Archives for category: Bookstores

We all watch in amazement as Penguin Random House surges ahead to ever greater heights of publishing output. Now of course we do have to allow for the possibility that they, or parent Bertelsmann, are making a mistake in getting ever larger in an already mature industry. Though that’s perhaps hard to believe: we are used to thinking they can do no wrong. They seem set on a course of industry dominance. (Is industry dominance not always a good thing? Perhaps not if you are dominating a doomed industry? But is book publishing doomed?)

The New Republic has an article, entitled “Penguin Random House is Building the Perfect Publishing House”, which examines the relationship between Amazon and PRH, or more accurately speculates about this relationship.

The Passive Voice provides a link to this piece, and follows it up with some acerbic commentary including this concluding paragraph: “PG [Passive Guy, the voice of Passive Voice] is continually amazed that anyone in the book business thinks Amazon is anything less than the best thing that has ever happened to traditional publishers and authors of all stripes. Despite all the platitudes staggering around physical bookstores and literary bars, there is absolutely nothing inevitable about the traditional publishing business in the digital age.” Don’t these two sentences kind of cancel one another out? If we have no future, how come anything current can be the best thing that ever happened to us? PG does tend, it’s true, to the view that the best thing that could happen to publishing is that it should go away, and this would of course sort all this out. A corrective to his partial, off-kilter view of publishing might be provided by Joe Esposito’s sober analysis at The Scholarly Kitchen of How Traditional Publishing Works.

Is Amazon the best thing that ever happened to publishing? I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing, but for publishers, just like the advent of ebooks, it’s probably a fairly neutral thing. Sure Amazon’s size enables it to command ever greater discounts. Still, even without Amazon upward pressure on discounts was always there: the book chains came into existence at least in part to enable them to increase their negotiating heft. It’s true that pre-Amazon we used to have to sell our books to a multiplicity of smaller retailers, and now we get to sell lots of copies direct to a single large retailer. We still try to sell to the little stores too though, so it’s not as if Amazon had saved us anything by increasing our efficiency. Before Amazon, books were sold. Now that we have Amazon books are still being sold. Not as many copies of most of them as it happens, but that may have nothing to do with Amazon. The industry grows its output and massive corporations like PRH can churn through a lot of titles in a season — but of course PRH is basically just the result of consolidation of lots of smaller lists. All those books would still be there if they came from 90 publishing houses rather than just one. Amazon is indeed a huge retailer, and obviously has a giant presence in all book publishers’ thinking. But the publishing process remains basically identical to what it was twenty five years ago. We’ve taken advantage of a few technological advances, but we’ve been doing that ever since the scribes held up their hands in the face of Gutenberg’s Bible. Nowadays we publishers may have to fight harder to preserve our margins, but we have become pretty skillful at pressuring our suppliers too.

The Passive Guy also opines “Amazon doesn’t need to sell books. Randy Penguin does.” (Randy Penguin is what he wittily calls PRH.) And I suspect he may be right on this. Amazon started out selling books because they were simple; they commanded a reasonable price, the inventory wouldn’t spoil, the people who wanted them were likely to be digitally connected, and many people actually did live quite a long way from the nearest bookstore, and would certainly be willing to wait a day or two after buying the book before they actually saw it. I dare say one could figure out what percentage of Amazon’s sale is now comprised of books, but I do know it’s not the 100% it was initially. Cloud computing services, film and TV production, space exploration, and a list of retail offerings as long as the Amazon itself, must make books almost a sentimental reminder of the good old days when the company was just a little rivulet. Publishers are quietly increasing the number of books they sell direct to consumers (see my recent post D2C). We used to think that competing with Amazon would necessitate building a system as big and efficient as theirs: now I suspect we can see signs that a little-by-little response may be perfectly adequate.  Who’d be utterly amazed if Amazon didn’t end up just getting out of the book business, and selling the whole kit and caboodle to someone? Maybe PRH if they’re still intent on growing?

TechCrunch tells us of discussions around Senator Sanders’ introduction of a bill in Congress to regulate the “corporate culture” of big companies; Walmart and Amazon as well as the fast food industry are seen as large targets.

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

The bill, named the “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies” Act (after Jeff Bezos) was introduced on 5 September by Senator Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna of California. The bill would require companies with more than 500 employees to pay 100% tax on every dollar of government assistance that their workers receive. This tax would apply to everything from Medicaid and food stamps to public housing and other aid, which sounds rather hard to figure out: but hey what are bureaucrats for?

Unsurprisingly Amazon says it’s a great place to work. We have of course often heard about how horrible it is to work at Amazon, how workers queue up for hours to get through the anti-theft system at the end of the day etc. etc.. Maybe, maybe. It’s always easy to describe your workplace as awful: the boss is ignorant, your colleagues lazy, the work stultifying. I wouldn’t be confident that I wasn’t guilty of such a thing every now and then. Disgruntlement is endemic in the labor force. As I have occasionally had to say, “If it was all fun, we wouldn’t have to pay you to come in”. Amazon claims that their average hourly wage is $15, which falls right into Senator Sanders’ wheelhouse. Of course people persist in using median and average so as to maximize the impact of their argument. I wonder how the median salary at Amazon quoted by TechCrunch as “$28,444, less than Bezos makes every ten seconds” is calculated. Does it include Mr Bezos’ salary? Sen. Sanders gives examples of lots of Amazon workers making less than $15, and obviously there must be a lot to make that median work out.

Here’s Washington Post’s similar story. Although it is Mr Bezos’ own paper, it plays a pretty straight bat on the subject. I don’t really know the rights and wrongs of the Amazon wage structure, but if a company were systematically to be paying its workers less than they “should” be, confident in the knowledge that the workers would be able to make up any shortfall against the basic cost of living by getting food stamps from the government, I’m not sure whether I would regard this as altogether wicked. You pay the wages you need to pay in order to attract workers. If you pay too little, workers will find other jobs — something which I agree may be difficult in particular instances. If a worker, having a job anywhere, is able by the terms of the government’s SNAP regulations to qualify for food stamps, I can’t see any problem with their getting food stamps. At $15 an hour and a full time job you would not qualify for food stamps I think, (depends on the number of dependents etc.) but increasing the minimum wage might be a better approach than this odd tax claw-back. We might also look into the growth of part-time employment, a common means of by-passing benefit payments.

The food stamp program exists to ensure Americans, especially children, get a decent basic diet, and can be regarded more like a national health program than a work assistance one. Surely, just because a company is notoriously profitable cannot be turned into an argument that the nutrition of their workers should not be a concern of the state. We can probably all agree that it is desirable that anyone with a decent job should be able to feed their family out of their wages. The problem comes when they can’t, either because the pay packet isn’t large enough, because they can’t get enough hours, or because, as conservatives might claim, they spend their money on other frivolous stuff. Everyone has to think that children shouldn’t suffer malnutrition because of the spending choices of their parents. The (rather moderate) socialist Sen. Sanders ought perhaps not be attacking employers: shouldn’t he rather be introducing legislation to extend food stamps under SNAP to even more people, trying to curtail part-time and zero-hour contracts, or perhaps even pushing yet again for a national health scheme?



Are we beginning to see signs that we may be ready to shake off our petrified immobility in the face of the Amazon-monster? It seems so obvious that offering books direct to readers makes sense. Sure we all love bookstores, and wish them well, but selling books is what we exist to do, and an idea like Scholarly Books Unbound ought to make sense. The Scholarly Kitchen has a piece about the New Book Network‘s proposal.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between booksellers and book publishers. Publishers know that if they want to get a good buzz going it helps to have stacks of their books in front of eyes in as many bookstores as possible. But how much does it help? I suspect that with a prohibitive bestseller people are going to scramble to get the book regardless of whether they see it in a shop window or not. Sales of the specialist, slow-moving book will probably not be affected much by whether it appears in a bookstore or not. It’s probably the second-tier bestseller which benefits most from bookstore exposure.

Be it said here and now that we are discussing print books only. The distribution of ebooks is rather different. And we are talking only about print books from what has come to be called traditional publishing. Self publishing and indie publishing are different too.

Looking at any book’s retail price we can see a money cake which gets divided up between the three interest holders — author, bookseller, publisher (four if you count the shipping companies which today play a large role in our business). The size of the author’s slice is predetermined by the terms of the contract. Let’s call that 10%. Obviously, with a print book, it costs something to manufacture the object; let’s call that 15%. This leaves 75% of the cake to be shared by bookseller and publisher. Nowadays the bookseller, with Amazon in the lead, will be wanting more than 50% of the cake with books everyone’s aware of, leaving the publisher to cover overhead and profit out of the 25% remaining. Of course these numbers are not precise or even necessarily accurate: one book’s profit & loss picture will look very different from another’s. They are order of magnitude right, and are there simply to illustrate the issue.

Now as bookstores seek larger and larger discounts, approaching 60% in some instances, is the publisher not being forced to consider whether selling direct to the customer isn’t in fact a better deal? Well, it is undoubtedly a better deal in money terms, but we are not quite confident that giving up the ability to stack books up in customers’ faces isn’t worth quite a lot. In other words we aren’t confident we can sell as many copies on our own as we can do under the current distribution model. If we knew we could get away with it we would embrace direct to consumer sales. When I worked in Britain in the last century we had the Net Book Agreement, a deal between publishers and the book trade quite explicitly directed at ensuring the viability of a wide-spread network of independent bookstores — and it worked. Publishers knew bookstore were vital to getting books to customers — nobody had dreamed of on-line selling at that time, and a bookshop was the only means of reaching the public. (Well there were book clubs as well as book departments in department stores.) When Amazon was first setting up, publishers thought about competing head-to-head with them by building their own on-line book service, but decided not to as they considered the survival of bricks-and-mortar bookstores more important. And as long as bookstores were willing to settle for a half share of the remainder of the cake, this restraint continued to make sense. But now the game may not be worth the candle: obviously, if by selling direct you get all of that 75% (minus the cost of packing and shipping) you are doing a lot better than just being left with 25%. Lots of publishers already do this on the quiet, and many of them feel compelled (though I cannot figure out why) to offer a discount on these direct sales.

The request from book chains for a discount greater than 55% may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Sure we love them, but can we afford to keep giving away money to bookstores? Any publisher who refuses the bookstore’s request for more discount faces a response which leads to none of their books being on sale in the stores affected. Collusion is not allowed, but if three or four large publishers were to refuse to give larger discounts, the selection available in these stores would be severely affected, and how long will people keep turning up to find what they want isn’t there. So I wonder if the threat is not just empty. Another massive, but hardly discussed side effect of refusing to sell your books to bookstores is that the returns problem disappears. D2C is returns-free — apart from the occasional manufacturing flaw — and that would represent a huge money boost for the publishing industry.

See my 2015 post End book returns?

We love to blame Amazon for everything wrong with our business. Remember how, twenty years ago, we used to love to blame the chain stores, prominent among them Barnes & Noble. We’ve switched the foot on which we wear the boot and now like to hold Amazon responsible for good old reliable B&N’s current ills.

Mike Shatzkin, weighs in at The Shatzkin Files, with a piece exonerating Amazon from the charge of Barnes-and-Noble-icide. B&N’s situation is of course a result of moves they themselves made (and didn’t make) in response to changes in the marketplace. Maybe the Department of Justice did have some role in this when they blocked B&N’s attempt to acquire Ingram, but who can know how that’d have turned out anyway. Back in the last century we all vaguely saw, with very little clarity and certainty, that selling books on-line was something we needed to do something about, or Amazon or something Amazon like would drown us. When you look back on the map of where you’ve come from you can always see those forks in the road where you took one turning rather than another. The assumption should not be made however that, had we taken the road less travelled, everything would be now coming up roses. To any business model, as to every thing, there is a season. When that time’s over, something else comes along. It looks like the something else in book retailing is now going to be an Amazon surrounded by a cloud of small, quick-witted independent bookstores. This is a situation easier to live with than to struggle against. Different isn’t necessarily worse.

The Passive Voice picks up a piece from Business Insider, telling of their visit to B&N’s Union Square store (it’s a big one). Their captioned picture gallery is pretty devastating. Now of course we know you can pick a moment that’ll make your point in a photo, but these images have an ominous familiarity. The long and short of it is surely that hardly anybody now goes into a bookstore intending to buy a specific book. Unless it’s a recent bestseller we can all more or less assume it won’t be there, so why bother? I think an on-line in-stock list by each bricks-and-mortar bookstore (as I suggested in my recent post Robot booksellers?) might help recover some of this trade, but things can’t go on like this.

The news of the opening of unstaffed bookstores in Beijing provoked Robert Gray into a round-up article at Shelf Awareness of 16 March 2018. His piece entitled “Bullet Points & Robot Booksellers — A Collage” may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. Mr Gray includes a link to the story of poor Fabio, a Pepper robot, who was fired after only one week in Margiotta’s, an upmarket foodstore in Edinburgh. Let’s hope this means that we humans can hope that our days as bookstore assistants are not numbered (yet. Or not numbered with too small a number anyway.)

I almost think I’d prefer there to be at least one robot in Amazon’s NYC bricks-and-mortar store. The couple of humans on staff were so tied up with checkout that you’d have to stand on line just to ask if there’s a copy of a particular book in the shop. I just left, and went the next day to Three Lives (who didn’t have it either). I guess for a book shop to keep its inventory showing on-line might be a cost, but I do think that this may be an important thing to do. Sure I can call and ask, but I don’t. Nowadays, when we are all used to being able to order on-line right away, it’s surely dangerous to cede the on-line check-up arena to Amazon. Set up an inventory listing, link it somehow to your cash register (for deletions) and your order entry system (for additions) and bingo, there’s a list of everything you have. Even when I’m in the store I could check this listing rather than “wasting” the time of an assistant, but most importantly I can see at home if it’s worthwhile getting on the subway and visiting you to get it. That’s more or less what these Chinese bookstore robots are doing anyway, isn’t it?

Not entirely sure what to think about this piece, Publish and be damned, from Kenilworth Books (a bookstore in England’s green and pleasant Midlands) abbreviated and commented upon at The Passive Voice. I’d like to think I’m as much in favor of authors’ prospering as the next guy, and while some of what’s said here is correct, especially about bookstore discounts, overall I think it misses the target.

Publishers do not cavalierly divide their lists up into books they’ll promote, and books they’ll just let sink or swim. The raw reality is that a book’s marketing budget is (must be) a function of its sales. Books that sell lots of copies get lots of promotion; books that don’t don’t. Publishers make judgements, occasionally wrong — but god knows they’ve got a lot more experience at doing this than commentators or authors — as to which books are likely to sell in which quantities. The marketing and promotion budget will be a fixed proportion of expected sales revenue. Books with good prospects get lots of promotion money; those with less good, less — and theoretically (though no publisher seeks out this type of book) those with no prospects, none. None will of course never be $0. If you weren’t an optimist you’d never be a publisher.

Stop thinking of authors as employees of a publishing company. They are not (though over the course of history a few publishing companies have employed writers for specific tasks — usually rather boring reference-type writing). The truth of the matter is nearer the opposite. Publishers exist to serve their authors: it would be less misleading to say the publisher is employed by the author than the reverse. Publishers originate nothing: they provide services to authors to enable them to reach readers. To compare earnings for clothes designers to those of authors is pretty irrelevant. Not too many designers of clothing are creating their designs on spec and then looking for a manufacturer to make them up. They work for the clothing company, and design what that company wants to see designed. They are on a salary track. Authorship, for better or worse just doesn’t work like that. Sure, one could say that, in a sense, the author does assume some of the risk of publication: if books don’t sell their authors can be said to have wasted their time writing them. But that’s not really what people mean when the assert that the publisher assumes the risk of publication: that’s a financial statement. The publisher invests money in turning the manuscript into a book and bringing it to market. If the book fails, the publisher loses money. If the book fails the author doesn’t earn any royalties. The publisher’s bank account will be smaller: the author’s just won’t have gotten larger. A potential loss rather than a real one. (This leaves to the side the matter of advances against royalties, functionally a mechanism for financing the author while the book is being written.)

Classic cart-before-horse-ism is displayed in the claim “And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained.” Authors are not producers for the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to take such manuscripts as have been written and bring them to the people who’ll pay to read them. True, publishers will often attempt to direct writers towards certain projects, and try to bind authors to them in order to be able to benefit from their future offerings, but the author always has the choice of not signing a contract with an option clause, or of changing publisher. By choosing a publisher authors are choosing the company they want to design, edit, produce, market and sell their book. One hesitates to cite supply and demand: but in a market economy what publishers pay authors is bound to be “the going rate”. If that weren’t so we’d find the big houses running out of stuff to publish as authors rejected their terms. Have you noticed a drop-off in output of publications? The Kenilworth Books writer even takes time to complain that there are too many books being published.

“If the net revenue by the publisher then is only 30% of cover price, the author will get 30p of a £10 book, not the 60p they would have got had it been sold at a standard 40% trade discount.” True, true; but what will the publisher be getting? Maybe 10p of net profit. Don’t forget the printer must be paid, as must salaries, interest on borrowed money, rent and so on.

Bookstores do have legitimate beefs with the question of discounted bulk sales, especially to non-trade outlets. Such deals are clearly not in the interest of the corner bookstore. Publishers used to be reluctant to do such deals in the days when there were bookstores on every corner (well, on at least one corner in most towns). But, as the big chains and online retailers grew in importance, publishers’ sales management became less motivated by the wishes of independent booksellers, and these bulk sales became rather sexy. We should perhaps not forget to set against this effect the crash in book club sales. Sales to Book-of-the-Month Club, which in their heyday could be huge, were less visible to the carping commentariat than the skids of books confronting you as you go into Costco. But from an accounting point of view, they were rather analogous. I’m not sure how common the sliding scale of reduced royalty implied in the article is. In the simpler world I remember the contract would allow for a reduced royalty in the case of sales at greater than X% discount. This is theoretically justifiable in that a cheap sale is valuable not just for the lump sum it brings in, but because of it’s potential promotional effect in generating word of mouth. When you see those skids at your superstore, do you not assume that this is a popular book? Still, one might agree that agreement from authors before a steeply discounted sale was agreed might be justifiable, though this would surely best be taken care of by an additional clause in that freely-negotiated contract.

The Bookseller article referenced at The Passive Voice can be found here. I’m slightly leery of this sort of discussion. What god-given level of profit for publishing companies did Moses bring down from Mount Sinai? Is 9% really too high? Is the fact that profits have generally been rising a bad thing? Authors are not by and large making profit sharing agreements with their publishers.* If their publisher doesn’t make enough profit they won’t be around too long, and the books they publish will become unavailable. If only all our eggs were really golden — but be careful when you consider wringing the goose’s neck.


* In a profit sharing contract the author will agree to receive not a royalty (fixed percentage of sales) on every copy sold, but a proportion of the profits the book makes. Here the author is really sharing in the risk of publication, and in some instances may also be financing some or all of the manufacturing cost. Such contracts are rare nowadays.

The Digital Reader brings us an escape from the box. Guest writer Matt Blind, in a piece originally published at Rocket Bomber in 2012 and now updated, suggests that as it stands, Barnes & Noble (whose outlook continues bad to dire) has both too much and too little: too many stores, too few books. He suggests their best way forward is not their plan to open smaller, cuter stores. Salvation he suggests is to be found in consolidation. With 10 massive stores located in Orlando, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, Boston, Columbus, Chicago, San Diego, San Jose, and Portland they would be able to serve a large proportion of the US population. In this context massive means massive. Practically every book anyone might want would be there in each mega-store, and, if customers don’t want to go there and pick up the book after phoning in to check availability, 220,000,000 of them would be within 1-day delivery range of these 10 store/distribution centers.

This may sound like Amazon opening up the front doors of their distribution centers and allowing individual customers to drop by and pick up and pay for the book they want. Of course Amazon didn’t chose the locations of their distribution centers with any such plan in mind, so they are not exactly in ideal retail locations*. However that Mr Blind’s plan is a good idea may be confirmed by Amazon’s opening of more bricks-and-mortar stores. I do think that the only way to get a piece of the business of one-day-delivery book sales is to give it a try. B & N can just quietly fade away, or they can give it the good old college try and attempt to get a bit of the big-box-book business.

Independent bookstores are another kettle of fish: more boutique than H & M or Zara’s. The difference between Amazon and the independent bookstores might be seen as analogous to the difference between big trade publishing, and small independent publishers. You can’t do both well. Barnes & Noble needs to jump one way or the other: going back to being a small independent bookstore on 4th Avenue isn’t an option.

I pause to wonder who it is who’d get to fund the massive inventory cost these massive Barnes & Noble stores would incur. My pause isn’t long though: the answer is obviously the publishers. As we all know publishers are not interested in money, and in any case have tons of it. The charitable opportunity to fill up 10 giant warehouses around the country is just the cash drain any publisher will welcome with open arms! Despite my sarcasm, I have no doubt that something can be worked out.


* Later: here comes news via The Passive Voice, that Amazon has looked into taking over bankrupt Toys R Us locations.

Mike Shatzkin has another thoughtful analytical piece about changes to our industry, backed up by extensive comments from The Data Guy who appears to know more than anybody else about sales numbers in the book world. Mr Shatzkin identifies five trends:

  1. Amazon continues to grow its share of print and digital sales
  2. The overall market is growing, but Amazon Publishing and indies are the growing segments
  3. Smaller legacy publishing is suffering more than the Big Five
  4. More titles now get to be bestsellers for a shorter time
  5. Some genres and categories of books are getting almost all their sales through Amazon

The Data Guy takes issue with point 3, but otherwise sees his data as confirming Mr Shatzkin’s contentions. Surprise, surprise, Amazon is gaining market share: they now account for 83% of ebook sales and more than 40% of print sales. And their share is growing. And their share will continue to grow. We don’t really know what effect their entry into the bricks-and-mortar world will have: we just assume it will be bigger rather than smaller. As a publisher they already have a large presence in certain genres such as romance and sci fi, and are America’s largest publisher of translations.

Referring to ebook sales The Data Guy says “Legacy publishers have ceded a huge chunk of market share to non-traditional players over the last several years.” But isn’t that slightly misleading? Before there was an ebook market we may well have had control of 100% of it, but 100% of $0 isn’t something anyone should be too upset at ceding! Amazon didn’t create the ebook market by bringing the Kindle to market, but it did create the big ebook market that we’ve all become used to. A publisher will always be making more on one format than on another, and this has always been true. This doesn’t mean you stop doing the less profitable formats. As long as you are making something, and that something is something more than your costs, then something’s working. Maybe it could be better; maybe it’ll get worse; we all know things fluctuate. That’s why we keep throwing the spaghetti at the wall. I don’t believe there are any publishers whose aim is for their company to sell all the books ever published: publishers just want to publish a few good books and make money (OK, as much money as possible) while doing so.

The trouble (to me anyway) about this sort of analysis is the either/or implications it encourages — not that Mr Shatzkin or Data Guy themselves are guilty of this kind of short-circuiting. Others will be. Yes we did move from horse-drawn carriages to the internal combustion engine, so that buggy-whip manufacturing went away. But we didn’t stop burning coal once our cooking stoves became electric or gas powered. When I make a soufflé I whip my egg whites by hand (the key is a copper bowl) though we do own an electric whisk which would do the job just as well. Different ways of doing things can coexist: the latest, most efficient way does not have to eliminate the earlier ones. The legacy/traditional publishing business still generates a huge amount of revenue. No company is going to give that up. Maybe individual companies will get smaller, maybe they won’t. One thing that’s not going to happen though is that they disappear overnight.

Does the fact that one publisher now makes more than half the sales of the “Big Five” mean anything other than that Penguin Random House is a very large publisher? I suspect not. HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster etc. make sales: their sales are not as big as PRH’s but they are a lot bigger than say Grove’s. Just as that doesn’t mean curtains for Grove, it doesn’t mean curtains for the “Pretty Big Four”. Trends point towards more sales concentration: so what? Smaller (and I mean here smaller even than Grove) publishers can do very well in an environment like this. Clearly self publishers, representing the extreme on the large/small curve, show us that tiny publishers can thrive in the environment we now enjoy, and so can small independent publishers, both small traditional publishers and indie publishers. Doom-sayers can disagree, but to do so they need to believe that Amazon has ambitions to be the only publisher in the world — which, even if that was a Bezos-belief, would be something they couldn’t possibly achieve given how easy it is to get in on the act nowadays.

I can’t help thinking that the disruption ahead promises more and more variety, not any kind of take over by a giant.

The statistics we get given tend to focus on “the number of people who have read a book in the last year” which never really means very much to me. There are books and books, and readers and readers. Looking up Akita and Doberman Pinscher in The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book is a bit different from reading War and Peace from cover to cover, but both of course would count as “reading a book”. Robert Gray had a piece in Shelf Awareness last December about Christmas gift books for non readers which may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. I guess that converting a non-reader into a reader would rank as a good deed, however reluctant the non-reader might be to agree that being made to take up a novel was a good thing. Mr Gray reports on the regular seasonal query “I need to find a book for my uncle.” — “What kinds of books does he like?” — “Oh, he doesn’t read.” Still, it must be worth keeping trying: as he says, a Gary Snyder poem at the right moment can be transformative.

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Thus Anthony Powell* in The Valley of Bones, which is the seventh novel in A Dance to the Music of Time; surely the only dodecology in mainstream English literature — though there does also appear to be a series called Dead Song Legend Dodecology by the determinedly prolific Jay Wilburn. However he appears thus far not to have written beyond Number 4.

I guess it is true that you can’t impress a non-book-person by citing bookish evidence. They will either not notice, or, if they do realize you are referencing a book, believe that you are being condescending (which you probably are anyway). At the most trivial level there’s no point in remarking to someone that a person is behaving a bit like Emma Bovary, if your interlocutor has never heard of or read the book. Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time spends a lot of time keeping quiet about his being an author, that being a red rag to the bulls he moves among especially in the wartime army.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”. He believed that reading novels was a primary way of gaining understanding of fellow humans of types we might not encounter in our daily life, and that this consequently enabled us better to deal with them. Hard, to me, to argue with that, but then books are to me a necessity, and (mostly) readily convertible assets.

If hitting people over the head with a book is no way to influence their thinking, how much less must be writing about the making of these unconvertible assets. Of course I never expected there would be a large audience for my lucubrations on the making of books (of which fortunately there is no end: Ecclesiastes 12.12. But do beware: much study is a weariness of the flesh). I am very grateful for the select, but far from insignificant group of readers who follow this blog.


* Pronounced “Pole”, of course. The only other time I’ve known the name pronounced that way was Powell House at school, which we tended perhaps more to pronounce as “Poe-ull”.

In 2014 Benjamin George Friedman, famous apparently for having read the Dictionary from cover to cover, left St Marks Bookshop in Manhattan (recently closed) and opened a used bookshop in Ridgewood, Queens. It is named Topos Bookstore and Cafe, and is one block from the Forest Avenue exit from the M line. I wonder if Deborah Emin is happy; maybe she was more focussed on new books being sold in library buildings in the borough.

Friedman tells us about this in a nice Freelance column in the Times Literary Supplement of 20 February 2015 (lurking behind a paywall I fear). He writes “New York City is an unforgiving place for booksellers. The challenges facing a small independent store hardly need rehearsing: competition from huge national chains and online discounters, as well as the threat posed by electronic books, are compounded in New York by the punishingly high retail rents. In the past twenty-five years, the number of bookstores in Manhattan has fallen by more than half. But recent years have seen a happier development, with some half-dozen shops opening, some good ones among them. This second-hand renaissance has mostly taken place in the outer boroughs.” Topos seems to be doing OK, which is great news. Friedman concludes his piece with an anecdote about a lady, originally from Ridgewood, back on a visit: “‘No one around here reads books’, she declared. Her tone was not hostile but something was troubling her. Eventually it emerged that she was herself a writer, a poet. She had grown up in the neighbourhood but had left many years ago. Ridgewood was for her always going to be a place from which anyone with a bookish sensibility would want to escape. She was unable to see it, but others are coming to share our vision of Queens as a literary destination.”

We wish them luck.

And now here comes another contender. A Kickstarter campaign has enabled the Queens Bookstore Initiative to gather $70,000 and open another bookshop in Queens. Shelf Awareness reported on the campaign:

The initiative is led by Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa and Holly Nikodem, all of whom have bookselling and bookstore management experience. The trio has pointed out that after the closing last year of Barnes & Noble stores in Forest Hills, Bayside and Fresh Meadows, Queens, with a population of 2.3 million, now has just one bricks-and-mortar bookstore selling new books, Astoria Bookshop. The group hopes to open in or near Kew Gardens or Forest Hills: “It’s important for us to be as accessible as possible to all the neighborhoods who have been abandoned by the big box bookstores.”

The Kickstarter campaign has succeeded in raising all the money and now The Queens Bookstore Initiative has a webpage. The store, named Kew and Willow Books, is open and may be found at 81-63 Lefferts Boulevard in Kew Gardens.

These accounts, which mainly hang their stories on the idea that after Barnes & Noble left, Queens was no more than a bookstore desert, quietly overlook the existence of The Astoria Bookshop. I can’t comment on El Ber Bookstore, Sinagtala Educational Resources, New Life Christian Book Store, Queens College Bookstore, Apollo Books, Academy Books, Books for Life, Evan Bates Books /Documents, Turn the Page Again, Austin Book Shop, but it seems there are more bookshops lurking about than we are led to believe. Of course these tend to be small, specialist, and often second-hand. But just because B & N closes doesn’t mean we are instantly plunged into utter biblio-obscurity.

On the other hand brings us news of the eviction of the borough’s only independent publisher. I can’t believe nobody else in Queens has self published a book, but maybe they are using independent in its old-fashioned sense.

Development continues. Book Culture announced in May their plans for a fourth location in Long Island City. They have 3 shops in Manhattan already. Just shows it can be done: the store opened in December at 26-09 Jackson Avenue. Could one risk suggesting that the Queens bookstore scene is thriving?