Rocket Bomber - article - publishing - bookselling - Books are different - and special.

Books are different, and special.

filed under , 30 May 2014, 20:14 by

Organic Asparagus runs about $5 a pound. Maybe less, maybe more (and in season of course). Not everyone has a local CSA to deliver organic asparagus, or a farmer’s market where they can pop down on a Saturday morning and buy a bunch, but other Asparagus Options exist. And if bloggers are blowing up websites arguing over asparagus, Organic vs Not, Domestic vs South American imports, well… I’m not seeing it.

SD Memory cards cost between $5 and $40 (or more) and the cards are available from different manufacturers and can be purchased online and in stores. I don’t even have to go to a specialty retailer; I can pick up a 4GB card from my local supermarket – no special trip, just toss it into the basket next to my organic asparagus, and maybe a impulse-buy DVD (from the checkout aisle) and altogether, I’ve spent $15: DVD, SD Card, Asparagus.

Steaks are also in that price range ($4-$20 a pound, available in store or online) and so are door knobs ($10-$50) and spatulas ($5-$20) — as are shoes, come to think of it (flipflops cost less than $5, and sure you can tell me about $200 shoes, but who buys those? ) [/SARCASM TAG]

And Books, of course.

Commodity good, runs about $10 a pound*, entirely fungible**, of note as a minor form of entertainment. We’re all familiar with books, but unless you’re a high schooler and you’ve just been assigned one – it’s hard to see why they merit further mention.

* (£13, €16 or ¥2200 a kilo)

** I don’t judge. …but, for my own sake, I’m going to link to this definition of fungible even though we all already know what it means. Because we’re smrt.

If, all of a sudden, the #4 manufacturer of SD memory cards got into a dispute with Amazon (or any other e-tailer – OR ALL other e-tailers) it might only merit a section C page 32 blip in the newspaper*** and no one outside of the manufacturers’ immediate circle would likely know or care. We’d just buy the next card offered.

*** kids, ‘newspapers’ were web pages printed out on cheap broadsheet paper and delivered daily, or twice daily, to homes: ask Grandpa about ‘em. Ask him what ‘comic strips’ looked like when he was a kid while you’re at it.

Asparagus doesn’t rate a whole slate of full-bore editorials from 500+ newspapers, newswires, magazines, blogs, and TV network websites. Shoes are more expensive (and the margins are better) (and more people buy them) but we don’t spill nearly as much ink (physical or digital) arguing about *shoes*.

Amazon doesn’t enter into a very public and very loaded negotiation with Adidas or Jimmy Choo. If a buy button (or a pre-order option) disappeared on sneakers, no one would notice. (OK, someone would notice…)

This is just my take on it [strawman]: but it seems to me that many would-be pundits want us to think of books just like we see memory cards — fungible commodity goods. Buy whatever. “You like teen vampire romance? Well, the vampires are out but try werewolves, we got plenty of those. Like cozy British mysteries? We’re working on getting those back in stock, but here, try these cat mysteries.”

Books are just the double-A farm team for *real* media anyway; nothing is worth a damn unless and until we make a TV show or movie out of it. “Oh sure, you can read if you want but I don’t know why you waste your time — hey, flip through this impulse-buy DVD bin, top 100 films of 199x, 3 for $10.”

A book wholesaler is arguing with a book retailer over which side of the table the scraps fall. Whoop whoop. [/strawman]

As widespread as this view is (in NY and LA offices, and some living rooms) Books are obviously different.

Shoes? “I’ll keep looking.” – Asparagus? “Maybe I’ll try the farmer’s market” – Spatulas? [see, there’s no quote here because no one thinks about spatulas] – Movies? “Where is the movie playing?” [no judgments, just a factual inquiry into where the movie is showing, so we can consider options]

But as soon as we learn a book might be unavailable, or worse, that we might have to wait to read it, even as much as two weeks! — or [horrors] might have to figure out some back-up place and way to buy it — well now the internet melts, people choose sides, authors and readers sharpen their debating knives, loose packs of rabid quibbles range the boards, and everyone is right while everyone else is wrong and facts and details — and common sense — are the innocent victims.

Because books.


You can stop here. I won’t judge.

I’ll make one final note: Even If Hachette stopped shipping to Amazon entirely, Amazon would still be able to source the physical books from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other book distributors and could fulfill customer orders with an additional delay of about 48 hours, at most. So the negotiation is all about the ebooks, and who gets which slice of how much margin; though I’m sure Amazon’s discounts on physical books is part of that mix. The rest of it is posturing on both sides, with some dissembling on Amazon’s part (“we don’t know when we’ll have the books”) and smug confidence that ‘public sentiment’ is on their side, on the part of Hachette.

And now I’m going to get wonky, and even more trivial and tangential.


Hachette v Amazon is all just business, and negotiations like this happen all the time, but the response so far feels a lot like the old ‘lit-geek vs. computer-geek smack-talking in the campus coffee shop’ I recall from college.

“What about the culture?”
“Get with the future, man.”
“The future is books.”
“…well then, the future is on sale for 35% off, free shipping with Prime. Oh, hey, I spilled some future in my Kindle, all kinds of future in here.”
… …philistine.

Amazon often elicits this style of knee-jerk response — because books.

But also: because Amazon. Enough people are threatened by Amazon that Amazon gets painted as a bad guy, and Amazon consistently ranks at the top of customer satisfaction surveys, and those two points aren’t necessarily contradictions.

But even with all the misperceptions and assumptions people make about Amazon, that fades to insignificance when we stop to look at the assumptions most people make about books and bookselling.

Let’s start with the business: Amazon may cut off Hachette, or (less likely) Hachette might drop the axe — a major supplier of content and a major reseller of content are fighting and the end result, to the consumer, is less content available from a preferred source. Would we be as worked up if, say, a major media company just pulled the plug on our TV over a contract negotiation? I think the answer to that is actually, no:

2000 Time Warner Cable v ABC/Disney
2003 Cablevision v the New York Yankees
2004 Comcast v Viacom
2004 Dish v Viacom
2009 Dish v ESPN
2009 Time Warner Cable v Fox
2010 Dish v The Weather Channel
2010 Cablevision v Scripps Networks (Food Network & HGTV)
2010 Cablevision v News Corp/Fox
2011 DirectTV v News Corp/Fox
2012 DirectTV v Viacom
2012 Time Warner Cable v NFL
2012 Dish v AMC
2012 DirectTV v the New York Yankees
2013 Time Warner Cable v CBS
2014 DirectTV v The Weather Channel
2014 Comcast v Viacom

Sometimes these disputes make the news because (some) viewers are going to miss a playoff game, or the Academy Awards, or the season premier of Mad Men. Otherwise the blackouts are of little note, especially if we’re not the in the market affected. The companies certainly don’t care; Time Warner lost 300,000 subscribers last year but shrugged and smiled. Yes, getting ‘public opinion’ on your side helps, but it’s just another bargaining chip and companies can spin it.

If we look outside of bookselling, we can see that ‘everything, always’ is by no means the usual model: stuff is on Hulu but not Netflix, or on HBO and no where else. Films and shows come out on DVD but aren’t available streaming anywhere – and occasionally, vice versa. Even in a landscape littered with dozen-screen cinemaplexes, somehow the movie we want to see is never showing anywhere local, and we have to drive 15 miles. (This always happens to me.)

But no one blames the theaters, just like no one blames Netflix, HBO, or Showtime for making original programming, and no one [EXCEPT ME] gets bitter or bothered when Netflix and Hulu have a less-than-optimal selection (though perhaps we’ve all spent 3 hours browsing for something to stream on a Friday night without actually watching anything). Screens, large and small, are just islands and way-stops in the Big Content Ocean, and we’re all used to migrating ‘cross platforms and ‘twixt companies to find something to watch.

No blogger looks at a movie showing the next county over, and extrapolates that Hollywood is going to have to capitulate to Regal, because Regal controls the market. Media and markets are of course separate, of course — you know, *except* for books.

The reader expectation is that every bookstore is going to have a copy of any book the reader can name — because books. When the local 4,000 sq.ft. shop doesn’t have it (or even the 25,000 sq.ft. big box) the immediate response is, “Well, I’ll just get it from Amazon” with the unspoken addendum, “and I’m never bothering to shop here again”.

Let’s talk numbers — but not dollars: Items.

A “supermarket” grocery store might have between 40,000-60,000 items.
Walmarts and Super Targets add onto that, and stock 100,000 items.
A large hardware store/home improvement warehouse might have 120,000 items [it comes down to lots and lots of small nuts and bolts, in every dimension]. And we’re not counting every nut – that’s 120,000 types of items, stocking multiples of each.
Your local IKEA only stocks 10,000 or so items — Yes, 3 football fields (and Swedish meatballs) but a Walmart or Super Target has more SKUs.

Do you have that in mind?
The Ikea Maze?
Canned goods on shelves 6 feet high and down both sides of 60ft-long aisles?
Wandering the warehouse-sized sales floor of Home Depot, lost, looking for a left-handed metric counter-clockwise-threaded sonic screwdriver adapter? (that’s what 120,000 items feels like.)

That’s just retail. Let’s consider ‘content’. Video content is most popular (an assumption, but a safe assumption I think):

There are 2,885,994 titles in the IMDB database (as of this morning) — though of course that’s ridiculous as individual TV episodes each get pages — it’s better to look at the breakdown and note that’s ~309,000 feature films, 122,000 documentaries, 82,000 TV series listings, another 100,000 or so of TV movies, miniseries, and specials, and some direct-to-video crap (120,000 – each a gem and a delight, I’m sure) — Big Round Numbers, that’s 1.1 Million video options, of which most are out-of-print or collectible —with a light sprinkling of stuff so new it’s not out on DVD or online, and occasionally, not even in theaters yet.

…and the ‘Movie+TV Universe’ that you probably have a mental concept of is likely just a tenth of that — 100,000 movies and shows, new and old, even including anime and imports and MST3K and the Star Wars Christmas Special and weird stuff — and the other 90% is so ‘out there’ you’ve never even heard of it, not even to point and laugh at it. Does that match up to your experience, and sound fair? 100,000 movies and shows, or about 45 years of binge watching (likely much more – multiple-season TV shows are going to take you longer to binge).

[I’ll just note here that Amazon bought IMDB in 1998. Information is power.]

(I’m building up to it, stick with me here…)

100,000 is a whole Walmart. 100,000 is every thing ever that you could possibly think to stream online. 100,000 is the number of spectators in attendance at the Michigan-Ohio game (or Tennessee home games, for you SEC fans). 100,000 is the population of Peoria, Illinois – which I always reference out of tradition when these sorts of things come up. The uber-hipster neighborhood of ur-hipster Brooklyn is Williamsburg and it has, you guessed it, 100,000 hipsters in it.

Your local Big Box Books (might as well say Barnes & Noble, no need for the euphemism anymore) has…

60,000 books in it (yeah, not 100,000) — add on the music/DVD dept. (if your local still has one) and all the non-book crapware and we’re up to 100,000, though. A B&N is smaller than Walmart because books are smaller, and pack nice-and-dense compared to almost all other retail; and you know, at $10 a pound it’d actually be a good business to get into — except for, you know, Amazon and reality.

I’ve been working on a good ‘best estimate’ of the actual number of books out there for years now, and I can never find two sources that agree. However, the general consensus is that at least six million books are in print (actively supported by publishers, with stock on hand) and another six million or so are out-of-print but still available from distributors, available used, or some few cases available print-on-demand — so that’s at least 12 million books (in English) out of at about 129 million books total [source, 2010] and another million or so get added each and every year — not including an untold number of books (we’re gaining on multiple millions) that have only been published digitally.

Forget 129 Million – go back to that smaller number, 12 Million: four times the total listings on IMDB (which includes every individual TV episode), equivalent to 100 Home Depots, each nut-and-bolt a 200 page novel. 120 Walmarts. 200 grocery stores. [furniture is bigger, even flatpacked, but] 1200 Ikeas — and we’re only considering one copy of each book

Your local bookstore is expected to carry every book ever. See, this isn’t even an ‘unreasonable’ expectation on the part of the shopping public because there’s never any thought put into it: bookstores sell books, and in 2014, that means every book ever.

every. book. ever.

How does Amazon do it? What’s the magic? 65 U.S. Distribution Centers — whole damn warehouses — with another 9 planned.

…And this is perhaps the sweetest backhanded compliment we pay to the booksellers who have worked for decades to find, order, and sell us books: There is a casual, everyday assumption that they can match that, and can match prices. This is an expectation we have of no other retailer — the unmatchable scale of the task, and unthinking gall of it — at the very least, “special order” has a much different connotation (and usually, a mark-up) outside of bookstores.

No one strides confidently into the Buick dealership and asks to order a 1954 Studebaker, but that’s an every day reality for bookstores.

It was breaking my heart, in the last year that I worked at the bookstore, when avid teenage readers started coming in asking about books their friends were reading on Kindles, and I had to explain that not only did we not have the books in store, there wasn’t even a listing, and no way on earth or in faerie for us to order them — the kids were looking for paperbacks.
(Worse, in a way, was finding a paperback listing for just one book, coming out months from now because a publisher ‘picked up’ an ebook author, when the customer was looking for all 4-5 books in what they knew was a series. My explanation fell flat. The book business is complex, and front-line book retailers should be pitied.)

For physical bookstores, though ‘every book ever’ has been the constant background murmur (and default retort) for at least two decades – after two decades of Amazon the customer base is getting tetchy.

“You don’t have it?” [sniff] “Well I guess I’ll just order it from Amazon.”

1998 (or maybe 1999) was the Golden Year for bookstores (even though the peak came later, in 2005) — in 1998, the mall stores were still open, Patterson was still writing his own books, Harry Potter was on book two and the films hadn’t ruined anything yet, and epic fantasy fans were enjoying the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire with Martin on track to release a book every other year. [“HA!”]

Amazon was an option for the savvy, but more of a footnote than a terror.

In the 15 years since: author advances have been shrinking, print runs are smaller, the ranks of independent bookstores were decimated by Barnes, Borders, and Big Box bookselling — and then Borders went out of business on us. The number of places to buy, and the shelves dedicated to books, have both been curtailed. Whether we shop at Amazon because the stores suck or the stores now suck because of Amazon: there is a feedback loop in operation that is negative for physical storefronts (and increasingly, physical formats).

Into this charged atmosphere: we insert a (routine, everyday) business negotiation between a manufacturer and a retailer.

Except books are different. Just because. I can’t explain it (any more than I have— I at least tried to). We invest emotions in books. We tie up our identity with books. We take sides, we want to argue and we want to fight, and while the ranks of readers may be small compared to the population-at-large — apparently readers are handy with words and we like to write. (who knew?) It’s only a tempest in a teapot, but there’s a great echo in here and we all like the tea.

The current discussion doesn’t matter much, and the resolution will be between Amazon and Hachette and they’ll come to terms without our input but we really can’t help ourselves.

Because books.


  1. 100,000 books is also a book-a-day for 273 years. 100K a handy Big Round Number to wrap your mind around and have ready for comparisons like this.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 30 May 2014, 21:46 #

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