At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
It’s not uncommon for a website based in Russia or Italy or Venezuela to link to The Millions. Keeping up with these mentions and trying to figure out how somebody in Milan or Caracas is reacting to an essay or review of ours has made me a frequent user of Google Translate, which lets you drop in a block of text and press “translate.” In ever magical Google fashion, a passable English translation appears.
What’s interesting to me is that over the last few years the translation seems to have become more passable and it’s now easier than ever for me to glean meaning and intent from the product of Google’s machinations.
If one assumes that the improvement in quality of these translations might continue in a linear fashion, then it follows that I might be reading a machine translated book one of these days. It’s a liberating notion. I have no affinity for languages but I have often wished I could dig into to the untranslated oeuvres of favorites like Alvaro Mutis or Ryszard Kapuscinski or read their translated books in their original forms.
But then again, the idea might inspire fear that some essentially human quality of the literature would, literally, be lost in translation. And certainly for translators, who would be replaced by stacks of processors in a climate-controlled warehouse somewhere, such a development would be devastating.
Even if computers never approach the craftsmanship of Natasha Wimmer and Edith Grossman, Google or something like might get good enough at doing the heavy lifting and letting the reader clean up the language here and there.
And indeed that might be fine for some applications even today, but using Google to create a passable translation of the blog posts of a Spanish or German blogger is one thing, using it to translate a work of literature is quite another. A translated novel needs to be perfect and Google’s success in completing undemanding translation tasks was no guarantee that it would be able to manage the nuanced language of a literary master.
An experiment was in order. In the interest of seeing how close we are to this brave new world of machine translation, I decided to give a recent work of fiction, written originally in Spanish, the Google test. I chose Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 because I haven’t read it and because I was able to find the same excerpt in both English and Spanish.
I began with the Spanish:
La primera vez que Jean-Claude Pelletier leyó a Benno von Archimboldi fue en la Navidad de 1980, en París, en donde cursaba estudios universitarios de literatura alemana, a la edad de diecinueve años. El libro en cuestión era D’Arsonval. El joven Pelletier ignoraba entonces que esa novela era parte de una trilogía (compuesta por El jardín, de tema inglés, La máscara de cuero, de tema polaco, así como D’Arsonval era, evidentemente, de tema francés), pero esa ignorancia o ese vacío o esa dejadez bibliográfica, que sólo podía ser achacada a su extrema juventud, no restó un ápice del deslumbramiento y de la admiración que le produjo la novela.
I plugged that passage into Google and it spit out:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier to read Benno von Archimboldi was at Christmas 1980 in Paris, where a university student of German literature at the age of nineteen. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish theme and D’Arsonval was obviously French theme), but that ignorance or the vacuum or the neglect literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, it detracts from glare and admiration that led to the novel.
The result is hardly poetry, but it seemed surprisingly decipherable. There are some issues with sentence structure, and trying to figure out the antecedents of the various pronouns is difficult. So, and this wasn’t an entirely unpleasant exercise, I jumped in and attempted to clean it up myself, knowing that I might be skewing the meaning of the passage badly, but interested in at least applying a certain degree of polish:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read to Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980 in Paris, where he was a nineteen-year-old university student of German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish themes and, obviously, French themes as well), but beyond that his ignorance or a vacuum or neglect for literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, detracted from glare and admiration that he would have for the novel.
I decided that Pelletier is the nineteen year old and that Google’s muddled translation was trying to tell me that the young Pelletier is reading to this Archimboldi and though Pelletier had some rote understanding of the book D’Arsonval, he was too immature to appreciate it as he one day would.
Then I looked at Natasha Wimmer’s translation, and I saw what Google and I got right and what we got very wrong:
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
Pelletier is indeed the youth here, but he didn’t read to Archimboldi, he read a book by Archimboldi. Worse, Google and I totally misread Pelletier’s reaction to the book. We find that Pelletier, despite his youth, indeed appreciated D’Arsonval on a gut level, but did not yet appreciate its literary context, essentially the reverse of what the machine translation came up with. And Google and I totally flubbed the idea that the parenthetical list was a list of titles and not descriptors for D’Arsonval.
Natasha Wimmer, your job is safe.
Despite my failed experiment, machine translation might one day be able to figure out how to properly align those pronouns and antecedents and it might make short work of that complicated list of book titles, but would a machine ever, as Wimmer has, be able to convey the urgency in Pelletier’s literary discovery?
If a machine could one day do that, we might no longer think of it as a machine. It would have passed the Turing test (which tells us a machine has demonstrated intelligence when you can no longer distinguish a machine’s actions from those of a human). J.M. Cohen, a prolific translator whose efforts included Don Quixote and Rousseau’s The Confessions, put it another way: “It is impossible… to imagine a literary-translation machine less complex than the human brain itself.”
[Image credit: Jared Tarbell]
As the saga surrounding digitizing books gets ever more convoluted, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Google is interested in offering book rentals. Apparently, Google has approached publishers about offering to rent digital versions of books for a week at 10% of the cover price. According to a News.com article (the WSJ article is subscribers only), an unidentified publisher said that 10% was too low. It sounds like an odd idea to me. I can’t imagine paying to rent a book, when I could “rent” it for free from the library, but I’m also somewhat astonished that a publisher would say that 10% of the cover price is too cheap. Google would be able to rent out an infinite number of each title, and people – if they are so inclined – would be paying for something that they can get for free. The upside here seems huge for the publishers.(via)See Also: Amazon’s digital book initiative: paying by the page and The publishers’ big blunder
One of last year’s big stories, the publishers’ battle with Google over control of digitized books, has been on the back burner in recent months, but an aggressive move by HarperCollins is pushing it back into the spotlightIn late 2005, Harper, already vocal about its displeasure with Google over the search engine giant’s digital book initiative, announced that it would take its own separate approach, building its own little island, as I wrote at the time.Since then, we haven’t gotten too many updates on Harper’s progress. On Thursday, however, the publisher announced that it would partner with LibreDigital, a division of newspaper digitizing firm NewsStand, while also making a “strategic investment” in NewsStand, with Harper president Brian Murray joining NewsStand’s board of directors.We also got an update on how far Harper has progressed over the last year in its efforts to digitize its books. The company’s press release announcing the deal indicates that it has digitized “more than 10,000 books and has enabled the ‘Browse Inside’ application for several thousand.” The WSJ in its writeup (Sub. Req.) puts that total number of books digitized at 12,000, with 2,000 of those being online now. Based on these numbers, the publisher is making progress, if not at the pace of Google, which based on its contract with the California state university library system could be capable of scanning as many as 3,000 books a day. Harper has a backlist of 20,000 books, with 3,500 new titles published each year, and this new effort will likely enable the publisher to finish its digitizing efforts sooner than it would have otherwise. In addition, LibreDigital’s technology will better enable Harper to store and manage these digital editions.In spite of being at odds with one another, to a certain extent the intentions and efforts of Google and the publishers don’t entirely overlap. As the technology has evolved to facilitate the scanning of large quantities of books, Harper and other publishers are desperate to exert control over the digital versions of their books, allowing them to add value to their catalog by either selling digital books or by using those digital books to entice readers to buy the hard copies. The publishers’ biggest fear is that Google will cannibalize their sales by giving the goods away for free.Google, meanwhile, is more interested in providing as complete a record of the world’s published work as possible. To be sure, there is a profit motive here – Google has made its billions by helping us navigate the information it organizes for us – but the upside, for readers (and society, even) would be the vast store of human knowledge at our fingertips. The fact that a number of university libraries have cooperated with Google (for the Library Project portion of Google Book Search) would seem to indicate that librarians, who know a thing or two about making information accessible, are enthusiastic about Google’s plan. And, as such, its fairly easy to argue that Google’s book scanning efforts would hurt publishers little more than libraries do. As exciting as Google’s book initiatives could be (and they certainly are pretty good already), it appears as though the dream of a universally accessible online library will be forever hamstrung by publishing companies and copyright law.
For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance.
A recent study by Attributor, a firm that specializes in monitoring content online, came to some spectacular conclusions, including the headline claim that book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10% of total revenue. Of all the conclusions in the Attributor study, this one seemed the most outlandish, and the study itself might be met with some skepticism since Attributor is in the business of charging companies to protect their content from the threat of piracy.
Nonetheless, the study, which monitored 913 titles on several popular file hosting sites, did point to a level of activity that suggested illegal downloading of books was becoming more than just a niche pastime. Even if the various extrapolations that led to the $3-billion figure are easy to poke holes in, Attributor still directly counted 3.2 million downloaded books.
For some, however, the study may inspire more questions than answers. Who are the people downloading these books? How are they doing it and where is it happening? And, perhaps most critical for the publishing industry, why are people deciding to download books and why now? I decided to find out, and after a few hours of searching – stalled by a number dead links and password protected sites – I found, on an online forum focused on sharing books via BitTorrent, someone willing to talk.
He lives in the Midwest, he’s in his mid-30s and is a computer programmer by trade. By some measures, he’s the publishing industry’s ideal customer, an avid reader who buys dozens of books a year and enthusiastically recommends his favorites to friends. But he’s also uploaded hundreds of books to file sharing sites and he’s downloaded thousands. We discussed his file sharing activity over the course of a weekend, via email, and in his answers lie a critical challenge facing the publishing industry: how to quash the emerging piracy threat without alienating their most enthusiastic customers. As is typical of anonymous online communities, he has a peculiar handle: “The Real Caterpillar.” This is what he told me:
The Millions: How active are you. How many books have you uploaded or downloaded?
The Real Caterpillar: In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few. Between 2002-2005 I created around 200 ebooks by scanning the physical copy, OCRing and proofing the output, and uploading them to USENET. I generally only upload content that I have scanned, with some exceptions. I have been out of the book scene for a while, concentrating on rare and out of print movies instead of books because it is much easier to rip a movie from VHS or DVD than to scan and proof a book.
I have downloaded a couple thousand ebooks via USENET and private torrent sites.
TM: Do you typically see scanned physical books or ebooks where the DRM has been broken?
TRC: Most of what I have seen is scanned physical books. Stephen King’s Under the Dome was the first DRM-broken book I downloaded knowingly.
TM: Why have you gone this route as opposed to using a library or buying books? Do you consider this “stealing” or is it a gray area?
TRC: I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, “loan” the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about.
I do not buy DRM’d ebooks that are priced at more than a few dollars, but would pay up to $10 for a clean file if it was a new release.
I do not pretend that uploading or downloading unpurchased electronic books is morally correct, but I do think it is more of a grey area than some of your readers may. Perhaps this will change as the Kindle and other e-ink readers make electronic books more convenient, but the Baen Free Library is an interesting experiment that proves that at least in that case, their business was actually enhanced by giving away their product free. That is probably not a business model that will work for everyone, but what is shows is that as a company they have their ear to the ground and are willing to think in new directions and take chances instead of putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and railing against their customers, as the
music industry is doing. The world is changing and business models have to change with it.
Three additional points:
1) With digital copies, what is “stolen” is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales.
2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore – a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting.
3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn’t mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn’t mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different – many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it.
In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing… although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in terms of ebooks.
TM: How easy is it to go online and find a book you’re looking for? How long does it take to download and how much technical expertise is required?
TRC: I have specific tastes, so it is usually not very easy to find specifically what I am looking for. The dearth of material I was interested in is what prompted me to scan in the past, in order to share some of my favorite, less popular authors with as many people as possible. It does not take much time to download once something you want has been found, however, and little technical experience is required.
Since books are generally very small files, they can be downloaded in minutes. You can then convert the file using one of many applications, for instance Mobipocket Creator, to PRC or another format that works with your reader. You can then plug your Kindle into your computer and copy the file over. The entire process typically takes 5-10 minutes.
BitTorrent technology is easy to install and use, and just about anyone can install the basic software needed and begin downloading their first torrent in less than an hour. However, discovering and gaining access to private torrent sites (invite only) can take a lot of time – and of course, that is where the good stuff is. Public sites (no account needed) and semi-private sites (sites that require an account, but usually have open enrollment) have a limited selection, but are easily accessible and anyone with basic computer skills can find and download very popular novels.
Usenet is an older technology, and is considered a safer place to pirate files. For older users like me who were around at the beginning of the internet it seems very simple, but to newer computer users it may seem unnecessarily complex, and more expensive because you need an account separate from your regular internet connection to access it.
TM: Once you’ve downloaded a book, what format is it in and how do you read it? On you computer? Printed out?
TRC: My preferred format for distribution is RTF because it holds metadata such as italics, boldfaces, and special characters that TXT does not, is easily converted to other formats using Word, cannot contain a virus, and is an open format that will be readable forever. Other popular formats are DOC, HTML, PDF, LIT (Microsoft Reader), PRC (Palm), MOBI (Palm), CBR (rar’d image files) – and there is a new format with each new reader that is released. Most formats can be converted to your preferred format with enough ingenuity or the
To read, I convert to PRC and load the books onto my Kindle. Before I got that, I read on my Palm or laptop.
TM: How long does it take you to scan a physical book?
TRC: The scanning process takes about 1 hour per 100 scans. Mass market paperbacks can be scanned two pages at a time flat on the scanner bed, while large trades and hardcovers usually need to be scanned one page at a time. I’m sure that some of the more hardcore scanners disassemble the book and run it through an automatic feeder or something, but I prefer the manual approach because I’d like to save the book, and don’t want to invest in the tools. Usually I can scan a book while watching a movie or two.
Once scanned, the output needs to be OCR’d – this is a fairly quick process using a tool like ABBYY FineReader.
The final step is the longest and most grueling. I’ve spent anywhere from 5 to 40 hours proofing the OCR output, depending on the size of the book and the quality of type in the original. This can be done in your OCR tool side-by-side with the scan of the original image or separately in your final output type (RTF, DOC, HTML, etc.). If there are few errors on the first few pages of text my preference is to proof in RTF, otherwise I do the proof within Finereader itself.
TM: What types of books do you look for? What is generally available? Is any fiction or popular non-fiction available?
TRC: I restrict my downloads to books I will likely read – this includes some popular novels, literary novels, and general non-fiction such as humor, biography, science, sociology, etc. Unlike DVD rips, the newest releases are not typically available two weeks before the product is released, if at all. I’m assuming that this is due to the smaller devoted audience books have, as well as the increased difficulty of sharing a book.
TM: Do you have a sense of where these books are coming from and who is putting them online?
TRC: I assume they are primarily produced by individuals like me – bibliophiles who want to share their favorite books with others. They likely own hundreds of books, and when asked what their favorite book is look at you like you are crazy before rattling of 10-15 authors, and then emailing you later with several more. The next time you see them, they have a bag of 5-10 books for you to borrow.
I’m sure that there are others – the compulsive collectors who download and re-share without ever reading one, the habitual pirates who want to be the first to upload a new release, and people with some other weird agenda that only they understand.
TM: Is it your sense that a lot of people are out there looking to get books this way? Or is it just a tiny group?
TRC: I would say that there is a small unaffiliated “group” of people responsible for sourcing the material.
Also, keep in mind that everything I’m saying applies mostly to fiction and general-interest non-fiction.
Textbook, programming and technical manuals are all over the place and its very easy to obtain almost anything you want. I assume there are more sources for that material, and that their high price is a larger factor in people deciding to pirate them. Similarly, there are many communities creating comic, graphic novel and magazine content of whom I am only vaguely aware.
TM: Do you worry at all about getting in trouble for scanning and uploading ebooks?
TRC: A little, but the books I do are typically not bestsellers and are rarely new. I figure I have a bit of a buffer if trouble comes down because the Stephen King or Nora Roberts or “whoever the latest bestseller is” scanners would be the ones to get hit first. I’ve done a lot of out-of-print stuff, and when it is not out of print it’s books by authors like John Barth – someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine.
I’ve debated doing some newer authors and books, but I would need to protect myself better and resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so.
TM: What changes in the ebook industry would inspire you to stop participating in ebook file sharing?
TRC: This is a tough question. I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle. Even in this situation, I would probably still grab a book if I stumbled across the file and thought it might interest me – or if I wanted to check it out before buying a paper copy.
I was impressed by the Indie filmmakers of the movie “Ink” – when their movie leaked before the DVD was released, they put a donation button on their site doubleedgefilms.com. I donated even though I haven’t watched the movie yet, just because of their thoughtfulness and sincerity. This didn’t seem to work for King’s “The Plant“, but I think that had a lot to do with the lack of reading technology at the time. I would like to see the experiment tried again by someone like Eggers or Murakami – someone with a very devoted fanbase.
Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigal organ that will slowly fall off and die – I don’t know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty “stealing” from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multi-millionaire like King.
One thing that will definitely not change anyone’s mind or inspire them to stop are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison – attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time.
[Image credit: Patrick Feller]
Flavorwire’s list of the Top Ten Bookstores in the US was not supposed to piss me off, but that’s exactly what it did. It was supposed to be the sort of article you read and then forget about until someone else runs it again next year. Instead, being the disagreeable sort, I found myself dwelling on the thing and, well, getting pissed off.
The list angered me for several reasons. For one thing, it began with the obligatory opening gambit, “Bookstores are dying.” This is the default commentary-of-the-moment regarding bookstores (independent or otherwise). It follows from the idea that bookstores, like record stores, will be a thing of the past before you have time to finish Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Of course, this line of reasoning assumes that books are just like CDs and that record stores are, indeed, gone. Though neither of these statements is true, I will concede that bookstores are somewhat imperiled at the moment.
Okay, maybe there are fewer bookstores in existence now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but to say that bookstores are dying is an oversimplification. It’s not so much that they’re all dying, but that a certain kind of bookstore is on its way out. The closure of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a superstore, for instance, represents the shifting tide in the book retail world. That store opened in 1995, and as we all know by now, a lot has changed in the media business since then. The days of requiring a 60,000 square foot storefront to sell books are coming to an end, if they aren’t already over. Make no mistake, the B&N closure was an epoch-defining one, even if it was a rent hike that made it happen.
The superstore made a lot of sense in the pre-internet era. In order to offer the largest possible selection, you needed a lot of space. Initially, independent stores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and The Tattered Cover in Denver opened huge storefronts carrying tens of thousands of titles. The chain stores – especially Barnes & Noble – mimicked the open space, the big comfy chairs, and the air of bookish intellect of these stores. They took the concept of the superstore national, and in the process, they leveraged their size, scale, and efficiency to secure favorable deals from distributors. In short, they were able to sell books for less, which enabled them to sell more books.
But Amazon and the rest of the ecommerce stores made the issue of selection and scale largely moot. How do you compete with a store that claims to offer every book in print? Still, having a physical location with a lot of books was valuable; if someone wanted the book that day, these stores were there for them, and they offered a large enough selection to satisfy all but the most esoteric needs. But what would happen to these stores if the need for the physical book were suddenly removed? With the rising popularity of ebooks – set to consume anywhere from 15% to 50% of the book market in the next five years, depending on who you believe – we are about to find out the answer to that question.
Barnes & Noble and Borders both know first-hand what it’s like to be suddenly left with a product that no one needs. In the 1990s and early 2000s, both dedicated significant floor space to CDs and DVDs. The book industry even had a term for this – “sidelines,” a term they later revised to the much catchier “non-book products.” But digitization and the internet came quickly for CDs, gutting that business in just a few years. As broadband speeds increase, streaming video will eventually kill off the DVD, as well. In response, the big stores turned to products that couldn’t be so easily digitized. Almost every big store now has a cafe, creating a “third place” where people could congregate and discuss the books and periodicals they’ve purchased. Many stores have converted an area into a permanent events section, giving them a seating capacity that rivals some small theaters and attracting big name authors for readings and parties. A few weeks ago, Borders announced it will be selling custom-made teddy bears in its stores. But despite their best efforts, the large stores face a daunting and dismal future.
Hence the elegiac mood of the Flavorwire piece, and its imploring “buy some books, you lousy ingrates” call to action. Another pet peeve of mine is when people consider their local independent bookstore a charity. Unless your store is a non-profit, it should succeed or fail based on how well it does as a business, not because of noblesse oblige on the part of your municipality. Allowing people to treat your for-profit business like a charity can have some unwanted side-effects. I’ve worked for stores that would occasionally charge admission to a reading. Typically, the price was purchasing a copy of the book, which seemed perfectly reasonable to me – you’re there to see the author, you buy the book, the store makes some money, the author makes some money, everybody wins! But all too often, people would look at me as if I’d just told them air was no longer free. “You shouldn’t be charging for these events,” they’d say. “They’re good for the community.” In other words, they were looking for an evening of free entertainment. Well, this isn’t the library, ma’am. We have to pay the bills somehow.
But despite all of this, there are some reasons to be excited about bookstores. The Flavorwire article came to my attention because of the efforts of two New York City independent bookstores – Housing Works and McNally-Jackson – who had posted the article to their Tumblr blogs. Housing Works pointed out that most of the best indie bookstores in New York had opened in the last ten years, not closed. They were talking about Greenlight Bookstore, WORD, McNally-Jackson, Idlewild, Powerhouse, and Desert Island. In Los Angeles, where we’ve had some substantial bookstore attrition in recent years, several new stores have opened, including Metropolis, Family, Stories, The Secret Headquarters, and the Brentwood Diesel store. On top of that, Vroman’s Bookstore, my former employer, was doing enough business to buy fellow LA indie outpost Book Soup (also a former employer) and Skylight Bookstore expanded, annexing a neighboring storefront.
These stores are succeeding not because they are the biggest stores, but because they are the right stores for their areas. We’re seeing a resurgence of the neighborhood bookstore, something many had considered dead in the heyday of the super stores. Technology has actually leveled the playing field between big stores and small stores; anyone with enough capital and the space for a large copy machine can have a Book Espresso Machine, giving them access to hundreds of thousands of titles, as well as custom-printed books. And web applications like Foursquare and Facebook Locations don’t discriminate between businesses based on size; anybody with a good hook can lure people to their store and capitalize.
Which brings me to the second thing I hated about the Flavorwire piece: What does it mean to say “These are the best bookstores,” after all? Any list that includes Powell’s, The Strand (a store that sells mostly remainders and used books), and Secret Headquarters is comparing apples to BMWs to gym memberships. Making a list like this is akin to asking, “What’s the best place to buy food in Los Angeles?” and then listing Whole Foods, The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, and Animal as your answer. Sure they all sell prosciutto, but that’s more or less where the similarities end.
Please don’t think the stores on Flavorwire’s list aren’t great – they are – but the stores they chose reveal the futility of the whole process. What makes a “great bookstore” and what do the stores on the list have in common with one another, other than that they all sell books? The truth is, I can teach you to write a “Best Bookstore” list right now. Nearly every “Best Bookstore” list pulls five or six stores from the following list of venerable indies: Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Vroman’s, Book People (in Austin, TX), Elliott Bay (Seattle, WA), and Books and Books (South Florida, the Cayman Islands & now Long Island). Those are the remaining indie super stores, and they rightly deserve praise, but there are so many tremendous smaller stores that are equally deserving of recognition. There are too many, in fact, to make a list (Believe me, I tried). And what makes so many of these stores incredible, what many of the chain stores could never mimic, is the staff. A better list might be one that names the top 10 booksellers in America (I could take a crack at that: Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Emily Pullen from Skylight, Michele Filgate from Riverrun, Rachel Fershleiser from Housing Works…Well, I could go on).
In the end, it’s irrelevant, as the only bookstore that anybody cares about is the one near them, the one whose staff knows their tastes, the one that hosts your favorite author when he or she comes to town. For some of you, that’s no doubt a chain store. I grew up outside Syracuse, NY, and I will absolutely shed a tear the day the Borders in the Carousel Center Mall closes, as it was place I remember visiting when I was in high school and just discovering the pleasure of reading. The rest of the stores, though – the big, nationally known bookstores – exist for you, unless you live around the corner from one of them, more as monuments than as businesses. They’re kind of like those iconic bars and restaurants that people make a point of stopping at every time they’re in New York or LA – they’re the McSorley’s or the Musso & Frank’s or the Rendezvous of bookstores. If they went away, you’d read about it in the paper. It would be an “important moment,” but its impact on your life would be minimal unless they are your store. It’s the proverbial store around the corner that you care about, and if that store continues to serve you well, I think it will survive. If it doesn’t, well, hopefully someone will put it on some sort of “best of” list before it goes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate the fact that my local bookstore is still kicking. Maybe you should do the same.
(Image: Abbey Bookstore image from poisonbabyfood’s photostream)
A few months ago, I wrote about some of the oddities of Amazon’s customer review system. I suggested that certain of Amazon’s “Top Reviewers” had become semi-professionalized, and that some five-star customer reviews reach readers the same way reviews in the Times (and on blogs) do: as part of a well-organized press push. A story that appeared in Galleycat last week revealed something surprising (to me anyway): the Amazon push may work in the opposite direction, to keep an unwanted review from surfacing. Apparently, Deborah MacGillivray, a romance novelist, convinced Amazon to expunge the reviews and comments of a reviewer who had been critical of her work.Again, it appears that Amazon’s customer review system is evolving beyond “helpful, tell-it-like-it-is product information” into an extension of the publishing demimonde. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the American review system, in which publicists send advance copies of books to influential readers in an attempt to get press; it is, rather, to argue that Amazon should take a good hard look at its system. On one hand, it could work harder to protect the disinterestedness of customer reviews (by not kowtowing to authors, for example, or by getting rid of the reviewer rankings). On the other, it might recast the review system as less of an aw-shucks, communitarian forum.