Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Praise of Books in Print

Had to love Robert Wallace's "In Praise of Books in Print" column on the March 21 "Durham News" section of the News and Observer.

He praises the superiority of physical books over digital ones, and mentions a certain Durham bookstore that is close to my heart. Here are some lengthy excerpts from the column. You can read the whole thing at

From "In Praise of Books in Print by Robert Wallace:

"On a cool, rainy day in Cleveland I enter Mac's Backs and take in the smell of used books. Instantly I feel at home. Mac's is my home-away-from-home bookstore.

It is the bookstore my daughter and I visit together when I come to visit. Only a couple of blocks from her apartment, Mac's is part of a string of unique, eclectic stores on Coventry Street, much like Ninth Street in Durham.

On this day in March, my daughter and I enter Mac's, the rain blowing in behind us.

'Get what you want,' I say to my daughter.

We spread out; my daughter to the classics, while I explore the all-fiction section.

We settle in.

I pick up several books, read the front covers, and put them back. Then I pick up a book by Gabrielle Roy: “The Tin Flute.” I remove my eyeglasses from the breast pocket of my jacket, put them on, and read that this was Roy's first novel, written just after WWII. Roy is French Canadian, and the novel is set in Montreal, in the ’30s, and is supposed to be a classic story of realism of working-class families. John Steinbeck is my favorite author, and, I suspect, Roy's volume to be similar to his California novels.

Find number one.

Just then, Anna, my daughter, shows me a slim Penguin pocketbook volume of Aesop's Fables. Later she finds “Antic Hay” by Aldous Huxley. She reads, out loud, from the back cover, the novel's brief description.

'This sounds amazing,' she says.

Already she has two finds.....

Over the years I have spent many an hour in bookstores, not one of them wasted.

I have, perhaps, two thousand books. Not many, really –I know people who have five times as much. Some are predicting the end of the book, the end of publishing as we know it. I hope that is not the case.

Books, by their very nature, possess something that a tablet can never do: physicality. They inhabit the world.

By way of example, Anna rushes over and shows me two books. One is a book by Bronte with beautiful, original lithographs. The other is a book with pages made of fabric. Anna rubs her hand across a page, and feels its texture and heft. You can't do that with an electronic tablet.

I understand the appeal: the electronic tablet's ease; its ability to download thousands of books, and therefore save space. But it is this ability to occupy space, to take up room, to exist, which appeals to me. Even when I’m not reading my books, I like having them around, I like seeing them. When I see an iPad, I don't see a book, and, consequently, I don't see an author. When I pick up a book, the author, and his or her words, becomes real to me, as if the words were written for me alone.

Later, when I return to Durham, I go to The Regulator Bookshop, to browse. I love The Regulator. I can’t imagine Durham without it.

'Life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals,' Samuel Beckett said. With each time I enter The Regulator Bookshop, or, for that matter, any bookstore, I count my life all the richer."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stories (and love) make the world go 'round

Just in!--one of my favorite books of the year. The book is The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. The premise of this remarkable book is that stories are an essential element of human life. A part of our existence that is on some ways so obvious—hidden in plain sight, if you will—that it has been completely overlooked by science and psychology.

Think about it for a minute. We spend our lives immersed in stories. They are read to us and we act them out when we are young, and we read them, listen to them (song lyrics, anyone?), watch them, and tell them constantly. Why do we do this? What does this do to us and for us?

There’s a trove of fascinating stuff in this book--like studies that show that people who read more fiction are more empathetic; that children the world over act out the same kinds of stories, but boys’ stories and girls’ stories are almost always different. The good news is that Jonathan Gottschall (a young scholar from Washington and Jefferson College) is a great storyteller himself. Grab a copy of The Storytelling Animal and get ready to be enlightened, entertained, and amazed. --Tom Campbell

“Man—let me offer you a definition—is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail signs of stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right. Even in his last moments, it’s said, in the split second of a fatal fall—or when he’s about to drown—he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.”

--Graham Swift, Waterland

Friday, March 16, 2012

Scott Turow: Justice Department suit against publishers would be "tragic." (Amazon is the real threat to our literary culture).

Here, in full, is author Scott Turow's letter to the members of the Author's Guild. Turow (a lawyer and a former federal prosecutor) is the current Author's Guild president:

Dear member,

Yesterday's reports that the Justice Department may be near filing an antitrust lawsuit against five large trade book publishers and Apple is grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether those publishers colluded in adopting a new model, pioneered by Apple for its sale of iTunes and apps, for selling e-books. Under that model, Apple simply acts as the publisher's sales agent, with no authority to discount prices.

We have no way of knowing whether publishers colluded in adopting the agency model for e-book pricing. We do know that collusion wasn't necessary: given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple's offer and clung to it like a life raft. Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.

Just before Amazon introduced the Kindle, it convinced major publishers to break old practices and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. Then Amazon dropped its bombshell: as it announced the launch of the Kindle, publishers learned that Amazon would be selling countless frontlist e-books at a loss. This was a game-changer, and not in a good way. Amazon's predatory pricing would shield it from e-book competitors that lacked Amazon's deep pockets.

Critically, it also undermined the hardcover market that brick-and-mortar stores depend on. It was as if Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters. Publishers, though reportedly furious, largely acquiesced. Amazon, after all, already controlled some 75% of the online physical book market.

Amazon quickly captured the e-book market as well, bringing customers into its proprietary device-and-format walled garden (Sony, the prior e-book device leader, uses the open ePub format). Two years after it introduced the Kindle, Amazon continued to take losses on a deep list of e-book titles, undercutting hardcover sales of the most popular frontlist titles at its brick and mortar competitors. Those losses paid huge dividends. By the end of 2009, Amazon held an estimated 90% of the rapidly growing e-book market. Traditional bookstores were shutting down or scaling back. Borders was on its knees. Barnes & Noble had gamely just begun selling its Nook, but it lacked the capital to absorb e-book losses for long.

Enter Steve Jobs. Two years ago January, one month after B&N shipped its first Nook, Jobs introduced Apple's iPad, with its proven iTunes-and-apps agency model for digital content. Five of the largest publishers jumped on with Apple’s model, even though it meant those publishers would make less money on every e-book they sold.

Publishers had no real choice (except the largest, Random House, which could bide its time – it took the leap with the launch of the iPad 2): it was seize the agency model or watch Amazon's discounting destroy their physical distribution chain. Bookstores were well along the path to becoming as rare as record stores. That’s why we publicly backed Macmillan when Amazon tried to use its online print book dominance to enforce its preferred e-book sales terms, even though Apple’s agency model also meant lower royalties for authors.

Our concern about bookstores isn't rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks. A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers. Apple thrives on this very model: a strong retail presence to display its high-touch products coupled with vigorous online distribution. While bookstores close, Apple has been busy opening more than 300 stores.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult. The high royalties of direct publishing, for most, are more than offset by drastically smaller markets. And publishers won't risk capital where there's no reasonable prospect for reward. They will necessarily focus their capital on what works in an online environment: familiar works by familiar authors.

Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble's investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.

Let's hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.

This would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support.


Scott Turow, President

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New and Notable

From the boxes we opened on Monday, two charming, quirky, unusual, and--we think--good books.

--Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It by Howard Jacobson. From the author of the Man Booker Prize winner The Finkler Question, a collection of columns he has written for England's Independent newspaper. A curmudgeon with a sense of humor and a way with words. One three and a half page gem after another. What's not to like? Paperback, $18.00.

--Starting from Happy by Patricia Marx. A funny boy-meets girl (and their life together) novel, told in short vignettes.