Sunday night, and I’m looking around for a new book to start. Normally there is a stack from publishers and authors. Not so anymore.
I’m also realizing that around this time last year I wrapped up a two-year flirtation with Christian fiction. My reading of doctrinal and Christian living books still had a four-to-one lead, but I got quite taken with the writing of James Rubart, Andy Andrews, David Gregory, Paul Young and one-time authors William Sirls and Michael Neale. My bookshelf actually needed some space devoted to fiction.
But while the second book in the James Rubart series is due out any day now, I haven’t signed up to review it. I think you get on a roll with certain types of books or certain subjects and then when you fall out of where that current had been taking you, it’s hard to jump back into the stream.
However, that doesn’t explain the lack of non-fiction reviews here over the past few weeks. I’ve finally reached the point where the blog has enough clout that I can bypass those blogger sign-up things where they offer you free books simply because you have a blog, even if you only have a handful of readers. Plus I have publishing connections. “Ask me if there’s anything you want to review;” I was told last week. I said what I really, really wanted was the full text of The Voice Bible. Maybe that wasn’t what they had in mind.
There is a shortage of books.
On June 19th, Evan Hughes wrote an article for Salon titled Here’s How Amazon Self Destructs. Yeah, they had me with that headline. You can read the whole article here.
Basically, Hughes is noting that while Amazon is category killing its way to a 60% market share of books sold, it only accounts for 6% of the “discovery process;” the way we find out about books and choose to want to acquire them. In fact, online “discovery” generally is only 17%. Hughes writes:
…The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like…
The occasion of his article is growing concern about the long-term stability of Barnes and Noble. Yes, you read that right. First Borders, now Barnes and Noble? There have been layoffs, and store closings. Hughes notes:
By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.
Amazon has made attempts in recent years to get better at “discoverability” — with the “Look Inside” virtual browsing feature and with recommendation algorithms (“New for You”), and through highlighting bestseller lists and editors’ picks. In a bold step in March, Amazon acquired Goodreads, the leading “social reading” website, where readers recommend and review books for one another. Many observers saw this move as a grab for more customer data. The stronger motivation may have been the desire to secure a discovery engine that would funnel customers to Amazon.com, thus protecting against the loss of stores. But so far Amazon has not cracked the discovery problem. Sometimes the site makes a recommendation that no sentient human being would make, which is telling. Even if Amazon gets better at this, it may run up against a wall: Some people want to literally get a feel for the book before they buy.
Barnes and Noble dates back to 1886. Their retail stores are visible, but they operate almost as many textbook stores on college and university campuses. [see Wikipedia article for a complete history] Hughes writes:
Already in a distant second place [to Amazon], Barnes & Noble has recently seen its woes deepen significantly. The company has been closing stores and announced in June that it would close still more and stop making Nook color tablets. It reported net losses of more than $1 million per day.
But is Hughes being sensationalistic? In the current issue of New Yorker magazine, James Surowiecki writes:
But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…
So maybe the sky isn’t falling. Not yet. Surowiecki continues:
For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.
So we see that while some people have speculated how the Amazon empire could possibly implode, others are dismissive of the idea. A few months ago I wrote here about how the values of Amazon’s founder might be quite opposite those of many people who read blogs like this one, and yet despite this, many conservative Evangelical churches are happy to cede all their book purchasing to Amazon because of better pricing. In the average church office, when values are in collision, stewardship trumps principles.
…The publishing industry has been hit hard by various factors, and while the long-term good might be better served if everyone didn’t have all their eggs in one basket, a collapse of Amazon isn’t necessarily good news. If the company did go down, some publishers’ entire fortunes are hitched to the Amazon star, and there would no doubt be ripple bankruptcies across the publishing spectrum.
But if Amazon is choking off its air supply, it explains partly why it seems to me there are so few books to review right now. Maybe I need to be more aggressive about asking music companies to service social media with review copies to fill the gap.