Rocket Bomber

Gundam Reference

filed under , 12 October 2014, 18:09 by

There are more than 700 “episodes” of Gundam (broadcast TV, movies, OVAs, shorts — and not counting the manga, video games, or plastic model kits) and the history of Gundam—more formally Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム Kidō Senshi Gandamu)—goes back 35 years

35 frickin’ years

…so when we get news that Sunrise is finally getting serious about making Gundam available to American fans its a Big Freakin’ Deal, Kids. (well, for a certain stripe of anime fan, anyway.)

The sheer size of the franchise though, combined with all the twists and turns and alternate timelines, is daunting (to say the least) for the casual anime viewer. All the information you need is available from Wikipedia and other sources, but once again, the volume of material is a huge barrier to entry. Where do you start?

I still can’t tell you where to start – but I can give you a list:

Odds and ends:
1988 SD Gundam (13 OVAs)
2010 SD Gundam Sangokuden Brave Battle Warriors (51eps, 10min shorts)
2010 Model Suit Gunpla Builders Beginning G (3 OVAs)
2013 Gundam Build Fighters (25eps) season 1
2014 Gundam Build Fighters Try – currently airing
2014 Mobile Suit Gundam-san (13 3min shorts)

“After Colony” timeline:
AC0195 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995) (49eps)
AC0195 Gundam W: Operation Meteor (1996) (4) – compilation OVAs, also known as “Odds and Evens”
AC0196 Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz (1997) (3 OVAs) – also edited into a theatrical movie release in 1998

“AD” timeline, presumably our (sci-fi) future:
AD2307 Gundam 00 (2007) (50eps)
AD2314 Gundam 00 the Movie Awakening of the Trailblazer (2010)

“Advanced Generation” timeline:
AG0115 Gundam Age (2011) (49eps) – there are three generational story arcs, each about 25 years apart.
AG0140 Gundam Age: Memory of Eden (2013) (2 OVAs) – re-edit of the 2nd Gundam Age story arc

“After War” timeline:
AW0015 After War Gundam X (1996) (39eps)

“Correct Century” timeline:
CC2435 Turn A Gundam (1999) (50eps) – the 20th Anniversary Gundam, “affirmatively accepting all of the Gundam series“ but still in it’s own alternate timeline.

“Cosmic Era” timeline:
CE0071 Gundam Seed (2002) (50eps)
CE0073 Seed Destiny (2004) (51eps)
CE0073 Gundam Seed C.E. 73 Stargazer (2006) (single OVA)
Gundam SEED MSV: Astray – two 5min shorts, in Japan included on the Stargazer release
[Tokyopop & Del Rey published quite a bit of the Gundam Seed manga adaptation – 17 volumes – starting back in ’04. just mentioning it as an aside]

“Future Century” timeline:
FC0060 Mobile Fighter G Gundam (1994) (49eps) – oh boy. see comments below.

“Regild Century” timeline:
RC1014 Gundam Reconguista in G (2014), 25 episodes, currently airing. According to Wikipedia, the Regild Century comes after the UC timeline, below. So I guess it’s in continuity?

“Universal Century” timeline:
This is ‘main line’ Gundam – the 1979 series was set in the Universal Century, and Sunrise didn’t start messing around with alternates until 1994. However (and it pains me to bring this up), some of the material in UC represents a re-edit and re-release of older material (for theatrical releases) which was on occasion also changed so there are “canon” and “non-canon” versions — which I’m not going to go into.(Note, this is UC timeline order, not our-boring-AD-calender order) -

UC0068 Gundam: The Origin, currently scheduled as a 4 episode OVA series for 2015 – though with ‘event screenings’ in theaters (in Japan, anyway).
UC0079 Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) (43eps) – or as some call it, “OG” (original gangster) Gundam
UC0079 Gundam Movie Trilogy (1981-2) – 1979 series re-cut into 3 movies, each ~2hrs 20min in length
UC0079 The 08th MS Team (1996) (13 OVAs)
UC0079.1 MS IGLOO The Hidden One Year War (2004) (3 OVAs)
UC0079.2 MS IGLOO Apocalypse (2006) (3 OVAs)
UC0079.3 MS IGLOO 2 The Gravity Front (2009) (3 OVAs)
UC0080 War in the Pocket (1989) (6 OVAs)
UC0083 Stardust Memory (1991) (13 OVAs) – re-cut into a movie in 1992, released as Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: The Last Blitz of Zeon
UC0087 Zeta Gundam (1985) (50eps)
UC0087 Zeta Gundam – A New Translation (2005) – similar to the 1981 movie trilogy, a re-cut of Zeta Gundam into 3 films for theatrical release
UC0088 ZZ Gundam (1986) (47eps)
UC0093 Char’s Counterattack, Movie (1988)
UC0096 Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010-2014) (7 OVAs, 60min each)
UC0123 Mobile Suit Gundam F91, Movie (1991)
UC0153 Victory Gundam (1993) (51eps)


  • Like many anime fans (at least, mecha and robot anime fans), I am super-aware of Gundam but have seen remarkably little of it. So there’s that; Wikipedia is the better place to go for information on Gundam, but I am quite happy to share with you my impressions of it.
  • Outside of any ‘official’ timeline—though technically UC—is the SD (superdeformed) Gundam specials, and the more recent Gundam-san show (based on what is apparently a popular 4-koma). For Gundam fans, these excursions into comedy are likely a lot of fun, but for most of us it would just be confusing. I doubt Sunrise & Rightstuf are bringing these over, though we may see them as extras on some of the box sets.
  • 1993 Mobile Fighter G Gundam is of, ah, *special* note: 49 episodes of mecha-as-pro-wrestlers. This got a Cartoon Network broadcast in 2002, so some of you may have fond memories of it. It’s very different from the rest of gundam, though. “This hand of mine is burning red!”
  • 2013 Gundam Build Fighters and 2014 Gundam Build Fighters Try – where kids build and fight with model Gundams, could be thought of as Pokémon Gundam if we’re being uncharitable. (the more direct comparison would be 2001’s Angelic Layer or 1983’s Plawres Sanshiro, but yes, they’re all proxy fighters). There were 25 episodes in the first season; the second season is currently airing. I’m pretty sure anyone could pick this up as it really is a stand-alone, but I’m guessing knowing about the mecha makes it more entertaining. (Apparently, there are also lots of easter eggs in this show, too)
  • The entry point for folks in North America is probably still Gundam Wing, which was on Cartoon Network in 2000 (Gundam Wing was the first Gundam series to be broadcast on U.S. television) and is available on DVD (sort of; check Ebay and Amazon and budget for ‘collectible’ price points) — Gundam Wing matched the Gundam mecha designs with bishonen pilot character design, with a side dish of politics and a heaping helping of dialog. Gundam Wing exists in its own timeline and is different from the rest (though not so different as G Gundam) but still, for many, this was their first and so colors their perception of the franchise.
  • If you’re more interested in action, The 08th MS Team also got a DVD release, it’s much shorter, it’s more military-oriented (as you might have guessed from the name) and while part of mainline UC Gundam, it works pretty well as a stand-alone story. This was my first Gundam (via Netflix rental) ten years ago.
  • Easiest entry point? 1979 OG Gundam, probably, as that’s where the whole story started. A close second though may be the other series Sunrise and Rightstuf are leading with: Turn A Gundam. As the 20th Anniversary series and given both the involvement and the comments from Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, it would seem Turn A aspired to be more “Gundam” than the original Gundam. I look forward to watching it. While I will likely buy both (for the sake of the collection and my OCD) I will be purchasing Turn A first.
  • Cautionary warning, for those seeking out Gundam DVDs: there are several companies that licensed bits of Gundam over the years, with various dubs produced. Actors aren’t always consistent from release to release and the quality of dubs is more miss (well, middling) than hit. Just sayin’. I don’t mind reading subtitles so it was never an issue for me, but you might find this overview at Otaku Revolution helpful.

I’m sure I missed something; please post any [mild, factual] corrections in the comments.

Links and Thoughts 34: 10 October 2014

filed under , 10 October 2014, 08:05 by

Maynard Ferguson – Chameleon (Herbie Hancock cover)

Good Morning.

“Last year, Jack White’s Third Man Records and reissue specialists Revenant Records released The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 1, a doozy of a box set that included 800 tracks from the early days of the Wisconsin label that launched the careers of everyone from father of the Delta blues Charley Patton to a pre-bandleader Louis Armstrong. It was housed in a lovingly constructed oak ‘cabinet of wonder,’ based on the iconic Victrola VV-50, and took cues from the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic prevalent during the label’s beginnings. It included two books, six 180-gram LP records, a thumb drive containing all the music, and all manner of ancillary material. It was the kind of box set that isn’t easily matched, let along[sic] outmatched.
“But that doesn’t mean Third Man couldn’t try.
“It was never a mystery that there would be a second volume. But we weren’t expecting it to be so impressive in such different ways.”
Jack White Just Curated the Ultimate Box Set of Iconic American Music, Peter Rubin, 9 October 2014, Wired []

“Kevin Kelly was an editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review, the founding editor of Wired, and is the editor of Cool Tools. At this year’s XOXO Festival, he kicked off the event by sharing his approach to making stuff, the real impact of technology on our lives, the benefits of having time, and the benefit of optimizing your life.”
∙ Video at the link and on YouTube; from the description there: “Recorded in September 2014 at XOXO, an arts and technology festival in Portland, Oregon celebrating independent artists using the Internet to make a living doing what they love. For more, visit”
Kevin Kelly Talks About Making Stuff, Finding the Right Tools, and Having Time, 9 October 2014, Tested []

I love this kind of video — really smart people talking about smart things in digestible chunks (10-30min), too short to be considered a ‘class lecture’ but certainly much longer than just the soundbite or 3 paragraph pull-quote (which is what we usually get). That said, there is a danger in these very short introductions — primarily, in that usually just the one narrative (point of view, side of the argument) is presented, and after a TED-like-talk, you can walk away thinking there’s a solution to the problem when in fact we haven’t even finished defining the problem. Read more:

“The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an ‘epiphimony’ if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.
“What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?
“I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.”

“Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.”
We need to talk about TED, subtitled “Science, philosophy and technology run on the model of American Idol – as embodied by TED talks – is a recipe for civilisational disaster”; Benjamin Bratton, 30 December 2013, The Guardian []
∙ quote above presented out-of-sequence to give me that wonderful punchline; that’s my prerogative as an editor and fine so long as I do not misrepresent it (and so, the ellipsis and this gloss right here to tell you it’s not quite the original quote)

Three Words:
Star Wars Battlepod

Cities and Citizens:
“Inspired in part by psychogeography theory (which emphasizes playfulness in travel), a group of researchers from Yahoo! Labs in Barcelona in collaboration with University of Torino sought to add a bit of pep to these services. In a newly released paper, they explore how mapping apps could theoretically generate short walking routes that are more beautiful or quiet than standard offerings.”
What If You Could Choose Between the Fastest Route and the Most Beautiful?, Lex Berko, 17 July 2014, City Lab []

Rabbit Hole:
If you follow this next link, be prepared. You’ll lose a few hours.
what are your favorite blog posts of all time?

Tweet by Emily Gould (@EmilyGould), 3:29 PM 9 October 2014 []


Diary entry for 10 October:

If my citations seem especially labored — as in the xoxo-video-on-YouTube-embedded-on-Tested followed by the-editorial-on-TED-at-the-Guardian with the chopped-and-screwed blockquote, above — let me just note two things for you:

1. Yay for citations! Let’s say you saved this post with a ctrl-c,ctrl-v into a text file and didn’t have the hyperlinks—or plaintext link, for that matter—but with the author, date, and source you can certainly google that at some point later.
2. I’m trying — which is more than you get from a lot of folks on the internet.

I also had to figure out a way to cite a tweet this morning. I found some guidance online [] but you’ll note what I settled on does not follow MLA. I like to think I split the difference between repeating what’s in the embedded tweet and giving enough information (and attribution!) to find/read the original. It’s another case of at least trying to accommodate all the readers — web, mobile, touchscreen, read later apps, broken links 25 years from now when someone, gods know who is reading the archived version of this post on’s Wayback Machine, scrapers stealing my content so you’re reading it on a .cz or .ru somewhere and only have the text because lazy scraper didn’t included any images, links, embeds, or context, and all the folks who just click the link while thinking I’m trying too hard to be pretentious.

I am, of course, overthinking it — but that’s what I do best. And maybe I’m being pretentious too, but I *like* the idea of academically rigorous citation in a blog.

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Kitchen Journal

filed under , 2 October 2014, 15:17 by

In the past, I’ve kept notes for recipes on my computer — bookmarked links, mostly — while also using what might be called “grandma measures” when cooking day-to-day: grandma never needs to measure anything because she’s made each of those recipes so many times — she can eyeball it and knows when a dish ‘looks right’ or ‘feels right’.

That said, I did have to get a bit more scientific in the kitchen last year when I tried making my own sourdough starter. I have a text file on my hard drive where I tracked a dozen or so various iterations on whole wheat sourdough bread, but that stalled when my baking experiments shifted to biscuits and tortillas (both of which are yeast-free, so easier to make on the spur-of-the-moment) (also, the key to both: give your dough an hour to rest in the fridge so the flour has a chance to fully hydrate – makes a world of difference).

The sourdough starter prompted me to buy a digital kitchen scale, which came in handy later when I also found myself trying out some DIY Soylent (It’s not as gross as you think, especially when you mix your own and know what went into it — think oatmeal smoothie, not 70s Heston).

So quietly, behind-the-scenes, I’ve been doing quite a bit of ‘kitchen science’ while attempting to keep myself fed (and lose some weight) and while I might not get around to blogging any of it any time soon, I just wanted to say that keeping a kitchen journal is a great idea for even a casual chef. Whenever you’re forced to make a substitution (yogurt for buttermilk, say, or banana for eggs in a bread or brownie mix) or are just trying something new — write it down! Make notes not just on the results but also the process, and the motivations:

“Ran out of eggs so I’m going to try half a can of pumpkin pie filling as a substitute in a muffin recipe. Found the suggestion after Googling ‘egg substitutes for baking’”
“Pumpkin pie muffins were Aces! Repeating recipe but dropping a chunk of cream cheese in each”
“Cheese filling was OK but could be better: switching to a mix of mascarpone with a drop of vanilla and a little sugar”
“Mascarpone filling in the pumpkin muffins was fantastic – really, really good. Doing the same with blueberry this Sunday”
“Had a little bit of the mascarpone muffin filling left, didn’t want to throw it out. Made french toast and sandwiched the cheese filling inside — just enough for one! really good with syrup. might be good with pancakes too”

You don’t have to keep a kitchen journal like you would a log book for your college chemistry class — brief notes are all you need. Reminders, sign posts, warnings, just a little something to keep you on the right path. Think of it as a map — a treasure map, even, as you never know when you’re going to go from Googling for an egg substitute to instead find yourself, 11 recipes later, enjoying pecan-pumpkin pancakes and maple-candied bacon for brunch.

“The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”

When my employment prospects improve and I move past a beans-and-rice survival diet, I think I’ll go back to posting ‘sunday supper’ recipes once a week. I came across the Adam Savage quote, though, and it prompted me to write about how important just ‘writing things down’ can be. Get a cheap spiral bound notebook (note: cheap, as it *is* going to get stuff spilled on it) and keep it on your counter (maybe next to or under the paper towels). Take notes. Drop some science on it.

You’ll likely be surprise how much it will augment, and improve, your skills in the kitchen.

Links and Thoughts 33: 1 October 2014

filed under , 1 October 2014, 17:37 by

Maceo Parker – Shake everything you’ve got

Good Afternoon.

The great thing about link round-up posts is there generally isn’t a narrative through-line to worry about — each post is a stand-alone, so even long delays between posts might as well be no delay at all, really — and raiding my cache for (slightly) older links is also fine, as an old link is still a good read so long as the stories are new to you.

In light of the Ebay/PayPal spinoff and the introduction of Apple Pay, I thought this article was worth revisiting:
“A decade after the idea was first sketched on the proverbial drawing board, Starbucks is poised to finally let its customers order their coffees from their phones. And the company’s plans for building on its wildly successful mobile app don’t stop there.
“The Seattle-based coffee giant, which said in March that more than 14 percent of purchases in its U.S. stores are paid for through its app, will allow customers in one undisclosed geographic test market to start placing pickup orders from the Starbucks app later this year, according to the company’s Chief Digital Officer Adam Brotman. This should not be confused as an experiment, Brotman made clear. Starbucks is determined to eventually roll out the technology nationwide, no matter how long it takes.”
Starbucks Has Bigger Plans in Mobile Payments Than Most People Realize, Jason Del Rey, 17 July 2014, Re/code []

“Of course, it has its limits. Testing sewage won’t tell you who’s using, or even how much, Holcomb says. You can’t measure whether the concentration changes over time because more people are ingesting certain drugs overall or because a few people are just ingesting more.
“But it can tell you some things according to Banta-Green — trends over time, for example, or variation by day of the week. Hypothesizing that recreational users partake more on weekends while serious users go all week long can also reveal patterns. And other things, like certain diseases or even medication use, can be measured by sewage as well. University of Puget Sound Associate Professor Dan Burgard has used the practice, often called sewer epidemiology, to study how students use Adderall around exams.”
What Sewers Can Reveal About a City, Rachel Dovey, 1 October 2014, Next City []

“But that’s just it, there’s no incentive to try. Likes breed laziness. Why should a site bust its balls and budget producing exemplary pieces of writing when posting the same, tired, gimmicky viral content will guarantee the good times will never end? There’s every reason to lower the bar, and no reason to raise it. That’s why the content business is where it is. The truly remarkable writing is being carted off into high-brow ghettos like Byliner that can’t even afford to keep an editorial staff together, not to mention the New York Times’ well-publicized financial troubles.
“The Internet media world is a maelstrom of homogeneity. Every site’s editorial mission has become the same: Appease the Facebook user no matter what, even if it means becoming glorified content re-branders rather than legitimate news and opinion outlets, even if it means becoming a carbon copy of a thousand other websites all racing each other to the very bottom.”
The Internet has a content diversity problem, Matt Saccaro, 11 June 2014, The Daily Dot []

Doomed to repeat it etc etc:
“Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.
“But times have changed, Krugman points out. ‘If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay,’ he writes. ‘And this has been true for a long time.’”
Krugman on the Terrifying Reason Nations Keep Waging War subtitled, “War is a huge money loser. So the motive is not greed”, Janet Allon, 18 August 2014, AlterNet []

“Over the last few years, the cognitive science of drawing has begun to receive some serious attention. Previously, researchers had been more interested in understanding the way we appreciate fine art, from Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollock, but far fewer studies had concerned the kind of everyday scribbles we all produce. Yet it seems that our rough sketches do serve important functions. One study has found, for instance, that far from being a distraction, doodling can prevent our minds from wandering into daydreams about the past or future, boosting concentration and memory”
Are we hard-wired to doodle?, David Robson, 1 October 2014, BBC Future []


Today’s Book Recommendation is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; it’s not my recommendation per se (though I have certainly done so many times in the past) — instead, today’s rec comes from C.G.P. Grey:

“I’m going to attempt, for a little while anyway, to make public some of my notes from some of the books that I’ve read. This is partly because people are forever asking what I’m reading, but it’s mostly as a way to try and encourage myself to read both more deeply and more frequently — a target I have been trying, and failing, to hit for all my adult life.” …
“These won’t be reviews, they really will just be some sections of the book with a line or two on why I highlighted them. But I hope that they can give you a good idea of if a book might or might not be for you, and if you should read it yourself. Many non-fiction books can be summarized with a few lines, but Bird by Bird captures, for me, why it still often feels necessary to read the entire thing and why you may want to as well even after reading my notes.”
link to the rest: Book Notes: ‘Bird By Bird’ By Anne Lamott


Diary entry for 1 October:

First, a note on the links: since I am (at least temporarily) linking to some relatively ‘old’ stuff, I’ve switched the formatting a bit — not just a hyperlink, but something closer to the way I cite quotes in my long essays. This isn’t APA, MLA, or Chicago Style (over time I’ve fallen into my own pattern without referencing these, based off of vague 20-year-old memories of MLA and now-ancient high school and college papers) but you’ll note I included the date (for those of you who, for whatever reason, won’t read something unless it’s ‘new’).

Also, for my book recommendations, I’ll be relying on (and linking to) the rich (nigh limitless) trove of book reviews and blogs online, and a bit less on my own personal reading. Indeed, if I get to the point where I’m posting one of these every day, I’d quickly run out of books (or begin to sound like a broken record as many of the books I like are going to be similar to each other, for obvious reasons).

And let me hide this little bit at the bottom of the post: [metablogging] Yeah, haven’t written much for the blog recently and I’m kind of sorry for that but not really sorry and I’m thinking about what to do about that and which direction to go from here [/metablogging]

We’ll both see about that, and what comes next, when it comes.

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A Secret History of the Paperback

filed under , 8 September 2014, 22:09 by

A Secret History of the Paperback:
and how not everything that happened to publishing since 1935 is going to repeat itself with ebooks.


I’m going to start with three pull-quotes from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 [while published in 2003 — well before the current ebook thing, and certainly citing scholarship that is much older than just 2003 — I find this information very interesting given current debate.]

“Cheapness meant that a best-seller of the 1850s might sell fifty times the copies of one in the 1810s. Paper had constituted 50 to 66 percent of the cost of a book in 1800 but was only 7 percent by 1910, and leather covers were replaced by cheaper cloth. …
By the 1860s and again in the 1880s, proliferating titles and longer print runs had occasioned such competition among booksellers that many were squeezed out of business. Publishers complained that there was too much competition, too low prices, and too few outlets. Once again their response was price fixing.”

“The volume of book production increased substantially during the twentieth century despite the fact that for some commentators, particularly from the 1960s on, the advent and rapid development of new electronic technologies suggested that the demise of the book was imminent.”

“Following World War II, technological developments spurred book production. Photocomposition and offset printing enabled higher print runs (100,000 copies and more) than ever imagined, prompting what observers called the ‘paperback revolution.’ The paperback format was now used for light fiction as well as for the second edition of hardbound books. Their cheap price and ‘disposable’ quality encouraged book sales.”

Yes, I thought it important to include the dig about 19th century publisher price fixing — but also note it follows booksellers going out of business and book markets tightening. The larger point here is that paperbacks weren’t quite the price revolution portrayed by some; book prices had been falling for over a century.

I found this article buried in a ten-year old economics textbook by using a Google Books search — which is kind of off topic here but also illustrates how far we’ve come. Thanks to Google (and perhaps irritating to OUP) I can embed the search findings below.

[The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 isbn 0195105079 pub date 2003 edited by Joel Mokyr]

The paperback was not a sudden or seismic shift, or one that magically jumped into existence on 30 July 1935 — I’ll use the Penguin date because Amazon did * — and I’m not just talking about the ‘paperback’ formats that predated the ‘pocket books’ of Penguin and American competitor Pocket Books.

Decades of innovation preceded the mass-market paperback of the late 1930s — the first steam-powered presses emerged in the 1810s, to be replaced about 30 years lated by even faster rotary presses that replaced the piston-like flatbed press with a continuously operating rotating drum. On the pre-production side, Linotype machines significantly improved typesetting, starting in 1884, while parallel developments in lithography led to the introduction of offset printing (for paper) in 1904.

All these developments were driven not by the needs of book publishers but by the newspapers, which greedily adopted every technology that increased the speed and volume of print — and which lowered costs — in the drive to expand their business and reach. (Historic circulation numbers are hard to come by but we see newspapers doubling—at least—over the first half of the 19th century, and on toward hundreds of thousands for big city papers, as exemplified by the circulation battles between Pulitzer and Hearst.) The demands of newspapers drove the technology not only of the presses but also the paper — and anyone with a shelf-full of cheap, yellowing paperbacks knows the look and feel of newsprint-grade paper.

Cheap paper, fast presses, and perfect bindings (invented in 1895) combined in the 1930s to give us an affordable paperback.


There are three other magic ingredients to consider. First was volume: unit costs go down the more units you print, and Penguin stockpiled 200,000 books for their initial launch (20k copies each of ten titles) [source] — an unprecedented bet in an era when even a bestseller like Ernest Hemingway only got initial print runs of 10,000 hardcovers. The bet paid off, of course (and Penguin would actually sell 3 million books in its first year). Second, the newsstands (“news agents” to my Anglophone readers who don’t speak ‘murican) in train stations and on street corners everywhere represented a much larger sales channel than the small, and infrequent, bookstores of the era. (I don’t know why this is occasionally presented as a ‘hurdle’ the paperback publishers had to overcome, or a huge innovation; the newsstands were already selling cheap print—as fiction magazines—and had done so for decades).

And the final reason Penguin paperbacks were so cheap was the fact that paperbacks were reprints of books that had already been published by others. Of the first 10 titles Penguin chose, the original year of publication ranges from 1912 to 1929 — each at least five years old and highlighted by the inclusion of the debut novels of established authors Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Penguin didn’t have to invest in new manuscripts and herd authors along through a drawn-out editorial process, they just had to typeset the books and print ‘em off (with a kickback to the original author/publisher; how much you want to bet that—at least at first—the paperback rights went for a song).

The first work of original fiction to debut in paperback didn’t come along until 1950 — and around that time, hardcover publishers were claiming up to 50% of the royalties on paperbacks, squeezing on one side, while competition in a crowded market squeezed paperback publishers from the other. The switch to paperback originals was probably inevitable; it was friction from the ‘legacy’ publishers (of 1950) that prompted it.

[If you’d like to compare the 10-15 year gap between reprints and originals in the new format, I’ll note that Kindle Direct Publishing launched concurrently with the first Kindle device in 2007.]


Paperbacks were an advance, both in terms of accessibility (price points and physical availability) and visibility for books. The equivalent of the mall bookstore in this era was on the first floor of your downtown department store [sources: 1900, 1920, 1949] and so, were of course limited to places that had department stores, and downtowns — and in the late 30s, there were only 500 bookstores in the U.S., “which did not exist everywhere and more closely resembled antiquaries’ shoppes than the current megamarts” [source]. It’s not that Americans did not read, but the primary vehicle for fiction was the magazine (and I’ll also throw in full-page serial weekly comics in the newspapers as an aside) as well as the 3,500 public libraries. The paperback model that became mainstream in 1935 didn’t hide books in a dusty shop corner or behind a library circulation desk — the books (for the cost of a pack of smokes) were on a rack at the five-and-dime, and on the newsstand next to the magazines and newspapers people were already used to buying daily. And in America at least, the paperbacks quickly adopted the lurid covers that (for some) also defined the format.

I don’t know that I see the same benefit from ebooks. Yes, like paperbacks, the format is cheaper to produce (though that cost is not zero). Ebooks also get full marks for ‘accessibility’, considering you can just download one to your phone. Where ebooks do not quite match the true revolutionary potential of the paperback is in expanding the market. Paperbacks *blew up* the market for books — finding readers where they lived, and transitioning a pre-existing magazine fiction market to the new format, vastly expanding the profile (and sales) of genres like sci-fi, mystery, westerns, and romance.

What we’re missing in the ebook revolution is that “pre-existing magazine fiction market”, its half-century of material that fed into paperback racks, and the valuable experience a generation of authors had publishing there — a farm team, feeder system, or escalator (pick your metaphor) into pulp paperbacks for the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, managed to largely kill off magazines in the decade before the Kindle launched. For ebooks to really impact the business in the same way paperbacks did, we’ll need to find (or invent) something like the magazine fiction market of the 30s and 40s, and find (or invent) ways to get book covers in front of eyeballs the way the spinner racks and magazine stands used to. (lurid optional; I really dig those pulp covers though)

Web sites are literally freakin’ amazing and book sales sites like Amazon are the brave new future of bookselling where nothing ever really goes out of print and any title is available — if you can find it. 10 million book listings is not only unprecedented but jaw-dropping when you stop to think about it. But (and you knew a ‘but’ was coming) Amazon doesn’t transform the reading audience like Penguin, Pocket, and Fawcett did. The people going to Amazon are already readers. Those who already buy books, and buy the most books, are the early adopters on the digital platform and the most vocal of its advocates. A web site is not going to put a book out there for discovery — or an impulse buy — in the same way that a Penguin paperback of 1935 did. In fact, web sites tend to bury books (really bury books when search algorithms and results are manipulated) in a way that’s different, even, from the bad luck of bottom-shelf placement in a corner in a 20,000sq.ft. bookstore.

Paperbacks moved books from an expensive luxury and lifestyle statement out to the places where people actually lived — a migration that began with train stations and street corners and eventually settled into the B.Dalton/Waldenbooks era of mall bookstores and from there to the late 1990s and early 2000s big box stores — in 2005 we reached a peak of roughly 1500 ‘book superstores’ run by the chains and that, honestly, is about as good as things will ever get (for physical books). Paperbacks, the revolutionary format of 1935, had been absorbed by publishers and the book trade (with mass-markets and trade paperbacks accounting for roughly 80% of books sold) and made bookstores better, arguably made book publishing better, and certainly made reading both more accessible and more popular over the decades, even with competition from television.

Ebooks threaten to reverse that, moving books from an everyday commodity back to a lifestyle statement and comparative luxury. Yes, an ebook may be cheaper at $9.99 (or $2.99, or 99¢, or even free) but to read an ebook, you need a smart phone, a tablet, a dedicated ereader, or a computer — and a credit or debit card. These appliances get cheaper all the time, but from 2007 right up to last year, we’re still talking about an investment of $100 or so. (Yes, please tell me about Amazon&iTunes gift cards and second-hand ereaders from ebay plus free phones on contract and all the other work-arounds — but admit that it’s all a bit more costly and complicated than a paperback for six pence or a quarter.)

Ebooks still have a long way to go, in my opinion, and I also have more than a few reservations and lingering questions about the format. I also think Amazon has a bit too much control over the new format, more than I personally am comfortable with. Additionally (and once again in my opinion) the *real* format shift was in 1993 with the new “printing press”, the World Wide Web. Ebooks feel like a step sideways, not forward, though any model that results in paychecks for authors can’t be all bad. Just like technological changes in printing that began in the 1840s eventually gave us the Penguin paperback of 1935, the massive shift in publishing that began in 1993 will eventually result in a similar revolution. (I just don’t think the 2007—or 2014—ebook is it. And even with the accelerated pace of technology today, compared to the 19th century, I don’t think 10 years is enough time yet to see exactly what that change will be.)

I’d also like to note I used Google Book Search to find five sources, ranging from public-domain sources as old as 1900 to the citation that started this article, from a textbook/encyclopedia from 2003 (more recent, yes, but equally unavailable in practical terms). That’s a power shift and democratization of information on par with the Carnegie libraries of 130 years ago; not every change in media is about formats.


* For those of you who like book trivia: German publisher Albatross beat Penguin to the ‘modern’ paperback by three years, though Albatros did not attempt the (then) massive print runs that Penguin did in ’35. However, I’ll note that Albatross innovated the trim-size and those iconic, color-coded covers (minimal, with typography and logo but no illustrations) now deeply associated with classic Penguin. How much ‘Penguin’ copied from ‘Albatross’ I’ll leave to your own judgement. I’ll also note that Tauchnitz Editions predate Penguin by nine decades — though the Tauchnitz books were never sold as paperbacks per se; the books were intended (by the publisher) and purchased as unbound books in a ‘wrapper’ with the understanding (at least until the 1930s, when Albatross snapped up Tauchnitz) that the editions would be rebound at purchaser’s cost by a local binder (turning them into hardcovers). Not all of the Tauchnitzs were, of course, though ironically this makes the paperbacks rarer and (potentially) more valuable than a leatherbound hardcover version of the same book.

Those interested in some of the primary sources I used should check out the Mental Floss article, How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read by Andrew Shaffer (which is linked above but you probably missed it) and A Short History of Paperbacks by Oliver Corlett [from the Independent Online Booksellers Association newsletter, The Standard vol.II no.3 December 2001, and archived online]. And if you’re still with me at this point, you should also read The Stigma of Paperback Originals, Joanne Kaufman, WSJ, 23 September 2010 and Soft Target: Have reports of the paperback’s death been greatly exaggerated?, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Slate, 20 June 2013.

Most (but not all) of the Wikipedia links I used above on the paperback format: offset printing

And finally, this post was touched off a couple weeks back (hey, research takes time) by the, interesting, open letter Amazon published at

Making Books

filed under , 28 August 2014, 14:39 by

I was trying to finish up a draft on paperback publishing and got sidetracked on a research tangent:

Books: From Manuscript to Classroom circa 1920

Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book, 1925

Railway newspaper stand and printing Penguin books in the 1940s

Making Books, 1947

Lithography (1940-1949)

Newspaper Publishing Process: “Newspaper Story” 1950

Learning to Set Type, 1959

Typesetting & Linotype, 1960

How Books are Made & Repaired: “Bookbinders” circa 1961

How a Book Is Made – Episode 6: Printing the Book (uploaded 2013)

The Well-Built Book, Copyright 1998, (but I’m thinking the orig. film is actually 1989-1990)

The Well-Built Book from Dianne Morris on Vimeo.

How Do They Do It? How books are made. (2005-ish?)

Book Printing and Manufacturing- A Guided Tour (uploaded 2012)

Digital Printing, Courier/HP 2011

Courier from Steve Franzino on Vimeo.

Digital Printing, Timson/Kodak 2012

6 minutes to print a book, Espresso Book Machine, Darien Library (uploaded 2011)

How much does all this cost? [for a single-color, 256 page book]

Quantity : Cost : Cost/Unit
5,000 : $10,689 : 2.17
7,500 : $14,255 : 1.90
10,000 : $17,817 : 1.78

This is a summary of costs, excluding shipping.

The manufacture of books — the subject of all those videos embedded earlier in this post — is an amazing technological marvel, and because of all the processes and inputs involved, it seems like the printing of the physical object should be the number one contributor to cost. However, by the time plates are made (or files uploaded) at the printer, the book is already finished. The act of physical printing — of making copies — isn’t as cheap as the act of making digital copies, but the difference is only $2-5.

Links and Resources for Opening a Bookstore

filed under , 29 July 2014, 10:46 by

Links and Resources for Opening a Bookstore
And Some Heart-felt Editorial In Which I Hope To Dissuade You From Opening A Bookstore.

This longish, slightly-rant-y, rambling bit started out as a response to several recent articles on “Reinventing the Bookstore” (initial offender at the link, and other bloggers’ reactions linked at the end of this mess)

The issue I have with using “Design” (no matter how good) to solve the “Problem” of bookstores is that more often than not, the designer *has no clue about how bookstores are run*. You know, basics like inventory, coffee, and what makes books different from other retail to begin with. A Very Pretty Storefront (while nice) does not solve a serious price differential with Amazon, and just adding more “open, positive” space to an already too-small floorplan does not change the fact that booksellers have to stock from seven million unique SKUs and no matter what you choose to carry, customers can easily think of something you won’t have shelved. If one felt particularly gruesome, one might compare the effort of using “Design” to fix Bookstores to using “Fashion” to repair a Gaping Gunshot Wound to the Chest.

A Table of Contents:

This article is not intented to be a white paper or fully-comprehensive treatise on the topic, nor can one use it right out of the box as any kind of business plan. Obviously that would be beyond the scope of a blog post (at least on this blog), and if you are using the internet to just up-and-find a business plan: stop here. Don’t keep reading, don’t open a business of any sort, don’t shove paper clips into electrical outlets, and don’t shove anything up your nose. I mean, I shouldn’t have to tell you not to stick metal into an electrical outlet, but that’s the level of obvious I’m talking about here.

If you need business advice, go to the website and find a mentor. While you’re there, you can also read great articles like “Thinking About Starting a Business?” — and resources on business plans, financing, permits, taxes, licenses, business law and don’t ask in the comments on this post because I’m telling you right now there are better sources for this information.

Specific to the book business, you’ll want to check out the American Booksellers Association — and while you’re writing that business plan and building up your entrepreneurial chops, maybe you should also get a job working at a bookstore for a bit, just to see if it’s the kind of business you want to be in.

There are some things that *aren't* covered in business books and also not immediately obvious [a list of book vendors; using US Census data for market research; rough estimates, like knowing that 1000 linear feet of book shelving will fit on 1000sq.ft. of carpet; etc, etc.] and that is the scope of this blog post.


Want into the book business? Write some paranormal fantasy/romance (paranormal teen fantasy/romance would be even better), put it up on Kindle/Amazon, and Make Millions™* (* actual millions not guaranteed) – Congratulations, you’re now part of the ‘book business’.

Want to sell books, rather than write them? Open a web site, sign up as an Amazon affiliate and start blogging book reviews with Amazon links.

Is that not hands-on, physically-bookish enough for you? Start pulling together a used book collection and become an Amazon third-party seller. If you’re not picky, you could advertise on Craigslist that you’re buying books by the pound – and that you’ll drive out to pick them up. A surprising number of people are looking to offload physical books these days. You don’t even need a store front, though you may need to rent a storage unit.

There might be the minor detail of obtaining a local business license (and web hosting, and tax obligations) but there are options for getting into the book business without getting into the complicated mess of running a book store. Oh – and if my suggestions seem a little Amazon heavy? Deal with it. Learn to live with it. Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This is our current reality, and no matter how loudly I bang the bars of our collective cage my fellow travellers assure me nothing is wrong with Amazon and we shouldn’t side with our old jailors because the new minimum security world of Amazon lock-in is so much more comfortable.

[To be fair, we’re not *locked* into Amazon in quite the same way that many Publishers’ contracts tie up books (rights are retained by authors, sellers can sell anywhere) but Amazon has the huge customer base — and the customers’ credit card info, and Prime, and One-click — so yeah: Amazon has the customers locked in and if we want access to those customers, we abide by Bezos’ Law and thank him for letting us live there, no matter how meagre the accomodation]

Amazon is all rainbows and unicorn farts and happiness straight from the carton. So I’ll stop talking about how great they are.


So, you want to open a bookstore? Go back four paragraphs, look into the online used bookstore model, and have fun.

…Oh, you wanted to open a neighborhood bookstore? Cute storefront, booklovers on the payroll, quirky selection – local hangout, community fixture, destination and landmark?


No really, please — for your sake, not mine — don’t go there.

Let’s start on the business side: [source, source]

  • 50% of small business fail in the first year. Yes, including yours. Yes, including bookstores.
  • Only 40% of small business are profitable, another 30% manage to break even. The remainder continually lose money.
  • Your overall odds of being a ‘success’, after five years, is only one-in-ten.

What are the major reasons small business fail?

  • Lack of experience
  • Insufficient capital (money)
  • Poor location
  • Poor inventory management
  • Over-investment in fixed assets
  • Poor credit arrangement management
  • Personal use of business funds
  • Unexpected growth

To the Small Business Administrations list, I’ll add: Underestimating the investment of time and effort required, and a failure to recognize the toll this will take on your relationships with friends and family. Even if you’re not hitting them up for money (excuse me, ‘investment’), you’re basically going to disappear for a while because your new business is about to become your everything.

If you just have to open up your own small business: maybe consider a restaurant, rather than retail. The capital required is lower, the demand steadier (we gotta eat, after all) and successful examples to follow are both more numerous and quite widely distributed. You’ll still have a 50% chance of failing your first year, but with a restaurant it’s more likely that you’ll be able to pick up and try again. Going the bookstore route, you may only have one shot.

Even compared to other retail, books are different. Book inventory by its nature is slow-moving, unruly, and byzantine in scope, scale, and complexity. From seven million to twenty million to 129 million books in print — estimates vary but all are huge — a basic fact of the industry is that tons of books already exist and hundreds of thousands more make it to market every year. No matter how complete your inventory or database, it will only be ~2.8 days before a customer comes in and asks for something you don’t have and can’t find. (The book itself may be out of print, may or may not exist, or may be a KDP Select E-only – in any case, an invisible book to bookstores.)

So if we take the absolute vastness of publishing and cross-reference that with reasons small business fail, “Poor Inventory Management” and “Over-investment in Fixed Assets” are huge warning flags that are also pretty much givens for booksellers. You can certainly come back and argue the point – you, smart cookie that you are, have already considered this and your book inventory will be carefully curated and appropriately niche. You have a strong concept, one easily communicated to the shopping public, and your book selection will be focused and will support the store concept.


90% of the books you stock still won’t sell.

Pick a category (for the purposes of this and other examples, I’ll take Romance for 500, Alex) – No matter how fine-grained and focused, you still have bestsellers and media-driven titles, and then, the long tail. Indeed, as much as people like to talk about “The Long Tail” as some sort of internet phenomenon, it’s actually math – and was described as early as 1906. The “long tail” is also fractal – if you look at a data subset (all punk tracks, rather than all MP3s; or romance, as opposed to all books) any small part of the whole still resembles the view from ten thousand feet. In a classic model, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of your sales comes from just 20% of the stock. Books are worse – The gulf between the Rowlings and Pattersons and ‘the rest’ is broader, and there are fewer spots at the top.

There is a story [likely apocryphal] that dates back to the 1980s and the first round of major media consolidation, when publishers were snapped up by conglomerates who saw books (at the time) as a steady revenue stream and marquee property — I know, silly, right? After completing the buy-out, a group of accountants from the new corporate office would sit down with a group of editors from the old publisher and eventually, talk would come around to the elephant in the room:
Accountant: “Look, you’re publishing close to 1000 books a year, most of those aren’t going to make money, and even of the ones that do more than break even, really only 10 or so are going to be bestsellers.”
Publisher: [*nods*]
Accountant: “…So why don’t we pare back that list, only publish the 100 or so that we know will sell, and really throw some weight behind that top 10. Cut out the dead wood, concentrate on the blockbusters, and make some money here.”
Publisher: [*nods*]
Accountant: “I’m amazed you haven’t even considered this before. How many decades have you been in the book business, again?”
Publisher: “You make a valid point, I suppose — but tell me…”
Accountant: “Yes?”
Publisher: “Out of all these books, a thousand a year, do you know which ten are going to be the bestsellers?” [a question asked with an expertly arched eyebrow, I’m sure.]

The joke stops being funny when you consider what these huge corporate publishers started doing in the 80s: indeed, a lot of effort was put into so-called “known quantities” – advances for top-tier authors skyrocketed, while midlist authors saw their customary advances slowly shrink. Publishers began to acquire fewer books; authors had one shot (or at best, two) to make an impact with readers — if they didn’t sell (or didn’t sell ‘enough’) they’d be dropped by their first publisher and hard pressed to find a second.

That’s just on the production side — booksellers face the same problem, but multipled across the catalogs of every publisher. As a small business owner and book retailer you have to accept this and steel yourself to the reality: You are going to stock books that never sell.

“Why bother, then: Why not just stock the bestsellers?”
Excellent question.

Costco and Walmart do that, and they can discount books lower than you can. Barnes & Noble, for as long as it is in this game, is going to have the bestsellers in stock, in quantity, and at a sale price that just about eats your entire margin. Amazon will always have the bestsellers, and no way in hell can you match the Bezos cut. As an independent bookseller, you can’t play this game. You’ll lose. The bulk of your business is going to be in the Long Tail, the 90% of books you stock that you know you aren’t going to sell.

Does this sound like a paradox, or Catch 22? It should.


If you’re bound and determined to open up a bookshop, even after my warnings, track back a half step and ask yourself why.

Do you like the atmosphere of bookstores? The hard-to-describe bookish-ness of them? Do you want to build a “third place”, to become a hub for social events in your community? Is your primary goal selling stuff — or literacy and letters, plus the coffee and conversation, oh and the occasionally book signing on the side?

News Flash: one can host author signings just about anywhere. Some events do better at a library, pub, coffee shop, or ‘offbeat’ venue, as opposed to the now-bog-standard-and-boring Big Box Bookstore. Even if your goal is selling books, maybe the platform you need is not the local-restroom-reading-library-and-nap-complex, but a retail front that is anything else first and only a ‘bookstore’ second.

[see: 5 Brilliant Bookstore-Bars : Aram Mrjoiam, 2 July 2014, Book Riot]

It takes a surprisingly small footprint to turn a pub or coffee shop into a ‘bookstore’ (sometimes, a single bookcase). Indeed, we can go back five paragraphs, and stock ‘just the bestsellers’ – plus a handful of other choice titles, dependent of course on theme and means. A bookshop-as-add-on is currently the best bookstore model I can recommend.

We can do it even cheaper, in fact: Set up a paperback exchange in your coffee shop – seed the shelves with your own paperback collection (if you can part with them) or buy up lots of them used (see: Craigslist ad mentioned above) and then sell them to customers for a dollar, or offer to trade them with customers two-to-one. So many book lovers are drowning in books, helping them get rid of a couple (plus, they get a new one to read!) is practically offering a community service. Concentrate on mass-market sized cheap paperbacks, spend $100 on a pair of bookcases and maybe another $100 on seed stock and the whole thing practically runs itself — and automatically turns your little gift shop, cafe, or corner store into a bookstore. For coffee shops and friendly pubs, books add to the atmosphere, too — a smart investment even if you never sell them.


“No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” -attributed to Yogi Berra

Why open up a bookstore in the 21st Century? Sure, back in the 1980s there was a definite lack (outside of the shopping mall) of bookstores, but the 1990s brought us not one but two major bookstore chains opening up these huge palaces full of books and coffee and man, that was great. Loved those places. I used to spend all day every Saturday at the bookstore.

“I used to spend all day every Saturday at the bookstore.”
“I used to spend…”
“…used to…”

The oldest Big-Box-Bookstores are barely over two decades old, and already many customers — many of us — talk about them in the past tense like they’ve all closed and the bookstore (like the physical format books they used to sell) are just memories and nostalgia. Borders closed due to over-expansion and mismanagement, but the actual facts of their bankruptcy are immaterial when stacked up against the public perception that all bookstores are going out of business.

The easiest way to combat this misperception is to open up a bookstore that’s not a bookstore — yes, open up a “Great Good Place” (please and thank you!) but flip your business plan around: be a coffee shop or neighborhood pub first, and a bookstore second — maybe host book groups and author events (and do some small, one-off sales of individual titles to support those) without being a ‘bookstore’ at all. If you have a place to sit and free wifi, you’re already filling the role that many currently demand of the bookstore anyway.

Once you’ve established your business, beaten the small-business odds to stay open past your first year (or five), and proven to yourself and others that you can make this work — then maybe you can look at expanding into books: adding bookcases, expanding your first location, or opening up a 2nd branch with even more of a book store focus. But I urge you to beat this level on the easy setting before trying again at harder difficulty.


If you really want to open a ‘bookstore’ Bookstore – you don’t have enough money.

To really compete against Amazon and other retailers, no matter the storefront or venue, I personally think you need to spend at least $10 Million on inventory — twice that would be better. The magic phrase is “Over One Million Titles In Stock” — and yes, you’re going to spend that $20M on books, be a national landmark destination, but the book-inventory-law still applies: 90% of those titles still won’t sell (…this year. Or maybe ever. But ten years from now when someone just has to have a copy of Prof. Halford’s Medieval Farming Techniques and the Evolution of European Plowshare and Moldboard Design (476-1349CE) and you *have* a copy — that’s where the magic is, folks.)

To give you an idea of how much one million titles in stock actually is, imagine about 12 Barnes & Nobles built side by side by side on 6 football fields. That’s not a perfect analogy; 30,000 or so books are common to all B&Ns [source pg. 9 B&N’s 10-K annual report filing with the SEC] and B&Ns can be pretty airy, but the number of bookshelves is about right.) Indeed, the retail ‘big box’ is the wrong model, floorplan, location—dare I say it, concept—for a bookstore — one million titles can actually fit on one city block and if I were to somehow come into possession of $20 Million and a ten acre site the end result would be much more of a book amusement park than a single bookstore. Also, one million titles is a ridiculous number — Amazon’s ‘working inventory’ is [25 million listings, out of which about 10 million titles are physical books (in English), and of those 10M we have to account for out-of-print titles stocked by third-party sellers… so…] likely only 2.5 to 3 million, so as you can see, it’s more like stocking a book distributor than a store — but I’ve maintained for years that if all the books are in the warehouse, hell, we should build a coffee shop in the warehouse and open it to the public. (“book amusement park”)

To be the equal of just the local Big-Box Barnes & Noble, you need at least $1 Million in inventory. And for this back-of-the-envelope calculation, I’m not even considering the money sunk in CDs, DVDs, Board Games, Toys, Gift items, and other assorted crap clogging up your local B&N: books only, 60,000-100,000 units, $1-2 Million Dollars.

A devilish-advocate could come back, “yes but – our store will concentrate on paperbacks, trade or otherwise, and our unit costs will be lower” and that’s fine — A used bookstore might manage to open with 50,000 books for only 50,000 dollars, or less! — but competing against the Big Box isn’t only a matter of dollars. So maybe you spend less than a million on inventory. Now we have to consider linear shelf-feet and square-footage. How big a space are you going to take on? What about the rent? How many books can you stock in your closet?

There are obviously smaller, and still successful, models to consider when opening a bookstore. The qualifier I started with was spending $10M+ “To really compete against Amazon and other retailers”. There are 2,022 members of the American Booksellers Association who offer obvious proof that I’m wrong. It is possible to open up small, friendly bookstores of all types, not just the genre-specific examples below but even general interest bookstores, in big cities and small towns, all across the country an in locations much smaller than your typical big box or warehouse store.

Here, have a few book-store concepts to get the skullgears moving: Books&BrewsLiving MemoryThe Reference DeskThe Last Picture ShowFleet Streetand five more, including The Coffee Table Book Store.

If you only have (or can scrounge) $50,000 – then you can open up a pizza place or burger joint. And you can do well. — But maybe Bookselling isn’t in the cards. (?) (with enough passion, a willingness to learn, a penchant for chatting up anyone who may know something about the book business that you don’t, miserly frugality, luck, and an improving economy: anything is possible. and hell, if you’ve been reading this article up to this point, you may also be an incurable case.)

As is true for any start-up/business:

  • know your market
  • listen to your customers
  • plan and control your inventory
  • market your business
  • keep it simple and focused

To stock fewer books and open on a smaller footprint is actually harder and takes expertise that you don’t have. [yet.]

  • To know a niche so well that you can only stock 15,000 or 1500 titles — and be able to sell them — means being a number-one-super-fan of that genre.
  • The tighter the focus, the smaller the selection, the easier your store will be to stock — and the harder it will be to find customers.
  • You can always offer to order books in, but this puts you in a different no-win situation: either the customers expect you to order at your risk, with no extra cost to them and even, no expectation that they need buy it once they have a chance to look it over – or your customers will say, “Why bother to order it here? I can just get it myself from Amazon.”
  • No matter how well you define and market yourself, even within your chosen genre and niche there will be books you never heard of: “Romance, huh? Do you carry Vampire romance? How about lyncanthropes? or time travelers — well I say time travel but I’m looking for something other than Scottish Highlanders, ya know? Ooo… or Steampunk romance. Or suspense – I love those romances with special agents and stake-outs and shoot-outs and chases…” [*whispers*] “…and, ah, you know those books? the fifty-five shady types?” – and just when you think you’ve stocked everything, Including the scorching romance featuring a Time-travelling Werewolf Royal Agent helping Queen Faerieana fight the Vampire Bondage Airship Pirates — a customer will still be able to blind-side you.
  • No matter how well you define and market yourself, by being a ‘bookstore’, you invite the public to treat you just like Amazon. “Hi, is this the We-Only-Sell-Romance Bookstore? Yeah, before I drive down there, I was wondering which lines of travel guides you carry? Oh, and textbooks – I need a textbook for this one class.” … “You’re a bookstore though, right? That’s how your listed… no need to be rude.” [*click*]

Unrealistic and unreasonable customer expectations are a relatively minor head-ache, of course. Any retailer deals with these, answering questions is routine, and handling a disappointed customer is a basic job skill.
The kicker, though, is that once you’ve failed a customer by not having a book in stock, you’ve reinforced the perception that book stores are ‘going out of business’ and the only real way to buy books is online, specifically from Amazon.

Can you run a small business? Can you run a retail business? On top of that, do you really know books well enough to run a retail book business? And can you raise the money to get started?


I’ve already written a fairly long piece on how to use Zip Codes and Census Data for market research — finding your customers and figuring out where they live. (There are also a couple of articles on my ‘Bookselling Resources‘ page that you may or may not find helpful in narrowing your search for a storefront, after you’ve determined your neighborhood.)


What’s our criteria for a retail location?

Well, I want to be where the people are, and since I’m opening a bookstore I want to be where smart people are (or at least pretentious people who spend money on books because they want to look smart, those are good too), and I’d like to be where the people with money live. Of course I’m speaking in broad generalities, but this information would be good to have, right?

If you want to know about people, ask the Census Bureau. (This is one of the best uses of taxpayer money ever.) Before we tap the CB, though, let’s start with the map:

Head on over to, and let’s plug in our target zip code (61605, Downtown Peoria) — if you don’t happen to know the zip code yet, well, just start clicking the map and scan around until you find your target, which is what I did last night. Zoom out a bit and look at the surrounding zip codes — you might want to start writing these down, actually.

Now, point your browser to and look up each zip code. Easy, right?
…OK, so it’s a mess, and you have no idea where to start. That’s fine, because someone at the Census Bureau has written directions on how to find exactly the information we need, by zip code. Gosh, they’re smart. (and I’ve a feeling someone—a lot of someones—have asked exactly this question before.) This will be a lot of clicking and writing and typing — and if you have the time it’d be 2-3 hours worth of work. And worth it, but still a pain in the ass.

Zip codes are handy because they’re used by a number of independent sources (like the Census Bureau), the post office originally set them up (and continues to maintain them, occasionally adding new ones) so that while not uniform in size or population they fall within manageable ranges for both, and most importantly, every address — and by extension, every real estate listing — has one.

The point I’d like to make is that you don’t have to go in blind: resources are available that will paint a pretty clear picture of where the potential readers are. These numbers will also be awfully nice to have when you walk into the bank, and start asking for money. Market research is a basic necessity for any business, and when you are talking retail, demographics (and real estate) are your market.

[/blockquote] — there’s quite a bit more on the process (including shortcuts) at the full write-up.

If you don’t want to read 2500 words about Peoria, here are the pertinent links to get you off and running:


“Oh look, there are still some shelves and fixtures here leftover from the last retailer who went out of business.”

You are going to spend a lot of money on shelves. Best to shop and scrounge second-hand, rather than buy new. You don’t just pop down to Ikea and load up on Billys and call it a day; for one, buying retail like that (even cheap Ikea stuff) (Billys in multiples aren’t really all that cheap, though) is going to get expensive fast, and what works in a living room likely won’t hold up in retail. That 50%-of-new-business-fail statistic can work in your favor, though — do web searches for going-out-of-business sales and check Craigslist for shelving (and just about anything, really) and of course a Google search for “used retail store fixtures” +[location] will bring up the local dealers who specialize in that sort of thing. (Google is the New Yellow Pages. For you kids out there, there used to be a book with listings by category put out by the phone company—there was only one phone company back then— …you know what? forget I mentioned it)

The fixtures, shelves, and seating for your store are an excellent way to demonstrate your creativity to customers, and communicate the mood or feeling you want your store to convey. That said: the smell of books (beloved as it is) will not always be able to counter the smell of old furniture, especially upholstry. Look for bare wood, and leather, and yes — no matter what it is, make sure it can pass a sniff test.

In a very real sense, the bookstore is nothing but the shelves. The total shelf space (linear shelf feet) determines not only how much inventory you have but how effectively you can sell it. Those beautiful, beautiful tumblr-ready images of bookcases packed top-to-bottom are great for looking at but not always the best way to stock books. Just having a book isn’t quite enough; you can’t sell it if folks can’t find it.

[source: partial Google Image Search results for used bookstore]

Figuring out how many books you can stock is a matter of algebra: # of Bookcases x # of Shelves x length of shelves, divided by the average width of your books (usually a half inch – can be more, mostly a bit less, depends on the genre, and mass-market paperbacks are smaller overall but tend to be thicker in this one dimension). Also, you’ll need to have a space (and ideally, also the shelves) squared away before you should order any books.

Bookcases can vary by height and width; for rough calculations I like to use these imaginary bookcases

1 foot by 3 feet at the base, five shelves, and after accounting for ADA compliance and room to walk around and shop them, you can figure on a minimum of 1000 linear feet of shelving for every 1000sq.ft. of designated retail floor space. You can usually pack shelves more densely vertically, or of course, buy or build them higher than just 5ft. tall.

(the remaining math I leave as an exercise for the student)


In lieu of a proper conclusion (this is a big subject; and my conclusion was in the second line “Some Heart-felt Editorial In Which I Hope To Dissuade You From Opening A Bookstore”) I now present a whole lot of links (see: blog post title, op. cit.).

Indeed, an argument can be made that I’ve been writing this same post for five years — so while I hope this is my last word on the subject, it likely won’t be.

What follows are links to other resources – notably publishers and distributors of books, and where possible, a direct link to a website or phone number for setting up new accounts. (After that are some more random, but hopefully helpful, links.)

There are hundreds of publishers, large and small, but the bulk of the trade is supplied by just a few Really Big Companies. In most cases, you don’t just order books from a vendor, you also apply for credit — books are supplied with payment terms in the range of 90 or so days, and you can get credit to apply toward book shipments in certain situations, usually after returning unsold books back to the publisher.

It can get complicated, and each publisher and distributor has their own terms.

Here’s a partial list to get you started:

Random House *
Penguin *
Simon & Schuster

W.W. Norton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Baker & Taylor
National Book Network
Perseus *

(* RH and Penguin have merged, but operationally they still function seperately — that may change. Additionally, Hachette has announced a upcoming purchase of Perseus Books Group, which would involve a parallel sale of Perseus Distribution to Ingram. So that may change.)

And on top of individual suppliers, there is the PubEasy service (formerly Bowker’s, currently a division of Nielsen) which centralizes a lot of the ordering process, for those who choose to use it.
Current affiliates [as listed on the PubEasy site] include: Cambridge University Press (, Chicago Distribution Center (, Hachette Book Group (, HarperCollins (, McGraw-Hill Education (, MPS (, Oxford University Press (, Partners/West Books Distributing (, Penguin Group USA (, Random House (, SAGE (, Scholastic (, and Simon & Schuster (

Additionally, dozens of publisher catalogs (150+) can be viewed digitally using the Edelweiss web site, run by Above the Treeline — and that should be more than enough to help you plug any holes not covered by the Big Six and Ingram.

Magazines & Newsstand:
First, Read: After Losing Time Inc. Business, Distributor Is to Close Leslie Kaufman, 30 May 2014, New York Times — Source Interlink, one of the largest national distributors, couldn’t hack it in this business. So you might ask yourself, “Do I enter a failing market segment to lose money but still provide magazines as a sort of ‘customer service’?”

Ingram Periodicals
Diamond Comic Distributors
Links found on Google; I can’t speak to services offered, content mix, reliability, regional availability, customer service, ease of ordering, or fufillment (basically- magazines aren’t my thing) but: TNG (formerly The News Group), Curtis, Kable, and Comag

The only remaining advice I’ll give is, even if a book is returnable to the vendor, when ordering you really should pretend that they’re not. If you’re returning something because you couldn’t sell it, _maybe_ you shouldn’t have ordered it to begin with? Even if you get “100%” of the dollar value back in credit, you’ve spent money on payroll to process the book twice (once in, once out) and that book has been tying up your shelf space in the interim. By all means, order a single copy of anything that looks good — you can add it to the 90% of your stock that doesn’t sell and it becomes part of the store décor and ambiance (and you can try to actively hand sell it) — but before you order a case of a book, even a bestselling author, stop and ask first if you could get by with just a half-order, to start.


Customers, talking about book stores, rarely mention books first — it’s always about the smell of the bookstore. A fraction of that is the vanilla-like smell of books slowly decomposing on shelves, but the majority of that irresistible aroma is of course coffee. Plus, the margins on coffee are usually better than books.

An espresso machine, second hand, is going to cost between $2000 and $5000 – to say nothing of the plumbing, refrigeration, ice machine, blenders, and regular-old coffee makers you’ll need to get a coffee shop up and running. It’s back to Google (“restaurant supply new and used”) to find your local sources and options there.

Additionally, I’d try to find a local coffee roaster to partner with, to source your beans and (possibly) develop custom blends. Very few fan bases are more into “local, sustainable, artisanal” than coffee snobs, so being the neighborhood not-Starbucks can help.

However — sometimes buying a franchise or finding a national supplier can be the better business option
Think Different: – hot dogs and coffee carts; might solve all your cafe needs, plus you can run the hot dog cart as a fall-back after the store goes out of business.
Think Bigger:
Einstein Bros.
Dunkin’ Donuts.
Tim Hortons. – I’m much too far south (currently) to have a Tim Hortons but if I were looking for a way to immediately compete with B&N, Starbucks, and Amazon (all three) then I would want Timmy in my corner.


Other links:

“Third Place”
A return to the Great Good Place :
Rethinking the Box: Before you sign that lease :

Reinventing the Bookstore : Joanna Cabot, 7 July 2014, TeleRead
The Problem of Reinventing the Bookstore : Nate Hoffelder, 6 July 2014, The Digital Reader
How To Redesign Bookstores For The Amazon Era : Shaunacy Ferro, 3 June 2014, FastCompany Design
Let’s Reinvent the Bookshop : Rosanna De Lisle, May/June issue of Intelligent Life Magazine, republished online to the “More Intelligent Life” blog.

American Booksellers Association :
Small Business Administration :
IRS ( : Starting a Business
Internet Public Library ( : Starting a Small Business
American Library Association : Best of the Best Business Websites (annual awards lists)
Library of Congress : Business Reference Services
… And don’t forget your local library, especially if you live in a city and can make it to the ‘main’ library branch
… As well as local community colleges and continuing education programs
… and your local chamber of commerce or other local business association – many offer educational seminars as well as location-specific resources
… and in a pinch, your local Big Box Bookstore certainly has a business section as well, including many ‘Dummies’ books.

(Linking to it a 3rd time: this is handy stuff) US Census Bureau data by Zip Code :
…and just about Everything Else I can think to say on the topic :

Links and Thoughts 32: 16 July 2014

filed under , 16 July 2014, 10:43 by

Tower Of Power – Squib Cakes

Good Morning.

Over time I seem to be drifting from the original outline for these posts, but that’s a good thing. A natural organic process, or something like that. I still find that the primary distraction from writing is Twitter, and even a simple, pared-down blog post like this one suffers — not just from the sunk time, but also from the siphoning of genuinely good links. Twitter makes it so easy to share and the feedback is immediate; if I’m not careful, I can dump all my best material there and feel good about it.

Let’s see what I’ve collected since last we blogged:

Aspect Ratios. Yes, Aspect Ratios:

Data Journalism:

Cities and Citizens:

Why Isn’t Smog-Gobbling Concrete More Popular? : Motherboard

Links and Thoughts 31: 10 July 2014

filed under , 10 July 2014, 11:35 by

A ‘very special’ edition today: Podcast links!

First, a few caveats:

  • I pulled the list out of the OPML export file from my rss feed reader, so any errors/non-working links I blame on Feedly.
  • Second: yes, some of these are YouTube channels. And yes, I know videos aren’t [finger-airquote]“podcasts”[/finger-airquote] but if you don’t recognize YouTube as a podcast platform, you’re missing out. If nothing else your takeaway should be: youtube channels (and individual youtuber’s accounts) have rss feeds and you can subscribe to them outside of Google’s youtube-homepage-framework for use in your reader of choice.
  • I do like bullet-pointed lists. :D
  • There us no four.
  • This list is a work in progress – what I was able to pull together in a single morning. If you have suggestions and recommendations, drop ‘em in the comments or catch me up on twitter.
  • And Lastly: One other reason you might get an error (or not be able to find something on iTunes) (I’m not an Apple/iTunes convert) is in at least one case [Bob Edwards] the audio is available as an embed on the blog but there is no individual audio download or rss available.

General Geek:




Movies, TV, Pop Culture:




← previous posts          newer posts →

Yes, all the links are broken.

On June 1, 2015 (after 6 years and 11 months) I needed to relaunch/restart this blog, or at least rekindle my interest in maintaining and updating it.

Rather than delete and discard the whole thing, I instead moved the blog -- database, cms, files, archives, and all -- to this subdomain. When you encounter broken links (and you will encounter broken links) just change the URL in the address bar from to

I know this is inconvenient, and for that I apologise. In addition to breaking tens of thousands of links, this also adversely affects the blog visibility on search engines -- but that, I'm willing to live with. Between the Wayback Machine at and my own half-hearted preservation efforts (which you are currently reading) I feel nothing has been lost, though you may have to dig a bit harder for it.

As always, thank you for reading. Writing version 1.0 of Rocket Bomber was a blast. For those that would like to follow me on the 2.0 - I'll see you back on the main site.



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