Rocket Bomber - business

Test Post for an Bookstore

filed under , 29 March 2015, 13:48 by

I’m about 15 minutes into the process of setting up my own online bookstore, using the platform from Aerbook

If I’m doing this correctly, then somewhere below you should be seeing the cover for volume 1 of one of my all time favorite manga.

As promised (on twitter) I’ll be following up with a full write-up on the process, along with any impressions or opinions I form along the way. (I was just at a point where I kind-of immediately wanted to see if it worked)

Buy Now

Amazon's Monopoly isn't Books.

filed under , 24 October 2014, 18:52 by

Amazon has a monopoly — but their monopoly power is not a stranglehold on books.

Amazon owns the customer base for books. Amazon owns the readers.

And now you’re about to object to my stark declaration, for obvious reasons: that’s not the way markets work. Customers are the free-est of free agents, and no one (except the government) can force you to spend money if you don’t want to. Companies don’t own customers, they are earned through competitive pricing and excellent customer service.

Customers are usually happy to be associated with a company — maybe just as a satisfied end-user, but perhaps also as a genuine fan of the product, or a smiling repeat customer at a store or restaurant, or an advocate for the brand online (through glowing reviews) — in the best/worst case: maybe you just can’t shut up about how great the damn thing is to friends, family, strangers, the internet, and even—in quiet moments alone—to yourself. A chunk of your personal identity may be tied up in the product. “Guinness Drinker”, “Steelers Fan”, “Apple User”, “Amazon Kindle Author”, Whatever. Who am I to judge? After all, your enthusiasm—no matter how fierce—is dependent on the product continuing to meet your expectations. Loyalty earned can be banked but also just as quickly frittered away; no company can coast on past accomplishments for long.

Unhappy customers are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for emergent monopolies, in fact. When you find yourself grudgingly paying money for something, maybe even something you hate, that’s generally when we know something other than ‘free markets’ are at work. Cable companies, I am looking directly at you.

So it is impossible to say that Amazon owns readers, because no one owns a customer. Except, of course, that Amazon kinda does own us.

Not all readers: there are folks who are definitely book customers, but only buy one or two books a year. There are plenty of people who borrow books from the library, dutifully adding their name to the waiting list instead of rushing out to buy the latest bestseller. There is a small contingent of Amazon haters, an even smaller group that shops online from Powells (and others), and a number employed as booksellers who can pay less than Amazon asks by using their employee discount — well, about half the time. (Amazon prices are really hard to beat.)

So not all readers. But the most avid readers? People who buy more than one book a month (or a week)? Folks who not only buy books the day they come out, but preorder them? The unlucky (or is that lucky?) few who have literally run out of space for books — every shelf is full and every flat surface has a stack of books on it? Oh yeah, these are the Amazon customers I’m talking about.

Amazon owns you. It’s not outright deed-and-title ownership, of course, because free markets etc. etc., but Amazon has your credit card on file—and the fancy one-click patent—so it is so often so much more convenient to just buy stuff there. Pre-orders are even easier, and your card isn’t charged till it ships. Amazon makes suggestions — kind, neighborly suggestions — because it knows you, everything you’ve bought or even just looked for on the site. And, since Amazon had the first ereader device worth owning, Amazon is likely your supplier of choice for your digital library, too.

You could leave Amazon. Indeed, to prove some snarky blogger wrong, you could likely go to your shelf (or lean over and pick one off the table) and hold up a book and say, “See this? This book I bought in a store! I didn’t get it from Amazon. Stuff it, Matt, you’re over-exaggerating again,” and I’d have to sit here and lump it, because even Amazon Prime subscribers and the most avid of readers will have at least one book like that.

Of course. But, he asked with a smile and a glint in his eye, did you find out about that book (or discover the author) through Amazon? Or maybe Goodreads?

Oh yeah, Amazon owns your ass.


Amazon, even at 20 years old, is a new business, and a new way of doing business. We can point out parallels to the past (and I have) but even after taking into account the ‘internet’ part, Amazon is still running a business quite unlike anything that has come before.

Monopoly (or monopsony) doesn’t quite fit as a description for what Amazon is doing — obviously, because from 1890 (or maybe 1911) most companies have been very circumspect about even looking like a monopoly.

So maybe we need a new word. Amazonification of a market, “related to or resembling Amazon’s transformation of book markets from 1998 to 2011” — or maybe “bezopoly” would be better. ‘Monopsony’ (currently much in vogue in this discussion) wasn’t coined until 1933, so there’s certainly a precedent for it: new vocabulary for new realities. Ignoring for a moment whatever term we’ll use for what it is – it’s easier to describe what Amazon isn’t, and Amazon is not a book monopoly.

Amazon will likely always face competition — at the very least, the indy bookstores as a group, and Apple in ebooks, and whatever-fills-the-barnes-and-noble-sized-hole that seems inevitable at this point. Outside of the book market, the two other large e-tailer competitors (eBay and Rakuten) are joined by at least two huge competitors for digital content sales (Apple iTunes and Google Play) and three huge competitors for digital services (IBM, Google, and Microsoft). Smaller competitors are also constantly nibbling around the edges, either selling their own product online or completely inhabiting a niche (think ThinkGeek, in this case, or direct-from-manufacturer sales).

In a world where Walmart is still seven times as big as Amazon, it’s kind of hard to make the argument that Bezos runs a monopoly (monopsony, bezopoly, whatever).

but what Amazon will never face off against is another ‘Amazon’ — the barriers to entry are too high: you can’t build a billion-dollar distribution operation overnight. While eBay and Rakuten are both huge online retailers, neither can assail Amazon in the book market. Barnes and Noble still sells $6 Billion in books (and assorted non-book cruft) but their website is a small fraction of that and nowhere on the scale of Amazon.

Amazon’s ‘lock’ on the avid readers can be seen as even more important

Amazon doesn’t have 100% control but it has enough:

  • and when Amazon stopped acting like Amazon (for example) in the Hachette dispute, where Amazon stopped taking preorders, stopped discounting, and shifted from two-day delivery to taking a week or two (or more), both Hachette and other trad-publishing stalwarts cried foul, saying that for Amazon to stop pleasing readers on their behalf was unfair and somehow anti-competitive. The unstated admission is that Amazon owns the readers — or at least, there was no easy way to reach Amazon’s readers without Amazon.

Amazon has the book business locked up, not through a monopoly on books but by focusing on readers. Amazon is the single biggest bookstore and likely always will be. Amazon is more than that, of course, but a huge portion of their public image is invested in books (…and specifically targeting readers as customers is also good business). It would be hard to argue that a company as customer-focused as Amazon would do anything to make anyone (any customer, anyway) unhappy — at least while Bezos is in charge. But Amazon still ‘owns’ us in ways we tend to forget about.

Is Amazon’s monopoly on the readership bad? Let me be the first to welcome our new benevolent book overlords. But the key phrase is still, “at least while Bezos is in charge” — at some point, the company will change. If you’re an Amazon customer (we’re all Amazon customers, including Kindle-published authors) my best advice is to enjoy it while you can, but keep an exit in view (or at least, in the back of your mind).

From post-World-War-II until the mid-1970s the Book-of-the-Month Club was the ‘best thing ever’ for readers. Then in the 1980s the mall bookstore chains were the ‘best thing’; in the 1990s and early aughts it was the Big Box Book Superstore. Prices have gone down, selection has gone up, and customers were happy — until the next big thing came along.

If Amazon lets it.

The best thing we could hope for, in my opinion, is Amazon as a “common carrier” for books, where publishers and authors get to compete with each other while having equal access to Amazon’s locked-in base of rabid readers. The reader becomes the product that Amazon then ‘sells’ to publishers — well, I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as access to readers, since even after the door is open you still have to convince the readers to buy from you as opposed to buying literally any other book on the planet.

It’s not in Amazon’s interest to do this, at least not for free — but we can see hints of how it might work just by noting how Amazon treats its large network of 3rd party sellers (for everything other than new books or ebooks). We should shift our thinking away from Amazon-as-retailer and toward Amazon-as-network-provider. Instead of acting like a wholesaler and ‘making’ Amazon buy the books from you for resale, petition for access to the Amazon’s ‘network’ and sell your books directly to Amazon’s readers. If Amazon will let you — my whole point is that Amazon’s real monopoly is on the readers — and I think Amazon will always want to stand in that final space between reader and seller, no matter what the rest of the book industry looks like or how we get there.

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 :

As certain as Death, Taxes, and 2-day prime shipping

filed under , 23 April 2014, 11:13 by

A recent Bloomberg article revives the old Amazon sales tax debate (if we’re still debating this) so I thought I’d dig up the appropriate links and Wikipedia articles for everyone to reference again:


In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there was nothing inherently unconstitutional about requiring out-of-state retailers (such as mail order companies and internet retailers) to collect state and local sales taxes on orders shipped to in-state residents. The only question was whether imposing such a requirement would cross the line from an acceptable burden on interstate commerce to an unreasonable one. Technology had greatly eased the burden of collecting taxes for multiple jurisdictions, the Court noted, but concluded that Congress should make the call.

The Court’s ruling left existing policy, under which remote retailers must collect sales taxes only in states where they have a physical presence or other tangible “nexus,” unchanged. But the Court explicitly invited Congress to revisit the policy. “The underlying issue is not only one that Congress may be better qualified to resolve, but also one that Congress has the ultimate power to resolve” the Court wrote.

Today, software and related tax services have largely eliminated any remaining difficulty in calculating and remitting sales taxes for the country’s many state and local jurisdictions. Yet Congress has so far failed to extend sales tax collection to online retailers.


So, first: the argument presented by mail-order retailers against their obligation to collect the tax [22 years ago, pre-Internet, pre-online-retail, pre-Amazon] has been made irrelevant by technology.

Second, the Supreme Court took the time to point out Congress could reverse their decision at any time with simple legislation.

Most importantly, though,

“[W]hile remote sellers are not required to collect sales taxes, the tax is still owed by the individual who made the purchase. Individuals are supposed to keep track of these purchases and pay an amount equivalent to the sales tax as a “use” tax on their state tax returns. Less than 1 percent of people do, however, and the use tax is almost impossible to enforce, which effectively exempts these purchases” [emphasis mine]

And again, from another source:


Consumers who live in a state that collects sales tax are technically required to pay the tax to the state even when an Internet retailer doesn’t collect it. When consumers are required to pay tax directly to the state, it is referred to as “use” tax rather than sales tax.

The only difference between sales and use tax is which person — the seller or the buyer — pays the state. Theoretically, use taxes are just a backup plan to make sure that the state collects revenue on every taxable item that is purchased within its borders. But because collecting use tax on smaller purchases is so much trouble, states have traditionally attempted to collect a use tax only on big-ticket items that require licenses, such as cars and boats.


And from Wikipedia:

“A use tax is a type of excise tax levied in the United States by numerous state governments. It is assessed upon tangible personal property purchased by a resident of the assessing state for use, storage, or consumption in that state (not for resale), regardless of where the purchase took place. If a resident of a state makes a purchase within his home state, full sales tax is paid at the time of the transaction. The use tax applies when a resident of the assessing state purchases an item that is not subject to his home state’s sales tax. Usually, this is due to out-of-state purchases, as well as ordering items through the mail, by phone, or over the Internet from other states. The use tax is typically assessed at the same rate as the sales tax that would have been owed (if any) had the same goods been purchased in the state of residence.” [emphasis in original]

The states of Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming don’t charge income tax so a majority of the state budget has to come from other sources, like sales tax. (Alaska and New Hampshire also don’t charge a state sales tax, but I’m sure local jurisdictions within those states do.)


“In the United States, every state with a sales tax law has a use tax component in that law applying to purchases from out-of-state mail order, catalog and e-commerce vendors, a category also known as “remote sales”. As e-commerce sales have grown in recent years, noncompliance with use tax has had a growing impact on state revenues. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that uncollected use taxes on remote sales in 2003 could be as high as $20.4 billion. Uncollected use tax on remote sales was projected to run as high as $54.8 billion for 2011.” [emphasis mine]

It is not that internet purchases are “tax free” — they’re not. It’s a matter of who collects the tax. If you want to argue that internet purchases shouldn’t be taxed, well, take that up with your elected representatives — but as noted above, this went all the way to the Supreme Court and the ruling came back that tax is still owed even if it is not collected at time of purchase — in both the 1992 case, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota and the earlier 1967 case cited as precedent, National Bellas Hess v. Illinois Department of Revenue. No one was arguing that the tax was not due, only that making out-of-state companies collect the tax constituted an unfair burden (at that time, while suffering either 1967 or later 1992 technology). The tax due is not a matter of where the company headquarters is located, or which warehouse it ships from, of if there is a ‘nexus’ in your state: it’s a matter of where you, the purchaser, live.

When you buy a book from a bookstore, or buy your groceries, or liquor, or a new couch, or a car: sales taxes get collected at the register (as listed on your receipt). Retailers send a check to local and state governments monthly, and the sales tax revenue is an important part of what keeps your local municipalities running: it would be very hard to make payroll (for say, firefighters and police officers, and to be fair, also the really awful people at the DMV – but they deserve a paycheck too) without this stream of income. Even if everyone dutifully paid the Use Tax on internet purchases (a big if) without sales tax revenues trickling in over the course of the year, your city or county would have to borrow the money to make payroll, and then wait until April (or later) to pay those loans back, incurring interest and fees that eat into already small budgets.

“In states that have the tax, households reduced their spending on Amazon by about 10 percent compared to those in states that don’t have the levy. For online purchases of more than $300, sales fell by 24 percent” – Bloomberg, citing a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University

…Well, I think that’s all we need to know about why Amazon spends millions to fight State governments attempting to collect the tax.

Eventually, Amazon *will* collect sales taxes — even if it takes an Act of Congress and a Supreme Court decision, it’s coming. But it’s also certainly to Amazon’s advantage to put off that date for as long as they possibly can.

Amazon, the Book Utility Company

filed under , 1 March 2014, 11:07 by

“Therein lies the rub. Publishing on your own website is still just too damn geeky. The siren-call of the silos is backed up with genuinely powerful, easy to use, well-designed tools. I don’t know if independent publishing can ever compete with that. In all likelihood, the independent web will never be able to match the power and reach of the silos. But that won’t stop me (and others) from owning our own words. If nothing else, we can at least demonstrate that the independent path is an option—even if that option requires more effort.”
In dependence : Jeremy Keith, 28 December 2013,

“I made a million dollars last year from self-publishing. I’ve found that, without gatekeepers, I can reach readers much easier. And readers are much more eager to buy me when I control cover, cost, and jacket blurbs, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve made 8x as much as a self-publisher as I did with my legacy contracts.
“Readers don’t care who the publisher is. They don’t care if the work is agented. They care about quality and price, and are able to find books they like without any gatekeepers other than each other and the increasingly adaptive ability for websites like Amazon to understand readers’ tastes.
“As an agent, you could be helping your clients make important decisions about self-publishing. That is, if you are pro-client. That might mean advising them to pass up a bad deal and go solo.”
Questions for Literary Agent David Gernert : Joe Konrath, 24 January 2014,

Neither online sales nor ebooks were original to Amazon, but Amazon has had a lot of success selling their brand to the public and have gained mindshare that in a way is even more important than their market share.

Amazon’s user base makes it a default social media site, smaller than Facebook or Twitter but more important because every Amazon account has a real name, address, and credit card attached — and that’s even before we consider Amazon also knows every shopper’s browsing and buying history.

“One-third of consumers now begin their online shopping expeditions on the site, comparing models, specs, prices and customer reviews for an expansive assortment that spans not just Amazon’s inventory but that of its more than 2 million third-party Marketplace affiliates, which comprise nearly 40 percent of the company’s unit volume. Other features like one-click ordering, tailored product recommendations, a no-hassle return policy and free two-day shipping with a $79 membership in the Amazon Prime program has made it the go-to merchant for more than 200 million regular shoppers worldwide.” Growth Creating New CE Retail Paradigms, Challenges : Alan Wolf, 2 June 2013, Twice Magazine

“Combine the 2 formats and Amazon may have a market share for some categories of books over 50%. And that market share will continue to grow as more and more books are sold in electronic form, since Amazon’s market share for ebooks is even greater than for print. So we should not be surprised to wake up one day to find that Amazon is responsible for the sale of as much as two-thirds of all the books sold outside of libraries in the U.S. (Note to DOJ: I said ‘wake up’ for a reason.)
“A rival to Amazon will be hard to come by.”
Who Can Rival Amazon? : Joseph Esposito, 22 January 2014, The Scholarly Kitchen

“Amazon has succeeded building an ecommerce and customer relationship platform that customers love. It’s a combination of a superb user interface, extraordinarily skilled analysis of customer data and a genius logistics system.
“The comment in the article about ‘the tools of ecommerce’ being readily available for competitors reflects a lack of understanding about how hard it is to do what Amazon does. Randy Penguin doesn’t have the money or talent to do it. Neither does Apple. (Yes, PG knows Apple sells a bazillion apps and songs each year, but do you really think iTunes is even in the same universe as Amazon’s store?)
“Nobody in the publishing business can displace Amazon at this point and probably forever. The intellectual and technical bandwidth is just not there.”
Commentary on the Scholarly Kitchen post above, at The Passive Voice

“8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from ‘extremely difficult’ to ‘impossible’ for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?”
Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing : Mike Shatzkin, 1 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files
“1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable ‘floor’ for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.”

“There’s this tendency among advocates to compare the absolute worst of the enemy with the perfect, best case scenario on your own side. The crowd that is hostile to self-publishing often likes to compare the worst dinosaur porn (which still sold, though, and made more money than many other titles) to one of those wonderful, Never-Neverland publishing companies that to this day invests massively in editors, doesn’t use exploitative covers, spends its untold riches on making the book’s typography absolutely perfect, has a workflow that spits out beautiful, error-free ebooks with ease, gives every author a personal PR rep, and has a multi-million dollar marketing budget for every title.
Of course self-publishing looks bad when you compare it with a piece of fiction that’s less realistic than the more deranged parts of Alice in Wonderland.
“The reality is that book retail has been steadily deteriorating over the years and publishers themselves have been compromised by decades of cost-cutting. Most book sales are online. Titles today get much less editorial attention than similar titles did years ago. Covers have always been completely disconnected from the book’s actual content.
“In terms of marketing, quality, distribution and design the difference between a competently published book and a competently self-published one is now less than you think. Competent self-publishing is getting easier every year as tools and services improve. Publishers offer less and less as they try to stay competitive through cost cuts and ‘optimisations’. Over time publishers seem to be devolving into self-publishing services that offer little but demand everything.”
Except, except, except : Baldur Bjarnason, 23 January 2014, Studio Tendra

We may already be at the point where Amazon is Too Big To Fight. Not that it can’t be done; I’d be willing to bet most stupid/funny t-shirts are sold from non-Amazon sites and iTunes (which truly and horrifically sucks) still beats Amazon in music sales. Freedom is still possible even under the Eye of Bezos, so long as his attention is elsewhere.

“Amazon is the largest online retailer globally, and it got to be that way because of books. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994 after identifying a market that was poorly managed by traditional stakeholders, and made it more convenient for consumers to access the products they wanted. Early investment in the Kindle platform, consisting of ereading devices, tablets, and apps, took foresight that was lacking in the traditional book industry and helped Amazon come to dominate the ebook market worldwide.”
Comment: How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon : Anne Treasure, 21 November 2013,

The Authors Guild Should Embrace Amazon as a Friend to Writers and Readers. Until publishers make these changes, the Authors Guild should be celebrating Amazon for increasing readership, increasing the diversity of published voices, lowering prices for readers while also increasing royalties for writers, and revolutionizing reading in a way that keeps it relevant. Blaming Amazon for the move of goods out of physical stores and onto online stores is ridiculous. This is the inevitable result of the creation of the internet. This is the freedom of shoppers to choose. It was going to happen, no matter what. And here’s something that I doubt has been said before: Thank God it was Amazon.
“Think about it for a moment. It could have been WalMart or Costco or a number of other massive retailers who began shipping books at a discount through an online portal. It could have been a retail giant that sells everything that began to sell books online. Instead, it was an online bookseller who branched out into other products. There is a massive difference. The love of books remains at the heart of Amazon. Those who have worked with the people behind that smiling logo know this. From Jeff Bezos (who married a writer and started out by selling books out of his garage) down to the people I met on the factory floor of the CreateSpace printing facility, I’ve never been around a group who loves books more. The Authors Guild should be championing Amazon for what they’ve done for readers and writers. The pressure for fairer contracts and wages is coming primarily from here. The champion for the status quo and more abuses is coming from the guild of my profession. Dystopian novels can’t satirize this sort of thing without being mocked for being ridiculous.” [emphasis in original]
Bread and Roses : Hugh C. Howey, 24 January 2014,

To Howey’s point, Bezos may love books; I have no way of confirming or denying that. But my bet is that Bezos loves money more.

“I have seen the future of, and it looks like Wal-Mart. This may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to thinking of as a bookstore. After all, books are what the company is known for, and promotes itself as ‘Earth’s biggest bookstore.’ But books are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s widely known that founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, when he was starting out, made a list of products that would be well-suited to Web sales. Books topped that list — but they’re clearly not the only things on it. In fact,’s recent acquisition of Junglee Corp. (announced as this column went to press) confirms the bookseller’s intention of getting into a broader retail market: Junglee makes software agents that facilitate online shopping. Why do you think Bezos chose a generic name like ‘Amazon’ anyhow? It’s sheer size that Bezos cares about, not just books.”
No mere bookstore, wants to be an online retail giant : Dylan Tweney, 10 August 1998, Net Prophet []


“Amazon had three things going for it in the early days (four, if you count the drive and ambition of Bezos): Books already had a computerized database (since 1986 in fact), books already had a nation-wide distribution network built to service bookstores (Ingram et al., op. cit.), and one of those book warehouses (one of the largest) was just six hours away in Oregon.
“Amazon’s twist on book delivery was the cash conversion cycle: they sell you a book, then they buy it and ship it, then they charge your card, and only at some later date do they lazily get around to paying their source for the book. (standard payment terms on books used to be 90 days – plenty of time to deliver book, claim payment, and then sit on that cash or park it in a short-term CD.)
“Amazon didn’t even need a lot of inventory to launch (they used a garage) because of this neat trick — and of course I know they do things differently now, with distribution centers all over the place and same-day delivery in some markets (integrated verticals are more efficient, and cost effective) — but this is how they built an empire on nothing. Well, not nothing nothing, I mean: Bezos was a former investment banker (presumably not worrying about rent or groceries) and was able to tap his Dad for a quarter million. (well, that’s not quite true: $100,000 came from his dad, the other $145,000 came from his father’s trust fund — the more I dig into this the more it spikes my blood pressure)
“So Amazon was a truly Great idea (though not 100% original) and had some really great implementation — but the ‘great idea’ wasn’t the website or the back-end software or servers, or even the product. Amazon succeeded because of timing, luck, starting with ‘a’ (a big deal in the pre-Google Yahoo Directory days), and most importantly: because of creative accounting. Amazon was not launched by a genius and engineeer who invented something amazing — Amazon was not a new iteration of an old service, computer-aided and internet-enabled, to add value to an older sales model — Amazon was not the obvious and organic outreach of a bookseller determined to reach all readers, no matter how isolated —
“Amazon was the brainchild of a banker, and exists to make money. (Extra points go to Bezos for figuring out how to make money without returning any to his shareholders.)”
Let’s Talk About The Business, Then. : Rocket Bomber, 8 May 2013 — minor edits for clarity.

“Back in 1994, Jeff Bezos was a young senior vice president on the rise at a thriving Wall Street hedge fund. But when the explosive growth of the World Wide Web caught his eye, he saw an even bigger opportunity: online commerce. Two years later Bezos, CEO of the Internet bookstore, is one of a crew of young entrepreneurs using cyberspace technology to steal real-world customers from traditional businesses with strong consumer and industrial franchises.”
The Next Big Thing: A Bookstore? is leading a wave of digital shops out to invade established industries. : Michael H. Martin, 9 December 1996, Fortune Magazine archived at

“Bezos first got the idea to start an Internet enterprise in 1994. While surfing the Internet in search of new ventures for D.E. Shaw & Co. to invest in, he came across the statistic that World Wide Web usage was growing by 2,300 percent a month. Bezos immediately recognized the expansive possibilities of selling online and began exploring the entrepreneurial possibilities of developing an Internet business.
“He drew up a list of 20 potential products he thought might sell well via the Internet, including software, CDs and books. After reviewing the list, books were the obvious choice, primarily because of the sheer number of titles in existence. Bezos realized that while even the largest superstores could stock only a few hundred thousand books, a mere fraction of what is available, a ‘virtual’ bookstore could offer millions of titles. The die was cast. Bezos passed up a fat bonus, packed his wife, MacKenzie, and their dog, Kamala (named after an obscure ‘Star Trek’ character), and headed for Seattle.
“For Bezos, Seattle was the ideal city for his new business. Not only was it home to a tremendous pool of high-tech talent, it was also in close proximity to Ingram Book Group’s Oregon warehouse. While MacKenzie drove, Jeff spent the trip pecking out a business plan on a laptop computer and calling prospective investors on a cell phone. With $1 million raised from family and friends, Bezos rented a house in Seattle and set up his business in the garage.”
Jeff Bezos: The King Of E-Commerce, unattributed and undated (from ’5 years ago’) article at Entrepreneur Magazine’s website []

I Don’t Hate Amazon. No, really. I’m coming to terms with them, and of course, like everyone else, I’m an Amazon customer. [primarily for MP3 music files; iTunes sucks.]

But is Amazon a “savior” of authors and readers, rescuing us from the predations of the Evil Publishing Companies and leading us to the promised land?

“Amazon achieved the position it has in the book ecosystem through a combination of brilliance, execution, natural forces, and some good luck but, above all, focus. It had to take some big chances with pricing and margin to get where it has gotten, but that’s not really necessary anymore. Doing some very logical and natural things, like the new Matchbook program and rolling out more subscription and pricing offerings (like their new ‘Countdown Clock’ discounts for new Kindle titles) will keep their share growing and their competitors scrambling. They will also almost certainly be coming after publishers for more margin (as will their equally dominant counterparts on the store side, Barnes & Noble), but it would seem unlikely that they’ll see the need to extend themselves to sign up authors or build out their ability to distribute print to other people’s stores.

“[T]he good news for publishers is that the business they now have will look less and less appealing compared to other worlds Amazon might conquer. That should save them from having a bulls-eye on their backs, but it will remain a very challenging environment where their biggest customer is the most powerful force in the marketplace and growth outside that customer is harder and harder to achieve. The publishing activities of Amazon will continue to get bigger; the industry of other publishers will continue to get smaller. But we are probably in for a period of slow and steady shifts rather than cataclysms.”
Amazon might lose interest in total hegemony over the book business before they achieve it : Mike Shatzkin, 5 November 2013, The Shatzkin Files

“I think printed books and eBooks will exist side by side for a long time yet, even as LPs are still around alongside the iPod. And they will definitely come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, because they don’t require batteries. Just be careful with your glasses, Burgess. There’s no adjusting the font size on paper.”
Scott Pearson, 3 November 2013 : Enemy Lines: Dispatches from a Cranky Writer

“Still, I don’t think it’s really fair for publishers to blame Amazon for the fact that people like to do their shopping online, and that easily-digitizable content is going to exist mainly in a virtual world rather than the real world. Indeed, there’s an argument that Amazon has saved the publishing industry from going the way of the record labels — that it’s made buying e-books so easy that the number of free pirated versions out there is still tiny. (Amazon has made it easier to find second-hand books, which publishers don’t directly benefit from, but at the same time it’s at the forefront of pushing e-books, which can’t be resold after you’ve bought them. Net-net, let’s call that one a wash.)
“Publishers have always been conservative, and Amazon represents a massive change in their industry. What’s more, the move from small booksellers to B&N to Amazon has been a move where the booksellers have ever-increasing amounts of leverage over the publishers; it’s understandable that the publishers don’t like that. But I just can’t believe that Amazon is, or would ever want to be, an existential threat to the publishing industry.”
Is Amazon bad for publishers? : Felix Salmon, 3 November 2013, Reuters Analysis & Opinion; Felix Salmon

“Amazon has always been about disintermediation and squeezing margins. What better way to do so than by cutting out one of the foodchain’s biggest pieces, the publisher. Horror stories have always been told of how certain bestsellers were rejected by editors from multiple publishing houses. And just how much value does the typical publisher add to a book these days? That’s become a very difficult question for publishers to answer, especially in light of all the self-publishing options that offer significantly higher royalty rates. Amazon continues creating new imprints and adding staff. Don’t let flops like Tim Ferris’ latest book throw you off; Bezos always takes the long-term view, so a few high-profile disappointments won’t deter Amazon’s plans.”
Kindle Singles and the future of ebooks : Joe Wikert, 21 October 2013,

“In an Amazon world, particularly with free Prime shipping, the idea of a shopping trip begins to feel inefficient. If you think of something you need, just pull up Amazon and order it, then get on with more important things in your life. PG routinely orders all sorts of non-book things from Amazon that he formerly bought at various retail stores.
“If you hear about an interesting book (or, more likely, read about one online), why worry about making a mental note to look for it out the next time you visit a bookstore? Just download the sample and check it out at your next break. Watching TV and see someone talking about an interesting book? Pick up your tablet and download a sample or buy the book if it really sounds great.
“Browsing for books is something PG sort of does all the time, not just when he’s visiting a bookstore. For him, serendipity happens constantly and almost everywhere.”
The Absence Of Serendipity, Or, Why I Hate Shopping At Amazon : 22 November 2013, The Passive Voice

The Guardian reported that 98 UK publishers went out of business over the past year, an increase of 42% over the year before

“Indeed, as the paper points out, it is ‘niche academic and educational publishers’ that are ‘particularly vulnerable,’ because their business model is under attack by digital piracy as well as secondhand book sales on sites like Amazon Marketplace. Cork said, ‘The arrival of Amazon has transformed the secondhand book trade from a fairly minor nuisance to a serious threat. Where once you had to trawl the secondhand bookshops if you wanted to get hold of a cheap hardback or academic book, you can now be fairly certain of getting hold of what you want at the click of a button, and the publisher will not make a penny.’
“Another factor, of course, is the explosive growth in sales of ebooks, whose lower price has also helped to undermine publisher’s margins.”
What’s Driving UK Publishers Out of Business? : Dennis Abrams, 8 November 2013, Publishing Perspectives : The Guardian article cited is “Ebooks and discounts drive 98 publishers out of business”, 4 November 2013

“After writing more than 20 books, with major publishers behind them, I have found it increasingly difficult to get new ideas accepted. It is also frustrating as a writer to have a non-fiction book that is up-to-the-minute when ‘completed’, only for it to come out maybe nine months later and seem slightly dated.
“So I have ventured into the self-publishing ebook market with Breaking the Silence: The Films of John Pilger. My original book about the journalist’s documentaries was published by Bloomsbury in 2001, but that was 12 years ago and Pilger is still going strong, with an even greater body of work. Suggestions that the book might be updated have been declined – the general feeling of publishers seems to be that it has ‘been done’.
“In setting about doing the job myself, I soon discovered some major advantages. Once written, an ebook can be published at the click of a computer’s mouse. When I started, Pilger was making his latest documentary, Utopia (in cinemas now and on television and DVD next month), and I have been able to give the book added impact by tying in with its release. How many of the big publishers can do that?”
Fact: Self-publishing my non-fiction as ebooks makes sense : Anthony Hayward, 19 November 2013, The Guardian online, books section

“A friend of mine who is a longtime independent sales rep says that even the successful indies are finding it necessary to sell books and other things — cards, gifts, chotchkes — to survive. The mega-bookstore with 75,000 or 100,000 titles or more was a magnet for customers in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It isn’t so much anymore because the multi-million title bookstore is available through anybody’s computer. This is a fact that makes the number of successful stores a weak indicator of the distribution potential available to publishers. If replacement stores carry half the inventory of the ones that go out, we can have a lot of indie retail success stories but still a shrinking ecosystem into which publishers distribute their books.”
The future of bookstores is the key to understanding the future of publishing : Mike Shatzkin, 23 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files

“And there’s one presumption that seems like a real doozy: Knowing that a large portion of book sales are still in paper, Howey assumes the continued existence of bookstores. These days, that seems like a very shaky assumption. Recently, Jeff Jordan, formerly CEO of OpenTable and now an investor at the firm of Andreesen-Horozwitz, declared that the tipping point for e-commerce, particularly for media, has been reached. This is not a particularly data laden or insightful declaration; his post includes unsurprising monotonic trend lines for digital sales for consumer goods categories. However, Jordan is right to point out the inexorability of this transition: conversion to digital commerce is likely to be a unidirectional phenomenon, because at heart, digital distribution is cheaper.”
Been Down So Long : Peter Brantley, 25 January 2014, PWxyz

“Here’s the hard truth about bookstores — and yes, I need to write a long post on this — no bookstore carries every book published that week, let alone that month or that year. When I was travelling last week, I stopped in bookstore after bookstore, from Hudson News to Powell’s to some other indies whose names my tired brain can’t remember, and none of them had one of my favorite mystery author’s latest book. He’s a New York Times bestseller and his book came out the day I left. I had special-ordered a copy, and figured I would regret it, because I’d see it everywhere. Instead, I saw it nowhere.
“That’s pretty common these days. Not even the Times bestsellers are getting physical shelf space.
“Why? Because bookstores now have virtual catalogs, and the authors their customers buy less frequently aren’t on the shelf, but in the virtual catalog.”
The Business Rusch: Pricing Part 2 Or (Discoverability Part 7 Continued) : Kristine Kathryn Rusch, 22 January 2014,

“This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.”
Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first : Mike Shatzkin, 29 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files

Of course, I’m sure I’m just overthinking it.

“In the old days things were much clearer. All you had to do to call yourself a writer was publish a book, which meant you needed someone else to publish it – and someone else to buy it. It may have been a myth that published authors were making money out of writing, but the illusion left the word ‘writer’ meaning at least something. If the cosy settlement that existed for a while between copyright law and the printing press was ‘just a blip’, as Neil Gaiman suggests, if the prospects for making a living out of storytelling are as bleak as the surveys report, then we can’t expect to reserve the term ‘writer’ for authors who have found commercial success.
“Maybe we should just admit defeat. Maybe the digital revolution has simply revealed the tensions in a concept that exploded into meaninglessness long ago. Maybe we should abandon the idea of a class of people who are different, a class of people who are ‘writers’, and just get on with the glorious, messy business of reading and writing.”
Does digital publishing mean the death of the author? : Richard Lea, 23 January 2014, The Guardian online, books section

B&N's Nook as differentiator

filed under , 28 February 2014, 10:13 by

B&N is clinging desperately to Nook.

Not as a hedge against Amazon (a battle that has been lost, I think) or in any sort of attempt to compete with Google, Apple, or Samsung — even with the balls and ego that B&N Chairman Leonard Riggio still has (at 73) I don’t think he’s delusional.

B&N needs Nook as a way to differentiate themselves from books-at-Costco and the remaining independent booksellers, and as a bulwark or backstop against the decades-long slide in reading.

[data from The Consumer Expenditure Survey that I last futzed with back in 2011; no, I’m not going to do a new chart. Per the source, aggregate spending on reading in 2012 was $13.6 Billion, so the trend line holds]

It’s not about competing with Amazon — instead, it’s about retaining the physical book fans.

Having a digital option for their customers, even a piss-poor implementation like Nook, is magnitudes better than not having a digital option. B&N is the largest bookseller (physically, if not in absolute terms anymore) so as the leader, they need to offer something more. Appearances count more than the reality of the situation, and B&N’s target customers are the ones that won’t convert to digital. Even if no one buys the Nooks (and the sales numbers point in that direction), the Nooks are there — given prominent placement in the front of the store — and lend the impression that B&N is doing something about digital and so the I-only-buy-REAL-books-customer feels better about the chain and their physical book purchases.

Many book customers know they’re luddites, and perhaps take some pride and enjoyment from the fact, and from their bookshelves, and from the whole tactile and physical aspects of their hobby — even if, when one is lost in a book, it all fades to the background anyway. This customer may not want an e-reader device, even if they are otherwise technically savvy — but since they are technically savvy, they also appreciate a bookstore that speaks to that part of themselves as well. Yes, I’m cutting an awfully fine distinction here; let me phrase it in the form of a question: Do you buy build-it-yourself furniture from Target and Walmart, or do you drive to Ikea and get something with a fake-Swedish name? Perception of the brand has a lot to do with customer decisions, whether the customers admit it or not.

Every book store occupies a niche — you can be small and artisanal, like the corner bakery serving up cronut knock-offs. You can be warm and neighborly, like the little sandwich shop that has great coffee and nice tables. You can be hip and trendy, like the pizza parlor that always experiments.

Or you can be big. Most of us buy food in a grocery store. The supermarket has a deli, bakery, and pharmacy — and a meat department because no one can go to the local butcher any more, and a produce department because no one even knows what a ‘green grocer’ used to be. We don’t all live within walking distance of a corner cafe or bistro — or indie bookseller — but we all know where the local supermarket is.

Barnes & Noble has to be the book supermarket, and that means departments, and that means DVDs and CDs, board games and jigsaw puzzles, blank books and bookmarks, cheap gift crap that no one buys — and yes, Nook.

[Would B&N do better if they got rid of the crap and just sold books? Gods, yes, I’ve been making that argument for years. But B&N sees more of a future in the crap than in the books, and the idea of being a department store is perhaps anchored deeper in their big-box-DNA than the books themselves are.]

B&N needs Nook, because they need the stage prop, the show of being Amazon’s equal.
I’m not sure if this propaganda effect is worth $60M or $100M or $200 Million a year (~$1.4 Billion to date) but B&N certainly thinks so, and is set to release yet another tablet.

The Fallacy, and the Truth, of "Big Publishing"

filed under , 25 February 2014, 20:35 by


“In the last 20 years, two multi-billion-dollar bookstore chains rose — and one fell. A hell of a lot has changed in 20 years.
“In 1994, Viacom owned Simon & Schuster and was buying Macmillan USA; now in 2014 Macmillan (via the original UK root) is back in the US book business – but under the imprimatur of privately-held German firm Holzbrinck. Viacom spun off S&S, as the publishing arm of CBS. Hachette Book Group USA (Hachette Livre being the bookish face of French multimedia conglomerate Lagardère) was born in 2006 with the French purchase of Time Warner Books — and more recently Hachette has also added on Disney’s Hyperion. (Hyperion, I’ll remind you, was built by Disney from scratch in 1990.)
“Rounding out “The [old] Big Six” – HarperCollins is only 25 years old, assembled from parts by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the course of the 1990s. And everyone is shadowed by the Randy Penguin merger: the imprints of Random House already read like a directory of 1947 New York publishing houses; added to Penguin’s haul the new Penguin Random House is set to publish half of all adult trade books (or more). That merger isn’t even a year old yet.”
Forbes: Please Hire Someone Who Understands Books, or Math, or Both : Rocket Bomber, 11 February 2014

Up until last year, we used to talk about The Big Six – the six largest US publishers: Random House, Penguin, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan — In 2013 The Big Six became The Big Five (or alternately, Randy Penguin and the Following Four) after Bertelsmann and Pearson came to an agreement to merge their subsidiaries (incidentally, the two biggest US publishers), Random House and Penguin Putnam.

OK, first: Randy Penguin and the Following Four is a great band name. But more importantly: what [now] gets referred to as The Big Five are just the publishing arms of major international multimedia conglomerates — so far in this post I’ve name-checked Viacom, CBS, Holzbrinck, Lagardère, Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Pearson — the publishing houses get handed around like poker chips by media giants who [editorializing here] just don’t give a shit about print anymore, but hey, it’s still a multi-billion-dollar industry and everybody else has one “so I guess we need a publishing arm, too”

Publishing is worth (rough numbers) $27 Billion, but that’s only in the very-low-two-digit-billions, so to a Viacom or 21st Century Fox or Time Warner, the whole book thing just isn’t worth futzing with. Each of those entities has—when given half a chance—sold, spun-off, or otherwise dumped a “Big Six” publisher and retained the ‘real’ media assets … in 2013 Disney bought Marvel (technically a publisher) but the $4 Billion price tag was for characters and “IP” and what is now a blockbuster movie studio, not the floundering funny-book business. The year after Disney bought Marvel, you might have noticed they sold off their actual book division, Hyperion, in favor of concentrating solely on ABC/Disney (and soon-to-be Marvel and Lucas) tie-in product. Fox has similarly shed its News Corp skin, taking the TV and Movie studios and leaving the publishing behind. CBS is stuck with S&S only because they were cast aside with them back when Viacom split. Time Warner (which has been Time Warner since 1990) (and which sold off Little, Brown and Time Warner Books in 2006) even has plans to spin-off the Time Inc. magazine distaff branch and soon (mid- to late-2014) the last vestige of dirty, dirty print will be purged from Warner Brothers’ balance sheet — except for Batman and the other ‘DC Entertainment’ characters.


From 1989 to 1998, if you mentioned “the Big Six” to someone working in publishing in New York, they’d assume you were talking about accounting (or maybe poetry). The Big *whatever*, as a term, is too recent — and definitions are fluid.

[source: Google Ngram]

“New York Publisher” was (and occasionally still is) the disparagement of choice when talking about corporate inflexibility, but more and more we were actually talking about media giants and corporations, not about publishers per se. The Big Six emerged in the late 90s (note, not a historic and ever-present phenomenon) and were part of the larger media consolidation then taking place between movies, TV, cable… and yes, the internet and video games, too: AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal, anyone? Man, the aughts were weird. Book publishing, as ‘ur-content’, got swept up into the whole mess. The fit was often bad.

Books, newspapers, comics and magazines—what we call publishing—are the red-headed stepchildren of media, of note only in context. HBO gets all credit for Game of Thrones, Harry Potter is a Warner Brothers property, Lord of the Rings is New Line Cinema, Walking Dead is an AMC TV show. Marvel Studios had an immaculate conception in 1996, springing forth from nothing, whole and wholly-formed, into a super-hero movie desert and eventually becoming so popular that there were even popular comic book adaptations of the movies.

On the TV side, we also have Justified, Bones, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards — and hell: Roots, Shogun, this is nothing new. Masterpiece Theater has the occasional original story (nod to Downton) but for decades its bread-and-butter was literary adaptation.

This is a looooong aside (and trivial, or trivia, or both – you can skip it), but having done the research I had to include it: Two-thirds of all books that hit #1 on the bestseller list for the past century were made into movies — another 10% made the jump to TV, so three-quarters have been adapted.

The exceptions are kind of fun to note:

  • Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells, 1917
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, 1944 (eventually, an Oscar® nominated short in 1978, but not a feature-length adaptation)
  • The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier, 1946
  • The Source by James A. Michener, 1965
  • Trinity by Leon Uris, 1976
  • Chesapeake by James A. Michener, 1978
  • The Covenant by James A. Michener, 1980
  • The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum, 1979 (…is in development hell – though at one time both Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington were attached)
  • The Partner by John Grisham, 1997 (optioned)
  • The Testament by John Grisham, 1999 (optioned)
  • The Litigators by John Grisham 2011 (optioned)

There’s a batch that haven’t been adapted, but we could argue that doesn’t matter because others in the series* have been:

  • The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1977
  • The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel, 1985
  • The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy, 1988
  • The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel, 1990
  • Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, 2001

And the TV movies and mini-series:

  • Wheels by Arthur Hailey (Book 1971, on TV in 1978)
  • Centennial by James A. Michener (1974, TV 1978)
  • Noble House by James Clavell (1981, TV 1988)
  • It by Stephen King (1986, TV 1990)
  • The Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987, TV 1993)
  • Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (1991, TV 1994)
  • The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (1998, TV movie 2003)
  • For One More Day by Mitch Albom, (2006, TV movie 2007)

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) was being developed as a mini by TNT but never made it to air

Out of the whole list (and for more info on that, I’d direct you to Matt Kahn and his site, where he not only lists the Publisher’s Weekly #1 Bestsellers for each year, he’s also slowly reviewing each and every one) there are only four I couldn’t find more information on:

  • The Brethren by John Grisham 2000
  • The Summons by John Grisham 2002
  • The Broker by John Grisham 2005
  • The Appeal by John Grisham 2008
    …but it’s Grisham, so I’m sure these have been optioned even if it wasn’t internet-link-generating-news at the time.

And of course, there are the pair of bestsellers from the early 1980s: the bestselling book in each of these years were novelizations of movie scripts: E.T., The Extraterrestrial in ’82 (by William Kotzwinkle) and Return of the Jedi in ’83 (by James Kahn). If pressed for a date when publishing died, I’m picking 1982.

My point — yes, I had one — is that books and publishing are, in the corporate view, just the minor leagues. Even big names like Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling are just the ‘farm team’ for the real business, which is making movies and TV. Books are a static property to be strip-mined, not a resource to be conserved — or hell, a vibrant product that can be nurtured and will multiply if given even the slightest bit of care and feeding. The major media companies, and the publishers they’ve hobbled, can’t be bothered.

Amazon gets some credit here. But…

Well, Amazon gets credit for throwing Miracle-Gro® on a field of weeds and wildflowers — the seeds were there already, there was even some minuscule growth — indeed, this was a field that used to be tended by the pulp magazines and rack paperbacks.

[And honestly, I’d feel better about e-books and the new self-publishing Revolution if it were like the pulps of decades past and not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Conglom-o. But that’s my bias…]


We talk about Traditional Publishing like it’s a single thing, a single model, or a single company. It’s not. To claim that all publishers are the same is to equate The Big Five with Osprey, Harlequin, Regnery, and Soft Skull. The big “New York” publishers are actually run out of Gütersloh, London, Paris, and Stuttgart — of the two remaining “New York” publishers, one is more concerned with their (Hollywood-based) TV programming and the other’s major asset is financial information firm Dow Jones.

If anything, Amazon has managed to flourish because first, consolidation squeezed the publishing industry practically dry, and then the new corporate owners criminally neglected it.


For perspective, check out Publishers Weekly’s list of The World’s 60 Largest Book Publishers, 2013 – which not only is a global list but also incorporates the huge educational/textbook and financial reporting sectors (Reed Elsevier, ThomsonReuters, and Wolters Kluwer are the major players you’ve never heard of, each with about ~$5 Billion in revenue — not gross sales, revenue) — and we really should be talking about Scholastic as one of the [new] Big Six — and Europe and Japan are massive book markets, and the eventual digital book solutions in both might impact the digital book market in the US. Of Course Amazon is a player, but not the only one. (The side battle in Brazil is also of note)

I’d love if some of the “new book” self-publishing evangelists addressed the Fall of Publishing (1982-2006) in their arguments, and perhaps would explain why their new corporate overlord is in any way better than the old ones. It would be one thing if we were advocating for a creators’ collective to advocate rights for all designers/producers/writers against the many companies and web sites who seek to exploit authorship – but instead I only see efforts to pit the new model against the old one for internet ‘points’.

Who owns a kindle ebook? More importantly: what happens to a kindle ebook if Amazon stops hosting it? Prodigy and CompuServe were the shit in 2000, and in practical terms, were also ‘the internet’ for their user base. Amazon seems different (but awfully similar) but once again we’re looking at a walled garden and 2015 in practice isn’t all that different from 1985.

Dollars are great, I need more myself. But if the discussion is about business models and propagation of books, I need more than hagiographies of KDP and some by-the-way statistics based on web-scraping. Let’s talk about the future of publishing, not the panning-for-gold in the effluvia of a commerce-site-cum-social-network. Talk to me about how this all works in 2024, or 2034. Amazon is Fantastic, but can’t be the only player: tell me what’s next, and how to participate.

If your imagination fails at KDP, then your imagination fails. If “big publishing” is what you’re against, then tell me what you are for. Howey, what’s next?

Forbes: Please Hire Someone Who Understands Books, or Math, or Both.

filed under , 11 February 2014, 15:41 by

Forbes just put up Amazon Vs. Book Publishers, By The Numbers – claiming at least on the face to “ignore the overheated rhetoric for the moment and focus on the raw data.”

Fine. But can you hire someone who can do math?

Forbes: “$5.25 billion: Amazon’s current annual revenue from book sales, according to one of Packer’s sources. That means books account for 7% of the company’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.”

I’d take that one further. Books, at least as has been self-reported by the members of the Association of American Publishers, is a $27 Billion a year industry. To be fair, trade books (publishing minus the textbook market) is only (only) $15 Billion. Amazon is the big, ugly, 500lb. gorilla of the market but two-thirds of books are still being sold elsewhere.

Putting that $5.25 Billion in context and knowing the publisher’s side is at least as important: one could argue that Amazon is only 7% invested in books and the Amazon-Publisher relationship, while publishers are at least 30% invested and growing increasingly worried as that fraction keeps getting bigger. This is the wrong way to think about the numbers (note my use of the phrase “one could argue”) but knowing the relevant percentages is more important than throwing around billions — and does a better job of putting the original New Yorker piece in context.

* Forbes: “19.5%: Amazon’s share of the e-books market. E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category, with Apple and Barnes & Noble accounting for most of the balance.”

edit 14:59 12 Feb 2014: I’m not totally mean spirited. On review, Forbes poster Bercovici did go back and post a correction. The quote above now reads “19.5%: The proportion of all books sold in the U.S. that are Kindle titles. E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category, with Apple and Barnes & Noble accounting for most of the balance.” — I still feel that this is a misreading of the 30%/65% data as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program operates independently of AAP/mainstream publishing. My other points below are still valid. —M.

Thank you, Jeff Bercovici, Forbes Staff — you have successfully demonstrated you can multiply the integer 30 by 65%.

The number is completely meaningless, but you’ve certainly nailed the arithmetic. What in the hell am I supposed to do with 19.5%? I suppose, if it were described as the percentage of the Total Book Market that Amazon Happens to Sell as Ebooks Rather Than Physical Books, there might be some point in knowing about 19.5% — but this isn’t what the data means.

19.5% is NOT “Amazon’s share of the ebooks market” – a point directly disproved in the very next sentence of the Forbes article, where Amazon’s [estimated] share of the ebook market is listed as 65%.

Also, ebooks are only “around 30% of all book sales” when we restrict ourselves to sales self-reported by the 1200 or so publishers participating in AAP industry reporting, and again, that would be 30% of the $15 Billion in trade books, excluding the other $12 Billion in publishing annually from textbooks, which are still resistant to the widespread ebook adoption we’ve seen in other publishing categories. Of course, Amazon’s books sales would also include their Kindle-exclusive ebooks — a number not reported anywhere and also not part of the AAP’s estimates (the 30%-ebook number we all like to throw around). The stronger one assumes KDP to be, the smaller Amazon’s share of the trade book business—including the AAP’s publishers’ ebooks—but, if anything, a thriving Kindle program is even more worrisome to a publisher.

Just how much of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion is ebooks? – more than 30%, I’d bet, since the publishers report 30% and Amazon sells at least as many ebooks as print books, by their own reporting. (or is that bragging?)

Just how much of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion in book sales is Amazon’s? – This is a big ol’ question mark, because Amazon isn’t saying. Kindle Direct Publishing and the menagerie of imprints are, if nothing else, a growing fraction of Amazon’s book sales, and could be a significant fraction. How we parse it can make a big difference. If Kindle ebooks, CreateSpace print-on-demand, and Amazon Publishing account for exactly zero of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion, that means Amazon really is selling 35% of all adult and juvenile trade books. I’d say the combined-Amazon-book-cheetah is getting close to a billion dollars, though, because the fraction I keep hearing for Amazon’s share is closer to 30%.

Ebook cheerleaders and Amazon partisans keep sharing anecdotal stories about just how great things are on their side of the dome. How much of Amazon’s ebook sales are Kindle native?

I might read the Forbes article and think 19.5%, but now I’m just rubbing it in.

How about used books, also available from Amazon – Are sales on Amazon’s marketplace figured into that $5.25 Billion? They shouldn’t be, as Amazon only collects fees on these transactions and the sales are actually banked by the seller-of-record. While used book sales wouldn’t impact the reported sales from the AAP, they certainly affect the public perception of Amazon as an online “book store” and that means Amazon’s mindshare for books is bigger than $5.25 Billion and the estimated dollar figure for “book” sales is almost certainly off.

George Packer did an excellent job describing how many publishers feel about Amazon. Forbes, in reporting on the article, pulls out some numbers from his article (in a mildly condescending way) for their puff-piece-listicle but adds nothing to the original, or the conversation.


I’m not done.

Forbes: “>50%: The decrease in the number of independent bookstores over the past 20 years. There used to be about 4,000 in the U.S.; now there are fewer than 2,000. Amazon’s arrival on the scene is only part of the story here, of course; the decline of the indies started with the debut of big-box stores like B&N and Borders.”

Do you want to go there, Mr. Bercovici? Amazon, Big Boxes, indie bookstores, wow things have changed but from the tone of the Forbes author we get the impression that Amazon’s “part of the story” is supposed to be the largest part. Let me show you how we provide context for a story:


“The Wasserman piece [“The Amazon Empire: How the Online Colossus Snuffed Out Competitors and Their Next Battle for Publishing” : Steve Wasserman, 3 June 2012, The Nation article reposted at] is a long read, but a good one. Please note that in 1994, if the figures/fractions quoted are correct, then in the year Amazon launched 55% of the total book market was selling outside of bookstores! – we have short memories, it seems, and a long list of assumptions to work through when it comes to book retail. If Amazon were merely displacing book-of-the-month clubs and hoovering up the book retail that (in the 1980s) was happening in grocery stores and newsstands (newsstands! remember those?) then their stratospheric growth has a ready explanation that doesn’t involve the death of book stores. In 1994 the big-box-bookstores were just getting started: Borders & Waldenbooks were still owned by K-Mart (yes) and hadn’t been spun-off yet, that division consisted of 1,102 mall stores and just 75 Big Boxes; B&N had 268 stores alongside 698 (B. Dalton) mall locations. (Remember mall bookstores? I used to buy books there every weekend. The local mall had two bookstores in it. Good times, good times.)”
Let’s Talk About The Business, Then. : Rocket Bomber, 8 May 2013. [some edits for clarity; it’s OK, I cleared it with the author]

In the last 20 years, two multi-billion-dollar bookstore chains rose — and one fell. A hell of a lot has changed in 20 years.

In 1994, Viacom owned Simon & Schuster and was buying Macmillan USA; now in 2014 Macmillan (via the original UK root) is back in the US book business – but under the imprimatur of privately-held German firm Holzbrinck. Viacom spun off S&S, as the publishing arm of CBS. Hachette Book Group USA (Hachette Livre being the bookish face of French multimedia conglomerate Lagardère) was born in 2006 with the French purchase of Time Warner Books — and more recently Hachette has also added on Disney’s Hyperion. (Hyperion, I’ll remind you, was built by Disney from scratch in 1990.)

Rounding out “The [old] Big Six” – HarperCollins is only 25 years old, assembled from parts by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the course of the 1990s. And everyone is shadowed by the Randy Penguin merger: the imprints of Random House already read like a directory of 1947 New York publishing houses; added to Penguin’s haul the new Penguin Random House is set to publish half of all adult trade books (or more). That merger isn’t even a year old yet.

Publishing has gone on, of course: the day-to-day of editors and booksellers is of more immediate import than the boardroom maneuvers and empire building going on behind the scenes, but the corporate shenanigans still matter. It’s not that the publishing world suddenly changed in November of 2007 — a monolithic seeming industry that was already beset by supervolcanoes, tsunamis, and major tectonic shifts also got hit by an asteroid. (If a few bookselling dinosaurs are wandering around looking confused, I think they can be forgiven.)

The way people read has changed; the things people read have changed. Your options in the 1980s consisted of newspapers, magazines, mass market paperbacks, or maybe, rarely, an amateur newsletter or ‘zine — now people read more than ever but we’re staring at a screen, and occasionally it’s the screen we keep in our pocket. You can start your day reading an news aggregation site, follow up with a few expert blogs, churn through email, go back to the blogs (the funny ones), check your email again, waste time on tumblr, twitter, reddit, and then finish up by reading fan fiction in bed before falling asleep. You don’t even need to fire up your old-school-desktop-PC to do any of it, and seemingly, amateurs are in control of all of it. You can spend 14 or 15 hours of every day staring at a screen, reading.

Reading Demand has not changed. In fact, given all the new options, it may be increasing. The ways we meet that demand have adapted to the new tools — primarily the web, which is still the best part of the internet. Like the internal combustion engine revolutionized agriculture and oh-by-the-way also could be used for personal transport, the concoction of url-html-http that we call the web has revolutionized publishing (“the act of making something public”) and we’re still in the very earliest days trying to figure out what the ‘oh-by-the-way’ impact is going to be — on society as a whole, and on our personal lives. In 1914, whether we were riding in a horse-pulled omnibus, a steam-cable trolley, electric street car, or driving ourselves in a horseless carriage — we were still just going about our day. Motels, drive-ins, drive-thrus, the Interstate Highway system, and suburban cul-de-sacs came later.

Book retail, like all non-food retail, will suffer as we make the online & digital shift. The “major book publishers” may stall out as a ‘forgotten’ $15 Billion a year industry — no longer growing but instead, just serving the same niche for decades as we re-align our lives around the new technology. That doesn’t sound that bad to me. I know, ‘If you’re not growing you may as well be dying’ but if there were ever an industry that was readymade for a caretaker role, the stereotype of the quirky local bookshop supplied by small, early 20th century publishers fits perfectly — direct from central casting; a cliché right out of the gate.

Amazon isn’t the only thing to impact publishing and bookselling.


“Let’s go through that again: In November of 1998, B&N had their own website, 15% of the book market, was looking to buy Ingram — the company supplying Amazon with more than half of their inventory at that point — and was being run by a driven, ruthless bastard whose modus operandi was buying up companies to either consolidate operations or just get bigger. Can I remind you that at that point Riggio had also bought Babbages, Software Etc., and GameStop and had built up this sideline into a chain of 500+ stores?

“This raised all-kinds of antitrust flags, apparently, so it’s no wonder the B&N/Ingram merger didn’t go through. I think when the deal went sour, Riggio took a step back to reappraise strategy. GameStop was spun-off into its own company and Barnes refocused on books. B&N built a massive warehouse of their own, and took up in-house distribution and logistics like a new religion. This quiet and behind-the-scenes stuff isn’t as flashy as mergers or new store openings, but the efficiencies B&N built over the 2000s are part of the reason they’re still open today, after 4 years of recession and shrinking consumer demand.

“Amazon borrowed a billion dollars (no exaggeration: they were carrying $1.4 Billion in debt by 1999) to build up the infrastructure they needed following this close call — 15 years ago the market changed, more distribution and warehousing was brought in-house and verticals were built. You might also be forgiven if you pointed to 1999 as the year Amazon changed strategic focus: from building a website and sales portal to building a business.

“I find it amazing that in 1999, the owner of a physical, brick-and-mortar bookstore chain was precluded from purchasing a book distributor (even when neither was the only player in their individual markets, and on the cusp of market changes already in motion and being trumpeted by both online-sales advocates and voices in the business press) — and the same sort of monopoly-building in 2012 is not just condoned by the state, but is being actively supported so long as some Justice Department lawyer can buy his ebooks for $9.99 instead of $14.

“It is said Amazon has 30% of physical book sales and 60-70% of all e-book sales. 15 years ago, Barnes & Noble was blocked on anti-trust grounds when they had only 15% of the book market. I find this fascinating.

Rocket Bomber, ibid.

I wrote that longish piece last year, and George Packer did all my research and a hell of a lot more to write the 12,000 word article that inspired an ongoing, and very relevant conversation about books.

That’s how you cite “raw data” and put things into context, Forbes. It’s fine to pretend that you’re the ‘serious’ one in the room, and that publishers and book partisans are the ones engaging in “overheated rhetoric”. But if you’re going to present to all the world as a business publication: at least do us a favor and learn about the business.

(And get the math right, too, while you’re at it.)

A return to the Great Good Place.

filed under , 29 January 2014, 16:40 by


“As long as there have been cities, these are the kind of places people have met in,” said Don Mitchell, a professor of urban geography at Syracuse University and the author of “The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.” “Whether they have been private property, public property or something in between,” he said, “taking up space is a way to claim a right to be, a right to be visible, to say, ‘We’re part of the city too.’ ”

Customers Seeking “Third Places” Give McDonald’s a Second Thought : Jonathan Nettler, 28 January 2014, Planetizen

from the same:
“Climate controlled public places where the elderly, cost-conscious and indigent are welcome to spend a few hours are hard to find.”
(In the absence of big box bookstores, our homeless have to flee to McDonald’s like refugees from some conflict?)


The need for a “Third Place” predates the term, but it was first (and best) articulated by Prof. Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, which I first encountered in a 1997 reprint edition back when my professional focus was on bars, pubs and hospitality — not my later (starting ~2001) career as a bookseller. What do really great pubs and bookstores have in common? (besides me?) These business often engender a Sense of Community, of belonging—and often, a sense of ownership—in their customers, a feeling that has nothing to do with the storefront or the economic activity. A stage where the props matter more than the script, and the cast constantly changes, but while on that stage everyone does in fact feel like they are part of an ensemble, a company. [sorry, that was perhaps a shade too poetic]

In the context of bookselling, I blogged about Third Places back in 2009. The internet has changed so much of our daily lives, and revolutionized social interaction (or at least, has claimed to change everything) but when it comes down to it: not a whole hell of a lot has really changed since 1989, when Prof. Oldenburg wrote his book. If anything, we still desperately need social space (now more than ever?) — a need so pressing that we will co-opt a fast food burger joint to serve the cause if necessary.

— but they have to have free wifi. Social is fine and all but the internet trumps everything.

Don Mitchell’s book, The Right to the City, is isbn 9781572308473; the isbn y’all should be popping into Google for Oldenburg is 9781569246818 — from there you can select your merchant-of-choice;

for the lazy you can avail yourselves of these Amazon links from which I will receive a remuneration.

[At the moment there isn’t an ebook version of The Great Good Place; I note a small, smug satisfaction in that fact given the subject matter but I decline further comment]

← previous 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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