Archive for January, 2011

Can Borders Books Be Saved—And Should It?

When I first wrote my dire predictions about Borders Book Stores—in the waning days of 2010 (preparing to post it on New Year’s Day), I didn’t anticipate the soap opera we were going to witness these past few weeks. Now it seems my fears about Borders lasting out the year may have been optimistic—by the looks of things we’ll be lucky if they make to February! Whether they are able to “restructure their finances” (in other words: beg, borrow or hoodwink creditors for some financial breathing room) without Barnes & Noble making too much of a fuss about any special treatment the publishers and distributors will extend to them— after all, business is business), remains to be seen. The simple fact is, however, that the demise of Borders Books would be a major blow—to the book business, to readers, to our culture… to everyone who cherishes reading and deems books and solid writing of fiction and non-fiction a vital part of the nation’s life and soul. And it won’t do Barnes & Noble any good either.

Why do I say that? Because of Mr. Sander, that’s why. My father had a dry goods store on Havemeyer Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and right around the corner there was another dry goods store operated by a man I knew only as “Sander” (though I always called him Mr. Sander), almost identical in size and very similar in the kind of stuff sold. I remember thinking that my father would probably be doing a whole lot better if Mr. Sander didn’t have his store so close by selling virtually the same thing as my dad. Once I said this to my dad and he laughed and said I couldn’t be more wrong. “People come here instead of going to the department stores, boychik,” he said, “because they know that if Rabinowitz doesn’t have it, Sander might. Besides, with both of us here, and so close, they can be sure nobody’s charging more than he should.” When Mr. Sander had a heart attack and couldn’t come into his store, Dad took care of Sander’s store and kept it open for a few weeks until Mr. Sander was well enough to return and Mom took care of our store alone—that’s how important it was for Sander to be there. When Sander’s store closed (he passed away in the late 60s), my dad was sad to lose a friend, and when he came home from the funeral, he said, “Well, there goes the business.” It didn’t take me long to realize he meant his business.

The Demise of Borders would be a Tragedy for Books and Book Culture in America

The relationship between Borders and Barnes & Noble should have been like the classic competitions that made for healthy business sport in American commerce over the past one-hundred years—McDonald’s and Burger King; Hertz and Avis; Ford and GM; Boeing and Lockheed; Apple and IBM… (I once used the old saw, “Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbel’s and Gimbel’s doesn’t tell Macy’s” to my 20-something staff, and they all looked at me fish-eyed and said, “Who’s Gimbel’s?”) And that should have been what happened: there should have been Borders stores opening up near B&Ns everywhere creating a healthy competition between the two. I saw a little bit of that when I lived in the western suburbs of Philadelphia—in Ardmore, to be exact. In neighboring Bryn Mawr there was a large Borders Books and a few blocks away a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened up a few years later—and right between them was a really great used book store, Beverly Potter’s Title Page, still there; and just for good measure, on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, another fantastic used book store, The Owl, now defunct. (Talk about a pig in you-know-what. Maybe you’ve got notions of the perfect way to spend a snowy afternoon, but do I really have to lay out the four stops on my “Okay-Lord-you-can-take-me-now” day at this point?)

But Borders had trouble getting a toehold in New York City. (The rumors about why that was the case—whispers that business interests colluded with government to keep them out; use you’re imagination—seem even more credible today than they were when they were first circulated.) But the disappearance of Borders Books will be a debacle for books and book culture in America. A recent New York Times article published an item from the US Government Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract that claimed there were 10,600 bookstores in the U.S., but what the item did not indicate was that that number included all bookstores—religious bookstores; college and professional textbook stores; children bookstores—plus music stores (i.e., stores that sell sheet music along with musical instruments); periodical emporia (which look more like large news-stands); and, of course, antiquarian and used book dealers. All are included in classification NAICS 4512 in that US Census document (available on-line, naturally).

How many bookstores are there in the U.S.?

So how many bookstores are there in the United States? Well, the recent stories about the troubles that both B&N, Borders and bookselling in general are having gave us some numbers. The number of general trade bookstores—bookstores that you and I can walk into and browse the current crop of new books and recently published books and look at a selection of titles in fiction and non-fiction in many areas—that number is now under 2000! That’s 2000 for the entire United States—and frankly, that’s a generous estimate. I’d say 1500 is a more realistic ceiling figure. Borders operates about 510 stores; Barnes & Noble operates about 720 stores; Books-A-Million operates about 220 stores; and the number of independent bookstores account for another few hundred. From where I sit, independent bookstores are closing fast (as are chain outlets), even in the New York City vicinity—closing faster than I can manage to go visit. Losing Borders Bookstores would mean losing a large chunk of what remains of the book-selling terrain.

But it could happen. In fact, last month it seemed to me that was just the way things were going and Borders was heading for Chapter 11. My only consoling note was to also predict—also in that posting—that new blood was going to enter bookselling and learn from the sorry experience of Borders. All right, so what is that sorry experience and what are those lessons? Some of those lessons had to do with poor business decisions made by people who negotiated leases for stores who evidently didn’t know nearly enough about real estate. The reasons most often given for why no one is interested in taking over Borders is that whoever would take them over would find themselves saddled with horrendous leases for many of their stores. I once had a conversation with the manager of that store in Bryn Mawr and he laid out for me that store’s financials. Afterwards I had to accompany the poor guy downstairs to Gullifty’s bar in the basement and get him (and me) a double vodka.

Mistakes were made—many mistakes

A new president of Borders Books took over a few years ago. He had come from a major retailer (What difference which major retailer and who he was? Who am I, Frank Drebin at a traffic accident telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here, folks; move along…”?)—and in his inaugural speech, infamously webcast on the Borders website, he announced that it was going to be his goal to “give people reasons to go to Borders for reasons other than getting books.” The assembled staff in Michigan clapped politely, but you could see the look of confused panic on their faces. Someone who was there told me that she then knew what it must have felt like being at the Republican Convention that nominated Goldwater. Naturally he was gone a year or so later, but the stores became reflections of that confusion and that panic.

But there were other mistakes made—simple ones that any retailer (any retailer—in fact, anyone who has ever bought anything in any retail establishment) could have spotted and corrected. I’m going to list some of them here, and I’ll bet dollars to the proverbial donuts that Borders people will argue that what I’m saying is just not so any more, that those were the bad old days and that things are different now—but here’s what I say to you and to them: As a publishing professional, I’ve dealt with Borders directly—locally and nationally, and tried to communicate many of these problems and issues to them. I visit bookstores regularly. I’m that nut-job whose idea of a good time is a day spent in five different books stores. And I’ve visited seven Borders Bookstores in the New York area often—all in the past six months. All the shortcomings listed below apply to all of them. (And they apply to some degree to many of the B&Ns, so don’t go preening yourselves down on Fifth Avenue—all these problems are nearly as true of you. But we’re not talking about you right now.)

I’ve long recognized that Borders aspired to be a higher class of book-dealing operation owing to its origins in Ann Arbor and growing out of University Microfilms, and I realized that they were fighting against the old Mencken maxim that lay at the heart of American cultural enterprise, namely: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the basics of retailing and consumer relations. Even without Barnes & Noble breathing down its neck, Borders should have realized that: (a) independent bookstores were a difficult proposition financially (for the same reason corner grocery stores were); and (b) an electronic revolution of some kind was on its way that was going to have some impact on information delivery—and that was going to effect books and book delivery—which meant bookstores at the very least. Even dinosaurs like me understood as much as early as the late 1970s. Borders was on board when the superstores came on the scene; they were even keeping pace when bookstores discovered biscotti and added cafés. Very nice. But that’s where their innovation genes ran short. Some of the things B&N tried Borders shied away from—Borders made only a half-hearted foray into publishing and is a very late-comer into the e-reader game; so late as to be virtually a no-show.

It’s time for Borders—and for the “new blood” that’s going to come into book-selling (as well as the old blood that’s going to survive into the next decade) to regroup and learn from the mistakes of the past. None of this is rocket science; all one has to do is walk into a Borders store and spend ten minutes there and you’ll be able to tick these off on a clip-board and make it official (if that’ll make you happy). So here’s that list—mistakes made and correctives prescribed:

1. Discounting. Borders has always been unclear about what their discount policy was, even to the point of being unclear whether they had any discount policy at all. Did they discount best-sellers? Did they discount any featured books? Their Rewards program required a PhD to decipher. (I’ve been carrying it around on my key chain for years; I have no idea why.) I know from personal experience that they did not discount books of authors who appeared in the store—not the books the authors were promoting and signing, nor any of their other books, and they certainly didn’t discount anything by those authors in any other stores. I got the impression that there was somebody in the Borders hierarchy who was allergic to discounting anything. Start discounting things regularly and consistently—and discount books that people want and are looking for. Oh, and tell somebody about it!

2. Store Design. For years, Borders designed stores so that many books could not be reached by anyone but NBA players—and not backcourt players, but forwards and centers. Bookcases were floor-to-ceiling affairs and they were deep bookcases so that books on lower shelves required getting down on one’s knees and donning a miner’s lamp-hat. Walking down those chasms of bookcases and not being able to see the store was also sometimes a scary experience, especially with a child. I’m sure some of that has changed—but I’ll bet some of it hasn’t (I know several Borders in the area where it hasn’t). Of the seven Borders Bookstores I visit regularly in the New York area (including one over the GWB in New Jersey and one up north in Yonkers), the criticisms and shortcoming listed here apply to all of them. My advice to the execs: Spend a little time in a Target and then redesign the stores. The B&N stores are only a little better, but not much. (But as I said, we’re not talking about B&N right now.)

3. Customer Service. The attitude I have encountered in Borders Bookstores over the past three decades is that they believe people who patronize bookstores not only need no help, but are offended by the very suggestion that they may need some assistance. We all need help, no matter what we’re shopping for. Who isn’t lost in a wine shop? “The only person who doesn’t need help in a wine shop is an alcoholic.” (I don’t know who said that; I may have just made it up.) The same is true in a bookstore. It may be too much to expect every store to provide the kind of expert knowledge that used to be available in bookstores—you remember, stores run by walking encyclopedias who were happy to lay their fund of knowledge at your disposal whether you bought anything or not, just for the pleasure of sharing the joy of books and the thrill of bringing a discovery to your doorstep (like that Mrs. Potter I mentioned earlier—I should really give her a call). But the internet has not dispensed with the need for such guidance, certainly not in the store itself. So if you can’t staff the stores with more knowledgeable people, then provide computerized kiosks that provide the information so that people aren’t wandering around blindly, clueless about what is the best book to get them started on a course of study on whatever interests them at the moment.

4. Merchandise Selection. When one walks into a Borders, one is assaulted by a mish-mosh of fluffy toys, ghastly cards and stationary, and what looks like candy. Did they seriously think they could compete with Best Buy or Toys-R-Us? I can understand wanting to have impulse items near the cash register and placing must-have items in the rear—that’s what super-markets do when they place milk and staples in the rear. But the material that has now replaced the books is simply absurd and violates the simple rule of merchandising: people don’t buy something where they don’t expect to find it—no matter how good the deal it is. (Otherwise, why not stock toothpaste; people need that, don’t they?) If you’re so interested in reading, then get in touch with Levenger and produce a line of products for readers to sell in your stores. Or: highlight audio books (I am amazed at how popular they are among readers who have difficulty with type of any size—a growing demographic, trust me.) Design merchandise that appeals to your customer demographic based on real research, not the guesswork you’ve been relying on.

5. In-Store Events. Most of the Borders stores I’ve walked into are like monasteries—quiet, unpeopled, ghostly. It’s been years—maybe decades—since I’ve been in a Borders that was really hopping, crowded with customers. But here’s the most disturbing thing about that: it has always seemed to me that that’s just how they like it! Surely that can’t be, right? So why don’t they have people–friendly events? I was walking through a Borders in New Jersey and chanced upon a knitting group. I was surprised—first, because it was nestled invisibly behind tall bookcases (the “Knitters of Amantillado” perhaps?), and second, because there was no announcement in the window or in the front of the store that the group was meeting. I went to the manager and asked him why and he said that he was allowing the group to meet only because it was a project of the mother of one of his cashiers. “We really don’t want that kind of thing going on here,” he added. What kind of thing—people in your store? Or events that bring people into the store for a good time? So here’s my advice: Start having events in your bookstores that bring regular people in for a good time (even if you have to force yourself).

6. Coordinate Stores to Locale. I don’t know shinola about real-estate, so I can’t comment on those supposedly terrible lease deals Borders got into (though I begin to smell a lame excuse and a scapegoat for a lot of other harebrained management decisions). But I do know the real-estate agent’s mantra: location, location, location. If your business is a bricks-and-mortar operation, use location to your advantage. Even McDonald’s, who tries to get every burger in every location tasting the same, knows that the décor and ambiance of every store has to reflect the culture and demographic of its locale. But I don’t see any of that in any of the Borders stores. They’re cookie-cutter versions of each other—the Penn station store doesn’t seem to me any different from the Columbus Square store or the Ft. Lee store, and you wouldn’t know which store you were in if you were suddenly whisked to any one of them. So make every store reflect the culture of the customers who come into it. The people who come into the Penn Station store are not the same as the people on Park Avenue; one is a commuter and the other is an Upper East-Sider. (Wow, is there a difference!) The stores should reflect that; don’t let them be carbon copies of each other.

7. Communicate and Understand Your Customer. I have never been asked by anyone at a Borders for information about me. Robert Klein makes fun of the way Radio Shack employees ask everyone who comes in to buy a simple battery a whole list of questions, from their address and date of birth to the frequency of their bowel movement. Amazon sends me e-mails alerting me of books I might be interested in based on previous purchases. Not knowing who they’re dealing with, they can’t know that 99% of the time, I’ve already got it. (Sometimes I got it from them, and I wonder why they don’t know that—a glitch in the old computer, I guess.) But Borders (or B&N, come to think of it—pay attention guys…there but for the grace…) never does. And I don’t get that. If there is any business that should be all over me like a cheap suit, it’s a book store. Start learning about your customers and start conversing with them. This is going to cost you in two ways: it will cost you to develop the system to do it; and it will cost you in providing the offers that you will have to make to the customers to make their cooperation worth their while. But in the end, it will be worth your while.

That’s my list—for starters, anyway. Bringing bookstores back is going to be a monumental task that is going to require a lot of work, by many people. (It’s one of the tasks of this site, it so happens.) Losing Borders would be bad news for everyone who cares about books. I hope the people at Barnes & Noble realize that. I know many people I consider my friends at B&N and at Sterling (B&N’s publishing arm)—people I respect and care about—do. I hope it’s true of the people at both those places who regard me as a nuisance and a gadfly, a crackpot and a malcontent (it’s okay, gang—I never take it personally; who loves ya?) as well. So I hope everyone—everyone—will pitch in and help Borders weather this to the other side.

We all need me to be wrong on this one.

A Fan of Comic Books

By Travelin’ Jack Eichner

[Jack is an assistant editor of Harold Rabinowitz Associates, the company that produces books under the leadership of Harold Rabinowitz and which sponsors this Blog. His specialty is graphic novels and graphic non-fiction, and we expect that’s what he’ll write about much of the time—though anything’s possible.]

I am not a fan of comic books.

Let me back up.  Last week, I paid a visit to my Local Comic Retailer, a cramped and dingy affair smelling strongly of dust.  Up against the wall just to the left of the entrance was the “current issues” section.  There were something like three-hundred different books on the racks.  I took a look at the Green Lantern titles.  There were about five of them, and with Major Comic Event Tie-ins, it came more than double that.  I know that in order to have any clue about the story, one has to buy all the books in a comic “family.”  I started running the numbers in my head.  At four dollars an issue, times twelve, it would cost well more than it would to go to the movies once a week for a month, and in the same neighborhood as a basic cable subscription.  That’s just one group of titles; there were a lot of others.

You might say, and rightly so, that you can dispense with some of these books.  Even if I were ensnared in this scheme, I would still give the book with the guy vomiting blood on the cover a pass (perfectly explaining why I remain outside the trap to begin with).  The point of this is not to give an exact accounting of how much it costs per month to be a fan of monthly comics, although this plays a part.  How much brainspace, mental horsepower, would I have to expend in order to stay with the current?  I probably wouldn’t have many other hobbies.  How much chaff do I have to endure in order to get something out of what good there is (see again, blood vomiting—also adolescent masturbation fantasies)?

Back in the comic shop, I came across an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, issue number eighteen of twenty-four.  I elected not to bother trying to find back issues in the enormous stacks of cardboard boxes; rather, I would wait for the trade edition. (Turned out they had thirteen of them. So I did buy number one.)

So here it is.  Monthly comic books, superhero comic books, are one corner of a huge art form (in a huge culture).  I read, enjoy, and appreciate many comics (enough to write about them on a blog), but the type of overspecialization demanded to follow mainstream (but nobody buys them) comics is something that is beyond (or beneath) me.  Rather, I’m all about watching how things interact with each other.

But I’m not a fan of comic books. Really. I’m not.

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My Predictions About The Predictions For 2011

Well, it wouldn’t be New Years without predictions for the coming year and this year was no exception. What might be a little different this year is that the predictor who received the lion’s share of attention in the publishing world is Mark Coker, who founded a company, Smashboards, dedicated to the e-book. Now that this individual’s predictions would be given great attention on Galley Cat shouldn’t come as a great surprise: though Galley Cat tries to cover the entire publishing waterfront, its focus is on electronic media because, let’s face it, that’s where most of the interesting action is these days. The same is true for Media Bistro, the site that hosts Galley Gat and a dozen other blogs in the field. But it was when the Huffington Post looked to Mark for his predictions that it seemed the electronic end of the street supplanted the print end in this area and Mark’s predictions became the base camp from which all other climbers set off to get a glimpse (a “peek at the peak,” as it were) at what the future had in store.

But there were a few others—old pros who had a few things to say, with opinions that were every bit as interesting. Among them were some old publishing hands who comment regularly on the web: the agent Richard Curtis; the head of the McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing Division, Philip Ruppel; and the publishing consultant Dan Poynter. Sometimes they agreed with each other and sometimes they didn’t, but that’s the fun of this, isn’t it? So here are my ten predictions about how these predictions are going to fare in the coming year (or years) ahead.

1. Borders Buys the Farm

Everyone seemed to believe that the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores is going to continue to decline in the coming year. (That number has halved in each of the last four years!) No one ventured a guess about what was going to happen with all the talk that flourished in the last quarter about a merger of Barnes & Noble and Borders. A lot of people believe I have inside info on this. Well, I don’t. I know what everyone knows: that Borders has so many terrible leases, that a merger (and, for that matter, a buy out) is virtually out of the question. More likely is that Borders will shrink (“consolidate” is the polite business term) further until it is bought outright. My guess is that it will not be bought by B&N for the simple reason that such a purchase will subject them to FTC anti-trust scrutiny. And they need that like…

And I don’t think Borders will be attractive to Ron Berkle (or any other suitor), or it would have been plucked earlier, when there was still something worth plucking. No, if I wanted to make a prediction that was a “going-out-on-a-limb” prediction (and isn’t that the fun of making such predictions, guys?), I’d say “This year might see the end of Borders as an independent book chain—maybe the end of Borders, period.Flash update: the news of the last three days—that Borders hasn’t been able to pay it’s bills; that some book wholesalers have stopped shipping to Borders, while others have negotiated harsher payment terms, possibly all but eliminating the return policy for their books; and that two top executives at Borders have resigned—indicate that the company has some very tough times ahead, making this prediction hardly as “out-on-a-limb” as it was a week ago.

2. New Blood Enters the Book Store Business

But there’s a second half to my prediction: One of the predictors, Dan Poynter, doesn’t see bookstores changing at all over the next year—he sees them just getting mustier and thus more obsolete and less relevant. And I think he’s wrong on two counts: First, I think the chains are going to do something about that to protect their investment and will make the biggest stores much more relevant. And the only way to that is to make the stores what bookstores one were: places where people liked to go to for cultural stimulation and entertainment. That’s one of the themes were going to harp on (one of the drums we’re gong to be banging on) in the year ahead: the chains (large and small) have to make the stores much more vibrant and “happening places.” And second—and here’s another “out-on-a-limb” prediction for 2011—I’m going to predict that a whole new group of entrepreneurs are going to get into the bookstore business and breathe new life into it by introducing the performance element—in the form of poetry, story-telling, forums, drama, film, children’s theater, comedy, writing, crafts, and wacky, zany things nobody’s ever thought of doing in a bookstore (well, “practically” nobody), but which make perfect sense being there and which will make the entire bookstore experience enjoyable—and that’s good for business!

3. The Big Publishing Houses Voluntarily Break Up

Just about everyone is writing the obituary of the editor because everyone has written off the big publishing house as a dinosaur. Richard Curtis thinks we’re going to see a “shocking merger” among the big houses. Maybe, though at this point, we really shouldn’t be shocked by anything the big houses do, should we? They have managed to mismanage themselves out of profitability and relevance with such unerring efficiency that the Devil himself aiming to undue the evils of movable type couldn’t have orchestrated it all any better. So here’s my contrarian, against-the-tide, out-on-a-limb prediction about what the big houses will do now: They’ll finally get it! They will finally realize that all the consolidation was simply foolish and that it undermined a foundational pillar of the publishing process: it eliminated editorial judgment altogether! How did it do that? By making all publishing decisions subject to the uniform, homogenized tastes and judgment of the Publication Committee—which was the Sales and Marketing Department of the Conglomerate as a whole.

You see, when you submit a project to any one of the sixty odd imprints at Bertelsmann, say, you may interest a different editor at each of those imprints, but eventually, that project will come before a Publication Committee that includes the sales people and the marketing people as well as the top brass of the publishing conglomerate. Once that committee says no on that project, that’s it for all the imprints. That project might be appealing to another Berterlsmann editor, but sooner or later, it will come before those same people, and even if they see it with a different title and after a two-martini lunch, they’ll know they’ve seen it before and turned it down. (And the composition of the committee changing makes matters worse, because colleagues don’t like second-guessing their predecessors. All books are long-shots, so if a book a previous committee rejected is accepted and it does poorly, the new committee looks twice as bad. The best explanation I’ve ever seen was the first half of Jason Epstein’s interview with Charlie Rose a year ago.

So what will the major publishing conglomerates do? (Drum roll:) They’ll voluntarily break up their imprints and make them separate companies with completely independent sales, marketing and even production departments… and they will issue baseball bats to any executive for the purpose of braining any accountant or efficiency expert who even whispers any complaint about how much could be saved if all those departments were combined. Anyone caught using the words “economy,” “of” and “scale” in the same sentence, even not in that order and in a context having nothing to do with finance, will still be able to expect a good whack with one of those bats. And I think (and pray) that this is the year they’ll do it (because if they don’t, there may not be much left to fix later).

4. Editing—and Editors—Make a Comeback

That prediction also has a second part—a corollary, if you will: this is the year that editing comes back (and with it, the editor)! This is going to happen, I believe, even if the previous prediction doesn’t come true. It’s going to happen because writers, publishers and readers are finally going to realize that editors perform a vital, indispensable function. They will realize this because the stuff we have all been forced to read—on the internet, in magazines and newspapers, and in books of fiction and non-fiction—has been so poorly written, such drivel, such crap (to put it plainly), and so clearly so because it has been bereft of capable editorial care and attending, that well edited material will seem, well like a text handed down from the top of some mountain from a deity or something (say, not a bad premise….)

Top authors have always known the value of a good editor, and when they couldn’t get good editing in the publishing houses, they went out and hired their own! And, guess what—that’s exactly what leading bloggers (like Penelope Trunk) are doing (or recognizing the need for) now. Part of the problem has been that writers are so insecure and so vain (and not a little bit gullible), that when an editor tells them that what they have submitted for publication is perfect just the way they submitted it and doesn’t need a thing, they fall for it and believe that garbage, not realizing that the editor is saying that just to avoid having to work. If you’re a writer reading this, get this through your soft, mushy skull (which should be easy because, after all, it’s not a thick skull, now is it?): no one’s writing is great in first draft. No one! If you get nothing else out of this post, get that. Editing coming back means that the publishing houses will once again play that vital role of looking for, finding, nurturing, developing, guiding, editing, and presenting (i.e., properly publishing) writers with important and evocative things to say, entertaining observation worth sharing, gripping and insightful stories to tell.

5. The Device War (Far From Over) Gets Really Messy

Phil Ruppel thinks the device war is “nearly over.” Ha! Not only do I think this is wrong, I think the situation is going to get out of hand in 2011. In fact, I would predict that the device wars are just beginning and the proliferation of devices, models and options on the market is going to be so great, that many people will become frustrated with their e-readers, fed-up with their complications and restrictions, and irked by all the money they’ve spent on devices that were obsolete almost before they unpacked the box they came in. I wish I had a nickel for every time that’s happened to me with computer equipment or software! But while that is an expected occupational hazard you know about going in when it comes to computer hardware and software, the e-readers are going to engender a different kind of backlash. The utility of the e-reader over the printed book for any individual title is not that significant—at least I don’t see it. I can wait a few days to get a book; I’m not going to finish reading it in the 60 seconds it takes to download it. I consider the physical book, even as it lay closed on my bookcase shelf or on my coffee table, something that allows me to think about my experience of having read the book; I don’t get that when the book exists in my Kindle or in my iPad. 

Daniel Clowes captured something exquisite in his New Yorker cover of June 8-15, 2009, depicting an alien being visiting a dying New York City, clearly (it seems to me) long after (perhaps very long after) the city has been destroyed by man-made destructive forces, and coming upon a tattered copy of a book amid the debris field of keyboards, tablet screens, cell phones and e-readers. One gets the sense that while the mold has formed on the building in the distance and on the walls against which our alien leans, the vegetation has begun to sprout through and a few moths begin to fly through the sky. The flying saucer is parked above and the alien sits without a care or any apprehension —he reads the tattered book and he seems to have nothing to fear from his surroundings; is it because there is no one left roaming about to fear?

But then, does our little green man even understand the language? Why should he, if there’s no one left to use it? I could be wrong, but when I look at the drawing, I don’t see him reading the book, the words on the page—I see him just looking at the page and looking at the words as he might just watch a person speaking and be fascinated by the simple act of speech without having the slightest idea what was being said. Seeing the book and seeing the parade of language across the page is evidence of the existence of another sentient being, another personage. A being to keep the little green man company even if all he utters—the indecipherable markings on the paper—is forgotten earthly gibberish. That’s what I see in that little smile behind that transparent helmet.

(Look at that cover—spend a few minutes with it—and then tell me what you see.)

6. But Enhanced E-Books Break Through

And yet… And yet, there is a beguiling promise that is out there in the form of the “enhanced e-reader”—the e-reader or e-book that has the capability of delivering a full palette of communication media: text, image, video, audio, animation, instruction, sequenced material, programmed instruction, 3-D animation, live broadcasting… and whatever else the educator’s imagination thinks will bring the student to an understanding of the subject. Here’s how I look at it: every technological advance cuts down the time required to do something—to get from point a to point b, in space or in time. It takes a few months to cross North America by horse-drawn wagon; a few days by locomotive; a few hours by airplane. It takes a few days for a letter to get across the country by letter; a few hours for a telegram to reach its intended destination; a phone call takes a few seconds (faster if it’s to their cell phone and they’re picking up).

The key anecdote here is what Benjamin Franklin said at the first demonstration of the Montgolfier brothers hot air balloon on June 4, 1783. As the hot air balloon rose in the air, a man standing next to Franklin said, “What good is that?” and Ben replied, “What good is a baby?” We have to look at the e-reader as still in its infancy and look to what it can do as a means of cutting down time—and the time I speak of is the time it takes to learn things. For there’s no question that the time it takes the mind, especially the young mind, to absorb and integrate new concepts and understand a subject is highly variable. If we can cut down, say, how long it takes for a young person to master the concepts of algebra, of analytic geometry and calculus; of chemistry or biology or physics or earth science—if we could use the technologies of the e-reader to convey these subjects in ways that would capture the attention, engagement, and imagination of young people, then we could make the e-reader truly useful and not a mere toy.

So here’s my prediction: This is the year we’ll see that happen! This year, the big electronic firms will get together with the educators and launch a pilot program to use “En-readers” –let’s call them that; why not?—in a high school (not a Stuyvesant, but a good, solid, middle-of-the-80’s-percentile-SAT-score school) and develop the materials that will have those kids score in the middle of the 90’s percentiles—verbal and math!—using the full panoply of capabilities of the en-reader. And while Richard Curtis is right (I believe) when he says there will be some questions raised about whether reading on electronic devices “sticks” as well with readers as reading on paper (he’s right because such questions have already been raised), he wrong (again, in my opinion) that these concerns will cause educators and students to abandon electronic textbooks in favor of paper ones even if the substance of this prediction doesn’t come true. Even the old-fashioned version of the e-reader version of textbook—the un-enhanced version—will still be popular for all the reasons they are getting attracting so many users today.

No, as far as I’m concerned, the only question is: will the en-reader be the instrument through which a huge breakthrough occurs in education that is a game changer—one that, for example, makes American education once again preeminent in the world and gives the U.S. a forward position among developed nations—instead of the position it now occupies, which is a potentially second-tier technological power, once the next generation reaches maturity and the young people of Asia, South America, and Europe compete with—and out-perform!—America’s youth of today.

7. Graphic Novels and Graphic Non-Fiction Go Mainstream

I will predict—and just when you thought I couldn’t get any more reckless, I go ahead and predict this—that this is the year graphic novels and graphic non-fiction will break into mainstream publishing and the mainstream book market. One of the editors who work with me is a fellow named Jack Eichner, and we are determined to be instrumental in making this prediction come true. One of the insights that Jack has taught me is that there is a world of difference between “comics” and “graphic narrative”—I’ll let him tell you more about it (he’ll be contributing posts to this site, along with the other able editors working with me). But here’s a point that has impressed me for a long, long time and which has driven me and fueled my abiding interest in this area: there is an intimacy in the graphic story, the comic depiction, that communicates and connects in ways that are different and some ways more powerful—or, in any case, different—from the way words work. And for the time being, that means of communication is subverted by and absent in the electronic medium; it requires the printed page to convey the intimacy. I would even say this: The soft cover of a comic is a necessary part of the intimacy that a graphic work contains and imparts—it’s as if the fold of the pages “embraces” the reader as he or she curls up with it. The story, along with the artist and the experience now all become part of the isolated world—and perhaps that’s why the most successful and compelling graphic material has been about isolated people, lonely teens (or “mice”—or even a rabbi’s cat!) in a cold, lonely, estranged world. And perhaps that’s why the non-fiction graphic material has also been so heavily laden with tales of estrangement—rejection by the academic community; persecution by the political powers that be; marginalized by their ideological allegiances to arcane philosophies. Even the wooden “feel good” pens of Sidney Harris and Larry Gonick can’t squeeze out the subversive rogue element of science and the scientist.

But this is the year that starts to change. At least I hope it does. This year, someone (and I hope one of those “someones” will be us) will produce graphic material—graphic narrative that will be fiction and non-fiction—that will not be the dark childish fantasies of children’s superhero comics (which occupies—and should occupy—only a small corner of the graphic literary universe), that people will read to delve into the inner reaches of the human condition, to learn about a hundred different disciplines even educated people know nothing about; to read serious, rich and nuanced adaptations of the work of authors that will drive people to seek out the original texts of these works.

Then perhaps American will discover why the rest of the civilized world devotes 30% (or more) of its bookstore shelf-space to graphic novels and graphic non-fiction, and reads this material on their buses and subways on their way to work and in their homes after dinner. It’s not because they’re less cultured, educated or sophisticated than us. (God, no.) It’s because they have discovered those special avenues of communication and insight that lead into the inner reaches of the human condition, accessible only through the panel and drawn image combined on the page in… the comic book—what my father dismissed with a sneer as “junk books,” but to which my mother said, “Shah, Itzik—at least he’s reading.”

8. Online Curation of Books Will Become Even More Important

I think Mark Coker is right to identify “discoverability” as the new obsession in publishing and it will hit hard when authors are lost among the literally millions of authors who are vying for reader attention online. However, I think Mark and Dan Poynter and other electronic gurus are not recognizing the role review media can and will play in this jungle. The way I see it, the problem has been that the review media has not embraced the need to compartmentalize or curate its offerings to match the interest of the reading public. What I mean is simply this: I have specific reading interests that I want to attend to first, and then I’ll take a look at books that might be interesting to me on a more general level. That’s why bookstores have sections, right? But the review media don’t, except to divide books into fiction and non-fiction. Well, that’s not good enough. When I get the Hamilton Books catalog (and others like it), I pay particular attention to the subject areas of primary interest to me, and then I’ll browse in other areas, only occasionally selecting a book from those sections. The same ought to be the case in a review publication (whether it’s a print publication or online): Give me guidance, give me wisdom, and give me direction in the areas that I am most interested in, and I’ll keep coming back. I once pitched this idea to a fellow who briefly owned Kirkus Reviews. He liked the idea, but didn’t own it long enough to implement it. Perhaps now, the incredible density of internet publishing will elevate this from being merely an interesting idea to a desperate necessity. I predict it will, though it’s more a hope than a prediction.

9. Reader Managed News Will Further Deteriorate American Journalism

Here is a prediction I wish I didn’t have to make, but this is what I really think:  The year 2011 will be a “dark year” in publishing—in fact, it will come to be known as the beginning of the “dark decade” because of what happens in publishing. What do I mean? Just this: This coming year, it will become clearer than it has been before that the baser ideologies that are cherished by the more savage segments of our society—the ideologies that are fueled by racism, by hatred, by envy, by ignorance, by the need to scapegoat, by imagined grievances and manufactured injustices; by demagoguery, by hypocrisy, by greed, by the cheapening of human values and human life, by the demeaning of children, women, the elderly, the infirm, the poor, the disabled, and the disenfranchised, by the persecution of the minority, the “different,” the uneducated , the intellectual, the Jew, the Catholic, the Moslem, by the simple motivation of paying back for the abuse one suffered by visiting it on any hapless and defenseless victims available—all of that will become central and mainstream elements of modern life because of the development of a simple thing: the ability of people to tailor and design the news they receive. This functionality of the internet—to select RSS feeds and to actually design the subject and sources of the stories that will occupy the pages of the electronic magazincs and newsreports—will allow people to receive the material that feeds their worst fears and supports their most despicable prejudices. This is what has happened on the wider scale with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—news and opinion decided not by any system of responsible journalistic values but by what the purveyor believes the recipient wants to receive. The motto of Fox News—“We report; you decide”—must certainly be one of the worst tasteless jokes ever uttered, for in truth, the operation goes: “you decide what we report.” The result is the non-stop rant, the torrent of foolish innuendos, and the sly winks that substitute for reporting and fact. Like my nutcase friend who eagerly sends me every report he can find of misconduct on the part of environmentalists, however dubious the source, even as he ignores the torrent of evidence of global warming (including the disappearance of his own beach-front property), Even the reporters don’t seem terribly interested in finding out what’s going on.

But this year, this phenomenon—recipient managed news—will become more pronounced and it will have a greater impact on actual events. My concern is that it will ignite actual violence when it feeds a baseless rumor, stirs an ancient hatred or stokes a simmering lust for revenge and unleashes an uncontrolled mob to attack the innocent. Propaganda machinery of a more primitive and less technological nature was used very effectively in the years leading up to the Holocaust in Germany as pamphleteers used basement presses and street hand-outs to spread outrageous lies—the bigger they were, the more they would be believed, their authors infamously found. Now it can be done much more efficiently, much more cleanly (untouched by human hands, like all really heinous deeds), and at the speed of information. When that happens, God help us.

10. A Novelist Now Shivering in a Sixth-Floor Walk-Up Will Expose The Danger of Reader Managed News and “Save Us (From Ourselves)”

With a dour prediction like number 9, I have to end with a ray of light, don’t I? Well, here’s the best that I can do, though it’s more of a prophecy than a prediction: somewhere out there, there’s an antidote to the depressing situation described in number 9, and it’s a writer!—it always has been. Whether it’s Sophocles or Cervantes, a writer can be counted on to cut through the nonsense and expose it for what it is. Of course, it will have to be a writer working in a sixth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side (the way Gary Shteyngart did when he did his first book); or in a flat in Brooklyn (also a walk-up, but a lower floor; the buildings are lower in Brooklyn) like Paul Auster did; or perhaps Eric Blair (whom we know by his pen name, George Orwell), who probably would have thought the digs enjoyed by Shteyngart or Auster luxury accommodations during most of his life. I’ve often said that publishing is structured so that the author always winds up drunk in a back alley, face down in a pool of his own vomit. I’m beginning to think that that may be how it’s supposed to be, because that’s the only way the writer can see and write the truth clearly. By living outside the middle-class norms and embracing the bohemian ways of the underbelly of society. (God, I hope not.)

Somewhere there’s a writer cutting through to the heart of human experience and that person’s writing will somehow expose the hypocrisy, lay bare the mendacity and throw up the mirror to the face of the devil in all of us (whether we’re named Rupert or Ronald or Leonard or Harold or Whatever). I’m not sure how that writing will find its way onto shelves that don’t exist or come off printing presses that don’t roll, or get shipped from publishing houses that don’t publish, or get accepted by editorial departments in offices now being sub-let to insurance companies. Much of Solzhnitsyn’s work was samizdat—work that was run off on mimeograph machines and distributed hand to hand to trusted friends and read in the dark of basements. Maybe that’s how this writer’s work will have to be read. Sounds downright Biblical to me.

In any case, that’s what it looks like from here—overlooking a wintry Hudson River at the beginning of 2011. Feel free to comment or to e-mail me privately; I’ll respond to everyone (that’s a promise). And to everyone who loves books and hopes they survive, I wish you a Happy and a Healthy New Year. Peace to One and All.

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