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Steven Johnson’s article on the changes digital readers may bring to the book world in the Wall Street Journal sparked another interesting round of the ongoing bookworld meta-conversation (via Twitter) the other day: what does the digital realm mean for books and bookstores?

Johnson seems most impressed at the ease by which the (non-digital) reader can go from one book to another (inspired either by references therein or sheer boredom) on a digital reader, paying a little more each time. He goes on to speculate about readers paying for books by the chapter and this changing the way writers handle plot development and pacing to hold readers’ attention all the way through a book. But, I was most struck by the assumptions about how people read (or don’t read) now.

Don’t serious readers (defined as anyone who reads more than simply the “must-read” book of the year) already drop one book for another in mid-chapter if boredom or burning curiosity take hold? Can’t we already satisfy our craving for (near) instant gratification by ordering online or picking up the phone? Isn’t the point (conscious or not) of collecting your books in one place, of hanging onto everything you’ve ever read (even those ancient college textbooks you have in a box in the attic) and creating elaborate (or not so-) systems of organizing your books intended to facilitate that exact skipping from one text to another, the hunting down of obscure references, the application of a palate-cleansing chaser of short fiction to wash the taste of a badly written biography away? In short, don’t we already mix and remix our reading in exactly the way that Johnson seems to think ereaders newly facilitate?

Yes, perhaps they make it easier (as in faster — getting up off the couch and walking across the room is such a chore) to switch between books, and easier for everyone involved to have a financial stake in that switch (take that pesky used bookstores!), but I don’t know that this is fundamentally any different to how serious readers use books right now. Yes, there are some serious profits to be made during the adoption phase of ereaders, but surely those sales will soon slow and then plateau just like music and DVD sales did after the introduction of their various new technologies. (For example, everyone started buying DVD players and many bought DVD copies of movies they already owned in VHS format, creating high sales numbers that simply could not be sustained once those serious movie buffs had completed their library upgrade.) Look at Borders’ financial reports for the last five or six years, just about every one blames their declining financial performance on “softness” in the music and DVD categories. Go back ten years and they were praising those categories as their major growth centers.

So while the article is worth reading and thinking about, and while there are definitely serious concerns that ebooks are not going to benefit the current champions of serious reading — the bookstores — I really question the assumption that digital readers will change the way serious readers utilize books and the knowledge they contain. Will the convenience of theoretically carrying thousands of books around on your phone turn more people into serious readers? Did the introduction of the DVD turn more people into serious movie buffs?

Symtio is the hot topic in bookselling this week. Basically, it’s a plastic card (like a gift card) sold in a rack (at least as currently being tested in CBA stores) which you take up to the cash wrap and purchase. Then you take it home, input the code into your computer and download an electronic audio file or an ebook of the book you wish to “read.” The bookseller gets a percentage of the sale.  To me this is a simple (and pretty good) idea made needlessly complicated.

For one thing, most bookstores are small spaces and adding a large fixture (as shown in the video) would either further clutter the sales environment or displace shelves of real books. I don’t see many bookstores taking the gamble of replacing a proven desired commodity (the physical book) for something that seems of such limited utility. Maybe as a shelftalker displayed alongside the book the card might seem simply another option, but then again this would only heighten the contrast between the instant gratification of the physical book and the nebulous uncertainly of the delayed download.

Short shelf life of tech
I can already see the cards being replaced (far more cheaply) by QR codes on shelf talkers, or even plain old barcodes. Take a picture of the QR or barcode with an app you download to your smartphone for free and be taken to a page to buy and download the ebook. The store could get a cut, the shelftalker would be cheaper (and greener) than packaged plastic cards and they could be bundled as part of a coop program. Yes, plastic cards are shiny and doubtless rugged, but so what? How long is the viable shelf life of the average frontlist book? (Don’t answer that. You’ll only cry.)

Tech is changing so fast that I foresee reluctance on consumers’ parts to commit to another unfamiliar technical thingummy – and being asked to do so in the narrow aisles of a crowded store would not inspire confidence. I think many would prefer to go home and think on the purchase; and, once home they’d find all the info they need online and would likely make the purchase there. The card is just another intermediary between the book and the reader. The nature of digital communication is to remove the intermediaries: readers already interested in electronic texts will download them online, readers vaguely curious about electronic texts are more likely to be chased back to the known quantity by new and  unfamiliar intermediaries, and, bookstores don’t want another account to manage when they already do business with the books’ original publishers.

It’s the right idea (give the bookstore a cut of the electronic sale and get POS placement), but I think it’s the wrong implementation.

Promotional video for Symtio:

Harper Studio blog post about Symtio

The debate over ending the practice of buying returnable has been raging for years, but lately it seems to have grown in impetus. I’ve been trying to think through the issue and have had many interesting talks with publishers and booksellers. This post is an attempt to distill those discussions and spark some new ones.

Photo (c) waffler under a CC licence

In general, I’m supportive of the idea that we as an industry need to end or sharply reduce returns: they negatively affect a publisher’s ability to budget accurately over the course of a year, and they give larger accounts a disproportionate influence over a publisher’s fate. However, so much of the discussion has been focused on the question of whether or not to allow returns. This seems too simplistic. There are several core assumptions underlying the book industry, and a range of actions and behaviors based on these assumptions that all need to change in order to eliminate returns (if that’s indeed the right thing to do).

I want to explore each of the four cornerstone assumptions/truths that make the book industry what it is. As an organizing metaphor, I suggest that we picture  the book industry as a simple table (four legs, one horizontal surface): radically change one of these basic assumptions and you’ve essentially cut one leg off, with predictable results.

A. Books are physical objects made of paper bound between covers.

Still true, but ebooks are gaining market share. For more discussion about ebooks, check out last week’s post.

B. Books that do not sell can be returned within a certain amount of time.
This key fact influences almost all book buyers’ decisions.  When a rep is excited for a book but the store’s buyer is not, it’s a relatively small thing (at least it was before the recession) to bring a couple of copies in and test their hunch — as long as they don’t have a hunch about every title the buyer wants to skip. If books were nonreturnable, few would do that.

Publishers are publishing more than ever before. How much is too much? My answer is, more than can be given meaningful marketing support. At the keynote breakfast on the first day of the recent ABA Winter Institute, Harper Studio head Bob Miller referred to big publishers having a collective 20 “big” new books (I don’t think he was talking about the established brand name authors) with print runs of 200,000 copies and above. That state of affairs can only be supported by returnable terms, because buyers simply couldn’t take that many chances nonreturnable. (Many don’t already, skipping huge chucks of publisher’s catalogs.) Publishers would have to publish far fewer titles, perhaps only 25% of the speculative new voices they currently publish. They would then have to put more marketing and publicity effort behind those books in order to show store buyers that they are serious about making these titles, and not taking the usual spaghetti approach of launching a lot of books and supporting only the few that gain some traction in the media.

Publicity/marketing support would need to be for whole (frontlist) life of a title, not just the first month. Stores would be more likely to give unknown authors a chance if their publisher has a reputation for reliable lifecycle marketing/publicity.

At the indie store level, buying tends to be handled by one or a small number of buyers, who often spend less time on the sales floor than their colleagues. This leads to situations where many of the booksellers in a store may know little about most of the new books (I’m thinking mainly of the new titles which receive coop support for buys above a certain range, here). These books get a couple of weeks at FOS, many fail to catch on and then are banished to section or overstock until they can be returned. Often nobody handsells because only the buyer knows anything about them.

If stores were going to switch to completely nonreturnable terms, then buying would need to involve all booksellers, not just a single buyer. The whole staff would need to take ownership of selection and handsell like crazy (because after all, with increased risk we’d buy relatively fewer titles, and therefore need those titles to turn faster).

cool-storefrontStores would need to develop lifecycle plans for their inventory. There could be no more overstock, and no more banishing books to a shelf in the back room awaiting return because you’re sick of looking at them. Bookstores would need to cycle titles through various display options until they’re sold: FOS, in-section tables/endcaps, seasonal or themed promotional space, staff favorites, in-section face-outs, book club suggestion area, mark-down tables, etc., etc.

Currently, you can argue that publishers bear most of the risk under the current business practices: they might get all the books they print back. (Yes, I know a lot of indies could make an equally strong argument the other way around, but bear with me.) Publishers manage their risk, in part, by confining their marketing investment to a small window following the book’s release. If it doesn’t take off, they effectively cut their losses and move onto the next book. (Obviously, I’m talking about large publisher’s here. Small ones need to make every book successful.) Publishers also offer the smallest discount the market will accept in order to maximize their profits based on an expectation that the majority of books will not sell well enough to return any profit. So they attempt to control their losses on these unprofitable books and pursue the huge bestseller in the hope that the profits on this top 20% will outstrip the losses on the other 80%.

Eliminating returns would shift much (most?) of the risk onto bookstores (but, also spread the risk between those stores, reducing the impact of a massive failure – which today might sink a house or result in numerous layoffs). However, in order to convince stores to assume this additional risk, publishers would need to provide better marketing and publicity support, continue it throughout the frontlist lifecycle of the book, and significantly raise the discount offered to give bookstores better margin to reward their added risk.

This increase in the incentive for stores to sell through the breadth of their buys could force indie bookstores to become more creative and ultimately result in more books becoming profitable than in the past, and perhaps reduce the reliance on huge bestsellers. Wouldn’t spreading the risk in this way be better for everybody?

I’m alarmed that I don’t see much discussion (at least in public) of better marketing and publicity support or fewer titles coming to market (although it seems to be implicit in the missions of new imprints like Twelve and Harper Studio). The carrot dangled to justify ending returns has been increased margin, but I don’t think that will be enough, on its own, to give booksellers the confidence that going nonreturnable would be in their interests.

Another thing publishers would need to do if going nonreturnable is launch more books in trade paperback from day one. It’s the format of choice for most book clubs, and combined with the marketing and publicity resources put behind a typical hardcover release would make a great deal of the mid-list fiction released every year more viable (again, assuming fewer overall books).

At the risk of seeming contradictory, if a publisher decides to release a title in hardcover, they should consider a longer gap (with lifecycle marketing support) between that and the trade paperback (maybe two years). This would give readers more incentive to purchase the hardcover, booksellers a longer window to sell through a nonreturnable buy, and publishers an added urgency to make each hardcover work.

Many booksellers, of course, feel that they carry all the risk, and that being able to return books is the only thing that keeps them viable. To illustrate the importance of returnability for indies, let’s speculate about the impact ending returns might have on somebody seeking to open their own indie bookstore.

Right now there are two typical career paths to opening your own bookstore. One is making lots of money in a different field and then buying an existing store. The other is learning the trade working at one store, them moving elsewhere to open your store. The pie is pretty small, so it makes more sense to try not to compete directly with an established indie.

When you open your store, you then have to learn the tastes and preferences of your new community. You have to do this through trial and error. That you can return the mistakes makes this possible.  If bookstores only had the option to buy nonreturnable, many more fledgling stores would fail in the first year because they’d find themselves stuck with too much inventory that didn’t meet the tastes of their communities.

This would force booksellers who want to be their own boss to open their store in the same community where they learned their trade. The risk of moving elsewhere would be far greater. Obviously, this would change the dynamic within the industry from one of camaraderie and cooperation through adversity, to mutual suspicion and wariness. How would two stores in close proximity to each other differentiate themselves? Price would probably be seen as the most effective method.

This makes me think that any program of buying non-returnable would have to coexist with traditional returnable buying. Perhaps two programs with extremely different discount structures. Perhaps a store could only be one or the other: returnable for the first years of its existence, and going nonreturnable once the owner has got the pulse of her market. Some publishers already have dual terms, but with only slightly higher discounts for buying nonreturnable. However, the dialogue on the publisher side appears to be focused on completely nonreturnable buying.

C. Nobody in their right mind would sell books at a loss.
We thought this was a rather basic economic truth until the big box discounters (US) and the supermarkets (UK) realized popular books made great loss leaders. Between the mass merchandisers and the general discounting war, margin has shrunk to a barely sufficient level for most bookstores. To make matters worse, it’s the most popular books that get the heaviest discounts. (Trevor Dolby has a great piece on this in Book Brunch.)

D. People value the “center of the web” function that bookstores provide.
I’ll write some thing about this in the future. This post is too long already.

The scary thing is, all of these cornerstones are being challenged at once. The discussion cannot focus on fixing just one area, because changes to one area affect the others, and only a holistic solution will work.  To go back to the table metaphor, any changes made to one leg must be reflected on the others or the table can’t function properly.

So what do you think? What am I missing? How do we address some of these issues?

Just before Thanksgiving last year, I was visiting friends in Ann Arbor and I popped into Shaman Drum, one of my favorite bookstores, for old time’s sake. One of the things that I noticed afresh was the small, but well-chosen corner of literary magazines by the door. The display itself makes an effective statement about what the store stands for: exciting literary voices from all over the world. My bookseller-sense reflected that the low price points also make magazines an attractive add-on purchase in these tough economic times, so I filed that idea away to copy later.
I bought a copy of World Literature Today because it looked cool, smart, literate and evoked all the reasons I pursued a degree in English in defiance of any logic and all advice. Happily, it was a cool, smart and literate read, with plenty of intriguing reviews, an enjoyable article on great bookstores to visit around the world before you die by Jeremy Mercer, author of Time Was Soft There (sorry, I couldn’t find it online — you’ll have to order the Sept.-Oct. ’08 issue if you want to know where they are) and a fascinating interview with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian born writer who lives in Rome and captures both sides of Italy’s immigrant problem in his award-winning novel, Clash of Civilizations of an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. I read the interview on the plane on the way home and ordered the book a couple of days later after I went back to work. Two days later I had the book, and read it in two sittings.

Clash of Civilizations is fabulous: funny, poignant and full of the little touches of detail that assure us the writer knows the community he describes. The plot centers on the murder of a bigoted Italian man living in an apartment building. Everyone has their suspicions, everyone looks askance at the local immigrant community (whose individual origins few can place) and everyone agrees that one man is above suspicion, the pillar of the Italian ideal, Amedeo. The joke — which the author lets the readers in on right at the start — is that Amedeo is not Italian, he’s an immigrant like everyone else, but he’s assimilated so perfectly on the outside that everyone thinks he’s Italian, just from a different part of the country than them. Of course, on the inside, it’s a very different story.

This timeline is probably more or less a publisher’s desired result when they set their publicity department the task of generating buzz and planting stories about a book. I read the interview, I bought the book and I read it (and now I’m blogging about it — bonus). But I wonder, if I was the in the habit of reading on my iPhone at the time, would things have progressed differently? If the plane had yet to takeoff when I first read the interview, I could have whipped out the phone and bought the book there and then, and perhaps read it (or most of it) on the flight home. The ROI for the publisher would have been the same: one more book sold. But would the ROI for me have been the same?

Each step along the way increased the degree of my interest in reading Clash of Civilizations. I had the wait a couple of days before ordering the book, I had the pull out the magazine, write down the title and then search through the database to see who had it in stock before I could order it. I then waited a couple of days for the book to arrive, allowing the anticipation to build. Finally, I got the book, read it and loved it. I wonder if less effort was expended, would I have just enjoyed it and moved on the next thing to catch my attention, forgetting the story pretty quickly? The old way of book shopping — browsing aisles, clipping reviews from papers, scribbling titles down on soggy beer mats, carrying same around in your jacket pocket for a week before hitting a few bookstores in search of an in-stock copy — might be inefficient, might be time-consuming, but it’s fun; and, I must wonder if the minor obstacles and short wait actually makes us that much more receptive to the book once we’re ready to read it.

As I learn more about ebooks, I understand that the advantages of enabling near-immediate purchase — more impulse sales, lower physical costs — are attractive and plausible, but I wonder if the old saw about getting what you pay for will come into play. With less time invested and fewer obstacles overcome to attain the book you desire, will it — no matter how well written — be a little less fulfilling or memorable than a book you’re invested more time, effort and thought into obtaining?


World Literature Today — well worth a subscription

Visit the Shaman Drum blog or follow Shaman Drum on Twitter

There is No Gap, a blog by Karl Phort, owner of Shaman Drum

NYT article on Europa Editions, publisher of Clash of Civilizations

On Twitter, someone asked “what do indies think about ebooks?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it. My sense is many indies are a little terrified, but feel unable to say or do anything as the means of distribution is out of our hands. People are afraid of being bypassed, so are trying to ignore them. While I feel the fear, I’m also kind of intrigued and excited about the ease and speed of access they afford (and the anecdotal  suggestion that you can read faster on an ereader than a traditionally formatted book) even though I prefer a physical copy for myself. However, I don’t yet know how to make them work for the traditional indie bookstore.

I think there are two distinct groups of readers as far as regards ebooks (forgive the gross generalizations), and I find it helpful to look at the technology from both points of view.

A lot of us grew up to revere print. A lot of this category don’t ‘get’ blogs, regard the web as one-way communication and don’t pay for ebooks. If they’re computer savvy, they may dip into the odd ebook (but an online excerpt will likely satisfy them), but only until they decide to finish the story and go buy the pbook to read.

On the other hand, those who ‘came of age’ post-print (i.e. after the time that print was the only option), write blogs, regard the Internet as conversation and buy ebooks. Some will buy a pbook for ‘the archive’ if they really enjoyed the story. That would be a nice trend if it continued. But, maybe those folks are on the cusp between two generations, and pbooks will eventually lose appeal as more people grow familiar with ebooks?

This is where the opportunity lies for booksellers:
Opportunity A: Low-price ebooks as marketing for pbooks.
Opportunity B: Use ebooks to bring readers to authors (publishers and authors need to commit to a mid/long-term relationship — my sense is that this isn’t the norm in publishing now, where I see authors switch houses a lot) — because the marketing needs to sell the author as much as the book of the moment). Emphasize the body of work: encourage multiple sales, use the “stamp of quality” to encourage purchase of physical copies.


The print-worshipers currently buy more books and run most bookstores. Do not alienate current book buyers (on either side of the cash wrap).
The post-print generation, however, will determine if anyone buys pbooks in the near future. Do not lose these to other entertainment sources or digital delivery.

We need to involve the post-print generation in bookstore culture, or else they’ll eventually bypass the stores completely. This is not simply a problem for the stores, as without book(store) culture, the most meaningful point of differentiation is price, and nobody wins when it’s a race to the bottom.

[Over at Vromans Bookstore blog Patrick has a good meditation on both the ebook reading experience — he read Cory Doctorow’s Content, BTW, a book I found fascinating — and how ebooks are changing the book market.]

Last year, I read Cory Doctorow’s provocative collected essays on copyfighting, eInk and everything to do with the Internet, Content, and I’ve been thinking back over it and the issues involved quite a lot since then. Among other things, Doctorow certainly raises some questions in my mind about what exactly the typical bookstore will look like in 5 or 10 years. (Indeed, I think of this blog as being partially a result of the metaphorical kick in the pants Doctorow’s book gave me.)

My take on our collective future after reading Content is that if bookstores are around as a third place, they’ll probably be as much virtual as physical, with our role as booksellers morphing into ubercool facilitators of chatspace, book group discussion leaders, and witty remixers of text, creating one-of-a-kind memes to monetize as T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, animated smileys for MyFace pages (I jest, MySpace & Facebook will probably be long gone), etc. All meatspace book discussion may be fueled by high-priced, literary themed caffeine shots — and the caffeine may be the primary thing customers come into the bricks-n-mortar store in search of. Book shopping may be actively moving to primarily online activity (i.e. the researching, interacting with booksellers and ordering may all ultimately occur online (digitally mediated by text, email & tweet), the book pick up achieved at the same time readers perform their ritual caffeine worshiping on the way to work, and their post-perusal hit of book talk will be realized on their blog or through the bookstore’s online discussion group/listserv/MyFace pages). (Yes, ebooks will have a large part in any bookseller’s future, but that’s an issue that needs its own post.)

Thankfully, Doctorow doesn’t predict a disappearance of the physical book, nor the bookstore itself. Instead, he sees the book as being more of a raw material for social connection (along with TV, movies, gaming, etc.), something to be read, then commented upon, remade as an online video, adapted for a skateboard design theme, and blogged about, excerpted as an email signature, and used in ways we haven’t thought of yet. This is how we’ve always used culture, it’s just on a different scale now because of the ease of creation and sharing made possible by the worldwide web. So you can look at it as technology rescuing the book from being a marginalized, fairly exclusive product — one too often placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the power of the web could rescue the book from (relative) obscurity (when compared to movies or TV), but change the reverence with which it’s often treated. Which I think suggests that the bookstore as a relatively separate, peaceful place (or place to find A Separate Peace) will change dramatically, both in terms of the physical use of the space and also in terms of the disappearance of clear boundaries between the store and the rest of the world.

You can download the book for free from the author’s website, but I suspect you’ll want to make notes, dog-ear pages and generally engage with the text, so I urge you to support both your local indie bookstore and Cory Doctorow by buying a physical copy.

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