Archive for What Publishing Can Learn From…

The Indies and the E's

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University. It’s been a blast so far. My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture. More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers. I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.” In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading. Really, it’s an oligarchy. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States. And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies. Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away. But these booksellers have it backward. The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are. How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, Terrarium paradoxically, to cease acting independently. Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online. I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding. Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete. Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly. So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats. Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library. Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! — one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic. Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism. The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller. In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures. That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them. The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially? The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect. Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books. It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway. So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē. Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it. Will the Indies run with it? Or will all of the students enrolled in my next “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?


What Publishing Can Learn, Part IV

To begin, I should probably clarify what I mean by “Bullshit.” The capitalization here is purposeful. I’m referring to philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s notorious little book, On Bullshit, which was published in 2005 by Princeton University Press. It’s a 67-page stroke of genius. And I call it “genius” not because of the content per se; I’ll leave that to others to evaluate. It’s genius, rather, because of its diminutive size. What might the publishing industry learn from the form of this successful little book?

I remember well the first time that I stumbled across On Bullshit. I was trolling through the philosophy section of one of the bookstores here in Bloomington, Indiana, and there it was. It stood out from all the other volumes because of its compact size. They were weighty tomes: dense, intimidating — potentially intractable commitments. On Bullshit was something else: light, approachable — more like an enticing get-together than a long-term relationship. I couldn’t resist picking it up.

I’m sure the book’s success has had a great deal to do with the author’s reputation, the timeliness of his argument, and — let’s be honest — his decision to call the volume, On Bullshit. But I cannot help but wonder if its prosperity isn’t also and significantly attributable to its form.

There’s an analogous story to be told about economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It sold reasonably well in the United States upon its publication in 1944. Terrarium What really launched the book into the stratosphere, however, was its Reader’s Digest condensation, released in 1945, which reached five million subscribers. The condensation was later republished as a small, stand-alone volume with an impressive initial print-run of 600,000.

More recently, Penguin released an abridgment of Adam Smith’s 900-page magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776). This charming little duodecimo volume, called The Invisible Hand, weighs in at a comparatively scant 127 pages and, like On Bullshit, costs just ten bucks. You could probably read the shrunken Smith in a couple of hours, if that.

People today are working longer for less, and they inhabit a media environment that’s more crowded than ever. We also have grown accustomed to “disaggregated” works, in which part and whole share a less necessary relationship than they did, say, 20 years ago. (Witness, for example the decline of the long-play album and the return to power of the music single.) If books are to continue to thrive well into the 21st century, then book publishers will need to account for, and respond to, these changing circumstances. And one way in which to accomplish this might be to release more inexpensive, “snack-size” books.

By way of conclusion, a caveat: my argument shouldn’t be confused for a one-size-fits-all approach to book publishing. I’m not suggesting that small books should replace large books, categorically. (Incidentally, what we have now is pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach, albeit one that, for adults, privileges the tome.) Instead, I’m interested in a publishing paradigm that would offer more choice than what we currently have — a paradigm that’s more sensitive to the diverse contexts in which people live their daily lives.


What Publishing Can Learn, Part III

In the realm of video, I’m fast becoming a fossil. I’m not still spinning VHS tapes, thankfully, although in the age of Blue Ray even my DVD players are beginning to seem like (I love this euphemism) “legacy technologies.” No, I’m a fossil because I persist in renting videos from a local video store, while almost everyone I know subscribes to Netflix.

Since 1998, Netflix has emerged as one of the leading DVD rental outfits in the United States. It has quickly distinguished itself from — and gained extraordinary ground on — its competitors by challenging video rental’s prevailing business model.

Instead of relying on a vast network of physical storefronts, à la industry leader Blockbuster, Netflix interfaces with customers exclusively online. With infrastructure consisting mostly of computer servers and regional warehouses, Netflix is a far more capital-efficient operation than its competitors.

The company’s other key innovation has been to replace the traditional video store membership program with a subscribership. For a flat monthly fee, Netflix delivers any in-stock DVDs you’ve requested straight to your door through the mail — postage paid, both ways. An added bonus is that there are no late fees.

With over 10 million customers Terrarium and more than a billion DVDs shipped thus far, it’s no wonder why Netflix has garnered so much attention. What might the publishing industry learn from the company’s success?

This probably seems like a bizarre question to ask. After all, when was the last time you or anybody you knew rented a book? And why would you even want to, given the preponderance of bookstores and public libraries?

It turns out that so-called “rental libraries” used to be a mainstay of U.S. book culture. They filled an important niche, especially during economic hard times.

The Waldenbooks chain (now owned by Borders) got its start that way, back in 1933. Founders Lawrence W. Hoyt and Melvin Kafka believed in books, but in the throes of the Great Depression, they decided against opening a retail bookstore. The pair saw books as something of a luxury, and reasoned that few people would be willing to part with what little money they had to purchase these non-essentials outright.

Like the founders of Netflix, Hoyt and Kafka bucked industry trends. They decided to set up shop in a department store in Bridgeport, CT, where they leased floor space in the hope of reducing fixed capital costs. And instead of selling books, they rented them out for three cents per day. By 1948, Hoyt and Kafka had opened as many as 250 rental libraries in department stores spanning from New York to Maine.

The rental library business declined after the Second World War. Rising wages and fuller employment meant that rental culture could once again give way to consumer culture. Waldenbooks followed the trend by introducing retail book sales in 1945, and abandoning book rentals in 1957.

Given the current economic downturn, the rampant fears of plummeting book sales, and the slashing of public library budgets, now seems like an opportune time in which to revisit the book rental option. A 21st century book rental outfit might look to the early Waldenbooks for inspiration. It would do better in the long run, however, were it to model itself on Netflix.

The online book rental experience — call it “Netboox” — might go something like this. You log on to the website, where you’re immediately greeted by name. If you’re a new customer, then you’re invited to sign up for an account — which is free, although you will be asked to choose from among three different monthly rental plans. The plan prices are scaled according to the number of books you expect to check out at any given time.

Netboox allows you to search for specific authors, titles, and subjects. Powerful algorithms aggregate your past selections with those of other customers, and the site makes personalized recommendations accordingly. Ordering is as easy as finding a selection and clicking the “RENT” link appearing on screen. User-generated book reviews and other interactive features round out the picture.

Most of Netboox’s infrastructure exists behind-the-scenes, like Netflix. Its distribution facilities contain none of the amenities of a retail bookstore or public library; they are nothing more and nothing less than large warehouses teeming with books, conveyors, and workers busy filling orders. And in contrast to many public libraries, new releases and bestsellers are always in ample supply. Netboox’s capital-efficiency means that an extraordinary back-list is available, too.

Could it work? I’ll leave that up to the entrepreneurs to decide — but be warned: shipping books is a whole lot more expensive than shipping DVDs! Nevertheless, history shows that something along the lines of Netboox has worked in the past. Perhaps it may work again today.


We Interrupt This Broadcast…

I argued that the publishing industry might take some inspiration from books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and media guru Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, both of which contain short chapters, as a way of helping people to fit reading better into their everyday lives.

Neither Conversational Reading nor The Reading Experience was particularly moved by my argument. Despite my caveats to the contrary, both insisted that I fell back on the “people have waning attention spans” refrain that too often gets trotted out in conversations about the alleged decline of book reading. I must not have been clear enough in my reasoning.

If we assume, as many do, that book reading is on the decline, then there are at least two ways of approaching the issue.

Option one is to imagine that people have been seduced by electronic media — lulled by television, the internet, Twitter, video games, and more into a state in which they are pathologically unable to focus and, by extension, incapable of following a book-length narrative from beginning to end.

Option two is to recognize the numerous “environmental” factors that make it extremely difficult for people to find sustained time for book reading in their everyday lives. Hence the examples from my earlier post, of leaf blowers, crying babies, etc.

Option one places all of the responsibility for not reading squarely on people’s shoulders and opens them (us?) up to moral condemnation. Why don’t people read much anymore? Because they’re obviously damaged by the electronic media!

Option two, on the other hand, is driven Terrarium by a different set of entailments. Instead of disposing us to pathologize people for not reading books, it asks us to consider what, precisely, gets in the way of reading. The assumption behind option two is that people do indeed want to read but that specific aspects of their everyday lives simply get in the way.

Clearly I prefer option two, and that’s what I had in mind in my post on The Da Vinci Code. People’s attention spans aren’t waning — or, at least, they’re not simply doing so. Instead, a host of environmental factors militates against our picking up books and sitting down with them for long, ponderous hours.

There’s a lovely example in The Late Age of Print (the book) that might illustrate what I’m getting at. In the chapter on Oprah, I discuss the surprising number of people who admitted on The Oprah Winfrey Show to reading books at stoplights while driving alone in their cars.

What can this banal example tell us? First, it shows us just how hungry people are to read. You must be desperate to do so if you break out a book for however long you’re forced to wait until the traffic light turns green. Second, it suggests that people don’t read more books in part because of the myriad everyday activities that, cumulatively, cause our free time to evaporate. Most of the stoplight readers happened to be en route to picking up children, for instance, or in the midst of running the types of errands that sustain the workaday world (grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, etc.)

Do these people have pathologically short attention spans? No. Is their attention divided? Absolutely. So why not begin writing books that would fit better into the world of option two? Might it not follow that people would begin consuming more books?

The other glaring issue here, of course, is economic class. Not everyone is sufficiently enfranchised to read for a protracted amount of time; doing so takes time, which costs money. The length of the average workday/week in the United States has risen steadily over the last 25 years, while real wages have fallen. Today we work longer for less.

Under these conditions, publishers and writers have a choice. Either they foment revolution and thereby free people to work shorter hours and to read more, or they adapt to the changing temporal and economic contexts within which people live.

Given the degree to which book publishing has become a bona fide capitalist enterprise, the choice seems pretty clear to me.


What Publishing Can Learn, Part II

I can hear you groaning already. “Oprah? Really?” Yes, really. “Hasn’t that already been done to death?” No. In fact, there’s an awful lot left to say about Oprah and books.

I won’t get into the debate over whether Oprah’s killing (or has already killed) literature. I deal with that issue at length in The Late Age of Print, the book, and so I’ll leave that strand of the argument for there. Instead, I want to reflect here on what Oprah might tell us about the teaching of literature on the one hand, and about the form of books on the other.

Over the years I’ve pored over dozens of transcripts from The Oprah Winfrey Show — mostly those featuring Oprah’s Book Club. What’s impressed me time and again is how willing Oprah and her producers seem to be to meet readers — and, indeed, non-readers — wherever they are educationally and to usher them into the world of letters.

For example, one episode I looked at featured Oprah traipsing around a big-box bookstore, commenting on all the different books and amenities. I wish she’d also visited an independent bookstore or a public library, but even so the visit was telling. Most people — but especially English teachers — presume that literary instruction begins, well, in the literary classroom, with literary concerns. But what Oprah shows us is that there’s a prior element missing from most formal literary instruction, namely, dedicated lessons in where and how best to acquire books. In fact, I received an email from Oprah’s Book Club just the other day giving me tips on how to shop for books in a recession. Used books and second-hand bookstores figured prominently. Did your literature teachers ever consider offering advice like this?

Those who are already Terrarium well ensconced in the world of letters easily forget how intimidating their world can be for outsiders looking in. If you want to excite people about books and reading, take the time to show them in, and don’t belittle them for not already knowing the way.

My second vignette happened last October, when Oprah decided to endorse’s e-reader, Kindle. She effused about its portability and ease of use, and delighted in the speed with which she could acquire e-titles wirelessly. No big surprises there; that’s pretty much the standard story with Kindle. What did surprise me, however, was the utter exuberance one of the device’s more seemingly banal features seemed to inspire in Oprah and her studio audience. That feature was Kindle’s built-in dictionary.

Their exuberance ought to be telling us something. And that “something” is all about people’s implicit dissatisfaction with the form of print-on-paper books. We live in a time of rising expectations in terms of ease of access to information. If I’m trolling the web and encounter a word I don’t know, I can have multiple, highly-reliable definitions delivered to me within seconds. But if I’m reading a paper book and run across, say, “sybarite,” I have to stop reading, get up, walk across the room, and hope my dictionary contains the entry. So why don’t publishers begin including glossaries and other such readerly amenities in their books as standard features, to save people the trouble?

Maybe this suggestion sounds far-fetched. Yet it’s no more far-fetched than breaking books up into chapters, or including tables of contents, page numbers, indexes, and so forth. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the “standard” formal attributes of books haven’t always existed. Every last one of them had to be invented, and each was invented in response to historically specific needs. (Check out some of the images of early printed books in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to see what I mean.) Perhaps it’s time, then, to revisit the form of the printed book and to re-engineer it for a 21st century media context.

Who knew a television talk show host could tell us so much about a medium that’s supposedly being killed by…television?



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