In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let’s take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: “Is nothing sacred?” and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I’m sure she’s still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It’s not as though this is Saul Bellow we’re talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which… after I’m done writing this, I think I’m going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I’ll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here’s an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it’s not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it’s that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country’s largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that’s all about Los Angeles.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
Interesting article in the Chicago Tribune (reg. req.) that answers the question, “How did Roddy Doyle write a novel — well, half a novel — about Chicago from 3,700 miles away?” The novel in question is Oh, Play That Thing. Here’s part of the answer:Originally, when he prepared to write the novel, Doyle considered moving to Chicago for a year with his family, but that didn’t work out. (For one thing, his three children, ages 6 to 13, didn’t want to leave their friends.) So he relied on key Chicagoans and several shelf-loads of books for insights into the city. I’m always impressed when a novelist can present a place and time as though he or she had been there.
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they’ve incorporated a contest for readers – an office pool – into this year’s Tournament and I’m involved. How to play along:Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win – the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions’ bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.
One of my many side projects is coming to fruition right now. A while ago my friend Derek and I started a record label called Realistic Records. After planning for almost a year, we have released our first record. The Recoys are the former band of current members of The Walkmen and The French Kicks This is an album that never was, but probably should have been, so we’ve put together a vinyl only run of 1000. It’s called Recoys Rekoys. The record is fantastic and if you like the Walkmen or the French Kicks or any of the great new rock that’s out right now, then you’ll love this album. You can buy it either here or here and hopefully it will soon be available in your local record store. Also, the Recoys will be reuniting for one night only to celebrate the long awaited release of this album. Here are the details:Friday June 20thkingsland taverncorner of kingsland and nassau in greenpointHopefully I’ll see you there.
Though we try to pass over blog-bait, we can’t resist directing your attention to the print ad campaign for the paperback version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. “From the acclaimed memoir by the author of The Corrections” runs the copy, above several blurbs:”Funny, masterfully composed” – Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly“[A] total lack of humor…perverse” – Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review“Luminous, essential reading” – Tim Adams, The Observer (London)”Odious…incredibly annoying” – Michiko Kakutani, The New York TimesThis is postmodern advertising at its best: honest, funny, provocative… and almost enough to reconsider our decision not to read the book.[Editor’s note: We wish we could find a version of this ad online, but Harper’s readers can find it on page 51 of the November issue]
Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for his maritime historical novel English Passengers. Now Kneale has a collection of stories out that takes a more contemporary look at traveling. Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance is about the complexities of exploring today’s world. A review in The Scotsman says that Kneale’s “‘small crimes’ are usually ones of hypocrisy from Europeans traveling in developing countries – well-intentioned souls suddenly confronted with the unpleasant realities of life among the picturesque peasants.” Here’s an excerpt from the book and here’s a little essay by Kneale about some of his more harrowing moments on the road.As Hotel Rwanda helped raise the profile of genocide in Africa, a soon to be released British novel uses a similar, fictionalized tragedy as its backdrop. Andrew Miller’s The Optimists is the story of Clem Glass, a photojournalist who returns home from Africa unable to come to terms with what he has witnessed there. A review in The Times discusses the difficulties in embarking on such a novel: “The novelist has to mediate a political event more skillfully than a journalist and the tension between subject and mediator is what should be driving the story. In The Optimists there is more awkwardness than tension.” At the Meet the Author Web site (which is filled with video interviews with authors) Miller discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. Update: a review in the Guardian.James Salter has a collection of short stories coming out in April called Last Night. Publishers Weekly says, “The reserved, elegiac nature of Salter’s prose and his mannered, well-bred characters lend the collection a distanced tone, but at their best these are stirring stories, worthy additions to a formidable body of work.” That formidable body of work, by the way, includes a previous collection of stories that won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, Dusk and Other Stories. For another taste of Salter, here’s his recent reminiscence of food in France from the New York Times. And here’s a story from the new book.