Archive for January, 2010

Book Banning at Amazon.com

January 31, 2010

I woke up this morning to the astonishing news that Amazon.com has stopped selling all titles from Macmillan , the sixth largest publisher in America.  I learned  about this first on Frances Dinkelspiel’s blog, Ghost Word.   Frances is a Macmillan author.

According to an article in The New York Times Amazon’s action was related to Macmillan’s decision to adopt new terms  for the sale of e-books to retailers based on the structure that is being implemented by Apple for its i-pad.  Under the new Apple model, publishers will have the ability to set the final retail price of an e-book  at  $12.99 to $14.99 for new titles. Amazon has been selling them at a loss for $9.99.  Macmillan CEO, John Sargent today wrote a letter to Macmillan authors explaining the dispute.

One can only hope and one must assume that Amazon’s decision is temporary and an act of saber-rattling. But the episode should be a clarion call for us to consider some very large issues about the dangers of monopoly power and how it can compromise the free dissemination of ideas.

A specter is haunting the world of books. From Amazon’s beginnings in the late 1990’s, the company has pursued a strategy of monopoly power. American consumers have embraced Amazon because of its outstanding “customer-centric” technology, its breathtaking selection, and its pricing. But this has not come without a cost. Amazon has gained a stranglehold on  the sale of books online and has attenuated the ability  of community-based bookstores, chains and independents, to survive at all.  With the interdiction of the Macmillan titles, they are now reaping the grapes of wrath.

There are a lot of legal subtleties associated with this issue. Whether a manufacturer (the publisher) can dictate the final selling price of a product to a retailer is an important anti-trust question that won’t be resolved by blogging. But the manifest power of Amazon to effectively cut off  a book publisher’s access into the largest channel of book sales,  the Internet, should give us  pause.

What is this dispute all about?  What’s at stake here?  We have made several recent blog entries on the implications of the e-book revolution. E-books are currently a small niche market for trade books, still less than 4%. But their market share is growing exponentially. Currently electronic book readers are the hottest products in consumer electronics.  It is altogether likely that the book business, not unlike the music business, will reach a kind of tipping point in which e-books will become the standard and paper-based books will become the niche.

Not surprisingly, Amazon jumped on board early. It developed  and marketed the Kindle, an excellent product. Very quickly Kindle became the shorthand word for “book reader”, just as Amazon became the shorthand word for “Internet retailer”. Also, not surprisingly, Amazon has designed the entire system to give it effective monopoly power over the distribution of e-books.

Kindle technology only allows downloading from Amazon and requires that any book purchase will be made through Amazon only.  Amazon has priced the books aggressively. Most new e-books are being sold as Kindle downloads for $9.99. This is a considerable discount from the costs of new hardbacks. Their retail price is typically $25-30. Hardback  discounted prices on Amazon are $15-18. Amazon purchases e-books for about $12.50, a price similar to the  cost for non-e-books. Amazon sells them as loss leaders. This strategy has sought and has succeeded in allowing Amazon to dominate the e-book market.

Publishers have problems with this.  They feel, and I agree with them, that by pricing  books so low, it will inevitably cause the book buyer to devalue books as a commodity. They will come to feel that a book is only “worth” $9.99. With customer pressure to make this price the de facto “list” price and with Amazon’s market power, the  publishers will have to change their business model to accommodate the new reality and begin selling books to Amazon for  something closer to $5 per book instead of $12.50. Good for the consumer, right? Wrong.

We have spoken in an earlier blog entry about the unfortunate tendency of Internet Culture to devalue the worth of intellectual work.  But there are costs to producing books, just as there are costs to producing any product. E books have no manufacturing costs, but there continues to be marketing, publicity, editing, and…yes…sometimes this seems like an afterthought….creating.

And so it all comes down to the irreducible and irrefutable fact that books cost money. And publishers will not be able to produce books or pay the writers a decent royalty  in return for revenue of  $5 per book. Certainly the literary “tea-partiers” will tell you that publishers are dinosaurs, that the essence of the Internet is “disintermediation” and that the future is with authors selling direct to the reader. That most of these books are being “mediated” through Amazon is a detail often overlooked. But let’s leave that for now.

Self publishing is a worthy endeavor and has brought many fine books to the market that would have otherwise died. But it is a bit of a quagmire of unfiltered material. It is a little hard to separate the dross from the gold.  This  fits in quite well with the Internet Culture of  Wikipedia (see previous blog entry)  in which everyone is an expert.

The emerging business models for the e-book, Apple and Amazon alike, are bad news for authors. Any way you calculate it, author’s are going to suffer reduced royalties. The publishers will realize huge cost savings with the e-book if the price of the book is comparable to  paper-based books. With e-books, there are no manufacturing costs, warehousing costs, shipping costs, packaging costs, and, crucially, no returns. Since the e-book is non-transferable, publishers will not lose sales from book borrowing or from the used book business. How this will all affect libraries is still unclear to me.

But authors are being asked to reduce their  percentage royalties for e-books. And the reduced retail price, both under the Amazon and the Apple model, will drive consumers away from physical books very rapidly and will force authors to take a smaller percentage of a dramatically smaller pie.

I am very worried.

UPDATE: AMAZON RESPONDS.

At 2 PM today, Amazon posted an announcement on their website addressing the issue of Macmillan. It is as follows:

“Dear Customers:

Macmillan, one of the “big six” publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!

Thank you for being a customer.”

This is typical and predictable public relations strategy of Amazon. It has all the elements of  a Zen-like, or more accurately, a  Hegelian position wherein Amazon seeks to weave contradictory forces into a new and higher synthesis. Coincidentally, it sends some less than Zen-like messages. 1)Amazon can’t stop  selling Macmillan books indefinitely, but we can surely display our power to intimidate.  2) Other publishers, take note. and 3) Publishers have monopolies. Amazon just has customers. 4)We just want to help our customers buy books cheaper.

This is a cynical, manipulative, deceptive, and self-serving response.

A Schnookie Book Deal

January 28, 2010

SCHNOOKIE DEAL UPDATE:  Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News 2010. Congratulations, guys!

What I like most about being a literary agent is the serendipitous way in which my projects seem to find me. Take, for instance, The Schnookie Deal by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin.  North American rights were acquired last December  by Saint Martin’s Press.

On  July 23 of last year, I read a front page article in The New York Times about a New Jersey corruption scandal.  Stories about New Jersey corruption don’t usually warrant front page NYT. They are a little like stories about the price of corn in The Des Moines Register. What grabbed my attention was a remarkable photograph of two Hasidic rabbis in handcuffs, a photograph that, it seems, drew the attention of everyone – at least everyone I know.

  It was a bizarre story about the largest corruption scandal in New Jersey history, the state whose largest industry is corruption. It is unbelievable but the story contains: sleazy pols, corrupt high rolling Orthodox Rabbis, code words out from the Talmud for money, FBI wires, real estate Ponzi schemes, kited checks, laundered cash in paper bags and cereal boxes and in trunks of cars, even the brokering of human kidneys for $160,000.

After a nearly three-year investigation, the authorities swooped down on July 23 and arrested 44 men and women.  The list was impressive, even by New Jersey standards: three mayors including the 32 year old reform mayor of Hoboken; the 74 year old deputy mayor of Jersey City who was once a stripper going under the stage name of “Hope Diamond”; five Orthodox rabbis; two legislators; and various political operatives, real estate moguls and Hasidic businessmen. The website, Gawker, said it all in their headline: “EVERYONE IN NEW JERSEY WAS ARRESTED TODAY.”

 I loved this story from the moment that I read it. I kept telling everyone I knew what an amazing book this would be. I kept thinking of it as a sort of true version of a Carl Hiaasen novel, filled with colorful scoundrels. Only instead of Good Ole Boys in South Florida, it would be about Orthodox rabbis and sleaze bags in New Jersey and Brooklyn. I really, really wished I had a project like this to work on.

On September 15, I received an email from Bill Gannon, an executive at Lucas Films, referring me to Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin, reporters for The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper. Bill was a friend of theirs. He told me that they had been covering a great corruption story, and would I please, maybe, as a personal favor, if I wasn’t too busy, and if I found it in my heart to work on a true crime story — talk to the guys and see if I could help.  I really flipped…  These were the guys on the ground who had been covering the story that had been preoccupying me for weeks.

After doing a little  web surfing, I found out  that Sherman and Margolin were journalistic super-stars. Both were on the team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, following the resignation of Gov. James E. McGreevey (another titillating and salacious story). The two also received the National Journalism Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation this year for their work uncovering secret deals, hidden spending and other abuses within the Rutgers University football program.

Ted called me up and asked if I might possibly be interested in helping them get a book published. I told him I had been sitting by the phone for two months waiting for him to call. I gave him my usual pitch about the importance of making a good book proposal and that I would help them out if they sent me a rough draft. I also gave Ted a lot of advice about how he needed to put humor into the book in order to make it commercial.

 As it turned out, I didn’t need to give him much advice at all. A week later they delivered a book proposal in almost perfect condition. And a sample chapter that was laugh-out-loud funny.

The one thing they sent me that I didn’t think was so good was a suggested title: “Rogues and Cronies of Thieves.” I told them that it just lacked je ne sais quoi. So they came up with a title that none of us were very sure about. But in hindsight, it was a masterpiece: “The Schnookie Deal.”  (For the few readers unfamiliar with Yiddish,  “schnookie” means adorable, sweet, cuddly, and endearing. As in: “You’re my little schnookie.”) Apparently the  word in the context of this story came from the wiretaps. Soloman Dwek, the  inept crook and FBI informer, kept calling his illegal transactions “schnookie deals.”

I started doing some research on which imprints and which editors to send it to. Usually I try to figure out the genre of the story. Then I go to the Deal section of Publisher’s Marketplace and start looking at what kinds of deals various editors are making. The obvious genre on this book was true crime. But that wasn’t exactly it. True crime tended to be about grizzly murders. This had a more political angle. And a lot more pizzazz.

Anyway, I amassed about 20 possible submissions. I emailed it out and waited for the multiple offers that were sure to be coming in  48 hours. Disappointingly, I got a number of rejections. This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. It has long been my operating principle that publishers don’t really want anything. Most of the rejections were not particularly thoughtful. A number of them felt that it was a “local story.” (As if sleazy behavior was unique to New Jersey. Hmm….Now that I think about it, …Nah!) For more thoughts about publisher rejection letters, I refer you to a previous blog entry entitled: “Deconstructing Publisher Rejection Letters.”

One of the editors I sent it to was at St. Martin’s Press. He got back to me very quickly and said that it was a great story, but I needed to send it to another editor, Phil Revzin. It turns out that Phil was the editor of a book about New Jersey corruption called, Soprano State.  It was a best seller. He was familiar with Ted and Josh, because a lot of the material from that book came from news stories written by my clients. Their names heavily populated the footnotes.  I could tell the first time I spoke with him that he was really excited about the project. I told him if he made us an offer, I’d buy him a kidney pie for lunch.

Phil wanted to have a meeting with Ted and Josh. So they went over  to the St. Martin’s offices. They walked into a meeting with three or four big machers, another indicator that the publisher was serious. Phil kept asking me if we were going to have an auction. It would have been nice, but at that time I had no other offers. So I told him, “we were thinking about it.”

By the end of the week, Phil had sent us an offer of deal points. This usually includes the advance, royalty rate, and territory rights (see previous blog entry entitled: “The Book Deal“). We dickered around a little. Nudged up the numbers which made the boys happy. Then Phil sent us the St. Martin’s  boiler plate contract. We did a little more wrangling. I did some table thumping over some (how shall we say?) not extremely author-friendly language. And then the deal was done.

I posted the deal in the deal data base at Publishers Marketplace. The next day I got an email from a guy at Twentieth Century Fox who wanted to look at the book proposal. This really impressed the guys. I could see that the siren song of Hollywood had started playing in their heads. I’m sure they are still dreaming about which big-time star is going to play Ted, and which will play Josh.

And a schnookie deal it was! The book is scheduled to be published spring 2011. It will be a lead title.

The Slush Pile

January 20, 2010

Let us consider the slush pile.

David Patterson, a senior editor at Henry Holt, whose taste in books I admire greatly, sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal online entitled: “The Death of the Slushpile.”

Way back when, the slush pile was an uncomplimentary term used by publishers for the  unsolicited manuscripts they received by the bucket load from aspiring writers. As the above article will tell you, “slush is dead.” At least it is with commercial publishers. Apparently they  were finding that it exposed them to copyright infringement lawsuits. Every time a book was published with even the most remote parallels to an unsolicited submission, the publisher was accused of using the slush pile as a flower garden of ideas to pluck. Copyright infringement suits are to publishers what medical malpractice suits are to doctors. Publishers have attempted to reduce their exposure by inserting an “indemnity clause” in the book contract. This provision, hateful to all writers and their agents, puts the onus of defending against copyright infringement claims, no matter how frivolous, on the shoulders of the author.

 But I digress. Publishers were also finding that the payoff  from  sorting through slush didn’t justify the time and expense of a 22 year old entry level editorial assistant plowing through unpublishable manuscripts. And, in truth, finding  something good out of the slush pile was a little like winning the lottery.

So now if you push the “acquisitions” button on a publisher’s website, you will see that they will  accept only agented submissions. The slush pile is no more. On  one level, I find this puzzling. The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said, “Agents are to publishers as a knife is to a throat.” Now they have bestowed upon us at no cost the exclusive license to act as the toll gates of the literary superhighway.  

Well, ok. There is a cost. And that cost is – slush. Agents have replaced the editorial assistants in sorting through the unsolicited manuscripts. I don’t call it slush. It’s a demeaning term. I have spoken in a previous blog posting (Ann Lamott and Albert Camus on Writing ) that writing is a courageous act. And the activity deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I  prefer to use the term: “queries received over the transom.”

A lot of the big-time agencies don’t have much truck with slush either. And I am told that finding an agent for a number of genres is about as hard as finding a publisher. But, look. I hear about agents who get 100 queries a day. What are they to do? I’m a smaller and newer agency. I get about 40 queries a week. It seems to be growing though.  Most of the queries I get are for fiction or personal memoir. My website and my listings on agent directories clearly state that I don’t accept fiction and personal memoir. But I try to respond in a timely manner. Mostly I politely copy and paste a “thank you, but it is not for me.”

I have taken on a few projects from the slush pile. Excuse me. From over the transom. And I got one published by an author who was living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine. On the day of publication, he wrote the op-ed piece in The New York Times.  I’m pretty proud of that. And other agents whom I respect all have stories of great projects that they fished out of the slush. So I urge aspiring writers to send their projects out. Hope for the best…. But expect the worst.

People in publishing always like to talk about the great projects by unknown authors that rose above the slush. The Diary of Anne Frank was originally rejected by the Paris office of Doubleday.  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was discovered by a young assistant agent. Philip Roth got his first story picked up by The Paris Review.  And J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter rejected by 20 publishers before it was sold to  Bloomsbury UK.. John Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by just about everyone in publishing until it found a home after the author’s death. It went on to sell several million copies and win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When I first became an agent, I went around New York for a few days talking to editors. I asked all of them what was their biggest mistake in book acquisition. (This would be a good blog posting. We’ll do it another time.) My favorite response was from a very prominent editor who rejected The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. But she said it wasn’t really a mistake. She thought it was lousy and boring. Because of her judgment on the book, it would never have succeeded with her as editor.

 And so, gentle reader,  if you will excuse me, I need to go back to reading my slush. I  will set aside my world-weary cynicism and approach the task with eagerness and hope. Because I know that, amidst the dross and the folly, lies the novel of the next Jane Austin – waiting to be born.

Fighting Against History Part 2

January 11, 2010

I used to do a lot of public speaking, and in some pretty big venues, too. I  also seemed to be on a lot of  media people’s rolodexes (yes, that is what they had back then). When they needed a quote about the virtue of local business or “bricks and mortar” stores, they could always get a good sound bite out of me. By the way, I  hated that term: “bricks and mortar”. I could spend a lot of time boring you by deconstructing the sub-texts associated with that expression. Not to put too fine a point on it, the term was condescending and cast us as historical curiosities.  I preferred to call   these stores  “community-based businesses.”  But “brick and mortar” seemed to catch on even with those of us who were  the object of this patronizing metaphor.

 I  spoke about how local bookstores, all local businesses in fact,  made for interesting public spaces. I was influenced then (and now) by Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is a remarkable book, published in 1961,  and even more prophetic now than then. Jacobs was reacting against the then fashionable  theories of public planning  that emphasized urban renewal and public open spaces. Contrary to conventional wisdom,  Jacobs didn’t like “green spaces”.  She argued that the neighborhoods that work best were neighborhoods with interesting and diverse uses, neighborhoods with vibrant street life, neighborhoods designed for pedestrians. This meant then, and still means today, main streets and business districts dominated by independent businesses. There were no big box stores back then. Shopping malls were a novelty. Imagine what she would have said about the big box centers of  today with the mega-stores that are designed to overwhelm and exhaust the human spirit and that are oriented around vast parking lots. Imagine what she would say about internet retailers, that are oriented around the cubicle.

Maybe I became seduced by my own bombast, but I used to say that the marketplace had been the center of communal life since the time of the Greek Agora. And it was under threat by the internet. This was always a good point to make in  debates with  internet gurus who  thought of history as something that reached its apotheosis   with them. Cultural literacy was not their long suit. Most of them thought that the “Greek Agora” was the place down the street for Spanakopita and ouzo.

I got a call in 1999 from a Japanese journalist. He wanted to feature me in a book with writers and social commentators from all over the world addressing the meaning of internet commerce.  My article was  the only thing I ever wrote that appeared first in Japanese. But it was published in a number of languages and was read by quite a few people worldwide.  I was just looking over this article. It was called: “Warning: E-commerce May be Dangerous to the Health of Your Community.” Some of it sounds hysterical and hasn’t survived the test of time. But I think it is still worth reading. You can probably find it on-line somewhere. Here is how I summed it all up:

The Internet industry likes to talk about “revolution” and uses the traditional language of the political left to describe the changes it is making to the way America does business.   The images which it employs are invariably hip and filled with iconoclastic visual references to the youth culture.

In fact the reality of electronic commerce is quite different.  Its growth is driven by values which are more associated with the political right, or perhaps the corporate ethos of Wal-Mart:  the fetish of commodities, the primacy of Wall Street, the desire for monopoly power  and the indifference to diversity and community values.

There, internet churl. I throw down my gauntlet!.

In 2000, one of the big news stories was whether internet commerce should be taxed or, to be more precise, required to collect sales taxes payable by consumers. If you delved into the issue  too deeply, it could get pretty arcane.   It tended to turn on some badly written US Supreme Court decisions and terms of art like “nexus”. But the real issue was pretty simple. Local businesses were forced to collect sales tax. Out of state internet businesses weren’t. This gave a significant competitive advantage to these internet companies.  It all came down to this: Shouldn’t tax policy be based on a level playing field? Should the government be picking winners and losers through discriminatory tax policies?  Shouldn’t internet customers do their part in paying taxes to support the local services that they benefit from? By the way, the issue is still very much alive. Amazon.com is the largest sales tax evader in the United States.

A lot of people who didn’t like each other very much got together to try to see that internet commerce wasn’t given favored tax treatment. The group included big box stores, commercial real estate interests, and little booksellers like me. I developed a pretty high profile as a spokesperson. I suppose I had better symbolic value as a talking head than the Vice President  for Tax Administration of Wal-Mart. I got flown around the country a lot. And my reimbursement checks seemed to be coming from  Bentonville, Arkansas. Well, I guess tax policy makes strange bedfellows.

I had a really good time going around giving speeches. I debated Grover Norquist, the satanic anti-tax nut and Washington kingmaker, twice. Once was at the ultra-right wing Federal society.  I think I got the better of him. I also made it onto Crossfire and had to stand up to a withering attack by Mary Matalin.

Internet companies strenuously opposed collecting these taxes for their own reasons that had more to do with competitive advantage than tax fairness. The most errant nonsense was coming from Amazon.com. They seemed to be making two points: 1)Internet commerce is in its infancy and is a frail bird that needs to be protected from burdensome taxes. 2) Internet commerce is the juggernaut that is driving the new economy, and it shouldn’t be throttled by unpleasant things like taxes. I liked to point out at every opportunity how puzzled I was that the internet could be both a frail bird and an economic juggernaut  at the same time.

Well, of course we were right. But we still lost the war. Since the 1980’s, independent bookstores have faced a perfect storm of problems. Competition from chain stores and big box stores, competition from internet booksellers, competition from free information available on line, and now competition from e-books. I suppose we could talk about the decline of  cultural literacy as well. We’ll rail about that on another blog post.

All this brings us back to the point where we started. That is the sad thought that bookstores are not going to be around much longer.  The market share of independent stores has really tanked since the 80’s. Indies now account for about 5% of all book sales. This is a  sad statistic. Pretty much everyone in publishing who remembers will tell you that independents represented the heart and soul of bookselling. They still do, but there aren’t that many left.

Someday soon there will be a sort of “tipping point”. The world will turn to e-books with breathtaking speed.  Community bookstores, even chain bookstores, have always excelled in offering customer service or just a place with a warm feeling to hang out.  When books become simply downloadable “digital content,” then the  bookstore will go the way of the blacksmith’s shop. The game will be over.

Sure, e-books and e-book readers will offer remarkable advances in convenience of delivery and options for display. But the romance of the bookstore will be a thing of the past. It is a little like the convenience of getting to Europe in a few hours by getting sardined into the main cabin—instead of getting there on Queen Mary. Yep. It’s convenient.  But, God,  what has been lost? It’s a pity.

Fighting Against History Part 1

January 2, 2010

Nobody is going to want to hear this, but we might as well face up. One of these days, not too far off, bookstores will be a thing of the past. Books are going digital just like music has gone digital. Right now e-book purchases constitute less than 2% of  all book sales. But while  sales of trade books are down this year, sales of e-books are up almost 300%. You don’t need to be a statistician or an industry sage  to see which way the wind is blowing.

I don’t feel  very comfortable about this. I don’t even feel comfortable  writing about this. Certainly when I was in retail, I didn’t even feel comfortable thinking about this.  And most of the time I didn’t. But reality is beginning to impinge even  on my own immeasurable capacity for avoidance.  

About 12 years ago, I was on a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco  with a bunch of high tech gurus. To give you an idea of how much the world has changed, one of the gurus was talking about this new internet company that he had just discovered. He called it “one of my favorite new bookstores.” The company was Amazon.com. I’d never heard of it.

The subject of the panel was the future of the book in the internet age. The gurus all said that the book was going digital. It was just a question of how long it would take for the technology to develop enough to create a good medium for reading text. They predicted it would be in about five years. They were wrong on the timing but right on everything else. I became argumentative and even slightly insulting. I also shamelessly played to the house, which was mostly made up of little old ladies. I said  that the other members of the panel were technology obsessed and that the world of literature and culture was much too important to be left in the hands of engineers (I believe I raised my upper lip with just a hint of a sneer when I said this). The audience applauded.

 The gurus treated me with contempt, or maybe with benign condescension. They knew that they were masters of the universe. They knew that that this arrogant little shopkeeper would be swept up in the dustbin of history. I decided to go epistemological on them. I spoke of the overweening arrogance of believing that they owned the future. I might have mentioned David Hume’s critique of the concept of causality.  But my skills were merely rhetorical. That day I won the battle. But today it is manifest that I lost the war.

One of the mistakes I made that day was to confuse two  different issues. Was technology going to bring about the death of the book or would it bring about the death of the paper book? I attempted to formulate  the question as one of  technology vs. culture. I think I understood the distinction all along. But I kept treating the two issues interchangeably, probably for opportunistic and rhetorical reasons.

Clearly the book isn’t dead. E-book sales are growing exponentially. People still want to read a good novel. A three hundred page non-fiction book on a subject that has been well thought out and  well edited is a lot different from a blog. The people who are designing e-book readers talk about the necessity of sustaining the “trance-like” state of reading when using the electronic medium. That is the right question to ask. And they are coming very close to succeeding.

I have never read a book on an e-book reader. But I’ve seen them, and they are pretty good. And  they are getting better fast. They have wireless delivery systems, so you can get any of 1,000,000 titles in seconds. And, of course, the books are cheap. The internet seems to have an unfortunate tendency of devaluing intellectual work as reflected in the price of the product. Amazon and BN.com are in price wars. Amazon is selling best seller e-books for $9.95. That is below cost, by the way. And classics and public domain titles are usually free.

When I say that the internet hasn’t destroyed the book, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had an incalculable impact. And it has eliminated entire categories of books. During the heyday of Cody’s in the 1980’s, dictionaries, almanacs, and encyclopedias were huge sellers at the store. We could expect to sell 20 copies of the Webster’s Third International Dictionary during the holiday season. Even the $300 Complete Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes with magnifying reader included sold fifty copies a year. And that is when $300 was real money. Similarly, a new edition of The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia was a major publishing event. – And a major scholarly achievement. During the Eighties, our largest section in the store was computers, mostly books telling us how to use software. Those sales disappeared after 2000.

These books are all gone. These activities have moved on-line. It is just too convenient. But something is missing. We have already spoken of the tyranny of Wikipedia (see blog entry: “Wikipedia and Me.”) There was something else that has been lost, though. The serendipitous pleasure of thumbing through these books and discovering a new word or a new piece of information. That just doesn’t happen now.

The same is true of browsing in a bookstore. A bookstore gives you the pleasure of wandering around and maybe finding something unexpected. Amazon and BN.com have tried to duplicate this with clever software solutions. But they all seem pretty artificial. It doesn’t replace the joy of browsing a bookstore. A number of people have come up to me to tell me how important Cody’s was in their lives. Some of them said they met their spouses for the first time at Cody’s. You can’t do that at Amazon.com.

Next week I’ll talk some more about some of my quixotic struggles  against the Brave New World of the internet.


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