Are Books Commodities? Are They Speech?

Books, as well as magazines, newspapers, newsletters in all of their various formats: paper, digital, smoke signals, whatever, are not commodities. They are speech.

There is no hard and fast rule that books should be priced at $9.99 either.

Source: IPDA News Digest, 04/17/15

Source: IPDA News Digest, 04/17/15

Books are not widgets. They are not plastic tzotchkes made by low wage labor in China and packaged by low wage temp workers in overheated warehouses in exurbia USA.

Many readers consider books they love to be works of art (at least the really well written ones).

They are the result of hard work, hard effort, hard labor by the authors who often seek represenation by book publishers. Sometimes it’s Hachette. Sometimes it’s Penguin. Sometimes it’s  Amazon.

So as wonderful as Amazon is, at least to their consumers, they do come in between the reader and the author. In other words, despite what the fanboys and the trade press thinks, they’re middlemen. Just like wholesalers. Or publishers.

So, I’m sorry to point out all of the fans, apologists and futurists, but Amazon and many other e-tailers, are simply the latest thing that is “disrupting” a traditional economy. Just like the big chain booksellers disrupted the indy bookstore and newsstand economy in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Just like Pay-On-Scan has disrupted the traditional magazine distribution economy in the last decade. Just like Tesla is disrupting, to a certain extent, the car sales franchise market.

But to Amazon’s credit, they’ve taken advantage of a deregulated economy, and found a great entre into middle and upper class pocketbooks – reading.

I’ve never bought the argument that “books cost too much”. They don’t.  They are priced according to the market.

Is it fair that some writers never got published under the old regime? No. The world is not fair.

Is it fair that some visionaries (and not a few hucksters) got into the digital book market first and made a ton of money while some true craftsmen now find themselves self publishing books and making slave wages because they were late to the party?

No. The world is not fair.

Books (and magazines) are not widgets. We’d probably all make more money if we stopped trying to market and sell them like that.

Link to the article mentioned above is here.

Halloween: Magazines And Candy

As a small child, there were two things I loved most about Halloween. The first thing of course, was the candy. There was a lot of candy. It was mine and I did not have to share it with my siblings or my parents. The second was the realization that Thanksgiving was right around the corner. As far as I was concerned, Thanksgiving was the greatest holiday ever.

For many years our house was incredibly popular with the Trick or Treaters. The reason was simple: We gave out comic books. As mentioned in other posts, my dad was the manager of a magazine, book and newspaper wholesaler and as such, my family had very easy access to almost any sort of reading material available. We got to see bestsellers before they were bestsellers and premier issues of magazines before they hit the stands. In our house, if you wanted some fresh reading material you checked the stairs to the second floor after Dad came home from the warehouse.

Of course, none of them had covers, but that was the price we paid for early access.

Comic books were another story. The company didn’t have to return covers of unsold comics so he often brought home a few boxes to hand out on Halloween. We no doubt heard complaints of “But I wanted Batman!” or, “My sister doesn’t read Spiderman!” and I’m guessing a lot of trades happened further down the street.

Source: Jacketflap.com

Source: Jacketflap.com

I still love Halloween even though our kids are too old for it now and we no longer know most of the kids in the neighborhood. But I love handing out the candy, seeing all the costumes, and waving to the parents. I really love seeing the change in the neighborhood.

A few months ago, I began to work with a childrens’ publisher and as I do with all clients, I asked to be put on their comp list for two copies of each issue of each magazine they publish. So you can imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, a large heavy box was tossed onto our porch by the local UPS guy. I opened it to discover 50 copies of the latest issue of the publishers’ SIP.

This does happen sometimes and when it does, the magazines either get donated or make their way to the recycling bin. But this year, with Halloween so close, I thought I’d take a page from my childhood and see what the response from the kids was.

You know. Kids. The ones who supposedly spend their lives in front of screens. The ones on You Tube who are recorded trying to tap the page of the paper magazine and are frustrated when nothing happens. You know, todays kids don’t read.

We still gave out a lot of candy last Friday. Our neighborhood borders a very popular park and a busy street so even in bad weather (which we had in spades), we got a lot of traffic.

So how did these pre-screenagers respond when I said, “Hold on, I’ve got one more thing for you?”

Every single girl under the age of 10 was thrilled to get the magazine. About half of them recognized the title and were very happy to get this along with their pick of candy.

About a quarter of the boys under 10 said, “No, thanks” to the offer of the magazine. I’d estimate that about 25% of those who refused were way too focused on the candy selection and getting off the porch as fast as they could so they could get on to the next house. I’m guessing, but have no proof, that the rest of the boys were serious gamers. They just had that gamer look to them.

So, is this a scientific survey? Of course not.

Does this reinforce the idea that people like free stuff and the magazines were just the topping to free candy? Well, as the kids say, “Duh!”

But it does tell me that at least within my own community, children and pre-teens still recognize magazines and are willing to accept them. This was a great example of a value add, I think.

If this were more of a real world test, I would have loved to have handed out significantly more of them in more neighborhoods and had a unique sub insert card to track any post Halloween sign ups. Maybe there could have been a special url for the parents to go to.

So that must mean that next year I’ll need even more (and better candy) and a lot more boxes.

 

 

 

For Your Consideration

This is offered for your considertion. I will leave out my own comments and snarkiness.

Below is a quote directly from this mornings reading of Shelf Awareness. It is a discussion of a very interesting article in The New Yorker by George Packer entitled, “Cheap Words.” You can find a link to the article here. The editors at Shelf Awareness  have this to say:

Another “former Amazon employee” who worked in the Kindle division said, Packer writes, “that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: ‘You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.’ ”

Packer doesn’t talk much about alternatives to Amazon, including independent booksellers, Barnes & Noble or nonbook retailers who sell books, saying that publishers’ “long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to–they are too busy doing other things with their devices–but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. ‘Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,’ [Dennis] Johnson said. ‘It’s a widget.’ ”

Packer quotes a literary agent saying that book world trends are leading to ” ‘the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.’ A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”

Packer concludes: “Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

On Digital Books, Apps and eReading

I was recently gifted with an iPad mini and it was interesting to see how big an improvement it was over the somewhat sclerotic first generation iPad we own. That machine, while very cool when we first got it, quickly aged and now spends most of its time crashing the Safari app or playing solitaire.

Right out of the box, everything is smoother on this new machine. Mail, calendars photos and music synched perfectly with the cloud and I was off and running in less than an hour.

Even better, while tablets still mostly feel like entertainment devices, the mini is capable of helping with work. When I’m working off campus with my MacBook Air, the mini often serves as a second screen. It can work successfully as a stand alone and mimic almost every program I use on either of my Macs. I even came across a shell app for Tel-Net access to a legacy IBM mainframe I work with on almost a daily basis (Yes, those still exist and are useful).

So it wasn’t too long before I downloaded the iBook app and decided to give digital reading a second try.

My conclusion is this: I’m fortunate to be part of a “straddle” generation. We’re the people who adapted to personal computing, made it part of our professional and personal lives. But we remember a time when computers were large, distant, and mostly used for accounting and launching NASA rockets.

And I want to say this: I laugh at digital apologists who frequently say how much “greener” eBooks are? Seriously? How do they think those shiny slabs of metal, plastic and lord knows what else are made? What do you think powers your Wi-Fi? Have you seen pictures of the air in Beijing and Shanghai? While there may be some green washing on both sides of the “debate” let’s point out that at least paper is created out of a renewable resource that is recyclable. Moreover, in my little shallow backwater of the publishing business (Newsstand Distribution), almost every single thing that enters a wholesalers’ warehouse is recyclable.

I did try reading on the iPad 1 early on and was displeased with how awkward and heavy the tablet felt after a while. So I was expecting a better experience with the mini. Meh.  We added what was supposed to be a “lightweight” cover to the tablet but in all honesty, at some point it feels just like a large book. Granted, it’s not like a Stephen King “Under The Dome” hardback, but still.

So how was reading with it?

The screen image is nice. The mini is the right size for reading. I liked the nighttime reading feature. That is certainly an improvement over a book light. Downloading books, presuming the books were in the iBook store was very quick.

On the flip side, it was a little odd finding that I could download books that are now in the public domain for free. I suppose I should be grateful for having free access to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, but it felt a little like stealing.

The ability to switch the screen to white on black for nighttime reading is one of the big pluses for me. In either daytime or nighttime mode, the screen is easily readable and switching out of iBook into other apps is, of course, easy. I didn’t find the iBook store any harder to navigate than I find almost any other digital store. Which is to say that I’m not that easily impressed.

In other words, I’m impressed with the technology. But still not the layout or ease of use. It’s not that any of this is difficult to use. I’m far from a technophobe. I just don’t like having to think about what I’m doing when I am reading.

The first book I downloaded and read through was “Discordia” by British journalist Laurie Penny and American artist Molly Crabapple. The short book is not available in print and was intentionally designed as an e-book. In its digital form, it was remarkably cheap. I’m a fan of Molly Crabapple’s art work. It’s sort of cross between neo-Victorian and Steampunk. The book is a journal/artistic rendering of the time Crabapple and Penny spent in Greece during the financial and social meltdown in the summer of 2012. Laurie Penny’s prose is a modern take on Hunter S. Thompson and gives a lot of weight and empathy to the plight of the upcoming generation of the underclass. Her writing is direct, forceful and thought-provoking.

Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny

Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny

In my first read through the book, I was stuck by how either I couldn’t, or couldn’t figure out how to zoom in on the images. I Googled my problem and found many unhelpful suggestions. Once again, tech was in the way of reading. The latest version of iOS seems to have resolved this. Or I may have stumbled across the solution without realizing it.

Another issue I ran into was one of bookmarks and controls. I found getting the controls for bookmarks and scrolling touchy at times. If I tap the screen accidentally, the page will turn on me. Are there comparable issues with an old-fashioned print book? Yes, but whether reading for pleasure, learning or business, I don’t want to be thinking about technology.

And then there’s the public library. If I want a book at the library, I go there and get it. If I’m lazy, I sign in remotely, reserve the book, then go get it when it gets placed on the shelf for me to pick up.

If I want a digital book from the library, well that’s an entirely different story. Opponents of the ACA (aka Obamacare) have been having fun laughing at the web site. If they want to see a real horror, check out digital public libraries. Go see for yourself.

I did download a more contemporary novel and found layout and ease of navigation pretty fair. In other words, there’s not a lot to complain about and anything I did complain about would sound like so much nitpicking.

But I also downloaded what you could call a “legacy” book. Something that had been in print for some time: American author Tad William’s “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series. This is a set of fantasy novels and if you’re a fan of the genre, you know that this means maps, glossaries and lots of turning back and forth to pick up complex and convoluted threads.

What was interesting here was that the final book in the series had originally been published in two volumes. At the time, the publisher explained that they split the book in two because of the size (It’s very long) and they did not want to sacrifice publishing quality. In the digital world, that’s not an issue. So why are they sold as two books digitally? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan

To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan

Perhaps negotiating tablets and digital reading will become as second nature to younger generations as flipping a page and scanning an index is to our “straddle” generation. But given the tendency of hardware and software developers to fiddle with their designs, I wonder. What do I mean? Well, which version of Office is in your office? What do you think of the latest one you have? How long did it take for you  to get “used” to it? Why do you have to get used to it?

If I was filling out one of the endless customer surveys that are pushed at me after my latest web or bricks and mortar purchase, I would click on the number five: I neither “Like nor dislike” the experience. It’s OK. It’s nothing great. At times it is pleasant. At other times, I’m frustrated and wondering why I’m spending time with this.

When reading becomes all about the tech and not the word, you’ve lost me. When the tech fails to enhance the word or image you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity. A contemporary novel, or even a “legacy” one is fine digitally. I would have loved to spent hours looking “Discordia” in print.

My conclusion is this: The recently reported plateauing of digital book and magazine sales is might be the pause we see while the early adopters wait for the rest of the populace to catch up. We will see usage grow and new technologies change and adapt what we’re doing.

None of this is going away paper lovers.  But I hope (hope being the key word), that the tech will not overwhelm the importance and pleasure of the written word.

Remember The People’s Library

The news coverage about the Occupy Wall Street movement made it easy to have arguments about the rightness or wrongness of the occupiers cause. But in the middle of all of the convoluted arguments about the crimes of financial insiders, the struggles of regular people, and endless snark about the protestors idealism was a truly inspiring tale. Agree or disagree with the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you can’t help but have respect for the People’s Library.

The People’s Library was a completely free lending library set up by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. At its peak, the Zucotti Park based outdoor library housed more than 5,500 volumes, had full-time volunteer librarians and a rather well-organized and extensive catalog.

Early in the morning of November 15, 2011, Mayor Bloomburg ordered the New York Police Department into Zucotti Park, the home of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with  instructions to remove the occupiers and clear out their encampment. With less than a 15 minute warning, there was little time for the librarians to organize an orderly break down of the collection. While Mayor Bloomburg announced that the entire library had been saved, it later became clear that he was either mis-informed, or lying. Most of the library was destroyed or rendered unreadable and numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing the New York Police deliberately destroying the collection.

On April 9th of this year it was announced that the city of New York agreed to pay $366, 700 in damages to various Occupy groups for the damages that resulted in the November 15th raid. The biggest award was to the People’s Library for damage to the books and for lawyer’s fees. There’s a downside to this happy ending. Not surprisingly the lawyers fees were higher than the award for damage to the physical books, computers and library equipment.

The People's Library at it's height. (Source: Businessinsider.com)

The People’s Library at it’s height. (Source: Businessinsider.com)

I’ve always maintained that you can determine the health of a community not by its retail base, public schools, houses of worship, or carefully maintained parks, but by the health of its public library. Is there one? Is prominent in the community? Is it well-funded and well maintained? Does it house a wide and varied collection? Is its mission to serve its community or be a bastion for the few who view reading as their own personal domain? Does it reach out to the community and welcome everyone? Does that outreach include both the well-heeled patron and the homeless person who sleeps in the park?

You can agree or disagree with the Occupy movement. The People’s Library represented the best of both volunteerism and the desire to spread reading to all. That is why I found their story so inspiring. The library still exists today and its volunteer librarians continue to bring crates of books to lend out around New York City. Hopefully this award will go towards advancing their mission.

Part of the library after the November 15 clear out. (Source: Village Voice)

Part of the library after the November 15 clear out. (Source: Village Voice)

Borders: All That’s Left is a Facebook Page

This popped up in Facebook this morning.

All that’s left of the chain is this soon to be inactive Facebook page. Maybe you’ve got a Borders Rewards card floating around your wallet. Fish it out, toss it.

There’s more than enough articles, opinions and more about the demise of this chain, the future of the printed word, the future of the digital word and more floating around the web. Nothing else really needs to be added.

But I would like to say this:

At one time, more than 16,000 people worked for this company. For many of them, it was their career. Their passion. It meant something. Thousands more counted the company as one of their key accounts and a significant piece of their business.

If you’re in a position of authority in a corporation and the future of your organization and it’s personnel weighs heavily on your mind: Good. People rely on you. Think hard when you make a decision. Don’t make the mistake that management at this company made. You’re not the smartest person in the room. By a longshot.  Sometimes it makes more sense to sell more of your stuff than it does to increase shareholder value.

I’m just saying…

Thoughts on Amazon’s Price Check App and Independent Bookstores

The American Booksellers Association responded to Amazon’s Price Check App promotion yesterday. In the letter, CEO Oren Teicher pointed out:

We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.

Although the app does not directly apply to books, many independent bookstores are clearly upset as the app could apply to their sideline items like cards, gifts and games. Already under enormous pressure from the online retailer, many retailers are clearly fed up with customers who come in, check prices, look for new things to read and buy, then leave to get them more cheaply, and often without having to pay local sales tax, on Amazon.

What does the future hold for independents. Survive? Thrive? Extinction?

There’s a school of thought out on the ether that the internet always wins. Most likely true. We will be a poorer society if thirty years in the future we buy everything online and public spaces and daily routines are limited to a few mega corporate show rooms. While nature may abhor a monopoly, the crash that occurs when monopolies fail, as they ultimately do, is not something anyone should have to live through. Especially when we don’t need to have monopolies (except as fun board games).

Does Amazon play fair?

I’d like to offer three additional thoughts regarding this issue:

1) Amazon’s policy with regards to hiring, firing, and maintaining warehouse facilities is simply wrong. The use of “facilities” companies and hiring these workers at extraordinarily low wages and as “temporary” workers when they  really are full time employees is inexcusable. I know, they do it so I can buy stuff from them at incredibly cheap rates. But I don’t want to be responsible for the fact that some person in another state has to work two jobs so she can drive a twelve year old car and skip lunch so her kid can have cough syrup just so I can buy a cheap scarf or the latest Stephen King novel for half the price I would pay at Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s just wrong.

2) Their efforts to not have to charge local taxes  strikes me as rather unpatriotic. No one likes to pay taxes. I’m self employed so I know what it’s like to feel overburdened with taxes, paperwork and health insurance. No, it’s not like a major corporation, or even a small one. But I get it. However, I live in a community. That means I have responsibilities. I want my roads paved, my police and fire. I want safe water. Roofs on schools. Taxes are a part of life. Deal with it.

And of equal importance:

3) Markets need to be flexible. When markets consolidate in the name of efficiency, what you really have happen is the market becomes fragile. We’ve seen it in the newsstand business with the consolidation of magazine wholesalers. The fewer there are, the more fragile the market becomes if a major player gets into financial trouble. Or, if you, as a member of the market fall foul of one of the few remaining major players. If ultimately there are only three or four places to get either your e-books or your physical books, how healthy is that market? How much will the consumers choice be at the whim of the remaining major players?

I would contend that a community that is a mixture of independent and small franchise retailers and national chains is a healthier community than one with an empty downtown and a strip center on the outskirts full of big box stores and the usual remora retailers. The money stays local. The jobs stay local. The rents are reasonable.

This isn’t a screed against big, corporate America. I am enough of a realist to know how things work and understand that nothing is ever how it was and there are no clocks to turn back. But what I am opposed to is movement without thought and reflection. What, exactly, are we building and will it be better than what we have? Amazon is not inherently evil and independent retailers are not always good citizens. However, there’s no reason that we can’t have Amazon and independent bookstores. There is no reason they can not strive to provide not only affordable goods but also quality service. One does not have to be the death of the other. Both can be good corporate citizens.