books on the radio


Thoughts on the Arrival of Amazon to Canada

Cultural Industry? Online sales? Protecton from Competition?

A week or so ago I wrote a piece criticizing Chapters/Indigo for not having any stock of David Shields’ new hard cover front list title, Reality Hunger, a day after the announced release date.

Not only did they have no stock, they had yet to place an order for this book that was getting embarrassingly good media coverage among the tastemakers of the pop culture world and the pillars of the establishment.

Fine.  Not a single physical copy available for sale in the entire country.

If I was responsible for sales for the largest publisher in the English speaking world I’d be satisfied with zero copies available for purchase in the largest chain store in an entire territory, as well.  Who wouldn’t?

That’s how you support the people in marketing & publicity who have just busted their asses to get the word out via Bookslut, Fader Magazine, The NYT, Globe and Mail, the Millions etc… right?

By not having books physically available for sale.

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But whatever, as my friends working in the industry exclaimed at once, your expectations are too high for both parties.

“Why don’t you just go online and buy it?” They asked, as tho they’d suddenly become a chorus from Thucydides.

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Cold realism & harsh efficiency.  Those are the touchstones of book publishing.

Don’t bother us with your questions about a new book of literary criticism, we’ve got LOLCat Colleckshuns to sell.

Get over it, Cranbury, buy the fucking book online and quit having expectations based on this antiquated notion of brick and mortar supply chain fulfillment.

What do you think this is, 2004?

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So we’ve collectively recognized publicly and finally that brick and mortar stores are a tertiary concern.  Well down the list of checkable priorities.

Online ordering is how people shop – hell, I buy a lot of books thru Amazon – and that’s just the plain facts.

Fine, no problem.

We’ve seen Chapters/Indigo, Costco, Amazon, Wal-Mart and their kin eviscerate any semblance of competition from independent booksellers in this country and elsewhere over the past 15 years and completely change the book publishing landscape.

We’ve learned to accept that.

BookExpo Canada, like poor old Humber Humbert, died of coronary thrombosis in the spring of 2009.

It’s over, the game has changed.

OK, I get it.

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So why is there even an agrument against Amazon coming in to Canada and setting up a distribution centre?

Increased efficiency & lower prices.  That’s what we want, right?

Competition drives the price down and keeps everybody honest.  Hell, books might actually be available when customers want them.

Who needs a traditional supply chain?

And, really, why would we seek to protect Chapters/Indigo from competition?



David Shields’ Reality Hunger: Mostly Not Available in Canada

No Appetite for Physical Book Sales

* NOTE: Big respect to the people at Chapters/Indigo – and one person in particular who will remain nameless until such a time as I get the OK to mention said person by name – for hustling to get this book into stores in Canada and for staying in touch with me during the process.

The book is available at the Robson Street store in Vancouver and I encourage everyone who has even a foggy inclination about this book to go and buy it and to join the conversation about it.

Agree or disagree or suffer from indifference, I think it’s important and I’m glad that people can now walk into a bookstore in Vancouver and other places and buy it from another human being!

Thanks!*

Very simply: I do not understand why David Shields’ hugely anticipated new book, Reality Hunger, is not available for sale at the brick and mortar version of Canada’s national big box book chain, Chapters/Indigo.

I come at this scenario from 2 points of view:

1) I’m a fan of David Shields and have been following the media coverage and build-up for this book for months.

The contentious debate around literary remixing, appropriation, creativity & attribution brought on by Helene Hegemann, the 17 year-old German novelist whose been accused of accelerating worldwide copyright apocalypse only stokes the fire.

2) My experience is as a bookseller/buyer for independent stores and the Virgin Megastore.  And as a book lover, a reader, someone who wants to buy books.

It is impossible for me to understand how a book by an established writer that is receiving this much advanced media attention is not stacked high on the display tables at the front of the store by the time the doors open for business on the date of release.

And if that’s not in the cards – for a host of complicated reasons – then how about at least having a few copies available for idiots like me who still occasionally enjoy the 3-dimensional experience of buying a book from a human being?

Who still consider release dates to be a piece of meaningful communication between publisher and audience.  A kind of promise.

The date of release, by the way, was last Tuesday, February 23rd.

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Here’s the story: I didn’t actually expect Chapters/Indigo to have copies at the doors, stacked high on the release date.  I live in Vancouver and everything in the physical book trade supply chain takes longer to get here.

No problem, we’re used to it.

Also, this is books that we’re talking about, not music or movies, so the sense of urgency and coordination to satisfy the hunger of the audience that has been piqued by well-placed coverage in the media is diminished.

Or non-existent.

Anyway, so I wait a day and then check the Chapters/Indigo website to see whether Reality Hunger is showing in-stock at any of the Vancouver locations.

Apparently not.  I could order it from them online, sure, but all physical locations are showing a stock level of zero.

So I called one of the stores and spoke to a very helpful young man who told me that there were no copies at any Chapters/Indigo stores in the entire country of Canada as it had not yet been ordered.

Not yet been ordered.  Got that?

A day after the release date, the largest retailer in the country hadn’t even placed an order!

Reality Hunger isn’t published by a small press with limited sales and distribution power, it’s a front list book published by one of the largest publishers in the world, Random House.

As a fan and former bookseller this makes absolutely zero sense.

Is this some new tactic in the battle against digital piracy?  Like, maybe if the book isn’t available at all no one will want to steal it?

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Am I expecting too much?

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One can surely make the argument that I am expecting too much.

That Chapters/Indigo took a pass on this title because it’s some obscure book of essays and literary criticism by an American author.  That there would be no appeal to the Canadian audience.

This despite the fact that it’s a Random House front-list title on the influence of reality culture and contains a feast of quotes printed on the front cover from the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Patricia Hempl, Geoff Dyer and Albert Goldbarth, and has been reviewed by the likes of Chuck Klosterman and Zadie Smith.

But whatever, right?  It’s not like people actually read anymore.  Lethem, Klosterman, Zadie Smith?  Nobody cares what those people think.  They have no influence.

Speaking of having no influence on consumer behavior, here’s a list of some of the media outlets that have reviewed, discussed and generated awareness for the release of Reality Hunger over the past few months: Guardian Books Podcast, The Believer, Fader Magazine, The Globe and Mail, The Millions, Seattle Times, Pop Matters, The Huffington Post, Bookslut, New York Times.

Ahem.

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Frustrated to the point of despair, I called around to all the bookstores in Vancouver and none of them carried it, though they could certainly special order it for me.  It would only take about a week.

Thanks, no.

The only bookstore that I contacted that had copies in their store, ready to be bought by customers, was Bolen Books in Victoria.

I contacted the affable, Springsteen-loving Rob Wiersema and he informed me that they had 5 copies on display.

Kudos, as always, to the independents (and especially Rob, who as President for Life of the BC Bookseller’s Association, is always out there reprezentin’ the tribe;).

And David Shields can rest assured that at least 5 readers living on an island off Canada’s west coast will be reading his book.

As for the rest of the country? Not so much.

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One reason that I care enough about this to write this post is because I think that Reality Hunger is going to be an important book.

That it’s going to do what nearly every single other book published this year will fail to do: generate real conversation and debate across a variety of disciplines about the nature of creative expression, copyright and attribution in the 21st century.

Crucial issues as the passionate response to the story about Helen Hegmann’s book demonstrates.

Another reason is that I hate to see writers, readers & book lovers so brutally under served by the dumb beast of corporate bookselling.

In an era where there’s constant uncertainty about the influence of digital sales and distribution to the traditional supply chain how can a major publisher not provide physical books to the largest book retailer in an entire country?

With that much media – Huffington Post, New York Times, Fader Magazine (calls it the Hip Hop Album of the Year!), the Globe and Mail, Bookslut, the Guardian Books Podcast – how is it possible that Chapters/Indigo slept on placing an initial order?

Has this appetite for immediacy – this Reality Hunger – killed the ability of book publishing’s marketing and supply chain to work effectively together to serve the reader on time with physical book sales?

Is it wrong for me to expect to be able to walk into a major book retailer and buy a copy of a widely publicized book on the date of release?

Or are we happy to relegate all sales of physical books to independents and online sales channels?

Has digital effectively won the battle so soon?



Some Thoughts on the Closure of Duthie Books on 4th Avenue
January 19, 2010, 1:16 PM
Filed under: BC Booksellers Association, Bookstore Showcase | Tags: , ,

After 53 Years Duthie Books is Closing Their Doors. Photo by Jacek S.

Alright. It’s getting a little dusty in here.

I’m going thru the phases. First: Denial. Now: Crushing realizations. Some time later: Acceptance or something like it.

Here’s a letter that I just posted on Steven Beattie’s blog that sums up how I feel right now.

Sad news.

As someone who worked at the original Duthie’s flagship store in downtown Vancouver back in the 90’s it’s easy for me to say that this is sad news but it’s hard for me to say that this is terribly surprising news.

It was pretty clear from certain emanations that Cathy’s heart just wasn’t in it anymore and hadn’t been for quite some time.  And given the current industry/economic climate, that’s not hard to understand.

The writing on the wall was in very clear,  plain script. It wasn’t difficult to read.

I’m sure that Cathy has known for a long, long time that this day was coming and it must have been an incredibly agonizing decision for her to make.

It’s a very heavy legacy to put an end to.

It’s easy for people to point fingers at all of the usual suspects and get puffed up in a righteous rage about news like this but to me, one who worked there when the franchise was at its peak in the mid 90’s and who has friends who lost their jobs there today, I think it’s more honest to say that the train had simply reached the end of the line.

53 years is a long time and Cathy and Celia and Ria, my old buddy Mike Varty, Jane Sayers, Dina Del Bucchia, Susan Jahnke and everyone else that prowls those aisles should be proud of what they’ve done.

They should be happy that they’ve made such a huge impact on the culture of this city and even though the curtain is coming down on a legendary piece of Vancouver’s literary culture we have to believe that there are better days ahead of us.

All of us.

Thank you and best wishes to all of my friends who worked at Duthie Books over the years and to the Duthie family for making it so good while it lasted.

I’m going to go over there tomorrow and buy me some books.

The Famous Duthie Books on 4th Avenue Window. Photo by Szimek S.



Sophia Books: Independent Bookstore Showcase #1

One of the features of the new Books on the Radio blog will be the Independent Bookstore Showcase.

This will be a chance to celebrate great indie bookstores and the people who make them so amazing.

Our first stop will be Sophia Books, the best independent bookstore in downtown Vancouver and one of the best in Canada.  Stay tuned!

Girl at Sophia Books



Viral Book Marketing and the ISBN

The ISBN – International Standard Book Number – is the unique 13 digit number or commercial book identifier that adorns the upc bar on the back of every book that’s available through standard trade channels.  It’s the completely innocuous string of numbers within the little white rectangle on the back of the book jacket, usually in the bottom right corner. Out of the way, where no one can see it.

The ISBN is relegated to that remote jurisdiction because it’s not intended for use by the customer.  It’s an industry identifier that booksellers, publishers, distributors, etc… use to specify and differentiate one book from another.

For instance, Penguin may have several different editions of a particular book still in print. Classics like Crime and Punishment are available in different translations, or newly reprinted editions and can be simultaneously available in trade, hard cover or mass market editions, each of which will have a separate, unique ISBN.

To the average book customer the details of the ISBN are useless.  They just need to provide the bookseller with title, author, whether they want the book in hard cover or paperback, what they’re willing to pay and how long they’re willing to wait if the book is not currently in stock.  That’s it.  The ISBN does not need to be a part of the conversation.

Yet publishers insist on including the ISBN number in their print and digital advertising and it doesn’t make any sense.

I’ll use the otherwise masterful viral book trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as an example.

Picture 2

The above picture is a screen capture from the very end of the Pynchon book trailer and it gives the customer all the information she needs to make a purchase: name of the author, title of the book and date of release.  Done.  Customer has the info and can walk to their neighborhood bookstore or order it online.

The Penguin Press throws their logo in there as they should, then there’s some extra promotional writing in the upper right corner which is just a little narrative snapshot for the benefit of the customer and that’s fine, too.  A really tight little package that the marketing/publicity people at Penguin should be proud of.

But they just can’t stop themselves from including the ISBN!  It’s that mess of numbers to the right of the author/title info at the top of the video.

You know, 9781594202247.

It shouldn’t be there for a couple of reasons but mostly because it looks like crap.  It’s visual clutter and it’s completely unnecessary.

For instance, since the book just recently came out and it’s the only book with that particular title by that particular author in print what are the chances that a customer will order the wrong copy of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon by calling her favourite bookstore or punching those details into the search bar at Amazon? Zero, right?

Some have suggested that Penguin included the ISBN because it helps booksellers with their orders but that doesn’t make any sense either.  If there’s a bookseller in North America that isn’t aware of the imminent appearance of a major new book written by a major author and published by one of the biggest publishers in the world then someone somewhere isn’t doing their job and it shouldn’t take a video posted on YouTube on the day of release to alert them.

Good marketing like good writing happens when you remove all the unnecessary parts and give the reader the pure essence.

The ISBN is not a part of that pure visual essence.  It has its place and that place is not as a part of the advertising and marketing of a book.



BC Bookseller’s Round-Up: Initiating and Adapting to Change

During the past weekend I spoke to the British Columbia Booksellers Association at their annual conference.  I was asked to speak to the group about social media, community building and engaging the digital world to get the word out.  An interesting proposition, for sure, but everything went really well.  The booksellers were really enthusiastic, asked a ton of questions and I think that everybody came away from the weekend feeling like they had learned a few things and made a few new friends.  I know that I did.

One of the ideas that I suggested to booksellers interested in learning more about blogging and other social networking opportunities is to start their digital journey by listening to and reading the people who are already really good at it.  I recommended Kassia Krozser of Booksquare and Julie Wilson of Toronto’s House of Anansi Press and Seen Reading as excellent resources for the beginner.

To my joy and delight Booksquare has published the perfect blog post to support my recommendations.  To quote…

“It is surely the rare soul in the publishing ecosystem who believes the business tomorrow will resemble the business of today. Change, being change, is messy stuff, best managed through experimentation. You can design the best process in the world, but until real people get their hands in the system, you don’t really know what will work and how. Change is iterative…

…The booksellers who remain standing — and there will be many! — will react to these losses by changing their retail mix to accommodate new customers while incorporating new sales channels, such as digital. In the physical sense, there is only so much shelf space, and booksellers will, necessarily, be more particular and more aggressive about fresh product. The sheer volume of annual releases, with new titles coming out weekly, leaves the bookseller little room for chancy purchases and backroom stock.

Inventory management will be elevated to an art form as booksellers try to balance the slower reactions of customers who rely upon word-of-mouth with those who chase the latest and greatest. Factor in the enduring popularity of catalog titles, and it’s not hard to see that booksellers will be leaner and meaner (oh, and leaner and meaner indicates that booksellers will be purchasing fewer units because, well, managing returns for credit or cash is not a cheap endeavor).”



Sitting in with the BC Booksellers Association

A month or so ago I was sitting in the office of Boxcar Marketing with Monique Trottier.  We were sitting around and discussing our usual panoply of concerns about the state – if not stasis – of the book publishing industry as well as BookCamp Toronto when she received an email from Rob ‘President for Life’ Wiersma.  He was looking for someone to speak to booksellers about using social media to get the word out and build communities online.  Monique would be on tour at the time so she recommended me.  Rob, clearly out of options, agreed.

When I arrived at the Marriott Hotel downtown and walked into that conference room I felt an immediate tingle of trepidation.  Wait a minute… who are all these people?  I recognize Rob, Ria from Duthie Books, a few others but I had never seen so many booksellers in one room before.  It was crazy.

Luckily I snuck in quietly as they tore the representative from some government retail agency apart over a number of cryptic issues involving credit card transactions.  Then Lee Trentedue of Galiano Island Bookstore spoke very eloquently about cats and building and supporting communities through a Buy Locally program.

Steve Osgoode, Director of Digital Marketing and Business Development for Harper Collins Canada, was up next.  Minor wardrobe malfunction aside he did an excellent job of speaking to new developments in the digital book world – from electronic galleys, to ebook sales to the ongoing improvements to digital catalogs.

I was up next and spoke for about 30 minutes on social media – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc… – and managed to do well enough that no one passed out from boredom.

In the afternoon there were several roundtable discussions focusing on issues specific to the BC book trade and every bookseller participated.  The discussions were lively, everyone was engaged and Rob Wiersma deserves a lot of credit for putting it all together.  I look forward to more of it next year.

Over the next few days I will start to post links to various booksellers whom I met over the weekend and provide some thoughts on what and how to bring independent bookselling into the present with eyes to the future.  I was really excited by all the people that I met over the weekend and look forward to getting to know them more.