Rocket Bomber - commentary

An Amazon Rant turned into something else entirely: College Bookstores, Warehouse Jobs, And The Glories of Inefficiency

filed under , 30 July 2013, 13:57 by

disclaimer: Yes, I work for Barnes and Noble. I also speak for myself, have better ideas on how to run a bookstore than the damnable corporate overlords, the information presented here is publicly available not derived from my position as ignorable field management mucking about in the trenches, and all opinions below are my own. Having satisfied the “code of conduct and business ethics” I now thumb my nose at the necessity for a disclaimer and wonder when we let the lawyers get in the way of a good drunken rant.

[note to self: copy that bit above as the new boilerplate disclaimer for business-related posts, and add it to my ‘about’ page for the blog.]

##

Amazon is getting credit for expanding it’s warehouse work force from 20,000 to 25,000.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-29/amazon-hiring-5-000-in-warehouses-to-meet-customer-demand.html

Amazon has at least one quarter of the business. (as much as 27%, by some estimates.) B&N, nationwide retail book seller, has a sixth.

source: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/54609-e-books-market-share-at-22-amazon-has-27.html – the numbers halfway through 2012 (according to PW) were 27% Amazon vs. 16% B&N

Out of courtesy, I won’t steal and embed PW’s chart, but you can find it in the article linked, which I recommend you go ahead and read […or here, direct link].

So Amazon is looking to increase its warehouse work force by 25% (alongside the additional warehouses built, economic activity, etc etc) and gee that looks great. “Amazon is creating jobs! Let Me Go Make A Speech About It!”

I know Amazon sells other stuff, but the huge investment in customer fulfillment logistics has to be wedded to the expectation on Amazon’s part that these moves will increase their overall sales, including their share of all book sales: Big, and looking to get bigger. A proportional increase in market share to match the increase in staff would take them from a quarter of the retail book business to a third, 33%, one in three of every book sold.

You know, just by hiring 5,000 people to work for, what was the figure, $11-15 dollars in hour? — doing physical labor in a warehouse, which should be admired, not denigrated as it is hard work but honest — but c’mon, even with Amazon stock options: this isn’t a career path. It’s a job, a decent job, but with exceptionally few opportunities for promotion and no lateral opportunities for advancement.

##

B&N has a smaller share of the retail book business [it pains me to admit]. But B&N employs 34,000 full and part-time employees as of April 27, 2013, in 1300+ storefronts: the 675 superstores and the 686 college bookstores. [source: page 5 of B&N’s most recent annual report]

Damn. B&N now has more college bookstores than Big Boxes. This is… OK? That business decision is above my paygrade. It seems wrong, though. College bookstores are great, I have to admit: solid margins on textbooks, guaranteed customer base, extremely seasonal (the beginning of semester crush) but also regular and something that can be planned for, and around.

There are drawbacks though — and I’m going to take some space to say this even though it is taking me far away from my topic:

  • College Bookstore locations are, in almost all cases, owned by the college and only the operations of the bookstore are leased. This is even worse than having a landlord, as the College owns the location and also still technically owns the business. I’m sure B&N signs multi-decade deals, or at the very least, provides strong incentives and options for schools to renew whenever the operational agreements expire — but this is not the rock-solid business some assume

Oh, look, there it is in the most recent SEC filing under “Risk Factors” (pgs 33-34):

[blockquote]
B&N College may not be able to enter into new contracts and contracts for existing or additional college bookstores may not be profitable.

“An important part of B&N College’s business strategy is to expand sales for its college bookstore operations by being awarded additional contracts to manage bookstores for colleges and universities. B&N College’s ability to obtain those additional contracts is subject to a number of factors that it is not able to control. In addition, the anticipated strategic benefits of new and additional college and university bookstores may not be realized at all or may not be realized within the time frames contemplated by management. In particular, contracts for additional managed stores may involve a number of special risks, including adverse short-term effects on operating results, diversion of management’s attention and other resources, standardization of accounting systems, dependence on retaining, hiring and training key personnel, unanticipated problems or legal liabilities, and actions of its competitors and customers. Because the terms of any contract are generally fixed for the initial term of the contract and involve judgments and estimates which may not be accurate, including for reasons outside of its control, B&N College has contracts which are not profitable, and may have such contracts in the future. Even if B&N College has the right to terminate a contract, it may be reluctant to do so even when a contract is unprofitable due, among other factors, to the potential effect on B&N College’s reputation. Any unprofitable contracts may negatively impact the Company’s operating results.”
[/blockquote]

to that I would add:

  • College bookstore locations vary greatly in size, but most are smaller than 20,000 sq.ft. – while the big box superstores start at 20,000 sq.ft. and most are a good bit larger.
  • Operating a separate chain of college bookstores under the same trade name leads to brand dilution and customer confusion. Technically, if you bought it at a college B&N, I can’t even process the return at one of our trade stores. Yes, I know they’re only 6 miles away. Yes, I know they have a big B&N logo on the front, just like me. [Oh, of course I know a work-around. I’ve been working-around our computer systems for years]
  • Related: So the B&N at Georgia Tech sells textbooks, iPads, computer software, college-badged sweatshirts, some home goods (dorm goods?) — they both rent and buy back textbooks, and (most hurtful) they have a larger manga selection than I do at my store. This is all because they are on a College Campus, operate as a College Bookstore, and That Is A Different Business. I don’t and can’t do any of that. But there is this Big Fat B&N logo right above the front door… Since the GT store is listed in the phone book as “The Georgia Tech College Bookstore” *no one and I mean no one* can find that telephone number, but oh boy howdy can they find the listing for “Barnes and Noble, Atlanta” so at my very fine bookstore not only do I get my daily call volume, I also [joy, joy] get to inform and educate the general public about the idiosyncrasies of our byzantine corporate structure, the hedgerow that exists between the college and trade divisions of my company, and why *I* can’t buy, sell, rent, order, or process a return on their textbooks for them. It’s fun. On top of an already stressful job, why, it might drive one to drink.
  • The built-in divide extends to our website: use the store locator, and you’ll get the Trade locations but none of the college bookstores. Good luck even trying to find their address online. And yes, customers call my store every day looking for even this basic information on the two B&N College Bookstores in town.
  • …of course, none of this would be material if we had more trade stores — but even before Riggio sold the B&N College Division back to Himself, our real estate/development office avoided placing trade stores to compete with the college bookstores. Per the disclaimer above: I have no inside knowledge of this, as that is above my paygrade; but I can read a map and have some idea of how real estate development works.

None of this would matter were it not for the deliberate muddling of the B&N/B&N College brands. This isn’t just a customer service issue: how much of the stock valuation and potential spinoffs, sales, mergers, buyouts or buy-ins of the Nook/B&N brands are potentially spiked because of uncertainty about which operations (trade, college, online retail, and online digitial) are included in any potential purchase or investment? The four, or five, Barnes & Nobles each need a brand and identity — hell, make that six Barnes & Nobles if we include the (recently-abandoned?) nook hardware. By keeping it all much-too-close, and by being secretive and playing the spinoff game too close to the vest: the whole company suffers.

##

before I was sidetracked, I was talking about jobs.

Right now Amazon employs 20,000 warehouse serfs, and is looking to hire more. — 20,000 out of 88,400 full- and part-time employees [source, pg 3, 2012 Annual Report, pdf] — so order fulfillment is just a sideline for Amazon as they only dedicate a quarter of their staff to the task. One presumes the other 75% of Amazon is working on either web solutions, hardware, collectively hypnotizing Wall Street, or crushing my soul.

If one were lucky enough to get an Amazon warehouse job in Tennessee, what are the chances you could move up from that job, internally within Amazon, to Seattle and some sort of web, corporate, purchasing, accounting, or human resources position?

[I’ll leave that as an exercise for the student.]

Barnes and Noble, with even less book market share, employs more people: 34,000. Now of course that included the home office staff, our warehouse employees (yes, we have those too) but mostly it’s the booksellers in 675 Big Box Bookstores, doing the impossible and exceeding expectations daily*.

[* in 2008]

I am the first to acknowledge the bookstores have changed. In 2008, B&N had 718 Big Box Stores and the company employed 40,000 full- and part-timers. (not including seasonal hires: each December would add another 10,000 temp ‘booksellers’ to that total). The benefits, frankly, were awesome: even part-time, 20hr a week employees qualified for health benefits (in 2008) and (in 2008) the number of full time positions was roughly equal to the number of part-time. There was an employee development track, and a ladder: from part-time to full-time to “lead” to “dept. manager” and from there into a salary management staff position. In 2008. Or going back, from roughly 2000-2007 while the chain was still actively expanding, with multiple new store openings in each metropolitan area, annually and while the corp. still looked to develop talent from within.

Why, one could join the company in 2001 as a part-time, seasonal bookseller, but if one had aptitude, a willingness to work flexible hours, and kept showing up and doing the job – between training, on-the-job experience, and making the most of available opportunities: a bookseller could go from the back room to front of store and on to store management.

I did.

That door closed in 2008. While the chain was expanding, and promoting from within, opportunities abounded. Now, in 2013: we’re closing more stores than we open, and rather than look for talent in our own staff — sadly — there is a full-on corporate initiative to actively recruit managers from other retailers.

[If Len, Mitch, Dan, or Steve feel it is necessary to fire me for letting that slip, fine.]

In the 5 years past, B&N has gone from a culture that actively developed and promoted talent internally, even as far down as the individual store level, to… well, to what? To a caretaker organization merely overseeing their own long fall? Yet-another-retailer who hires only part-timers – because that’s what Wal-Mart is doing and we have to compete with the lowest common denominator? Paring back on customer service because payroll is the only variable the corporate office has control over, even when our own customers say the only reason they shop online is they no longer get the service in-store that they are accustomed to?

##

A fading bookseller chain can only manage 25,000 bookseller jobs (we’ll assume the rest are in a warehouse or at corporate) while Amazon boasts 20,000 warehouse jobs (since they have no bookstores we have to consider these as equivalent) and Amazon is looking at adding 5000 more.

I would love to devolve this down to a single equation, but I think the whole post above kind of negates that.

Bookstore jobs were good jobs, up until Amazon ruined it, and my corporate overlords went Full-On-Wal-Mart on our employees.

Amazon Warehouse jobs are really excellent warehouse jobs. That said: warehouse jobs suck.

And it all comes down to ‘efficiency’

We’re losing jobs because the old jobs were ‘inefficient’ and for some reason that is bad.

Inefficiencies are Great. Bookstores should, honestly, be as inefficient as possible, as that is the singular bookstore characteristic that spawns discovery.



The Future of The Book

filed under , 23 July 2013, 00:12 by

Every book blogger* is writing one of these damn “insightful” “thought pieces” on the future of the book.

There are a number of players/factions to consider — Publishers, Amazon, Bookstores, Authors (both established and aspiring) — major changes in technology, and consumer behavior, and minor distractions like whatever motions Apple or Google are making towards this space this year (that will change next year). Pick your favorite horse in this race: with a wealth of information out there, it is easy enough to cherrypick sources that back up whichever conclusion best fits the proclivities of the blogger. What we lack is real data — number of kindles sold, number of (self-published, non AAP-member) ebooks sold, total number of books (e- and otherwise) sold and by how much and how much in each category including the bestsellers —

We are left with “experts” estimates of market share, some incomplete data about how the publishing industry or book retail is doing in aggregate, and a whole lot of anecdotes. (The anecdotes are understandable, perhaps; as a group we do like to tell stories)

“I was just at a Big Box Bookstore in Podunk Adjacent off of State Route Zero, and let me tell you what I saw there…”
“I’ve been self publishing with Swindlepub Digital Editions for ever now, and let me tell you about my sales there…”
“We at Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, LLC, are just a small press compared to the Top Ten or Big Six or Big Five** but not only are we forward-looking, with both a website and a facebook page, we’re also moving forward with ebooks — in about 18 months time. But recently we’ve been stymied by DanubeVolga. Let me tell you about their most recent nefarious plot…”
“Sisyphus & Damocles Books has been open for decades now, here in northcentral Bumblebridge, and we’ve been proud to serve our community. Recently though, times have been harder. Let me tell you our story…”

* (book bloggers as a term including the book/publishing business bloggers, book reviewers, authors, editors, the occasional mainstream-but-web-only magazine writer, and of course: drunk and pissed off booksellers — represent! — who blog in their free time)
** (why does talking about the book business this way make me think of college sports, and for all the same, wrong reasons?)
*** I hearby claim the trade names Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, Publisher and Sisyphus & Damocles Booksellers: Mine! Back off. If I win the lottery this week I’m going to have those incorporated by Friday.

Anecdotal evidence is the worst sort. We all have a story. Why, I work at a corporate chain bookstore where the phone rings off the hook, we’re grossing a good seven figures annually (no, not the number you initially thought of: better than that), and I personally am so overworked it seriously impacts my health. If physical books are dying, maybe they could do it a little faster, before I keel over from a heart attack?

##

SO:

assertion one: “Ebooks are going to completely displace other forms of books because of all the obvious advantages — speed of delivery, lower costs, the advantages of digital storage over the requirement of physical space for books, and (of course) disintermediation: e- facilitates an order-of-magnitude increase in access to markets by authors, and access to works by readers.”

verdict: True. but…

To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).

A web page is open, active, engaging, and part of a larger conversation. Via hyperlinks, an author can automatically and seamlessly link to sources, whether they are linking to research, to other related works of their own, to maps and images that support the text, to notes in an appendix, or to The Fine Video Version of one of the earliest Musical Stylings of Sir Richard Astley.

Web sites and the related tools we use to access and browse them have already consumed the newspapers, are currently munching their way through the magazine herd (killing off the old and weak), and soon enough will also turn to face book publishing like a hungry predator.

The common objection that would enter at this point is “But, well ebooks aren’t web pages. Completely Different.” Right…

There is absolutely nothing stopping me from publishing a novel on the web. I could do it as a collection of chapters linked from a table-of-contents index page, I could do it as a series of blog posts (like an old Dickens novel, in magazine installments), I could even just put up 100,000 words in a single HTML or text document. Unlike music, images, or video – text is small: the “T” in HTML is text, as is the first “T” in HTTP. Text is web native.

Hell, one could do it in a Reddit thread. [Redditor Prufrock451 has a movie deal. So don’t tell me Reddit isn’t a viable publishing platform.]

Ebooks are, in fact, web pages [right down to the CSS, XHTML, and XML] — it would be trivial to code an ebook reader as an extension to Firefox and Chrome, just as there are currently pdf readers — and the rest is all marketing, and payments.

Payment is what it comes down to, and why so many are so insistent that ebooks are both new and special, as their current income streams are (in whole or in greatest part) dependent on sales via the current channels (primarily KDP, with a nod to Smashwords). Ebooks, as a payment model for authors, are great, fantastic even. Indeed, I thought the old model where we sold books through bookstores was also pretty great, as both a sales opportunity and payment model for authors.

Setting payments and royalties to one side, for now: The function the publishers serve (served?) was only secondarily as a source of ongoing income. Publishers provided advance capital for the production of books, as the party (the only party?) willing to assume pre-publication risks. While books-in-aggregate are a commodity in much demand, selling units in the millions annually, with revenue in the billions, and while also serving as source material for TV Shows, Movies, and mountains of internet fan fiction — each individual book, though, is something of a flyer, a bet on the part of author, editor, and publisher that this one book has what it takes to sell not just a thousand copies, but hundreds of thousands.

A publisher would pay an advance against future royalties, either on delivery of a manuscript or occasionally, a payment before the book was even finished. Indeed, the advance might have been the only thing that enabled the author to actually complete the book, given certain financial realities authors (and the rest of us) face.

After a publisher was done with it, the book would enter the realm of marketing, and the dire punishment of retail bookstores. Bookselling is an awful, soul-crushing business where we tease authors with the likes of Patterson, Grisham, and Rowling but the reality is your book gets 90 days (or less) in a retail store, with some decent placement before customers (assuming customers are browsing bookstores these days: the internet tells me they aren’t) (my personal experience as a bookseller contradicts that) but after the initial release window: well…

Bluntly: you’re screwed. Nah, I kid. No really, though: if this is your first book, unless you win the publishing-and-bookselling-hunger-games, you’re screwed.

As an author your best strategy for publishing is to keep writing – each new release sells the backlist, while your backlist builds the fan base. And This Was True in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1930 — before Amazon, ebooks, the world wide web, and every other wrinkle in the publishing industry since.

At least temporarily, ebooks and the various e-publishing platforms (functionally, as of 2013, that’d be KDP for the Amazon fans and Smashwords to help you pick up all the rest) are an excellent mechanism for payments – if you work at it. But ebooks are not a publishing platform, any more than blogging software is a publishing platform, or a working knowledge of CSS and HTML is a publishing platform.

Given that the web is your future — disintermediation taken to a logical extreme — well then: we need ways of monetizing books on the web that don’t rely on Amazon. Direct sales? Advertising? Subscriptions? A return to the 1400s economic model where people wrote because they had something to say and were copied because what they said was interesting and no one got paid? Because historically, that’s how publishing worked.

…just one more opportunity to link you to my 2009 essay: Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato
[someone remind me to update that – I suppose I could wait for a 5th anniversary, but I think I should get to it before that]

If one is either advocating or defending ebooks, I’d just ask whether your focus is on the potential of ebooks as a new format — or merely on Amazon’s payment model. — you know, both are important (getting paid may actually may be more important) but it would be dishonest to conflate the two.

##

assertion two: “Bookstores are dead, the equivalent of buggywhip salesmen in an automobile age.”

verdict: False. well, “false” to a point…

I have a much longer post in the works on the social function of bookstores. If all we did was sell books, the fate of bookstores would be much more cut-and-dried, but your local bookstore is a social nexus: more of a coffee shop plus source of fallback (or primary) internet these days.

But even considering only the sale of books:

About once a day someone walks in, looking for a “coffee table book” on whatever topic: Alaska. Amsterdam. Australia. Belgian Beers. Coca-Cola memorabilia. Steam engine memorabilia. Sea shells. College Football. College Lacrosse. [Name your college] – [name the city] – [name the country] – [whatever]

Of Course there has to be one of those full-color, large format books on whichever topic because I, with only 1.5 hours to prepare, suddenly thought that such a book would now make a perfect gift – let me go ask my Local Big Box Bookstore.”

[*expletive deleted*]

(My inability to meet demand — indeed, the inability of anyone to meet unreasonable demands — doesn’t make the demand less important: this is an economic opportunity) (see also: Case Study #5 and how damnably tricky it is to stock “coffee table books”)

Horsepower used to be, well, Horse Power: you either schlepped it yourself, or you got on a horse. There was also a transitional period (roughly, 1810 to 1910) when long-distance travel became steam-powered but local traffic was still by horse. Parallel to that, was the replacement of horses on farms with tractors, combines, and other agricultural equipment. The Horse was once the go-to option for so many tasks, but the internal combustion engine changed all that. …Almost. In the modern age: we have both NASCAR and the Kentucky Derby.

Cars replaced carriages for daily transport and tractors replaced draft horses on the farm, but horses are still used for sport, recreation, and ranching.

…and even in a car-dominated landscape, so many of us walk. Some for recreation, even. [Hell, some people jog and run for fun…]

This isn’t the non-sequitur that it appears to be — I previously wrote on this topic in 2010: Publishing Buggywhips.

The web has had 20 years to totally overwhelm bookselling. In a buggywhip analogy, this would be like going from 1902 to 1922 with the concomitant sociological changes that accompany technological change. Bookselling is actually holding up pretty well, considering.

People today still walk into a bookstore, and then ask me for a book. They’re willing to pay a little more for the right kind of book. Sometimes it’s a book they didn’t even know they wanted, until they saw it at the store — a book completely unrelated to their initial query (the question that actually brought them through my door).

To beat a dead horse: The physical book is a dead as the horse.

But have you thought about how many horses there are, still working? It could be a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park, or the once-a-year attention paid to horse racing around the Derby, or Olympic equestrian events, or a rare opportunity to see the Lipizzaner Stallions. Hell, it could be show-jousting at Medieval Times. Even in a car-dominated future without a need for horses, we have both use cases and economic models that prove Horses Aren’t Dead Yet. These are all special cases: some are traditional, others historical artefacts, some intentional throwbacks to a historical age – no longer an actual economic use but sold to the public as a recreational opportunity.

(Books: Not Dead Yet.)

Do I want to live in a future where the only book stores are Book Museums? No. No, I do not.

But if that’s my option, you can bet your ass I’m dressing up as Ye Olde-fashioned Bookseller down at Colonial Barnes & Noble.

##

assertion three: “Well, *I* buy ebooks and everyone I know buys ebooks and my friends on twitter and facebook and offline buy ebooks and I just don’t see how bookstores are going to be viable in 5 years…”

verdict: So this is sampling bias, selection bias, confirmation bias or some combination of all three.

Let’s say you’re a blogger, writing about the publishing future and ebooks and perhaps specializing in ebook publishing tips for first-time digital authors. The comments on your well-thought-out opinion pieces and e-publishing link roundups all agree with you that dead-tree books are dead (or soon to be so) as are the physical storefronts that sell them, and even the delivery of books (physically) by UPS rather than digitally via Internet is only a transitional phase.

Ebook evangelists are like the newspaperman of 1923 bagging on the last remaining horses. Suddenly one notes the societal changes that have been occurring over decades, one picks the winning side, writes an essay, and then you pat yourself on the back. But there are many disruptions that will take place in the transition, and also future problems and fallout that you haven’t considered yet.

A world of ebooks without publishers is also a world without George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones, a world without Robert Kirkman and Walking Dead, a world without J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, a world without J.R.R. Tolkien and hobbits — hell, even a world without Tarzan, Conan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, and Finn.

We can sandbag on publishers all day, and not everything done in the name of business or publishing is gold, but if you believe that quality wins out, no matter the hype or the competition, or the handicaps the ‘independent’ faces — then fine: we agree to disagree.

The three legs of the tripod are Books, Film/TV Adaptation, and Fans — remove any one leg, and you no longer have a franchise: Star Wars originated as a film, but I can guarantee Lucas wouldn’t have made the Prequel Trilogy if it hadn’t been for decades of Del Rey Star Wars novels along with the massive collection of Dark Horse Star Wars Comics. Harry Potter was already a book phenomenon, but only steamrolled the teen & tween fanbase after Warner Brothers started making films. Game of Thrones (book fans know the series as “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was a perpetual runner up to Wheel of Time until HBO took Martin’s series under its wing. And while discerning comic book aficionados were both familiar with and (dare I say) rabid fans of Kirkman’s work, it took a TV Show to make the Walking Dead a mainstream fan property.

Lord of the Rings, anyone? How about three, count ‘em, three Hobbit movies? (There was only the one book…) Oh, or Iron Man? Who was an Iron Man fan 2005? …yeah, put your hand down; you’re lying.

What do all of these franchises have in common? Corporate backing, big-name publishers (OK, I’m giving Image Comics a pass here, they are ‘big enough’), fan enthusiasm, and books stocked in bookstores.

Right now, all those mainstream fans of nearly every franchise know about bookstores; there’s one out by the mall, down the street from the cineplex, next to Joe’s Crab Shack. Most of those fans — let’s call them civilians — don’t know or care about ebooks. They may or may not own a tablet, they certainly don’t own an ereader, they own a smart phone but they use it for Angry Birds, to text, and [*gasp*] to make the odd phone call. And they don’t care about ebooks. They buy one, or maybe two books a year. They outnumber you, ebook fanboy. Between the 22% who reported they read no books last year and the 31% that read between 1 and 5 books, That’d be half of everybody.

From the link above: “The shift toward e-book… is being driven by those who are college educated, those living in higher-income households, and those ages 30-49. Those groups disproportionately report they were reading e-books.”

If you match that description, fine. You have your personal anecdotal evidence and I just handed you 2-year old Pew Research data to back up some of your points.

But what about the Hunger Games, Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, Pretty Little Liars, Blue Bloods, plus a couple dozen you and I forgot about — Past the first two, I can’t say I’ve heard of any of these properties lighting up the ebook charts. But they sell books, initially sufficient to prompt the adaptation and then like bonkers once comely actors are attached and pictures hit the internet.

Yes, indeed: the internet sells books. But it’s more about teen heartthrobs and Google Image Search, and less about Amazon and KDP.

##

What we have here is a stalemate: On the one side, we have ebooks. Apparently everyone, even my Mom [true fact], is buying ebooks — and I, the Lone (old-school, physical bookshop) Bookseller Left on the Internet… I’m just a plaintive, fading voice in the e-wilderness, unable to see the e-forest for the e-trees.

I’ve been assured that the digital revolution has already taken place and we’re just taking a decade or two to sort through digital winners and losers, and well: nothing I’ve said or can say will shake your convictions.

[*ahem*]

“To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).”

The digital revolution already happened. I’m defending one payment structure: distribution and sales of books through bookstores. Ebook partisans are merely defending a different payment structure, Amazon et al. and the “electronic book” — but both models are susceptible to digital disruption.

“Modern” publishing (I’m going to pick 1836) had a good run, 1836-2007 — 172 years. Over the course of that run, corporations lived and died, business models rose and fell, new and cheaper book formats were born, and at the tail-end of that era: the internet came to prominence. We are now 5 years into the “new” publishing model…

Or, we are 5 years into a dead cat bounce. Are “Kindle ebooks” the future, or merely that last gasp of 200 years of publishing business?

I think the current environment has much more in common with the post-Gutenberg early era of newspapers (1605-1700): we are still figuring out what the platform can be used for, what we want to use it for, and how we can use internet publishing to make money. (I’ll remind you again here: Dickens’ first book was serialized in an 1836 magazine.) Straight, non-DRM web distribution is still the disrupting factor that has yet to be felt in Amazon’s KDP biodome, and however enamored one is of Amazon’s ebook payment structure — the payments have nothing to do with books or publishing. Project Gutenberg predates the Kindle by 37 years, the Internet Archive hosts 4.4 Million ebooks, and facilitates 15 Million downloads each month [hattip] — so, yeah.

Amazon’s e- efforts almost seem like a sideline in comparison.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

And before you come at me as obviously wrong [I am, as always, obviously wrong], ask yourself: “Am I about to defend books, digital distribution, or merely the new payment models that have been laid over the old publishing model?”

and with that parting shot: I open the floor for discussion.



Bookselling: Not Dead Yet.

filed under , 12 July 2013, 18:31 by

[feeling better] [‘tis only a scratch]

Books are a 27 Billion Dollar business.

That would be a U.S., 2012 number; and even after we exclude the massive K-12 & Collegiate text book business, BookStats calculates the entire U.S. trade book industry (i.e. what you’re buying) is still $15 Billion, up 6.9 percent from 2011. [BookStats estimate for 2012 quoted here]

In parallel, the US Census Bureau reported that Bookstore Retail for 2012 was $13.4B of that total. Obviously there are differences between the two numbers — total Book Retail ≠ Publisher Revenue, not least because there are multiple sales channels, all the annoying non-book product lines invading most bookstores, and of course the fact that publishers sell to retailers wholesale at a discount. These are the numbers, though — and I’ll remind you the Census retail number is for *stores* and does not include online sales.

For comparison:

  • 2012 U.S./Canada Box Office was $10.8 Billion, up 6% compared to $10.2 billion in 2011 [Source: MPAA, pdf]
  • 2012 Consumer Spending on Home Entertainment (DVDs, Blu-rays, and Video On Demand) was $18 Billion [Source: Digital Entertainment Group, pdf]
  • 2012 Television Production (television programming only, excluding broadcast and cable networks, and Movie production) was a $36B business [source: IBISWorld]
  • And lastly: In 2012, the “traditional video game market” (excluding mobile) was $58 Billion [Source: Reuters]
    (also, HA! ‘traditional’ video games! next we’ll be hearing about “artisanal locally-sourced small-batch” video games)

Of course, it is easy to conflate the manufacturing, distribution, and ‘retail’ segments in any content business — the dollars spent in aggregate are no guarantee for anyone of future business, or proof of any particular business model. As much as some people may miss the old Tower Records storefronts (“Tower Records” still exists as a bad website, and as a licensed brand outside the US) the old record store model was not sustainable in a new world of MP3s and streaming digital.

[I might argue that point… but that’d be a different essay]

Anyway, the point we’re starting with is that Billions are made in the manufacture and sales of books — and while $10 Billion can be tucked into Amazon’s revenues and all but disappear, Books Are Not Amazon. Or Dead… Yet… or ever… I hope.

##

Since at least 1744, there have always been two parallel tracks for book sales: the retail bookseller, and the mail order catalog. If it is not immediately obvious, Amazon is in fact a mail order business, juiced and enabled by the internet but still a very different shopping experience from storefront retail.

Mail order got a big boost in the 1880s when Sears, Roebuck, & Co. leveraged the network [a rail network] to speed up both ordering and fulfillment by an order of magnitude. Amazon is a big damn company, books are a minor sideline these days — but that fraction of Amazon that sells stuff is the heir of Sears & Roebuck, an obvious evolution and not something that is new or revolutionary.

Books by mail became a thing (a massive, popular thing) 70 years before Amazon with the Book of the Month Club: After a couple of false starts, the now-iconic Book of the Month Club was founded in 1926 and by the 40s was (arguably) the nation’s largest bookseller. [I don’t have 1940s book retail numbers in front of me at the moment, hence the qualifier, but in 1949 after a little over 20 years in business, the BotMC shipped it’s 100 Millionth book.]

This history of the Book of the Month Club is incomplete, especially as it seems to stop in 1994, but in addition to the 100-Million factoid above, there are some other great nuggets:

“Although BOMC’s membership continued to grow in the first half of the 1960s, the company’s sales began to stagnate as the impact of increased numbers of retail book stores — many of which sold bestsellers at discount prices — was felt. Another important factor was the rise of paperback books. The proliferation of book clubs and the resulting competition was yet another cause for the slump. Between 1962 and 1963, BOMC saw its sales slip from $19.8 million to $17.6 million. To compensate for the shrinking number of books purchased by members, the company spent more money on promotion to beef up membership.”

Widespread discounting of bestsellers, the popularity of a new format, and newly expanded competing sales channels led to flat growth of an established book seller? You don’t say.

“In the early 1980s the company determined that there was money to be made by publishing books on its own or in cooperation with publishers, rather than only buying the rights from publishers to sell BOMC editions of their books. In 1982 BOMC established its own original publishing division. Its first publishing projects were reprints of such classics as All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (published by BOMC in 1982), William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (published in 1987), and the Revised English Bible (published in 1989). The publishing division then moved on to anthologies and multivolume sets.”

Moving beyond book sales and into publishing? Rescuing forgotten titles and publishing the classics? Why does that sound familiar?

The New York Times reporting in 2001:
[blockquote]
“Since the 1980’s, however, the club system has been under duress. National bookstore chains made books more widely available, alleviating the need for mail-order services. Then online retailers began competing to sell books even to the truly isolated or lazy. As a handful of perennial blockbuster authors came to dominate best-seller lists, the club’s management began paying multimillion-dollar contracts for the rights to several of an author’s future books at once.

“Even the idea of a single ‘book of the month’ was becoming obsolete. Computerized databases enabled the club’s managers to tailor the ‘main selection’ each month to the previous buying habits of individual members. A member who responded well to nonfiction would see a steady diet of it as the club’s main selection, while a neighbor might receive only novels.”[/blockquote]

“The Book-of-the-Month Club Tries to Be More Of-the-Moment; New Judges and Niche Marketing Are Part of a Comeback Plan” : David D. Kirkpatrick, NYT, 28 June 2001

Goodness, using computerized inventory and sales history data to individually tailor recommendations.

“There is one kind of book club which could have a bright future: specialist clubs that harness the internet. Two successful new clubs in recent years have been Bertelsmann’s Black Expressions in America, aimed at black women, and Mosaico, a Spanish-language club. For specialist titles, bookstores cannot compete for range with a book club, and the internet lacks the personal touch of a trusted team of editors.”
“Book clubs: The final chapter? The future looks bleak for an archaic corner of old media” : The Economist, 15 May 2008

If someone at The Book of the Month Club had thought to engage their readers/customers on a Goodreads level, the past two decades in book retail would have unfolded very differently. If Goodreads had bought the BotMC in 2008, instead of being acquired themselves by Amazon… well, what-if games are hardly productive and do little to change conditions on the ground.

However: History (in retail or otherwise) is hardly as inevitable as it seems, and the future is more fluid than most realize.

##

The past 20 years of Books is not the story of The Big Box Bookstore, nor was it all about The Rise of Online Empires.

The success of both the nationwide chains and of Amazon are both aspects of a single phenomenon: The past 20 years of bookselling are best seen as a change in customer demand for books.

There has been a lot of noise and bluster about showrooming, the book discovery “problem”, the merits of book recommendation algorithms, and the shrinking shelfspace allotted to books in stores. In my opinion, way too many of these opinion pieces romanticize bookstores and don’t take into account how everything has changed since 1993. You know, 1993? World Wide Web, you might have heard of it?

Before the web — and web browsers, the now-invisible but indispensable invention — There was no “online”. At least not in the ways we casually assume today…

The conversation began with pulps in the 30s and Zines in the 60s. As in so many other aspects of our modern life, technology took these modest print efforts and dialed it up to 11: more reviews, more posted reading lists, more fan-to-fan conversation, discussion, flame wars, and FAQs: more fan nexus — hell, being able to even find other fans who like what you do — this “book discovery” that was about Individual Enthusiasm and Consistent Effort and Engagement — that had nothing to do with Amazon and everything to do with dial-up BBS, CompuServe forums, Usenet groups, Listserv mailing lists, and all the other proto-Reddits that your Grandma used a long long time before you, youngling, fired up your first Game Boy for the pokemons.

And yes, while my own experience is heavily sci-fi flavoured, the genres/pulps are the industry leaders in publishing: first to paperback, first to e-, first to a self-sustaining internet community telling stories entirely divorced from the publishing treadmill. Evolution, growth, and development take place on the margins, and the fringe.

In 20 years, discovery hasn’t changed: There is nothing Amazon’s user reviews add to the process that wasn’t already there in the letters column of a fan zine. It is all about the dialog, even when (these days) the dialog is with a machine. “What’s Hot, What’s New?”

Anatomy of Book Discovery: A Case Study : Patrick Brown, posted to Goodreads, 14 June 2012

Book Discovery: Give Me Blind Dates With Books Suw Charman-Anderson, Forbes, 28 March 2013. check the update at the bottom of that article; it led directly to the new website http://www.nonamesnojackets.com/

Why online book discovery is broken (and how to fix it) : Laura Hazard Owen, PaidContent, 17 January 2013

The discovery process is the same today as it might have been in 1989. What has changed is the volume of information available to readers. Once, you had the NYT Book Review, the New York Review of Books, a handful of others… now a world of reviews are a Google search away.

The increase in information about books led to a subsequent demand for books: You have no idea how much you want something if haven’t heard of it yet. There has also been an explosion of “broadcast channels” discussing and recommending books; the biggest of these was Oprah (is Oprah? How’s her book club v2.0 working out) but what other individual sites lack in stature, they more than make up for in numbers: 1000s of people with blogs (or tumblrs, or pinterest boards) (or even maybe facebook – I’m not on facebook so I don’t know about book culture there) — tens of thousands of mini-channels, and at least a dozen ‘major’ sites, all discussing books.

The change in customer demand is often referred to today as “The Long Tail”, a term coined (and/or repurposed to describe this phenomenon) by Chris Anderson — don’t get too bogged down in the Wikipedia entry on this one: that was hijacked by some math nerds a few years back — the basics of the long tail is that when customers can find obscure books they are also more likely to buy them. The immediate corollary is that someone, somewhere will buy even the most obscure book but only if they know about it — undiscovered is the same, functionally, as out of print.

Many commentators describe The Long Tail as uniquely an internet phenomenon, something that only came about with the rise of internet retailers. I politely disagree, and if you would care to know why: I invite you to get a job at a big box bookstore. Come work for me for a month. Answer the phones. Deal with the shopping public.

The change in customer demand does not begin and end with a web site and is not limited to online sales. When someone wants a book, they will seek it out from any retailer, and their buying decision is affected not by the discovery process but rather the same mix of price and convenience that backs all of their sales decisions. Say you just heard about the Cotton Malone thriller series from author Steve Berry – you may not have heard of Steve before (he’s a NYT bestselling author now, but also a bit of a b-lister) (sorry, Steve) — but via some mechanism on the internet, like a by-the-way-comment in a tangentially related blog post you suddenly are aware of The Templar Legacy (isbn 9780345476159) and you think, “Hey, maybe I should read that.”

So you pick up the phone, call your local bookstore – they have it, and you buy it over the weekend. You’re out running errands anyway on Saturday, stopping by the bookstore is easy. Convenience is a matter of personal perspective: maybe ordering online is easier, But There Is At Least One Bookstore Chain With 700+ Stores (still out there in July of 2013, even, not dead yet) and for many people it’s easier to buy in stores.

This example is not only hypothetical, but even if I’m right, the story is anecdotal. Online retail is obviously taking over everything. It’s not like I can point to 13 Billion Dollars in store-front retail book sales as reported by the US Census Bureau or 4.5 Billion in retail sales from a major chain — in an economy that may be recovering but still sucks.

…Nobody is going to a book store anymore, obviously.

When we talk about bookselling, we throw around figures in the billions – in the arena of business news, this isn’t enough to register with observers.

We can talk about monthly sales in the hundreds of millions. I can point out that with reported annual book store sales of $13 Billion, that means bookstores bank more than one billion dollars every month — on average, anyway ;) — and I’ll remind you a third time that the US Census reporting on book stores explicitly excludes online sales channels.

An industry that is dying, obviously.

##

For those who might argue otherwise: That bookselling is in decline, that retail storefronts can in no way compete with the efficiencies of online retailers, or even that no one wants a bookstore any more. Well, that is another topic.

[update 14 July 2013, 5:00pm EST : some sentences were added to clarify my thoughts on how the explosion of information on the internet is what expanded customer demand.]



The Wake

filed under , 2 July 2013, 02:14 by

A Wake for Google Reader
alt. title: In the wake of Google Reader

I’m still working on the next huge draft — a post on bookselling, oddly enough (yeah, yeah, I know) — but given that today is July 2nd and we are all waking to a Google-Reader-Free world, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate that, or commiserate, or whatever.

So. Now what.

Simple, for most: http://www.purplegene.com/reader

…ok, so I’m pulling your leg. Yes, most of us are on Feedly and the transition is relatively painless. (Though go check out Purple Gene – it’s rough and tumble, but it might rub you in the right ways.)

For me, the past few months have been an opportunity to examine and re-examine my whole data diet: what I read, how I read it, why I read certain things, and why some people/sites/corporations insist on making it way more difficult than it should be. After all of that, and after months of navel gazing (here, read a ‘progress’ post from three months ago) I actually ended up unfollowing about 100 people on twitter, removed about a third of my RSS feeds, pushed another third into a new folder named “skippable” (guess why) and then conscientiously built a new data diet, adding a bunch of new feeds and sources until I’m back up to ~150 RSS Feeds in my ‘daily’.

[see also, re: information diet – http://www.informationdiet.com/ and the Clay Johnson book, isbn 9781449304683]

Some take-away thoughts:

  • There really is a 9-5, Monday-to-Friday internet: a lot of news sites and even many blogs post, yes, during the day and also mostly during the week. On the weekends my collective feeds drop from 500+ articles daily down to about 100. It works, especially as several sites I like to follow do link-roundups or “Sunday Long Reads” — but this was an interesting reveal.
  • Following a tumblr via RSS is so much better than trying to keep up with everything from the dash. The real gems of tumblr I follow via reader – a lot of the rest is still great, for what it is [tumblr] but I only read them (Ha! ‘reading’ tumblr; it’s an image browser) when I run out of RSS-fed articles.
  • Prismatic, op. cit., is also an excellent 2nd source — a way to extend your reading day after you run to the end of your RSS feeds. – bonus: Prismatic occasionally turns up blogs you’d never find otherwise, which you can then subscribe to via RSS
  • The “Death of Google Reader” is a like, top-5-all-time, Nerd World Problem. We just wouldn’t shut up about it, but in the end: it is all fizzle no bang.

More:

http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2013/03/14/four-google-reader-alternatives-for-the-hard-core-user/
http://mashable.com/2013/06/19/feedly-google-reader/
http://blog.feedly.com/2013/06/19/feedly-cloud/
http://gizmodo.com/its-now-super-easy-to-jump-from-google-reader-to-the-b-514258503
http://techcrunch.com/2013/06/22/rss-readersplosion-shows-a-lot-of-skating-to-where-the-puck-has-been/
http://techcrunch.com/2013/06/24/there-is-no-google-reader-replacement-only-alternatives/
http://www.theverge.com/2013/6/24/4460502/just-over-a-week-until-rss-apocalypse-where-are-you-moving
http://gigaom.com/2013/06/24/why-does-everyone-except-google-want-to-build-a-reader/
http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2013/06/where-to-take-your-google-reader-subscriptions-and-how/
http://techcrunch.com/2013/06/29/you-cant-quit-google-reader-because-i-already-fired-you/
http://daltoncaldwell.com/where-will-google-reader-traffic-go
http://makezine.com/2013/07/01/survey-says-google-reader-users-headed-to-feedly/
http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/06/30/195875609/q-a-on-the-death-of-google-reader-and-the-future-of-reading
http://readwrite.com/2013/07/01/how-to-make-news-readers-work-for-you
http://techcrunch.com/2013/07/01/we-were-the-1000-goodbye-google-reader/
http://just-ask-kim.com/google-graveyard-infographic/
http://alternativeto.net/software/google-reader/

…and now I promise to shut up about this particular topic on twitter. Promise.
…Oh, after I tweet this post. And maybe 1 RT in the morning. ;)



Some thoughts on Amazon's Breakthrough Novel program.

filed under , 26 June 2013, 14:43 by

I don’t want to detract at all from the points made (and the excellent writing done) by Porter Anderson over in his recent (20 June) Writing on the Ether column, While You Were Bashing Amazon

Summary: “On the Ether at JaneFriedman.com, Porter Anderson looks at Amazon Publishing’s latest strides — including $110,000 in Breakthrough Novel Award publishing contracts for authors and a new million-copy seller in translation.”

Flavour Quote: “Self-publication wasn’t a requirement of the competition, nor was it a problem. The rules of the Breakthrough Novel Award program prohibit entering material that has been under a publishing contract currently or previously. But as long as the rights have never left the author, an entry is valid. The entry period is normally in mid- to late-January. Up to 10,000 people can make one entry each. The competition, and the voting on the winners, is international and goes through several stages of selection and elimination. Walker remembers her self-published effort not quite languishing but not taking off, either. ‘I got a lot of good reviews. I won’t even tell you it was selling okay. It was tolerable, a few sales a week. For an indie author, that being my first book, and knowing it was part of a series, that was hopeful.’”

Money Quote: “While its challenges are contemporary, Amazon Publishing may have had no more difficulty finding traction in the market in its first couple of years than many of the well-established houses initially experienced decades ago. The ‘breakthroughs’ celebrated over the weekend may not lie only in those contracts for writers.

“And however many in Old Publishing may still decry Amazon Publishing as an incursion, many entrepreneurial authors recognize it as a new-work-nourishing player indigenous to an unprecedented global marketplace.”

As is typical for Anderson: this installment of Writing on the Ether is a well-thought-out, well-researched piece with plenty of links, quotes, and embedded tweets. And they post weekly. (Add JaneFriedman.com to your RSS feeds.)

You are both allowed and encouraged at this point to go read the whole thing.

##

Now, after reading about Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest and all the winners (a total of five authors across several genres) and the money involved (a $50,000 advance for a ‘no-name’, in 2013, is not unheard of but is still amazing) you might think that maybe Amazon isn’t too bad for books after all.

Maybe the tumult and pandemonium we’ve experienced over the past 15 years in bookselling and publishing (and technology, and the economy, and the plague of teen vampire fiction) have been worth it, because now on the other side things are easier than ever and hell, authors are even getting paid.

Indeed, for folks who are excited about books, the various Amazon imprints and the promotional programs and ebooks/Kindle/KDP and the huge stacks of money (filthy, glorious, internet-scale money) are all good things for books and authors, and the New Publishing that emerges will be better than the old regime it replaces. Sure, that’s fine.

“American Idol is an American reality-singing competition program created by Simon Fuller and produced by 19 Entertainment, and distributed by FremantleMedia North America. It began airing on Fox on June 11, 2002, as an addition to the Idols format based on the British series Pop Idol and has since become one of the most successful shows in the history of American television. For an unprecedented eight consecutive years, from the 2003–04 television season through the 2010–11 season, either its performance or result show had been ranked number one in U.S. television ratings. The concept of the series is to find new solo recording artists where the winner is determined by the viewers in America. Winners chosen by viewers through telephone, Internet, and SMS text voting.” : American Idol entry, on Wikipedia.

We can all remember how American Idol completely revitalized the music industry, right?

A contest is a contest, with winners and losers, and while I applaud the idea and congratulate the authors, I still object to manuscripts-as-lottery-tickets, and object most strenuously to manuscripts-as-lottery-tickets-as-a-business-model.

Writing is tough. Getting published used to be tough, now it’s “easy”, but the new barrier to entry is getting recognized, and our savior is not Amazon.

##

Let me pull back here from one more round of Amazon Bashing (because, as much as I enjoy it, it turns off many of my blog readers) and discuss publishing.

While many think the core unit of publishing is a huge multinational multimedia conglomerate, no, those monsters arose 30 years ago and gobbled up many of the ‘real’ publishers and subsumed them into the whole. The legacy publishers (post-gobbling) still exist as names-and-logos and are refered to as imprints of the larger ‘houses’ – ‘imprint’ as a term is also now often used to refer to some music labels (those wholly owned by the company that also distributes the music) and the music label analogy might work for some of you:

An imprint will have a staff that selects new works (books or music), works with the artist to polish and publish the work, ideally will have staff to market and promote the work, and also ideally will serve as advocate for the work in the event of legal trouble, or unfair competitive practices that limit the distribution of the work. Finally, an imprint should be interested in promoting the well-being of authors or artists (financially, primarily, but there are other ways to support authors), and encouraging and supporting them to produce more works.

Yes, I wear rose-colored glasses as I live in a sunshine-filled polly-anna world of rainbows and unicorns — but that aside, your publisher should have your back and the primary goal should be to make self-supporting, “good” works. A really trashy romance novel can still be a ‘good’ book; three-minute, three-cord, three-guitar-and-drums punk songs can still be ‘good’; a thousand-page tract on medieval farming techniques and the evolution of European plowshare and moldboard design (476-1349CE)… that only seven people will ever actually read… yes, can still be a ‘good’ work.

We all like to get paid. No disputing that. And the level at which a pulp novel is “self-supporting” is going to differ based on the goals of the author, the expectations of the publisher, and how much overhead each book has to carry.

For me: The core of publishing was the small publishing house that worked with their authors, built a small but meaningful backlist, didn’t sweat the money too much, and waited for the occasional bestseller not because it meant winning the book lottery, but because the occasional bestseller paid for the rest and supported the whole. Call me a big fan of Maxwell Perkins. (who is Maxwell Perkins, you ask? *sigh* – here, go read.)

In as much as Amazon’s Imprints can step in and achieve my ideal goal for publishers, to support authors in producing self-sustaining works, then I applaud their efforts and wish them well.

However, Amazon’s publishing efforts do not exist in a vacuum. A paranoid bookseller or small publisher might see these new imprints as part of a larger, systematic program carried out by Amazon to lock both readers and authors into a closed ecosystem (controlled by Amazon) while also continuing to parasitically suck the life out of the rest of industry.

In 2012, Amazon had $61.09 Billion in revenues. (They actually booked a loss of $39 Million because of acquisitions and investments in logistical support structure, but heh, they’re Amazon so Wall Street is cool with that.) A $50,000 advance to a first time author is one hell of a payday, though again not entirely unprecedented — but for Amazon: fifty grand is .0000008% of their sales in 2012. Less than one-millionth of the total. Amazon also ‘awarded’ four other runners-up $15,000 each; all together, for every million dollars Amazon made, they set aside $1.80 to fund this program. Amazingly generous.

I’d love to see this scaled up just a bit. And would it kill Amazon to make it an outright prize, and not just an advance on future royalties? Particularly when Amazon (and others) seem to have trouble with the accounting when it comes to author payments?

I could be a real ass and compare Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award with B&N’s Discover Great New Writers program, which directly awards $10,000 to two winners annually and comes with in-store support and display space — running the same kind of calculation as above, the cash prizes are $2.94 out of every million dollars in sales (B&N reported $6.8 Billion in revenue for fiscal 2013) — but I suppose the catch is in the submission criteria for B&N: to be considered you need a published book, and your publisher has to submit your entry for you. If you have someone at your publisher or imprint who is supportive of you and your work, who “has your back”, that’s kind of a minor point. (the getting-published-on-dead-trees-bit is the taller hurdle)

##

Prizes and recognition are both excellent things for books. Not just these new programs but the established awards (Nobel, Booker, National, Pulitzer, et al.) and genre awards (where to start?) and I can’t say for sure that Amazon’s new program is bad, ill-advised, or exploitative — but given that the prizes are all publication deals with Amazon (not merely the recognition and money), it strikes me as more of an extremely creative way to manage the e-slush-pile of manuscripts than an award, and I object to it on those grounds.

Here’s an idea for Amazon: A Breakthrough Imprint Award — find an editor or publisher (publisher, in this case, referring to the person who runs a small press, magazine, or imprint) and give them enough money to hire a small staff, give them the “keys” to KDP such that author royalties would not go down and the imprint could take a small chunk of Amazon’s cut on a book, and give them 2 years to find authors and build up a backlist, and a brand. Let current imprints apply, too, but set aside enough cash to seed 50 imprints (or more) and really get the ball rolling on Amazon publishing. Back-of-the-envelope numbers – a quarter million would fund 2 full-time editors and a part-time office manager for two years at less-than-New-York-but-hardly-starvation salaries. $25 Million would fund a hundred of these seed programs — and with established e-book publishing channels taking care of the old printing and distribution tasks, books could be coming out of these imprints within months. A couple-hundred editors engaging thousands of authors with the intent of publishing great books — 100 imprints all working on defining their niche and building a great backlist. Give your publishers/EICs wide rein to consider any business model they like: monthly magazines, serialized novels, multi-author anthologies, “old fashioned” ebooks — so long as they sell as e-books or e-singles over your platform.

That’d be $12.5 Million a year as an ongoing investment — though I suppose you could declare a “winner” and cut the program early at any time. You could also treat that $250,000 as an advance against royalties (the 5% per book or whatever is determined) so you would still be out some cash, but in the process of making it back.

I give away these great business ideas because *I* personally don’t have that kind of cash hanging around. Amazon does. Barnes & Noble is in trouble but they could certainly spare $25 Million. The major houses might scrape up the same amount, too, if they thought it was worthwhile. (I’m starting to doubt their judgement.)

It’s a pity so much money gets pissed away on app development these days, when for a fraction of that we could be supporting the production of books. (and with the same-or-better success rate, if you ask me)



The New Pulp

filed under , 30 May 2013, 21:23 by

PULP.

Space opera, horror, spy stories, noir, aliens, westerns, romance, and stories of “adventure” — cheap, lurid, shunned by the ‘legitimate’ publishers, considered to be devoid of literary value, and utterly fantastic. The pulp magazines (and their later paperback reprints) didn’t sell in the bookstore but out of racks at the drug store, newsstand, and five-and-dime. The covers were vivid and promised action, adventure, and sex. The pulps were mined for decades by later authors — as well as filmmakers — and from these humble roots Most If Not All of our modern fiction derives. It may take someone like Stephen King, John le Carré, Anne Rice, Elmore Leonard, Danielle Steel, Robert B. Parker, or Nora Roberts to ‘rehabilitate’ a genre in the eyes of some, but I often find I prefer ‘original’ pulp (the trashier the better) to more evolved forms.

…and of course, where there is money to be made: even the stodgiest of New England literary publishers will come around. A few decades of history (and a history of past sales) will give any setting or genre enough of a patina to be called “an american tradition”.

This is not the introduction to a long dissertation on Pulp, however (one could earn several post-graduate degrees just surveying and cataloging the stuff), instead I wanted to make a completely different point:

E-Books and Self Publishing are the New Pulp — and this is also utterly fantastic.

##

Pulp.

The Wikipedia entry for “Pulp magazines”:

[blockquote]
“Pulp magazines (often referred to as ‘the pulps’) are inexpensive fiction magazines published from 1896 through the 1950s. The typical pulp magazine was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, and 128 pages long. Pulps were printed on cheap paper with ragged, untrimmed edges.

“The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Magazines printed on higher quality paper were called ‘glossies’ or ‘slicks’. In their first decades, pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine, while competing slicks were 25 cents apiece. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of ‘hero pulps’; pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, such as The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Phantom Detective.”
[/blockquote]

There are some minor additions to wikipedia in the block above: I did not alter the text, but I did add some links to topics wikieditors cited above (they either missed ‘em or were to lazy to go back and give readers a helpful pointer to other wiki articles; fixed that). I might also point interested readers to the Men’s Adventure magazines of the 50s, the last expression of the Pulps in actual pulp [here’s that wikipedia article], as well as to Wikipedia’s (mildly anemic) coverage of genre fiction generally.

The first half of the 20th century was rich ground for stories — because the plots, tropes, backdrops, and character-types of the 19th and previous centuries were pretty fertile to begin with and they were well-composted with a heavy layer of The Pulps.

Second blockquote:

(Quoting myself this time) “Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato” : Matt Blind, RocketBomber.com, 17 November 2009

[blockquote]
“Paperbacks were and weren’t radical:

“Yes, they were cheaper. While initially introduced as value editions of the classics and bestsellers, soon the lower costs of manufacture induced some publishers to create new works (and whole genres) to take advantage of the format. Stories which might never have seen print due to either ‘lurid’ content or lack of a ‘literary’ appeal suddenly found a new home, and mountains of books were printed to feed the pulp market. Some of these were reprints of material previously available in fiction anthology magazines — a format that is, sadly, mostly extinct — the magazines fed a fan base that later bought the books, and the magazines were a crucible that forged not just the fans of the works but also their creators. Mystery, Romance, and Sci-fi all exist today as genres — popular genres that support their own hardcover releases — because of the decades of pulps… but that would be another essay.

“A paperback book has a floppy cover, but was still recognizable as a book. If one weren’t hung up on the literary ‘value’ and ‘merit’ of a Book-as-object, then the opportunity to buy one at a cheaper price because you want to, you know, enjoy it is a no-brainer. Here was the first movement toward books as popular entertainment, and also provided a way ‘in’, to merge centuries of Pop Culture Trash back into the literary tradition.”
[/blockquote]

third blockquote:

How Book Publishing Has Changed Since 1984 : Peter Osnos, The Atlantic, 12 April 2011

[blockquote]
“[H]ere is where books were sold in 1984: The biggest names in retailing were Walden, Dalton, and Crown, still relatively new as national chains. They made books available in malls as populations moved to the suburbs. Led by Crown, which was mainly in the Washington, D.C. area, the chains adopted discounting as a strategy and limited their selections to put greater emphasis on bestsellers and ‘category’ books such as self-help, diet, and romance. Barnes & Noble and Borders, which became dominant in the 1990s with superstores (absorbing Dalton and Walden, respectively; Crown went out of business), were still in their early stages. The rise of the chains had the greatest impact on department stores such as Macy’s and Marshall Fields, which in their heyday were centers of bookselling alongside housewares and clothing. By 1984, that era was ending.

“Independent bookstores — according to Carl’s estimate, there were about 3,500 full-service booksellers, which is twice the number there are today — played a major role, since they had the ability, when enthusiastic, to turn first novels into bestsellers. Some of today’s leading independents, such as Tattered Cover in Denver and Powell’s in Portland, were already influential. But many other stores of that era closed, overwhelmed by the chains and superstores, and eventually Amazon and the rise of online retailing. ‘Hand-selling,’ as it is known, is still the independents’ specialty, and while their role is smaller than it was, they remain at the spiritual core of publishing. It is encouraging to see so many of them holding their own and adapting to the digital age in various ways. In the past three years, several hundred new stores have opened, often where there were none before. At their best, the ‘indies’ anchor communities with author signings, reading groups and other events.

“The Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild were still very prominent in the 1980s, with millions of members. Their monthly choices were eagerly awaited by publishers. But, like the department stores, the ‘clubs’ gradually lost their place as bookselling moved into so many new venues, and their remnants focus on niche markets with much smaller constituencies.

….

“Mass-market paperbacks sold in drugstores and newsstands, which were expanding into malls also and were a very substantial business. One of the major developments at Random House in 1984 was the August publication as a trade paperback ‘original’ of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, an innovative novel that skipped the hardcover stage, captured the mood of Generation-X readers, and sold, over time, untold (I’m guessing millions) of copies. From then on, these originals, also known as “quality” paperbacks, to distinguish them in price and style from the drugstore variety, were ‘cool,’ and their aura expanded the market for trade paperbacks beyond the classic reprints that were their staple adding an important new category for readers at just the right time.”
[/blockquote]

I’m embarrassed to quote so heavily, but the article is an excellent source of perspective on the industry: Please read the whole thing and also read Peter Osnos’s follow-up, “Good Reviews Are No Longer Enough”.

Once again, though, I can add to the block from my own research: here are some primary sources on the book departments of the downtown department stores, which can be found on Google Books: from 1920 and 1949, which I first cited in an Amazon take-down back in 2009. For more on the 1990’s rise of the Big Box bookstores, I’d point you towards this essay, this link roundup, and this math- and graph-heavy post.

The Atlantic article gives us a definite point in time: 1984 — before the Big Box, before the internet, but also well after Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Naked Came the Stranger by “Penelope Ashe”. 1984 is 50 to 80 years removed from the Grand Pulp Era and at least 20 years after the last of the pulp magazines. Bright Lights, Big City is cited as the first “paperback original”, which is a tad disingenuous considering the decades of pulp-reprints in the format, but considering that just 10 years earlier Stephen King’s Carrie got a hardcover release — this may in fact be the case. At any rate, Bright Lights, Big City sold a ton of books, got made into a movie, and was a big success: and was a book that skipped the hardcover. It wasn’t so much that Jay McInerney’s book “proved” the value of a paperback, or marked the day that Pulp “won” — it’s more that the mass-market paperback format was fully co-opted by mainstream publishers. Lower required investments (in author advances, and in printing) changed the calculus, and increased shelf space (in mall bookstores, and the nascent big boxes) meant there was demand.

A small-scale revolution.

##

The mistake so many are making when it comes to e-books and self-publishing is that they strongly feel they are shaking the very foundations of publishing, upsetting the established order of publishers and editors and gatekeepers and damnable rejection letters and bringing forth the Author’s Utopia where they and their works can Connect with Readers forever and ever amen.

But publishing is not a monolith. It may seem like there are only six publishers (soon to be five) but really: the publishers haven’t been the same since the big media consolidation of the 1990s. Smaller imprints subsumed into the morass continued to produce great books, but also largely only managed to do so, so long as they were able to fly under the corporate radar. I personally love “publishers” like Baen, Del Rey, Orbit, and Tor, but even more-so than most readers (since I am a bookseller) I know who actually ‘owns’ that business.

It can be hard to make a movie, too. This isn’t the non-sequitur that it seems:

A major summer-tentpole blockbuster movie requires the input of dozens of creatives, the technical expertise of hundreds of professionals, hundreds of millions of dollars, a lot of computing power and many hours of work in post production, and (frosting on the cake): a wholescale marketing blitz including internet trailers, TV commercials, print ads, toys in fast-food kids’ meals, and the personal appearances of actors and directors on cable, late night, morning shows, and red carpet debuts.

And then there’s YouTube. “Meh, a movie is just a video, after all: what’s the hype?”

Even an “indie” movie, or one without special effects, requires a lot of work by multiple people in specialized roles and with specialized skills. A “Director” can write, act in, film, edit, and upload a “movie” to YouTube — taking care of all of the required roles both on and off camera — and the finished work can be amazing. I’m not saying genius doesn’t exist. But many YouTube videos struggle to match reality-TV standards of production, let alone cinema-ready-polish.

Since many of us watch untold hours of YouTube, we are of course familiar with a lot of this. It probably goes without saying, and would be obvious even if I didn’t rub your face in it.

With the YouTube model made painfully obvious to you and now firmly in mind: let us once again consider self-publishing.

Unlike video, which are major productions (and often referred to as ‘productions’ in the press), Books are often assumed to be the work of a single person. This ignores a lot of what goes into a print edition: typesetting, printing, distribution, sales. Even in the case of e-books, though, where the printing et al. is done by computers and internet servers — there is the research, editing and revision of the manuscript, book cover design, pre-publication marketing, post-publication marketing, and the ‘legacy’ to consider. The long-term marketing of a book after it’s a scant six months old and slips into “the backlist” can include writing more books to increase the length of the series or the profile of the author, getting reviewed (on online sales sites but also preferrably elsewhere), keeping your book “in front” of readers in a world where you honestly only get 90 days to “hit” on the market, and overcoming the “sophomore slump”: sure, you’ve got one book out there already, but if it didn’t set the world on fire there is an open question whether you’ll ever be able to sell another.

“But, but… self-publishing! ebooks! it’s different now!”

E-Books are not the panacea some hope, and if you press the point: we’re going to have to stop you. Push it too much and you’re just selling e-book-snake-oil to a whole class of gullible creators. Can we all respect and repeat the point:
E- does not fix all.

A broken system that extends lottery-ticket-style winnings to a few, while ignoring everyone else, is not suddenly fixed when we bypass the single-channel Big Game to offer smaller jackpots to multiple winners via the internet. The ease of YouTube did not suddenly usher in a cadre of web-only TV shows to compare with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, or The Wire.

I’m being intentionally harsh. I want to get you thinking about the system: It’s rigged, and it’s rigged against you — and as much as you think you’re participating in a Revolution, you’re still letting the Lottery Winners of Publishing skew your expectations. Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, E.L. James, and John Locke are not your business model.

The model you want to emulate is not the major publishers, c. 1980-2000yesterday, but instead the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s:

We Need E-Pulp.

We need web-anthologies, the equivalent of the pulp magazines of yore, for the new short fiction that has no other outlet. We need editorial selection (and editorial input, and maybe even some editing) to make sense of the massive influx of new writing made possible by e-. We need e-magazines selling at 99¢ an issue, and selling in volume — enough volume to afford to pay authors again, by the word or otherwise.

We need whole new publishers like Harlequin, and new imprints like the sci-fi imprints of the 60s, 70s, and 80s — e- is the New Pulp, and we’ll need a new escalator. Aside from the content, the other amazing thing about the pulps was that this-little-publishing-sideline-industry served as an incubator where new story ideas were tested and new authors were tempered. Amazon wants to own the new system, but the pulps of the 20s and 30s were not an outreach program conducted by the Hearst Corporation. Dozens (if not hundreds) (if not thousands) of back-room and back-alley outfits were publishing rags: over the years, hundreds of thousands of pages that had to be filled with content. Decades later, these were followed by dozens of mass-market paperback publishers looking to fill racks at newsstands and drugstores, and the reprints continued right up until the 70s — when original content by the likes of King and Parker et al. started to take over the mass market. The whole of the comic book industry was part of this movement, and thank you. Some imprints that are now Key components of major media conglomerates (Pocket, Bantam, Berkley, Dial, Dell) got started doing mass-market paperback reprints; Random House and Penguin (two of the largest publishers and after the impending merger about to account for 45-50% of ALL publishing) both got their start in the 30s doing cheap paperbacks. No, really.

##

What does this mean for authors?
Congrats. With e-books, You’ve rediscovered an 1880s publishing model: Serial publishing [novels in installments, that sell for a few bucks per] and If Amazon Really Is That Amazing, I guess you’re done.

Oh? Not satisfied? You want distribution into bookstores? You have aspirations and would like to, just maybe, work with an agent or editor to make your books more enticing, more saleable? Gee, I wish we had thought to build up some sort of system for that before Amazon introduced their Kindle Direct program.

What does this mean for the publisher?
You’re already 5 years behind. You might be 50 years behind. #TheNewPulpIsTheOldPulp

What does this mean for the retailer?
We have to carry everything —and yet, we get no credit. If anything, we get blame for not keeping up with the ‘trends’ when no one else was keeping up (and when it was pure speculation and not even an actual product not more than 6 months ago: and we get crap if we want to downscale because damn who could actually keep up with it all) —and still, still get no credit for what we actually do.

##

I didn’t ask to become the Book World’s Resident Internet Historian, but damn me if I’m the only one who remembers who we are and where we came from, and can draw the requisite parallels.

In the 20s and 30s, Book Publishing (as an industry) was hardly ossified: new technology and new outlets meant publishing was still (still!) in it’s infancy. While we today think of this period as staid, personality-driven, provincial, and perhaps a bit quaint: I’d say that impression formed based on what we were assigned to read in high school and did not (and does not) reflect the reality. These decades were exceptionally dynamic, both in terms of content and in the business models being developed. Powerhouses Penguin [1935] and Random House [1927] both date back to this period; they are the current #1 and #2 publishers and are merging – fulfilling a destiny that began in the 70s, when the Media Giants were first assembled from their robot-lion-parts, and the 80s, when the monolithic retail chains that enabled even greater consolidation appeared on the American landscape.

Books and Publishing have undergone massive change – and changes have taken place every decade since the 30s. While we [I] obsess over Amazon now, the retail landscape has been changing for over a century, and has changed drastically for nearly every segment — books included. Where we once had the main-street or city-square retail outlet – over the past century we’ve gone from main street to mall to mall-adjecent to ‘lifestyle center’ and back to urban-walkable-main-street again. The green grocer, baker, butcher, and pharmacist are now all just aisles in the Super Market – dry goods, sundries, and even USB flash drives (these days) included. Between 1913 and 2013, physical retail is damn near unrecognizable.

And Over The Whole Course Of The 20th Century, 100+ Years of Physical Retail, there has always been the other path — what was once fulfilled by the Sears & Roebuck Catalog and is now satisfied by Amazon. I’ve made the point mulitple times that Amazon is not Retail but Mail-Order but the distinction is lost on most. Amazon is an add-on and adjunct to stores-in-neighborhoods; Sears began the 20th century as a catalog but ended it as a nationwide retail chain that was also a real-estate developer and mall landlord. I don’t know what Amazon might want to ‘build’ nor where they will make their physical beach-head: but if they seriously want to challenge Wal-Mart at least one offensive front is going to have to be in realspace.

If you show up in 2013 and claim that a ‘new’ format and publishing ‘model’ changes everything – well, sure if you think so but maybe you should do your reading first.

I’d say the primary change is in payment models, and engagement: one can engage readers directly (over internet platforms) (not all of which are under your direct control; you rely on the forebearance of Amazon, Facebook, and many others) (so it’s not really direct now, is it?) (and not exactly new, in as much as we’ve been sharing off-line for millenia) — but damn if things like Amazon and Paypal don’t make it easier to collect.

In the past, as an author: you had to hustle. Selling short stories, shopping manuscripts, working the magazine circuit for whatever payday you could manage while holding out for the larger payoff a novel might provide. Constantly writing, constantly submitting, constantly waiting.

Now, with the internet, and e-books: it’s all easier. Upload everything.

And then — Hustle: find readers, engage them, get them to read your stuff online, maybe they even go so far as to download a file, or buy [Buy!] your ebook. Constantly working your own blogs to get the work out, writing guest-articles on other blogs to increase your profile, monitoring traffic and hit logs — joining Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and working those — Sharing, blurbing, networking, waiting — Wait. Is this any easier? Some things are easier, sure: there’s an online bookstore you can direct readers to, as opposed to hoping they have a physical bookstore in their neighborhood, but that is literally the last step in a thousand-step journey and none of the rest of it is any easier, folks.

The Beauty And Lasting Value of Pulp is two-fold:

First: it’s [it was] a ready paycheck for authors and artists (those covers didn’t paint themselves) and the pulp magazines were a commodity at the time. Someone bought the rags.

Second: it’s [it is] an archive and a vehicle by which new fans find the work. Fritz Leiber and Doc Smith are two of my favourite authors and not only did I never read them when they were anthologized, active authors — hell, I missed the first generations of reprints and only knew them by reputation for years until the second round of reprints. These weren’t even necessarily “archival” versions: Leiber got a set of paperbacks from White Wolf Publishing, Doc Smith’s Lensman books got a re-release from Old Earth Books in the late 1990s.

##

The “real” costs of self publishing are all opportunity costs. More:

http://janefriedman.com/2013/05/20/infographic-5-key-book-publishing-paths/
http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2013/05/the-real-costs-of-self-publishing-book
http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/the-self-editing-myth/
http://writerunboxed.com/2013/05/15/six-core-issues-facing-writers-today/
http://livinginthemaniototo.blogspot.com/2013/05/on-self-publishing-and-perils-thereof.html
http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/publicity-for-ebooks/?utm_source=feedly
http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/build-digital-relationships-with-consumers/?utm_source=feedly
http://www.publiclibraries.com/blog/why-are-ebooks-so-expensive/
http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/bowker-launches-selfpublishedauthor-com/?utm_source=feedly
http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/isbn-advice-for-self-published-authors_b70730?utm_source=feedly
http://inkwelleditorial.com/how-amazons-algorithm-can-help-you-sell-more-ebooks-online
http://projectteambeta.com/publishing-world-deciding-to-self-publish-by-sarah-wyndes/

Over time, a google search of “The New Pulp” will also be worthwhile: and here it is: https://www.google.com/search?q=the+new+pulp



Let's Talk About The Business, Then.

filed under , 8 May 2013, 22:16 by

Re: Amazon and Monopoly: *I* certainly see this as a distinct possibility, but then I’m just a bookseller and not a fancy Anti-Trust Lawyer working for the Justice Department: apparently they’re cool with how things are going down.

“Number one: Amazon is, by far, the most book-industry-focused company that is actually active in endeavors much larger than the book business. Barnes & Noble and Ingram are just as focused, but they really don’t go beyond the book business. Google and Apple are, like Amazon, leveraging their book activities into other areas and vice-versa, but they have nowhere near the presence in the book business that Amazon does. (Kobo, which is focused on the book business but has just been bought by a much larger Internet retailer, is still a bit of a wild card in this regard.)”

Competing with Amazon is not an easy thing to do : Posted by Mike Shatzkin, 6 December 2011, The Shatzkin Files [idealog.com]

“Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads is a textbook example of how modern Internet monopolies can be built,” said Scott Turow, Authors Guild president. “The key is to eliminate or absorb competitors before they pose a serious threat. With its 16 million subscribers, Goodreads could easily have become a competing on-line bookseller, or played a role in directing buyers to a site other than Amazon. Instead, Amazon has scuttled that potential and also squelched what was fast becoming the go-to venue for on-line reviews, attracting far more attention than Amazon for those seeking independent assessment and discussion of books. As those in advertising have long known, the key to driving sales is controlling information.”

from an Author’s Guild Editorial : 29 March 2013, http://www.authorsguild.org

The situation wasn’t always this bleak though – in fact it crept up on us slowly. Fair warning: those of you who love bookstores may get a little depressed reading this.

##

“In 1994 Americans bought $19 billion worth of books. Barnes & Noble and the Borders Group had by then captured a quarter of the market, with independent stores struggling to make up just over another fifth and a skein of book clubs, supermarkets and other outlets accounting for the rest. That same year, 513 million individual books were sold, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Bezos knew that two national distributors, Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor, had warehouses holding about 400,000 titles and in the late 1980s had begun converting their inventory list from microfiche to a digital format accessible by computer.”

The Amazon Empire: How the Online Colossus Snuffed Out Competitors and Their Next Battle for Publishing : Steve Wasserman, 3 June 2012, The Nation article reposted at Alternet.org

The Wasserman piece linked above is a long read, but a good one. Please note that in 1994, if the figures/fractions quoted above are correct, then in the year Amazon launched 55% of the total book market was selling outside of bookstores! – we have short memories, it seems, and a long list of assumptions to work through when it comes to book retail. If Amazon were merely displacing book-of-the-month clubs and hoovering up the book retail that (in the 1980s) was happening in grocery stores and newsstands (newsstands! remember those?) then their stratospheric growth has a ready explanation that doesn’t involve the death of book stores.

In 1994 the big-box-bookstores were just getting started: Borders & Waldenbooks were still owned by K-Mart (yes) and hadn’t been spun-off yet, that division consisted of 1,102 mall stores and just 75 Big Boxes; B&N had 268 stores alongside 698 (B. Dalton) mall locations.

(Remember mall bookstores? I used to buy books there every weekend. The local mall had two bookstores in it. Good times, good times.)

“Back in 1994, Jeff Bezos was a young senior vice president on the rise at a thriving Wall Street hedge fund. But when the explosive growth of the World Wide Web caught his eye, he saw an even bigger opportunity: online commerce. Two years later Bezos, CEO of the Internet bookstore Amazon.com, is one of a crew of young entrepreneurs using cyberspace technology to steal real-world customers from traditional businesses with strong consumer and industrial franchises.”

The Next Big Thing: A Bookstore? Amazon.com is leading a wave of digital shops out to invade established industries. : Michael H. Martin, 9 December 1996, Fortune Magazine archived at money.cnn.com

[blockquote]
“There are successful people who are just lucky in their investments and successful people who would have done well no matter what. How do you distinguish the lucky investors from the Warren Buffetts and the David Shaws? It’s mathematically impossible to tell the two apart. You have to do it by understanding the people and their strategies and blah, blah, blah. But the longer the period of time they are successful, the easier it is to differentiate: The number of people who can be lucky for a year is large; the number of people who can be lucky for five years is smaller, but it’s still pretty big. The number of people who can be lucky for 30 years, like Warren Buffett, is really small.”

How much of a role has luck played in Amazon’s trajectory?

“Huge. Huge. I believe that all startup companies need a huge amount of luck.”
[/blockquote]

Bezos himself, in an interview with Wired editors, “We interrupt this issue to remind you that the Internet is big. Catching up with Jeff Bezos on Amazon.com, Oprah, and why it’s still Day One…” : Wired Magazine, July 2000 [many thanks to Conde Nast and the fine folks at wired.com for having a searchable archive.]

What did the bookstore ecosystem look like by 1998?

Borders, 1998 [source]
“At March 21, 1999, the Company operated 256 superstores under the Borders name, including one in Singapore, one in Australia, and three in the United Kingdom, 885 mall-based and other bookstores primarily under the Waldenbooks name and 26 bookstores under the Books etc. name in the United Kingdom. The Company also operates an Internet commerce site under the name Borders.com. Borders is one of the nation’s largest specialty coffee retailers with cafe operations in nearly all of its superstores. The Company had consolidated net sales of approximately $2.6 billion in 1998 and $2.3 billion in 1997.”

Borders had yet to cede its website operations to Amazon (tragic, that, in hindsight) and was busy expanding internationally. Note that the mall locations are already starting to close (885, down from 1,102 above)

B&N, 1998 [source, pdf]
“Barnes & Noble, Inc. (Barnes & Noble or the Company), the world’s largest bookseller(*), as of January 30, 1999 operated 1,009 bookstores. Of these 1,009 stores, 520 operate under the Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Bookstop and Bookstar trade names, (50 of which were opened in fiscal 1998), and 489 operate under the B. Dalton Booksellers, Doubleday Book Shops and Scribner’s Bookstore trade names. Through its fifty percent interest in barnesandnoble.com llc (barnesandnoble.com), the Company is also the world’s largest bookseller on the World Wide Web (http://www.barnesandnoble.com) and the exclusive bookseller on America Online (keyword: bn). Barnes & Noble publishes books under its own imprint for exclusive sale through its retail stores, mail-order catalogs and barnesandnoble.com. During fiscal 1998, the Company’s share of the consumer book market was approximately 15%. … The Company’s sales increased 7.5% during fiscal 1998 to $3.006 billion from $2.797 billion during fiscal 1997. The Company’s retail business reported an operating profit of $188.6 million, up 16.0% from last year’s operating profit of $162.7 million.”

that asterisk is “* Based upon information reported in trade publications and public filings.” The claim to the title was a “thing” at the time. We can also see a different mix than Borders: More big boxes and a lot more brands (Bookstop, Bookstar, Doubleday, Scribner’s) showing how B&N was growing via acquisitions, not just new store openings.

Amazon, 1998 [source, pdf]
$609 Million in sales in 1998.

$609 Million, Compared to the $2.6 Billion for Borders and $3 Billion scored by B&N. Oh, and that was up from $147 Million in 1997 (and just $15 million in 1996).

“I have seen the future of Amazon.com, and it looks like Wal-Mart. This may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to thinking of Amazon.com as a bookstore. After all, books are what the company is known for, and Amazon.com promotes itself as ‘Earth’s biggest bookstore.’ But books are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s widely known that founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, when he was starting out, made a list of products that would be well-suited to Web sales. Books topped that list — but they’re clearly not the only things on it. In fact, Amazon.com’s recent acquisition of Junglee Corp. (announced as this column went to press) confirms the bookseller’s intention of getting into a broader retail market: Junglee makes software agents that facilitate online shopping. Why do you think Bezos chose a generic name like ‘Amazon’ anyhow? It’s sheer size that Bezos cares about, not just books.”

No mere bookstore, Amazon.com wants to be an online retail giant : Dylan Tweney, 10 August 1998, Net Prophet [dylan.tweney.com]

Also in 1998: Apple’s big product was the iMac (the iPod didn’t follow until 2001). Google got started as a company in September of 1998, following the domain name registration of google.com in 1997, and its origins as a research project of a couple of grad students in 1996.

##

Lawsuits and acquisitions aren’t new:

“In what one legal expert characterized as a victory for Amazon.com and Drugstore.com, the online retailers have settled their legal dispute with Wal-Mart without having to abide by any court injunctions. The retail giant had sued the two online ventures, accusing them of recruiting Wal-Mart execs in order to steal trade secrets.”

Amazon.com, Wal-Mart settle lawsuit : Troy Wolverton, 5 April 1999, c|net News

“The move also suggests that Amazon.com has decided against acquiring Baker & Taylor of Charlotte, N.C., the No. 2 book distributor. Interest in Baker & Taylor rose after Amazon’s main competitor in on-line book sales, Barnes & Noble, said in November that it would buy the biggest book distributor, Ingram Book Group of Nashville, for $600 million.”
Amazon.com Is Adding A Warehouse : David Cay Johnston, 8 January 1999, The New York Times

note: the B&N buyout of Ingram in 1999 obviously didn’t go through. This is a reminder, though, of what-might-have-been. more background:

“For the past ten years, Baker & Taylor in relation to Ingram has looked remarkably similar to Borders in relation to Barnes & Noble. Ingram and B&N are family-owned companies (although B&N has the very significant complication of being publicly traded which, with Ron Burkle as a publicly disaffected shareholder, has been well-reported lately) while B&T and Borders are highly leveraged and controlled by private equity. Ingram and B&N with their long-view management styles have made significant infrastructure investments that the always-looking-for-an-exit B&T and Borders ownerships haven’t matched”

Baker & Taylor has the next big thing in ebooks. Really! : Mike Shatzkin on December 8, 2009, The Shatzkin Files [idealog.com]

[blockquote]
“Ingram, the book distributor that Barnes & Noble acquired last week, supplies Amazon.com, a competing online bookseller, with nearly 60 percent of its books, a regulatory filing disclosed today.

“Barnes & Noble and Ingram have said that the merger will not affect Ingram’s relationships with its customers, including Amazon. But in Amazon’s quarterly 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company notes that it ‘does not have long-term contracts or arrangements with most of its vendors guaranteeing the availability of merchandise,’ and that ‘there can be no assurance that the company’s current vendors will continue to sell merchandise to the company on current terms, or that the company will be able to establish new or extend current vendor relationships.’”
[/blockquote]
Ingram dominates Amazon supply : Jeff Pelline, 13 November 1998, c|net News

Let’s go through that again: In November of 1998, B&N had their own website, 15% of the book market, was looking to buy Ingram — the company supplying Amazon with more than half of their inventory at that point — and was being run by a driven, ruthless bastard whose modus operandi was buying up companies to either consolidate operations or just get bigger. Can I remind you that at that point (1999) Riggio had also bought Babbages, Software Etc., and GameStop and had built up this sideline into a chain of 500+ stores?

This raised all-kinds of antitrust flags, apparently, so it’s no wonder the B&N/Ingram merger didn’t go through. I think when the deal went sour, Riggio took a step back to reappraise strategy. GameStop was spun-off into its own company. B&N built a massive warehouse of their own, and took up in-house distribution and logistics like a new religion. This quiet and behind-the-scenes stuff isn’t as flashy as mergers or new store openings, but the efficiences B&N built over the 2000s are part of the reason they’re still open today, after 4 years of recession and shrinking consumer demand.

Amazon borrowed a billion dollars (no exaggeration: they were carrying $1.4 Billion in debt by 1999) to build up the infrastructure they needed following this close call — 15 years ago the market changed, more distribution and warehousing was brought in-house and verticals were built. You might also be forgiven if you pointed to 1999 as the year Amazon changed strategic focus: from building a website and sales portal to building a business.

I find it amazing that in 1999, the owner of a physical, brick-and-mortar bookstore chain was precluded from purchasing a book distributor (even when neither was the only player in their individual markets, and on the cusp of market changes already in motion and being trumpeted by both online-sales advocates and voices in the business press) — and the same sort of monopoly-building in 2012 is not just condoned by the state, but is being actively supported so long as some Justice Department lawyer can buy his ebooks for $9.99 instead of $14.

It is said Amazon has 30% of physical book sales and 60-70% of all e-book sales. 15 years ago, Barnes & Noble was blocked on anti-trust grounds when they had only 15% of the book market. I find this fascinating.

##

Ingram hasn’t been standing still:

“Ingram has long been thought of as the book industry’s quintessential middleman, distributing publishers’ books and other products to thousands of accounts. But over the past five to 10 years, the company has invested tens of millions of dollars to become what Skip Prichard, president and CEO of the Ingram Content Group, called the ‘centerspoke’ of an industry in transition. To meet its mission statement of ‘helping content reach its destination,’ Ingram’s strategy is to offer publishers whatever services they need to operate more efficiently.”

Not Your Father’s Ingram: The Ingram Content Group moves beyond traditional wholesaling : Jim Milliot, 27 September 2010, Publishers Weekly

[I still can’t help but daydream a little bit about the B&N-Ingram-hookup, what might have been. Damn.]

Ingram is probably the only major player who really could give Amazon a run for its money in the CreateSpace/Kindle Direct/alternative-and-self-publishing market — but Ingram isn’t pushing its luck or its advantage yet. In fact, it seems that Ingram is willing to work with established market players, quietly becoming everyone’s back end: “print shop to the world”, a corporate-scale Kinko’s.

##

“I wish we could keep bookstores for cultural reasons, but they are businesses after all. Even if Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) stays in business, there is no guarantee that the physical stores will remain.”

Retailers: The Search to Buy, Not Buy From : Nihar Patel, 20 March 2013, Motley Fool

“This value—this unique something, that physical bookstores provide—may not be sufficient in itself to support a viable business model for more than a handful of a bricks-and-mortar business (as many people believe). But it may provide the key to a online retail experience–one that doesn’t compete with Amazon but provides a real alternative.”

The End of the Beginning of the Future of Bookstores : Peter Turner, 25 July 2012, Ampersand

So. Let’s talk about the business.

Soundtrack:

Rage Fuel:

“That’s because Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers. The shareholders put up the equity, and instead of owning a claim on a steady stream of fat profits, they get a claim on a mighty engine of consumer surplus. Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way.”

Amazon Profits Fall 45 Percent, Still the Most Amazing Company in the World : Matthew Yglesias, 29 January 2013, Slate MoneyBox

#bringit

1. Borders.

Dear Motley Fool bloggers, other tech press, pundits, (and the occasional customer in my store),

Please stop throwing Borders in my face as “proof” that physical bookstores are already dead, and are just staggering around a bit (fatally wounded) before the Final Fall.

Do your research:

Borders Group was formed when K-Mart (yes, let me stress that again: K-Mart) bought the family-owned Borders chain and forcibly merged it with Waldenbooks, instituting an instant culture-clash between the two divisions that in many ways persisted right up until the end. The company most of us were familiar with as “Borders” was spun off in an IPO in 1995; the IPO netted $567 Million but K-Mart still booked a loss of $185 Million, “the difference between what it paid for and invested in the Borders chains and what it was getting for them” [NYT, 26 May 1995]. After a wobbly start, BGP went through 6 CEOs in 10 years, over-extended (including internationally) by taking on debt, and basically surfed the big-box wave instead of innovating or making smart decisions: Things were going fine as long as the retail business was growing, but Borders wasn’t in a position to survive the great recession, let alone compete after. Borders’ last-ditch “digital initiative” was an investment in an ongoing (Canadian) operation, Kobo: not an organically developed add-on for their business, and not ready to go head-to-head in an e-reader (let alone tablet) war.

Borders went down. It was a sort of close thing, there at the end, but without a deep-pocketed buyer or a concession from the publishers (who would’ve hardly been able to absorb it) Borders was doomed.

Borders is hardly proof that the bookstore business is doomed, though. Every business segment has businesses that are either run poorly, or (being generous) at least being run sub-optimally. And books are different: you can’t just hire a “retail” guy with experience in grocery stores and expect him to know anything about books. (I think it’s telling that the best qualified CEO Borders ever hired, Philip M. Pfeffer, former CEO of Random House and a former executive at Ingram, resigned after only 5 months. That was back in 1999.)

2. Amazon.

There is a long history of delivering books – specific titles requested and delivered on demand right to the customer. There was The Book of the Month Club [1926], B&N’s mail-order catalog [acquired in 1979 along with Marboro Books], and even Benjamin Franklin’s book catalog in 1744nothing new about ordering or delivering books.

And online shopping?
that’s almost quaint.

[hat tip to Laughing Squid for the video]

Amazon had three things going for it in the early days (four, if you count the drive and ambition of Bezos): Books already had a computerized database (since 1986 in fact), Books already had a nation-wide distribution network built to service bookstores (Ingram et al., op. cit.), and one of those book warehouses (one of the largest) was just six hours away in Oregon.

Amazon’s twist on book delivery is the cash conversion cycle: they sell you a book, then they buy it and ship it, then they charge your card, and only at some later date do they lazily get around to paying their source for the book.

[standard payment terms on books used to be 90 days – plenty of time to deliver book, claim payment, and then sit on that cash or park it in a short-term CD.]

Amazon didn’t even need a lot of inventory to launch (they used a garage) because of this neat trick — and of course I know they do things differently now, with distribution centers all over the place and same-day delivery in some markets (integrated verticals are more efficient, and cost effective) — but this is how they built an empire on nothing. Well, not nothing nothing, I mean: Bezos was a former investment banker (presumably not worrying about rent or groceries) and was able to tap his Dad for a quarter million. (well, that’s not quite true: $100,000 came from his dad, the other $145,000 came from his father’s trust fund — the more I dig into this the more it spikes my blood pressure)

So Amazon was a truly Great idea (though not 100% original) and had some really great implementation — but the ‘great idea’ wasn’t the website or the back-end software or servers, or even the product.

Amazon succeeded because of timing, luck, starting with “a” (a big deal in the pre-Google Yahoo Directory days), and most importantly: because of creative accounting. Amazon was not launched by a genius and engineeer who invented something amazing — Amazon was not a new iteration of an old service, computer-aided and internet-enabled, to add value to an older sales model — Amazon was not the obvious and organic outreach of a bookseller determined to reach all readers, no matter how isolated —

Amazon was the brainchild of a banker, and exists to make money. (Extra points go to Bezos for figuring out how to make money without returning any to his shareholders.)

3. Physical Bookstores.

Many point to the expense of maintaining a nation-wide chain of actual bookstores as the albatros hanging around Barnes & Noble’s neck — and to a lesser extent, also a handicap of all bookstores, but B&N as the market leader and biggest target gets most of the flack for this.

My personal experience is only as one physical location — a fair-sized bookstore at the center of a top 30 market — but only the one store: On a random Tuesday, we’ll have at least 20 customers in the store at all times, starting at 10am, averaging about 30 and peaking at 50-60 during the lunch and 5-6pm rushes. On a Tuesday. We’ll take between 20 and 60 phone calls an hour — these interactions are typically short, but there are times when all 4 phone lines are ringing at once. Oh, you might not have realized: we have 4 phone lines, and a daily call volume that averages around 500. Some of those calls are, “So where exactly are you located?” or “How late are you open?” but even those calls support eventual sales, and most phone calls are a customer looking for a particular book. They may even have found the book online – but they take the time to find our phone number and call us anyway. At any given time, we’ll have two to three hundred books on hold, waiting for customer pickup: some of these are special orders but about half are books that we already had on the shelf and pulled the same day.

A big box bookstore can gross between $2 and $20 Million a year, depending on location, size, and the overall economy. Some bookstores will close, but not all. At least one independent analyst points out that retail book sales (as reported by the US Census Bureau) peaked in 2005, three years before the peak in the number of big box bookstores in 2008 — and that the late 1990s and early aughts in fact represented a big-box-book-store-bubble. If there were only 500 B&N stores (as is perhaps projected) that puts us at 1998 levels, back when B&N was doing $3 Billion a year – $3 Billion that at that date did not include the college bookstore division or any of the Nook-stuff launched since.

Sounds good to me.

In fact: If I told you I had a startup that engaged at least 1000 users every day, that provided a free product but had a built in solution for add-on sales, that was easily scalable past my current single-site implementation, and that I was making $1,000,000 a year off of $5,000,000 in gross receipts, that might sound like decent business. If I told you the costs (physical plant, payroll, inventory) were both fixed and known, and out primary struggle was figuring out how to monetize all the traffic using our site for free, you might be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a web site.

20% is a decent margin, and close to retail average (Wal-Mart is at 22%, if I recall correctly). I can’t divulge acutal numbers; I might mention that I know at least one bookstore that does more than $5 Million a year, even in a recession. And I’m dead serious: we need to figure out how to “monetize our traffic” past selling them some coffee.

I have to employ multiple booksellers to work a collective 20 hours every night just to reshelve books, clean up after our beloved, much-valued patrons and reset the whole store to ‘normal’ — or at least normal enough to do business. That doesn’t include the amount I pay for janitorial services (horror stories about publicly accessable bathrooms is its own post) or the payroll we use to sort and shelve new product: it takes an-average-of-five booksellers working 4-hours-apiece every night just to *recover* the store.

Call this the “social cost” of running a bookstore. The social cost would also include – damaged product (the victims of both spilled coffee and free-range toddlers) – shop wear (books are physical objects subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics) – outright theft (the bane of all physical retailers), and – being vulnerable to actual social interactions with customers, and having to become the de facto referee or cop for all the unanticipated interactions between customers

Payroll costs aside (I’d estimate this social cost at $90,000 per year, per store) there is also the question of customer experience: If you left early because a smelly homeless person was camped out in the sci-fi corner of your favorite bookstore, how will that affect your decision to return? Do you return?

All bookselling is local: in fact, it can be hyper-local. In the internet age, do you brave in-city traffic and spend a whole 20 minutes in your car to go to the bookstore, or do you just order online? I’ve been told over the phone that a customer “would never” drive to my store, even though the distance (in this case) was a quarter mile. If someone can solve the calculus—where your local bookstore need be no farther than your local Starbucks, and yet still stock everything—that person will make lots and lots of money.

##

4. Ebooks

First assertion – If digital-is-all, and cheaper besides, and kills all physical formats: why do people still go to concerts? Why do they buy vinyl?

Ah.

so does the ‘physical’ version offer something not found in digital transcriptions? Please at least acknowledge the persistance of both concerts and vinyl in what is, in 2013, a completely digital music market in any argument you’re about to throw at me about e- vs. physical books.

Second assertion: ebooks are merely, merely, the New Pulp.

…and that’s fantastic — I’ll explain — but ebooks are not the death-knell of physical books nor the publishers who print them, nor of the bookstores who sell them.

“Paperbacks were and weren’t radical:

“Yes, they were cheaper. While initially introduced as value editions of the classics and bestsellers, soon the lower costs of manufacture induced some publishers to create new works (and whole genres) to take advantage of the format. Stories which might never have seen print due to either ‘lurid’ content or lack of a ‘literary’ appeal suddenly found a new home, and mountains of books were printed to feed the pulp market. Some of these were reprints of material previously available in fiction anthology magazines — a format that is, sadly, mostly extinct — the magazines fed a fan base that later bought the books, and the magazines were a crucible that forged not just the fans of the works but also their creators. Mystery, Romance, and Sci-fi all exist today as genres — popular genres that support their own hardcover releases — because of the decades of pulps… but that would be another essay.

“A paperback book has a floppy cover, but was still recognizable as a book. If one weren’t hung up on the literary ‘value’ and ‘merit’ of a Book-as-object, then the opportunity to buy one at a cheaper price because you want to, you know, enjoy it is a no-brainer. Here was the first movement toward books as popular entertainment, and also provided a way ‘in’, to merge centuries of Pop Culture Trash back into the literary tradition.

“And that was a good thing.

“Shakespeare was once pop entertainment for the masses — not a printed story but one meant to be performed before a crowd, with ribald (read: sexy & suggestive) jokes and bloodshed and body counts and important commentaries on class, authority, race, religion, and — if one can adjust slightly to the Elizabethan world view — also insightful looks into gender equity and relations.

“Nowadays it’s literature; back then it was equivalent to sweeps-week TV sensationalism.

“Later generations will cherry-pick the best of romance, mystery, and sci-fi and hold them up as Fine Literature — while either ignoring their base roots as pulp genres printed by the bushel to feed a near-insatiable market, or romanticizing their ‘common’ roots and attempting to make hay out of the fact that previous critics ignored or dismissed them.”

source: “Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato” : Matt Blind, 17 November 2009, RocketBomber [heh.]

I wrote that in 2009, two years before 50 Shades of Grey — can I call them, or what? Also from 2009:

“The new digital methods and methodologies mean that anyone with a computer, printer, and appropriate software (the cost of core equipment and a nominal set-up fee) is now a ‘printer’ and publisher; in fact, one can publish direct to the web without dirtying a single thin slab of pressed wood pulp. The equivalent of the whole of Gutenberg’s shop will fit on my desk, and I can print copies of the bible faster.

“Where will the new ‘press’ take us?

“Ask me in 400 years.”

Let me describe one of the favorite volumes on my bookshelves: it’s a leather-bound, gilt-edge printing of all 5 Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide novels in a slightly oversize, all-in-one edition. It’s gorgeous and superfluous, and didn’t even exist until 1997. (a similar edition with only 4 novels was published in 1986.) Is this how I first encountered Douglas Adams? Hell, no: I read the first couple of books from the library, and eventually bought the set in paperback. After reading Hitchhiker’s Guide, I happened upon the Radio Scripts (in a bookstore, isbn 9780330419574) and bought and gobbled those up too. Only later did I find out about the TV show, and eventual movie, and after many years I was also able to listen to the original BBC broadcasts. Amazing, all of it. Do I need to own (or even read) the all-in-one edition, considering my exposure and familiarity with the original? Of course not.

In fact, the very existance of a leather-bound gilt-edged Hitchhiker’s ‘bible’ is part of the joke, and still makes me smile.

Fritz Leiber, Doc Smith, Philip José Farmer, Le Guin, Butler, Campbell, Wolfe, Delany, Asimov — for every author that gets a paperback reprint there are three hundred or more that were almost as good and their books will disappear sooner rather than later.

As an author you’ll get maybe two years after you publish (hardcover or paperback, doesn’t matter) and then you’re consigned to back shelves, dusty corners, and used book stores. If you aren’t putting out a new book every 9 months, you just go there faster — if you can’t keep up (or if you died for some inexcusable reason) then baring a lottery-winning-type “discovery” of your books: your whole back catalogue has probably already been pulped.

The time frame has contracted slightly over the past two decades — most authors were OK if they could manage a book every other year. That said:

The whole book business is and always has been ephemeral. Your eventual fate has always been Out-Of-Print and only your hard work (while you’re still alive) keeps you and your books from sliding into the dark depths of forgotten memory.

E-books are great — and have some built-in cost savings and are ready-built to take advantage of internet multipliers — but are still books, and will eventually suffer the same fate. Forgotten. Unsought for. The files exist, but the links and even the primary sources will succumb to bit rot and you will be just as bloody out-of-print at that point as everyone else: papyrus, parchment, vellum, rag paper, pulp paper, bits — hell, to date the most durable system is cuneifrom; write it out on clay tablets, kiln-fire them, and bury them in the desert.

The other most-durable method has been to gain fame and get everyone to repeat your words. Oddly, this is now frowned upon (“piracy”) so I, for one, am moving out west and buying a kiln.

What do millenia-old clay tablets have to do with e-books and bookstores? Everything.

There have always been three impulses of the author:

first, to be heard (publish!, find and engage the reader)
second, to be remembered (word of mouth, engage more readers, build a readership)
third, get paid (historically: very difficult)

A bard might recite in a tavern for tips or free drinks; a renaissance poet might seek out a patron; a victorian novelist might serialize a novel in installments to subscribers; a 1940s pulp writer might churn out 180-page novels as fast as the typewritter allows.

E- makes all of this “easier” in a way – but you still have to work it. It’s not enough to merely upload a file and wait — and since you’ve killed off traditional publishing [thanks, guys] and traditional bookstores [thanks, Amazon] you no longer have the option of seeking out a publisher and having them do all this hard work for you.

Paperback books—especially mass-market pulp paperbacks—expanded the availability of books, lowered prices, radically changed what was considered ‘economical’, and pushed books into new markets, new genres, new business models, and out to new readers. E-books are already doing the same. Excuse me if I’m not surprised. “It’s a whole new ball game” but from my seat: the game in 2015 is the same as it was a century past.

E-books are books. Your ability as an author (or marketer – are there e-book marketers yet? no? …give it time) is to engage readers with the hope that each engagement leads to sales. Reader engagement can take many forms: direct contact (via author signings, email, facebook, twitter), reviews (great if you have them), online reviews (not so good: most are only seen after a customer has already sought out your book, found it themselves – at best nothing happens, at worst an online review dissuades a purchase), or direct advertising: you could always pay a site (amazon or otherwise) to promote your book for you.

Man, this is hard.

If only we could set up some kind of independent marketplace, where titles could be discovered independently and judged on factors that the author and publisher has control over—-like the actual book cover and dust-jacket copy—and where similar titles are lumped together on a virtual ‘bookshelf’.

Ah.

5. Aside from their size, Amazon has no “special sauce” or secret formula to online retail.

How to beat Amazon? Customer engagement, including serving niche markets — product knowledge, especially for the niche — and after-sale engagement.

Everyone buys geek/joke/novelty t-shirts off of the internet — honestly, these things are everywhere. Everyone has at least one, I have two favorites. But I’d be willing to bet there are more Comics/PopCulture/Crapware (and copy-cat) t-shirts sold off the rack at Target than are sold on Amazon.com. So here’s a question for the Amazon-loyalists: why doesn’t Amazon sell more t-shirts? Why isn’t Amazon known for t-shirt sales and noted in the business press on how effectively they’re outselling and closing down online t-shirt sites?

[to spell it out for you: in the same way Amazon is always mentioned re: bookstores]

I suppose t-shirts are a dynamic market that requires creative inputs, is subject to unpredictable whims of the market, also requires active curation, a buck a shirt isn’t a margin worth bothering with, and there is no single “standardized” geek t-shirt: there are thousands — far from the dry, boring job of listing things for sale elsewhere and undercutting the price by 15¢.

So why doesn’t Amazon stock the cool stuff first? They have the money and resources – do they just not care?

I’m not complaining: I love ThinkGeek, Rightstuf, J-list, Threadless and the many others that make up the geeky side of internet retail. I’m just pointing out that if Amazon can kill off a bookstore: a small online retailer is not just toast, they’re an appetizing slice of toast already topped and set up on Amazon’s tapas and crudité platter for snacking.

In a way, we are lucky because Amazon is lazy, and set up for the lazy.

Amazon is easy, so easy at this point, that most don’t realize that 1. there are cheaper sources or hell, 2. there are in fact other sources. This is exactly where Amazon wanted to be, in fact: Amazon works damn hard at it. BUT: that doesn’t absolve you of being lazy. Amazon knows you’re lazy. They bank on it.

Amazon is not inevitable — “Online” isn’t inevitable either.

Let’s go back to t-shirts. Amazon sells books.

…This isn’t the non-sequitur you think it is.

Amazon sells books, and not only are books set up with unique identifiers: every book publisher buys into that database and there is an independent broker that not only maintains the database, they’re committed to ISO standards and openness so everyone, Amazon included, gets to use the ISBN database. There is a parallel standard of UPC codes and, where applicable, Amazon also uses those for their product descriptions.

Amazon fails in two particulars, however: There are a number of books (CreateSpace & Kindle titles) that have no ISBN (just an Amazon ID or ASIN), and so not only can’t be ordered from other stores, they also aren’t catalogued anywhere but Amazon. For a majority of sources (not just Bowker, but libraries up to and including The Library of Congress) the book might as well not exist. The second major Amazon fail: if there isn’t a handy ISBN or UPC for an item (etsy crafts, say, or geek-oriented t-shirts) they won’t list it.

While simultaneously making it harder for other sites to list their closed-ecosystem books, Amazon refuses to list items unless they they have a barcode and conform to industry standards.

All that cool stuff on Etsy? Amazon can’t compete because they won’t list it. Kickstarter? Amazon can’t compete because they won’t list it (though Amazon does take a chunk because Kickstarter uses Amazon Payments. Bastards.) And of course there are multiple discussion threads about how to get Non-Amazon ebooks on a Kindle

##

Other reading and references:

“Over the past few decades there has been a lot of speculation about the demise of the American bookstore and some of it may not be entirely unfounded. As big names like Borders fall under the weight of online retailers, e-books, and electronic forms of entertainment, how can small independent bookstores hope to survive? While things aren’t great for bookstores in America today, they also aren’t quite as bad as they seem.”

12 Stats on the State of Bookstores in America Today : 29 October 2012, Open Education Database

“The book industry is going through changes, influenced by trends like the transition from print to digital. And it looks like no part of this industry is being influenced like bookstores. From independent bookstores to the big chains like B&N and Borders – no one seems to be immune to these changes.”

The Future of Bookstores : 12 October 2012, ecolibris.net

“Zipp credits the fall of Borders and the rise of the ‘buy local’ movement as the two major reasons business has improved for indies. Other advantages independent bookstores hold over their competitors include summer camps, improved websites, and physical expansions.”

Independent bookstores doing better than ever in 2012 : Kirsten Reach, 19 March 2013, Melville House

“We can spare a little thought for Borders. It has a particular relevance for American small towns and suburbs that isn’t apparent in urban centres. In the latter, the chain bookstores are the impersonal monoliths that destroyed small independents by undercutting them on prices. But elsewhere, the arrival of a Borders would mean that a town was finally getting a bookstore, rather than a rack of paperbacks and Sudoku books at the supermarket. (Similarly, while Starbucks might have hurt local coffeeshops in, for example, New York, in rural America it has achieved its stated goal of creating a ‘third space’.)”

Beyond Borders : “E.G.”, 21 March 2011, The Economist

[blockquote]
“That community support is by no means unique to Bank Square Books, and it may be the secret ingredient behind a quiet resurgence of independent bookstores, which were supposed to go the way of the stone tablet – done in first by the national chains, then Amazon, and then e-books.

“A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

“While beloved bookstores still close down every year, sales at independent bookstores overall are rising, established independents are expanding, and new ones are popping up from Brooklyn to Big Stone Gap, Va. Bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the ‘buy local’ movement to a get-‘er-done outlook among the indies that would shame Larry the Cable Guy. If they have to sell cheesecake or run a summer camp to survive, add it to the to-do list.” [/blockquote]

The novel resurgence of independent bookstores : Yvonne Zipp, 17 March 2013, Christian Science Monitor

“EBay Inc. is aiming to nearly double the active-user count on its eBay.com marketplace over the next three years, as well as the volume of payments processed by its PayPal unit. … EBay expects to report between $21.5 billion and $23.5 billion in revenue for 2015, compared with $14 billion last year.”

eBay Says It Is “Now Playing Offense” : Greg Bensinger, 28 March 2013, Wall Street Journal article teased at All Things D [owned by the same company, and of course the WSJ is behind a paywall]

##

I’ve made some accusations about Amazon’s mercenary sales efforts to date; I’ve linked to original sources where possible, but I might be wrong…

I’ll gladly post a retraction&correction if Amazon would care to comment: as to whether CreateSpace and/or KDP titles are in fact submitted to the Library of Congress, when they plan to acquire a block of ISBNs to accomodate KDP digital-first authors who wish to sell their wares on other platforms (or even into bookstores), when Amazon will fully participate in industry-standard systems for all their associates (after drawing so much value from these open, industry-standard systems), and whether their commitment to sales over digital publishing platforms is matched by an equal commitment to open digital formats, the public domain, and non-profit archiving efforts similar to but not limited to archive.org.



Ebook Sales Update, 2012 final.

filed under , 13 April 2013, 16:05 by

Previously:
Original Projection : 1st update September 2012 : 2nd update December 2012

“Ebook Sales” data in this case are the numbers reported by the 1200 or so publishers who respond to the AAP surveys: The AAP no longer does their own press releases with this data but I’d like to personally thank Shelf Awareness for including the information (as it becomes available) in their excellent email newsletter. (go sign up.)

[tl;dr-math]

The formula for the sales projection curve is

ebook(t) = k * (1 + tanh(-π+((π/80)t)))

Where t is the time variable, counted by months, and k is a constant one selects out of one’s ass (a surprising number of scientific constants work that way) equal in this case to $130 Million. The constant k is also the assumed value of ebook sales at the inflection point in the graph.

Using fractions of pi — (π/80) above — is how we “stretch” the s-curve to match the observed growth over time. My first projection used (π/60), an assumed dynamic growth phase of about 120 months. To get the projected graph to match reported sales, however, I had to slow things down a bit — (π/80) translates to a “dynamic” phase of 160 months, about 13 years. For the graph below, our starting point (t=0) is the month of August, 2005.

This also means we hit the inflection point back in May 2012.

[/tl;dr-math]

My [*] on the Projected Sales is the same disclaimer as last time:

  • The only data available to me are ebook sales as reported by the Association of American Publishers: so these correspond only to US ebook sales from established publishing houses and does not include self-published ebooks.
  • Merely looking at a dollar sales figure (again, the only data available) glosses over the fact that ebooks are sold at lower price points: unit sales of books will be higher than the dollar figure might suggest
  • My projection is not the only interpretation – but I’ve tried some other models and ebooks sure look like they’re following a fairly common sigmoid growth curve
  • …however, if ebooks do not merely cannibalize sales of other formats but instead push books into new genres, new business models, new retail channels, and effectively blow up books as we know them: why sure, I guess there’s no upper limit & my projection is wrong. You can make any assumptions you like along those lines. My graph represents a fairly short future time frame (3-5 years out) and a relatively stable publishing industry. (Well, stable other than the disruption currently happening due to ebooks.)

##

Now, some new thoughts:

First, I need to see the next 4 months of data (Jan-Feb-Mar-Apr 2013) to see if there is a bounce in Early 2013, just like there was in 2011 and 2012 (corresponding to new owners of devices buying content, aka the post-Christmas-Gift Bounce)

Second,

How about we turn this around? Let’s say my projection of ebook growth was correct up through 2011 (and presumably beyond) and it’s the data in 2012 that was in some way “wrong” or skewed?

Let’s Just Guess that publishers’ reported ebook sales numbers in May-June-July-August of 2012 were affected by Fifty Shades of Grey. Random House reported profits (not sales, Profits) were up 75% year-over-year due to the 50 Shades phenomenon, and additionally, “About 50% of revenues from the trilogy were from ebooks”. It’s going to be very hard to parse that 50% number and compare it to the 70 Million ‘copies’ sold, and also to go from there to the actual number of readers: How many people bought just the first book? How many ebooks sold were the 3 volume “box set”, and do the box sets count as one book or three? How does the cost of printing figure into the calculation of “revenue” — does the lower price point mean ebooks sold More Than Half, or does the slimmer profit margin on An Actual Printed Book mean that ebooks sold Less? edit: actual number at about 15 Million. see end note “update2” and also ref the PW article here.

50 Shades was a definite outlier, though, no matter the number: the “downturn” in AAP-reported ebook sales toward the end of 2012 is at least in part an expected correction.

I want to say there is more to that story, though.

I’d say the numbers Sep-Dec 2012 also show that the established publishers are losing (additional) ground to self-publishing and authors using direct-to-e-book platforms like iBooks, KDP, and Nook Press.

Just like the ebooks-as-a-format saw steady growth before suddenly tearing off in 2010 — following the “mainstreaming” of ereaders and tablets, when there finally was a market — self-published ebooks are going to follow the same trajectory now that there is a “mainstream” market:

At least 5 Million readers (and maybe twice that or more) bought the 50 Shades ebooks — A huge chunk of readers have been turned onto a “new” genre, erotic fiction [a genre that was already fairly extensive, almost entirely online, and that predates ebooks-as-we-currently-define-them by at least a decade].

There were also stories all over the place in 2012 (in papers, in magazines, online and on TV) reporting on 50 Shades and its origin as a self-published book — the success of E. L. James has removed most (if not quite all) of the stigma of self-publishing, and other authors like John Locke and Amanda Hocking, both of whom have built readerships across multiple books and over years, are proving that it’s not just a one-time special exception: Self Publishing can work.

The gap between AAP-reported data and my projection? It was about $5-10 Million per month in the 2011 (excluding January spikes) — but now (after 50 shades) we’re looking at $25-30 Million per month in September 2012, and perhaps $40-50 Million per month by the end of the year.

I feel confident in my projection — though I’m also leaning heavily toward adjusting the projection once I get more data. And if Apple, Amazon, or B&N want to get off of their secrecy kick and could maybe just tell us how big digital self publishing is: well, that’d be just fine by me, too.

It may be a full year from now (when we have all of 2013 numbers, and no curveballs thrown) before we can know which of the data points are outliers. I plan to update the chart every 4 months, as the data comes in.

[update1, 5:45pm 13 April 2013]
An extra little bit of math for you: Monthly Sales of $50 Million in ebooks divided by an average price point of $2.99 per book, divided by 30 days in a month, would be half a million self published ebooks sold and downloaded every single day.

Question for the class: Is that number too high, or too low?
[/update1]

[update2, 9:55pm 13 April 2013]
Found a number, via Publishers Weekly, in their reporting on Random House & other publishers ebook performance in 2012:

“Fifty Shades sold over 15 million digital copies, while the Fifty Shades Trilogy Bundle sold over 850,000 e-books. RH had another 1 million–copy e-book seller in Gone Girl.”

E-book Sales Bolster Publishers’ Bottom Lines : Jim Milliot, 29 March 2013, Publishers Weekly

More math: 16 Million ebooks (rounding up) vs 54 Million print books — and as reported ebooks accounted for 50% of the revenue. If all other production costs have been covered (as I assume they were after the first half-million or so sold) then a digitally-delivered ebook is at least 3 times as profitable as An Actual Printed Book — please note that when one has to actually cover the production costs, and pay an author advance, there is going to be a much different calculus involved — and I’ll leave the question of how the differing price points affect the calculation as an exercise for the student
[/update2]

[update3]minor edits made 9:30pm 14 April 2013[/update3]
[update4]minor edits & format changes, additional links added, 7:50pm 14 April 2013[/update4]



Google Reader Refugee

filed under , 9 April 2013, 17:42 by

Google Reader gave me the illusion of both connection and containment. I could read every last post, I could ‘read’ all of it. The End of the Internet wasn’t a punchline anymore, I could get there — usually every other day. If I got too far behind, I could mark everything as “read”, go to bed, and start over again fresh in the morning.

I didn’t use the sharing feature on Google Reader (and then later, Google Plus) at all, because then as now I’m in Twitter as my network-of-choice — and I’m a snarky bastard so I often prefer to spin something, pull a quote, or leave a commentary: not just a flag and a link that says, “this is cool, I read this, you should too” but rather “this is cool and I am clever, ho ho!

So a like button, or a +1, or a simple share wasn’t for me anyway.

I did appreciate the ease of subscription in Google Reader (just drop the URL in the box) as well as it’s flexibility: at various times I was subscribed to news websites, personal blogs, various specialized feeds (Wired and Smithsonian magazines, in particular, do a good job of maintaining multiple topic-based feeds) — as well as other RSS magic, like subscribing to Flickr groups or lumping a bunch of Tumblr feeds into a folder marked “distractions” — to be enjoyed at leisure or skipped, as a group.

RSS seemed so important to me (at the time) that I delayed launching my own “official” blog in May/June 2008 until I had it straightened out. (note to self: RocketBomber has a 5th anniversary coming up) (and the web hosting bill – more important, that: we’ll need to budget for it in May). RSS was also great for how invisible it was: feeds are baked into Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, and many other packages/services/platforms, so individual writers didn’t have to think about it, and we could all follow their output, seamlessly and as published. Even for that One Great Really Interesting Blog that only updates once a week and where the author neglects to post something for months or years at a time, with properly functioning RSS feeds and a decent reader, each new post shows up like an unexpected present. [note: Eric and Wednesday are on a tumblr now, at new.websnark.com — their posting schedule & frequency are as random/nonexistent/capricious as ever]

Much of my web consumption was taking place in Google Reader; I’d say that by the time Google announced its imminent demise, I was spending 85% to 90% of my web-reading-time inside of Reader. It was only in January or so (of this year) that I’d added the last of my bookmarks (those sites with RSS feeds) to the carefully-maintained-and-organized feeds and folders. I was caught. This is a web experience that was “sticky“ in ways other sites and services would kill for, perhaps literally — especially when one considers that Google didn’t have to write any of the content (the users picked their own) and except for a few RSS feeds that only offered a “digest” or teaser or headline view: all of the content was viewed in Reader. Total captive audience. Instead of launching Google+ — Google should have added features and “improvements” to Reader until it was the same thing, basically, as Google+ but with an installed, committed user base that had been building for years. We would have complained (we always complain) but damn, Google: serious missed opportunity here.

##

My point in visiting this topic wasn’t actually about me waxing nostalgic about the web 5-years-past — or giving free business advice to Google:

We’re discussing alternatives, now that Google Reader is destined for the scrap heap and we’ve only 82 days left to make the transition.

First: yes, go ahead and use the Google Takeout functionality to “export” your GReader settings and links. It’s easy (much easier now, at this date, as opposed to the mass-refugee-flight that occurred right after the announcement and bumrushed the servers). I would also go to your Reader page, open up ‘Settings’, click the 2nd tab, ‘Subscriptions’ and then select the whole damn page [ctrl-a] and copy it all [ctrl-c, ctrl-v] into a text file using the editor of your choice. (obviously you Apple folks are used to the clover-looking-cmnd-thing and figuring out equivalents)

The resulting text file has a lot of cruft in it, and is by no means elegant, but this handy maneuver not only gives you a 2nd backup of your current Google Reader feeds: it also lists folder assignments, and a plain-text URL that can be copy-pasted into any application or later service, whether they choose to use Google’s formatting or not.

(In that eventuality: why, yes, it is a lot of hassle and work. But a plain-text backup will be much better than relying on memory in that worst-case-scenario. Unless one enjoys fresh starts: I can see the appeal in declaring link-bankruptcy and starting all over again. We were all new to the internet once.)

I briefly tried Feedly, and The Old Reader, and nosed around NewsBlur enough to realize I’d have to pay their annual fee to get the use out of it I would need.

The Old Reader is… not adapting to the new user load well. They may quickly fix that problem (indeed, may already have fixed the problem) but there were enough other issues with their interface that I’m not going to follow up: as stated, I don’t use an RSS reader for one-button sharing, and The Old Reader’s primary claim to fame is they’re just like the old Google Reader with all that sharing intact.

Feedly is clean, polished, geared towards skimmers and just-give-me-the-headline readers, and obviously an iPhone app that reluctantly admits some folks use a pc/laptop to use the web. They default to a ‘magazine’ style view, with images given precedence over content, and Feedly is going to be the option most-if-not-all Google Reader refugees are going to use. Feedly is already committed to reverse-engineering the Google Reader API so, yeah: anticipating no new roadblocks or speedbumps and given the 90-day time frame, This Is Your Solution.

Except: I don’t like it. [*ahem*] “Feedly is clean, polished, geared towards skimmers and just-give-me-the-headline readers, and obviously an iPhone app that reluctantly admits some folks use a pc/laptop to use the web.”

That wasn’t praise.

Actually, the one reader that I liked was so feature-poor and clunky, the raw clunkiness of it was/is its most endearing feature: http://www.purplegene.com/reader

Where do I start? The awful-1994 design aesthetic? The one-lump-fits-all user interface? The obviously-tacked-on ever-present sidebar with its incomprehensible buttons?

What the PurpleGene Reader does right, however, is the full-screen one-article-at-a-time reader experience, with incorporated keyboard shortcuts, easy OPML imports, and configuration options that will not only seem familiar to those used to CSS/HTML: you might just squee at the option to ‘code’ the page formatting your own damn self. I won’t call it the linux of feedreaders, but will forgive others when they make that comparison.

##

Eventually, my Solution to the RSS reader ‘problem’ was to ignore it. No matter how “inconvenient” this proved, I found it better to go back to bookmarks. Informed by Google Reader’s folders, and enabled by both tabbed browsers and the ability to bookmark multiple tabs: it’s a 2009 solution to a 2013 problem. If Mozilla, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s IE, or their eventual successors abandon tabs, why: I suppose I’ll just have to code my own plain-html launch page, with the links organized however I’d like, 1994 style.

In other words: Google, by decommissioning Reader, just reminded me that I don’t need any service (or particular browser) to make use of the web. They reminded me that Yahoo, an index, predated the Google search bar: and so also reminded me that the original web discovery process was curation — not algorithms, no matter how complicated.

I now have a bookmark folder named ‘feed’ with 23 sub-folders, each of which contains 3-9 links, each of which I can right-click to open (as a group) as browser tabs. These links go direct to the sites I’ve so carefully collected, so instead of a Google-layer on top of the web (through which Google could have injected ads) I’m reading the articles as formatted as intended by their authors, and with the ads (where applicable) that directly benefit the sites.

Instead of a single timeline (collated by Google, and read only via their app) I’m free to experiment, explore, and discover: instead of merely ‘catching up’ with my Google Reader subscriptions and feeling that sense of accomplishment when I’d ‘read everything’ — once again, no matter how I try: there is no ‘end of the internet’.

As pissed off as I am at Google (and I’m still pissed off they killed Reader, dammit, the service, [*ahem*], “just worked”) I have to thank them. Dear Google, Thank You for reminding me that the internet works just fine outside your ecosystem of apps, and for giving me the kick I needed to re-assert my independence.

##

So, while I have reverted to bookmarks for most of my former “subscription” reading, in this wreckage I have also discovered two new sites that have a lot of promise.

[though there is nothing particularly new here either: fark, reddit, metafilter and others have made link-blogging its own thing — even BoingBoing, one of my personal favs (and a ‘daily-read’ bookmark under the new regime) is just an aggregator.]

One site I keep going back to is Prismatic. I originally found it in my search for Reader replacements: but it’s not Google Reader. It’s not even a good replacement for Reader. You can “subscribe” to “feeds” in Prismatic but what you’re going to see is a pale imitation of the news-timeline you were once used to.

In Reader, you subscribed to RSS feeds, you got exactly that, and you were glad: every article from every site in your list. Prismatic offers something different. Initially, you have to connect with one of your social media accounts: either twitter or facebook.

So — long aside: This is annoying, and problematic (in many ways), and surperfluous (dammit why does everyone want to be social, and crosslinked?), and has nothing to do with web browsing, or reading, or advertising for that matter. Lazy, Lazy, LAZY developers. My interactions with my local pub differ from my interactions with PopCap, differ from my interactions with Battle.net, differ from my interactions with Twitter, all of which have nothing to do with what I do for a living or what I blog about. NO ONE SOCIAL GRAPH CAN CONTAIN ME.

Long aside, continued — Dear app/web developers: instead of asking me to ‘log in’ via twitter, facebook, or google, so you can ‘discover’ my friends and interests — how about just asking me? Give me your own quiz, or a list of interests I can click. Build your own damn profile of me, and own it. I guarantee that after the so-called-easy crosslogin I’m digging deep into your settings to fix things, and if you don’t provide any settings for me to adjust, I’m dropping you faster than Klout.

SO. after getting that off my chest:

Yes, Prismatic asked me to log in via social media. I did so, and it auto-generated a fancy graph of my supposed interests, which was graphically impressive but useless (honestly: there were no instructions, the ‘plus signs’ I could click did nothing and while the whole thing was animated, it was quickly annoying) – and I only started to get traction after I closed it and started stumbling/mucking-about on the site itself.

Prismatic would be much stronger if they allowed you to drop URLs directly, like the subscribe button on Google Reader. As it is, the available sites I can follow seem to be limited: only to what has been previously identified/green-lighted (presumably by Prismatic). With that hefty handicap admitted, and allowed for: where Prismatic excels is the ability to follow topics, not just individual sites. I can sign up for ‘ebooks’, the ‘book trade’, ‘gadgets’, ‘comics’, ‘graphic novels’, ‘book reviews’ and [presumably] get a feed of content the same as if I’d just added a site’s RSS.

Except it doesn’t quite work that way: even when I’ve added a site to the Prismatic feed, I don’t get every article in real time. I have to rely on Prismatic’s suggestions for new topics: there is no way to pull up an index of every tag and topic to set up my new account. And also: I have to log in with social media to get started, and then Prismatic decides what my initial topics are.

Prismatic is doing so many things right — including their content algorithms — but they’re still bound by the myths and practices of the current content ecosystem: They [like many others cited above, and I hate them for it too] insist on an “app” interface, even in a web browser where it is not only superfluous but annoying, and they insist on being “social” (including the twitter/facebook login) when the service they provide obviously isn’t, and instead of giving us tools and options, they fall back on “recommendations” and “suggestions”.

It’s all very limiting, especially right after one has rediscovered the Web outside walled gardens.

What I love about Prismatic, though, is the ability to follow topics: no matter how gimped the execution nor how difficult they make it, once you’re following a topic feed: you’re going to discover new sites in a way you’d never be able to otherwise.

For example, this past week Prismatic pointed me to ProfHacker, “Tips about teaching, technology, and productivity”, Women in SF Month, as advocated by Fantasy Book Cafe, A Book Club Brunch (all me, twice over), and even a way to earn academic credits while attending Comic Con.

None of this would normally be in my feed. All of it is of interest. I had to ‘game’ Prismatic a bit, peel it back from what it thought I was about and redirect it. The controls are neither easy to find, or really, all that easy to intuit [you guys have a lot of work to do] and once again: my primary complaint is that is is a phone app adapted-ever-so-slightly-and-grudgingly to also work on the web — but of the many services I tried: Prismatic has the most potential.

I’m also keeping an eye on Newsana, which I would describe as a cross between The Global Post and Reddit: we’ll see how it works going forword. I’m willing to lurk there for quite a while. Like Prismatic, this isn’t a replacement for a good RSS reader, but when it comes to discovering new content it has much promise.

##

what i’ll miss about Reader:

- webcomics. damn. RSS is still the best tool for following webcomics. Here’s an opportunity, folks: a “comics page” that lets you add RSS feeds of your favs to your personal “page”, updates with new strips when the sites update, revenue-shares with the linked artists based on subscribers/views/included-ads/added-advertising, or even: includes the ads from the original sites in the combined feed. WOULD BE AWESOME. for business reasons: WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

- “everything”. No matter what RSS feed reader I find, there is no sense of completion, no sense that I’d “read everything”. Not sure what it was about Google that made me feel that way: maybe the interface?

- ease of subscription: drop a URL in the box, if it was possible, at all, Google made it happen.

- formatting. So if Google Reader had a full-screen option like PurpleGene, I would have been all over that, but the balance between articles & necessary navigation was fairly fine: This is something Feedly (for browsers) needs to work on.

- all-in-one: This is the one thing I really miss. With Google Reader, I didn’t feel the need for multiple websites, work-arounds, or more-than-one reading experience. This is, as previously noted, Google’s loss. They had a solution but for whatever reason chose to discount it, ignore it, and eventually: discontinue it.

Good luck getting that back, Google.

##

So.

My recommendations for other Google Reader refugees?

1st. if you were going to consider NewsBlur, you’re likely already ahead of me and are already using NewsBlur. I still balk at paying a fee to read free stuff, no matter how good you are.

2nd. Feedly works, and for most, will work well. If they reverse-engineer the Google Reader API as advertised: well at that point they are Google Reader, moving forward.

3rd. Go back and wallow in primary sources, rediscover the sites that excite you, determine your own reading timetable, roster, schedule, and catalogue, and keep reading.

4th. Determine what you “need” to follow daily, and set these up as bookmarks, perhaps even bookmarks that auto-load when you open your browser. Don’t rely on ‘feeds’ that might stop, if these are Truly important to your business or interests.

5th. Consider sites that not only allow you to “follow”, but give you opportunities to Find the Leader. Prismatic has many faults, but they’re on the right track.

6th. An overall survey of your “information diet” will likely be illuminating: Do you over-rely on just one or two news sites? Do you ignore the news and skip directly to fan sites? Expand your horizons, either by using new sites, or paying more attention to the links in blogs you follow.



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