It’s a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. “They’re going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once,” said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the “creeping commercialisation of library services.” I’ll second that.
A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?
In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.
I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.
So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?)
What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone:
However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious…In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as “whining” — the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.
In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human.
This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead?
Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile.
These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers.
He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail.
I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”)
A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey.
By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love.
I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead.
As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained.
I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:
Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)
The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)
Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.
Publishers want to be the only ones allowed to make digital copies of books, and what does the reading public get for it? Widgets. These self-contained online readers are meant to provide an anywhere-on-the-Web presence for books, especially on blogs and even, god forbid, on MySpace. But before we get to the merits of this initiative, lets look at what we’re working with.Earlier this week, HarperCollins unveiled its “Browse Inside” widget, and Random House followed soon after with its “Browse & Search” widget (announcing it to the world with a somewhat breathless “Breaking News” email alert). Both widgets have two components, a smaller interface that, when clicked, launches a larger digital reader. Here’s an example of HarperCollins’ widget (click it to launch the reader). And here’s Random House’s (It’s at the right. Once again, click on the widget to launch the reader.) Right now, Random House has more than 5,000 books in the program while HarperCollins has nearly 2,000, though both publishers intend to make more titles available by widget. At a glance, the Random House offering is much nicer to look at, faster to load pages, and offers additional functions like search. So, if you want to know who winds the first round of the “Widget Wars,” Random House does.But who cares. Publishers have exerted a tremendous amount of effort to wrest control of their books from third-party digitizers like Google, and the apparent goal of this effort is to spawn viral campaigns for their books and little more. While somewhat nifty to look at, these widgets offer little more in terms of functionality than the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. The only real innovation is the ability to place these readers on any Web pages. Frankly, however, I fail to see how this serves anyone but the publishers looking to “virally” spread the word about their books.As a book blogger, I am presumably an ideal candidate to place these widgets all over my Web site, but I have other, better ways to point people to info about books. A link to Amazon (or Powell’s) makes it easy for my readers to find out most anything they might want to know about a book, from its physical dimensions, to reviews from critics and readers, to, in many cases, a peek inside the book. It’s also important to note that both Amazon and Powell’s actually provide an incentive for linking to them, offering a small commission, should site owners decide to take it, for sales that result from click-throughs to their sites. These online bookstores also let the site owner control the interaction, so that appearance of the links and images add to, rather than distract from the content of the site they are on.These widgets, on the other hand, are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return.At the same time, from the perspective of readers, I fail to see usefulness of these widgets. Offering a dozen or so pages is fine. Readers can get a taste of a book if they want, but in this context the widgets again serve as little more than ads. we are meant to stumble across them on blogs or at MySpace and be enticed to make an impulse buy. They do not, however, harness the power of the Web to approximate any sort of useful experience. There’s a reason why you don’t see any bookstores selling only Random House books or only HarperCollins books. People want access to a bigger chunk of the universe of books when they are researching, browsing, or buying. This is why third parties (book stores) handle the selling, and, they more I think about it, this is why third parties should handle the online experience as well. And right now, Google Book Search does this the best. They have a widget, too, and as you may have realized I’m not a fan of widgets, but at least Google’s widget points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them.Regardless of what I think, though, the age of the widget is here. Plenty of companies want a piece of our blogs and MySpace pages, and publishers are just jumping on the bandwagon.Update: I should add that Random House’s broader offering, “Insight,” is open to other publishers who want to sign on (for a fee, I’m guessing), and extends beyond the widget to potentially partnering with online retailers and making the contents of books accessible to search engines.Also, as Bookblog.net points out, I missed that Random House lets people allows you to customize the “Buy” button to point to your preferred online bookstore and supports affiliate links. Based on this new info, I think Random House has actually put together a pretty compelling tool. (Though I still won’t be likely to use it since I’d rather just point people off my site if they want to peek inside a book.)