A Few Thoughts About This and That

Commitments both personal and professional [not least of which: forgetting all about it], meant I completely screwed the pooch on this year’s Bookcamp Toronto, another of those  newfangled unconferences you kids think are all the rage.  Not surprisingly, especially in the wake of the Kobo’s launch, much of the discussion, in facet or another, circled around publishing’s newest Jesus, the eReader.

Now, it’s hard for me to really form an opinion on what was said, since I wasn’t there and am  only now starting to sift through the numerous blog posts discussing the event.  But I can see what people are saying and filter it through my experience as a guy who deals with book consumers on a daily basis.  Because I feel like that’s the thing that publishing has always gotten wrong, but is really gotten wrong in the past 5 years or so:  looking at the middleman [bookstores] as their primary customer.

Publishing is sort of a messed business model as is.  Aside from depending on a handful of tentpoles to support the industry as a whole [your ‘DaVinci Codes’, your ‘The Secrets’, your ‘Twilights’] the industry has to make a series of calculated gambles [price, print run, hardcover publication or no] that usually always result in a pile of remaindered hardcovers collecting dust in a warehouse or on a $5.00 table at Chapters [the cruelest fate of all]. But the most messed up part of the publishing industry seems to be that for decades the major publishers have never looked at end users as their primary customers, an issue summed up by tech publisher Tim O’Reilly in a recent New Yorker piece on the future of books:

“They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.” Without bookstores, it would take years for publishers to learn how to sell books directly to consumers. They do no market research, have little data on their customers, and have no experience in direct retailing. With the possible exception of Harlequin Romance and Penguin paperbacks, readers have no particular association with any given publisher; in books, the author is the brand name. To attract consumers, publishers would have to build a single, collaborative Web site to sell e-books.

This is the same oversight that started to nag at me as I read panel reports from BCTO: it all comes off as very pie in the sky, with a willful neglect of who bookbuyers actually are. I think most of the people at BCTO are like me in as much as they believe that most people who buy books are like them, they’re the people who love books as a medium, intelligent people who read prizewinning novels and exciting social history, who have a genuine appreciation when McSweeney’s challenges conventional form by publishing their latest issue as a Sunday-style newspaper in a plastic bag. But take it from someone who deals with bookbuyers everyday: not so much.

When we started carrying the Kobo reader, there was some anxiety among my coworkers that we were all doomed, that the products we sold and were expected to be knowledgeable about were a scant five years away from being cultural antiques. Do you know what I said? I said, “Most of our customers can’t find the price on the inside of hardcover’s dustjacket. These people will need books for a while to come.” Because the bookbuying public, like consumers of any other media, are not known for discerning taste. Look, a graph!

You kids love graphs, right?

This overly complicated graphic represents how I see most novel buyers on a day-to-day basis at my job. The titles selected in this example are tokens, but do the job fine. As you can see: As the intelligence demanded decreases, popularity increases, and vice versa. At one end you find most of the tentpoles that support the rest of the industry [Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson]; at the other you find the difficult books that have earned a reputation to keep them in print [James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace]; and in the middle, the sweet spot of books that demand you have a brain in your head, by authors who aren’t interested in bludgeoning you with their intelligence [Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon]. I feel like most people who are passionate about any kind of media are usually positioned on the left side of the graph, and they spend a lot of time in discussions with other people at the left side of the graph, ignoring the people on the right side, because well, the people on the right side don’t care in the first place.

But the people on the right side are the people everyone should be caring about. And the people on the right side don’t really give a shit about eReaders [they’ll buy an iPad if they buy anything, and that’ll be to play Plants v. Zombies on a bigger screen. If they can read books on it, cool, but they care less about how they read books, and more about what the book is, if there’s a movie of it, if it was on Oprah, etc. And this isn’t taking into account nonfiction, sales of which largely consist of traumaporn memoirs, get rich books and self-help.

But this is the same issue that continues to plague the internet as a whole: a passionate group of people discussing matters that matter to them, whose numbers are large, but dwarfed by the amount of people who are not discussing these matters, from eReaders, to Snakes on a Plane to Facebook’s privacy issues.  You get so deafened by the outcry, you can forget that outcry is limited to a comparatively small wedge of the populace.  Doesn’t mean those matters shouldn’t be discussed, but let’s not shit ourselves just yet, shall we?

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