➻ The New Yorker has launched a business blog. Called Currency, they started strong by gathering New Yorker Profiles of Business Icons: The Past Eighty Years:
The first Profile on our list—Wolcott Gibbs’s “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” from 1936—even has a business story behind it. It’s about Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, and it’s written in a parodic imitation of that magazine’s then-famous prose style; it also happened to be a salvo in the epic rivalry between Luce and The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross. As Jill Lepore writes in “Untimely,” her 2010 piece about their feud, when Ross showed Luce a proof of the article, Luce was apoplectic. “Goddamn it, Ross,” he said, “this whole goddamned piece is malicious, and you know it!” “You’ve put your finger on it, Luce,” Ross replied. “I believe in malice.” Until it “got goofy,” Lepore writes, the rivalry between Ross and Luce “served them both surprisingly well.” That might be the essence of business right there.
It’s all so deliciously high-society.
➻ And it all seems so quaint and obscure now, what with the two having been magazine magnates and The End of Print Foretold:
As for the book, or let us rather say, for by that time books ‘will have lived,’ as for the novel, or the storyograph, the author will become his own publisher. To avoid imitations and counterfeits he will be obliged, first of all, to go to the Patent–Office, there to deposit his voice, and register its lowest and highest notes, giving all the counter-hearings necessary for the recognition of any imitation of his deposit. The Government will realize great profits by these patents. Having thus made himself right with the law, the author will talk his work, fixing it upon registering cylinders. He will himself put these patented cylinders on sale; they will be delivered in cases for the consumption of hearers. …
At home, walking, sightseeing, these fortunate hearers will experience the ineffable delight of reconciling hygiene with instruction; of nourishing their minds while exercising their muscles for there will be pocket phono-operagraphs, for use during excursions among Alpine mountains or in the cafions of the Colorado. … Nothing will be lacking for them on this head; they may intoxicate themselves on literature as on pure water, and as cheaply, too, for there will then be fountains of literature in the streets as there are now hydrants. …
At every open place in the city little buildings will be erected, with hearing tubes corresponding to certain works hung all around for the benefit of the studious passer-by. They will be easily worked by the mere pressure of a button. On the other side, a sort of automatic book-dealer, set in motion by a nickel in the slot, will for this trifling sum give the works of Dickens, Dumaspére, or Longfellow, on long rolls all prepared for home consumption.
➻ That fantastical world may not have come to pass, but thankfully, authors and poets have been “talking their work,” and “fixing it upon registering cylinders” as it were, since the 1950s. In an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Matthew Rubery talked with Barbara Holdridge, co-founder of the Caedmon Literary Series, about Audiobooks before Audiobooks:
In 1952, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney went to hear Dylan Thomas read his poetry at New York’s 92nd Street Y. The 22-year-old college graduates left a note asking the Welsh poet to consider a business proposition: $500 to record his poetry. Thomas recited “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “In the white giant’s thigh,” “Fern Hill,” and other poems before running out of verse to fill the record. Instead, he offered to read the story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Thomas was an inspired choice with which to launch a label devoted to the spoken word. The album went on to sell nearly half a million copies over the next decade. Many of us still find it difficult to read Thomas’s poems without hearing in our heads the Caedmon voice.
Then there is this passage about the nature and trajectory of their start-up:
BH: It just popped into my head one day, early in our history. The book represented two dimensions, but the voice captured the third.
MR: The Caedmon catalog is impressively “high brow” in many instances — for example, Jean Cocteau reading his poems in French. How did you manage to balance your artistic interests with the need to run a profitable business that would sell records?
BH: Just as we were starting, the men who had just ended their service in the Second World War were going back to school to catch up on or begin their college education, looking forward to entering careers, and financed by the new G.I. Bill of Rights. They provided a market, as we quickly became aware, for the classics. Marianne [Roney] and I had studied Greek, Latin, and world literature in college [Hunter College in New York], and were steeped in the classics, ancient and modern. We therefore, at the age of 22, not only understood this market, but were a part of it. Some of the recordings may not have sold in the thousands, but they sold enough for us to see a profit and to feel that we were contributing something important. Our work was publicized in newspapers and magazines because we were young women. We won an audience, and we recorded great literature because that was what we loved.
We recorded the great actress Katina Paxinou reading ancient Greek dramas with passion and innate understanding. We recorded classic Spanish plays like La Vida es Sueño when a fine Spanish troupe came to perform in New York. We recorded Colette in French, in Paris, shortly before she died. We recorded Japanese Noh plays in Japan. We recorded our former Greek teacher in deeply felt, heartbreaking passages of the Iliad. We recorded the great singer Lotte Lehman reading Rilke in German, and of course Thomas Mann, also in German. We recorded, and we let the literary world find the recordings. No, we did not make a fortune in those days, and some days we went hungry, but the business began to prosper when President Lyndon Johnson launched an education revolution with Title One [of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965]. That was when, instead of selling 10 or 20 copies of a record album, we began to sell hundreds at a time to school systems around the country. It was when large publishers caught on and started to found educational subsidiaries, and when there were numerous spoken-word startups.
And finally, there is this unexpected exchange speaking of a benefit ebooks (and possibly digital recordings) have over both the printed book and LP:
MR: How would you describe the relationship between the album and the original book?
BH: Because we were working with a limited time length for LPs [long-playing records], one of our jobs was to edit and time longer works, such as novels, to make sure they fit. That was an interesting and somewhat creative exercise! One of the problems with both disks and books is that you can see that the novel, say, is nearing its end, which can be disconcerting if you are engrossed in the story and the characters. With the newer technology, this is no longer true, and I think that is a benefit!
I love Caedmon, and have been buying up those old records whenever I come across them for years now.* They are almost always marked with a discard stamp from a nearby university or high school library, revealing their academic past and their place in the “education revolution” spoken of in the excerpt above. I’ve never known the start-up story before, though, and I am always interested in the business of literature, so this interview was a special treat.
*I’ve linked to it before on this blog, but since I have a reason to again… by far my favorite Caedmon recording—and because of Dylan Thomas’s reading of it, my favorite poem—is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo.
➻ The previous two links are, I suppose, a distraction of sorts—a long, meandering, somewhat whimsical and roundabout way to get to the hard realities of the present—purposefully so, because it’s been depressing me lately. You see, two very smart and savvy observers of the publishing world wrote about the disappearance (or at least dissipation) of local, independent bookstores last week.
First up, we have Seth Godin writing about The End of the Independent Bookstore (and a New Golden Age for Books). In this reading, we’re in Act IV of the bookselling world, or what Godin prophetically calls “The End.” (I’ll leave it to you to read his history of the first three acts of modern bookselling and the business models that accompanied each. It is a very quick read, and as with everything Seth writes, very intelligently laid out and easy to understand.) So here, I guess is the final act…
THE END: Amazon and infinite selection, better service, more information and better prices, too
If you love books, it’s hard to see Amazon as a villain. More books sold to more people for more reasons than any other retailer in history. More cross-selling, hand-selling and up-selling too. The web pages of Amazon, on average, are better informed than many bookstore clerks.
Before Amazon and the web, we were on track for the bestseller inventory to totally dominate bookselling. Wal-Mart and Price Club and B&N had figured out how to dump huge quantities of certain books at really low prices, and there was pressure to avoid the long tail, and to guard shelf space zealously. I was new to the book world then, and there was just huge pressure to be on the right side of the bestseller line–everything else didn’t matter. Amazon fixed this, by embracing the long tail and carrying everything. If you love books, Amazon was a dream come true.
But if you love bookstores, Amazon is the final nail. [...] Amazon’s work in getting more books to more people meant that the discounts and selection they brought to readers removed the last bit of opportunity the stores had left.
Great independent bookstores deserve to thrive, and I hope they will. But they won’t thrive as local substitutes for Amazon. They will make it if they become hubs, connectors and gift shops. The book-as-gift concept is just now entering an important stage, and we don’t have to dumb down our local store to get there. More important, though, is the idea of a local place where smart people go to meet each other and the ideas they care about. We shouldn’t have that because it’s the last chance of the local bookstore, we should have that because it’s worth doing.
Vilifying Amazon, though, makes no sense. More people can read and write more books today (ebook and print) than at any other time in history.
I miss the magic of the local bookstore, but I would miss books more.
I think that even if it’s emotional and illogical, even if it “makes no sense,” Amazon plays the role of villain pretty well, and without much remorse in this story. The protagonist is the neighborhood bookshop that Seth speaks fondly of, that deserves to thrive, and the villain is the large, outside, more heavily-armed force that comes in and kills that local hero—as Amazon and its business practices, especially its pricing practices, have been literally killing off independents. I don’t think Amazon is necessarily immoral in any way for doing this, and I don’t think they’re doing so with malice. They’re just playing the game and winning. And I don’t think they’re targeting independent bookstores. They’re simply protecting their internet turf from Walmart and others that are trying to muscle their way into their online business the same way Walmart has muscled their way into almost every community in America—by underselling the local competition as long as any competition was around to compete with them. Amazon just happens to be the local competition on the internet, and they can compete on price and will.
As so much of Amazon’s business has nothing to do with books, I think this has little to do with books and the book business, per se; they just are not exempt from this battle, and are emphasized in the storyline so much because Amazon fancies itself and promotes itself as a bookstore first, and purveyor of everything else second. We bookselling types didn’t worry as much when Circuit City went under as we did when Borders exited the scene, and we didn’t worry about our legacy electronics manufacturers the way we do legacy publishers, probably because Walmart and NAFTA have pretty much taken care of them already. When elephants dance and such.
But none of that changes the fact that the little guy is getting killed out on the main streets of America—the ones, that is, that survived the first battle with the big box bookstores when they moved in next to their big box, chain-store brethren on the edge of town and drew even more people away from mom-and-pop stores at the heart of downtown and so many city neighborhoods. And now we’re all being drawn from the edge of town online. But, alas, this is not a morality play, it’s business, and if we as consumers don’t value independents enough to give them our business then they won’t stay in business.
All that said, what I think Seth’s narrative is missing is a stronger argument for keeping those independents alive—beyond their “magic” and the fact that we may be personally fond of the experience they offer. After describing all the previous business models of selling books, ones that however imperfect have kept publishers large and small viable in America’s intellectual life, he doesn’t actually tell us what Amazon’s business model for literature is—other than the head nod at the “long tail.” How can they sell books at such low margins, and even at a loss when they feel like it keeps the sales flowing, and how well will that support literature if they’re they only ones left selling those books? Will they continue to discount so heavily if or when their major competitors are no longer around? Will anything outside of genre fiction and similar types of literature ever be profitable—or even sustainable—on their self-publishing platforms? Will their stance toward their suppliers—the publishers—continue to be as belligerent as it has been in the past, or will they find a way to more fully cooperate or finally circumvent them?
And, yes, the internet and its “long tail” means Amazon can sell anything, but it doesn’t mean that it will. Will it support the continued publication of diverse forms like academic literature, literary fiction, etc… Publishing as it’s currently constructed is far from perfect, but I fail to see that there’s a viable alternative for supporting diverse forms of literature sustainably coming out of Amazon alone at the moment.
And that’s one reason I think that, though it is a strong argument in theory, Seth’s final sentence, “I miss the magic of the local bookstore, but I would miss books more” is in reality a straw man. You could say of Walmart: “More light bulbs sold to more people for more reasons than any other retailer in history.” But that doesn’t mean that Walmart is keeping the lights on. Books were never in any real danger of ceasing to exist. Amazon, if it does indeed end up being the death knell of big publishers and independent bookstores, will not have saved the book anymore than Walmart saved the light bulb (though like Amazon is trying to do with the book, they almost single-handedly changed its shape, as eloquently reported in Charles Fishman’s piece for Fast Company, How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One. And You’re Looking At It.)
We should all celebrate the self-publishing boom happening right now and Amazon’s efforts to encourage it in the digital age. Genre fiction—which many of us at 800-CEO-READ and so many booksellers across the country love—is seeing a renaissance. But too many seem too eager to see the infrastructure that has supported literature in the past torn down, just as so many writers online have seemed to celebrate the shuttering of newspapers a little too gleefully as they sing the praises of a new order that doesn’t exist yet. I don’t worry so much about the big five (so recently the big six) publishers in the end. I dislike the consolidation that has occurred in the publishing industry as much as I dislike the corporatization of bookselling itself, but that makes me more wary that Amazon could be the one ring that controls them all rather than apt to celebrate them breaking down the old order—however much that order may need to be broken or altered.
I am out in the middle of the country. I am far away from the epicenter of publishing, and I work for a company that was still connected to a local, independent bookstore until 2009—when it closed. I experienced the loss of that bookstore almost as sharply as I experienced the loss of the man that had been at the helm of the company until shortly before it closed. David Schwartz used to talk all the time about the soul of the book—he was kind of an esoteric man—and how each book has one. That is what booksellers know, and bricks and mortar bookstores breathe, that algorithms and Amazon never can.
I am sure I am as biased by sentimentality as Seth is sober in his assessment, but I believe bookshops and booksellers are almost as essential to the intellectual life of our cities and towns as authors and books themselves, and I would rather see the entire internet turn into a ghost town before our communities. (And yes, that is also a false choice.) I could never call an age that lacked independent bookshops golden.
Yes, bookshops will have to learn to second as giftshops. Daniel Golden, who kept the Downer avenue Schwartz Bookshop open as Boswell Books here in Milwaukee knows this, which is why whenever I need to buy books for friends around the holidays, I go to Boswell. And whenever I need gifts for my niece and nephew and children of friends on their birthdays, I go to Boswell. I head to the kids book section there, because Daniel has the best books and the smartest selection of toys in town. I think Amazon’s bestselling toy is probably one you’d find in an adult bookstore, which is fine, but I’m not going to take my family there.
➻ And that brings us to the Shatzkin Files and the idea that Losing Bookstores is a Much Bigger Problem for Publishers than it is for Readers.
Start with this. You’re kidding yourself if you’re a book publisher who believes the digital revolution has slowed down, that independent bookstores will thrive in the new environment, that ebooks—if not a fad—have reached their growth limits, and that something resembling the book business we’ve known for the past 100 years will survive for another 100 years. Or even for another 20. It might even be breaking down in five or 10.
The obsession with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital ones is beginning to give way to attention for the more important shift taking place between purchasing books online and purchasing books in stores. It has been my concern for years—first elaborated on at length in the “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech I gave at BEA in 2007—that the publishing industry that grew up around 50 years of expanding retail shelf space for books would be seriously challenged by its 10-years-on and continuing diminution. It will not be a happy time, frankly, seeing that prediction being proved correct, and it hasn’t been proven correct yet. But the circumstances that will test the proposition are rapidly being put into place.
He gives a good, brief overview of his hypothesis.
My two-part hypothesis, from the beginning, has been pretty simple. Online book buying—whether print or digital—takes business away from bookstores. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space. That decreases both their attraction and their convenience, which makes online buying increase even more. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space further. (This is called a “vicious cycle”.) That’s part one.
Part two is about publishers, particularly the big general trade publishers (Big Five plus a few others) but all of them, really, who depend on bookstores for their value. Publishers perform the service for authors of getting their books in front of readers. That has primarily meant, for about 100 years, “we put books on shelves”. My concern was that, without shelves, publishers had diminished value to authors.
So it sounds bad for publishers, certainly. But again, I don’t know why diminishing the influence of publishers and the increasing monopolization of book sales is a good thing for readers. This is true only if you define readers’ interest as being confined to price and number of books being produced. I do not. I personally don’t think the problem the major publishers have is not that they produce too many books, or that the problem most readers have is that there aren’t enough books to choose from. Many argue quite the opposite. Most people who come to us for suggestions suggest the opposite… that they need help finding the book that’s right for them because there are simply too many books to choose from and Amazon’s algorithms—while usually spot on for related content—don’t account for taste. It’s said there is no accounting for taste, but that’s not true. Human booksellers do it every day in bookshops across the country, matching readers to books based on books those readers have told them they not only liked, but fell in love with.
Listen, I love online book buying. I work for what is essentially an online bookstore—though we’re really a customer service company at heart. I believe the ABAA website has the best selection of collectible and antiquarian books in the world, that their organization’s guarantee and code of ethics is second to none in commerce, and that their booksellers, newsletters, and inventory updates contain a wealth of knowledge on books. And when I need something that is hard to find but not necessarily collectible, I go to AbeBooks, whose selection is mind boggling and whose inventory is made up of the inventory of independent and used bookstores all over the US and the world.
I have even written on this blog before how great it is that Amazon, the web’s largest etailer (are we still using that word?), is first and foremost a bookseller. But I still can’t understand why it’s inherently okay for readers for any one entity to dominate the market, or somehow okay for independents to continue to die—other than in the sense that, well, you know, maybe it’s happening, we all die and everything is essentially okay, and the universe will eventually collapse back onto itself or maybe we’ll be sucked into a black hole and spat out into an alternate universe where electronic pulses and bytes of data preceded the physical world and everyone is slowly leaving the digital world for the new, sensual beauty of analog living and physical books.
I’m a reader. Seth Godin is a reader. Mike Shatzkin is a reader, and we all love bookstores and would be sad to see them go—have indeed been sad to see them go. Why would we feel like it’s okay or good for other readers if these lovely, if little, institutions cease to exist? It’s not okay, and it’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t happen.
I get the convenience of Amazon. We’re all either strapped for time or money, and most of us are strapped for both. Amazon solves these problems by offering the best prices around, and (even if we sometimes use brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms for what we eventually buy on Amazon) very quick commerce. There was a time when the solution to these conundrums would have been social, when we would have organized for more time off or better pay as a society, but all difficulties (including social) seem to have technology solutions these days. [And if you'll now kindly get off my lawn.]
This is all not to mention that Amazon, being a publicly funded company and darling of Wall Street in its early days, could lose money for years—and can still operate at a loss when it feels its to their competitive advantage, while local bookstores that keep the analog world occupied and looking good, that keep neighborhoods and downtowns vibrant, cannot. If they lose customers and money for any extended period of time, they can’t pay their rents and mortgages, and their banks or landlords will boot them from the scene. It’s almost impossible to recover from that, and they cannot get Wall Street to float them cash or bail their small business out, because in this country the money now moves in the other direction. (Are you still on my lawn?)
Seth did an interview with Treehugger back in 2005 in which he said the problem with environmentalists’ branding and storyline around global warming is that it doesn’t match the worldview of its audience because it’s not urgent enough.
Most Americans care about a very very short time horizon, and are easily swayed with group pressure on things like patriotism and faith. (Just try to criticize people for spending time and money in church and you’ll see what I mean.) Global warming is vague and distant.
Acid rain is a much more powerful story. Acid = death and rain is omnipresent and supposedly pure and lifegiving. Put them together and you get something that feels tangible and an emergency.
The story about the death of independents is not as important as the death of our planet, but I think it is important if you love books, ideas, history, and (for lack of a better term) book culture. And the story being told lately is not only that it’s not urgent, it’s that independents are expendable and Amazon is the savior. I hope we don’t let that narrative win—not because I think Amazon is a villain, but because I love bookshops and I think independent bookstore owners and the booksellers that work in them are heroes.
➻ “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.”