Very interesting article from the NY Times today about Amazon and used books. Many assume that Amazon’s ample selection of used books represents a grave threat to authors and publishers, but some economists who looked into the issue found evidence that just the opposite is true. The key point: “When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there’s another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later.” Read the whole article here.
It’s always interesting, to me anyway, to see how current events drive books sales. Everybody is interested in Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath right now, but it will likely be at least a month or two before the first books on the storm are published – and those will be the rush jobs with lots of photographs and not much text. So for now, the vaccuum must be filled by other books. One of these, apparently, is Rising Tide a book from 1997, which according to the AP, has gotten a big boost in sales since the storm. The book by John M. Barry is subtitled “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” and I’m guessing that people are reading it in order to see how a natural disaster might cause America to change once again. Barry spoke about Rising Tide on NPR’s Weekend Edition. And here’s an excerpt from the book. Another book seeing increased sales – judging by its Amazon ranking – is Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen’s 1999 book about the 1900 Galveston hurricane (which may be surpassed by Katrina as the deadliest storm in American history.) Here’s an excerpt from that book.
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn’t help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it’s the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I’m sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other “big box” stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I’m blowing out of proportion. We’ll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times’ book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for “Michiko Kakutani.” She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher’s Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. “Daniel Okrent’s new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein.”
As many of our readers know, long-time Millions staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel City on Fire is coming this fall. It landed on our annual preview last month and has been the subject of much media interest. Right now, Hallberg and the book are being featured at the ABA’s annual Winter Institute, a sort of Davos for independent booksellers. We were able to secure a copy of City on Fire and can share the novel’s opening lines. The book’s Prologue begins:
IN NEW YORK, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West 16th Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in 40 minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man—younger, I should say—you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.
I don’t know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven’t seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I’m interested in it because I’m curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as “read this book,” and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections – some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.
In late 2004, I received this question from a reader:I’m wondering when the next volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography is coming out – anyone know?At the time I didn’t have an answer, but I instead managed to stumble upon the news, then ricocheting across the Spanish-speaking world, that he had finished a new novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. (The Millions was, in fact, the first English-language publication to report the news, and that post gave us our first big shot of readers.)Now, however, we have received word that Marquez may be starting in on volume two of his proposed three volume biography. The first volume covered his childhood, and Marquez has said that the second volume may carry us through to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982. Reporting on the occasion of Marquez’s 80th birthday, the LA Times said:His longtime friend and collaborator Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza said by telephone last week from Portugal that “Gabo,” as Garcia Marquez is known here, is picking up with his memoirs in Paris in the mid-1950s, where his first bestselling volume, Living to Tell the Tale, left off.It’s welcome news for fans, as Marquez “last year gave friends the disappointing news that he had ‘run out of gas’ and was quitting writing. The author was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, and after treatment at UCLA Medical Center, he recently was pronounced free of the disease.”As an aside, it was Marquez’s trips to Los Angeles to be treated that gave me the opportunity to meet him in the very early (and slightly embarrassing) days of this blog. (You’ll have to scroll down. I don’t know what I was thinking – How could I not lead that post with Marquez!)
After spending a lot of time over the last week discussing Borders’ new strategy to display more books face out (and thereby reduce the number of books a typical store carries), it turns out that the whole discussion may have been moot. The struggling chain had a need for more money to “remodel stores and pay for new technology,” but, thanks to the rocky climate on Wall Street, Borders was initially unable to find a willing lender. Translation: without an infusion of cash, Borders was going to run out of money.This left CEO George Jones with few options. Pershing Square, a hedge fund with investments in many large retailers and Border’s largest shareholder, has agreed to “lend $42.5 million and to make an offer for some of [Borders’] international chains,” according to Bloomberg. The loan comes with a huge interest rate and comes with various provisions that give the fund ever larger control over the book chain’s fate. Borders has also said that it is now seeking a buyer and the company has suspended its dividend. This deal is something of a last resort for Borders, and the stock plunged nearly 30% on Friday, the biggest drop in the company’s history.So what does this mean to Borders customers and employees? It’s still too early to know. the deal with Pershing staves off the possibility of Borders running out of money in the near future, and offers a life raft for the chain to get through the challenges brought on by the slowing economy. The path forward is tenuous at best; expect more developments in the coming months.
You will be excited to hear that I am in the middle of some serious revamping for this site. The changes will make it even more informative for you and even more fun for me. And you’ll think it’s more fun, too. In the meantime here is an entertaining article from the Washington Post that analyzes the bizarre, mind-numbing proliferation of bland memoirs. Also, if you are without a book and would like for me to tell you what to read, try reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami or, if you’re in the mood for non-fiction and you wonder why no one has ever explained to you why Mormons are so weird, read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer.