Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kindles Still Aren't Books: Humanity in a Time of Robots

Tara's reply to our “Kindles Aren't Books” post: I LOVE my kindle. I am and always have been a voracious reader, reading anything I can get my hands on. The kindle has made it so much easier for me to indulge in my love of the written word. I can now carry thousands of books with me all at once. As a writer having any reference material I want at my fingertips where ever I am is invaluable. As a reader the ability to read a book review then buy that book an instant later is a joy. Will I still buy paperbacks? Of course. I still browse book stores and make impulse buys, and it is still exciting to stumble across that gem you didn't even know existed, but my kindle never leaves my side. The facts are that Kindle editions of books are now out selling hardcover editions, and it probably won't be long until they are out selling paperbacks. The kindle will do for publishing what the ipod has done for the music industry. It is the future, there is no point standing in the past.


We apologize for having been gone so long. But, as you know, the book industry is changing and we've been devoting much of our time to staying ahead of the curve. However, Tara's comments got us thinking and we thought we should make our voices heard once more.

You should know that it never once occurred to us to not publish what Tara wrote. Doing so would have been censorship, and as booksellers we are completely, for what should be obvious reasons, opposed to that. However, since Tara posted her comments as a reply, we will exercise our rights to comment back, especially since it would appear that we have been charged with "standing in the past."

Amazon was more than clever to name their e-reader the Kindle. Not because the name in and of itself is clever, or has a certain meaning, but because nowhere in mentioning the name in the manner that Tara did, would you equate the Kindle with Amazon. By itself, the name becomes a cache. A trend, but we'll deal with that later on. The Kindle is most certainly an Amazon product, so we should first understand how that product effects the local community. That is, how the local community that people like to "browse book stores and make impulse buys" in survives in a Kindle world.

Here's the hard facts:

  • Small business accounts for 75% of all new jobs.

  • When you spend $100 at an independent business, $68 returns to the local community. Spend that same amount at a national chain and it drops to $43.

  • For every square foot a local firm occupies, the local economy gains $179 vs. $105 for a chain store.

  • Locally-owned businesses reinvest in the local economy at a 60% higher rate than chains and Internet retailers.

  • Small businesses employ just over half all U.S. workers.

  • Small businesses create more than half the non-farm private gross domestic product (GDP).

  • Locally-owned and operated businesses create higher-paying jobs for you and your neighbors.

(these facts are from: U.S. Chamber of Commerce – Small Business Nation; Civic Economics – Andersonville Study of Retail Economics. Civic Economics – San Francisco Report on Retail Diversity. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Buy Local Berkeley via Independent We Stand)


So, with every e-book you buy from Kindle you are taking away from the the local economy, your neighbors, your friends. The vacation places you like to go visit. You have created or sustained no new business enterprises, nor helped to sustain over half of the American working class.

Beyond facts however, we found a fault with Tara's logic.

We too are voracious readers. It's a bad joke, but we make it constantly: we feel that working in a bookstore is like the old company store model, where on pay day we lose more than half of what we earn right back to the bosses. Working at a bookstore certainly helps us to "indulge in [our] love of the written word." But we indulged before we worked here, too. Erasmus, in what is now a coffee mug quote, said that, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." Voracious reading and the continual indulging of the habit is nothing new, and having a bookstore close by, or even within an hour's commute, makes it easy to buy as much as we please. It's even more convenient on rainy days when fewer people are out and about: the place is all yours. The Kindle hasn't changed that, though it has made the speed with which you have instant access to a purchase quicker, certainly. However, if I want a book and the store doesn't have it in stock, then I order it and buy another book in the meantime. After all, there are more books than I have time in my life to read them, so it's not like I am being deprived by not having what I came to the store for in that moment. And, if I know that what I am looking for may not be in stock (since I go to the bookstore regularly enough to have a general idea of what is or is not there--just building a good relationship with a local store) then I can order it ahead of time so that it is there when I absolutely need it. Or, I can ask about its availability and then order ahead of time.

Some people though appear to want to "carry thousands of books with [them] all at once." But, when do you need thousands of books at the same time? Even this writer, who reads four to five books simultaneously, would never think to carry "thousands with [him] all at once." There's just no need. Even when, as this writer experienced, you live in a place like Kuwait, where there are far and few English language bookstores and shipping to that country is massively expensive. Living like that just means I choose the books that I need to carry with me more wisely.

In a culture where we are too used to jumping from one channel to the next or putting our iPods on shuffle and losing the value of listening to a whole album, there is something to be said for only having a few books, or just one damn good one, with you at a given moment. It means that you sustain yourself through close, slow, deep reading. It is an art that is both continually rewarding and necessary in our short attention span culture. Certain books written in antiquity are read today because their truths still hold. They will be read generations from now because they will still reveal new truths. That would imply that certain books have infinite depth and can benefit from multiple readings. It would seem much more practical then to carry one, or a half dozen, of such a book, rather than "thousands" of mediocre one-reads.

As a writer, having "any reference material [that] I want at my fingertips where ever [spelling mistake is not ours] I am is invaluable." What's important here is that without the Kindle I, as a writer [and I am, and by that I mean publishers pay me for what I write], have all that I need whenever I want it. I always have. That's what a good library or library system is for, as well as an independent bookstore. Good libraries and independents will even have what I didn't know I needed, and that's really what this is all about.

Going into a bookstore, a good one, not a chain whose employees don't know their stock, is an invitation to have an employee tell you about a great book that you have never heard of. Likewise, in a good library. It is a personal review, one made face to face--in the best cases, through building a close relationship with your bookseller (like we used to do with our butchers, tailors and farmers). The problem with internet reviewing, especially on a place like Amazon, is that many of those reviews are not made honestly and they are impersonal. There are companies out there where authors can buy reviews--this happens frequently with the self-published books offered on Amazon. It wouldn't surprise us if others used this as well. Also, what is to prevent an author's friends from going on to Amazon--or that author's publicist, agent, publisher, lawyer--and flooding it with positive reviews from multiple email accounts, for the sake of sales? Certainly, the case could be made that jacket blurbs operate the same way, or in the use of advertising dollars in newspaper book review sections, but this is all eliminated by asking for a recommendation from your bookseller. Yes, we want to sell books. We don't work on commission and books are priced fairly evenly, so I do not have to sell you the most expensive one to give you a good read. I can sell you any number of great books priced comparatively to all the crap that is out there without having to lose face. It is in the longevity of the store's interest for me to give you a great, honest, recommendation. It makes repeat customers. You can still walk into a bookstore and "stumble across that gem you didn't even know existed," but you can also eliminate much stumbling by asking for help.

Likewise, with a book recommendation you can still get a review of the book--from the bookseller--and buy that book instantly. It's in my hands, I'm recommending it to you. And if it's not...well, that has already been gone over.

The sheer volume of good literature out there makes it impossible to not always be reading. It makes it impossible to not be able to find something.

This face to face interaction is what sustains communities and builds discourse. Debating and recommending books in person allows other people to overhear those debates and recommendations and discover the conversation's core for themselves. Yes, you can recommend a book you read on the Kindle to someone, but you can't pull it out of your back pocket, push it into their hands and say, "Now. You must." You can't, after your lover leaves the bookstore, sneak back in and buy the book for them that they wanted but maybe couldn't afford in that moment, and then slip it into their coat pocket as a surprise. With Kindles you can't "stumble" into a bookstore on vacation and get into a conversation with a total stranger about a "gem" you never knew of and buy it and enjoy it in ways you never thought possible.

Kindles make book buying a solitary pursuit, when in its best scenario it is an interaction, a discussion between people and communities.

Take the recent events in Egypt for example. As soon as the revolution broke, we moved Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al-Aswany's books up to the register. We made a little display with blurbs we wrote about the books and the writers. We've sold out of their books twice over now and they're still selling. People that had been following the events came in and saw books they weren't looking for but were perfect for the moment, and what's more, were the Egyptian people speaking for themselves. I doubt Amazon or the Kindle did that. For that reason alone you could argue that independent bookstores stand on the intellectual front lines of culture.

It should be said that recommending books is not just a one-way conversation from bookseller to customer. We get just as many great recommendations from customers as we give to them. As a bookseller, this is one of the great joys of work.

Tara, as a "writer," would know the lonely, late-night solitary discipline of writing. How, when a year into the writing of a novel, or a month into the third draft of a short story, you've been locked in your head for so long that talking, human contact, is both nice and necessary on a regular basis. But it's not just that. Perhaps because writing is so solitary we seek to have it published, to have other people hear what we've lived and thought and sweated and struggled over for so long. By its nature writing is an act of personal communication. It is Homer talking to us about wanderlust and loss (“Tramping about the world—there's nothing worse for a man”); it is Dante talking to us about a mid-life crisis ("Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost"). By increasing the amount of personal communication that we have over books (an independent bookstore is a wonderful place to do this) we increase our interaction with the great books of the world. Beyond that, we extend the lives of those books into the next generation. Literary history has shown us that "Moby-Dick," arguably the American Novel, was virtually ignored in its time. It wasn't until the Melville revival of the 1920s that its virtues and gifts were truly brought to the forefront. That could not have happened without the "hand selling" of that book from writer to writer, friend to friend, professor to student, customer to employee. Likewise Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole. Even today, we see this: recall Stuart O'Nan's plea for a greater readership of Richard Yates in the Boston Review.

This same idea--that neglected writers can be resurrected later through word of mouth tactics--applies to sales figures as well. Sales figures are not any indication of a book's aesthetic value. The 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass--the first book to be voiced in American English, not British English--sold horribly. So, an argument that because e-book editions sell more than hardback or paperback books is not any indication of the quality of the e-book. That's just volume, and volume for those who can afford a Kindle. Inner city libraries and public schools, already horribly underfunded, can't afford them in quantity. They, like the poor in this country, need books all the more, amongst other things. To argue that because e-books sell in such a volume that makes it an indicator of what should be done, is just arguing that whatever sells the most---whatever is the most popular---is what is right. It argues that whatever is a trend is what should be done, irregardless of what has worked for so long. And as history has shown us, not all trends are right. Especially when they threaten the longevity of literature and damage our local communities.

The iPod, as Jon Bon Jovi has so rightly pointed out, has ruined human interaction with music. It has cut out your ability to read liner notes, thus seeing who played what on an album to get another good recommendation for music (what else have they played on? I liked this...). The iPod has cut out buyer's interaction with local music stores, separating the customer from recommendations and good local music scenes. If this is what the Kindle is destined to do, then we want no part of it Imagine a world without book signings, readings where you can have the writer sign the copy of the book they just read to you, where trade shows become simply hand-outs of posters. A world without bookmarks.

Rather, we want to support small presses who have taken in the writers major publishers cut in this recession because they didn't sell as many books as Stephen King (whose work we love, too). We want those presses to stick around and continue to put high quality materials into books. We want books with great dust jackets (since they are so much a part of a good book and help to support artists and photographers); we want to still be able to give face to face recommendations that have not been bought out by "pay to review" schemes and nepotism.

We don't have to stay in the past, either. In fact, any good independent book store has seen that the industry is changing and in order to survive we have to change, too. But that doesn't mean we have to get on the e-reader train. Instead, it just means that independent booksellers and the publishers have to come up with different models of buying, paying, shipping and stocking. Why not extend the 30 day billing period to 90 and give us more time to read and then hand sell the books? Why not encourage consignment-style arrangements in order to increase volume, and thus increase the ability for "gems" to pop up? Changing the model in a new market, not to a new market, ensures independent bookstore success. Tara was right in her implication that there is "no point standing in the past." We change the model and we'll still be around. But if the future only holds Kindles and e-books, then we'll proudly stand in the past defending not only what's right, but the people's jobs and lives that were spent building the book industry: everyone from the typesetter, to the janitor in the printing plant, to the lonely writer staving off madness and poverty trying to top "Moby-Dick."

We'll change the model and we won't stand in the past. But we won't move into the future if it only has Kindles. If the Kindle "is the future" then the future is robotic and we'd rather remain human.


By: William Hastings