Yes, if buying books in a bookstore is just a political statement we are in trouble

Rebecca Mead, pondering the growth of independent bookstores in the outer boroughs and the dwindling of shops in Manhattan, notes that in the age of a dominant Amazon,  “paying more to shop at a local bookstore feels virtuous, like buying locally sourced organic vegetables, or checking to see if a T-shirt is made in the U.S.A.”

I have long thought that for bookstores to be sustainable in an age when customers can buy a books for 30 or 40% cheaper from Amazon, the motivation for getting up off the couch and into the neighborhood bookstore and for putting down the credit card and paying full price needs to be more than  a sense of obligation, duty or virtuousness. The motivation has to be that the experience of shopping in a store, chatting with other customers and with clerks, of walking out with a book in hand, chosen after 30 minutes of being lost in book meatspace, is itself worth the money.

So I agree with Mead that if it’s just a sense of duty keeping them going, bookstores are in trouble. I’m not sure (in Ann Arbor anyway) that I agree that we have reached the point where that is what is motivating most customers. For Mead, though, from her vantage point in Brooklyn, it’s already too late and there’s no going back:

Still, when I consider the vanished bookstores of Manhattan, I mourn not just their passing but the loss of a certain kind of book-buying innocence—a time when where one bought a book did not constitute a political statement, and reading it did not feel like participating in a requiem.

Books in Meatspace

In a footnote to a post about the bursting of the right wing book bubble, Kevin Drum writes an obit for paper books and so much more:

B&N was a “brick and mortar” outlet, a category that flourished in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Back then, books were physical objects that had to be “shipped” to “stores.” Potential buyers would drive their “auto-mobiles” to these stores and then walk around to examine the titles in meatspace. When they were done, they would approach “cashiers,” who were employees of these stores, and exchange “money” for volumes that were printed on paper and bound with glue and thread. It was all very complicated and unsanitary, and I can’t really go into all the details in this short space. You can check out Wikipedia on your cerebral implant if you’re interested in learning more.

The weight, the heft, the lodging in the mind

I’ve read tens of thousands of words over the past few years in which people mourn the receding of physical books by focusing on what they’ll miss about the physical object itself: the smell, the feel, the ability to read in the tub. There’s so much of this that snarky book industry tweeters play bingo at conferences as these references pile up. Much more interesting to me, though, is what changes in the experience of reading when people move from taking in words on paper to reading on screens, through software. In this realm, two quotes  I’ve read recently illuminate each other.

First, James Fallows describing what he did on his winter vacation:

…I read lots of books! You remember, actual “books” — those big, made-of-paper objects whose contents, I find, lodge more firmly in your mind when you see them on a physical page than on an electronic screen.

And second, the ridiculously quotable James Bridle dropping some analysis on how the content of books enters the mind. Bridle says that books are “repositories of the experiences we have with them, and they are ultimately souvenirs of themselves”. And he compares the experience of digital music to the experience of digital literature:

The radical ephemerality of the MP3 file suits music in the same way that it destabilises the book, which has always existed to provide the corresponding physical weight to literature’s intellectual heft. Freeing the idea of the book from paper and hard covers thus entails reconceptualising what “the book” is — a weight that has proved hard for devices to take on.

Much more interesting than the bathtub thing, right?

Books, Diapers and the New York Times

The New York Times can be counted on for coverage of the
book industry that is often entertainingly out in left field.
Poor Times reporters pass along terrible insights from “industry
analysts” like Jordan Selburn, a “senior principal analyst
for consumer platforms at IHS”, quoted in yesterday’s Times.

In the era of the tablet, the difference between
a book and diaper disappears

As a father of people who were once babies, my first thought on reading this was: that is a disappearing difference that could lead to a real mess.

My second thought was: that is an unusually meaningless observation
even taken in the presumable context of the interview. The point
Selburn seems to be making is that since Amazon’s tablet, unlike
the original Kindles, offers access to the whole Amazon store, not
just books, e-book pricing will shift in a way that makes them more
expensive, now that, according to the reporter, “each product will
have to carry its own weight”. That’s a very odd point, since the
Kindle Fire table is only one of a gadrillion ways customers might
buy stuff from Amazon.com: desktop PCs, mobile phones, tablets of
all kinds all are ways to access the store, and the fact that
Amazon’s newer hardware accesses more than just books can’t make
much difference to their pricing model amidst all those people
coming in from all those directions.

I’m pretty confident that the real dynamics driving ebook prices aren’t illuminated in this article. As entertaining as Times analyst quotes (“A lot of these-book consumers aren’t behaving like lab rats at a feeder bar”?
Uh-what?) and mysterious hardware references (the caption to the
accompanying picture claims the device in the picture is a “Google
e-reader”, which does not exist) are, I’ll have to agree in
this case with Sarah Weinman’s tweet on this one:

UPDATE: In addition to desktops, phones and tablets, I have become aware that there are also now things called, yes, phablets.

Phillip Glass on pop music as a high or low art form

We fought to break down those barriers, and those barriers are gone, there’s no battle. When I hear young composers, it’s not even clear to me whether they were conservatory-trained or they were trained in bars or restaurants or pop-music venues of the big cities. It’s irrelevant.

More on Adjustment Team

Postscript on my earlier post on The Adjustment Bureau:

1) In a talk to the Association of American Publishers yesterday, Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes and Noble, pushed his audience to consider new ways of selling their content. Among his suggestions, according to Shelf Awareness,

they can publish shorter works, chapters, novellas, a single short story. “Who says all books are read cover to cover?” he asked.

Right on. There is so much opportunity in electronic versions of single short stories, nonfiction chapters and other “chunks” of books. And I would ask, why is it Amazon that was ready with the 99 cent Kindle version of the Philip K. Dick short story the movie is based on? Shouldn’t Random House have been ready with the story as a standalone purchase on Kindle as well as other platforms? (I admit, as I said in the earlier post, that the rights situation with this story is not totally clear to me, but I believe, since Amazon was able to publish it, that the original publisher of Selected Stories could have done the same.)

2) Publishing the standalone story clearly was a customer-friendly move: Adjustment Team was #106 in the Kindle sales rankings the weekend the movie came out and has now, 5 days later, fallen to #186.

"This was supposed to be a book"

Via yesterday’s  Very Short List email I discovered Welcome to Pine Point, a brilliant “interactive documentary” made by The Goggles, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, formerly of Adbusters Magazine, now making “story based media projects” like this one. The Flash piece consists of photos, video, audio and text, and documents the disappearance of a town in northern Canada.

I have found myself recently searching for nouns to describe these new forms of expression that are popping up–”this thing” hasn’t been cutting it. It was simpler once, when we said “book” or “film” or “photography collection” and we all knew what we were talking about. Today creators like the Goggles choose routes through projects to best tell their stories and find themselves coming out the other end with new names for what they’re doing.

“This was supposed to be a book”, the Goggles write on their About this Project page. “We were developing a concept for a book, about the death of photo albums as a way to house memory” when they discovered the emotional power of the Pine Point story and changed course. “It could have become a book but it probably makes more sense that it became this.”

Though I have no idea (actually, I have some half-ideas) what “this” means for the bookselling industry, I would say from the result that it absolutely made sense as a creative decision, and look forward to many more creations like “this”. As the same forces that transformed photo albums as a place to store memories sweep over what we used to call books, new creative forms sprout up on the web (and I hope there will be more on the web rather than walled off apps). As the VSL folks put it, “The Internet has a new heart now, and it’s as big as the whole (Canadian) outdoors.”