Category Archives: Bookstores

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

         “Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

         “Oh — well, I love to read!”

         “I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

          She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

         “Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

         “So you’re agnostic.”

         “Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

         “Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character.  Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time.  When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice — not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up.  Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done.  The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle. 

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.  The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting — too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular.  It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her  expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget,  “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years,  it became a cliché. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel.  As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar,  or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.”  No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers — and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne — and that’s TOWNE WITH AN ‘E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry.  “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books.  “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice.  What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment:  #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F–K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather  Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS — a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we —Greg and his brothers — are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

     “You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

      “Excuse me?”

      “No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

     “All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

     “Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

     “Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

     “I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

     “Like …?”

     “I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

     “I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

     “I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

     “By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought –”

     “Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

     “Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

     “Yes, the kids are older now but — “

     “Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

     I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world — not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years.  That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road”  from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right?  So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience.  There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books  includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy?  Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos.  Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore.  Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the  interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this?  A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes.  But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team.  When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world.  But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which dont involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism;  her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll.  This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It  means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career— but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities — not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.






Penguin Random House: ‘A Couple of Drunks Propping Each Other at the Bar’

If the biggest publisher in the world says that its recent merger “should not be interpreted as a couple of drunks propping each other at the bar,” what image comes to mind?

I would say it’s two drunks propping each other up at a bar.

The comment was made by the head of Penguin Random House, John Makinson, to the Economic Times of India.

He said that Random House and Penguin didn’t merge because they were “worried about our survival or that we were too small to be competitive” against the “impact of companies like Google, Apple and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

Really? That sounds exactly why Penguin and Random House merged, why Hachette bought out most of Hyperion, why Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins may decide to merge as well.

Afraid of being obsolete and technologically small, Penguin Random House is trying to buy its way into the competition with Google, Apple and Amazon. Feeling overpowered again and again, it will seek new mergers to cover the pain.

The bar metaphor is so true — Penguin and Random were drunk with power during the physical-book years. Now the print-on-screen years make them feel unnecessary and confused, so back to the bar they’ve gone to feed that acquisition addiction.

A big mistake of many CEOs like Makinson is to dwell on growth and power for traditional publishers rather than the centuries-old system of publishing procedures inside — the timeless discipline practiced by salaried professionals of selecting, editing, designing and producing literary works of merit.

I know it’s easy to criticize the mainstream (since I do it all the time), but deep inside these gluttonish corporate structures are at least a few people struggling to keep  the house’s standards high when it comes to literary quality and commercial appeal.  It’s too bad these dedicated pros have become the pearl in the oyster (irritating everyone, dismissed and often overruled by management) because they’re also invaluable.

A second mistake: Makinson said that “publishing is growing but the growth of bookstores has come to a stop.” Wrong. Independent bookstores are on the rebound, as recent statistics have shown. A smart publisher should know that word-of-mouth for new authors still begins at the brick-and-mortar level and is much more stable and accurate information than, say, sales rankings at any time on Amazon.

And the reason independent bookstores are strong?  For many, the key is to stay small, serve the local community well (book groups, author appearances, children’s programs, First Amendment protections) and hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell.   (As opposed to the direction Penguin Random House and other merger-minded publishers are going, which is to “grow” [what an icky word] dozens of boutique imprints but deny them freedom to publish.)

I loved the way novelist Ann Patchett, who started her own bookstore in Nashvllle, Tennessee, in 2010, described “the comfort about being around books” in a retail environment when she appeared with Terry Gross recently on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Bookstores are home,” Patchett said, speaking as a reader and customer.  Any “building full of books that can come home with me,” she added, is “a world of endless possibility and opportunity.”

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Patchett opened Parnassus Books after the other two bookstores in Nashville closed.  As she told USA Today, starting a new bookstore in the Digital Age felt like “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” The fact that Parnassus is thriving today does not mean that Patchett and Hayes are bucking a trend. “We are the trend,” she says, bless her.

But here’s the point of all this for me. When I hear people like John Makinson malign independent bookstores, or Jeff Bezos slash prices for the purpose of knocking out bookstores (why else would he do it?) or Barnes & Noble whine about unfair competition against its e-book reader Nook (aw. take another dose of your own medicine), I want to stop all that noise and do something about the problem.

Happily, bookstore owners believe that readers can make a difference. In fact, that’s the heart and soul of what they believe.

As Ann Patchett said to Terry Gross, for independent bookstores, proactive customers are the answer: “If you want a bookstore in your community — if you want to take your children to story hour, meet the authors who are coming through town, get together for a book club at a bookstore, or come in and talk to the smart booksellers — then it is up to you. It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore, and that’s what keeps the bookstore there.

“It’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides —  when do you plant, what kind of tools do you need —   use their time and their intelligence for an hour and then go to Lowe’s to buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”

Ann Patchett's new book of essays is "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage"

Ann Patchett’s new book of essays is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”

It’s refreshing to hear a bookseller speak directly and unequivocally about readers acting independently and responsibly to secure the future of bookstores.

Heaven knows the  book industry will be sinking further into chaos for some years to come. That’s what makes it, for me, a privilege to pay full price for a physical book or an e-book at an independent bookstore.

You know where each sale’s profit is going — not in the pocket of some meglomaniac billionaire or corporate giant but into the store’s budget for more books, each one deemed worthy to sell to any one of us, and to programs that enhance the neighborhood’s cultural roots.








Thank You, Bankrupt Borders, for Triggering This Scene:

The public hearing in Capitola-by-the-Sea should have ended by dinnertime, but so many people crowded into the City Council chambers that speakers were lining up in the aisles long past 1 a.m.


The year was 1999, and Capitola — a charming coastal village about four miles south of Santa Cruz, California — was about to decide whether Borders Books and Music would be permitted to build a “Titanic-sized” store (22,000 square feet) in the middle of downtown.

If the Council voted yes, as predicted, at least four local bookstores would be wiped out, and this was the reason that people kept getting up to take their place behind the two microphones in the aisles.

And boy, were they mad.

A Big Bag of Garbage

One woman walked up to the stage with her husband and dumped a big bag of garbage in front of shocked City Council members. “We’ll clean this up, but Borders won’t,” she declared, having gathered the trash from the parking lot of the nearest Borders store in Sand City, about 10 miles away.

An independent traffic consultant reported that parking needs for the proposed Borders had been grossly underestimated. The audience gasped at revelations that Capitola’s traffic engineers had used 15-year-old studies, published “long before megabox bookstores like Borders were around.”
Continue reading

More on ‘Cell Phone Pilferers’ … and Bad, Bad Customers

I must say it was heartening to see so many blogs and letters objecting to the behavior of New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife, as described here last time.

To recap: The Biltons surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books” as they sat on the floor “for a couple of hours” at a Barnes & Noble store. They “lobbed” the books back and forth and photographed pages with their iPhones, then “left the store without buying a thing.”

Only later did Bilton wonder, gosh: “Did we do anything wrong?” He sought out legal experts: “Did we indeed go too far?”

I have never heard of such self-absorbed rudeness or flat-out idiocy in a bookstore and was further incensed when the article revealed that Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the Times and author of a book about the future of iPhones, for heaven’s sake. But enough about me.

Defacto Shoplifters

“Yes, you and your wife went too far,” writes Denny Hatch of the website Target Marketing, “And your tacky little iPhones’ theft of copyright wasn’t the half of it.”

Hatch says Bilton was guilty of “de facto shoplifting — taking merchandise off the shelf, using it and then discarding it.”

In the world of direct marketing, this is “the equivalent of the catalog bandit — the woman that orders three party dresses from a catalog, chooses one to wear to the party and then returns all three the next day for a full refund.”

A Treacherous Course

The Biltons not only got away with ruining the merchandise, writes Richard Curtis at [e-reads], a reprinter of out-of-print books.

“By the mere act of clicking their iPhone a dozen times, Nick Bilton and his wife steered a treacherous course between fair use and piracy, between the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” Curtis observes.

Bilton tried to excuse himself by saying that “many people have a cavalier attitude toward using cameras to obtain copyrighted material.”

Curtis huffs, “Cavalier indeed. Our archives are packed with the exploits of ‘cavaliers.’ Up to now the Times has tiptoed around the issue of piracy in the book business …. But the time is approaching when the subject will take center stage, for it is by far the greatest threat to the future of authorship and the success of the e-book industry.”

Infringement Recipe

Perhaps it’s not Bilton’s actions but his article that should be held up to scrutiny, writes Bill Rosenblatt at Copyright and Technology. By describing how easy it is to photograph book pages in a store, Bilton has published an “infringement recipe” that could “induce” readers to do the same. Given the newspaper’s exposure and influence, “would [publishers] have a case against the New York Times?”

Swiping More Than the Bar Code

Of course, readers already have the “recipe” for photographic infringement, and more. As independent-publishing expert Dan Poynter puts it, customers regularly “visit a store, see a book they want, pull out their iPhone, check the price at Amazon and make a one-click order.”

To do this fast (before the staff sees ’em! bad, bad customers!), iPhone users simply photograph the book and let technology take it from there. As Poynter explains:

“Now Amazon makes the process faster and easier with an iPhone App. With Price Check for iPhone, buyers can photograph the bar code of a book (or any other product), say the product name, or type it in. Amazon will find the product and offer it for sale—often for much less. Point, scan, check, click, done. And Amazon delivers.”

Blatantly Criminal

“If only the problem were just cell phone pilferers,” writes Suzanne White, author of bestselling astrology books. “People today can scan my entire books and put them up for sale all over the Internet — Kindle, Nook, Crook, et al, and nobody stops them. Others try. I try. But we don’t always succeed.”

White says that “Amazon now asks authors placing their books on Kindle to check a box attesting that they own the rights.” But elsewhere, piracy flourishes. One magazine group in France copied an astrology book by White and “pleaded innocence” when she sued. This group “tried to prove I was complicit because I had written horoscopes for one of their magazines. They had very powerful big guns.” She settled for 5000 francs.

In another case, “back in the beginning of Facebook, I found an
app called Chinese Horoscopes that used my text,” White recalls. “It was doing such good business that after much haggling, I eventually went into business with the guy! He had taken the texts quite innocently from a site that claims to ‘share copyrights.’ I wrote a stinging how-dare-you letter to the owner who wrote back saying that because the company was offshore, I could do nothing.”

The commercial appeal of nonfiction books makes them vulnerable. “Astrology and Tarot and I Ching or diet or cookbooks and many other subject areas are commercial and easily exploited,” White says. But novels are copied illegally, too, especially in foreign countries.

“Does Stephen King know when his books are pirated in Czech or Hungarian, Chinese or Urdu? I doubt it,” White says. “Neither he nor his publishers can read those languages. Let’s face it. This is the Internet. There is money to be made in pirating any and everywhere. Publishers can’t police it any better than authors can.”

Most egregious for White was a matchmaking site in New York that “used my New Astrology™ book, pasted my photo on the front page …. then wrote to congratulate me! I could not get him to take it down. Instead, he hired someone to rewrite it all, paraphrased my whole book and changed the name of his site, and eventually tried to sell it to me for a million dollars (no lack of chutzpah there). Eventually he went bankrupt.”

(Granted it’s not saying much, but) I’ve never heard of such blatant stealing! It’s so criminal, and yet, as White says, going to court is not an option. “The folks who scan my books and pirate them are not rich people. I would be suing in the dark.”

Watching the Bookstore Go Up in Flames

Here’s another scam that floored me. In his article, “The Price of Now: Why I Hate Bookstores,” Kyle Bylin at says he read the first chapter of Bilton’s book at a bookstore and was so taken with it that “I didn’t want to wait,” so he bought it right there, knowing “I could buy it cheaper on Amazon.”

He did consider another shortcut: “I’ve heard of people buying books from Barnes & Noble and returning them once their Amazon shipment arrives. I opted not to do that.”

My hero! We’re back to women and their pretty dresses! This scheme involves buying and returning the physical book after using the bookstore as your bag man. And won’t that book feel nice and new to the next customer.

Here’s what went through Bylin’s mind as he bought the book for a higher price in the bookstore than he would have paid at home, ordering it on Amazon: “In my head, I came up with the excuse — that while I’d be content with watching the store go up in flames for their high prices — I did like walking around, browsing, and the experience of holding books before I bought them elsewhere.”

So here’s a reader who understands the perilous situation of bookstores, all right. He’s just so jaded by the Internet that he sees the retail price as “a donation for feeling sorry about reading for free.” This was a real jaw-dropper for me. A … a…. donation? You mean, like a … a …. charity? Because you feel sorry for the bookstore?

Exactly, says Bylin. It’s the bookstore’s fault for overcharging the poor customer: “The instant gratification of getting what I want now, in my hands, something that I can carry home and read: Shouldn’t that be the bonus and not the cost?”

Yes, let’s all remember: The world is here to bring everyone like you instant gratification because today nobody owns anything, really. Copyright law is so “uncharted,” as Curtis says, that tools are everywhere to help you monetize, maximize, and Appize everything you want.

Being Almost That Stupid

And everybody’s in on this scam. even authors like Bilton, muses Poynter. “So,” he writes, “was Bilton’s ‘confession’ a publicity stunt to bring attention to his book?”

That would be hard to figure, since Bilton’s article makes him look so stupid. But maybe fame is fame: If you just get your name out there — even exploit the newspaper that (I guess) employs you — readers will race to buy your book.

But could that have been Bilton’s idea all along? I must say, when I listen to Bilton interviewed on the Internet, he seems far more knowledgeable than the kind of jackass who clogs up the aisles of a bookstore while photographing pages of new books and dumbly wondering, “Did we do anything wrong?”

Self-run Social Library Places

To be charitable, maybe Nick Bilton and his wife didn’t actively set out to steal. Maybe they simply represent masses of people who have changed their minds about brick-and-mortar stores in the last decade.

Certainly they, and perhaps millions like them, don’t think of bookstores as places to go to buy books. To them, in the 21st century, bookstores are just vehicles for “showcasing books for Amazon,” as Poynter puts it.

If that’s true, surviving bookstores may now be seen as “self-run social library places,” muses Suzanne White, because they offer book clubs, author events, classes, cooking demonstrations, storytelling hours, sidelines and even books lining shelf after shelf.

At these bookstores, observes White, “bookish and other types can meet and greet each other, have coffee and a sandwich and get to know authors, take courses and hear writers talk about their work.”

Wait a minute: That sounds familiar in a way that’s, you know, alarming.

A successful bookstore, White adds, is more like a “bricks-and-mortar social network,” and there it is, the retail/electronic world in reverse: No longer does Amazon need to mimic the retail experience with its “Look inside!” feature and browsing facsimile. Instead, bookstores should now try to be Facebook inside the retail environment, a place where you can import all your “friends” right there in the aisles.

Isn’t that what the Biltons were doing? They could just email those iPhone photos to their contractor, so they didn’t bother about that pesky problem of buying a book or actually reading it.

This is why Bilton’s “infringement recipe” is so seductive! Customers who “hate bookstores” like Bylin at Hypebot don’t want to wait, and you shouldn’t either! You can “like” bookstore displays, Tweet shelf talkers, video author events and order, order, order books from every other resource but the store itself.

The Entitlement of Internet Pricing

Thank heaven many readers agree with Ben Patterson, a reader who left this comment at Hypebot: Along with “paying rent, providing a community gathering spot [and] bringing cultural events into a neighborhood,” brick-and-mortar bookstores are also “responsible for collecting sales tax — all things Amazon does not do.”

And to bookstore hater Bylin himself, Patterson wrote: “I suppose, if you’d rather have a Cash4Gold or PaydayAdvance on every street corner, that is an alternative, but it feels a lot like Internet pricing entitlement is negatively impacting neighborhoods and service.”

My new hero! That is so true: The sense of entitlement people get from pricing things on the Internet has turned consumers into tyrants! That’s why Bilton and his wife felt so righteous camping out in the aisles; and why Bylin has the audacity to pity rather than respect bookstores.

Patterson understands this odd reasoning: Keep the playing field even by charging Amazon sales tax, he says, and people will stop believing that Amazon is somehow ahead of the game by eluding the law.

That’s the real meaning of internet entitlement, I guess. Once you have your smart phone, anything on display in some dumb brick-and-mortar store is all yours for the taking.

When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

One needn’t be a fan of Barnes & Noble to sympathize with the staff at a B&N store where New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife acted like a couple of six-year-olds storming a playpen.

According to Bilton’s article, the couple sat down “cross-legged on the floor” and surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books,” which they “lobbed back and forth” (!) for “a couple of hours” (!!) while researching “ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.”

Isn’t that nice. Whenever you need a library, just go to a bookstore, Bilton suggests. There you can turn new books into used books for all the customers to follow.

Then Bilton and his wife “snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones” and “went home without buying a thing.” Very tidy. Bilton does mention that they “placed the books back on the shelf” like the Good Samaritans they see themselves to be.

A Disturbing Idea

But later that night, Bilton was struck by a disturbing idea: “I asked my wife: Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

So conscientious! After all, those pages were protected by copyright, a very big word for a very important concept. You’d think an explanation of copyright would be the point to an article with the headline: “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?”

But no. The authorities Bilton consults compare the use of cell phones that photograph book pages today with the use of Xerox machines that duplicated book pages during the ’70s, and the use of Napster programs that shared music files during the ’90s.

According to these experts, technology has advanced so quickly that copyright laws can’t keep up, so nobody really knows the exact definition of piracy when it comes to cell phone cameras. But Bilton’s journalistic drive demands a deeper truth: Will he get caught?

“Need I worry yet that a phalanx of lawyers will soon grab me between the Home Decor and New Age aisles at Barnes & Noble?”

Well, if I were the two thugs running this chain, I would have thrown the Biltons off the escalator, but you know, bookstore clerks are nice. They allowed this couple to clog the aisles and rummage through new books on the floor because it might have sounded rude to ask them to put their !@#$%^&*! cell phones away.

That leaves readers to ponder a thought by Julia A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School: “By the time this becomes an issue,” she tells Bilton, “we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

That’s comforting, isn’t it, Nick? One day the same might be said of libraries.

Bookstore Rudeness

I know that bookstores have long been invaded by ill-mannered customers who blithely sit down in the aisles, break the spines of new titles, “lob” books around or — these I could throttle — buy a book on Amazon and bring it into a bookstore to have autographed at an author event.

But Bilton’s article raises new questions about the effect of cell phones on social manners in general. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to cell phone users driving erratically or talking loudly on the street or in elevators and restaurants because for some reason, they think their conversation takes precedence over everyone else’s experience.

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

Thanking Our Lucky Stars

The Biltons don’t appear to be stupid or cheap — I bet if you asked them, they’d want to contribute to the betterment of bookstores. Then, too, Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown; 304 pages; $25), a book published last fall about the impact of iPads and smart phones. That makes Bilton an expert. Yet he doesn’t know the meaning of copyright? When he and the missus took advantage of the bookstore staff’s good graces, he had to ask, “Did we do anything wrong?”

So come on, Nicky, get off the phone. Think how you’d feel if somebody photographed your book and blithely departed “without buying a thing.” The future you write about can and should provide Americans with every kind of reading option, most especially the bookstore option.

Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it.  The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough;  that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading


Iron-willed, big-hearted and unforgettable

The recent death of Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and activist Pat Cody reminds me what a privilege it is to work with books at any time.

Pat and her husband Fred opened Cody’s Books in 1956, long before the emergence of computers or chain stores, and right in the middle of a conservative backlash called McCarthyism that ravaged free speech almost as badly as the Patriot Act has in our last decade.

The Codys are remembered as champions of civil rights, but throughout even the most turbulent decades, when gas masks hung by the cash register and protesters squared off against police outside the store, their core belief was the value and the right and the privacy of reading.

To Fred and Pat, it didn’t matter who walked into the store — a homeless self-publisher (hardly an oxymoron) or a professor of physics from UC Berkeley: Matching the right book with the right customer was the highest act of political engagement they knew. Their first and last job as booksellers, they felt, was to contribute to the experience of quiet solitude that can only happen during the act of reading. When the reader’s mind meets the author’s mind, they believed, the world will change. Thank heaven that Andy Ross, who bought Cody’s Books in 1977, believed the same thing. Continue reading

Homophobia? At Amazon?


I keep thinking about that delicious homophobic snafu that stuck it to Amazon last month and demonstrated the growing power of Twitter, however deliberately flash-in-the-pan it was.

The incident roared to life a month ago and died so fast that it didn’t seem important, but for me, something oddly familiar about it kept pinging away at the old postmenopausal memory. Finally I remembered an event 10 years ago in which Amazon behaved in an even more bizarre and homophobic manner that still has relevance today.

The Latest Episode 

Last month Amazon abruptly removed gay/lesbian-themed titles from its powerful sale ranking system. In a weekend, thousands of books were ineligible for certain title searches, best seller lists and other critical functions.

An author sent a query to Amazon’s customer-service department asking why the books were being removed. Ashley D of Member Services replied that “we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.” 

Well, “adult” is hardly the category to dump an entire classification of books, since the term signifies “pornographic” (think: “adult’ bookstores).  But it is the correct term to use if Amazon officially believes that everything homosexual is offensive and needs to be removed from, you know, normal people’s eyes. 

(A thoughtful explanation of why a sales ranking on Amazon is so important, along with a list of explicitly sexual hetero books that were not censored and non-explicitly sexual gay books that were, can be found here.) Continue reading

Things I Worry about Seeing #1


I may end up posing quite a number of Things I’d Love to See in the publishing industry, but a recent email from an editor in New York points out what a tangled knot mainstream publishing has become — too tangled, it seems, to make any substantive changes. 

The editor’s message responds to a recent column about publishers ending the tradition of publishing a book in hardcover first, then waiting a year for the trade paperback (if any). I proposed that publishers start with the cheaper but still beautiful trade paperback edition first. Especially for books by unknown or midlist authors, the already wasteful practice of publishing hardcovers seems senseless.

And now that money is short, readers are far more likely to take a chance on trade paperbacks; book reviewers who used to require hardcovers (honestly! I haven’t heard that one in 20 years) have been overtaken by bloggers who LOVE paperbacks; and since even publishers dismiss hardcovers as “promotional copies for the trade paperback,” my thought is: Just reverse the process. Continue reading

The National Book Foundation Responds

Dear Readers:

I don’t want this response from Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation – sponsor of the National Book Award ceremony I wrote about Monday – to get lost in the comments page so I’ve brought it up front here.

It’s a stirring defense of an evening I will always regard, I’m afraid, with “unrelentingly negative” thoughts, as he puts it, but there is information here we should all celebrate regarding the hard work the NBA has done (and that I didn’t mention in my column) to get these awards noticed outside New York. At the same time – well, my reply follows his letter below.

Dear Pat,

Your column is interesting, but missing many facts: Continue reading