Archive for the 'Reading' Category

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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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?”

What will happen to bookstores?

Of the Blogs I read regularly, an interesting one that I’ve learned from is Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020–dedicated to the future of books and publishing. I found a recent exchange on it about what will happen to bookstores. You can see it for yourself at:

http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2007/08/scott-karp-give.html#comment-81262741

The discussion is about what will happen to brick-and-mortar bookstores in the future. This is certainly an important question—there were many suggestions and comments, but what was most troubling about it all was the lack of any real sense of urgency in virtually all of the comments.

People, the number of bookstores is declining! It’s already pretty low and it’s getting lower by the day. The published statistics are misleading, insofar as they count many establishments as bookstores that we wouldn’t. (Any establishment that orders books through a wholesaler can qualify for bookseller status, even if most of what they sell is, say, Irish imports–a case I know about personally. The two big chains account for about 1800 stores across the country between them, and that number is going down in two ways: the number of stores is declining as marginal, small stores are closed; and the floor space in the chains devoted to books (as opposed to stationary, toys, CD/DVDs, electronics, fluff, coffee and biscotti) is declining as well. Right now about a third of Borders floorspace (by its own reports) is devoted to non-book merchandise, and that number is expected to rise in the years ahead. Borders display strategy places more books per square footage than Barnes and Noble (the stacks in Borders are usually a foot or more higher), so Barnes & Noble has a slightly smaller percentage of floor space devoted to non-book product, but still about the same one-third of the store (figured as dollar revenue per square foot) is dedicated to non-book merchandise. (And we are not considering the subtle change that has taken place in the change in which prime floor space near the entrance of the store is devoted to non-book product and the books have been pushed upstairs or to the rear.)

What all that means is that a third of those 1800 outlets might as well not be considered bookstores at all! The figures are better for the independents, but their number is smaller to begin with—depending on how you read the statistics, there are from 700 to 900 independents left in the United States. That means fewer that 3000 bookstores, total! And the number is going down. By 2010, we’ll be lucky if we have 2500 bookstores in the entire country. There are entire counties of the U.S. in which there is no bookstore whatever. Compare this with England or France—countries every bit as cultured as us, I dare say—and we would have three times as many bookstores in the U.S. if we had the same density as those countries.

In the past, local public libraries were able to pick up the slack. But have you been to a local branch of a public library recently? The dedicated librarians have their hands full simply maintaining the basic reference services that students and researchers need. Most of the librarians I’ve talked to have given up trying to serve adults altogether and focus their attention (not unwisely, I think) on children and young adults. Adult fiction and non fiction acquired by many libraries is highly selective—geared mainly to best-sellers and provocative titles that will attract local “patrons.” A librarian once complained to me that she resented having to purchase ten copies of The DaVinci Code just to quiet complaining users—and then had to unload eight of them—at a loss—after the demand quieted down in a few weeks.

So what do Joe and his readers suggest? They think stores should focus on print-on-demand kiosks; bookstores of the future should make internet access routine and turn significant space over to terminals. (Borders, sensing the competition to its coffee-shop operation from Starbucks and the wireless-Wifi access it provides in many of its stores, has already announced its intention to do just this.) Some of Joe’s respondents talked about the “joy of browsing through the shelves of a bookstore that simply cannot be captured by an online purveyor,” but the question remains, for how long and for haw many people will that experience (enjoyable as it is to me and might be to others) continue driving people to bookstores?

So here’s a stab at an answer: I think book dealers are going to have to bring people to their stores so that they can…meet the authors! Not physically—only the major markets can get authors to show up. I mean electronically. Picture this. An author “appears” at a local store through an internet connection that allows the author to be seen by people in the store and (this could be more difficult) that allows the author to see whom he or she is addressing. A large flat screen TV in the store “broadcasts” the author’s talk and the author responds to questions afterwards—he or she can even talk to people directly and sign books (with personalize inscriptions), which will then be mailed to the store or directly to the customer, and the revenue credited to the store. A store I know in New York routinely takes orders for signed and inscribed copies of books two weeks before the author appears live—and customers come in the week following the appearance to pick up their (pre-paid) purchase.

Here the power of the network comes into play. A group of bookstores working cooperatively can plan a schedule in which authors appear live at one store, and are simultaneously netcast to many others. The authors rotate among those stores, but each one is available to others and the event is shared electronically everywhere. Will people show up to see an electronic broadcast of an author—even a live broadcast. The experience of BookTV may give one pause. As a book-lover I am often astounded by how boring and poorly done BookTV is–and I have no choice. Here, people will come to see, hear and interact with authors that interest them.

If bookstores are going to “go electronic,” they should do so whole-heartedly, and to me that means using the internet to communicate with their local customers (who else is there?) via e-mail, e-newsletters, and podcasts that are conducted from the store or through the store. And the archive of these appearances should be used in the stores during the week to promote titles of interest. Bookstores have to become what they have, in fact always been:centers of culture and literature; a place to have a certain kind of experience that people find satisfying. Some of Joe’s commenters talked about how brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive just a movie theaters have. I wouldn’t hang a lot on that analogy—we still have to see what home theater technology and movies-on-demand will do to the theater business. (And you don’t see anyone moving in to fill the void left by the closing of Tower Records, do you?)

Now, all this costs money, and if there’s one thing independent bookstores don’t have a lot of, its money. So some of this is going to have to be provided by the deeper pockets that can afford it—and who have a vested interest in promoting and maintaining independent bookstores and books in general. That is not such a long list: it includes the publishers, the non-profits, the schools, government—and even the printers, who seem to be the only people making a buck in the book business.

So far, we’ve been talking about the stores and their design. Next time, let’s talk about a huge area of publishing that is being virtually ignored in the U.S., but which accounts for as much as 30% of the book trade in other countries.

A Bloggin’ We Will Go!

This is the first posting of a blog devoted to the defense and protection of the book. You wouldn’t think a blog like this would be necessary, would you? How could books be in need of defending or protection? Well, they say that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. And I’m here to tell you: there’s a problem. With books. Books are in trouble.

It’s not reading that’s in trouble. There’s still an awful lot of reading going on. But not in books. People are reading tons of stuff on-line, in magazines, on websites–and people are getting lots of information from cable television, audio books, podcasts…the competition for people’s attention is dizzying. But books as a primary or even important source of information, insight, guidance, and entertainment is on the wane.

There are many places to look for evidence of this–and, believe me, we will look at many of them in the months ahead–but one appeared yesterday in the New York Times that you might have missed–mainly because on the face of it, it seemed to be extolling the virtues of books. As a person with a passion for books–as a Book Templar–I read it with sadness.

The article was on page B1 of the Saturday, September 1, 2007, as the last of the paper’s “Summer Rituals” series. This one was by Nina Bernstein and it was entitled, “On the Outdoor Book Tour, the Word is Spreading.” You can read it at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/01/nyregion/01summer.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

As I said, on the face of it, it’s a very pleasant piece–about people in all sorts of public areas reading. But thinking about it, I was shaken: has reading become so rare an activity that we have to write (and read) articles about people simply reading a book in a public place? Imagine if someone wrote a piece about the joy of walking on the sidewalks of New York. Just that–walking. Or window shopping, or looking at tall buildings, or walking on grass in a city park…wouldn’t we come to the conclusion that we were dealing with an endangered and soon-to-be-extinct activity?

Wasn’t there a time in the not-so-distant past when people read all the time–on trains and busses, waiting in a waiting room, sitting on a park bench? I am always amazed at how totally engrossing a person listening to iPod is by what’s coming in through the earphones. Wasn’t there a time when a book could do the same thing? I haven’t seen that kind of immerssion in a book in a public place for a long time.

I wonder if someone who was sitting on a bench in a place where a “No Loiterng” sign was posted would be liable to being arrested or shooed away.

I’m glad Nina Burnstein wrote the article; I’m worried and disturbed by what I think it said.