HOLT UNCENSORED #97
by Pat Holt
Friday, October 8, 1999:
COLLABORATIVE FILTERING VS. MARY GAY SHIPLEY
CONSORTIUM CARRIES ON
COLLABORATIVE FILTERING VS. MARY GAY SHIPLEY
Sometimes I think the whole point to the Internet is to give everybody an excuse to stay home. Sit at your computer all day and you'll never have to risk your feelings or your looks or your thoughts in the presence of other people - in fact, you'll never have to talk to another soul again.
At least that's what Malcolm Gladwell seems to be saying in yet another article (this one in the 10/4 issue of the New Yorker) about embracing computer technology to improve or replace personal life. In "The Science of the Sleeper," he actually uses the example of independent booksellers to prove the point.
Gladwell writes with such wonderful conviction about the quiet genius of bookseller Mary Gay Shipley at That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark., that you can't believe he's going to end up stealing her thunder and her humanity as a bookseller.
But he does, and with nothing less than a computer formula called "collaborative filtering."
Shipley, he makes clear, is one of those great booksellers whose very presence defies the declining market share of independents. So instrumental has Shipley been in the launching of such authors as Rebecca Wells, David Guterson, Terry Kay and (way-back-when) John Grisham, that American literature could not bear up without her.
"People like Mary Gay Shipley don't merely predict sleeper hits," he declares; "they CREATE sleeper hits."
Such pronouncements ought to make the heart swell, but just when Gladwell could say to the reader, "and you know what? There's probably a Mary Gay Shipley in YOUR neighborhood," he shifts gears and says forget about the human element.
"What if there were a simple way to build your very own Mary Gay Shipley?" he asks. "This is the promise of a new technology called collaborative filtering, one of the most intriguing developments to come out of the Internet age."
And of course it IS intriguing, at least in the example Gladwell provides, which is a movie filtering system called Movie Lens (he doesn't provide the website address, but it appears to be http://www.movielens.umn.edu although the system was not working when I tried to log in).
With MovieLens, Gladwell supplied the names of 15 movies he had seen and ranked them on a scale of 1 (awful) to 5 (must see).
Since tens of thousands of people have sent in their own 15 movie titles ranked to personal tastes, the computer was able to sort through and match Gladwell's tastes with those of others and . . . voila! Out bounced a list of additional movies he was bound to love, based on the choices of "his" group.
The more he plugged in movie titles with his ranking, Gladwell says, the more "I began to notice that the rating that MovieLens predicted I would give a movie and the rating I actually gave it were nearly always, almost eerily, the same. The system had found a small group of people who feel exactly the same way I do about a wide range of popular movies."
All right, then! Collaborative filtering sounds as fun as one of those Sunday magazine quizzes where you put in all your favorite and detested things and then rank them and count up the points you've scored and find out at the end that you never needed that surgery and should change your hair color and it's okay to have that affair.
But collaborative filtering is no game, says Gladwell. It's not only statistically accurate, it shows why a company like Amazon (a dinosaur by comparison in terms of interpreting data) is 1) presently making those hilarious errors by telling people who buy camping guides they'd love to read "Mien Kampf" and 2) will soon figure out a way to use collaborative filtering for those "eerily" perfect matches that will astound customers.
What certainly is fascinating for anyone in the book business is the potential of collaborative filtering to reverse the growing dependency on big numbers and star authors and blockbusteritis that currently plagues our industry. According to Gladwell, collaborative filtering looks for the small and specific, the "cultural 'neighborhood.' " No longer bewildered by too many books by unknown writers, "customers now have a way of narrowing down their choices to the point where browsing becomes easy again."
What a dream for the serious reader and the serious publisher: As E-commerce consultant and author John Hagel puts it, collaborative filtering "favors the smaller, the more talented, more quality products that may have a hard time getting visibility because they are not particularly good at marketing."
So this is the promise of the Internet fulfilled: Big numbers easily sorted, small audiences uncovered that are voracious for books they find meaningful. Instead of searching for these readers in various pockets on the Web and trying to post notices or customize marketing in bookstores, publishers can now sit back and let their customers find them. .
But what about the Mary Gay Shipleys of the world? Why, they are essential to the process of discovering and launching the books to begin with - and they are expendible!
Indeed, Gladwell seems to feel that once automation replaces any part of the human factor, we should all step aside for technology. The human bean may hang on for a while, but, we're sorry, we must turn now, with affection and thanks to the more efficient (and less expensive) system before us.
Gladwell is like the son of the company founder who's trained for a few weeks by workers he comes to love - and learns just enough to automate them all out of a job. He too becomes an automaton, missing the vital connections that only human beings can bring to business - especially when it comes to the delicate timing and balance of art and commerce.
But the worst aspect to this article is that for all his research, Gladwell seems to know nothing of the herculean effort it takes for independent bookstores to survive against the chains, the Walmarts and the Amazon.coms of today's book industry. He sees no stake in "the bookstore wars" himself, buying his fiction from Barnes & Noble and work-related or gift books from Amazon. He seems to purchase "most of my nonfiction" from secondhand bookstores.
Nothing is mentioned in this article about the thousands of independents that have already closed, the loss of thousands of Mary Gay Shipleys all over the country, the key role customers can play in supporting those who remain.
One wants to shake this man. This is literature we're talking about. You can't automate it. There is no "simple way to build your very own Mary Gay Shipley." Books are written by human beings, edited and sold by human beings, believed in and loved and spread around by human beings. Use technology to complement, not replace the Mary Gay Shipleys of the world, and maybe we'll have a book business worth saving.
CONSORTIUM CARRIES ON
"I never thought about going into the book business. I didn't grow up saying, 'Gee, I'll be a bookseller.' But I loved to read. And then I loved the people who are in this business. And I love the passion."
The speaker is Randall Beek, head of book distributor Consortium in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He said these words during an interview a few years ago but talks with equal enthusiasm about alternative publishers and book distribution today in an office that sits behind a 40,000-square-foot warehouse packed with books people wrongly describe, he says, as "literary."
And what a story he has to tell: While mainstream publishers insist they can't publish midlist or unknown books without sales of the big books on their lists, Beek runs a company in which most books sell fewer than 2000 copies and SUCCESSFUL books of poetry sell 300-800 copies on average.
While publishers and booksellers worry about the lack of young people coming into the business, Beek is nurturing cutting-edge presses like Softskull, Sarabande and Incommunicado in the Consortium fold. While many publishers find sales too low in special-interest markets, Beek's company publishes entire catalogs of books for Asian American, Native American, Latin American, Gay & Lesbian, Jewish and Feminist audiences, as well as those on-the-fringe customers whose catalog is called "The Culture of the Void."
When HarperCollins disbanded the division distributing books for HarperCollins Australia and Canada, Consortium picked 'em up. When WGBH TV of Boston lost its deal to publish "The Secret to Life," a gift book based on its 7-part series on genetics, Consortium distributed some 28,000 in hardcover. Long after many mainstream publishers have given up on gay markets, Consortium's biggest publisher continues to be Alyson Publications, a gay publisher now owned by The Advocate.
And make no mistake, Consortium can sell in the big numbers, too - a Jane Kenyon poetry collection ("Otherwise") sold over 35,000 copies in hardcover; Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (Theatre Communications) sold 150,000 copies of each volume; Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write" (Graywolf) has sold hundreds of thousands of titles; and September was the biggest month in sales in Consortium's history,with a $350,000 sale of Applewood Press reprints (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys) going to . . . the not so unlikely Restoration Hardware stores.
So Beek doesn't like to use the word "literary" for the Consortium line because he's created so many different subject categories since leaving Bookpeople, the alternative distributor in Berkeley CA where he worked for 15 years, to head up the clearly ailing Consortium in 1992. "When I took over, we had 17 publishers here and were making $2.8 million," he says. "Now we have 60 publishers and are making about $12 million net."
Still, 45% of Consortium's business does consist of literary books, many of them backlist, and a good number selling only a few hundred copies per year (which thus accounts for Consortium's move toward print-on-demand). While he concedes that independent publishing is "very, very hard," Beek has helped Consortium's nonprofit presses find grants, set up a loan reprint fund, made inroads in academic sales, initiated a new telemarketing program, explored the library market and created an infrastructure that gives both distributor and presses a welcome cushion they never had before.
And while the company certainly depends on 60 to 100 key independent booksellers throughout the country to launch and sustain sales of its often VERY literary books, Consortium has found that Borders has been "very perceptive to what we do in terms of offering us marketing that works with our kinds of publishers and budgets," says Beek. "Barnes & Noble has kind of courted us - at our sales conference they sent buses to take our publishers to their New Jersey facility and set up meetings to introduce their buyers."
I've heard that some people in some chains sometimes waive exorbitant promotional fees for small presses, but Beek just shrugs when asked about this. He is in many ways the epitome of the independent spirit in book publishing. He loves the books he distributes, loves the process of publishing them and the process of selling them. He feels there should be room for everybody, and he makes it so.
Beek talks about what he'd like to do now: "We've loaned close to $800,000 out of cash flow to our publishers and we've never lost any money because we control the payment stream," he says. "Now I'd like to go to a funder for money that we'd use for a wider range of publishing projects, and for education we can share with everyone in the field."
He'd also like to make a more public connection between independent presses and independent bookstores "to help get a higher profile of small press books in the independents. We have co-op money to spend on this because I feel it's important to show we're all in the same boat."
For all that is flourishing at Consortium, though, the profit margin stays a little above 3 percent each year. Each new season brings 300 new titles (6500 total) and reveals what a science it is, right down to the use of deep-reach forklifts working double and cross-aisle racking in the warehouse, to keep an eye on every penny of expense.
"You know, with all of this stuff about what's going on with the industry these days, you forget somehow that these are people who have had a personal vision and were publishing books and believed in it, put their money into it, and were producing a myriad of ideas."
Here Beek refers to publishers he's known for nearly three decades, when he started out working for RPM Distribution, moved over to Bookpeople and then headed Consortium. It's great to know, when you see how hard it is to keep that "myriad of ideas" afloat, that people like Randall Beek are out there.
One last thing about the Minneapolis area before saying goodbye to the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association and the regional conference that got me there: This may be true of other regions, but I've rarely seen or felt the kind of philanthropic and community commitment to books that is almost palpable in the Twin Cities.
Because of it, a new literary space in Minneapolis is soon to go up combining different books and services, including a writing center called The Loft; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (with exhibits and demonstrations of handmade paper, handset type, fine printing); Milkweed, a literary publisher; and the Hungry Mind, which will install a 3000-square-foot bookstore.
Elsewhere, thanks to concerns by the directors of Chrysalis, a nonprofit women's service organization, the embattled but unbowed Amazon Bookstore (currently suing Amazon.com for trademark infringement) has been invited to bring its (much expanded) store and a coffee house into Chrysalis' new 21,000-square-foot building, set to open in May.
Which brings us back to Randall Beek, who's has held conferences bringing nonprofit publishers together with grants institutions at Consortium and has sat on various nonprofit boards. He believes that many publishers have moved to the Twin Cities because of the philanthropic interests of local groups.
So things are tough all over the book industry, but when communties make a commitment to support everything from literacy to literature in practical, visible, ways, one can heart from the fact that, as Beek says, we're all in this together.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just wanted to mention in regard to your comments about "GRAVITY" that authors rarely have control over titles. Sometimes titles are a result of collaborative effort of author, editor and agent. Very often, the marketing department at a publishing house insists on a title that the author would never have picked. Same thing, of course, with cover art.
Consider the controversy over many years about the "nursing mother" covers on romance novels, which both the authors and readers often found downright offensive. Yet, if the author is forced to have an unwanted title or an unattractive cover (in spite of the protests of author and agent), and the author's sales figures decline, it is the author and her career that suffer. Authors are commonly dropped by publishers for just such a decline in "sell through," which often has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or appeal of the contents of the book.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your tax dollars do not support the U.S. Postal Service -- it is entirely self-sufficient. In fact, it's the only self-sufficient branch of the government. They stay self-sufficient by being creative. Would you rather have a tax increase to pay for your mail?
A Postal Worker
Holt responds: I'm amazed that it's self-supporting but glad if it REALLY is, because yes, I'd rather have a tax increase to pay for mail than depend on "collaborations" with private companies like Amazon.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
My security blanket is knowing that I have LOTS of books on the shelves that are waiting to be read or re-read. Unfortunately, for some many years now, I have not had the time I used to take to browse in bookstores. So, I subscribe to BookReporter ( http://www.bookreporter.com )and read the reviews and download the excerpts. Then, I may purchase a book online, but more often, I head to the bookstore to make the purchase. I have found, however, that B&N online does a great job with out-of-print books.
At any rate, I wonder if you can help persuade sites like BookSense and BookSite to make downloadable excerpts available. Reading reviews is nice, but I like to get a sense of a new (to me) writer, by reading an excerpt.
Holt responds: BookReport.com does have a lot of information about books you can't find elsewhere, but it's so loaded with Amazon.com links and ads that I can barely stand to look at it. Here again is a nearly schizophrenic attitude about "the bookstore wars." The site seems to have an understanding of the controversy, conducting a poll asking readers if they buy books at big chain superstores (52% say they do) or small independents (29%) and one story celebrating independents in which the writer says, "When traveling or visiting with my TBR friends, a highlight of the trip is visiting the independent bookstores in that geographical area." That's great, but now why not support independents by using links that would give them the sale rather than Amazon? As BookSense and BookSite are giving independents data bases they can use on the web, this would be a great new connection.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re Barnes & Noble's Efficient Receipt Program. I had to laugh at the nerve the next day when I made my first of 4 calls to publishers re shipping errors. I said at the end of the conversation, "now aren't you glad I am not calling from B&N?"
"Why?" they asked. When I told them about the new Efficient Receipt Program, they were stunned. I told them I was happy with a pleasant and rapid correction of the problem...and that no one at our store earned 40 dollars an hour anyway. The potential for abuse boggles the mind, doesn't it?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Come on, Pat. Roddy McDowell was not in "Alien." Get your gick right.
Holt (shamefacedly) responds: I knew it was John Hurt! That's the problem, excuse me! Doesn't he at least remind you of Roddy McDowell?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am having trouble mustering much sympathy for the campaign against Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and other online booksellers, and against the bricks-and-mortar book superstores like Borders, Barnes and Noble and Bookstar.
I was an economics major in college, and studied antitrust law in law school, so I understand all of the arguments against monopolies, business conglomerations and the like. But as a book reader and book buyer, I am hard-pressed to see how the growth of these online and bricks-and-mortar stores are bad for me.
I keep hearing these merchants are bad for the independent booksellers, and I can imagine that is true. But, again, how is that bad for me? The independent booksellers have, in my experience, been a decidedly mixed blessing over the years. There is little I can get in an independent bookstore that I cannot get from the online booksellers or the book superstores, and the latter usually have the books I want at lower prices. I love to browse for hours, and the stock available in a superstore usually dwarfs that in an independent bookstore.
I am sensitive to the concerns that the larger stores may not work as hard to get the works of new, lesser known authors out before the public. However, it certainly seems that the Borders store near my home makes quite an effort to prominently display and promote works by such authors. It also actively promotes and sponsors reading groups in a number of categories, covering a wide range of books, including those by lesser known authors.
Critics have argued that independent booksellers are a source of recommendations and information. Maybe so, but I am a regular reader of The New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books and other sources of information about books and reading; I read widely about books, and get the information I need to help me shape my reading. As a result, except for my own in-store browsing (which is, in itself, both a pasttime and a way of gathering more information on books), I generally know going into a bookstore what I'm looking for; that's even more true when I log on to one of the online booksellers.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the independent booksellers. I also understand how they feel threatened, and I hope their attempts to bind together to provide an online service to compete with Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and the rest proves successful. But I am a big purchaser of books, and I value the service the online booksellers and bricks-and-mortar superstores provide me. I simply don't view them as part of an evil empire destroying life -- and literature -- as we know it.
Holt Responds: Perhaps each of us should ask, as you have, how "the bookstore wars" affect us personally. Maybe we would understand how profoundly our First Amendment freedoms at stake. If you haven't heard about the American Booksellers Association's lawsuit against Borders and Barnes & Noble, go to ABA's website on the subject, http://www.bookweb.org/m-bin/by_topic?topic_id=30 , where you'll see that no one is asking for special treatment for independent bookstores. Quite the contrary: the lawsuit demands that chain bookstores stop their own "secret and illegal deals and preferential treatment" and conduct business on a level playing field like everyone else, especially and including independents.
Meanwhile, I think that comparing one independent bookstore to an entire chain is not going to show you what's really at stake. Taken together, independent bookstores sell a much wider variety and range of books than do chain bookstores, and the discussion that goes on between independents and customers is much more fertile and important in nurturing good books than are email queries and answers at Amazon.com.
The point to me is that no matter how many titles Borders or Barnes & Noble say they offer, what you get at a chain bookstore is a formula buy out of New York or Ann Arbor that is basically the same for all stores. This means that the decision about the books we read and the choices we make are falling into fewer and fewer hands. That kind of consolidation of power is always dangerous, as I'm sure you know.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re "the flotilla of smaller merchants": I've long thought that Flotilla would be the perfect name for a waterfront hooker.\r