Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pods, Blogs and Books 2

I am still reeling from - and trying to deal with - the international response to my previous post on this subject combined with the link to my article in The Sunday Times. People feel very strongly about books and almost everybody dislikes bookshops. A few points arise.
Independent bookshops can, indeed, be very good. The big chains were my primary target.
Current POD books are often of poor quality; however, I am assured the technology now exists to match the quality of conventionally published books.
Of course, browsing in bookshops can be nice; my point was that this pleasure is systematically denied real readers in the chain bookstores.
I used 'chick lit' as an example of the way the supermarket attitude of the chains has forced publishers into apparently risk-free generic books. There is good chick lit - Pride and Prejudice comes to mind.
New technology, from Amazon to POD, is, in this context, an unalloyed good.
The underlying theme is one I often address: marketing people tend to destroy brand values and ethos in their pursuit of short term gain. That (see previous post) is what it is really like to be alive in 17th October 2006.


  1. "Almost everyone" does NOT dislike bookshops! What a ridiculous statement! How are they succeeding if everyone dislikes them so much? Personally I found your article interesting but I do not think the POD (as described as I have no personal experience) will ever replace the bookshop. The likes of amazon and so on (which I have used from time to time) are only useful if you know precisely what you want, mostly I do not. And browsing with only the blurb to guide you is no good. CDs, as some other commenter pointed out, are different. You can't test the music in a record store very easily. You read the reviews or know the band and you buy. Books however are a much more tactile orientated purchase. How big is it? How do snippets read? Does it seem interesting? How big is the type (a pet hate of mine) How heavy, will it fit in my bag (go nowhere without a book) etc etc.I read a vast variety of books from the much denigrated chick lit to science to modern fiction. Most bookshops stock a vast variety of books if you care to look beyond the 3 for 2 offers and the latest screaming display of alleged blockbusters. Finally, I am often buying the book to read with my cup of coffee in town! Don't want to drink the coffee while waiting for the book!!

  2. I agree with Liz that, at the moment, most people do not have an outright dislike of bookshops. This, however, is not because they hold their local bookshop (more likely than not a Waterston's or something similar) in particularly high regard, or because they feel any great affection or loyalty for it, but because, other than Amazon, there is no viable, ready alternative. A more developed POD system would allow the reader to possess any number of production decisions currently in the hands of the publishers (and so tailored for the bookshops). For example, you may be able to select from a range of print sizes, formats, covers and printing costs. It's only natural that readers should be apprehensive, which of us wasn't when we ordered our first book from the Internet? But like all these things a POD system needs time to win consumers' trust. Time will dispel the current theories of mistrust that plague new ideas, especially when they displace something of which, even if we're not fond, we're familiar. It will simply be quicker, easier and the quality shouldn't suffer.

  3. Marketeers not only reduce the range of available goods by focussing largely on lowest common denominator stuff like chick lit, but they also determine the market.

    They claim to be responding to the market: as one agent said of my novel "this seems to be rather good but I'm afraid there's no market for it" - but really i suspect they grasp very little, and their half-assed guesses then determine the market and become self-fulfilling prophecies. So if a book about heroic dobermanns flopped five years ago, they say there's no market for books featuring animals - and so there IS no market, because they won't publish such books.

    The problem with big chain bookstores, whose stock is determined by marketeers and related scum, is that the customer is trapped in a wholly-determined world, no room for chance. If you think marketeers are wholly wise, fine. If you think they're often wrong, and that their misprisions then determine the market, then, well, one might prefer the chance & whims of second-hand bookstores.

    You made reference to the necessity of wildernesses in an earlier post. There should be some wilderness even in cities. Big chain bookshops are like Milton Keynes. 2nd hand bookshops are more like Edinburgh, full of strange chances and wilderness.

  4. I just read your column and would like to point a couple of oversights. In the column, you criticize book shops for selling display space in the form of co-op. You praise amazon. Please realize Amazon.com has some of the highest co-op charges in the business. When you visit their website, the books featured are paid for by the publishers. No pay, no display. In fact small publishers who refuse to pay, do not have their books listed on Amazon. Amazon would rather have you believe the books are out of print. As the owner of a small bookstore, I use Amazon, Abebooks.com regularly. I am not able to sell my window space.

    True chain stores sell every bit of space possible, some independents can sell space as well. But to overlook amazon is absurd. It's a bit like saying George Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq, but failing to mention Cheney and Rumsfeld.

    POD is important, but so far its primary use has been to bring back out of print books and self-publishing. Digital publishing has come and gone, it might come back again, but readers still prefer printed book, not e-books.

    If all you are finding is chick-lit and celebrity books, then maybe you are visiting the wrong stores. Can't say I have much chick-lit, one shelf of romance novels and no celebrity bios. I did just acquire the latest translation of Proust, copies of Mike Perry's latest book, and Will Weaver's Sweet Land( A sweet read!)

  5. Well, there's one ENORMOUS thought experiment. What would life be like without marketing people?

    I've not seen any POD books (except those scraps I've photocopied myself) but I worry about the decorating aspect. What do they look like on the shelf? I don't buy them by the yard, but I do agree with Anthony Powell.

  6. As an independent publisher I have been reading these breathless announcements of the impending end of the book for 30 years now and am grateful I never took any one of them any more seriously than I will take yours. If and when the switch to digital does hit books, I expect it will hop right over POD to straight eBooks read on some iPod-like device, whether it be the Sony Reader or some variant. POD books are disposable trash that waste a lot of paper, time and money. Who needs them? Once people get into the habit of downloading books instantaneously to a handy device that allows them to carry a whole summer's worth of reading out to the cottage in a single pocket and gives them the ability to access everything from ancient texts to bestsellers to newspapers to scholarly papers wherever there's a telephone, they will get over their sentimental attachment to the odour of musty paper about as quickly as CD-users got over their attachmewnt to vinyl. Sure, there will be traditionalists who cling to their leather-bound tomes, but they will shrink to an insignificant sliver of the market, like vinyl collectors are now. The question is, how soon will this happen? The British Library, an institution not given to whimsy, has settled on 2020 as the date when ink-on-paper publishing will effectively cease to matter. It may well take that long. Cultural inertia is a powerful force.

  7. Interesting posts on this yesterday and today!
    Some of your readers may be interested in this AP article.


  8. Jane Austen would roll over in her grave if she could hear you call _Pride and Prejudice_ chick lit! Indeed, I am squirming for her.

  9. As for reading from some kind of computer, I find reading from a book a far more pleasant experience and immeasureably more easy on the eyes. I don't think we should be fooled into dropping something we enjoy in favour of something chartacterless which we take less pleasure in, because it fits some idea of progress.

  10. Raincoast1 said:

    "POD books are disposable trash that waste a lot of paper, time and money."

    While PoD certainly puts power into the hands of anyone who would like to publish their own book - and therefore opens the door to a vast array of low quality scribblings being published - I can't agree that it wastes "a lot of paper". By definition, PoD minimises paper, by only printing a copy when someone wants one. As opposed to offset in which 10,000 copies might be printed, with 3,000 returned by retailers and eventually pulped.

    Kind regards,
    Greg Taylor

    -- Publish Yourself
    -- The Power is now in your hands

  11. David wrote:

    "I've not seen any POD books (except those scraps I've photocopied myself) but I worry about the decorating aspect. What do they look like on the shelf?"

    Hi David,

    It simply depends on who designs the book. If Joe Smith does it at home using Word, pasting pixelated letters across his cheesy self-portrait, then it will look like crap. But it someone with design aesthetics creates the cover and typesetting, then the book can look absolutely professional. PoD printers offer paperback and hardback binding in a variety of trim sizes, and do a good job in presentation.

    Perhaps the only caveat thus far has been that some PoD printers have utilised presses which lack a little in alignment and graphic reproduction. However, this is a young and evolving market, and things will certainly improve over the next couple of years. For example, one of the major PoD printers, Lightning Source, has just today announced that it is upgrading it's printing presses (reported by The BookSeller).

    Kind regards,

    -- Publish Yourself
    -- The Power is Now In Your Hands

  12. However, a devastatingly redeeming feature of modern mega bookcomplexes, let it not be forgotten, are the cafes that are often attached. Bravo! Just increase the armchairs. Ok?

    On a more serious note I wonder how much notice book marketeers take of what people say about what kind of book they would like to read, as opposed to merely observing past purchasing patterns. This might go some way to solving Elberry's dilemma, see above.

  13. Great article, Bryan. But how long will it take for Starbucks, et al, to recognise their marketing power?Publishers/authors will be made to pay big bucks to get in. Is that marketing censorship by a different route? In fact, just like charging for bookstore space now.