Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Comment: Blogs, Books, and Anti-Indie Backlash

Friday morning at BEA I attended a panel discussion titled "Blog 2.0: How Blogs Continue to Re-Define Author, Publisher and Reader Dynamics." Other bloggers (Ed, Max) have commented on the perplexing fact that the panel contained not a single literary blogger (i.e. one who reviews books and book news). The closest thing was the presence of Kyle Crafton of Media Bistro (which hosts blogs, including GalleyCat, runs writing classes and contains advertising but isn't exactly a blog) and Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch / Publishers Marketplace (which is more of a newsletter, and which I admit I've stopped reading because it's more about publishing personnel than books, and because I got tired of the ads for the pay version of the site). The other panelists were Ana Marie Cox (i.e. D.C. gossip blogger/fiction writer Wonkette), Dan Berstein (author of the book BLOG!), and Marcos Zuniga (famed force behind the political blog Daily Kos).

The panel did come up with some interesting insights: Berstein predicted that there will be a convergence, not a war, between print and online media; Crafton outlined options for making money as a publisher through author blogs; Cox admitted that she started her blog because she couldn't get hired to write what she wanted to write; and Zuniga stressed that blogs are not about blogging, but about identifying strong voices in particular niches, without gatekeepers to moderate content. Michael Cader had the most quotable statement of the panel, when he actually defined what a blog is: "a website that showcases an individual voice." He hypothesized that this is significant in the rise of individual over institutional voices, surmising that each of the panelists had begin their blogging ventures because there was no place for what they wanted to say in the available print media outlets.

There was a good mixture of current bloggers and curious potential bloggers in the audience, and I hope this and other panels sponsored by ABA and BookExpo will lead to an increased publisher and bookseller presence in the literary blogosphere. As I mentioned in the link madness, the proprietor of Book Court in Brooklyn bravely stood up and mentioned what his store is doing online, which is very impressive, and Atomic Books in Baltimore is still my standard for what a store website/blog can be. I think a session where we as booksellers share tips on making our individual voices heard on the web would be immensely useful.

The strangest moment in the panel, however, came when I asked that question to the assembled bloggers: how can we as booksellers, individual voices as opposed to the monolithic voices of Barnes & Noble and Amazon, learn from bloggers how to form coalitions and make our voices heard? Wonkette politely suggested a bookstore community chat room, though it seemed obvious none of the bloggers had considered the question before. Then Mr. Daily Kos spoke up (if I remember correctly) with his opinion that independent bookstore are "whiners," telling customers they should patronize them "just because they're not corporate," when there's no reason to do so unless the independents have something to offer the customers to make it worth their while. It seemed like a strange thing to say (or at least strangely expressed) in a room full of ABA members, especially from a markedly leftist figure, but as he had also expressed the opinion that people who read blogs don't read books (a statement which is contradicted every time someone reads this blog or any of the links on the right), I felt somewhat comfortable deciding that Mr. Kos is just speaking from a different experience that may not have any relevance on the actual experience of those in the book world.

The trouble is, he's not the only one. Tyler Cowen recently wrote a story for Slate titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Good For? Not Much," which posits that "Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case." He argues that internet culture has filled the need for obscure/offbeat books and commentary that indie stores once did, and that those who cry for their preservation are for the most part elitist snobs. And Bookslut, in a Book Standard article entitled "Jessa Crispin Says Quit Griping About Where to Buy Books," argues that it's just not that big of a deal whether we shop at chains or indies, and we should all stop "keep[ing] the debate alive—infinitely and uselessly."

Before those of us who love independents write these commentators off as consumer zombies/tools of the Man/irredeemable Snarks/heartless moneygrubbers who value a discount over their soul/etc…. it's worth stopping to ask where this backlash is coming from, and even whether we can learn anything from it. To me, the fact that such commentary exists is evidence that the independent bookstores' message that it is better to shop indie than chain has reached a certain critical mass that demands commentary. And that can be a good thing. For each one of these critical opinions (who, it can hardly be denied, are cultural elitists themselves as well), there are many book buyers who have realized that they do have a choice when they buy books, and that that choice might matter.

And to be honest, is it possible they might have a point. It's funny that both Cowen and Crispin site Laura Miller's book RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS as one of those unreasonable voices crying out for support of the indies as a political consumer act, when the first few chapters of her book (which I'm working through slowly) challenged me as a bookseller with some of the same issues they bring up. It's true: as ideologues of literature and community, we as independent bookseller can become elitist snobs, disregarding the experience of many who need discounted books for financial reasons or live too far away to frequent an indie bookstore. Some of us snub literature we don’t think is worthy, some of us sniff at people who value discounts or convenience, some of us turn snarly when chains are mentioned. I have been to (and even worked in) independent bookstores where the selection of books was insufficient; the staff was snobby, or sullen, or unresponsive, or undertrained; the physical space was unappealing. Bottom line: just being an independent bookstore doesn't mean you're a good bookstore, and you can't expect people to shop with you out of pure moral virtue.

However, I believe there are, in fact, ethical reasons to shop at an independent as opposed to a chain, if it is possible. As studies posted on the ABA website show, independent retailers circulate a much higher percentage of their income back into the local economy, as opposed to funneling it away to corporate offices. Indies have a more transparent relationship with their community, and are directly accountable for whether their actions please their customers. And then there's the intangible stuff like quality of life, community, the serendipity of a new face and a new book, which, say what you will, doesn't happen on the internet in quite the same way. There's a value in the slowness of real-time interpersonal interactions that is in a way a political act, a counterpoint to increasing corporatization and homogenization.

I don't think chains or the internet are evil. As some have pointed out in commentary on Cowen's article, these sources have made books available to readers in some areas that have no independent bookstores, and we can hardly fault them for that. And some chain stores have awesome employees and serve their community well. And I think that some independent bookstores will not survive if they try to rest on their ideological laurels without, as Kos points out, offering something that customers want to come in for.

Come to think of it, that's what I spent three days at BEA doing: learning ways to make our store a place that people will come to and shop in. We do think independent bookselling is more ethical and fulfilling than chain bookstores, but that's not what we're selling. We're selling good books, and books people want, and a good experience, and a good value. We're offering community and culture and connectedness. It's not a right to experience these things; it's a wonderful, treasured privilege, and all of us who can should count ourselves lucky, and not entitled, to be a part of it. We should be understanding of those who can't experience that privilege, and work to make it more available.

I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I think the backlash against indies, especially by those on the web side of things, is just the beginning of the growing pains of a new convergence of those individual voices to make independent bookselling more truly appealing and accessible and vibrant than ever before.

What do you think?

14 comments:

lady t said...

I think this backlash comes the "indie good,chain bad" mindset that's been promoted by a few folk for awhile now. I personally believe there's room for booksellers big and small in the marketplace and if you do want to get customers to frequent your store,you need to offer them something the other guys can't.

The book industry as a whole needs to step up the pace with the ever changing and growing world of the internet but not neglect the brick 'n' motar shops. It's a tricky balance but it can be done.

Andy Laties said...

The question isn't whether the Current Aggregate Group of Chainstores is better than the Current Aggregate Group of Indie Stores but whether there's a possible configuration that more effectively incubates and maintains a vigorously thoughtful and literate culture in this country. And: there is. A situation like back in say 1991 when there were 5100 indie stores plus 2000 chainstores is a lot healthier than the current 1700 indie stores and (STILL only!) 2000 chain stores.

As to why people shop for books on the internet: in a country that had thousands more storefronts selling books, there'd be many fewer people buying books on the internet. We lost all those storefronts BEFORE the rise of online bookselling, and with the rise of a new generation of storefront indie booksellers, people will cut back on their internet bookbuying and spend more time out hobnobbing with neighbors in all the swell new indie bookstores.

It doesn't matter at all what the Indie Bookstore Shopping Experience is like today. Tomorrow's will be a helluva lot better.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. And take note...the Big Corporate internet and big box sellers are no longer taking market share from us indies.

Tomorrow's indie experience absolutely WILL be a "helluva lot better." Why? Here's one reason...indies are finally figuring out that the ABA Booksense model of trying to replicate the Big Corporate Bookselling model on a smaller scale is a waste of time, effort, and money. Believe me, my customers aren't coming in to find out what Booksense or Publisher's Weekly or The New York Times is recommending. They're not coming in to oooh-and-aaah at a pretty, high tech gift card. And they're sure as hell not coming in because of a website.

Don't be afraid to be an INDEPENDENT BRICKS-AND-MORTAR BOOKSTORE. It's a ton of work, but there's no better way to spend a lifetime. You can learn from other indies...but keep in mind that their markets and yours are different.

Lookit, the internet is not going to have any significant impact on your customers' in-store experience. Ninety-five percent of the Booksense white box is filled with crap. And bestseller lists are global. Be local. Be independent.

Dave in NJ

Andy Laties said...

Note to the American Booksellers Association: You have about 170 "provisional members" right now. That is: 170 people are currently planning to open a bookstore, and have joined the Association. But, at any given moment, the target number for provisional membership should be 500. We need a much higher rate of indie bookstore origination right now, and that means we need a revival of the ABA-run Prospective Booksellers Schools: six per year, around the country, like in the 80s. Why are we hiding our light? Let's -- as working booksellers -- help fill all those bookstore-bereft neighborhoods around the country with storefront bookstores owned and launched by neighbors, for neighbors.

Book Nerd said...

I love your passion, and your optimism! You are totally the people I want on my side, and I agree with you 100%. As Lady T and Andy point out, a better balance between the chains and the indies may be what's needed for a better bookselling landscape, and that means opening more indie bookstores, and that means mentoring and supporting new bookstore owners and their stores. And as Dave points out, such a bookstore serves itself and its community best by being as local -- i.e., offering something valuable and DIFFERENT from the chains -- as possible.

Do you think the internet can play any kind of positive role in shifting the balance toward indies? Conversations like this one are obviously one way. Why do book people tend to see the internet as the enemy?

Anonymous said...

Can the internet play a positive role in shifting the balance?

Well, it's a great vehicle for booksellers looking to share ideas and market news with each other. It's a great vehicle for simplifying back-room operations (and, as such, making smaller stores more viable financially).

That said, I don't think the internet creates significant value for brick-and-mortar indies when it comes to interacting with our customers. It's a completely different business model. The reality of the internet (as it pertains to retail) is (a) it makes it easy to communicate to a large number of potential customers, (b) potential customers reached over the internet have become comfortable with - and now expect capabilities for - making on-line purchases, and (c) if you're going to sell over the internet, you've gotta compete on price.

When folks talk about brick-and-mortar independents using the internet, I try to imagine a merger between Wal-Mart and Nordstom. Or Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Or FAO Schwartz and Toys R Us. COuld it be done? Sure, give it a shot. Could it be done well? I don't think so.

Quite frankly, I don't spend my days wondering how I'm going to get internet bookbuyers to come into the store. They don't want human interaction, and they do want deep deep discounts. So they're not the "enemy" as far as business competition. However, I do view them as the enemy of books in general. See, when these internet suck-asses implicitly or explicitly describe books as nothing more than a means of communicating information...a means that can be easily replaced by electronic forms...my blood boils. These people don't understand books. Shit, if told them their house was just like a tent, they'd be offended. Or their BMW was just like a motorbike. Or or or. You get me.

Now I'm all upset and I have to go have a drink.

Dave in NJ

Andy Laties said...

The funniest thing about the rise of internet bookselling and bookbuying is that a significant aspect of it is a search for quick income. Many of the people now engaged in selling books online seem to treat it as analagous to the day-trading of stocks. And the software encourages this. The constant software-driven price-jockeying -- the automated nudging of prices up and down by pennies in order to maximize placement in search results, for instance. These "booksellers" aren't fixated on converting some individual into becoming a "reader" of some book: they're trying to grab a transaction and make a buck on a marked-up shipping fee or something. Online bookselling, having been promoted as a way to make some cash on the side, has therefore turned online booksellers into moneygrubbers par-excellance. Not that this is what most of these folks WANT to have become. They're trapped by their own software. This is why they should be encouraged to move out of their houses and into storefronts. Time to meet the readers face to face!

susan said...

Independent bookstores are a vital link to the book industry. When Dave Eggars started McSweeney's, the local Barnes and Noble could not carry it without corporate approval, which didn't come. It was the local independent bookstores that supported McSweeney's, which helped them to become the publisher they are today. And, it is the independent bookstores that handsell the little known, and new books that go on to become bestsellers.

lady t said...

I have to agree with Dave about the Booksense box-I was the one in charge of going thru those bad boys(I called them"Whitman's Sampler" due to the shape of the box)and while there were occasional goodies,after awhile I started to notice quite a few clunkers in there.

Not just my opinion-most of the other staff didn't want to touch them either. In some cases,it looked like a particular publisher made a deal to have their books added to the Booksense mix. I do like the idea of Booksense and have contributed many blurbs for them in the past but it wouldn't hurt to give it an overhaul and maybe finetune the actual working aspects of it.

Oh,and a note about McSweeneys-when Dave Eggers published his novel,You Shall Know Our Velocity,and advertised that it would only be available at independant bookstores,he forgot to mention that those stores needed to have a McSweeney's account first. My bookstore didn't and since we were not able to get it from the likes of Ingram and B&T,we had to tell anyone who wanted the book that we had to get it from the publisher and add extra charges(since it was listed as a 20% percent discount-average discount for booksellers to sell a title at list price is 40%). I don't begrudge McSweeneys for wanting to sell a book under their own banner but it should've been made easier for all of the indies to get,not just the ones who were already signed on. I had so many people who didn't understand why we couldn't get it right away. It's an old issue,I know,but it's something to keep in mind.

lauren said...

I've been thinking about this a lot recently and even more so since I read this post and these comments over the last two days and I have to throw in my two cents. I feel like where I spend my money these days is just as important, if not more so, as who and what I vote for. And I want to cast my "money vote" for people who are passionate about what they do, who are interested in the world around them, and who consider how they affect change in the world. I go to indie bookstores because it's my local indie booksellers that I see out at literary events or music events or bars and that I can talk to about books and other things that I think are important whether in the store or on the corner waiting for a light to change. They are the ones who tirelessly support books and other arts where I live and I just don't see the folks from the chain stores doing the same. Maybe that's just me, maybe I don't have my eyes open, or I'm biased, but I do think people need what indies have to offer. And if you don't support them, they will suffer, and so will we.

As for the internet, web sites and blogs that link to Powells or to Booksense or to independent bookstores remind people that there are other really good alternatives out there to the big advertisers. Sometimes it's easy to forget, but the internet can play a really crucial role in reminding people how easy it is to support other retailers.

CRwM said...

Funny about Faily Kos mentioning that people who read blogs don't read books - seeing as how two books are currently paying for add space on the homepage of his newsdump site (Daily Kos: putting the "dump" back in "newsdump"). One of these paper and ink dinosaurs is even on the top of the copy column, front and center. Somebody should write these poor folks and let them know their money is being wasted.

Ben said...

It seems to me that the anti-homogenization argument is the strongest. Chains often do offer a larger selection than indies, but a buyer in a cubicle in Manhattan or Ann Arbor has generally decided which titles each store will display and recommend, almost always contingent on the publisher's ponying up a rather large amount of co-op money. These buyers are for the most part very smart, savvy, and well-read, and are usually former front-line booksellers themselves; their instincts are as good or better than those of the average indie bookseller, and they also have access to a tremendous amount of data that helps them to make smart decisions. In addition, individual chain store managers, especially in the "elite" markets, have a fair amount of leeway to tailor their inventory and displays to the habits and preferences of the communities they serve.

But the fact remains that chain stores all look and feel the same and mostly give weight to the same books, based on centralized, commodified planning and payola. They provide a comfortable atmosphere and often even a vague sense of community, but it's a branded and, yes, homogenous community. One advantage of the independent over the chain store is (or should be) the ability to tailor its selection exactly to its customers, and to provide an individual perspective, to be an individual advocate for an individual book. To use (and probably misuse) a hopelessly trendy and annoying buzzword, indies can narrowcast to their customers, and if the current conventional wisdom about the coming fragmentation/segmentation of media and cultural taste is right, narrowcasting is the future. Indies can't offer every option under the sun, like a cable system or a superstore, but they can offer you, specifically, what you want -- and better than anyone else.

As Cowen writes, the internet does this well, too, of course: your favorite litblog (or sci-fi blog or comics blog) can offer recommendations that are as reliable as your favorite indie's staff picks table. But, (and sorry to be trite) you can't browse a litblog (or amazon, really), you can't have a real-time, face-to-face conversation with a litblog, a litblog can't press a book into your hand. The intangible but profound advantage of the indie over the internet is, well, its tangibility.

Of course, this is a fundamentally elitist argument. It's elitist even to address the question. Arguments about culture are elitist by definition, at least in the U.S.

And, I'll shut up and leave this undefended, but: economists (like Cowen) should never, ever, ever get involved in cultural arguments. They're just not methodologically or ideologically equipped.

Ok, sorry. I'll go away. Keep it up, Jessica.

Andy Laties said...

On the value of Booksense: I think it may be important to remember that the program has both an Offense and a Defense to it. As a marketing concept it's Offense: that is, a way to Sell More Books. That's the theory anyway. That's what most booksellers think it's all about. So, the complaints refer to this aspect: It's not so great at Selling More Books, or some such. However: in fact, Booksense also importantly emerged out of the period when ABA was suing the big publishers, and one of the subjects of those lawsuits was unfair distribution of marketing payments throughout the bookselling industry. ABA said big publishers were giving disproportionate marketing dollars to mega-corporate chains. But the big publishers responded that they were TRYING to give money to small indie bookstores, but that these bookstores weren't applying for the co-op dollars being made available! That is: A new book is published. The publisher decides, "Let's push the hell out of it!" They decide to spent $100,000. They WANT to spread the money across the industry proportionately, so they consult their lawyers and decide to spend $60,000 with chainstores through an offered co-op advertising pool, and $40,000 with indies through a co-op ad pool (assuming that's the proportion of control of market-share in the industry: 60%/40% let's say). They tell the few large chains, and the chains take the money, and promote the book somehow. They tell the two thousand indies how to apply for chunks of the indie-money pool, and LO AND BEHOLD many of the indies essentially say "That's a bad book and just because you'll give me a couple hundred bucks I ain't gonna promote your stupid book!"

So -- the publishers were complaining to ABA that they couldn't MAKE indie bookstores take their marketing dollars, and thus it APPEARED that they were unfairly giving disproportionate money to chainstores but this was a misrepresentation of the situation.

Now -- ABA decided that they had to provide some way for "the indies" to slurp up ad dollars that the publishers said they were TRYING to give to indies. Booksense has to be understood therefore in significant part as a mechanism by which ABA, on behalf of all its members, slurps up these dollars and attempts to deploy them to the general benefit even of those stores that decide not to promote that specific book that the publisher is paying to promote. Thus it happens, for instance, that the White Box contains mediocre books and that Booksense may appear sometimes to be generally "middle-of-the-road". In this case, the ABA is simply slurping up the dollars the publishers are allocating, and therefore helping publishers abide by the Robinson-Patman Act that prevents antitrust favoritism in ad-payments.

Approximately.

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