiated (and later repudiated by) Amazon. Well, yes; and well, no. Book Culture has a slightly smaller footprint that Amazon, and doesn’t need tempting to come to New York: that’s where they are. The Book Culture LIC location is right next door to where the Amazon headquarters might have appeared! However, though Amazon does of course sell books, the tax incentives they were offered were directed not towards funding a bookshop or two, but toward the establishment of a headquarters office with a supposed creation of 25,000 high paying jobs. These jobs were estimated to lead over 25 years to a $13.5 billion benefit to the city in tax revenues as well as the effects of consumption by new well-off residents. Can Book Culture suggest even a proportional boost for the city if we give them a loan? Sure we want bookstores. But we probably want them to stand on their own feet. The implication that $15 an hour is the root cause of the problem is a bit unfair: you can’t blame staff for the balance sheet. As the various articles cited suggest, Mr Doeblin has not always had the best of relations with staff and unions, and although he’s not baldly blaming staff pay for the stores’ financial troubles, the tendency of his argument does point in that direction. Might there not be other management issues? I still believe the key to bookstore economics should be rent control for “essential businesses”, with maybe some sort of culture-value discount on taxes. But a gift of half a million dollars? Should I feel better thinking of it as a repayable gift, given today but set off against future taxes?

According to Gothamist on 24 June, “On Monday afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer issued a statement in support of Book Culture, saying, ‘Independent stores like Book Culture should get more support from the government. My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve.’” Maybe we are going to be able to work something out. Is “independent stores . . . should get more support from government” just something to say, or does it carry any real policy content?

Of course I don’t know anything about the details of the economics of Book Culture’s business, but how about cutting back to three locations? Two locations? Clearly Columbia University has been supportive. “When the bookstore realized that it would face significant hurdles following the minimum wage raise, Columbia lowered rent prices for the store’s 114th Street and Broadway location so they could stay in business” The Columbia Spectator reports. Although Columbia has a college bookstore deal with Barnes & Noble, Book Culture does act like a bit of a college bookstore: when I went in to buy a copy of Patty Smith’s Just Kids in their main location I was directed upstairs to the college department because the book was on a Columbia reading list. Does this not suggest that maybe they owe Columbia a bit of loyalty in return?

Bookshops

It looks like rain and so I step inside.
Another bookshop: rows of shelves and stacks,
At least a dozen rooms where I can hide
Among the faded Penguin paperbacks.
I breathe the musty air and then begin
To rummage round. Before too long I’ve spied
Something in which to feign an interest:
Dog-eared and foxed, with pages folded in,
Some local writer. I am unimpressed,

But what I light on next is even worse:
The Vegan Cookbook, Yorkshire from the Air,
Teach Yourself Danish, Esperanto Verse,
Though I suppose the things that I find there
Are only what I ought to have expected.
I choose a book and, rooting through my purse
I make my way back to the door again
And, having paid for what I’ve just selected,
I step back out into the icy rain.

I wonder why I’m drawn to shops like these,
Heaving with dusty, battered hand-me-downs,
The ramshackle discarded libraries
In quiet back streets of provincial towns
Where I can while away the hours and read.
I wonder, too, why I feel so at ease
Amidst pulp fiction sold at knock-down prices.
And shops like this still satisfy a need
When we all carry digital devices.

I held a slick new tablet once, to see
What it was like – a bookstore in the “cloud” –
Thousands of books downloadable for free,
A function that could read the text out loud.
One swipe across the screen removed the text –
Plastic and metal have no history –
No scribbled notes, no underlined key phrase,
No sense of past – a perfect palimpsest –
No dedications; everything erased.

No; give me attics, landings where floors creak
Weighed down by lovely leather folios,
The scent of slowly mouldering antique,
And cloth-bound volumes, green and brown and rose,
If only in the hope that what’s long dead,
Can have a proper form through which to speak
Or the illusion that between the pages
I still might hear what long ago was said
And feel myself connected with the ages.

~ Charles Jenkins

Picked up from The Passive Voice. Presumably © Charles Jenkins

I guess everyone now knows about the somewhat surprising purchase of Barnes & Noble by Elliott Management, a venture capital group who also rescued Waterstones in UK. Vulture provides a time-line history of Barnes and Noble, starting only from Len Riggio’s acquisition of the company in 1971, at which point it was already expanding beyond its Cooper Union origins.

Mike Shatzkin‘s not beating about any bushes: he doesn’t think James Daunt can pull off the same trick with Barnes & Noble as he appears to have done with Waterstones. Actually, I don’t really think it is quite the same trick he’s being asked to pull off. Waterstones was never a transatlantic clone of B&N. Which just means I don’t think the trick will work either, just more emphatically. It’s hard to see how the constantly changing inventory advocated by Mr Shatzkin could be organized in a physical bookstore let alone a collection of lots of stores. Workers would spend all their time opening cartons and packing books for return. Trying to reproduce conditions available online in a bricks-and-mortar environment is a Sisyphean task: which of course is just the problem.

I believe that we have lived through the era of the gigantic bookstore. A meteor killed the dinosaurs; the Amazon drowned the chains. That the warehouse store model did indeed work for books in a pre-internet age is indisputable. That lots of money can be made from books is shown by this weird article from The New Yorker, recounting an odd initiative by a Riggio literary charity funded by money earned during Barnes & Noble’s glory days. It took me quite a while to decide whether the article was fiction or non-fiction. I’m still not sure though I’m plumping for real. “The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship” is undoubtedly strange.

A number of writers were invited to turn up for a “’congress of writers’ that would teach skills and speak truth to power”. Who was organizing it and why was shrouded in mystery, but Daniel A. Gross agreed to try it out. In the end the thing he got out of the experience was this article for The New Yorker, not nothing of course. Buried in the middle of his article is the odd sentence, used as a pull quote by Jane Friedman in forwarding the link, “I wish someone had told me that early-career writers are the cheap gas on which much of the writing business runs.” Maybe I’m just too dumb to be an early-career writer (or too old) but I can’t figure out exactly what this means, and I doubt, if someone had muttered this cryptic warning to Mr Gross, things would have turned out any different. So he got $5,000 from the Riggio Foundation for turning up a few afternoons for “the pedagogy” after the fellowship program was cancelled, not the $10,000 promised at the outset, but I don’t see who in the writing business (if such a business really does exist) benefitted from his gas, which as far as I can tell wasn’t sold particularly cheaply, if indeed any product changed hands. It’s fascinating to know that there are people with money who think this sort of gathering does any good — I’m forced to believe they apparently do since nevertheless such programs do take place. There’s always something new.