Monday, January 28, 2008

Link-Mad Monday: WI3 and "the reading business"

Welcome home from Winter Institute, booksellers! From all I've heard already, this year in Louisville was just as invigorating a session as last year in Portland. Here's where you can find out more:

The lovely Lori Kauffman of Brookline Booksmith was live blogging from WI3 on her blog, Brookline Blogsmith; check it out for some impressions of Danny Meyer's opening presentation on hospitality vs. service, Gary Hirschberg's bit on saving the world while making a living, some bookseller/librarian conspiring, and Lori's pick of the galleys. And I suspect there's more to come -- the intensity of the programming can make it impossible to find time to blog, so sometimes it's all about the recap afterward.

Dan Cullen of the ABA was also live blogging on the ABA blog, Omnibus, and has posted exhaustive coverage of the whole thing, Thursday to Saturday, plus lots of pictures. Dan humbly admits the difficulty of finding time or a single perspective on a weekend that includes "24 educational sessions, 12 rep picks' sessions, 3 keynote addresses, an author reception... and a closing reception", but he also does a killer job of capturing a weekend of "flow", that state of concentrated bliss when you're working so well on the work you love that time doesn't seem to exist. (Here's one of my favorite pictures, of three of my Emerging Leaders Council cohorts: Susan Weiss, Sylla McClellan, and Sweet Pea Flaherty. I know Megan Sullivan was also there; can't wait to hear all about it, guys!)

And of course, today's Shelf Awareness has the first in a series of articles recapping the experience and lessons of WI3, written by John Mutter and Susan Weiss. Looking forward to vicariously absorbing those lessons through them.

(And yes, incidentally, there is a little bit about yours truly and my terrific Wednesday night in there too... thanks for the mention!)

Again, I'd love to get a bookseller or two to write here about Winter Institute: their overall experience, a specific session or topics, or even the people you met. Send me an email or leave a comment if you'd like to be a guest poster.

In the meantime, I was surprised and gratified to read an article in the New York Times this weekend that actually rebutted the "no one reads anymore" opinion -- in an article reviewing the Amazon Kindle. Apparently about two weeks ago Steve Jobs of Apple made an already infamous statement when asked about the Kindle and whether Apple would be looking to get into the e-reader business:

"“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

In the Times piece, Randall Stross politely but thoroughly demolishes this absurdity, and ends with a challenge for those of us in what we now call "the book business". Here's the passage -- I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

To Mr. Jobs, this statistic dooms everyone in the book business to inevitable failure.

Only the business is not as ghostly as he suggests. In 2008, book publishing will bring in about $15 billion in revenue in the United States, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association.

One can only wonder why, by the Study Group’s estimate, 408 million books will be bought this year if no one reads anymore?

A survey conducted in August 2007 by Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press found that 27 percent of Americans had not read a book in the previous year. Not as bad as Mr. Jobs’s figure, but dismaying to be sure. Happily, however, the same share — 27 percent — read 15 or more books.

In fact, when we exclude Americans who had not read a single book in that year, the average number of books read was 20, raised by the 8 percent who read 51 books or more. In other words, a sizable minority does not read, but the overall distribution is balanced somewhat by those who read a lot.

If a piece of the book industry’s $15 billion seems too paltry for Mr. Jobs to bother with, he is forgetting that Apple reached its current size only recently. Last week, Apple reported that it posted revenue of $9.6 billion in the quarter that spanned October to December 2007, its best quarter ever, after $24 billion in revenue in the 2007 fiscal year, which ended in September.

But as recently as 2001, before the iPhone and the iPod, Apple was a niche computer company without a mass market hit. It was badly hurt by the 2001 recession and reported revenue of only $5.3 billion for the year. This is, by coincidence, almost exactly what Barnes & Noble reported in revenue for its 2007 fiscal year. In neither case did the company owners look at that number, decide to chain the doors permanently shut and call it quits.

Amazon does not release details about revenue for books, but books were its first business. And Andrew Herdener, a company spokesman, said that Amazon’s book sales “have increased every year since the company began.”

The book world has always had an invisible asset that makes up for what it lacks in outsize revenue and profits: the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

For another smart (if slightly cranky) refutation of the "decline of reading civilization argument", I'd recommend Ursula Le Guin's piece in Harper's Magazine -- it absorbed me for most of an evening I should have been doing more practical things at the bookstore, but I feel like I've got more arrows in the quiver for arguments about why things are not now worse than they have ever been. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it all!