on fairness: authors, libraries, and our future

January 27, 2013

kids reading

I’ve been reading tweets from the ALA midwinter meetings, and before that catching tidbits from Digital Book World, and of course hearing daily from librarians about the various ways that the ebook models emerging from the head offices of publishers are bizarrely borked. A few days ago I was trying to explain this tangle to a blogger who wonders what people can do to support the ability of academic libraries to satisfy multiple student learning styles and preferred reading platforms. The example he gave was a book he wants to assign in class that comes from Harvard Business Review, which won’t even allow faculty to assign articles in journals the library licenses for the campus. That site license only applies to articles you don’t have to read. If a teacher says you have to, somebody has to pay per semester, per students. And we’re supposed to police all this nonsense. It’s enough to make a pacifist a little stabby.

The combination of insanely complex limitations being placed by different publishers on what libraries and the communities they represent can acquire and share and the general perception that libraries aren’t good for the book business is frustrating. But it’s equally frustrating to hear from my fellow authors that librarians have to be patient. This is just a bump in the road until the industry figures out what’s a fair business model.

I ended up ranting a bit when this came up on a discussion list populated mainly by writers. This idea of chilling out until the fairness thing gets worked out pushed a button, the one at the top of the keyboard with an icon of a mushroom cloud on it. Funny how often that button launches a blog post. So here is my discussion list response, tidied up from my morning not-enough-coffee-yet, too-much-excitement sprawl.

on fairness

Full disclosure, I am a librarian, though I work at an academic library, where we don’t generally get to buy fun books. This issues we have with digital books are different than those public librarians have (which is itself a bit worrying, the gap between trade publishing and scholarly books growing even wider, but that’s another issue for another time). My beef here is more as a reader and writer than as a librarian.

Here’s my question: Is it unfair that libraries can loan print books until they fall apart and don’t have to throw them out when publishers say so? Is it unfair that libraries don’t have to pay three or four times the cover price for a book? Is it unfair that libraries are allowed to loan out frontlist and popular titles? All libraries want to do is what they’ve done in the past – pay a reasonable price for a book and let one person at a time read it. Publishers say that’s not fair. Not enough friction (a fancy word for artificially-induced inconvenience), not enough profit. Could bring the business to its knees.

Really? Then the survival of publishing is a freaking miracle. People have been reading books borrowed from libraries for quite some time. Going to a library is not so full of friction that hardly anyone does it. A majority of Americans have library cards and have checked out at least one book in the past 12 months. That hasn’t ruined the book business, it’s helped it. Being able to check out digital books from home – or, more commonly, fill out a form to get in line to borrow a book as soon as the 47 people ahead of you have had their turn – isn’t going to suddenly mean borrowing a book is so insanely easy that nobody will buy books in future, anymore than being able to check books out of a library before the Internet was invented  led to the sudden collapse of all bookstores. Also, bear in mind there wasn’t a button on the library shelf where a checked-out book had been saying “if you want to avoid waiting in line, push this button and you can buy it instantly.” There is a button like that on many digital library shelves. And it’s still not fair enough for publishers.

The only threat libraries pose to the book industry is if they are prohibited from fulfilling their role of introducing new authors to readers and developing an appetite for reading among young people, which is what will happen if publishers get to define “fair.”

Library users are book buyers. This isn’t anecdote, there’s hard data to show this is true. Publishes are unwilling to consider existing evidence that libraries are a keystone species in the book ecosystem. That’s an inconvenient distraction from the new power they wield to control how and what communities can read, and from their understandable obsession with Amazon’s power.  Libraries are the dog they can kick when the Department of Justice tells them to stop bullying Amazon.

But forget that data, let’s just do some simple numbers. If libraries are required to pay three or four times as much for an ebook so that publishers get their “fair” price, that means libraries will buy one ebook and will not buy three other books. Three sales gone, three discovery opportunities lost. Those books not bought are likely to be the ones library patrons aren’t already begging for. The ones ripe for discovery.

Some publishers want to “window” library use by selling access only to backlist titles. If libraries can’t stock a variety of frontlist books, readers won’t have the opportunity they’ve had in the past to discover authors who are not already well-established or have published a blockbuster best seller. If you are a traditionally published author who hasn’t spent a few weeks on the bestseller list, the public library is your best customer, because it will introduce your work to a lot of people who won’t hear about it otherwise. And if they like it, they will become your customers, too.

You can’t pay for this kind of word of mouth. But you can price it too high or make it wait too long to matter, long after you tried to get a contract for your next book but couldn’t because your sales record wasn’t strong enough.

As citizens and taxpayers, ask yourself if it’s fair to let publishers redefine who gets to read these days, and under what conditions. As business people … well, I hate to break it to you, but book publishers are not really that clever at figuring out what’s best for the book industry. So it’s not just whether it’s fair, it’s whether it’s good for the business they claim to represent. If you care about the future of the industry, don’t let publishers cut libraries out of it. We’ll all be sorry.

So endeth the rant. Peace be with you. Go forth and read.

photo courtesy of courosa


book discovery outside the (big) box

January 12, 2013

A blog post at Passive Voice which was an excerpt of a longer essay by Melville House’s Dennis Johnson sparked a lot of discussion about Barnes & Nobles and what its weakened market position might mean for writers and readers among Sisters in Crime members. I started to respond, then realized my email had gotten too long for any reasonable person to read, so decided to stash it here instead.

Dennis Johnson’s essay argued that all book sales suffer, regardless of format or channel, when it gets harder for people to browse a large selection of printed books, an experience uniquely offered (at least for most people, who had never before had access to a large bookstore) by Borders and B&N, that the chain stores promoted books in a way that indies will have trouble providing because they can’t afford to carry the variety of titles the big box chains did. Johnson says the showroom nature of the big box stores provided important exposure to the market that drove sales of ebooks as well as print books – but since B&N couldn’t direct that exposure exclusively to their own platform, and because they started stripping their shelves to redirect their liquid capital and force more consumer attention on their devices, this showroomishness didn’t translate into sufficient ebook sales to keep B&N balance sheets healthy.

But what is the cost of that kind of showroom? It may be hard to find new ways of browsing that work as well as the big box bookstores, but that operation was enormously expensive. Publishers loved the exposure but hated the returns, which were far quicker and extensive with a vast automated system organizing the process. Customers loved the variety and sense of abundance, but books were there to create the illusion of choice; a huge percentage were returned so new book wallpaper could go up regularly. And the number and size of stores grew impossible to support when the real estate bill came due. (Some argue bad investments in overpriced real estate and the resulting debt service is what sank Borders.)

The number of books on the market has risen enormously. Even if B&N continued to fill big stores with a variety of books, they couldn’t possibly all stock the roughly 350,000 books published traditionally in the US last year, let alone the 1.5 million total, once you add in self-published titles with ISBNs. Amazon can, because it doesn’t need to actually have real estate to provide exposure. They just have to have a vast database. (Yes, they have warehouses full of stuff, but their showroom is the virtual sales platform.)

Public libraries argue they are showrooms and great engines for growing the market for books, but they too have limited real estate and budgets, and publishers by and large don’t believe libraries are a value proposition  (read for free? how can that be good?)  so are asking libraries to either pay extraordinary prices for one-reader-at-a-time ebooks or are making them unavailable altogether. Libraries’ potential role in discovery is being limited by design.

What does this mean for book discovery?

I think networked curation is the next logical step. Word of mouth is the most frequent means of discovering new authors, and it is abundant online, so finding a way to aggregate and personalize that flow of information and present it in some easy to explore format (so that people can get a good feel for a book before they decide to read it) is important. If what’s on offer is too diffuse, it’s too unfocused, so not personalized; too narrow, and it’s idiosyncratic and personalized only for the curator. Amazon has tried to create this personalization by algorithm, but it has the clunky results that happen when recommendations are based on purchases made for a wide variety of reasons other than personal reading decisions. (You just bought a Lawrence Block burglar book. You may also want to buy an alarm system! Uh, no.) Besides, people grow distrustful quickly if the recommendation has any whiff of marketing or advertising attached to it.

For me, the best reading suggestions comes from like-minded readers who I hang out with in neutral spaces online. There is some cost associated with this method. I have to spend enough time in these communities to know which people have tastes like mine and which love books I don’t. I have to contribute to these communities, or the flow of recommendations might cease. They depend on reader interaction. I often get interested in books that aren’t available in the US market and certainly aren’t available in any local bookstore, and that can be frustrating.

But it’s far, far better than nothing, and nothing is the alternative. I live in a small town without a well-stocked bookstore and a very small public library, so physical browsing opportunities are frustratingly limited for avid readers.  There aren’t enough mystery fanatics in my face to face circles to learn from them (though I can get decent recommendations for other kinds of fiction). This makes for an interesting dilemma: my taste-shaping circles are borderless self-created communities. Amazon is, likewise, a borderless retail operation that doesn’t have to limit itself to physical geography and that can quickly provide almost anything I have identified as something I want. It works well if discovery happens somewhere else.

Not many brick and mortar bookstores will have in stock what I’m seeking, and though they can order it, the instant gratification a store can offer by anticipating my interests in advance is more than ever likely to turn into instant dissatisfaction. (The exception is Once Upon a Crime, a genre-focused store that almost always has what I want, but since I live quite far away, they have to mail books to me. I can live with that.) Readers who don’t think about what booksellers are up against – the rental cost per square foot of shelf space, the difficulty of tying up cash in inventory that may not sell for months if at all, the difficulty of choosing among the tens of thousands of titles available which ones might turn out to be in high demand – are likely to conclude Amazon works better.

The kind of discovery a physical store offers is quite different than online communities or online retail algorithms. It’s built out of the intersection of a local reading community, a knowledgeable staff, and visiting authors, book clubs, and other events that offer an occasion to gather and experience something with others. It won’t easily satisfy the reader who only wants to stop in long enough to buy a particular book. It depends on investments in time and personal interaction that create a sense of belonging and common cause. Bookstores that thrive (and many do) are not just providing books, and are not just serving as a place to see what’s been published. They become a place where people share a love of books at a local level – because they discover neighbors who share the same passions. And they accept the limited stock as lovingly selected to match local interests, much as a local food coop may have fewer products on their grocery shelves but nobody feels the selection is meager, it’s merely more thoughtful and reflects the coop members’ shared interests.

To some extent, book reviewing is going through a similar discover crisis. Fewer newspapers carry book reviews than in the past, and there are more outlets for reviews, but they reach smaller audiences. (Amazon customer reviews are a special case because they have a peculiar status  as consumer feedback mixed in with reviews mixed in with sock puppetry and are usually encountered after a book has been discovered, not as a discovery tool.) Sisters in Crime has been monitoring the gender breakdown of authors reviewed in the media since the 1980s, a project I’m currently coordinating. We’re now covering born-digital reader-focused publications (a selection of book blogs and online-only review sources). The ones we are examining publish nearly as many reviews in aggregate as the four main pre-pub review sources (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly).  The shift to online, amateur, and social reviewing of books has interesting potential which hasn’t yet found the kind of mass audience large chain stores did, but which could become a significant channel for tailored word of mouth.

I’m not sure what to conclude from these ramblings of mine, other than that I understand Dennis Johnson’s point, but am not so concerned about the future of discovery. For those lucky enough to live near good independent bookstores, local reading communities and the stores that provide a home for them fill the gap. Public libraries are available to a large percentage of Americans, and a large percentage of Americans use them, providing another valuable site for developing a democracy of reading tastes. If B&N follows Borders, publishers will have a serious distribution problem to deal with, with Amazon left standing as the major mass sales outlet, but like our fabled fiscal cliff, it’s not really a cliff, it’s a slope, and we’re well down it already.

As for readers – we’ll find our communities, locally and online, and word of mouth will continue to be a healthy means of discovering a wide variety of books. We just have to find our way to the right conversations and settle in as active members of communities, both local and virtual, who can’t wait to share news about books you just have to read.

photos courtesy of ~dgies and Andrew Griffith


What I’ve Been Reading

December 3, 2012

Since I tend to let this blog get covered with cobwebs and dust, I thought I would share what I read last month. It’s a sign the crop was good that I have more books by Anne Holt and Elly Griffiths on my bedside table, waiting for me after I finish Michael Stanley’s DEATH OF THE MANTIS, which is terrific so far.

Anne Holt / FEAR NOT
What a fun ride, blending a puzzling plot with serious social issues. When the bishop of Bergen is stabbed to death late at night at Christmastime, her husband and son seem able or unwilling to explain why she was alone at night outdoors. Adam Stubo tries to sort out the high-profile case, unaware of the related cases unfolding around him. Because the deaths are explained as suicides or drug overdoses or inexplicable but unremarkable acts of violence visited on people on the margins, nobody connects the dots until Stubo’s wife, Johanne Vik, meets with an American friend who fills her in on a new kind of hate crime. This is a deeply involving novel with a big cast of characters whose stories are skillfully interwoven. As in the preceding book in the series, Death in Oslo, things hinge on a coincidence, but it wasn’t a wallbanger. Another feature that seems a common thread in her books is the uncovering of a conspiracy, which in this case is fairly fanciful but an interesting way to think through the implications of religious fervor and bigotry. The final pages touch on religious faith in a way that is highly unusual in Nordic crime fiction, but then Anne Holt often pulls out a surprise at the end, and not the usual plot twist. I thoroughly enjoyed this complex and well-plotted mystery.

Archer Mayor / PARADISE CITY
Like Anne Holt’s book, there are a lot of characters and things to piece together, but Mayor is a pro and it all comes together without too much work on the part of readers (all of whom must pretty pretty smart, anyway, if they are reading this excellent if overlooked series). In this case, a robbery turned arson in Vermont turns out to be related to a robbery and assault in Boston, some dodgy going-on in Northampton, Mass, and a smart craftswoman from China who is a virtual slave, paying off an impossible loan to human traffickers, but who has her own ideas about a worker’s paradise. Very good, as usual. I was actually intrigued to read two books back-to-back that have large casts and multiple plot strands by authors who were able to keep me – oh, look, a butterfly! – on track, with the characters clearly-drawn enough to keep straight.

Sue Grafton / A IS FOR ALIBI
I can’t believe it took me all these years to read the first in this classic series. It was surprisingly good – not as political as Paretsky, not as semi-cozy as Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first of the Sharon McCone series. We don’t learn a whole lot of backstory about Kinsey Milhone, but we can tell she’s a tough, independent, somewhat lonely and thoroughly competent professional. I like her a lot. It reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and I was tickled to find out that she named the location after a place in his books. Also loved the ending – blunt, unsentimental, but not without a personal impact on the detective. I suspect that denouement was in itself a feminist revolution in the genre. Blam.

Gunnar Staalesen / THE WRITING ON THE WALL
I’ve been wanting to read this series for ages, particularly after seeing the Norwegian television series, thanks to a friend who sent the DVDs to me. This book, unfortunately, was a disappointment, as it was hard for me to get through. I think I’ve reached the age where small font size can make reading just difficult enough to make a difference, and while I hate to blame translators when I can’t tell what the original was like, it seemed a particularly choppy narrative with odd word choices. It wasn’t awful, but wasn’t very engaging. I thought the television episodes were great fun, though, and I’m thrilled to see a new translation (COLD HEARTS) out, translated by Don Bartlett who always does a good job.

Elly Griffiths / THE CROSSING PLACES
I read this for discussion at one of my favorite crime fiction communities, 4_mystery_addicts, a Yahoo list where people share their reading insights and the moderators (of which I am one) guard the door to give BSP (blatant self promotion) the bum’s rush. It’s all about reading, not selling. I enjoyed the book, especially the moody fens setting and the professional life of the main character, an academic archaeologist, but was disappointed by the ending on several counts, including the who dunnit and the sequence of events. I’ll read on in the series, though.

Non-mystery
Carla Buckley / INVISIBLE
This was randomly sent to me by a publisher that earns its name by randomly sending people review copies. When a girl whose mother faces kidney failure contacts her long-estranged aunt to see if she might be a donor, a family secret faces exposure. The aunt returns to her small hometown in Minnesota, where she learns that her sister has been investigating the possibility that a factory in the town, its main employer, may be poisoning the residents. This novel has a mystery or two and some thrills but is really a book about relationships in a family and small town facing a big problem but mostly focused on how they approach their own relationship issues. I enjoyed it, but it had ingredients that I wanted to see used differently. One of the main character is as a demolition expert. I wanted to see more of that in her life, but it’s off on the sidelines and seems something she randomly fell into rather than a profession that says something about her or might come in handy in a small town in Minnesota. It’s not the author’s fault that I kept wanting it to be crime fiction rather than a novel about family secrets, but it did make me feel a little itchy, as if there was some unrealized potential that no doubt was realized perfectly well if you weren’t so attuned to the expectations and rhythms of another genre.

I thought I would also toss in a few other things I have saved to Diigo in November:

Jen Howard – “With ‘Social Reading’ Books Become Places to Meet” – profiling a project to share annotations and comments on More’s Utopia, the sort of book that I might want to socialize over. This has great pedagogical and scholarly potential, though truth be told, I find students prefer jotting notes on paper copies, given the choice.

Pew Internet Project – How Teens do Research in a Digital Age – interesting to compare teacher’s impressions with those of students reported by Project Information Literacy, and of the employers the PIL folks talked to in their most recent study.

Craig Mod – Post-Artifact Books & Publishing – one of those things you bookmark intending to read closely one of these days. It may seem snarky to say it, but I probably would be more inclined to process it carefully if it were an artifact. But then, there are many artifacts I intend to read closely, and don’t.


the loneliness of the unshared e-book

May 30, 2010

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page.

New York Times contributor Verlyn Klinkenborg (who visited my place of work once and was overwhelmed by the “deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class” – and used it to write an interesting piece on young women’s hesitance to claim authority as writers) reflects on reading on an iPad. And he has exactly the same reservations about the experience as I do.

“All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly,” he writes. There is no design of the words on the page, no distinction among books. They all look alike, and every at every page you feel as if you’re in the same place in the text, somewhere in the middle. It’s impossible to get a sense of how old the book is, what makes the book visually distinctive, or where you are in the text. There’s  a profusion of editions of classics and translations, but because they’re all dressed in the same burlap duds, it’s hard to tell which is newer, which is more authoritative, which is more accurate. This seeming democracy of words has made every book wear the same drab, ill-fitting uniform.

But I am particularly pleased that he ends with this point that will have the greatest impact on our reading culture.

I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. [ed. note: many major publishers have insisted this feature be disabled for their books.] The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

photo courtesy of Jemsweb.


another fine mess – Patterson, Amazon, and the commodification of reading

January 30, 2010

I’ve been mulling over how to respond to the amazing profile of James Patterson ™ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, but this morning’s news that Amazon has instantly removed Macmillan’s books over a dispute on e-book pricing adds an interesting wrinkle.

“Removed” is an oversimplification;  used copies are on sale, because Amazon and the seller make money on those, but Macmillan and their authors do not. There is no indication, of course, that new books exist and could be bought elsewhere. Amazon will sell you the book, just not share profits with the publisher and, by default, the author. Full disclosure: I am one of Macmillan’s authors. I love my editor, and I appreciate them publishing me, but I also enjoy my day job and it’s a good thing because I’d never make a living writing crime fiction. I’m not too bothered that the listing for my forthcoming book is among los desaparecidos. I’d rather you buy it from an indie, anyway.  This is not about me. It’s about books and their future.

Comments on news threads like this tend to fall into patterns:

  • E-books are way too expensive.
  • DRM sucks.
  • My words as an author are MY PROPERTY and you will pry DRM from my cold, dead hands.
  • Traditional publishers should die already.
  • I’m a writer. How’m I supposed to make a living?
  • Amazon is great.
  • Amazon sucks.
  • Why isn’t everyone acting like  Baen/O’Reilly/Cory?
  • Self publishing is the future.
  • Self-publishing sucks.
  • Cut out the middleman. Sell direct.
  • But what about indie bookstores?
  • Indie bookstores suck. I get much better deals at Amazon.

[Sunday update: Amazon blinked, grudgingly. Their relationship remains "it's complicated."] But let’s set all that aside for now. Here’s what struck me about the Patterson profile (which didn’t go into his psychology as a fictional FBI profiler would … now wouldn’t that be interesting ? But I digress.)

Transformers – More than Meets the Eye

The subtitle of “James Patterson Inc.” is “How a Genre Writer has Transformed Book Publishing.” There are really two stories here: one aggressively business-minded author has created a highly successful brand and sold millions of books; publishers drool over big hits, and he’s hit his home run farther than anyone other than God when he wrote The Bible (but damn, forgot to inscribe “copyright shall last forever” as the eleventh commandment or he would be rolling by now. Think of all the derivatives! The children’s versions! The movie rights! But I digress.)

The other story is about changes in the book industry that set the stage for Patterson, inc.

Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.

What did Patterson add to the mix? Television advertising. Swift and strategic development of new product lines for children and romance readers. Outsourcing the actual writing to hungry midlisters. Trusted product that has little swearing or challenges to family values (in one series the manly detective is a single parent of 12 adoptees – “’Cheaper by the Dozen’ meets ‘Die Hard,’ as Patterson describes it”).  But there’s lots of violence, particularly against women – you may want to avert your eyes from this tidbit:

The thriller genre is generally not for the squeamish, but Patterson’s tend to be especially graphic, and the violence often involves sociopathic sexual perversion and attractive young women. For instance, the villain in his second Alex Cross novel, “Kiss the Girls,” is a psychopath who kidnaps, rapes and tortures college girls in an underground bunker; at one point, he even feeds a live snake into the anus of one of his victims.

I can’t help but be reminded of a recent post by Peter Rozovsky on the most disturbing noir song ever, “He Hit Me, but it Felt Like a Kiss.”  But I digress.

The Ecosystem of Books and Reading

This is what I’m taking away from all of this.

Books produced this way are like meals at McDonald’s. They are filling and they’re fast. They provide a satisfying meal for people who have little time and can’t afford to try things they may not like because they work two jobs and just want a little predictable escape for a few hours. These kinds of books are bad for you, not because the nutritional value is harmful so much as the ecological harm they do.

Think about McDonald’s. We stopped growing people food to grow corn to feed cows to butcher and grind up in enormous, karma-destroying meat factories, shipping the resulting pink sludge in ozone-destroying trucks, subsidizing crops that are genetically engineered intellectual property owned by giant corporations that will sue your ass if you save seeds or if seeds accidentally end up growing in your fields without their permission; we import real food from Chile and elsewhere that lots of people can’t afford even if there was a grocery store in their neighborhood. And we wash that burger down with sugared beverages sweetened by subsidized corn in a production process that exhausts both water and land but makes big brands like Coke and Pepsi rich and exportable to the world.

You can’t really blame people for eating at places like McDonald’s if they’re working hard and need fast, cheap, filling food that they can count on. But it’s ruining our planet and our health.

Likewise, if we alter book production so that it’s streamlined, predictable, easily accessed by people who can’t afford to experiment by buying books they might not enjoy, then corporations will be able to churn it out. Okay, there’s a power struggle of Godzilla proportions going on between the book equivalent of agribusiness and McDonald’s, but in the end they’ll settle their differences and readers will suffer.

Some people have already joined the equivalent of a “slow book” movement. Some people will save writers like saving seeds. There will be independent bookstores just as there are local farmers markets and food coops helping members savor flavors they wouldn’t discover otherwise. Lots of people are growing their own stories. But none of that works for the person who works long hours, has little paycheck to show for it (or has a big paycheck but doesn’t read except on airplanes), and can’t spend a lot of time seeking new authors when they know a book with James Patterson on the cover will give them the escape they enjoy. Everything else is for elitists and snobs.

The analogy, thank goodness, doesn’t really hold up.

First, the government doesn’t provide subsidies to publishers to plant more James Pattersons. Avid readers constitute a significant share of the book buying market and they have adventurous pallets. We are likely to see a growing divide – with small publishers providing variety and the big six focused on fast food, or folding because the big bets they place on finding the next Patterson don’t work out. But not all of our arable land will be planted with Patterson-engineered stories because the book business hasn’t swung subsidy deals as agribusiness has.

Second, our ace in the hole: public libraries. They do a good job of helping people get their hands on the books they enjoy without passing judgment, and they are great advisors about what to read while you’re on  a waitlist for the latest James Patterson. Libraries grow readers, and readers love books. All is not lost. But we’re in for some interesting times.

photo courtesy of Libby taken at a free-for-all when a book warehouse in Bristol let people take what they wanted last year. The business’s lease had run out.


yo, public librarians (at least those who loan book club kits)

January 22, 2010

I was able to get some copies of In the Wind for cheap from my publisher and – not wanting to do any harm to the independent bookstores who have invested shelf space in my books – I thought I’d give them to libraries. Specifically, I’m having a drawing for libraries who offer book discussion kits. The libraries that win the drawing will get 8 copies with a discussion guide to any librarian who thinks it would fit their program. (It’s hardcover, so I’m thinking 8 is about all that people would want to hoist – ?) It has political themes as well as threads on families coping with mental illness and plot twists that should make it discussable; at least someone told me he hated the ending, which is usually promising for discussion. (His hasn’t been a universal reaction, but it doesn’t totally surprise me. I kind of hated it too, when I realized how it would end.)

If you’re wondering “errr, I don’t know, would we even want this?” – it did get pretty good reviews.  But I realize space and resources for cataloging/promoting this kind of kit are limited. So if it doesn’t seem a good fit for your library, no worries.

Full disclosure: this is part of my Cunning Plan to coax a few more readers out there to sample the first Anni Koskinen book before Through the Cracks, the sequel to In the Wind, comes out this spring. This is the Gateway Drug theory of reading. Also, it’s to give back to public libraries, which have been feeding my habit for decades. (Mrs. Wiebel, it’s all your fault that I’m a book junkie! Bless you.)

If you are interested, send me an e-mail (to bfister @ hickorytech . net – with the spaces removed) with a contact name and your library mailing address. I’ll be pulling a couple of names from a hat by the end of the month. It’s always a good feeling to find books a new home.

UPDATE: I sent individual books to ten libraries and kits to two – map here:


libary=pirate bay

May 29, 2009

This snack from Publisher’s Lunch reported from BEA caught my eye:

Macmillan’s John Sargent underscored that “you shouldn’t focus on Google as the danger point; the danger is what Google enables in making a copy and giving it to libraries,” whose mission to is disseminate information for free. “It becomes a very dangerous world when piracy exists, most importantly,” Sargent said, “to get control of the digital copies that libraries are going to have.”

On noes! Free copies!! Agghhh, run for your lives!!!

But, uh . . . the books being digitized belong to the libraries. And they can’t share the digital versions without getting their asses sued. So what are you so worried about, exactly? That pirates will hack Hathi Trust?

Why aren’t you all freaked out about that search inside full text at Amazon? Oh, right! [smacks head] They sell books, so they’re okay. None of that scary free stuff. Whew.


“it’s not clear”

May 23, 2009

Wired weighs in on U Mich’s renegotiation with the Google Books library project, and the title pretty well sums up their interpretation “UMich gets Better Deal in Google’s Library of the Future Project.” (Is that what’s called now? Cripes. All your book are belong to us.)

What cracks me up is the final, puzzled line.

Google will sell full-text access to all the books in its index to libraries and institutions, but critics say the price of that will be set very high . . .

That’s why giving UM (and possibly the other scanning libraries) some method to contest the price matters. But it’s not clear why UM would protest the pricing of such institutional subscriptions, because the changes also mean Google will subsidize the entire cost of UM’s institutional subscriptions.

Man, these guys truly do not get libraries!


why information literacy is a hard sell

July 19, 2008

As they are wont to do, a bunch of random ideas have just caromed off each other. This is your brain. This is your brain on a billiard table.

First, I was mulling over a funny thing that happened on a writers’ list. Someone asked a question about a medication. Another member, a librarian, pointed out a couple of wonderful resources where you can get answers to questions like hers. A third member said “here’s the answer. I’m a doctor.” And the chorus of replies was “Thank you so much! I always turn to experts! If I do my own research, I have to read too much and it’s confusing and some of it may be wrong.” Basically – “damn you, librarians, and your your tools of ambiguity; your solution requires judgment, and I don’t trust mine. Also, it’s work. Bah!”

So here’s the trouble with this thing we librarians believe in so passionately and have named so badly – information literacy. “I don’t want to think for myself, because its hard work and I might get it wrong; I just want an answer. Libraries are useless because they have far too many.”

That particular doctor was no doubt trustworthy. But what about those times when he’s not there, or it’s not his specialty? On this list you ask and hope someone who sounds credible pipes in with an answer.”Here’s a good place to look it up” is not a welcome suggestion.

What this collided with was in my billiard-table brain was some campaign folderol in the past twenty-four hours. McCain made a speech blasting Obama for only now going to Afghanistan. How could anyone possibly hold any informed opinion about a country in conflict if he hadn’t climbed off a plane and stood on its soil surrounded by cameras and heavily-armed security?

My immediate thought was “well, Obama does know how to read.”

I’m not saying expertise or first-hand experience is unimportant. But we have to make judgments all the time about things that we don’t know first hand and haven’t made our profession. We have to read and we have to winnow and yes, it’s work. But doing that work is the only way we can be free human beings. Weighing evidence is a skill everyone needs. You can defer to the experts, but sometimes they’re wrong or they’re biased or they’re lying, something Karl Rove turned into a science.

Sometimes, you have to think for yourself.

How do you learn to do that? That’s the hard part, but it should be what education is all about.

photo courtesy of jpstanley


in the meanwhile . . .

June 10, 2008

I’m slowly adding some photos from my trip to flickr. I think this one’s my favorite. I was heading toward the Mystery Company in Carmel Indiana (home of the nation’s first stoplight, but they moved on to better things – roundabouts everywhere) taking the scenic route through Indianapolis, and bumped into their public library. I hear it was beset by delays, cost overruns, lawsuits and all manner of conflict, but the final result is awesome. It blends a classic grand library, beautifully restored, with a glass-and-shiny-bits contemporary building, the two joined with a swooping atrium.

But best of all – secret staircases! I don’t think the door was meant to be open, and when I looked again it was shut and locked.

secret staircase


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