Archives for category: Bookstores

Do we really have to face the translation of everything into money? We may wish we could keep bookshops as places where we can look at books and buy them when we are inspired, but, in the real world, bookselling is a business, and profit is necessary. We all know that costs mount, especially as rents just keep rising — as they must in response to the laws of capitalism. Sure capitalism may have done us all a lot of good, but can’t anyone come up with a modification which would mean “good” things get a break? Or are we doomed to see all retail outlets operated by merchants of international schmattes?

Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder has just announced the opening of a new store on West 84th Street in addition to their original location on West 18th Street. The New York Times quotes him “Given the rise in retail rents along 18th Street, I am not optimistic about our ability to renew the lease”, so the new second store is there as an insurance against the first one’s having to close. Just walk along New York streets and you’ll encounter a surprisingly large number of shuttered stores. (I guess real estate people take tax write-offs against their losses from empty buildings — they certainly don’t seem to be in any hurry to re-rent. Increases of 3 or 4 times the current rent are being proposed on lease renewals. Surely this can’t be sustainable.) The Mayor of New York City is seized of the problem. Hasn’t figured out what to do about commercial rents, but does recognize that having all the little shops shut down because they can’t afford to pay the rent is not “a good thing”. We just had an announcement that the City will now pay for legal representation for tenants faced with eviction from their apartment by landlords — previously a very uneven playing field. This expense will apparently be more than balanced by reductions in the cost of providing housing the homeless after the landlords have thrown them out.

People power can help. In our neighborhood we recently “saved” our local supermarket whose lease had been gazumped by a chain pharmacy. We all turned out on the street in front of the store; local politicians got involved; and eventually the pharmacy accepted that bad publicity didn’t really work; so we have our supermarket, for the next few years at least. I don’t know if we could turn out impressive enough crowds for a bookstore though! Still, somehow bookstores are still opening. Maybe some of those landlords are getting fed up with keeping properties empty. We obviously need to reinforce this behavior by changing the tax deduction for losses of this kind.

Why is it that landlords are the only ones who appear to be guaranteed to make money? (And this is a problem which long predates our current administration led by an über-landlord!) We all know that they are not making any more real estate; quite the opposite I fear. I suppose there’s no way to get to a world where land is a public good. As far as I can figure it, nobody has any basic right (other than force majeure) to own land. Just because your great-great-great, etc., etc., etc, grandfather bought it or even worse just beat everyone else to the punch, killed off all contenders, and grabbed the land in your home valley should not, in any sensible ethical scheme, allow you to collect rent from me for settling on a small bit of that valley floor. Calls for the socialization of land tenure are unlikely to meet with any kind of positive response, but at least let us allow it to flit through our mind. We need to consider for whose benefit this whole game is for, and whether that’s as it should be.

Jonathan Pie (a socially alert commentator portrayed by comedian Tom Watson) as usual hits it radically on the nose. Sensitive ears may want to be aware that his outspokenness includes lots of cuss-words. For non-Brits: Swan Vestas is a brand of matches.

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All you have to do is pay a $75 entry fee and write a 250-word essay on why a bookstore is important to a community, and you can win the ability to turn your words into action. The bookstore’s in Wellsboro, PA, so I guess you might need to be prepared to move there. Wellsboro is a small town (pop. c. 3,300) in the north of the state about halfway along, not close to any large cities. Details of the competition, which were noticed by Shelf Awareness, can be found at the From My Shelf store’s blog. You have until 31 March 2018 to come up with your 250 words.

Here’s the bookstore’s website. As they want a minimum of 4,000 entrants you could try offering them $300,000 if you develop writer’s block.

“Oh the irony” Mashable headlines its story on Amazon’s filing a patent for a way to block on-line in-store price comparison. Irony I guess, though I suspect bare-faced audacity might be closer to the mark. I bet filing the patent is more a matter of preempting the opposition than of protecting their own bricks-and-mortar world.

Maybe Amazon doesn’t want you checking alternative prices on-line while you’re in their stores, but you can be sure they find this practice an altogether more attractive idea when it’s being done in someone else’s shop and it’s Amazon’s price which is being looked up. Is it just too “conspiracy-theory” to suspect that they are really trying to lock up the technology in order to prevent others from coming up with a means of preventing their own customers from checking prices at Amazon.com?

And hey, why not? If you have all the money in the world, what are you supposed to do? Not spend it?

Amazon’s new bricks and mortar store in Manhattan is on the third floor of the Time Warner Center. A few years ago we had a large Borders bookshop in this building, but of course that went the way of all flesh. Here’s a C-net story with a brief video which gives a good impression of the store.

I looked in on Thursday, the day it opened, but couldn’t stay, ‘cos I had to be elsewhere. I went back the next day, and had to stand on line to get in the front door! In this picture you can see the security guard at the door, allowing us in in proportion to shoppers who’d leave. It didn’t last too long: maybe 5 minutes, less if anything. I suspect this must be the first time I’ve ever had to get on line to get into a bookshop — heck, any shop — though I suppose I may have had to queue up at Titus Wilson’s in Sedbergh to buy my schoolbooks at the start of term. I doubt if this Amazon queue at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon indicates an accelerated love of books among my fellow citizens. Most people were there, like me, out of curiosity.

And it is curious. All the books are displayed face out: which results in there not being that many of them. I didn’t attempt a count, but I wonder if it’s the 3,000 CNN Tech says it is, though several do get duplicate locations under different category headings. They’ve used sales data to govern the inventory selection, so I suppose I shouldn’t really have expected to find anything I wanted (my bag being the off-beat rather than the popular). However I was surprised to discover they did stock the book I was reading while on line, Keith Houston’s The Book — luckily I had shown it to the security guard, so didn’t have to panic about being forced to buy it again! Not, I have to confess, that I saw anyone actually doing anything as vulgar as buying a book. One of the many employees in evidence told me I could make a purchase through an Amazon app, though unfortunately that’s not an Amazon-Go-type of sale: i.e. buy it on the iPhone and just walk out of the store. The CNN Tech link above shows a sale being made. (I declined to download the app till I had found a book I’d want to buy.) If you are an Amazon Prime member you get the discounted price shown at Amazon.com, if not it’s full price for you. Around the store there are scan stations which will read the barcode and tell you what you’ll pay. Non-Primers can of course just read that information off the back of the book as in any shop: it’s not like they are obscuring the prices so that you’d have to go on-line.

Slightly less than a quarter of the store, half of the front area, is devoted to electronics: various Kindles, Alexas etc. I guess it’s the sort of bookstore you might go to if you wanted to get a last-minute gift, or are looking for a discount on a current bestseller. It just doesn’t feel like a real bookstore — but maybe that was because of the crowd and the large staff.

Business Insider has a photo gallery.

Amazon is taking over — and why not? They seem to be taking over everything. They obviously know more about what books sell than anyone else, though they have always been reluctant to provide details. Maybe you got this email (pictured above) from them the other day. Their site gives a bit more information.

Publishing Perspectives has a piece about Amazon Charts as they are calling it. I see no reason why Amazon’s lists shouldn’t turn out to be more “authoritative” than the Times‘s. Heck, they even know the names and addresses of the people who bought the books, and in the case of ebooks, know how many pages each of their customers have read. (This forms the basis for their Most Read category, I assume.)

The New York Times lists have been showing their age. The fact that they are not really measures of sales but more of sales velocity makes them a bit fickle, but the belief persists that they sell books.

“Many people determine what book to buy based upon seeing the phrase, ‘New York Times Bestseller’.” says Rob Eagar in his piece How to Kill a New York Times Bestseller at BookBusiness. While I might doubt the validity of his bald statement, (I just don’t agree that 5% of responses in one small survey represents a lot) I have to agree that a publisher who fails to mention Bestseller status in their promotion is missing an obvious marketing opportunity.

But some of Mr Eagar’s criticism is just over-eagerness. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are responsible for their websites. Publisher uploads may form the basis of their copy, but these uploads happen well before the book is lucky enough to become a bestseller. Amazon certainly have a tab which takes you to “The New York Times® Best Sellers” and they naturally have no reason to hide any book’s light under any bushel. I suspect that much of the problem Mr Eagar identifies results from timing. You just have to get the change in the on-line copy made. It doesn’t happen by magic. And of course if the book hits the bestseller list only briefly, the on-line claim may end up being outdated as soon as it has been got up there; though of course that’s not a reason to suppress the historically interesting fact.

Mr Eager, rather innocently, states “Simply adding ‘New York Times Bestseller’ to the book cover art isn’t enough in most cases.” It isn’t even possible in most cases! The books on hand are the books on hand. If the publishers expected the book to be a bestseller they will have printed thousands of copies, and till these copies are sold there’s no opportunity to update the jacket. I bet that publishers do get a “Bestseller” note up on their own website pretty quickly, and create a cover image including the words, but it takes a reprint of the book to get the notice onto the jacket. Yes, they could of course print up a sticker — but who’s going to stick them on the books? Don’t think B&N is going to divert staff to do the job.

But whether there really are people who buy books solely based upon their being in a bestseller list — one has a fond, if outdated, image of Auntie Muriel wondering “What exciting book shall I get for young Billy’s birthday” — these listings clearly are a help in sustaining sales. Circularly of course a book only gets to be a bestseller by being a bestseller. For some, hitting the list coincides with the peaking of sales. In an earlier post I mentioned the Times‘s adding 12 new lists. Now they have reduced their lists by 10. Reaction as shown in Tolulope Edionwe’s piece at The Outline suggests the end of the world is at hand.

I expect that we will rather quickly transfer our loyalties from “New York Times bestseller” to “An Amazon bestseller”. Amazon’s ability to tell you more about the sales, (e.g.”More readers listened to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry on Audible than read the book on Kindle this week.”) adds significantly to the bare listings we’ve become used to. Could this reduce tensions between self-publishing aficionados and the traditional industry? One assumes that Amazon isn’t excluding self-published and indie-published books from consideration.

Too many kids fall behind in reading early in their school career; indeed probably before they even get to school. Exposure to books, and adults who read books, is important in forming the habit of reading. I guess using the barber-shop, a bit of a social center, as a vehicle could work. Certainly the charitable organization Barbershop Books believes it will. Barbershop Books was founded in Harlem, but has already expanded way beyond New York City having active locations in 10 other states.

The theory behind the initiative is that “African-American boys who don’t often see black men reading a book” should be exposed to books in their regular environment. “Barbershops are some of the only places kids go to on a regular basis . . . There’s already that rapport there, already that relationship with the barber. Why not ask the barber to encourage them to read?”

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There are similar initiatives in Ypsilanti, where Fuller Cut offers a discount to any boy who will read aloud while having his hair done, and in Mobile, Columbus, Jackson, Dubuque, Baton Rouge, Muskogee, — all over.

We have been going on about this for years. Why can’t we do anything about what looks like a self-harming habit? A large proportion of the books which are bought in quantity by bookstores are returned to the publishers for credit a few months later, and a distressingly high proportion of these will be in unsalable condition. Worse are “special sales” to non-conventional sellers. Brooke Warner, at Huffington Post, describes a deal made with Target for 30,000 copies at a 60% (larger than normal) discount, 25,000 of which were returned and pulped. Of course many special sales do work out, and not all returns are as crazy as this, but it does seem that there are times when bookstores almost appear to “pay” for new inventory by returning older books to the same value. Occasionally smaller publishers have to refuse to supply the full quantities ordered by big retailers because supplying the full order would put the book out of stock, forcing a reprint which the publisher knows will prove unnecessary when the over-ordered books duly come back. There are enough ways to lose money on books — why do we voluntarily add to them? Why do we keep on offering return privileges? Is it just that antitrust law can be read as preventing our colluding over anything? Or are we just stupid?

Here’s a post from The Polished Publishing Group, via Linked-in’s Book Publishing Professionals Group trying to get us to do something about it. But rather than stop the nonsense we seem happy to allow the situation to get crazier. Not only will we accept the return of a print-on-demand book, a book printed specifically for the customer, but you can also get credit for an ebook you decide you don’t want!

Of course there are reasons for allowing returns. We do it to encourage bookstores to have massive quantities of our books spilling out of their front doors, so that passers-by may think “Wow. That must be a great book if they need to have so many copies on hand. I’d better buy one.” This may be silly, but it is certainly true that if the book isn’t available in bookstores many impulse sales will fail to take place. How many? Nobody has the guts to try to find out, though from time to time one or two publishers have experimented with non-return policies, or offered discount incentives for no return purchasing. Amazon, the last place to need to show passers-by the size of their inventory, take advantage of such non-return discount incentives quite a lot. It’s not that the industry doesn’t see that there’s a problem: it’s just that we haven’t yet managed to wean ourselves off the idea that large piles of books generate sales.

It was not always thus. Bookstores used to sell off any over-ordered books at a discount. I remember one great sale in White Plains when I first came to USA, where the price of all the books was halved every week: you had to gamble on how low they’d go before the last copy of that book you sort of wanted disappeared. It was as part of the attempts by big publishing conglomerates to make trade books into a mass-sale item that we discovered returns as a sales incentive This lead to the rapid adoption of returns on all books which has taken place over the past fifty years. Now that everyone is doing it, it is surprisingly hard for us to stop: nobody wants to be at a commercial disadvantage.

Now the commentariat is getting exercised about Amazon’s buy buttons becoming potentially available to third-party sales channels — Amazon says they’ll assign, via some algorithm, the buy button to the source which can deliver the product fastest and cheapest. Brooke Warner, again at Huffington Post, was the first to raise the alarm. The New Republic has an article about it. (Link via The Passive Voice which takes its usual exultantly anti-publishing stance. TeleRead and The Digital Reader have also posted about this.) The worry appears to be that those resellers who offer new books for 1¢ will garner all the sales — which of course will mean the author gets no royalty.

I suppose we have to believe that there really exist new books on sale for 1¢, do we? Nobody appears to know where these “new” books are coming from, though the most convincing explanation seems to be that they come from bookstore returns to the publisher, with a small number being review copies which typically do get into the second-hand market. I don’t spend a lot of time sculling around the Amazon looking for bargains in new books so it’s not a phenomenon I’ve witnessed. I did just take the time to click through (some of ) the New York Times Best Seller list books at Amazon, and failed to find any 1¢ bargains. I did however find one buy button leading to a second seller, but Shattered was available from Soapsix2 for a disappointing $6.50. The nearest approach to the 1¢ barrier was The Handmaid’s Tale, where there were 117 “new” paperback books from $4.05 — a price which probably means that buying one of these would still deprive the author of her royalty — but this is of course a book published long ago which has just gotten a new lease of life, so there can be all sorts of old stock swilling around out there. With a normal new book there just doesn’t seem to be time for “new” copies to accumulate in the unofficial trade. I suspect that the commentariat’s concern is based on nothing other than fantasy. Sure it would be “bad”, especially for the author, if you could get a current bestseller for 1¢ — but it rather looks like you can’t.

Returns, in a modern, well-run publisher’s warehouse, are diverted to a special section, and may even be farmed out to specialist dealers. The returns area/sub-contractors receive the books and issue credit to the bookseller. A little-known side effect of having a well-run modern warehouse is that it costs a significant amount of money to restock a book. Warehouses are set up to receive truckloads of books from binderies and put them cartoned and palleted into storage locations using large forklift trucks. This doesn’t work too well with a single copy coming back from a bookshop. Returns often/usually come back in mixed cartons which have to be opened to see what different ISBNs are involved, scanned to identify then, inspected to see if they are damaged or can potentially be resold as new. If they are damaged the system has to asses whether they are so badly damaged that they can only go for waste, or slightly bashed so they can be resold as “almost new”, or hurt so they can be sold off in bulk at low, low prices to the remainder trade. No one would assert that within this system there is not room for some jiggery-pokery or malfeasance, though of course nobody knows this. Even without jiggery-pokery large skips of slightly hurt books are being sold into the remainder trade for prices which may put the price of any single copy at less than 1¢ — the skip will be sold for some dollars without any regard as to what books it may contain, though hardbacks and paperbacks will tend to be separately binned.

Now this process means that there is a potential for ever so slightly shopworn books to filter into the regular new book trade, certainly into Amazon’s second seller universe. But it takes time for this to happen. Any bookstore is going to keep the books on the shelf for a while in the hope of selling out; when they give up and return to the publisher there’s a bit of time before the return can be processed (it’s not the publishers’ highest priority to process their returns) and then the dealer has to sort and sell the books into the second seller trade. Thus it is unlikely that books from this source can really be too widely available for current bestsellers.

One has of course heard of cartons of new books falling off the back of the truck, but this can’t be too large a problem; maybe a carton here and a carton there. Any systematic violation would become evident: you paid for paper to print 25,000 copies but the warehouse only received 19,076 — even the most inefficient publisher would notice.

Surely we can expect return policy to change soon. The impulse sale factor will never go away, but given that nowadays so much book purchasing can go on online, there’s no real reason for a book-buyer to go without after they have run into a bookstore just as the last copy is snatched up by the person in front of them.

Tomorrow — though don’t let that stop you buying one today too.

When Barnes & Noble closed their Co-op City store we were told than the Bronx now had no bookshops. Sort of true, though there are of course still places there where you can buy a book. Noelle Santos has plans to remedy the situation, and the ABA suggests we might like to support her. You can donate at Indiegogo.

Can’t remember the author and title of that book that fascinated you as a child, or even just a couple of years ago? Stump the bookseller to the rescue. Tell them what you can remember and, with any luck, they’ll get the answer back to you courtesy of a crowdsourced readership. The New York Times Magazine had a little write-up in their 19 March 2017 issue.

This is almost the opposite of algorithm-based recommendation systems: here you crowdsource the dark corners of readers’ memories in order to identify a book about which you’ve forgotten everything except for the couple of niggling incidents or characters you can’t get out of your mind. Pay your $4 and Loganberry Book’s site, Stump the bookseller will list your query where the multitudes can add precision.

I suppose this sort of thing isn’t worth programming up as an AI app. If only we were blessed with memory systems of the sort of precision that such an app might need to work with (though then of course we’d probably remember the title). Unfortunately the nature of human memory is such that what we remember is often actually wrong in some slight but critical detail buried within its cloudy vagueness. Computer programs like precision: human minds deal in cloudy nuance much better.

PMS 342

The one book whose title I might like to be reminded of is one of which I can remember nothing except that it had a cloth case in a dark green, sort of like PMS 342, was printed in black & white, had a few line illustrations, was in a smallish format, about 5″ x 7″ maybe, and also contained disfiguring drawings added by its youthful, and doubtless slightly bored, owner. Unfortunately that’d stump any crowd of bookseller’s friends. And besides, if I did know the title, what’d I do about it? Maybe check whether the book really was all that boring. I think that in the post-WWII period, when luxuries were less common, one would feel guilty for not enjoying a book on which someone had spent money.