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

a random thought about love and work

January 4, 2013

I am often thinking about the ways that marketing and branding and the hustle of selling your identity deforms our social interactions (and our identites), which came into focus when reading an essay, “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham, which I found via Brain Pickings, which I found via Readlists which I found thanks to Josh Hadro at Library Journal. Which is probably more than you want to know.

Anyway, here’s what I liked:

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration.

After more discussion of what leads people astray – including money, which is particularly problematic when it gets combined with prestige, he adds this:

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it.

I know a lot of writers who say “I can’t not write!” Some of them get up super-early to give themselves time to immerse themselves in this thing they love, or have an itch to get something on paper in the middle of the night and get up and do it. People who tend to stare into the distance a lot because they’re with their characters.

Graham points out that this doesn’t mean loving every minute of the work, because there are times when it’s just a slog, but the work will help you figure out what you love to do most. Where I see a lot of unhappiness in writing circles (and in academic circles, for that matter) is when you forget what you love because you’re trying desperately to make people notice (often in a crowded room where nearly everyone is doing the same thing), or you’re noticed and it’s not the kind of notice you want and it makes you squirm, or you’re awaiting notice from a first reader or an editor or reviewers and the anxiety is eating you up.

It’s a truism these days that writing is half marketing and self-promotion. If so, it’s not the kind of life I want to have. In reality, money and attention is not a terribly good measure of a writer’s worth. Lots of fantastic writers can’t make a living from writing and promoting their books. Even those who do seem perennially uncertain how the next book will be received. I’m always amazed by how insecure even the most successful writers can be.

The fact is, we can’t live a happy life through the prestige our work brings us, any more than we can live through the lives of our children. We have to pay attention to what we love, whether it’s our kids or our work. If I have a new year’s resolution, it’s to be more aware of what I really care about and let that shape my daily choices of what to do with my energies.

love, dream, smilephoto courtesy of Joe Philipson

Edited to add: I just read a great talk by Bethany Nowviskie, a digital humanities scholar and brilliant blogger, who cites a line from William Morris that suddenly seemed to fill a gap in this post. Doing what you love doesn’t mean always enjoying what you’re doing. It can be frustrating, discouraging, head::desk inducing and sometimes repetitively so. Knowing the difference between something you are doing because you think you ought to even though you hate it and doing something difficult because the work you love and are trying to do well demands it is sometimes a challenge. Morris said “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.” So next time I bang my head against something, I’ll try to remember this and figure out if it’s external influences that are driving my activities or if it’s the material itself putting up a fight.


choose your own adventure

March 28, 2011

My friend Larry posts a lot of weird stuff to his Facebook page. Not weird as in “how unusual” but weird as in “seriously? how can that be?” yet sadly far from unusual these days. The other day he posted a recent news story link – one on an Alaska politician who believes people who have sex outside of marriage should be criminally prosecuted by the state (a politician who, of course, belongs to the party of small government) and I responded that I wanted to wake up from this dream because it’s getting too weird.

And that’s so often how it feels; like one of those dreams you have in the hour before the alarm goes off, the nightmares that feel so real and so very wrong, the ones where normal life has become warped and looks just like normal, only totally off kilter. It’s scary precisely because everyone else in the dream seems to think it’s how things should be. Because it feels impossible, but inevitable.

I felt the same way this morning, reading two stories from the publishing world, courtesy of Shelf Awareness. One fit neatly right next to the recent story in the New York Times that pointed out G.E. has paid no taxes in the past two years, even though they made $5 billion in profits in the US (and over $14 billion worldwide.)

Here’s the book world business-as-usual weirdness: Apparently top officials in the failed Borders bookstore chain stand to earn over 8 billion in bonuses if the company pulls off its latest fantasy business league restructuring plan. These are not people of the book. They are businessmen who jumped aboard a sinking ship and pretended to steer as it broke up. Yet an unnamed publishing executive at a major house thinks they should get that bonus, telling a WSJ reporter “I want to see Borders come out of this. If they don’t have these guys, I don’t see a chance.”

Reader, with these captains of industry steering the ship we don’t stand a chance.

But there are alternatives. Here is one – and sweet, sweet irony, it’s temporarily occupying the shell of a Borders store in Pittsburgh. Karen the Small Press Librarian points out that Fleeting Pages will move in for a month to provide alternative and indy books, book arts events, workshops, and projects. You’ve heard of pop-up books. This is a pop-up book future, DIY, hand-on, and without executives who require big bonuses. But feel free to volunteer. This may not be the future, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it sure as hell is better than the current Billionaires in Bizarro World storyline we’re living in.

Because there’s one thing that transcends money, big salaries, business strategies, and corporate goals. It’s simple, and it’s been around for a long time: people telling stories to each other. People creating. People sharing. As the captains of industry squabble over who gets to hold the wheel of the ship, not noticing that an iceberg of greed has already ripped a hole in your hull, we’ll keep sharing our stories.

This intriguing picture comes from a Wreck This Journal set by The Shopping Sherpa. In fact, there's a whole Wreck This Journal group at Flickr. Beautiful!


March 12, 2011

This is only halfway working out. That is I have been buying books from independent bookstores that I support. But oddly  enough, I tend not to read them as quickly as books that I don’t personally purchase. (What’s up with that? Is this the beginning of a new range for Mount TBR*? And how do those who have decided to make their mountain ranges invisible by impulsively buying e-books keep track of the altitude of their unread reading material? Do unread e-books have the power to call out to you as do physical books? Or for that matter to shame you into reading them? But I digress.)

Anyway, here’s where I’m at: Previously I bought these three books from my favorite mystery bookstore, Once Upon a Crime:

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva – A wise-cracking mystery set on the mean streets of Rhode Island (aka “Rogue Island”) featuring a dogged journalist who wants to get to the bottom of a series of fatal arson attacks on houses in a working class part of town. I enjoyed the newsroom color and the author’s loving portrait of a flawed community. The wisecracks got to be a little much at times. Nominated for an Edgar award. I donated it to my local public library when I finished it.

Dog Eats Dog byIain Levison – a sardonic, satirical, Scottish farce of book. Like a French farce, but deep fried and totally bad for you. At Library Thing I described it as a cross between “The Ransom of Red Chief” and In Cold Blood. A criminal who needs to lie low until a gunshot wound heals takes over the home of a bumbling college professor, but before long the idiot professor – who is as criminally-minded as the crook – has the upper hand. I was thrown by the setup including a terrible teacher at a small liberal arts college teaching two courses a year and making $100,000 a year (my suspension of disbelief  taking an early tumble and remaining suspicious for the rest of the book) and some of the black humor didn’t totally work for me because it is so deeply cynical and I guess, when it comes right down to it, I am not, even though events are conspiring to make me so.

Village of the Ghost Bears by Stan Jones – this is the one looking at me reproachfully. I bought it a while ago, but haven’t read it yet. That’s because I plan to read the previous volumes in the series after reading the first for a book discussion. I enjoyed it tremendously, particularly its strong sense of place in a fascinating setting. So it will have to wait for me to read two more volumes, which I will be spacing out to match up with 4MA discussion.

Also, I was in the cities visiting the state capital not too long ago with a few union members (a thousand or so on a bitterly cold day) and my daughter and on the way home we stopped at the new alternative bookstore, Boneshaker Books – the only bookstore I know of that provides delivery by bicycle. Anyway, I had to support them, right? So I bought a few books . . .

*Mount TBR = the accumulation of books to be read.

what? I didn’t post them?

February 2, 2011

I guess not. 2010, you are a blur to me. Busy busy busy. But I did read some books, and these were tops of the year that was.

Adrian Hyland / GUNSHOT ROAD
Fantastic and touching. Really, really, really good. Review here.

Timothy Hallinan / THE QUEEN OF PATPONG
Blow your socks off excellence. Review here.

What can I say? It worked for me. YMMV. Review here.

I liked this much more than her first two books. Really good x 3. Review here.

Pensive, enjoyable, with tolerable woo-woo. Review here.

A noir setup is trumped by an optimistic ending.  Review here.

Steve Hamilton / THE LOCK ARTIST
A potentially too-clever concept is rescued by a charming narrator. Review here.

Peter Temple / TRUTH
Hard to follow at times, but with a strange poetry. Review here.

Reggie Nadelson / BLOOD COUNT
I love the voice of this completely implausible detective. Review here.

Arnaldur Indridason / HYPOTHERMIA
Haven’t hit a dud in this series yet. Review here.

read globally, act locally

December 28, 2010

As the year comes to a close, I realized I hadn’t completed the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. I chose the medium challenge, which was to read two books from six continents. Here’s what I ended up reading (as near as I can tell – my record keeping wasn’t always consistent).


Jassy McKenzie – Random Violence (South Africa)
Malla Nunn – A Beautiful Place to Die (South Africa)
—Out of that huge continent, I only read books from one country. I should venture out more.


Tarquin Hall – The Case of the Missing Servant (India)
Christopher Moore – Asia Hand (Thailand)
Timothy Hallinan – The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, The Queen of Patpong (Thailand)
—Well, two countries – a bit better.


Peter Temple – Truth (Australia)
Garry Disher – Blood Moon (Australia)
Adrian Hyland – Gunshot Road (Australia)
—About time I read a New Zealand author, eh?


Louise Welsh – Naming the Bones (Scotland)
Mark Billingham – Bloodlines (England)
Harri Nykanen – Raid and the Blackest Sheep (Finland)
Arnaldur Indridason – Hypothermia (Iceland)
Anders Roslund and Borge Helstrom – Three Seconds (Sweden)
Martin  Cruz Smith – Three Stations (Russia)
Jo Nesbo – The Snowman (Norway)
Ake Edwardson – The Shadow Woman (Sweden)
Hennikng Mankell – The Man From Beijing (Sweden, China, US, Africa – does this one book count for four continents?)
John Harvey – Far Cry (England)
Nicci French – The Other Side of the Door (England)
Barry Maitland – Dark Mirror (England)
Jarkko Sipila – Vengeance (Finland)
Tana French – Faithful Place (Ireland)
Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Sweden)
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room (Sweden)
Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Last Rituals (Iceland)
—Better read something Danish next … and perhaps French and German and Italian and Spanish and .,.

North America (incl Central America)

John McFetridge – Let it Ride (Canada)
Brent Pilkey – Lethal Rage (Canada)
—Plus more books set in the US that I care to list. Oddly enough, none were set in the Northwest (or Alaska, or Hawaii).

South America

Claudia Piniero – The Thursday Night Widows (Argentina)
Leighton Gage – Dying Gasp (Brazil)
—The Piniero I read just now expressly to wrap up the challenge, and I’m glad I did though of all the books I read, it has the least “foreign” feel; it’s set in a gated community that is a weird clone of any gated community in the United States full of new, ostentatious and highly-mortgaged houses. Yet it’s part of recent Argentinian culture. Fascinating, if depressing.

There are lots of intriguing reading challenges for 2011, but I think I’ll stick to reading mostly what I feel like and see if, at the end of the year, where I’ve been. I do appreciate those who participate in challenges, though, because their reviews become tempting destinations.

Another challenge I hope all avid readers will consider if they are in a position to do so is shopping at independent bookstores. Businesses like Uncle Edgar’s and Once Upon a Crime (my local mystery bookstores) do so much for the genre I love that I want to keep them around. Independent bookstores often offer discounts and free shipping, so don’t assume you’ll get a better deal online or at a chain; they’ll also take orders online or by phone, so it’s as convenient as buying online. They offer passion and knowledge that is hard to match anywhere as well as a community hub for book lovers. They’re worth preserving and the decisions we make when we buy books matter.

“an appetite for murder and revenge”?

December 12, 2010

This strange bit of reasoning just appeared in today’s New York Times in an editorial about Justice Steven’s excellent book review analyzing why he feels the death penalty is wrong.

The justice says that endorsing capital punishment is touted as a commitment to law and order — whether it was Gov. George W. Bush presiding over 40 executions in Texas in 2000 (the most ever in a year in one state) or elected judges in Alabama favoring the penalty (while unelected judges in Delaware do not). Its cultural power is demonstrated by Americans’ appetite for mysteries about murder and revenge.

Reading crime fiction is evidence that Americans are culturally disposed to violent vengeance? Then how do you account for the popularity of the genre in the UK, where capital punishment was banned decades ago? Or in Scandinavia, where the state does not execute its prisoners but where crime fiction flourishes?

I live in a US state in which a botched execution over 100 years ago disgusted the populace so thoroughly and permanently that capital punishment was abolished, but we have a great many talented mystery writers and not just one, but two fabulous independent mystery bookstores to aid and abet the Minnesotans’ passion for the genre.

Norwegians have a tradition of passkekrim, celebrating the Easter holiday by reading crime fiction. I suspect most Norwegians just want to have something good to read over the holiday, but it certainly is not the case that they mark the occasion by indulging in vicarious bloodthirsty revenge. In fact, when I observe passkekrim this spring I will try to remember that not only did Jesus pardon a condemned criminal and welcome him into his kingdom, but that he himself was arguably the most famous of the many who are wrongfully convicted.



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