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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.