As Borders Regroups, So Should the Entire Industry—In Ten “Practical” Steps

All Right. The worst happened. Borders filed for bankruptcy. I predicted that, sure, but I also said that I hoped I was wrong about that one–I hoped that somehow they were going to listen to the consultant who gave them that sage piece of advice (as reported by Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal): whatever you do, stay out of Bankruptcy Court. That’s good advice, because most companies don’t recover from that. Sure they might stick around a while; maybe even last a decade or two—but in such an enfeebled, pathetic state, that you end up wondering if it  wouldn’t have been kinder, more merciful to just have put them out of their misery.

The reports already estimate—optimistically, if you ask me—that 200 to 250 of the 650 Borders stores are going to have to close down. I’ll be surprised if there are 300 left open by the Fall. And the reports think the publishers they owe money to will have to settle for 25-cents on the dollar. That’s totally unrealistic. Publishers are last in line in the chain of creditors: there are the landlords; the service contracts; the employees; the wholesalers; the suppliers of all that junk they filled the stores with instead of books—and you can bet the terms on that merchandise was tougher than it was on the books (everything on this planet is). So 25-cents on the dollar might be what preferred creditors can hope for–publishers will be lucky—lucky!—if they walk away with 10-cents. And there will be some who will get much less than that—so much less, that they may well go under themselves.

I reported last time (a month ago) that I thought the real number of trade bookstores in the US hovered around 1500. Well, now it looks like we’re heading for 1000 bookstores for the entire country (gevalt!), which is what I would predict by the end of the year, unless…

…Unless the entire industry can regroup. Here’s what I mean. The entire book industry is going to have to rethink its basic operational assumptions and start doing things differently. It now becomes a matter of survival. Here are my Ten Modest Proposals For the Survival of Books and the Book Industry. Some of these measure are going to hurt—no question about it. But these are necessary if the Book Culture is going to survive.

I’ve divided these ten proposals into three categories: three things I think the publishers are going to have to do; two things that authors and editors are going to have to do; and five things that bookstores are going to have to do. None of them are going to be easy. All of them are going to cost—time, money, effort… and not a little “face”—people are going to have to lower themselves and get out there among the people and mix it up with the rabble. That’s okay, it won’t hurt—you might even like it. (Did you see those photos of Morgan Entrekin talking to the independent bookstore people? He’s never looked so happy!)

1. Publishers: Eliminate the return policy. Somebody should have taken Max Schuster out back and beaten the snot out of him when he came up with this idea in the first place. Here’s what this means: publishers should price books the way all other commodities are priced: have the stores pay for them and then…they’re theirs! They are not given to the stores on consignment, so don’t take them back. Price them accordingly, which means, price them to move. But that also means that the publishers have greater responsibilities as producers to test-market their product, to prepare the reader for it, to do all the things manufacturers are expected to do when they bring things to market. I can hear the groans all the way in the Bronx—but, yes, it means that the way things are done will have to change. Publishers will have to work with authors to produce quality product. Remember? Quality product? Which brings us to…

2. Publishers: Publish Better Books. I know that’s sounds like nutty advice, but it isn’t in the current environment. Publishers have forgotten their mission and the reason they got into this business in the first place, which was to publish what they thought the public wanted and needed to read. Get back to that! Which means: let your editors do their work and not spend all their time clawing at each other for their survival or choking under impossible workloads that force them to pick titles they wouldn’t be caught dead reading themselves.  

3. Publishers: triple your graphic novel and graphic non-fiction production each year for the next five years! Of course, for some of you, that means you’ll have to start by producing some in the coming year for the first time. It’s about time. That’s what the rest of the world reads—that’s what America’s deteriorating eyesight demands—and that’s what the younger generation is hip to: it combines text and image, it allows design and content to dance  on the page and convey information faster and with less effort and engagement from the multi-tasked reader. There isn’t an area of publishing that couldn’t benefit from graphic treatment—and this is an area of publishing that is going to see innovation that is going to knock people’s socks off year after year. So hop to it people!

4. Authors and Editors: Shower, shave (you too, ladies)… sober up (you too, guys)… and get out there! Every author should take it as a given that when you’ve done a book, you are obliged—obliged!—to go out and promote it. Not promote the book…promote the cause that the book promotes. Because every book should have a cause that it promotes. That was how I approached book publishing—how I approach it now. What is different today is: (a) it’s not enough to simply write the book and let the publisher do the promoting (the publisher—Ha!); (b) the internet allows the author to do a lot of promoting right from one’s desk; and (c) the hunger on the part of the public to hear from the author and source of the idea is greater than ever—so only a fool would deny that public access to that source and what that author has to say. I do it in story because I find that more satisfying personally and more effective, but other authors can do it any way they feel best. But do it!

5. Authors and Editors: Stand for something! If you’re the kind of author who just writes for the fun of it, then have fun, read your work to you friends and family (like Kafka did) and leave it at that. If you write because you have dreams of signing books for admiring fans, keep dreaming and have pity on the trees. But if you write because you want people to know something: the plight of migrant workers; the possibility that Jews and Arabs can live together (maybe even fall in love); that children can be heroes; that children can be evil; that people can do terrible things to each other; that people can do heroic things to each other… things like that, then there is a good reason for you to write books and for those books to be published. Of course, it would be a good idea for you to practice and perhaps learn something about writing, from, say, a teacher of some kind, but most of the time, it will really depend on you having native talent anyway. And there’s only one way to find that out, and that is by sitting down and trying to do it. What will not depend on native talent, and which is open to everyone (really everyone) is having something to say. So when people ask me for advice about writing, I say to them, first, ask yourself, what is it that you have to say? When you’re clear about that, then put it on paper (or on screen). Don’t worry about how good it is. Look, even Glenn Beck can write a book, so how hard can it be?

Now let’s address the bookstores—the ones that remain, those brave, lonely souls. Don’t think I haven’t said what I’m saying here in private to bookstore people—to bookstore chain magnates, in fact—who pretty much regarded me an annoyance. It needn’t have been that way: there were not mobs of townspeople with pitchforks banging on the castle doors demanding entrance and an audience with the lord of the manor. There was just me, a lowly packager, trying to help. If those magnates are at all honest with themselves, they will admit in their most private moments that it was nothing but arrogance that had them toss my proposals and suggestions into the round file. Yes, including the round file at Borders. So let’s try it again, folks. (‘Cause you’re all we’ve got):

6. Bookstores: Discount… something! Lure customers into the stores. Why even B&N stopped discounting widely is a mystery. Did I miss something in retailing class, or isn’t the key getting people through the door so they will buy something? And doesn’t that depend on the perception of value? So why aren’t bookstores dreaming up promotions that would make the men clothiers “buy-one-get-another-at-half-price” look like Scrooge? There’s a thrift shop in my neighborhood that gives a 25% discount every Monday, and on that day, the place is packed—packed! The lines are around the block. Booksellers, Hear me: Here’s a word that’s magic in the ears of every customer on the planet: FREE. Find a way to use it, lads and lassies, and you will be successful—my Uncle Jack told me that. He tried to tell people that they would get free bands with the cigars he sold in his cigar store, and when that didn’t work (and it didn’t—everything has its limits), he gave a free (imprinted) end-cutter (worth 10-cents, but priced at 50-cents) with every $20+ box purchase. There were five thriving Jack’s Cigars all over Brooklyn (and two on Long Island) when Jack passed away. 

7. Bookstores: Become centers for cultural enlightenment… and for God’s sake, provide the people who go there for it with a place to sit down! Would you ever consider buying a pair of shoes without trying them on? What would you say if a shoe store allowed you to put the shoe on, but wouldn’t let you walk a few steps in them.? Or would let you put on a pair of running shoes, but wouldn’t let you sprint a few yards to see if you could run in them? What would you think about a store that would let you try on a suit, but wouldn’t let you sit in a chair while wearing it to see if it was a comfortable fit? You wouldn’t patronize such a store. But that’s what’s happening with book stores. What they are forgetting is that people are not trained or prepared to go to bookstores to simply pick up the works of their favorite authors, because they don’t have favorite authors. They haven’t been given enough reading training or experience to have favorites or to know how to develop new favorites. The stores are going to have to fill in that gap. In times past, publishers provided things like sample chapters; magazines often contained excerpts of new novels or stories by writers of new books that allowed people to sample an interesting new style. Those avenues are not available today—though I think someone would do well to start an on-line magazine that offered (in addition to reviews), samples of writing that would give people a taste of what’s new out there. We believe the reading experience is still and will always be centered on the physical book, but the electronic medium can serve a useful purpose in this area. There may be other ways, but whatever those may be, it will be necessary to give people the opportunity to read in the store and to discover new writers and new forms…and that generally requires a place to sit!

8. Bookstores: Become “Temples of the Writer’s Art.” I may be pushing things too far, but I also believe bookstores are the logical, most sensible place where the art of writing should be promoted and even practiced. What I have in mind (I guess) are workshops involving local schools, libraries, and civic organizations. This brings up an idea I have had for a long time that perhaps deserves some serious consideration: a national day (yes, a holiday) devoted to a writer, or group of writers. Do we really believe that the quality of life—particularly the strength of democratic institutions—relies heavily on writers, and on the ability of citizens to appreciate and be informed by writers? I do. 

9. Bookstores: Become real bookstores again by staffing with knowledgable people. That charming little movie “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—written and directed by Nora Ephron—about rival bookstore owners who fall in love on the internet (is it just me or should the proper response by Meg when she discovers that it’s been Tom who has been e-mailing her all along should have been to call a cop!) does seem to have one clear and unassailable message: the real quality of a bookstore is directly dependent on the knowledge of its staff and their ability and willingness to share that knowledge with the customers. Most bookstores can’t afford to hire additional help, so perhaps this erudition can be provided electronically through a help line that is made available in the store itself. See the note after the next item.

10. Bookstores: Make the technology work for you. Let every bookstore have a social media presence. There is no reason why bookstores shouldn’t use the technology of the internet to their advantage. A local bookstore has everything to gain by establishing an on-line community with readers in its community–alerting them of special events; sales; appearances; workshops… or just chatting with people in the neighborhood interested in what’s happening in the book world. And there should be an internet presence in the bookstore itself. I have campaigned with both major chains (to deaf ears so far—but tomorrow is another day—though it could be organized to service bookstore of all affiliations) that authors who appear in one store should be webcast to all stores to maximize exposure. I think the same is true with live performances of chamber music, jazz, folk music, poetry, comedy, story-telling, etc. A bookstore should be a happenin’ place, especially on the weekends, and at night. It’s asking too much for a small neighborhood independent bookstore to do this every week all by itself, but with a little help…


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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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Will “Linchpin” be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way? — Part 2

Yesterday we were talking about Seth Godin’s announcement that he was abandoning his publisher and was going to be self-publishing everything from here on in, presumably electronically. The story was reported in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Author to Bypass Publisher for Fans”—Page B7), by their publishing reporter, the very perceptive Jeffrey Trachtenberg, who reported the  surprising fact that Linchpin had sold only about 50,ooo copies retail (perhaps as many as 100,000 copies total, including direct and by-author sales, which in Godin’s case, is considerable—but overall, still a surprisingly low number). I discussed how I should have been prepared to take up arms against Seth and defend the publisher and the traditional book publisher, given that yesterday I received word that my own book, Religion in America, was going to be published and bound books would be available ahead of schedule (I still think somebody ought to pinch me—I must be dreaming), and I speculated (none too wildly) that this may have something to do with the coming showdown on September 28th, when the fate of Barnes & Noble (and, in my view, the entire future of publishing, books and reading in America) will be determined. (And since everyone likes a good closed-cage no-holds-barred wrestling match with two yelling over-the-top showmen, here’s that New York Magazine article again about the face-off between Len Riggio and Ron Burkle, in case you missed it.) I was stymied in my defense of the book by this surprising turn of events because it prevented me from entering some small (I was going to say minor, but no corrections can be viewed as minor, can they) corrections from an Eastern religious group, and I was going to lose sleep over this (literally—this is no joke, buster). But I pointed out that there were other aspects of yesterdays events that entered the picture. Here they are:

ITEM: I was also informed yesterday that an e-book of Religion in America was also going to be produced soon (meaning, within two or three months, instead of the usual never) after the publication of the print edition. Now, in the past, publishers have been so lax in producing electronic editions of the books I’ve produced, that I’ve accumulated the electronic rights of nearly everything I’ve ever created. We routinely had our contracts read that the publisher had one year following first print publication to exploit the electronic rights, and failure to do so—a foregone conclusion—meant that those rights reverted to me. But here was a publisher who was making a point of telling me that they were issuing the electronic edition of the book right away. What is pertinent here is my reaction to this news. I was elated. I am almost embarrassed to say that I was elated. Now it would be possible to accommodate those corrections—in fact, to enter all corrections as they are received. But there was much more:

When you do a large reference book like this, you become painfully aware of the limitations of the space of the page. Every inch becomes valuable and every column inch has to give a good accounting of itself. I’ve always told people that the most valuable experience I’ve ever had preparing me for my career as a reference editor was watching and helping my mother pack for the times we went away to a hotel for the Sukkoth holiday or for any vacation. She crammed so much into those suitcases that you could feel them straining as they were just sitting there on the floor. They were like ticking bombs, ready to burst open at any moment and cover everyone and everything in the room (or the lobby we were walking through) with all our underwear, winter coats (even in the middle of summer—because you never know how cold it gets in the mountains), and just about every other article of clothing and household goods we owned. The hackers who drove us to those hotels in the Catskills or Lakewood looked forward to picking us up with dread, knowing that the Rabinowitzes’ luggage was going to be the heaviest and most tightly packed luggage on their run—so tightly packed, that if they didn’t put our’s on the bottom of the pile on top of the station wagon, they risked the possibility that a suitcase would burst open while we were on the New York State Thruway and we (my mother, my father, the hacker, and me) would be out combing the countryside for Itzik’s long undies and little Hershele’s collection of sweater vests (a possibility that became horribly real one drizzly Sukkoth eve in 1958!).

Take a look at all the reference books that we’ve produced at The Reference Works over the years and you’ll notice that, good, bad or indifferent, you certainly got a hunk of reference for your book-buying dollar. The books had a lot of text and a generous helping of illustration, and not a great deal of white space—and even the images were not sprawling, indulgent affairs; they were to the point, compact. The books had to be attractively designed in order to be Book-of-the-Month Club Main selections (six times!), but they were filled with stuff to read, and stuff worth reading.

All right. But now we tackled the largest subject yet—Religion in America—and tried to pack it into a suitcase that was less than a thousand pages. It wasn’t easy. Many times during the process I thought, it would be nice if we had the possibility of adding the feature of a video or an audio, or additional linkages that would take readers to websites that would instruct and show religious ceremonies and historical footage, perhaps sacred sites around the world or at least in the United States. The images available alone would fill a book ten times the size. In a sense, for me the book became a kind of catalog and guide to what was available on the internet and elsewhere about each religious denomination. There are 14 essays in Part Two of the book—we could have put in 140 or more covering issues of interest and concern in the religious scene today. No reason we can’t in an electronic version—along with reader comments and video readings of addresses and lectures.

It was while editing this book that the full capabilities of the electronic medium became apparent to me—but it was also during this period that it became clear that the print edition was a critical element in the process. The print edition, burdened with all the so-called traditional values and methods of editing and publishing, was tight and fluid, easy to read and clear—hallmarks of good writing and good reference publishing. The discipline of editing is what allows the electronic to flourish in a way that serves the reader instead of inundating him and making the page a hodge-podge of what passes for information so often on the information highway. So while I have a new appreciation of the possibilities of electronic publishing, I also have a newfound appreciation of the importance of traditional bookmaking and its place in this new environment.

So I’m ready for you now, Mr. Godin. In tomorrow’s conclusion to this post, Part 3 of “Will Linchpin be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way?”—I’ll tell you why I think you’re making a big mistake—and why you’ll find yourself coming back to Portfolio (or perhaps another imprint) and the warm, supportive editorial shelter of a book editor office, a publisher’s house, and bookmaker’s home.

Will “Linchpin” be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way? — Part 1

Seth Godin’s blog post yesterday was about how Linchpin, his wonderful book about how every person can become indispensable to a company or to a start-up,  by using his or her unique talents, is going to be the last book he is going to publish in the old, traditional way. It’s an eloquent argument for doing away with the traditional way of producing books and for his personal abandonment of the the publisher as a means of communicating with his audience. It’s worth reading because it’s as good a presentation of exactly what I am fighting against and defending as one is likely to see.

This should have been a day when I was certain that Seth Godin was wrong—when I saw a glimmer of light for books and I would feel an elation about the future of books. A good day for Book Templars–let me tell you why. I received the unexpected news that a book I had edited and on which I had work for a long, long time was going to actually exist as bound books on September 21 (September 21 of this year), which happens to be my birthday. The fact is, I had given up hope of ever seeing this book in print. It was a 992-page work on the full range of Religion in America (that’s its title) and I had actually handed it in for publication, completely ready for printing (my God!) two yeas ago. But now I’d been told that the publication date has been moved up—leaving me to wonder if this has something to do with the bizarre melodrama that’s very publicly playing out in the Boardroom of the publisher’s parent company—and book will be extant a week before the “big showdown” oat that company’s stockholders meeting.

All right—let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Let’s take it and be overjoyed. A great day for books, and great day for  me and books, right? So please explain the following several items, some related to this book, and some related to some of the other publishing projects I’m involved in:

ITEM: When I got the news regarding Religion in America, I was in the process of calling the publisher to arrange for material to be sent to the production department that consisted of some corrections that came in from one of the religious organizations covered in the book. The religion covered had been reviewed already when we first handed in the book and it had been well reviewed. These corrections were either new information that reflected the last two years of developments, or errors that had cropped up in the production process itself. (Copy editors know that the very process of correcting proof creates the likelihood of new errors being introduced into the text, and that the best you can do is cut down the errors to a minimum. Like a precious gem, some flaws always remain, and anyone who believes a book is ever published without any errors is a damn fool.)

But this religious group had been very conscientious and I had agreed to try (with no guarantees) to accommodate them and enter their corrections, late as the process was. Since the book was originally not scheduled to be out until 2011, which meant it would not be going to press until October at the earliest (and since the corrections meant changes in only two or three pages, and no re-pagination—and since I would do the corrections myself and submit them on the publisher’s FTP site ready to go), I thought there’d be no problem. But I was wrong. The publishing of the book was hurried and the books were, in fact, already being bound. And now I would have to explain all this to the representatives of the religious group, who would be understanding, I know (they’ve always been so), but disappointed, as will I, for even the slightest error knowingly being contained in the book. (It’s one thing when you know there’s an error somewhere in the book; it’s another when you know exactly where and what it is.)

Now you know that this is going to bother me no end, and that every time I show anyone the book, I’ll (needlessly) point out the really good things about it—that it contains an essay by Pope Benedict XVI and by Greg Easterbrook from Wired magazine; that it contains some 400 illustrations; that it was thoroughly reviewed by every denomination as thoroughly as humanly possible—but I’ll also point out the few errors with this particular religion and tell people that “we just didn’t have time to enter the corrections because the printing was rushed because of the corporate problems that everybody heard about in the newspapers…what? You didn’t hear about it? Well, let me tell you…”

But it get’s worse. Wait till you see Part 2…tomorrow.

BEA (BookExpo): Days of the Living Dead

I didn’t attend BEA this year. In past years, I would never have missed it—not even a Total Knee Replacement (which I had 3 1/2 months ago (it’s coming along nicely, if slowly; thanks for asking) would have kept me away. But I couldn’t go this year. Why? Simple: The publishing industry is on life support and refuses to recognize it. The asteroid has struck, people–the darkening clouds will only get darker until no light comes through and the vegetation disappears–readers and writers will become more disaffected from books and the quality of writing and reading will decline. Some other “creature” will emerge–and as yet unrealized electronic reading device that will bear the same resemblance to the Kindle and Sony Reader of today that modern birds have to the archaeopteryx, their Jurassic ancestor.

Not that I didn’t have my antennae at BEA. Four colleague/friends were there and agreed to report to me on how it was and what they saw and heard. Two in the “biz”; two in other media rackets. They were there at different times, and only one went to everything (voyeuristically, if you ask me), including the Friday night party for Idelwild Books, (which you can check out at Galley Cat’s website.

They all checked in–and they all had the same thing to say. Walking through BEA was like a scene from “Night of the Living Dead”–zombies walking about with blank, frozen stares and ashen complexions. Very little enthusiasm was generated anywhere–no star authors or exciting upcoming titles; very little actual business going on, for how could there be when the number of trade book stores in the US now hovers around 2000?

And where was I? I was in Bernardsville, New Jersey at a lovely little bookstore called The Bookworm–now celebrating 25 years in business (and frankly wondering if there’ll be a 26th). Two women were running it efficiently and cheerfully. Two books I was interested in buying (even at full price!) had just come out in paperback–they had one (Joseph O’neil’s Netherland); the other (Cynthia Ozick’s Dictation) …well, they’d never heard of. The store was small and packed with books, all very neatly and lovingly arranged. In many of the featured books in the “New Fiction” and “New Non-Fiction” shelves, there were little yellow cards sticking up with brief hand-written summaries of the books–summaries that couldn’t have been more than 15 words each. It was nice touch and my wife wondered why bookstores don’t do that more often. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her or the proprietors that some little kid was changing as many of the cards around as he could while his mother and older sister looked for a YA title.)

Meanwhile, I will enjoy Netherworld. It was a NY Times Best Book for 2008–one of only 5 of fiction, and given that three of the five were short story collections and one a translation of a posthumously published book by Roberto Bolaño (2666)–it really should be a pretty fine piece of work. (Then again, maybe they’re just not writing ’em as well as they used to….)

And at BEA? My “operatives” tell me the question on everyone’s mind (sometimes given voice), was, “Is this going to be the last BEA?”

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