a clean well-lighted place for books 09.24.2009, 11:29 AM
posted by bob stein
The following started out as a set of notes to various colleagues suggesting that successful digital publishing involves much much more than coming up with a viable form for networked books. rather unexpectedly this led to the question of how bookstores might evolve to give publishers a way to reassert their brands and strengthen their position vis a vis Amazon (as well as Google and Apple). This is very much a work in progress but i thought i'd post it and bring others into the discussion along the way.
The idea that "a book is a place (where readers, sometimes with authors, congregate)" arose out of a series of experiments investigating what happens when the act of reading moves from the printed page to an online space designed for social interaction. as we expanded the notion of a work to include the activity in the margin, in effect we re-defined "content" to include the conversation that a text engenders. Put another way, locating a text in a dynamic network brings the social aspects of reading to the fore. (see Without Gods, Gamer Theory, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Golden Notebook projects)
In an earlier set of notes ("A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era") I suggested that as discourse moves off the page onto networked screens, the roles of authors, readers, editors, publishers will shift in significant ways. For example, the author's traditional commitment to engage with a subject matter on behalf of future readers will shift to a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a subject. Successful publishers, i posited, will distinguish themselves by their ability to build and nurture vibrant communities of interest, often with authors at the center, but not necessarily always.
The purpose of this new set of notes is to expand the thinking beyond how a specific text is presented or interacted with. Reading (and writing) do not happen only at the level of the individual work. There is a broad ecology of behaviors, activities and micro-environments that surround each work and our relationship to it -- how things come to be written, how we choose what to read, how we make the purchase, how we share our experience with others. Currently (i.e. toward the end of age of print), that ecology is defined by agent/editor mechanisms of acquisition, sharp delineation between authors and readers, top-down marketing, heavy reliance on big mainstream media to get the word out, the bookshelves that make our books part of our daily life, bookstores and -- yes -- Amazon. Much more than not, Amazon is a product of the same DNA that underlies the still-dominant mode of the print-book read by the solitary reader. Everything about the Kindle, from its interaction design to its draconian DRM provisions, underlines its conservative role in preserving the ecologies of print.
The current e-book business (the buying/selling bits) was designed (or at least evolved) to minimize friction with the legacy business; pricing, release schedules and DRM all structured so as not to challenge print, which is still the predominant source of revenues.
To succeed at publishing in the networked era, it won't be enough just to re-conceive the work as a "networked book." If we accept that social interaction will be paramount, not just at the level of the individual work but throughout the ecology of networked reading and writing, then it's important also to ask the question "if a book is a place, what is the place for books? (or, more accurately but less forceful, "what are the places for books?")
Currently the predominant place(s) for books are bookstores, libraries, classrooms, cafes (as a stand-in for the general category of informal brick-and-mortar gathering places), living-room reading groups, and the infoweb (mainstream media + internet) where books are reviewed, promoted, and on sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, discussed. Each of these places has its own culture, its own social fabric that determines how people relate to each other, what their transactions are like, how you meet "new" people, how you come to trust them or not, and how you manage ongoing connections/relationships.
The bookstore, The Library and The Cafe
Brick and mortar bookstores are much better for (un-directed) browsing than online stores. This is probably mostly a function of bandwidth, i.e. I can see so much more in a bookstore than I can on my 2D screen. This will change as the web and its attendant hardware/software develops over time, but my guess is that a satisfying browsing experience of the order i can get in a great bookstore is many, many years away from practical. On the other hand if you know what you're looking for, online shopping excels at simplifying the process of making the transaction. In fact, in every sense except immediate transfer to the buyer of the object they've purchased, online buying is vastly more efficient. When the bulk of our book purchases are in electronic form, and therefore delivered instantly, the significant advantages left to the bookstore will be the superior browsing experience, the help desk and the cafe.
[And before you say "oh, it will be years before the bulk of what we're buying is in electronic form," think about how many iPhone apps or iTunes purchases you or your friends have made in the past few months (including the books you've been reading on your phone or Kindle) compared to how many print books you/they bought. This part of the future seems to be near-now.]
[Although many/most stores have an online presence, presently online and physical experiences tend to be relatively cut off from each other. However, that will change as online and physical experiences increasingly encroach on each other. At first this will happen in obvious ways: having access to the detail on the web when shopping in a physical store, being "joined" by a reading group buddy from Buenos Aires while talking with friends in a cafe. Eventually, as wearables become more powerful and ubiquitous, so much of our behavior will be sufficiently mediated by online access that the distinction will begin to disappear. So . . . whether you start with online or start with bricks and mortar, success will depend on making decisions which take into account the whole range of potential interactions.]
Intersecting Problems and Questions:
In terms of ebooks, as long as formats are hardware-bound and the hardware vendor controls the store, it will be next to impossible for publishers/creators to have much influence on the broader ecology (including the purchasing experience) as described above.
Sadly, publishers put themselves in this situation by believing in the necessity of powerful DRM schemes which made them susceptible to Amazon's Kindle pitch (and presumably whatever Apple is telling them now about the soon-to-come iTablet).
Amazon, by doing its best to disconnect works from their publishers has nearly completed the deterioration of the value/meaning of publisher brands, a process that started with the rise of the big aggregator bookshops. In order to survive in the networked era, publishers will need to reverse this trend and forge much closer connections to their customers. this could call for a variety of solutions, including newly conceived publisher-owned, online-meatspace bookstores, or a re-imagining of the Foyles arrangement (now since abandoned) of shelving books according to publisher. [in high-end department stores, this is already the norm, with each maker having its own real estate on the shop floor.
The first publishers were printers and booksellers. There was a long tradition of publisher bookshops in in NY. Could a publisher open up a bookshop/cafe of an entirely new type?
• great cafe/bar/restaurant with lots of comfortable/flexible seating arrangements that encourage interaction.
• POD for out-of-print works AND for chapters
• part of store set-up for optimum browsing of in-print books, both front- and back-list
• concept of "staff picks" vastly extended to include recommendations by readers and represented both on screens and in sections set aside for browsing of actual books.
• immediate download of ebooks in whatever formats are not proscribed by hardware vendors
• knowledgeable personnel
• robust and free wi-fi
• easy access to large monitors for group discussions of various sizes.
• flexible spaces that can accommodate author appearances, saturday morning children's activities, and group discussions
• very active user/customer (electronic) bulletin board for recommendations and ad-hoc social group formation (of an endless variety).
a friend who read an earlier draft of these notes send a note expressing doubt about the viability of physical stores to which i sent the following reply:
The point i was trying to make in raising the question of physical stores was that the broader ecology of reading and writing encompasses both online and physical components. While of course it's cheaper to go 100% online, i'm doubtful that it's the route to success at this time. By example, wasn't Bezos' genius in figuring out how to move one crucial part of the reading experience -- the purchase of the book -- online; the physical object was still delivered to your door. [The early success (a single as opposed to a home run) of the Kindle is interesting. I think it works because the Kindle's display is just barely good enough to read on, and again Bezos made the purchase experience relatively painless. But as long as we're still occupying our corporeal bodies, i don't think the Kindle/whispernet combo is sufficient yet to make up for the desire for in-store browsing plus all the social components of the store including knowledgeable personnel and the opportunity to be out and about in a lively retail environment. Shopping isn't just about the purchase. Would Apple be where it is today if it hadn't opened its stores?]
The crux of the matter, i think, is branding. Over time publishers yielded the primacy of publishing house brands to the aggregators (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon). and having lost the power of their brands, publishers relied more on the star power of individual authors which made it much more difficult to launch new writers etc., making the publishers even weaker over time.
Clearly anything as important a game-changer as the shift from page to screen is/was an opportunity to re-set the terms of the competition. Amazon recognized this much earlier than any of the publishers and in launching the Kindle launch put publishers into an even more defensive position.
One aspect of what i'm working on here is the question of how do publishers (established ones and/or new ones) change the current model so that they are in a better position to compete. And the answer in part is, in the case of established publishers to take back their brands and for new publishers to build their brands.
[Interestingly, GiantChair understood this and built a business model which used google-based discovery to send consumers directly to a publisher's website rather than Amazon or another aggregator. GC's embrace of Commentpress and Sophie included the recognition that succeeding with these new formats which allow (nearly require) publishers to sell directly to consumers, will help publishers regain some of the ground lost to Amazon and others.]
I find myself thinking a lot about what i call the "Foyles" model. in the not too recent past Foyles in London shelved books, not alphabetically by subject or genre, but by publisher such that there was the Penguin section and the Bloomsbury section. For a more recent example, video stores usually shelve Criterion titles on their own -- precisely because of the power of the brand. From this perspective I see two sorts of physical store plays -- one could open a completely new sort of superstore . . . . where publishers, like perfume companies, effectively rent space to show their wares (fulfilling in some cases with actual books but also via POD and online). The second is a publisher branded cafe/store -- McSweeney's, Lonely Planet, Canongate, maybe Knopf/Vintage but certainly not it's parent brand Random House which is much too diffuse at this point). As i wrote in the draft i sent you the success of such stores would depend on doing many things right.
however, just to keep things in perspective, the main point i'm trying to make in "a clean well-lighted place for books" is not about the potential of physical stores to build brands per se, but about the need to re-think the whole shebang of which the retail venues are only one part.
Posted by bob stein on September 24, 2009 11:29 AM
bowerbird on September 24, 2009 1:47 PM:
i agree with your friend. the stores you envision
wouldn't make enough money to pay their rent...
plus i'm feeling unsettled because you've bitten off
a whole new huge chunk without having sufficiently
chewed your last bite. will you flit off from this one
before you've chewed it too? if so, then why not just
decline to chew it at all, and tell us what'll be coming
Bob Stein on September 25, 2009 12:41 PM:
i'm pretty sure i can prove that stores of the type i describe could be profitable, but that's not at the core of your reasonable concern that i've bitten off a whole new chunk without finishing the last one. the point of these notes was to suggest that we've been defining the "last bit" too narrowly; figuring out the environment these new works reside is proving to be just as important as the work itself. We've got a nifty new version of CommentPress ready to go, but I'm realizing now that we've not paid enough attention to how people will form groups around documents. Sophie 2.0 will be out early next year and wlll face the same problems. So a lot of the concerns voiced here are part of the problem i've been chewing on for a very long time.
Theresa M. Moore on September 25, 2009 2:36 PM:
Your comment about Amazon and Barnes & Noble effectively eliminating the concept of branding among publishers is somewhat insightful, but I don't think that readers (consumers) really care where the book comes from as long as it has a reasonably attractive appearance and an afforable price. I used to like to go to Borders and B. Dalton Bookseller to buy my books, and I never really paid attention to which publisher produced it until I got it home and began to read. Later, when I began to publish my own books I saw that I needed to create some kind of brand so I did, but I promote the books, not the brand. After all, readers want quality and price, and have no loyalty to one brand or the other. That Amazon has somehow managed to make its brand attractive is an unfortunately fluke of happenstance. We should not be modeling ourselves after them.
pedro meyer on September 25, 2009 4:43 PM:
I think that we should start to include ASAP within the discourse of "books", that these no longer be seen as just text oriented. In a world that is moving rapidly to more image vs text, you can't just eliminate from the equation such a huge portion of how people actually communicate these days. [Just observe Facebook, there are more pixels being moved with images, than with texts, nothing to say of video on Utube]
In essence, my concern is that the discourse here seems to always be text centric. And if you are trying to explore new directions for the book, this awareness of the photograph and video, better be included from the outset. You might discover that many of the answers you are looking for, might already be addressed as we speak, in the world of the image, only under different names, and possibly even unaware of what is actually being created.
So for the sake of moving on all the fronts in parallel, in this search for answers of "is there water on the moon?" - there is! I would like to entice you all to think photographically as well, and not only along the "traditional" structure of books.
bowerbird on September 26, 2009 3:36 PM:
> i'm pretty sure i can prove that
> stores of the type i describe
> could be profitable
um, then you should definitely do it.
because lots of bookstores are now
actively desperate for the magic key
that will let them have profitability...
and they'll be gone before long if they don't find it...
> We've got a nifty new version of CommentPress
well, that addresses some of my concern, yes...
> but I'm realizing now that we've not paid
> enough attention to how people will
> form groups around documents.
hmm. i do believe you'll discover, if you look,
that that was one of my initial reservations...
and yes, i still think it's a strong consideration.
in the meantime, don't know if you noticed, but
both richard nash and hugh mcguire are doing
startups that revolve around this same idea --
gathering together a community of editors that
will support an author in a collaborative fashion.
both of them seem to think they can make money
from putting together these communities... but
i'm skeptical such communities allow themselves
to be exploited by middlemen, no matter how nice
or well-intentioned those middlemen happen to be.
at least nash is planning on creating a community
that has a sharp focus, which is the only way that
i can imagine such a thing working. mcguire says
he intends to take a general approach instead, and
i just can't see high-quality editors from an array of
topic areas bonding together to work with authors
on a "just because" basis, especially for zero pay,
especially if the middleman _is_ extracting cash...
> GC's embrace of Commentpress and Sophie
> included the recognition that succeeding with
> these new formats which allow (nearly require)
> publishers to sell directly to consumers, will
> help publishers regain some of the ground
> lost to Amazon and others.
i don't see it, bob. mcsweeney's, yeah, they can do it.
but not many other publishers. no, not by a long shot.
it is precisely because _authors_ can now "sell directly"
to our fans that publishers have been disintermediated.
most publishers will tell you "the author is the brand".
Ann on September 27, 2009 9:08 PM:
I've only rarely browsed books because I liked a publisher's other books, but it could certainly happen in the bookstore you envision. Penguin, of course, brands their paperbacks using their signature design and people expect a level of quality from them. Gallimard in France also. If branding were design-based, it would give bookstores a reason to shelve books together -- visually arresting displays. Barnes & Noble does this with its classics section and did it for awhile with its miniature classics, and I admit I have spent some time at those displays for the sheer fun of handling the books, and then bought a few because once they are in my hand they are half sold.
sol gaitan on September 29, 2009 12:06 PM:
When it moves from printed space to online space, a book may include text, images (photography and video), and sound, but what differentiates "the book as place" from all other attempts at text digitalization is its functioning in a dynamic network. That means the combination of all these aspects, not the exclusion of any, taking place within the content of a book through the act of reading. What Bob keeps trying to hammer into our heads is that the networked book brings to the fore the social aspect of reading, reading as a communicative act. All the Institute's projects have been relatively successful, but not completely, mostly because the readers involved have failed to fully grasp that they were reading in a different space. Gamer Theory is the closest to what I understand as an author committed to engage with his readers "in the context of a subject," essential to the notion of a book as a place for interaction. But, the problem with all the experiments has been that they worked within their own culture, readers were pretty much chosen, they didn't happen by the act of browsing.
Bob mentions that the online and the physical presence of most stores are cut off from each other. The fact is that people's lives are already actively mediated by online access and nobody is taking full advantage of those interactions yet. If I could go to a physical record store and browse, but also be able not only to listen to a particular version of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, but to browse all interpretations online, and to have access to commentaries and, perhaps, to a live chat, and, if needed, to consult with the expert in the store, I would come out of it with much more knowledge and at least one record (the physical object I adore.) Someone else could come out of the store, equally satisfied, with the electronic version. Bob very much has presented the ideal "clean well-lighted place for books" that allows for both online and physical books. For instance, if a bookstore had printed versions of books in translation by different publishers that one could navigate thanks to online help (i.e. comparisons of a number of versions of a poem,) that would be great. Beyond that, if it also offered books published using new formats, such as the networked ones, the bookstore experience would be extraordinary. Such bookstore would become a place of knowledge gathered through all kinds of interaction.
Usually a visionary puts forward ideas that challenge the whole concept of something, as Patrick Brown says, Bob's vision "would mean to completely reinvent our business." Well, you better reinvent it or it will go away.
bowerbird on September 29, 2009 7:48 PM:
today's bookstores can only afford to hire employees
because there are lots of book-lovers out there who
will work for a shitty wage just to work in a bookstore.
(i know, because i have friends who work in bookstores.)
and it's getting harder and harder for these bookstores...
i just don't see how a store can afford to gear up like this,
and still turn a profit. i don't like it, any more than i liked
when the record stores disappeared, but it seems inevitable.
bob stein on September 29, 2009 7:49 PM:
apropos of Sol's comment, the draft version of this post originally started off with this quote from Buckminster Fuller:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a NEW model that makes the existing model obsolete.
and Bowerbird . . . i agree that very few bookstores are in a position to take the leap i describe. my instinct is that it has to be a new venture.
Aaron Pressman on September 30, 2009 11:11 AM:
What's the source for the assertion that publishing brands were stronger before the rise of the superstores? I don't doubt that publishing companies had more economic power and influence with the multitude of smaller bookstores that used to exist but brand value or consumer recognition? As a person who's been buying books for almost 40 years now, I can't say I have ever known or cared about the identity of the publisher, only the author.
bowerbird on October 1, 2009 9:05 PM:
> i agree that very few bookstores are in
> a position to take the leap i describe.
> my instinct is that it has to be a new venture.
i'd love to see you make it work.
because i'd love to see _how_ you made it work.
because i can't see it making a profit based on
how i see you describe it in this post right here.
and i would guess a lot of bookstore _owners_
would be willing to revamp operations entirely
if you showed them a reality that is what they
needed to do in order to sell books profitably.
so if a challenge would persuade you to do it,
consider yourself challenged... :+)
Tim Brandhorst on October 3, 2009 7:47 AM:
I've posited three general keys to success of a bookstore in the future:
1. Offer a highly curated collection.
2. Rely on multiple revenue streams (other than book sales).
3. Be a destination.
These are derived in part by reverse engineering what currently makes Mitchell Kaplan's Books & Books store in Coral Gables so successful, and trying to generalize and think through future needs.
No spreadsheets involved, Bowerbird, but at least a viable working model for you to think about: http://pubforward.blogspot.com/2009/10/bookstore-of-future.html
bowerbird on October 3, 2009 4:48 PM:
> 1. Offer a highly curated collection.
this can, and does, work.
but only if the embedded neighborhood from which you
draw your meat puppets can provide a critical mass that's
also highly curated, solvent, and adequately motivated to
financially support your particular curatorial realization...
> 2. Rely on multiple revenue streams (other than book sales).
here you're saying that you can succeed as a bookstore by
being something else in _addition_ to being a bookstore...
which, ya know, is kind of a contradiction in terms, although
i'll let you slide with it since it basically concedes my point...
plus it might be true...
> 3. Be a destination.
at one time, being a bookstore _was_ being "a destination".
but evidently there is no there there any more...
> These are derived in part by reverse engineering
> what currently makes Mitchell Kaplan's Books & Books
> store in Coral Gables so successful, and trying to
> generalize and think through future needs.
that's an intelligent means of analysis, thanks for sharing...
bowerbird on October 4, 2009 5:52 PM:
since you mentioned the word, tim...
the n.y. times has an article on "curate" as the new buzzword.
the article leads with a description of "a sneaker store" that is
more than just "a sneaker store" because it "curates" all of its
merchandise, which includes "books, music and apparel", and
-- of course -- sneakers. maybe every bookstore should sell
the article continues, at one point:
> Indeed, invoking the word can be good for one’s image
> and business, said Karuna Tillmon James, 30, who has
> a background in fine-art photography and recently opened
> a consignment shop selling designer clothing
> in Brentwood, Calif. It’s name: Curate Couture.
whoa, i think to myself, i think i just went by that place...
so i look it up on the web, and find its address, and _yes_,
i did indeed just drive by there yesterday, as a matter of fact.
and do you want to know the irony?
if you look up that address -- 11973 san vicente boulevard --
you will find it was formerly occupied -- for several decades --
by dutton's bookstore, a one-proud independent shop where
a poet friend of mine (scott wannberg) worked for decades...
that's the irony, tim, in spades...
Hubert Guillaud on October 5, 2009 5:31 AM:
I make a French translation of this note because it is important for booksellers, whether American or European. http://lafeuille.homo-numericus.net/2009/10/si-un-livre-est-un-lieu-quelle-est-la-place-des-livres.html