A Skeptic In The Temple Of Books

A Skeptic In The Temple Of Books

I believe in Books. Books is a God with a growing number of temples, aka bookstores, all over the world. In the US alone, according the 2002 census count, there are some 19,725 bookstores. Of course, compared with the roughly 300,000 outlets devoted to Yahweh, Books is strictly a minor deity. Still, minor or not, what’s important for believers is that there be a temple within reach. There are about a dozen where I live, so come Saturday, I shower, crack a coconut, and step out for some face time. It’s a ritual carried over from childhood. My late father was a Books devotee, and just as we inherit our Gods, we inherit the rituals too. My father and I used to browse on Sundays rather than Saturdays, and consumed idlis-and-madras-coffee rather than the bagels-and-coffee I now have, and we used to walk to the bookshops rather than drive, but these are minor differences. When I remember the spring in his step, the reckless disregard for what he could afford, and his delight in the rare find (“Solutions to the 1948 Cochin Board Chemistry Exams!”), I see the origins of my faith.

Lately though, I’ve begun to notice that faith is not enough. I still visit the temples, still stroll the aisles, still probe and prod various books, and still settle in the smelly sofas to sample my stash of possibles. But actually buy a book? God, no! In my last visit to the local B&N, I sampled Nussbaum’s From Disgust to Humanity and was seized with the urge to buy it. Did I? No. Jeff Vandermeer’s gorgeous Steampunk anthology? No. Heileman and Halperin’s Game Change? No. Michael Pollan’s Food Rules? No. Johnson and Kwak’s 13 Bankers? Thirteen times, no. Good books, even great books: still no.

The reason, obviously, is that it no longer makes economic sense to buy books in bookstores. Why the hell would I pay $19.25 for Goldratt’s The Choice when I can get a nice used copy for $7, including S&H, from Bookfinder? So what if it’s used? All books eventually become mulch anyway; used copies merely get there mulch faster. And when Kindle/Apple finally unclasp their DRM legs and allow readers to have their way with content, physical bookstores will make even less economic sense. In a world where you can get a book the minute it’s released (and when quantum clouds become a reality, perhaps even before it is written), Books is everywhere.

Compare this with the traditional model. A book is released. Hooray. A week or so later, it’s sent to distributors. The crates are unloaded, stacked, stashed and carved into smaller cartons to be trucked, along with similar items, to wholesalers/smaller-distributors (~1-2 months). This process repeats until a few copies finally end up in bookstores (~1-5 months). Two weeks to three months later, if the book doesn’t do well, it’ll be sent back, modesty compromised, back to the publisher. Who then pulps it. Camera pullback. The next crateload of books is seen leaving the publisher’s warehouse. Cycle of life, African drums. Brilliant.

It’s a suicidal business model. Johannes Gutenberg died broke, and publishers haven’t had much luck since. So why do they persist in the worship of such a ball-buster God? Eugene Schwartz, in a great numbers-rich article on book distribution, offers one answer:

One might ask what motivates people to keep this complex system going. After all, although a lot of cash may flow through, it usually takes its time and leaves behind relatively modest portions, if any. As to why we’re in this business and why we persist, Miller [one of the experts] explains, ‘To have a bookstore is part of the American Dream. It is a form of self-expression.

Right. Like makeup, body piercings, and tattoos.

Truth is, physical bookstores have basically become brick & mortar display screens. They have exceptional resolution, cool 3-D features, terrific affordance, and are totally immersive. What you see is what you can get. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. What you get is what you see. Want that 1948 Chemistry solutions to the Cochin Board Exams? Asimov’s annotated guide to Don Juan? Well, if wishes were horses, then why aren’t you riding the net, Quixote? Bookstores may be one of those in-between inventions. Like Egyptian multiplication. We’re not giving up on multiplication any time soon, but there are better ways now.

If bookstores are to survive, they may need to charge for the service they are really selling: the atmosphere. Bookstores may need to become Lookstores. Talk to any Books worshipper, and you’ll hear the same shiny-eyed theme: “I love browsing in bookstores.” Exactly. Browsing. As in, grazing but not paying for the grass. Because grass is now everywhere, we cows will no longer buy grass from a grass-store. Bookstores might as well get used to it.

Keith Swenson thinks that in the future bookstores might become mini-printing presses; that would handle the problem of what-you-get-is-what-you-see. Maybe. I suppose you could buy books at a Lookstore, but it’ll be expensive, as all unit jobs must be. I see them more as lifestyle places. We’ll hang around lookstores for the same reason people hang around churches and art galleries. It’s an alternative to cock fighting. It’s classy. It’s superior. It’s fun. It’s a great place to take your kid, show them the ropes, stuff them with bagels and madras coffee, and acquaint them with all the troublemakers in history. Most were never able to move more than a few volumes, but that sufficed to move the world. Those who believe in Books take that on faith. And as faiths go, perhaps it’s not an ignoble one.

  • “I love browsing in bookstores.”
    Heh. Guilty as charged.

    • anilMenon

      Dinesh, cool write up. Can't imagine how I lived without that word “fossicking” all these years. Beautiful. Sounds like something Lewis Carroll dreamed up… I'm a fan of Durrell too. Read his “Monsignur” as a kid and didn't understand 90% of it. But it was like encountering velvet for the first time. Just gorgeous.

  • And when Kindle/Apple finally unclasp their DRM legs and allow readers to have their way with content

    Oh, come on Anil. Was this really the metaphor you had to go for?

    • anilMenon

      Hi Deepa.

      One of those moves that always seems better before than after. 🙂

  • Very interesting post. I love hanging out at book stores, but I feel guilty when I don't buy anything. Print on Demand (POD) might be less expensive than you think. There is already indication that whatever increase cost you see would be less than the cost of shipping, storage, handling, and overstocking problems. So in fact this might make books cheaper in the long run.

    Amazon, however, charges the full charge on Kindle book, even though there is nothing to ship, store, handle, nor overstock. 65% of your Kindle purchase goes to Amazon for “running the system” which is a bit ridiculous. On a $10 book, they keep $6.50 simply for taking the money and allowing the download. This will last only as long as Amazon keeps a firm grasp on the DRM, so don't expect that to disappear soon: it would be big drain on their cash flow, and an increasing drain as Kindle's catch on.

    A combination store, that allowed you to browse (physically) the three dimensional displays, and sample (via ebook reader), as well as enjoy your favorite roasted infusion might work well as a replacement when paper gets too expensive to print on.

    • anilMenon

      Hi Keith,

      I agree that the first half of the POD framework– shifting to a digital format– definitely saves money. Marion Manekar's post in Big Money– referenced in the blog– disproved John Makinson's claim that there was at most 10% savings to be had by going digital. But I have doubts about the second part: on-demand printing at, say, a B&N. Assuming it won't get cheaper than Kinko's current charge for photocopying a double-sided copy (approx. $0.09), that works out to about $11.25 for a 250 page book. Add cool binding and sundry taxes ~ $14. Which is about what you pay for a book at B&N these days. I think.

      Agreed about Amazon. 65% is brutal. I suppose one consolation is that $3.5 (35% of $10) on a packet of infinitely-reproducible bits beats the miserable $0.6 on a $15 physical book (@ 4% author royalties).

      • Anil, not sure who gets 4% royalties . . . if it's you, you need a better agent.

        • anilMenon

          4% *is* pretty wretched. 10% would probably be more like it. The abject truth is I've never understood royalty calculations.

          • anilMenon

            Also, I called Kinko to check their current rate for a double-sided B&W copy. It's 20 cents, and not 9 cents as I'd stated.

  • Hey Anil, I have and will buy books I can't find through various stores found on Bookfinder (not Alibris, not Amazon) but for the most part if I can't get a local store to order it I'll try Powell's first, then the others.

    Bookstores are already charging to be Lookstores (in your terminology). By paying the cover price of the book in any bookstore you're paying people in your town to sell books (sometimes the ones you want, sometimes not so much). I've lived in towns with no bookshops: I will pay full price at local bookshops to keep the bookstore in my town. Oh god yes. And by buying local I'm also contributing to the town's sales tax income, ensuring future work for the contractors the bookshop employs, etc., etc., etc. Who knows what will happen in 5/10/15/50 years time? In the meantime, buy some books next time you browse!

    • anilMenon

      I use Bookfinder a lot too. For some reason, the fact they include S&H in their price listings makes a big difference to me.

      I'll have to think about your point. It didn't really occur to me that the extra price could be justified as a cover charge. Additionally, Lookstores might easily drift away from having much to do with books, and that, admittedly, would suck. However, I'd much rather pay the same flat “atmosphere charge” on all their books rather than deal with the incredibly complicated price system they now have in place. Currently, figuring out why a particular book is priced what it is in a bookstore is only a little less complicated than figuring out the why of plane tickets.

  • monideepa

    Absolutely right! The religion of books is like any other. Many devotees make a mere show of devotion without true commitment. Interesting that authors are being sidelined in many ways, apart from that promised 4% mind blowing royalties. I'm personally meeting 'book doctors' and editors who rub in the fact that the poor ignorant writer cannot get even commas and semicolons right. Forget about conceptualizing and expressing a complex idea in so many words.

    Here's a quote from Ann Patty, who for 34 years, worked as an editor and publisher in New York publishing

    “In the
    > Internet free-for-all book editors may become more, rather than less
    > important. The editor is the author’s interface with the world at large; the
    > other roles in publishing houses, as they are now configured, may become
    > obsolete in the digital future. Publishers may devalue editors, but writers
    > and agents don’t. As business models change, it’s time that book editors
    > reclaim their essential place in the publishing process, and be
    > appropriately compensated for it….
    ” …real life example illustrates my point:
    > Book Editor discovers a first book with tantalizing possibilities, but
    > clearly, it’s a mess. The novel it will become exists as much in Book
    > Editor’s imagination as it exists on the page. She buys it for a nominal
    > sum. She works many hours (mostly nights and weekends), over several drafts
    > to coax out of Writer the best book it can be. She closely line edits the
    > final draft. Then she goes into marketing mode, making sure the book is
    > titled, positioned, packaged and presented properly. She makes an obsessive
    > pest of herself, both in and out of house, in the service of the book. But
    > in the end her and Writer’s long labors are rewarded! The novel becomes a
    > major bestseller, launching a long career for Writer, bringing the company
    > years of pure profit.

    • anilMenon

      Monideepa: I fully agree that editors are only going to become more important, not less. And like you said, there might be a slight shift of emphasis in their roles. Their main roles have been as gatekeepers and text “shapers.” The first is a well-defined and visible role, the second depends a lot on the writer's cooperation and is much less well-defined. I'm thinking that text-shaping or the developmental editing role might become a much more important role. It's one of the real value-adds a publishing org can offer the writer. Scott Norton's recent book on development editing shows just how useful that particular function is.

      btw Monideepa, as Gavin pointed out, the 4% royalty figure is incorrect. It's more like 10%. The rates are also different for different sales brackets (x for first 10K, y for second 10K etc.)

  • Asl? Telli Aydemir

    Bookstores as lookstores is definitely my kinda’ appellation. Well, some of those boutique and homey versions actually include older books, coffee to go with and a little more recreational activities for kids or kids at heart. However, I must say I no longer have a local & sorta’ popular bookstore to recommend friends or take my kids for spending timeless pleasure. Well written and put forth;)

    • anilMenon

      Thanks, Asli. I’m afraid bookstores continue to think they’re in the business of selling books, so they continue to go out of business 🙂 Sorry to hear there isn’t a good lookstore near where you live.