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Indies Through the E-book Looking Glass

And still the Queen kept crying "Faster! Faster!" but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so.

Maybe it reached crisis point last weekend when I discovered that the Whole Earth Catalog, that iconic counter-culture tome of my youth, is available online in a time machine of editions. Or maybe I've been thinking about e-books too much lately.

Whatever the catalyst, I felt particularly drawn to Ann Kingman's recent post at her excellent Booksellers Blog, where she asked some pertinent--and usefully impertinent--questions about the possibilities and challenges in a retail environment where e-books and consumer access to information online for readers of all ages increasingly conspire to challenge indie booksellers.

I read articles about e-books every day, and seldom is the perspective of booksellers solicited. If their future is considered at all, it's often noted as a side comment about impending doom, the dangers of Fahrenheit 451 apparently being usurped by Web 2.0, 3.0. 4.0, 5.0 . . . Like Ann, I keep wondering how indies will surf these treacherous but seductive electronic waves.

I'm a book person by nature and profession, but new technology intrigues me, too. Although I own neither a Kindle nor Sony Reader, I read on screens of every description. What I seem to be waiting for is a device that allows me to bypass Remote Control Syndrome.

What is RCS? There are often three or four remote control devices on coffee tables throughout the land. If you visit friends and haven't been properly trained, you can't perform the simple act of watching their television because firing it up requires one controller to turn on cable, another for the TV, yet another if a DVD player is involved (or, bless them, a still functioning VHS player), and still others for music systems. Which one controls volume is anybody's guess.

With RCS in mind, every time I toss another electronic device into my briefcase, I wonder why, if we can put an electro-metaphorical man on the moon in terms of wi-fi and touch screens and downloaded episodes of Lost, we can't get all this stuff on a single device.

But I also wonder how all of this figures into the future of independent bookselling and what we can do about it. Which brings me to e-books and what I hope will be our first discussion of 2009. Here's a conversation starter:

  • AFP: "Shortcovers expects to be turning iPhones into electronic books . . ."
  • Newsday: "Boy, do I have high-tech idea for those of you who got a shiny new smartphone for Christmas: Try reading a book on it."
  • The Tennessean: "In the trade space, what I think we'll see is a period of time where we'll see a lot of experimentation," said Frank Daniels III, COO, Ingram Digital Group. "But our observation thus far is that you can't underestimate people's willingness to read on a smart phone. There have been less than 500,000 Kindles and Sony Readers sold in 2008. And there have been how many millions of iPhones sold?"
  • Wired: "But what about whole books? Think you need to invest in the Kindle? You could, but why lug around yet another device when the iPhone can do a perfectly acceptable job?"

I'd like to join Ann in asking readers for their thoughts on e-books and bookstores. As Alice told the Red Queen, "Well, in our country, you'd generally get to somewhere else--if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

  • How do independent booksellers find their way in the new world without leaning too heavily on the old chestnut that some readers will always want to handle a book, feel the pages, etc.?
  • Is there a place for e-books in the indie store retail future and what will that look like?
  • Can indie booksellers find even more ways to redefine and reinvent their handselling expertise for the digital age?
  • Could there be an indie bookstore version of Apple's Genius Bars, helping readers navigate both paper and digital worlds?
  • What are you doing now?
  • What are you doing next?

Consider the Red Queen's advice: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

If we're already running as fast as we can to stay where we are, how do we run even faster?-


'The Thin Ice of a New Day'

Meanwhile back in the year one.

As 2009 begins, I find myself channeling Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I'm not sure why, but I hope it presages more of a "Songs from the Wood" kind of year than an "Aqualung" one for all of us.

In my final column of 2008, I posed the giddily optimistic--under current circumstances--question, "What if it all works out?" Author and marketing wizard M.J. Rose asked if she could reprint it on her great blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype. I said yes, and then discovered that the request triggered a strange sort of nostalgia. I started a blog in the fall of 2004 called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal. This was during the Paleolithic era, when there were only a few million instead of a gigazillion blogs roaming the virtual savanna. M.J. was there long before I was, and her request made me wonder what was on my blog mind in January, 2005, when I was still a full-time bookseller and buyer. What follows is a blend of quotation and paraphrase, but since the words are mine, I'll go light on the punctuation:

2005: As a bookseller, I've met people at every level of the so-called publishing pipeline, though of course I spend the bulk of my time with that most elusive of creatures, the reader. I voraciously ingest all news about the business. I often talk with publishing folks by e-mail or in person. I try to read the ever-altering surface of the business the way a sailor reads ripples caused by wind shifts.

I do not feel jaded by the industry, nor do I feel alienated from the publishing world, nor do I think that most publishers and editors are out of touch with the readers I work with every day. I feel weirdly hopeful in the face of every negative bar chart and snarky column, even though I'm a devoted fatalist at heart.

There's a scene in the football movie North Dallas Forty that I often recall whenever I'm thinking about my "place" in the publishing industry. Wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) has been summoned a meeting at the corporate, high-rise headquarters of the team's owner, Conrad Hunter Enterprises (Oil, Electronics, Chemicals, Construction, Export-Import, Hotels, etc.).

In the lobby, Elliott is cornered by Mr. Hunter himself, who puts a friendly arm on Phil's shoulder and not-so-subtly reminds him who the fox is in the pecking order of this big biz chicken coop. "Now, Phil, people who confuse brains and luck can get in a whole lot of trouble," Hunter says in a Texas drawl that comes across as both paternal and manipulative. "Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game."

Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.

News about the business of books, whether positive or negative, is crucial and useful, but it's just one ingredient in an extremely complex recipe. Skill is important. Luck is important. Timing is important. Publicity is important. Everything is important.

Some of it can be controlled.

I can't help but see through the game. I still think I can win it. There is a lot of negativity out there. Writers work hard, often for little or no financial reward (so do booksellers; some choices I made, huh?). They've been hurt by rejection and less than aggressive marketing efforts from their publishers. They feel, often justifiably, that they have to do all the work themselves to get their books any attention.

Editors are swamped with manuscripts good and bad, solicited and unsolicited. Sales and publicity departments must handle too many books at once. Bookstore buyers spend hours every day looking at hundreds of titles, reciting a litany that runs something like, "five of those, two of those, no, no, no, one, no, two . . ."

Everybody's buried. Everybody thinks that no one else understands.

We need to understand, however, the positive as well as the negative. I don't think we're all whining. In fact, we're equal parts Pollyanna and Eeyore.

2009: I'll be in New York next week for a few days, and at some point in every conversation I have with people who work in this business, one of us will ask, "What are you reading?"

It's still about the books.

Skating away,
Skating away,
Skating away on the thin ice of a new day

Tie those laces tight, my friends. Maybe the ice will hold


What If It All Works Out?

Once upon a time, BookWorld was a happy land, where many volumes of good and even great works of literature were created using the Old Ways. Enlightened BookWizards took the simplest ingredients--mere letters--and conjured words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that captured a story's light exquisitely and reflected it forever.

Then those words were passed along to the BookBuilders, who brushed the stories onto sheets of paper culled from the Secret Parchment Forest. Once finished, wise and passionate BookSellers distributed the magic tomes to thousands of BookReaders, who eagerly awaited each new treasure.

Everyone loved books. Everyone was happy. La, la, la.

But then came the BadTimes, and the BookReaders began to disappear, lured away by the siren songs of WebWorld, the hypnotic glow of E-Readers and the firebreathing Economic Dragons that finally decimated the landscape.

Where were the BookWizards? Shunned. Where were the BookBuilders? Downsized. Where were the BookSellers? Petrified.

The End?

No, you're just imagining things.

Since this is my final column during a year that has seemed fully in tune with that old curse, "May you live in interesting times," I decided to end on a positive note by considering the role imagination plays in our lives as professional book people.

Look it up. In the Oxford American Dictionary, imagination is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." It is also "the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful."

We are in the imagination business by either definition, and because of this we, more than most people, should be aware of the dangers and possibilities inherent in that magic word.

For starters, BookWorld has always been crumbling, readers have always been too few and the dragons have always been breathing fire at our gates. Consider this excerpt from the recently published fourth volume of A History of the Book in America, edited by Janice A. Radway and Carl F. Kaestle:

Worries that book buying was increasing insufficiently prompted the Joint Board of Book Publishers and Booksellers to pass a resolution in 1940 calling for a campaign to increase book reading in the United States and creating the American Book Council to foster such efforts. The failure of earlier efforts to increase book sales prompted skepticism among some in the trade. Indeed, it had become common to bemoan the state of book distribution ever since the publication of O.H. Cheyney's Economic Survey of the Book Industry in 1929. Cheyney had concluded that the operations of the book industry were haphazard and wasteful, that book distribution was ineffective, that educational provisions were weak, and that more could be done to promote book buying and reading. . . . Worries about the extent of reading in the United States were exacerbated not only by the political atmosphere but also by the appearance of new media. Radio and movies not only competed with books and print for the attention of Americans but also, some thought, seemed to provide more titillation than thoughtful analysis.

And what of the vanished herds of brilliant BookReaders that once roamed the literary plains? In The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell's brilliant satire of the New York publishing world in the late 1940s, a "contemporary novel-writing" class at the League for Cultural Foundation is described as involving "a careful survey of the Sunday book review magazines and keeping up with guest authors on radio programs for inside information."

During a group discussion that leans heavily on secondary sources (Miss Corey opines that The West Waits "was long-winded and not what the public expected of Nackley. . . . It didn't live up to the promise of his other book, The Nevada Moon, at least not for me. That's what the New York Times said."), one of the participants dares to say, "I liked it," which inspires a stern rebuke: "I suppose you'd set up your opinion against the nation's leading critics. I don't need to read the book to know it isn't up to standard . . ."

As 2008 comes to an end, I mourn neither the hazardous present nor an illusory past. For 2009, I'll simply begin a new conversation by imagining possibilities:

  • What if the shop local movement continues to gain momentum nationwide?
  • What if we work even harder to nurture the readers we have instead of bemoaning those we've lost?
  • What if we begin paying more attention to all the fine books, including translated works, being published by independent and university houses?
  • What if some of those bright minds and good people who are unfortunately no longer working for major publishers decide to create more smart, dynamic and lean indie presses?
  • What if, with common sense, fierce adaptability and, yes, imagination, it all works out?

Here's to an imaginative New Year.


Outrunning the Grinch

Since I haven't fired up my bookstore website-seeing tour bus for a while, I decided to take a brief, pre-Christmas virtual flyover, just to see what sort of holiday promotional decorations booksellers were displaying online to put folks in the seasonal buying spirit.

Inspiration for this trip came from an editorial cartoon I saw Tuesday that depicted Santa trying desperately to stay just ahead of the looming maw of the biggest Grinch of all time, otherwise known as our mega-Scrooged economy. Forget the magic reindeer. We may need to go warp speed to outrun this beast.

As the countdown to Christmas Eve--the busiest shopping day of the year for many bookstores--continues apace, I've noticed a distinct uptick in the volume of promotional e-mails offering last-minute shopping incentives, including coupons, discounts, special events and more.

As Tiny Tim might have said, "Constant Contact bless us, every one."

E-mail is potential instant retail gratification, I suppose, but I'm also curious about bookstore websites, which have begun to seem oddly stolid and archaic in our age of texts and Tweets. Where are you? What are you doing now? These are the questions of our time, or at least of our moment.

Call me nostalgic. I miss the good old virtual holidays of, well, last year.

Speaking of nostalgia, I recently found an advertisement placed by the American Booksellers Association in the December, 1947 issue of Harper's magazine. Here's the text:

A New Free Service Offered by America's Foremost Booksellers
Give-A-Book Certificate
"The Gift That Can't Be Wrong!"
Here is how you can give a gift to anyone, anywhere--and be sure it will be right! Just send GIVE-A-BOOK CERTIFICATES, which your friends can exchange for just the books they really want!
GIVE-A-BOOK CERTIFICATES are on sale--and can be redeemed--at the book and department stores throughout America which display the ABA emblem shown here. Take advantage of this service today!

Hyperventilating italics and exclamation marks aside, this 60-year-old ad made me realize how often we still rely on traditional slogans and phrases. So I went looking for a few bookstore websites that might shake things up a just bit.

And I found some.

In addition to promoting its gift cards ("One size fits all!), Idlewild Books, New York, N.Y., suggests customized gift packs for the traveling reader: "Know where you're going, or looking for a gift for a traveler? Let us put together a custom-made Destination Kit of guides, novels and more! You tell us where you're going, your interests or travel style, and what you like to read and let us do the work!"

The Booksmith Holiday Catalog, which is showcased on the home page of the San Francisco, Calif., shop's website, offers "independently selected & thoughtfully curated" staff recommendations. "Our booksellers have spent months agonizing over the process of selecting only 70 out of 200,000 new books published this year for inclusion in this catalogue. The result is a carefully curated selection spanning a range of reading interests and prices."

The Booksmith's staff has also mastered the art of the six-word book review: "In the age of information overload, we believe in 'less is more.' That's all we have to say."

"Season's Readings!" are featured in Joseph-Beth Booksellers' "Holiday Store," which complements "hand selected top books for this holiday season" with a more personal online handselling option: "Looking for something but can't find it? Need a suggestion for that tough-to-please friend or family member? Just let us know by filling out the form at the end of your transaction and we'll locate it for you."

Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., highlights staff picks from its holiday catalogue, offering discounts on selected titles. Best of all, Powell's is sponsoring a contest that customers can enter by submitting their favorite words. The prize? A 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, natch. If you scan through the nearly 700 entries sent thus far, you'll notice an energetic engagement with the task at hand, a wide-ranging vocabulary and a curious recurrence of the word "defenestrate" (see Nabokov, Vladimir).

So, I did see some good website stuff, and I probably missed your good website stuff, but my wide-ranging whirlwind tour was a little disappointing, I must admit. Maybe I've become, rather than outrun, the virtual Grinch; or maybe I'm still waiting for a visit--an e-mail? a text? a Tweet?--from those Dickensian Christmas ghosts.

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the Web, not a creature (or not many) was stirring, not even a wireless mouse.


What Do You Do?

That's always the question, isn't it? For better or worse, what you do is your primary way of connecting with people. If home is refuge, work is prospect and you need both to thrive.

From 1992 until 2005, this was an easy question for me to answer. I said I was a bookseller. Now it's a bit more complicated, since I work as a writer, editor, bookseller or teacher, depending upon the day and the hour and my mood. Other answers I've given over the years include student, marble mill worker, grocery store clerk, prep cook and route sales rep.

Always and everywhere, however, I've been a member, born and bred, of the working class. And Jenny Brown's great article (Shelf Awareness, December 9, 2008) on the recent tribute to Studs Terkel in the Great Hall of Cooper Union got me thinking.

Did anybody understand work better than Studs? That question--"What do you do?"--when asked by him was a measure of his fascination rather than a statement of competitiveness or elitism.

Ah, that word again--elitism.

I've been reading Studs Terkel since the late 1960s, which means throughout my working life. No matter what kind of good or lousy job I had, his writing, along with the brilliant growl I heard on radio and TV, always spoke to me, had my back, nudged me in the ribs sometimes, reminding me to take the world very seriously but myself less so.

He was a master at connecting the barely visible threads that hold us together.

In 2004, while I was attending BookExpo America in Chicago, I finally met Studs . . . at Bill Ayers' house.

Maybe I should explain.

A reader's life, like a worker's life, is irresistibly complicated on the good days. That year I was invited to one of those publisher-sponsored dinners that are the social staple of book shows. This one happened to be at the Hyde Park home of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, names that have been mentioned, you may recall, once or twice during this year's presidential campaign.

Oh, and how about another plot twist here for readers who love it when incontrovertible evidence seems like deus ex machina? I first met Bill in 2001 while we were at Bennington College--in our energetic dotage--working toward MFA in Writing degrees and "palling around." As recently as last winter, we had dinner together in Bennington and talked about . . . stuff. For two people who couldn’t have lived more disparate lives when we were young, our friendship has evolved quite naturally, an outgrowth, perhaps, of something Bill suggested in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, when he wrote that "talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue."

But let's get back to our story. On that night in 2004, in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, in Bill's living room, Studs Terkel held court on a sofa, looking at once frail and indomitable. This simple gem of a moment is my cherished memory of the man at work and play.

As a bookseller, I love it when I'm handselling novels, but also take a certain pleasure in the awareness of my fingers dancing instinctively across a keyboard, ringing up purchases during a rush. After all, if I add up the number of years I've spent in retail as a grocer and bookseller, calling myself a cashier might be the more honest response to the seminal question.

When I was 17 and working for the A&P, customers lined up at my register because I was fast and proud of it. One of my favorite stories from Working is of Babe Secoli, the supermarket checker who says, "It's hard work, but I like it. This is my life. . . . I'm just movin'--the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register . . . You just keep goin', one, two, one, two. If you've got that rhythm, you're a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you're turning your head back and forth. . . . If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I'll answer while I'm movin'. Like playin' a piano."

So, what do I do?

I work.

And I agree with Studs about doing something you love. Of his own vocation, he wrote, "Though my weekends go by soon enough, I look toward Monday without a sigh."