Archive for December, 2011

Let Me See…What Should I Buy My Daughter? Curious George or a Biography of Heinrich Himmler

December 16, 2011

Today I went to work on the retail floor at Book Passage in Marin. I did it last year for several days during the  Christmas season. And I’m excited about doing it again. I spent 35 years in retail.  My favorite job was recommending books to my customers.  And when I took the time to do that, I got an amazing sense of what book lovers care about. I also had a chance to express my passion for my favorite titles and to try to share that passion with others. When customers came back and thanked me for a book I recommended, I felt pretty good. It made everything else worthwhile. Now that I’m a literary agent, sometimes I feel out of touch with the people who are really the  heart and soul of  the book world… the book lovers.   I think everyone in the book business ought to spend a few days helping customers in book stores. We could all learn a lot by doing it.

But that isn’t what this blog post is about. I wanted to share a very weird bookstore moment with you.  It happened today at Book Passage. One of the nice things about working on the floor is that I see books that grab my attention and I sort of thumb through them.  So anyway, I’m standing in the history section. I read a lot of history. I studied German history in graduate school. So I picked up this 1000 page brick of a book. Heinrich Himmler: A Life by Peter Longerich. It’s published by Oxford University Press. It is an important work of scholarship about a figure in history for whom most people have very little sentimental attachment.  One of the Book Passage employees came up to me and asked me if I was holding Curious George. I can only assume that the holiday frenzy had disturbed his mental equilibrium.

Well, gentle readers. I suppose I would like to say that whether you intend to put Curious George under the tree this holiday season, or perhaps Heinrich Himmler: A Life, I hope you have a very happy and peaceful holiday and get all the books you want on Christmas day.


Is Your Local Bookstore an Amazon Showroom?

December 7, 2011

Today’s uproar de jour in book publishing is the news story that is giving a $5.00 discount on items that a customer scans using the Amazon “Price Check for iPhone App” in a brick and mortar store . The promotion is only good for 1 day and it doesn’t include books.  But people in publishing , particularly booksellers, are understandably upset about this promotion and  this app.   I knew the app was in existence but I hadn’t checked it out. I tried it earlier today. I’ll give you a demonstration.

So here’s a picture of the app icon as it appears on my new and cool iPad.  You can get it for free at the Apple App Store and download it in about 15 seconds.





I touch the app and this screen pops up. Note the announcement about the promotion on December 10 for selected categories. Also note that you are uploading information to Amazon including the geographical coordinates of your price check. You are, in effect, an Amazon secret shopper (although they aren’t paying you the  customary sub-minimum wage for the marketing service you are providing).

As you can see there are 3 ways to identify the product:  scanning, talking, and photographing. On my iPad (and on iPhones), you can do all or any of these quite easily.




Here is the book I’m testing. The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving.  It is a title by my client, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a wonderful book on the 40,000 year romance between humans and dogs. It’s a good Christmas present for your dog loving friends. And – Jeff gets a royalty on every book you buy (with some exceptions we’ll discuss below) and I get a commission on all of Jeff’s royalties for this book. So you should buy it and everyone will be happy.

Getting back to the app, first I tried the “say it” button. A microphone logo appeared and I – well – said it. Sophisticated voice recognition software translated and digitized my words and sent it on to Amazon.  Within seconds, an Amazon page for The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving popped up. I did the same with the “snap it” button. My iPad and all iPhones have cameras. Same page popped up.




Here is a photograph of me using the scanning function. I just centered the iPad on the bar code and without hitting any button, the Amazon page for the title came up again.




The Amazon title page  looks like this. Voila! Hit a button and you have bought the book. You can even do this in the independent book shop where you are  browsing, even right in front of the cash wrap where the owner is standing and glaring at you with fire in her eyes. I don’t recommend that. You should probably take the book into that dark corner over there.  Try to ignore the fact that people are looking at you funny like you are some kind of a pervert and that  the owner is still staring  hawklike at you because she thinks you are stuffing the book into your knickers.

This apps’ pretty cool, huh? And internet savvy consumers are really going to town on this.

There is something creepy about it though and troubling for me. This is the point where I have to make my obligatory statement that I am not a Luddite. And truthfully raging against technology is a fool’s errand. And Amazon is not the only company making price check scanning apps either.

Book publishers are pretty upset about the horrible troubles of  brick and mortar stores. Internet geeks say that this is just the price for progress. But it is really a little more complicated than this. We have spoken before in this blog  about the concept of “discoverability”. That is the arrangement of products that allows the consumer to find something unexpected. is not a good place for impulse buys.  There was a recent survey that indicated that 20% of books purchased online were on impulse while 40% at brick and mortar stores were. For some categories, children’s books come to mind, as much as 80% of all purchases are impulse.

A bookstore is a little like a showroom. Publishers know that and value that. Amazon seems to know it too and are exploiting that. Paradoxically the scanning apps which drive lots of business to Amazon are doing their part to insure that these showrooms will not survive. And there goes your “discoverability”.

Most of the people who read this blog are writers or book lovers. And many of you writers might simply think that this doesn’t matter. If customers want to buy online, hey, it’s still a sale. But wait. Go back up and take a look at Jeff’s Amazon book page. The page that pops up tells the customer that he can buy it used for as little as a penny. The  other featured books  are used copies as well. Who the hell wouldn’t rather have a book for a penny?

We  have spoken frequently  about the value of intellectual work in an internet culture that believes “information wants to be free”. Maybe I’m naïve or just venal, but it seems to me that writers deserve to get paid for their work. And price checking apps that drive consumers to buy books for a penny undermine that principle.

And mark this well.  It is also undermining the very stores who create those showrooms that give book lovers that ineffable experience of discovering an unexpected miracle.

As I said, there is something a little creepy about this.