What’s On My Mind? Reading. Weeping.

I added an UPDATE below (see *3) to clarify a point raised on Twitter.

Three essays/op-eds danced through my Twitter stream this morning — all of the in the “read it and weep” category (of which, in my opinion, there’s entirely too much these days….) (*1) (But that’s the essence of the human experience since we stood upright, right?)

First, this piece from the New York Times about the (truly) uncertain future of Barnes & Noble. That’s on my mind because, well, I write books and . . .  well . . . . It’s not clear that B&N will survive another year and if it goes the way of Borders, then the business and art of selling books in the United States is going to change dramatically. There aren’t many “independent” bookstores left (and I weep for none of them, frankly) but Borders and B&N brought books to millions of Americans who’d never had access to bookstores. (*2)

Including me: I live in Iowa in a small town. I was thrilled nearly to tears when Borders opened a store in the Big Town (that would be Des Moines) about 30 miles from where I lived. I’d never really shopped at a bookstore before (because, ya know, I didn’t have access to one). When I’d visit NYC, I’d always visit bookstores (including Barnes & Noble, which was born as a university bookstore near Union Square).

The high-minded “writers” who complained so loudly about the rise of Borders and B&N were talking out of their asses, as far as I was concerned. “The Big Box Booksellers are destroying small bookstores!” “The BBB are destroying literary culture in the U.S.!”

Bullshit. Borders and B&N brought “literary culture” to millions of people. Millions and millions of them.

Now, if B&N falls, the vast majority of Americans will have only one viable place to buy books: Amazon. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I’ve never complained about Amazon: from day one, it offered readers more books than Borders and B&N and has consistently provided great customer service.

But it IS an online shop. We can’t wander around there and, ya know, browse. Well, okay, that’s not true. I browse wide and deep at Amazon. It’s “buyers who bought” is fabulous. Amazon? Love. It.

But: If Amazon is the only game in town, it will be able to do what it’s already doing: play hardball with publishers. More than one book publishers has had its hands smacked by Amazon when they didn’t play by Amazon’s rules. Smacked as in: Amazon has pulled that house’s books from Amazon’s digital shelves.

The other issue is the one that more directly concerns me: visibility on Amazon. If that’s the only place to buy my book, well, I gotta hope Amazon doesn’t decide to get pissy with my publisher. If it does, I’m fucked. Royally. And I won’t enjoy it.

Read-it-and-weep  no. 2 today is related: An op-ed piece, also in the New York Times, about the merger of Penguin and Random House (new name: Penguin Random House, not, sadly, Random Penguin). (Get it??) The relevant hanky line in the piece is this:

companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript.

Translation: If one editor at Penguin Random House, now the largest trade publisher in the world, doesn’t want your manuscript, chances are that you’re screwed. Sigh.

Read-it-and-weep no. 3 is, happily, a change of subject: This piece by Henry I. Miller at Forbes on eco-terrorism.

For about a year, I wrestled with the whole “is genetic engineering good or bad.” After a great deal of research and reading, I concluded that the Frankenfoods-GMOs will destroy the planet rap was complete bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit. It’s yet another example of many people falling for a line of BS without bothering to check the facts. (Because, ya know, it’s SOOOO much easier to simply blame Monsanto for everything that’s wrong with the world, and facts be damned.)

Wierdly, thus far I’ve not seen any solid journalistic research into what Miller outlines here: the money path between the “Monsanto is evil” and the sponsors of that message. This is an area ripe for investigation. (I suspect that the reason it’s not been excavated is because, sadly, “mainstream media” has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the “Monsanto is evil line” and because so many journalists already honor the “corporations are to blame for every. goddman. thing. that’s wrong with the world.”) (Alas.)

So. That’s a bit of what’s on my mind: Read-it-and-weeps 1 and 2 because I’ve got a new book coming out; and no. 3 because said book has led me down the rose-strewn path of food politics, which is waaay more complicated than I would have expected. (And since I didn’t expect its complexity, yeah, I’m a fool.) (Sigh.)


*1: Mock Twitter all you like, but the fact is that it’s an amazing way to sift through the bajillions of pieces of information and reporting and writing and ideas about there.

*2: I have zero patience with the “Oh, independent bookstores must be saved” claptrap. My experience, admittedly limited, is that most indie booksellers are either a) totally incompetent and deserve to go out of business; or grade-A assholes — snobby and condescending and rude (presumably because they view themselves as arbiters of culture as well as gatekeepers of literary culture) — and so also deserve what they get.

*3: a friend tweeted a link to this post and one of his followers on Twitter is a bookseller who was, justifiably, dismayed by what he described as my vitriol toward indie bookstores.

So let me clarify: My stance toward indies is based on my experience as a CONSUMER/SHOPPER, not as an author.

As an author, frankly, I have no opinion. Small bookstores have limited shelf space and they’re likely to not bother with small books like mine. That’s a fact of life. The kinds of books I writer, and my lack of reputation, means I’m a waste of space for them. I don’t hold that against them. They’re in business to make money, and authors like me don’t make money.

What I don’t like is how I, as a potential customers, am typically treated in indie bookstores (and I might add that this  holds true for “small,” “local” “Main Street” businesses in general): like an idiot, like a nuisance and a bother.

Here’s one example: There’s an indie store in Des Moines, the closest “big city” to where I live (Ames, Iowa). When the beer book came out, I went to that store, hoping maybe I could talk the owner into hosting a reading (my rationale being: I’m an Iowan, I’m local).

So I go into the store and here’s what I was “greeted” with. There were two employees there. One was leaning against a wall talking on the phone. It was clear she was talking to a friend, not a customer. The other employee was slouched in a chair, playing a computer game. Neither one of them so much as looked in my direction (there were no other customers in the store). And I mean: neither of them even glanced up or at me. Had this been the first time this has ever happened to me in an independent store of any kind, I’d dismiss it as an aberration.

But this happens ALL. THE. TIME. in small, local shops, bookstore or otherwise. I browed the shelves for several minutes, thinking that perhaps one of them would, ya know, acknowledge their customer. Nope. I left. I’ve never gone back.

Here’s another example: For awhile, there was an indie bookstore here in Ames where I live. When the Key West book came out, I went in hoping to persuade the owner to host a signing or reading. The employee on duty was headed to the backroom when I came through the door. She turned around, glanced at me, and then headed to the back. Not a word. No hello. No nuthin’.

Then there’s the Very Famous Bookstore in Iowa City. Oy. Do I hate going there. In fact, I no longer do when I’m in IC. The clerks are staggeringly, shockingly rude and condescending. I don’t know what kind of person they want in the store, but apparently it’s not regular people. (Maybe scruffy, dreamy-eyed writer types from the Workshop??)

And these are only a few of the examples I could rattle off. Have I been to decent, welcoming indie bookstores? Yes. There’s one in Boulder that’s a total delight. And one in Santa Cruz, too. But mostly: they’re a must to ignore. And again, my view is that of a customer (in the case of the first two examples, no one bothered to find out why I was there).

2 thoughts on “What’s On My Mind? Reading. Weeping.

  1. Weeping, for sure, but surely you somewhat expected this, right?
    seer of historian seers?

    companies buy each other out and gather more power, sounds like something i read in a book about beer!

    Also , while i don’t expect paper books to ever disappear, i imagine we’ll see fewer and fewer over the years….

    Hopefully there will be some alternative to [support, assisting, help create ?] Non-fiction writing in the future?

    • You are correct. All the way. That’s the thing about Amazon: there’s no way anyone can be surprised (although I still don’t get why the DOJ seems to think Amazon needs protection from Apple and book publishers).

      The “problem” with the end of printed books is — not everyone can or wants to read them digitally. And books are like any other product: The more a maker makes, the lower the unit cost, right? So if publishers print 15,000 physical copies of a book, those books can retail for less money than if the publisher prints, say, 1,000. Those 1,000 books will have a VERY high price tag.

      So — you see the problem. ALthough of course that’s got nothing to do with the end of B&N. That’s a problem of: Amazon will be the ONLY seller of books and given how it’s already throwing around its considerable weight, it will be completely free to dictate prices to publishers. Not to consumers, but to publishers. It can tell, say, Random House: Price ALL your books at $9.99; otherwise we won’t sell them. But that price might not be enough for RH to make a profit. In which case: wait for it — it will lay off employees, agree to publish fewer books.

      I think maybe publishers will themselves have to get into the distribution business as a way of providing an alternative to Amazon. The problem with that is that publishers pretty much suck at everything, so the idea of them being distributors is laughable.

      So it’s a mess, all of it. This is precisely what the music industry has gone through now for 15 years. I’ve no idea where this will all end up. And first one to figure it out gets a gold star.


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