Thinking Out Loud

July 29, 2013

Where are the Book Reviews? Where are the Books?

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed.

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed

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.

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May 8, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Juxtaposed Advertising

This is the link list that the other blogs get their links from after we got them from them in the first place.

It’s a safe bet that neither party purchasing space on the above billboards were aware of the other’s presence.  Or is it?

  • Ravi Zacharias responds to the Boston tragedy and all the issues it raises.
  • And did you read about the Boston Marathon Saint; the guy who gave away his medal?
  • In New Zealand you can name your baby girl Faith, Hope, or Charity, but not Justice. It’s one of a number of banned names.
  • It’s got endorsements from Eric Metaxas, Ann Voskamp, Paul Young and Russell D. Moore. But is The Little Way of Ruthie Leming a title that would be considered a Christian book?
  • It’s not every day that a Christian school science test makes the pages of snopes.com, but then again you haven’t seen a test like this one.
  • Wanna know more about the Apocrypha, those extra books in the Roman Catholic Bible? Check out this podcast. (Click the link that says “Play in Pop-Up.) (Technically these are the deuterocanonical books, the term apocrypha can include other writings.)
  • And after adding that I found an article of a type that many of us would never see: A Roman Catholic blogger’s apologetic for the Catholic canon of scripture. (Which is by default very anti-Protestant canon.) 
  • If you read Christian blogs, you know the word ‘missional.’ Now here’s a reading list of the top 40 books on the subject.
  • Usually writers have to push their publishers for cool book trailers. This 2-minute video for Jon Stuff Christians Like Acuff’s book Start was a gift from a reader.
  • Quote of the week: “I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies came from. ” ~ Rachel Held Evans writing about a prominent US news story about an abortion doctor that isn’t playing much here in Canada or on the news elsewhere.
  • Also at RHE, Jennifer Knapp responds to some great questions from readers with some great answers. Sample: “I think it’s often overlooked, is that CCM’s genre is not a style of music, but rather it is a very specific message.” Quotation of the type you’re probably more interest in: “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ can be an acceptable working environment for some, but has also been used as legitimate financial weapon at times to enforce individual silence in exchange for job security.”  (Also, JK previously here at Thinking…)
  • And going three-for-three with RHE (it rhymes, too) here’s an interview she did with Christianity Today.
  • And for something much shorter than those articles on Rachel’s blog: Greg Atkinson on what pastors can learn from country music.
  • Here’s a pastor’s nightmare: When your small church is essentially a one man show.
  • Is your church looking for a pastor? Here’s ten signs your search isn’t going well.  Sample: Average time between sending in application and receiving rejection notice: 5-7 minutes.
  • Catholics are borrowing a page from Mormons, JWs and Evangelicals and doing door-to-door ministry. Advice to participants: Trying to provide too many facts about the Church may cause misunderstandings.
  • Here’s a fun 5-minute video for pastors wanting to develop their homiletic skills using a technique called preaching by ear. (A sales pitch follows.)
  • And wrapping up our ministry links, should a pastor know how much individuals give financially?
  • At a certain point (i.e. after the second chorus) this Eddie Kirkland song always reminds me of Coldplay.
  • Going to a summer wedding? You might want to look around at a critical moment so you don’t miss the best part of the processional.
  • Tony Jones loves Greg Boyd (no, not that way) and thinks you should also.
  • From the people who brought you the Top 200 Christian Blogs list, The Top 200 Christian Seminaries.
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July 2, 2012

What’s a 250-Page Book Worth?

This week I got an email notification that a local author’s three books — two fiction and one non-fiction — are being offered as free downloads on different days this week. Having known writers who were a little distressed that their books were remaindered, and musicians who were little disappointed that their albums were deleted, I can’t imagine the motivation for broadcasting the fact that the product you labored so hard to create is being valued in economic terms at nil.

I can see how this author might believe that this is going to help him get his message out to a wider audience, or that it might raise his profile on the world stage, or that it might result in other books selling at closer tho his normal price. But on a transaction-by-transaction basis, it means his works are now owned by people who have no particular investment in them.

My thesis is that people are not reading. All our leisure time is now consumed by supporting our screen habits: The pocket screen, the Mac/PC/laptop screen, and the 42-inch plasma screen.

Furthermore all our leisure time money (dollars, pounds, etc.) are tied up in supporting all those same screen habits.

You may wish to argue that “sales” of eBooks are brisk; that this is why the brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying off, because people are downloading books electronically and watching/reading them on a variety of devices.

Let’s consider that possibility.

The greatest promotional vehicle for a book is word of mouth. When enough people have read a particular new release, they start talking about it and they tell their friends.  So all of this downloading ought to result in a groundswell of book interest, which might explain my author-friend’s excitement about the free download offer.

If in the highest categories, electronic book sales only represent 22% of the total number of copies sold — let’s be generous and say 1/4 — then those people are going to spread their passion to their friends:

  • one friend will buy the book electronically
  • three friends will buy the book in print

So you have a few books that go out at ridiculously low prices — in North America let’s say $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.00 — that spark the sale of many more both in Nook/Kindle editions and in print.

But it’s not happening. 

I think the reason is that people are downloading books but not finishing them. They’re using the low-priced and free titles to practice seeing what their electronic toys can do. Perhaps they are reading the introduction and the first chapter, and then, having spent nothing on them, they spend no time finishing them.

Now, let me be clear. I think some print prices are too high. I have continually challenged how the U.S. publishing industry, caught in several years of bad economic times — insisted on keeping the practice where first editions were published in hardcover.

Driven by greed, many author’s works which were pending were deleted and the authors released from their contracts in the years from 2008-2010, because the industry decided they would rather get nothing than sacrifice a publishing paradigm that keeps the books priced high.

The print equivalent of a $3.99 or $5.99 download is a $5.99 or $8.99 value edition; and the industry has no reserves about using this format for older titles, but isn’t interested in using similar tactics to introduce new authors and secure a future for their brand.

But in electronic reading, all bets are off. It’s like a new wave of marketers rushed to the head offices of the various publishers and presented an idea that would see people “adding to cart” all manner of titles and create the illusion of a vibrant and active electronic publishing sector.

Just two problems.

The books aren’t getting read.

The books are being devalued in the process.

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