Sunday, October 23, 2011

Monday, July 6, 2009

Libraries and Publishers

Speaking of libraries, I've been wanting to comment on this for a while. It's an article from the Library Journal about book editors and librarians--how their relationships with books and their goals for them meet and diverge. Predictably, perhaps, since it's from Library Journal, I ended up rooting for the librarian. Why can't publishers make digital borrowing (not to mention buying) easier? Why do they flood the market with mediocre titles that are half-assedly (pardon) marketed? Why don't they compile the sort of sales data that could help both them and libraries identify those present and future books most likely to appeal to certain audiences? Those poor librarians, toiling away without even the hope of profit, bringing the books to the masses, spreading the reading word.... And I envy them, also, because where they work people want to read. That's why the come. (Okay, some of them are lured by Wii tournaments and DVD rentals, but whatever.) Wouldn't it be nice to live in that world--where one's problems arise from readers wanting more and better, not from the desperate need to find readers in the first place? Still, we have roughly parallel goals. So here's an idea: let's work together.

There are already plenty of outlets for publishers to communicate to libraries--things like the Junior Library Guild, and of course review publications like Booklist. But I think it would be helpful for communication to go both ways, in more than just the buying practices of libraries. I assume this is once again part of publishing's reluctance to engage in market research. But librarians are out there, doing it already--they know what their patrons are asking for, or what they're checking out again and again. I think it's safe to assume that high library demand, in general, correlates to high retail demand--the most checked out library books have probably also been on the best-seller lists as well. So if there were some way, ranging from librarian consultants to elaborate reporting mechanisms a la Nielsen's BookScan that could report how much certain books were checked out, to take this already-existing market data into account, well that would be just swell.

The Tortise and the Hair Band

I love this blog about outrageously-still-in-circulation library books, both for the kitsch factor of the books and the reminder it provides about how absurdly time-bound and short-lived many, many books are (the example to the left is a favorite). I don't suppose there's any practical take-away: even though many of-the-moment books are doomed to quick obscurity/absurdity, they make a quick buck and satisfy a present need or want. They're not going away, nor should they. But it is nice to be reminded, when such things seem all to ascendant, that someday they will be put in their place, possibly by these bloggers, while less heralded, smaller advance-earning, non-Daily Show-worthy books, may go on year after year and eventually out-earn them by leaps, because they provide something more endearing and valuable to the reader.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Optimistic Lessons from the Music Industry

More than once in reading the more-than-too-many articles about e-books that I've read, someone has brought up the music industry and its parallel slide into electronic territory. I always feel vaguely encouraged by this, as someone who has been an enthusiastic partaker of digital music and who has not shed many tears for its effect on the record industry. There are big differences, of course, between the sort of switch over that industry endured, and the one publishing is in the process of dealing with. However, because I am in a good mood, here are some positive conclusions to be drawn from comparing the two, and looking thusly into the future of publishing.

1) Probably most often mentioned is the way in which e-books, like mp3s, level the field a bit and allow indie artists to succeed where previously blocked by the bloated edifices of label stars. The change in medium alone didn't accomplish this, but the factors that contributed--the impact of internet reviewers and communities rising as the impact of store presence and traditional marketing wanes, perhaps a more indefinite culture shift--should apply to books as well. So maybe indie presses will have more time in the sun. I'm no would-be David--I read mostly big-press books, I like what they put out, and I have no Goliath-slaying wish--but I think this would be nice. And I don't see it, as it did with music, seriously diminishing big publishing's stake. It would just mean more selection, and a better chance for those scattered, overlooked geniuses.
2) Is is just me, or are there fewer carbon copy bands sprouting up? I remember a time when one successful band would immediately engender five lackluster knockoffs (Backstreet Boys-->O-Town), but now there seems to be more of a focus on finding the next totally weird, unique thing that turns into a huge hit. Even among the big labels. Maybe this is related to the changed culture of digital music, and would happen in a similar way with books. I can't say I'd miss the umpteenth celebrity bio, or the next not-so-intelligent DaVinci Code retread.
3) It seems likely that the switch from obtaining music in stores to obtaining it online encouraged the development of the online music community, and we all know how important the internet is going to be to the future of book publicity (and creation), so anything contributing to a more vibrant online presence must be good.
4) The world didn't end. Even though Napster existed, even though you can still get illegal free music all over the internet, just as I suppose you can or will be able to get pirated e-books, people continued to buy music, settling into the dollar-a-song mode. So I don't think GoogleBooks will kill publishing, and e-books don't have to mean utter destitution. I know there are massive differences--a song is nothing like a book, really. And yes, there will be contraction, painful contraction. But change rather than extinction.

Oh, how little caveats have tried to bubble up--the way one listens to a song being nothing like reading a book, and taking much more easily to the changed format; the fact that, even in the less patience-demanding arena of music, attention spans have been severely weakened and habits changed from whole-album listening to buying to obsessive leaping; the fact that musicians can rely on tour income besides album sales, which have decreased a lot, I know, even including digital sales, whereas authors don't usually have such an option, etc. But enough! Things will happen as they happen, and if there's one big thing to learn from the music industry, it's to not try to fight it and to get on board as soon as possible.

Of course digital music has had purely and partially negative effects, but I don't think we need to look to another industry to find doom and gloom with publishing's future.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Social Reading

I have to agree with The New Yorker's dim take on Steven Berlin Johnson's optimistic vision of e-books. Though I might not call it optimistic so much as odd. His idea--or part of it--is that the movement of reading from paper books to a linked-up, electronic version of said will create a perpetual dialogue on each book--every line anyone ever struggled with or liked blogged about or commented on and then discussed in the vast community that is the internet. This strikes me as completely unnatural and strange. As the New Yorker points out, books have already started moving online--a lot--and yet we have yet to see a glimmering of this futuristic network of thought surrounding them and giving them a new social context. Okay, people write and read reviews on Amazon and start literary blogs and create fan sites for their favorite authors, but in this books are just like every other subject and project embraced by the internet. It's not surprising that such things should happen. This is not what Johnson is talking about.

The question of books in a social context is an interesting one. Of course your stereotypical book person is not a model social being; she lives in her head and is cut off from the "real world." This image didn't come from nowhere, and I'm sure I'm reacting not just to its persistence but to it's underlying validity when I say that there is something wrong about Johnson's hyper-gregarious vision of the future. I differ here, too, with the New Yorker's assesment of why Johnson is wrong. I don't think the value of physical books as social signifiers--their "attractiveness"--is going to have much impact on the proliferation of e-books either. Bottom line, books are not primarily social things. Certainly they shouldn't be confined within an anti-social bubble. Book clubs, casual discussion with friends, the kind of reviewing and discussion that already goes on online--these can add a lot to the experience, and being a reader can add a lot to one's social self as well, despite the stereotypes. Also, the social context of books is vital to how they are marketed and to how they can potentially infiltrate the culture more than they currently do--the more you hear your friend twittering or blogging about a book, the more likely you might be to read it or to read at all; the more marketers are able to convince you that everyone reads or that cool people read, the more likely you are to do so; the more you're not fully culturally literate unless you've read this or that...etc. That's all as it may be. Still, I don't think the social side of them has over or will ever be the primary reason people read books, and therefore the primary way they react to the experience of doing so is not really based in social terms. When you're deciding what to read, when you want to talk about what you have read, nothing could be better than a community of people to share with. But the space between, the actual act of reading, this seems to exist--rightly--in an essentially private sphere. Johnson's idea isn't much more revolutionary than others who see books becoming integrated into our modern framework, but because his vision intrudes on this private space (the sub-head of the relevant section of his essay reads "You're Never Alone"), it strikes a distinctly unpleasant note. Our culture is a culture of hyper-sociality--in a perverse sort of way that doesn't require you to look anyone in the face, but constant interaction and engagement with the thoughts of others nonetheless. How in god's name would Twitter have made sense to anyone at an earlier point in time? But, and I've said it before, I don't think books can conform too much to this ethos while remaining themselves. When and if they do become blurby and commentable and disjointed and super hyperlinked enough to really fit in to the very social way we process other kinds of information via the internet nowadays, I don't think they will really be books anymore at all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dunkin Donuts : organic five grain muffin :: romance novels : literary fiction

This is very true. I've felt a very insistent need for plotty, neatly ending, easily digestable books as these tough times have become more real to me. I imagine it is the mental equivalent of needing sweet, fatty goodness in times of stress, and releases similar waves of dopamine or seratonin or whatever it is. Most recently read, for example--and these books are all exactly what they sound like:

Mistress of the Art of Death
An Unexpected Pleasure
Princess Academy
The Curse of the Pharohs

Sunday, April 5, 2009

E-books Depress Me Some More

From Black Plastic Glasses, a very informative article that offers actual analysis of how much e-books cost publishers. Here's a depressing summation: "Clearly ebooks aren’t free - they are perhaps as expensive or in some cases more expensive than print - yet they do not create large, short term cash flow to cover their costs. Ebooks, if successful, will sink the trade publishing industry." As things stand how, he says, e-books must always depend on print sales to finance them and to keep publishers afloat--hardly the model anyone envisioned when looking to the future of this new medium. Not only are they not our saviors, but they're positive leeches on the system, it seems. The author promises follow up pieces on how to escape this unfortunate situation.