Tag Archive for economics

NYT on Amazon’s Prices

Just a quick post to direct your attention to an article by David Streitfeld, published on Friday, July 5th in the physical edition of the New York Times (and published online a day earlier).  It concerns Amazon.com’s prices, specifically with respect to independent and university press books.

I’m calling attention to the piece for several reasons.  First, it raises important questions about Amazon’s role as a cultural intermediary in the wake of Borders’ demise,  Barnes & Noble’s slide, and the ongoing shakeout of independent bookstores.  Second, I happen to be quoted in the story.  Here’s what I had to say, echoing some of my points in Chapters 2 and 3 of Late Age, in addition to the Preface to the paperback edition:

“Amazon is doing something vitally important for book culture by making books readily available in places they might not otherwise exist,” said Ted Striphas, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But culture is best when it is robust and decentralized, not when there is a single authority that controls the bulk of every transaction.”

When Mr. Striphas’s book, “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control,” first appeared in paperback in 2011, Amazon sold it for $17.50, the author said. Now it is $19.

“There’s not much competition to sell my book,” Mr. Striphas said. “The conspiracy theorist would say Amazon understands this.”

Needless to say, the rest of the piece is worth the read, too.  My thanks to David for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important issue.


The Season for Giving

“As my bishop would say, I’m livin’ because of my givin’.”
—Rev. Run

‘Tis the season for giving, and in the spirit of the season I’m giving away free downloads of The Late Age of Print.

Well, maybe “free” isn’t exactly the right word. The download will cost you a tweet, or a post on your Facebook wall. But hey—that’s a pretty reasonable price for something that took me more than five years to research, write, and publish, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m managing the release with a new social downloading system that I’m excited to tell you about. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Pay With a Tweet.” I discovered it via the 40kBooks blog, whose editors recently released a collection of their best interviews for 2012 (including, ahem, one with me) using the social payment system. I was really intrigued, and even more intrigued once I got it up and running here on this site.

A free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age has been available since the physical book was published back in 2009. But truth be told, I grew somewhat frustrated by what I perceived to be the unevenness of the exchange. That’s why I’m so taken with the idea of paying for the book socially: you help me get the word out about the book, and in return you get a free digital copy. If you’re interested in giving back even more, you can also write a review of Late Age or like the book’s page on Facebook.

Of course, none of that should preclude you from buying a physical copy of the book. The paperback edition contains a new foreword that does not appear in the free e-edition, so if you want my most up-to-date thoughts about the late age of print, that’s where you’ll want to go.

Happy holidays, dear readers. Thanks for all of your support, this year and beyond. I’ll see you again in early 2013.


Cheaper Textbooks (So They Say)

I don’t often write about textbook publishing, but with the start of the new school year I thought it appropriate to say a few more words on the subject. I say more because I blogged about the changing student textbook market around this time last year, exploring how the rental market in particular had started to affect the ways college students acquire and think about their course texts.

Well, that was a year ago, and paper books are soooooo 2011. The big push this year (which, admittedly, has been building over the course of several years) is for electronic course texts or, in some cases, the bundling of electronic resources with traditional paper textbooks. I can’t stop hearing about the subject both on my own campus and in the periodicals I follow, including The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To wit: this week’s Chronicle included a story entitled “With ‘Access Codes,’ Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever.” (Apologies in advance: you’ll have to be a subscriber to read the full text.) It focuses on a business student at the University of Maine, Luke Thomas, who, last semester, needed to buy a (paper) textbook for his introductory English course. Expensive — but so far, so good. The complication occurred when Thomas discovered that the book, published by textbook giant Cenage, came bundled with a code he would need to access supplementary materials, which were only available online. He and his wife had been planning to use the course text together, effectively cutting the net cost of the overpriced book in half. But because each code was tied to one, and only one, student, they were unable to do so — that is, unless one of them was willing to forgo participation in the class’ online element and potentially jeopardize her or his grade. You can read Thomas’ great, muckraking blog post about the incident here.

I’m sure there are myriad instances of college students confronting these types of dilemmas right now, and not only the married ones. I remember friends during my undergraduate years (this was the early 1990s) routinely buying course texts that they’d then share for the semester. I’m pretty sure I did this once myself, in a Communication course my roommate and I had both enrolled in. But what I see, in the emerging age of e-publishing, is a deliberate attempt on the part of textbook publishers, suborned either by greedy or willfully ignorant faculty, to mitigate and even eliminate these types of arrangements.

What makes this situation all the more startling is the language that’s typically used to sell e-learning materials to professors and students. Over and over again we hear how e-texts are “cheaper” than their printed, paper counterparts and how supplementary online materials add real value to them. What the marketing departments won’t tell you is that that “cheaper” isn’t an absolute term and that value-added actually comes at a cost.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a student can buy a $50 e-version of a course text whose paper edition would cost $100 brand new. That’s a 50% savings, right? Well, not exactly. If two friends wanted to share the cost of the book together, that cost savings is already matched — bettered, actually, since there exists a robust used market for paper textbooks that would probably net the students at least a few dollars at the end of the term. (You generally can’t “sell back” an e-text, since you license rather than own the content.) As for the so-called value-added e-features, Thomas’ story makes abundantly clear how, in fact, this value isn’t added as much as paid for.

I don’t doubt that large textbook publishers like Cenage want to follow what they perceive to be industry and cultural (some might say generational) trends in making such an aggressive move into e-publishing. But it’s not only about that. It’s also about hammering away at the first-sale doctrine, which is the legal principle that allows the owner of copyrighted material to share it with or resell it to someone else without fear of legal reprisal. The move into e-publishing is also a way to effectively destroy the market for used textbooks, which, admittedly, has long been difficult to sustain given publishers’ efforts to issue “revised” editions of popular texts every few years.

Bottom line: if you believe in the free market, then you should be opposed many of these types of e-publishing initiatives. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or even a cheap one, for that matter.

So with that, then, I want to bestow my first ever Late Age of Print Hero Award on Luke Thomas, for his courageous efforts to bring these important issues to public attention. Thank you, Luke.


The Book Industry’s Moneyball

Some folks have asked me how I came to the idea of algorithmic culture, the subject of my next book as well as many of my blog posts of late.  I usually respond by pointing them in the direction of chapter three of The Late Age of Print, which focuses on Amazon.com, product coding, and the rise digital communications in business.

It occurs to me, though, that Amazon wasn’t exactly what inspired me to begin writing about algorithms, computational processes, and the broader application of principles of scientific reason to the book world.  My real inspiration came from someone you’ve probably never heard of before (unless, of course, you’ve read The Late Age of Print). I’m talking about Orion Howard (O. H.) Cheney, a banker and business consultant whose ideas did more to lay the groundwork for today’s book industry than perhaps anyone’s.

Cheney was born in 1869 in Bloomington, Illinois.  For much of his adult life he lived and worked in New York State, where, from 1909-1911, he served as the State Superintendent of Banks and later as a high level executive in the banking industry.  In 1932 he published what was to be the first comprehensive study of the book business in the United States, the Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931.  It almost immediately came to be known as the “Cheney Report” due to the author’s refusal to soft-peddle his criticisms of, well, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with promoting books in the United States — from authors and publishers on down to librarians and school teachers, and everyone else in between.

In essence, Cheney wanted to fundamentally rethink the game of publishing.  His notorious report was the book industry equivalent of Moneyball.

If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), you should.  It’s about how the Oakland A’s, one of the most poorly financed teams in Major League Baseball, used computer algorithms (so-called “Sabermetrics“) to build a successful franchise by identifying highly skilled yet undervalued players.  The protagonists of Moneyball, A’s General Manager Billy Bean and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, did everything in their power to purge gut feeling from the game.  Indeed, one of the book’s central claims is that assessments of player performance have long been driven by unexamined assumptions about how ball players ought to look, move, and behave, usually to a team’s detriment.

The A’s method for identifying talent and devising on-field strategy raised the ire of practically all baseball traditionalists.  It yielded insights that were so far afield of the conventional wisdom that its proponents were apt to seem crazy, even after they started winning big.

It’s the same story with The Cheney Report.  Consider this passage, where Cheney faults the book industry for operating on experience and intuition instead of a statistically sound “fact basis”:

Facts are the only basis for management in publishing, as they must be in any field.  In that respect, the book industry is painfully behind many others — both in facts relating to the industry as a whole and in facts of individual [publishing] houses….”Luck”; waiting for a best-seller; intuitive publishing by a “born publisher” — these must give way as the basis for the industry, for the sake of the industry and everybody in it….In too many publishing operations the theory seems to be that learning from experience means learning how to do a thing right by continuing to do it wrong (pp. 167-68).

This, more than 70 years before Moneyball!  And, like Beane and DePodesta, Cheney was raked over the coals by almost everyone in the industry he was criticizing.  They refused to listen to him, despite the fact that, in the throes of the Great Depression, most everything that had worked in the book industry didn’t seem to be working so well anymore.

Well, it’s almost the same story. Beane and DePodesta have enjoyed excellent careers in Major League Baseball, despite the heresy of their ideas.  They’ve been fortunate to have lived at a time when algorithms and computational mathematics are enough the norm that at least some can recognize the value of what they’ve brought to the game.

The Cheney Report, in contrast, had almost no immediate effect on the book industry.  The Report suffered due to its — and Cheney’s own — untimeliness.  The cybernetics revolution was still more than a decade off, and so the idea of imagining the book industry as a complexly communicative ecosystem was all but unimaginable to most.  This was true even with Cheney, who, in his insistence on ascertaining the “facts,” was fumbling around for what would later come to be known as “information.”

Today we live in O. H. Cheney’s vision for the book world, or, at least, some semblance of it.  People wonder why Amazon.com has so shaken up all facets of the industry.  It’s an aggressive competitor, to be sure, but its success is premised more on its having fundamentally rethought the game.  And for this Jeff Bezos owes a serious thank you to a grumpy old banker who, in the 1930s, wrote the first draft of what would go on to become publishing’s new playbook.


Book Rentals — A New Road to Serfdom?

Last week I blogged about the proliferation of book rental programs, particularly those focused on college students and their textbooks.  I raised questions about their promises of savings over traditional purchase and buyback, and asked whether most college students ever truly bought their textbooks, anyway.

But there’s more at stake in book renting — beyond the possibility of manipulation by advertising, or even the mutation of a business model.  There are broader social, economic, and attitudinal considerations that arise when people like you and me cease being the owners of books and instead become their lessees.

The last time book renting really caught on was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I’ve blogged about this before; it’s how the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain got its start.  What’s interesting to me is the context out of which book rental first emerged: a severe economic crisis — a time when the gap between rich and poor became a chasm, and disposable income all but dried up for ordinary people.  While I don’t believe the present-day renewal of interest in book renting is reducible to the economic meltdown of 2008 (and beyond), I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in the timing.

Indeed, in the United States, we’ve been hearing report after report about how the income of the wealthiest Americans — a tiny minority — has been growing, while that of the majority has been slipping.  Right now the wealthiest 20% of the population controls a whopping 84% of the nation’s wealth.  In crude terms, we’re moving in the direction of a society consisting of “haves” and the “have-nots,” or, more to the point, of people who can afford to own property (broadly construed) and those who cannot.

Now, I don’t mean to deny the benefits that come from book renting.  Realistically, most people don’t want to own every book they read, and for good reason.  Not all books are keepers; they’re also heavy and consume valuable space — the paper ones, anyway.  Beyond that, when books become too expensive for people to own outright, it’s good to have some type of affordable option (in addition to libraries) to keep people reading. Rental may be something of a boon from an environmental standpoint, finally, because you can produce fewer goods and consume fewer resources in the process.

But there’s also a major downside.

Renting books, as with rental more broadly, means you no longer get to set the terms of your relationship with these goods.  Can you underline, highlight, or annotate a book you’ve rented?  What about dog-earing important pages?  Legally speaking, can you loan a rented book to a friend?  Can you duplicate any of the pages, assuming they’re for personal use?  In a traditional ownership situation, you’re the one who provides the answers to these questions.  You’re in control.  When you lease, the answers are dictated by the property owner, or rentier, who naturally puts her or his interests ahead of yours.

Renting is, then, a type of power relationship in which the rentier holds all of the cards — or, at least, the really goods ones.  And here I’m reminded of a passage from the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, who, in his magnificent essay “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), talks about how the coming of power and consumer goods to the impoverished Welsh countryside transformed people’s senses of themselves.  The ability to own consumer goods, Williams said, heightened the “personal grasp” his friends and family felt over their lives.  The presence of these items and their ability to use them however they saw fit made them less beholden to wealthy, outside authorities.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting the opposite way.  Economic conditions are such that rental is becoming a more attractive option again — and not only for books.  And with it slips that sense of personal grasp Williams talked about.  Often, signing a lease is an exercise in having to accept terms and conditions someone else has laid out for you.  More disturbingly, doing so over and over again may well reinforce an attitude of deference and resignation among we, the lessees.

With apologies to Hayek, renting books could be a pathway leading us down the road to serfdom.


Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.

Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?


Bye-Bye Borders (in Bloomington)

Just before Christmas I blogged here about the closing of the Borders Bookstore here in my home community of Bloomington, Indiana.  Friday, January 7, 2011 was the store’s final day of operation.  I visited it for the last time on Wednesday, January 5th and snapped a few pictures.  Even for those of you who may never have set foot in this particular Borders location, you can tell that it was barely a shell of what it once was.

The montage of pictures above should give you a sense of what I mean by a “shell.”  The image appearing there on the bottom-left is, incidentally, of what used to be the children’s section, which is a far cry from how it used to look.  In fact, I have a quite vivid memory from the time I was researching The Late Age of Print. I hung out there practically all night on the evening of June 20th, 2003 in anticipation of the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Back then it was teeming with books, kids, caregivers, and energy.  Not so much now.

These two close-ups illustrate the scope of the sell-off.  It’s definitely an “everything must go” situation but more, no doubt a result of the chain’s economic woes, which extend far beyond this particular branch.  The picture on the right shows a bookshelf that’s been transformed into a display for cleaning agents — yes, cleaning agents — that are being sold off along with the store’s remaining inventory of books, DVDs, etc.  (Another display nearby held items from the café, including the mixes the baristas would use to make fancy drinks.)  Speaking of books, the vast majority of titles left were either category fiction (romances, sci-fi, etc.) or books by/about celebrities.  Note the unusually large stock of biographies of American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar in the upper right-hand corner of the image at left.  It was, in other words, pretty much the bottom of the barrel by the time I got there.  Based on the uniformity of the inventory, I ‘d guess that most of the really desirable books had been carted off and redistributed to other Borders stores.

This final image shows a computer terminal located on what used to be the customer service counter.   Instead of facing the customer service agent, it had been turned around to face the customers, as if to greet us as we entered the store on its final days.  The display read, “Your Favorite Book Store.  Now Digital.”  I guess we know how Borders is imagining its future — assuming, of course, that it has one.


Ambivalently Scribd

You may remember back in March my announcing that The Late Age of Print was available on the document sharing site, Scribd. I was excited to see it there for many reasons, chief among them the Creative Commons license I’d negotiated with my publisher, Columbia University Press, which provides for the free circulation and transformation of the electronic edition of Late Age. The book’s presence on Scribd was, for me, evidence of the CC license really working. I was also excited by Scribd’s mobile features, which meant, at least in theory, that the e-book version of Late Age might enjoy some uptake on one or more of the popular e-reading systems I often write about here.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to feel less comfortable with the book’s presence there. Scribd has grown and transformed considerably since March, adding all sorts of features to make the site more sticky — things like commenting, social networking, an improved interface, and more. These I like, but there’s one new feature I’m not feeling: ads by Google. Here’s a screenshot from today, showing what The Late Age of Print looks like on Scribd.

Screenshot of Late Age on Scribd

Note the ad in the bottom-right portion of the screen for a book called, Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens, available on Amazon.com. (Clearly, somebody at Google/Scribd needs to work on their cross-promotions.) You can subscribe to an ad-free version of Scribd for $2.99/month or $29.99/year.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that all advertising is evil. Some advertising I find quite helpful. Moreover, on feature-rich sites like Scribd (and in newspapers and magazines, on TV, etc.), it’s what subsidizes the cost of my own and others’ “free” experience.

Here’s the problem, though. The Creative Commons license under which the e-edition of Late Age was issued says this:

This PDF is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 171 Second St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94105 U.S.A.

“Noncommercial” as defined in this license specifically excludes any sale of this work or any portion thereof for money, even if the sale does not result in a profit by the seller or if the sale is by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or NGO.

I’m pretty sure the presence of advertising on Scribd violates the terms of the license, albeit in an indirect way. It’s not like Late Age is being sold there for money. However, it does provide a context or occasion for the selling of audience attention to advertisers, as well as the selling of an ad-free experience to potential readers. Either way, it would seem as though the book has become a prompt for commercial transactions.

As of today, the site has recorded close to 2,000 “reads” of Late Age (whatever that means), which would indicate that Scribd has managed to reach a small yet significant group of people by piggybacking on my book.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do about this.

In software terms I’ve always considered the e-edition of Late Age to be more like shareware than freeware. That is, my publisher and I are comfortable with some folks free-riding provided that others — hopefully many others — go on to purchase the printed edition of the book. The e-edition is not, in other words, a total freebie. Columbia has invested significant time, money, and energy in producing the book, and if nothing else the Press deserves to recoup its investment. Me? I’m more interested in seeing the arguments and ideas spread, but not at the cost of Columbia losing money on the project.

In any case, the situation with advertising on Scribd raises all sorts of vexing questions about what counts as a “commercial” or “non-commercial” use of a book in the late age of print. This became clear to me after finishing Chris Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Politics of Free Software (Duke U.P., 2008). Kelty discusses how changes in technology, law, and structures of power and authority have created a host of issues for people in and beyond the world of software to work through: can free software still be free if it’s built on top of commercial applications, even in part? can collectively-produced software be copyrighted, and if so, by whom? should a single person profit from the sale of software that others have helped to create? and so on.

Analogously, can the use of an e-book to lure eyeballs, and thus ad dollars, be considered “non-commercial?” What about using the volume to market an ad-free experience? More broadly, how do you define the scope of “non-commercial” once book content begins to migrate across diverse digital platforms? I don’t have good answers to any of these questions, although to the first two I intuitively want to say, “no.” Then again, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with an issue that’s never presented itself in quite this way before, at least in the book world. Consequently, I’ll refrain from making any snap-judgments.

I will say, though, that I recently ported one of my wiki projects, Differences and Repetitions, from Wikidot to its own independent site after Wikidot became inundated with advertising. In general I’m not a fan of my work being used to sell lots of other, unrelated stuff, especially when there are more traditionally non-commercial options available for getting the work out.


Bye Bye, Big-Box Bookstores

After more than a decade of dominance fueled by aggressive expansion, the leading big-box bookstore chains in the United States are hurting.

Borders is barely hanging on by a financial thread, with an almost $38 million loss near the end of 2009 sending the company into a tailspin. 2010 began with a round of layoffs, followed by restructuring and most recently the departure of its CFO, Mark Bierley. The cracks are beginning to show in its retail stores, too. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, the bookshelves at our local Borders are getting emptier by the month. It’s also now closed on Sunday, presumably as a way to cut operating costs.

Barnes & Noble seems to be faring better, but that’s a relative statement these days. For the better part of a year now it’s been fighting a takeover attempt led by billionaire corporate raider, Ron Burkle. But in some ways that’s not the worst of its worries. In an attempt to counter Burkle, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio recently went looking for someone else — someone friendlier — to buy the company. He was met with this grim response by the financial press:

Before news of Barnes & Noble’s plan to explore alternatives, shares had declined about a third this year in the face of concerns that the growing digital-books market and competition from Amazon.com Inc. would squeeze out its 720 bricks-and-mortar stores while also leaving it with little market share in the digital world, where its Nook e-book reader followed in the footsteps of Amazon’s Kindle.

“It’s difficult to envision a buyer of this company given the structural issues it continues to face,” said Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter.

Realistically, it’s probably an overstatement to say that nobody would want to buy Barnes & Noble. Someone with an interest in revamping the chain might well want to do so. Of course that would most likely mean, sayonara Barnes & Noble as we know it.

This isn’t a surprising development, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble should have seen it coming.

Remember Tower Records? Or all of those Virgin Mega-Stores? With the rise of digital music, most of the big-box music stores were forced to shut their doors. They just couldn’t compete with a business model premised on minimizing infrastructure and abandoning material goods. The same goes for Blockbuster and all of those other national video store chains, whose physical stores have been driven under by the double-whammy of Netflix and video on-demand.

E-books still have limited uptake, of course, which means that Borders and Barnes & Noble have yet to feel the digital squeeze to the degree that music and video stores have. Still, their lackluster forays into online bookselling have put both companies at a major disadvantage. Barnes & Noble used to have a fallback in the education market, with an exclusive lock on hundreds of college bookstores across the United States. Even that’s now being eroded by Amazon.com, however, which is actively courting students on its website.

There’s been some talk lately of how to retool the big-box bookstores to make them more competitive. Unfortunately, as a recent Publishers Weekly article noted, one plan would significantly involve “Taking the ‘Book’ Out of Bookstores.” In place of the physical volumes there would be an increase in what booksellers like to call “non-book product,” including journals, cards, fancy writing paper, reading lights, games, and that type of thing.

No doubt the profit margins on non-book product are attractive, and I suspect they help to create store traffic. But honestly, is this a viable long-term strategy? Does it make sense to save these bookstores by turning them into plus-sized stationery stores?

Here’s a different idea. Bowker, a leading book industry research and information firm, recently reported that women over the age of 40 comprise the largest segment of the US book buying market. Common sense would dictate that Borders and Barnes & Noble ought to pursue that aspect of the market even more actively than they do now, since that’s where the money is.

But it’s clear that now’s not the time for common sense; now’s the time for bold, unconventional thinking. What this means is that the bookstore chains ought to be courting those who aren’t your usual book buyers and working closely with publishers to develop titles that would appeal to them. That way they’d be broadening the market rather than simply reproducing it as it is.

I also wonder if now might be the right time to begin experimenting with smaller, shopping mall-based stores as well. Borders and Barnes & Noble closed most of their Waldenbooks and B. Dalton mall locations in the 1990s, in part to help finance the construction of their superstores. Nevertheless, people still love to shop at the mall, even in the internet age. The experience of being in pubic, hanging out, and poking around is something that online retailers can never hope to duplicate. And so here, again, is another untapped possibility. A suitable print-on-demand system could make mall stores even more attractive to book buyers, moreover, since then they wouldn’t have to wait for titles to be delivered from suppliers or sources online.

Maybe, in the end, it’s time to bid farewell to the big-box bookstore chains. Personally, though, I’d be sad to see them go, especially since they’ve been instrumental in making books available in places where, for the most part, they weren’t abundant — places like my hometown of Goshen, New York, for instance. I also think it’s important for printed books to remain a part of the experiential landscape of people’s everyday lives, both in the form of libraries and retail stores.

Indeed, what would it mean to live in a time when we couldn’t pluck a random volume off of a shelf and start reading, just for the sake of doing so? That’s the question we’re staring at now, not only because of the shakeout that’s been going on for the better part of 15 years in the retail sector, but also because of the cutbacks that are crippling US public libraries. But Instead of staring at this question, isn’t it about time folks started staring it down?


Scholarly Journal Publishing

My latest essay, “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing,” is now out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(1) (March 2010), pp. 3-25.  In my opinion, it’s probably the single most important journal essay I’ve published to date.  Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores the changing context of academic journal publishing and cultural studies’ envelopment within it. It does so by exploring five major trends affecting scholarly communication today: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. More specifically, it investigates how recent changes in the political economy of academic journal publishing have impinged on cultural studies’ capacity to transmit the knowledge it produces, thereby dampening the field’s political potential. It also reflects on how cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are at odds with its political proclivities.

Keywords: Cultural Studies; Journal Publishing; Copyright; Open Access; Scholarly Communication

I’m fortunate to have already had the published essay reviewed by Ben Myers and Desiree Rowe, who podcast over at The Critical Lede. You can listen to their thoughtful commentary on “Acknowledged Goods” by clicking here — and be sure to check out their other podcasts while you’re at it!

Since I’m on the topic of the politics of academic knowledge, I’d be remiss not to mention Siva Vaidhyanathan’s amazing piece from the 2009 NEA Almanac of Higher Education, which recently came to my attention courtesy of Michael Zimmer.  It’s called “The Googlization of Universities.”  I found Siva’s s discussion of bibliometrics — the measurement of bibliographic citations and journal impact — to be particularly intriguing.  I wasn’t aware that Google’s PageRank system essentially took its cue from that particular corner of the mathematical universe.  The piece also got me thinking more about the idea of “algorithmic culture,” which I’ve blogged about here from time to time and that I hope to expand upon in an essay.

Please shoot me an email if you’d like a copy of “Acknowledged Goods.”  Of course, I’d be welcome any feedback you may have about the piece, either here or elsewhere.