Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Books Are Free

You know, patience is also free.
Books are free. If price is the most important factor in how and where you purchase your books and in how and what you advocate for in terms of the books industry, then you're in luck, because you never have to pay for a book if you don't want to. Legally. Ever. You could lead a full and very rich reading life without ever spending a single cent on a book. Ever. Without pirating. Without shoplifting. Without mooching off your friends who buy books. Because books are free.

They're free at your library. I read (an amount of) Thomas Piketty's smash bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century for free and all of the second book in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive for free. I was even able to order them and dozens more online, still for free. I'm lucky enough to live in Massachusetts, which has the Minuteman Library Network, which means I can order books online from any one of several dozen libraries around the state and pick the books up at the branch a five minute walk from my apartment. Even if you don't have that kind of resource available, if there's one thing I know about librarians, it's they want you to have that book and they will do just about anything to make sure you do.

Oh, this is one of the books I already paid for. With my taxes.
Books are also free, in digital formats, at Project Gutenberg, a massive (and growing) online collection of public domain books, including The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy A Gentleman, one of the greatest books ever written, Don Quixote, one of the greatest books ever written, Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the greatest books ever written, Ulysses, one of the greatest books ever written, pretty much every book by Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain, as well as fascinating oddities from the history of the written word including my favorite, 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. (Yes, it is as much fun as the title implies.) In short, there is more great literature on this one website than any person could ever read over the course of their life and it is all free.

Therefore, by the power vested in me by the fact that I'm already saying this, I decree all debates on the price and cost of books, in any context and with any goal in mind, null and void. Books are already free.

Isn't Amazon just trying to make the world better for readers by fighting for lower book prices? No, books are already free.

Aren't traditional publishers and indie bookstores just gouging readers with high prices? No, books are free.

Don't those multi-millionaire traditionally published authors laugh at us all the way to the bank? Maybe, but books are still free.

What about competition with things like Facebook and Candy Crush? Books are free.

But I want to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that everyone is talking about, The Goldfinch, and I don't want to wait for a copy from the library, and I don't want to pay more than $9.99 for it? Fuck you, that's not how the economy works.

If only there were a library...for my soul.
Books are free, unless you want a specific book, within a specific time frame, for some specific reason, and that is what we call “added value,” and in a capitalist economy “added value” means “higher cost.” And this is totally accepted in pretty much every other industry. Shorts are more expensive in May than in October because more people want shorts in May than they do in October. New video games are more expensive than year old un-used video games because people like to play the new video games right away and are willing to pay a premium for them. (And, of course, because the game producers are trying to make back their investment, but that's another point.) Dried beans at the grocery store are essentially free; seriously, they're like $.89 a pound and a pound of dried beans is like 10 meals, but, people (myself included) still buy canned beans because sometimes (OK, most of the time) we don't realize we want tacos until we want tacos and, bereft of time travel, can't soak the dried beans over night. You are perfectly capable of spending $15-20 on ingredients for a nice meal that you make at home, but also, totally willing to spend $30-60 (or more) for someone else to make those exact same ingredients into a nice meal at a restaurant. Bars add value to beer just by not being your house. I mean, normally when everybody wants something, it costs more. Can you imagine someone showing up at the box office for say, The Rolling Stones, and saying to the clerk, “Yeah, I heard this guy play Sympathy for the Devil on his guitar in the street and it was pretty good and that was free, so, shouldn't tickets to the show only cover the cost of production?” I mean, if you think a book is too expensive, for whatever reason, the most efficient, most effective, most meaningful way to express your disagreement with the price is to just not buy the book.

The only reason we discuss the price of books differently from the price of pretty much everything else in the economy is that the most powerful retailer in books isn't under any obligation to make money off them. Amazon's book prices are fairy tales. We believe them, not because they are truly based in an efficient business model or because they are champions for readers or any of the other reasons you might hear, but because we want to. It's amazing what we are willing to believe if it means we can save $5.

There is more I could say (and have said and others have said) about the price books, including, for example, how relatively cheap they are when you account for inflation, a cheapness born by authors, interns, and booksellers but, really, it all boils down to the same issue. If all you want is to read great books you never have to spend a single penny. Not one ever. So every “general argument about the cost of books,” really isn't a “general argument” so much as it is a flimsy costume thrown over a very specific act of haggling over a specific book desired for a specific reason within a specific time frame. So, if you think $30 (or whatever) is too much to pay for The Goldfinch, don't buy it for $30 and if no one buys it for $30, the price will naturally decline, either through the introduction of cheaper formats like trade paperback or mass market paperback, through temporary promotions and sales as frequently happens in ebooks, or, (perish the thought) when the book gets remaindered. If, for whatever reason, The Goldfinch is worth $30 (or whatever) to you, don't act like this is some egregious assault on the American reader by some unscrupulous corporation. It's just a few people in a capitalist economy trying to make money on something everyone wants, or, pretty much the exact definition of capitalism.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Green Girl Describes Post-Modernism

Anyone who says they can define post-modern is either lying directly to your face, playing a really intricate prank, or doesn't actually understand post-modernism. I mean, Frederic Jameson says he can't define post-modernism. I mean, the inherent limitations of all abilities to define is one of post-modernism's ideas. At best, we can accumulate traits, characteristics, works, books, paintings, and theories that have attempted to describe or been identified as post-modernism into an incomplete and incoherent concept that gives us at least some kind of handle on things.

And for the last fifty years or so, despite the utter uselessness of the term itself, despite the incomprehensibility of its explanations, (Baudrilliard on the Centre Pompidou, the work of Andy Warhol, and, maybe 4'33” by John Cage by  are probably the best) despite its inherent aloofness from human experience, we have lived in (and are potentially moving out of) a post-modern society. Seems like the kind of thing you would want to at least get “some kind of handle on.” Short of reading tons of difficult theory, visiting a range of key buildings and museums, and tackling some of the most difficult works of fiction short of (and perhaps even including) Finnegans Wake available in English, and thus, devoting your life to an endeavor that, by definition you will fail, reading Green Girl by Kate Zambreno could give you that handle.

In her story of Ruth, an American scraping through existence in London, failing at nearly everything she attempts, Zambreno has managed to depict nearly every major aspect of post-modern literature. Which are:

Episodic Without a Traditional Plot Arc
Told in little chunks that are collected into chapter-like arrangements, Green Girl is the story of Ruth just kinda doing stuff. Working. Hanging out with her friend. Having and wrecking relationships. Coping with, you know, life. Doing, you know, drugs. And then, you know, an ending. It's told chronologically for the most part, so there's that, but even then, there are plenty of sections that could have gone anywhere in the story, that have so little indicative phenomena that they could have happened any time or even out of time.

Agentless, Alienated, Powerless, Drifting Protagonist Dappled with Paranoia
Ruth just kind of does stuff. She doesn't know what she wants, except for that time she knew she wanted that dress, and that time she knew she didn't want to have a threesome, and then, yeah. She can't maintain a relationship. She doesn't seem to have any connection to the only character in the book that could be called her friend, she's got almost no sense of the outside world, she doesn't seem to have any dreams except one time she vaguely seemed to think maybe being a celebrity might be nice, and in the end, you know, there's a last page.

There is a first person narrator that pops up occasionally to talk about Ruth in a direct almost maternal way. I don't think I could prove that first person voice is Kate Zambreno, but I think it is.

Centered Around Consumerism
Ruth works for Horrids a department store in London, selling a celebrity perfume called “Desire.” Eventually she quits, drifts around a bit, and ends up trying another job at a store in a mall. Ruth talks and thinks a lot about wanting and buying stuff, but without any real awareness of what it means to want a little black dress. She consumes drugs. She consumes media. She even consumes other art. Even when she has no money, Ruth seems to be more of a consumer than a person.

Samples other Art
Ruth herself lives an essentially artless existence, but Zambreno has included a lot of art from other sources into the book. Nearly every chapter comes with an epigraph from literature, film, and theory. I've heard it said (yes, perhaps in my own head) that the DJ is one of the emblematic artists of post-modernism and that “sampling” the intentional arrangement of previous works into something “new” is an emblematic post-modern art form. The use of constant and disperse epigraphs allows Zambreno to tap into this DJ art form, without, like David Shields, creating a work completely composed of overt “samples.”

No Conclusion, Just an Ending
And then, you know, she thinks about how nice the certainty of going to a church would be and also how nice it would be to sit in a church “And scream. And scream. And scream.” And that's it. Unlike nearly every previous era and culture, post-modernism is comfortable leaving pretty much everything hanging.

Post-modernism is in a strange cultural place right now. We are starting to make our way to the other side of it, even if very few people have any idea what is on the other side. And it is old enough for new generations of artists and writers to look back on it in disdain. When writers and critics look at post-modern irony now, they only see it's weaknesses and drawbacks. We always need to move forward, but I don't agree that post-modernism has somehow “failed.” It's part of the same persistent human project of building a better world and sometimes you've got to go to strange and dark places to do so. And irony can be a very powerful tool in a world that tells you thousands of times over the course of your life that Bud Lite “Tastes Great.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What We Learn from California's Colbert Bump

No algorithm is capable of out selling an influential human being.

More like TusCAN'T milk.
I suppose I could just leave it at that, but the implications of that, actually pretty goddamn obvious, truth have a lot to say about the nature and state of bookselling and some of the ways online only retail in general and Amazon in particular weaken the books industry even when they aren't actively trying to tear it to shreds in order to sell Tuscan milk.

As a bookseller, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to sell books, and as a marketing manager for a bookstore with an active social media presence I also think a lot about how media sell books. There is a ton of fluidity and plenty of idiosyncrasy in the world of getting books to readers, but over the years, I've only seen one consistent, proven, technique for creating significant book sales; an influential person tells other people to buy a specific book in a specific place. That formula actually has a lot of different permutations and hashing them out tells us a lot about how people buy books, where, and why.

In terms of California, the influential person was Stephen Colbert (with an assist from Sherman Alexie), the specific book was California, and the specific place was Powell's. California debuted (Hi, Stephen. You know, my publisher was in conflict with Amazon before it was cool and I have a debut novel coming out in March, if you wanted to, you know, transfer your sticking it to the Bezos from The Colbert Report to late night.) on the bestseller list because Colbert influences millions of people, but also because the structure of the influence was easy to enact. Everyone who wanted to act on their respect for Colbert had a simple, direct, and satisfying action to take. A couple clicks and they had participated in a communal action they could specifically identify. It's important to think about this in contrast to another way Colbert might have entered the Amazon vs Hachette fray. What kind of sales would we have seen if Colbert had asked his viewers to support their local independent bookstore? My guess: none or damn close to none.

If I don't buy this, Oprah will never be my friend.
Sure, there would have been a great link on colbertnation.com. Perhaps they would have somehow incorporated the Indiebound store finder. It could have been a weekly campaign with Colbert consistently highlighting the benefits of shopping local in general and at local bookstores specifically. Hell, he could have devoted a month to supporting bookstores and I don't think you would have seen the same total number of books sold at indie stores through his efforts match the number of sales of California at Powell's alone. There is a ton of behavioral psychology surrounding all of these issues, but it all comes down to two simple fact: the more steps it takes to buy a book the fewer books will be bought and if people don't know what book they want a website will not be able to sell them a book at all.

With The Colbert Bump, readers were told what book they wanted (by both Colbert and Sherman Alexie) and were given a two step process (click link on colbertnation.com and buy book) to buy it and the result is a debut novel (by a former bookseller, so another argument is made for the follow up MFA vs NYC vs ABA essay collection) lands on the New York Times bestseller list.

But this mechanism works in other permutations as well. Porter Square Books was able to sell over 5,000 copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane because an influential person, in this case the author himself Neil Gaiman, told everyone to buy a specific book, which just happened to be his own, at a specific place, portersquarebooks.com. It also scales down quite nicely. The Song of Achilles has been out in hardcover for over two years and we still sell a copies of the hardcover every few months online, because a specific influential person, in this case the Orange Prize winning author Madeline Miller, tells everyone to buy a specific book, autographed copies of The Song of Achilles, at a specific place, again, portersquarebooks.com. And, of course, this can scale down even further. On every shift at the store, an influential person, me being influential because I am a bookseller at Porter Square Books, tells someone, whoever has asked for help, to buy a specific book, whatever book I recommend, from a specific place, the cash register right over there.

Tuscan milk makes my ennui angry
Sure the nature of “influential” is fluid. Sometimes the influential person is a celebrity like Oprah, or a big name author like Gaiman, but the “influential” person could also be, “that cute guy I see on the train every morning who always looks really into whatever he's reading and he was reading this book called Everything Matters! that looked kind a cool,” or your friend who's a high school English teacher or the bookseller at your favorite store, or The New York Times Book Review or Bookslut or The Millions or largehearted boy or Smart Bitches, or whatever. Regardless of who the influential person is the effective process is this same: this book out of all the shmillions of books in the world is the one I think you want and this specific place out of all the shmillions of specific places is the place to get it and if we happen to be online here is a direct link to that book at the specific place so you just have to click “Add to Cart.”

What is interesting about this process is that, as far as I can tell, retail websites don't seem to have any influence at all. All of the store's staff picks are listed on our website and I always share the picks on social media. They're also all tagged by genre and by bookseller. And yet, though staff picks are very successful in the store, our influence as booksellers, even when named, doesn't seem to transfer to online sales. Staff picks don't sell any better than any other books on our website. In some ways it's obvious why this is; people generally don't go to websites to find a book, they go to websites to buy the book they want.

Online retail is great at capturing sales, but rubbish at creating sales. Perhaps no entity knows this better than Amazon. That's why they have affiliate sales, why the include customer reviews, and why they publish a bestseller list. All of these are attempts to leverage influence for their own sales. But, unlike many physical bookstores, Amazon, for the most part, doesn't have any influence of its own. It doesn't have a staff of influencers able to convert a “maybe I want a book” to “I'm going to buy this book,” or change “I want a copy of The Goldfinch,” to “I want a copy of “The Goldfinch and I just learned from that guy that the new Elizabeth Gilbert, out in paperback, has actually been getting great reviews so I'll buy that too.” So the result of fewer bookstores is going to be fewer overall book sales. The good news here: the number of bookstores is growing again.

So I like to find practical things to do from these explorations and what stands out to me, as the biggest lesson for books from California's Colbert bump, is that the book industry needs more influencers. I'd be interested to see a chart that tracks declining book sales with declining book coverage in newspapers and other local media. Many readers will put in the effort to find a book to read, but many won't. If there isn't someone telling them to buy a specific book, they won't buy any book at all. I mean, I still get customers who show up with CAPSULE REVIEWS CUT OUT OF MAGAZINES to buy the reviewed book. What is the actionable lesson from California's Colbert bump (and from the years with and without an Oprah's book club)? Publishers large and small should establish a non-profit trust or fund that supports book coverage in newspapers, magazines, and local media. They pay in some amount (take it out of your marketing budget) and that money subsidizes, or downright pays for, book coverage. In order for this to work, the fund would have to have no control over the content of the coverage, and thus, it would be impossible for any one publisher to track a solid ROI on the project, but I believe it would increase book sales overall, while strengthening our literary culture and that is good for everyone, bookstores (including Amazon), publishers (including Amazon), writers, readers, and citizens.