Rocket Bomber - commentary

A Little Silicon in Every City

filed under , 10 November 2013, 15:37 by

The New Urban Campus

filed under , 3 November 2013, 16:39 by

I think the primary factor currently stifling innovation and start-ups is the crippling student loan debt we’re asking young people to take on as a matter of course.

There are other factors, too, of course and that’s what the rest of this post is about. But the scale and scope of the student debt burden needs to be addressed, because as an economy we might choke on it.


This is a longer post, so here are some waypoints:

Cities as incubators of great ideas
Is Innovation Cemented to ‘Place’? A different way to phrase this question is: Why Silicon Valley?
Cabridge, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn are already on the map — where do we look next?
Looking Downtown, Again
The New Urban Campus


Cities as incubators of great ideas

[image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Whether one is a single twenty-something with no cash but a lot of ideas, or the old archetype of the engineer in a garage, to succeed as a business (let alone a tech business) you need access to bright people: staff, skilled subcontractors, and specialty services. Everything that a big company might have “in house” you’ll need too, but not at the same scale or all of the time. If you’re thinking of physical products, you’ll need access to rapid prototyping, maybe even custom PCBs and software. For a company selling software or services, you’ll need computer infrastructure and maybe a web designer or five. And no matter what you do, you need design.

This needs to be a course at business schools, actually: “Why You, Yes You Future MBA Graduate, Need Design”.

Some will say that — of course — in the age of the internet you can source your staff and your services from anywhere in the world and of course — of course — you can and many do. Your back-end DBS was set up by a programmer in Estonia, your web design was done by an outfit in Israel, your end-user UI was designed in Finland, and before launch you outsourced both the user docs and press releases to a housewife/freelance writer in Dayton, OH.

Nothing wrong with that. But imagine if your programmers, designers, writers, and Idea Guys could all meet in a single room? How much more productive would that be? I’m not saying you need all of this “in house” because you don’t. But there are synergies when even your subcontractors and freelancers all live in the same city — only a phone call and thirty minute cab drive away — and though I hate to use the word ‘synergy’ it fits.

“All this running around for face time is part of the tech culture, said Stephen Ciesinski, who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. ‘When you do start-ups, you’re not investing in a company, it doesn’t exist,’ he said. ‘You’re investing in people who’re going to make this company happen.’”
The part of Silicon Valley that can’t happen online : Queena Kim, 31 October 2013, Marketplace

There are also other ‘halo effects’ [getting deep into the BS-biz-speak now] that you can’t even anticipate — if a number of innovative business are already in the same neighborhood, what happens when all these creative people are at the same pub on a Saturday afternoon after an intramural softball game? Networking and talking shop (and yes, hooking up) leads to seredipitous discovery and chocolate-and-peanut-butter-type combinations.

“[I]nvestors need ideas perhaps more than ideas need investors, particularly in an age when starting a web business is amazingly cheap. So the real question is: how did New York find itself generating so many interesting ideas?

“The physical density of the city also encourages innovation. Many start-ups, both now and during the first, late-1990s internet boom, share offices. This creates informal networks of influence, where ideas can pass from one company to the other over casual conversation at the espresso machine or water cooler.

“Economists have a telling phrase for the kind of sharing that happens in these densely populated environments: “information spillover.” When you share a civic culture with millions of people, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind, even when their creators try to keep them secret.

“All of these spaces – the graduate schools, the co-working offices, the media environments – exhibit the final trait that has been key to New York’s technological success: its diversity.”

Lightning in a bottle : Stephen Johnson, 30 October 2010, The Financial Times : excerpted from Johnson’s Book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, isbn 9781594485381 [IndieBound,Amazon]

[image source:, flickr user Tony Fischer]


Is Innovation Cemented to ‘Place’? A different way to phrase this question is: Why Silicon Valley?

In the case of Silicon Valley, we could perhaps point to the late 1960s and the trinity of Stanford University, Hewlett-Packard, and Fairchild Semiconductor. Similarly, in Cambridge, MA, there is of course MIT, Harvard, and a lot of old manufacturing roots (and money); in New York the mix of talent, money, and comfortable density is leading to a tech renaissance in Brooklyn (and other boroughs).

Here’s another fact to wrap your brain around: In the 60s, tech was manufacturing. The pioneers in Silicon Valley were making chips, semiconductors — and putting those chips into calculators and business machines. You know, the boring stuff used by accountants, and university eggheads. Think Bell Labs, not PARC — at least, not yet. But the manufacturing base was at least as important to Silicon Valley as its proximity to San Francisco. We could also easily cite military contracts and the California aerospace industry in this context. It wasn’t just that Steve Jobs got up one morning and had his friend Steve Wozniak build a PC: Silicon Valley existed for 20 years (or more) before that. It’s in the name: the silicon chips came first.

You need at least the tradition of manufacturing even if the plants are no longer churning out widgets — if nothing else, it gives you great big (cheap) buildings to renovate into open-floorplan loft office space. Snark aside: while it is possible, now, to launch a software-only tech surge, and the biggest success stories are all about internet services, when Google and Amazon had to grow, and compete, they turned to hardware — as did Microsoft (the Xbox predates the Surface by 12 years). Apple has been a hardware company since the beginning. Industrial Design isn’t something you ‘pick up’ as a sideline, or leave to the end of a project. Industrial Design can matter more than the software.

This is another case where it’s in the name: Industrial Design came from industry and manufacturing.*

You need density because you need people bumping around and bumping into each other. You need a lot of people trying a lot of things and failing, and getting up, and trying again. You need cross-discipline interaction: designers meeting coders, ideas meeting implementation, hardware meeting use-cases. To launch a new tech hub, it is not enough to teach kids code — Though That Is An Excellent Place To Start — you need to nurture a whole ecosystem.

The real answer to the “Why Silicon Valley” question, though, is a matter of critical mass:

“This helps mitigate the risk of joining a company that might fail, as most startups do. None of the developers will be out of work more than a few weeks full of interviews surviving on their ‘bonus’ of all the vacation time nobody ever takes. This means companies can take bigger risks, that the culture doesn’t bat an eye at spending a few million doing something crazy, cause after it all falls apart everyone is going to land on their feet and have another year of cutting edge work stacked onto their resume.”
The San Francisco Safety Net : Mikeal Rogers, 6 April 2013, Future Aloof

(I might also point out that the venture capital market in the San Francisco area is, collectively, nuts. And that, unfortunately, can’t be duplicated. To make a case for a start-up anywhere else means clearing a higher bar.) (…or finding more crazy rich people.)


One more before moving on — while the interview wasn’t on the topic, this was the money quote that made it into the headline: Marc Andreessen: The World Would Be Much Better If We Had 50 More Silicon Valleys : Billy Gallagher, 20 April 2013, TechCrunch


Alongside a growing awareness of the importance of place in tech, what usually follows are some rather stumbling efforts to just “copy” the Valley…
—or worse, to just talk and talk about “becoming a tech hub”, as if Press Releases alone are some kind of magic spell that will conjure start-ups into existence.

Many efforts miss the point. The place existed first.

Cabridge, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn are already on the map — where do we look next?

I think the Research Triangle only needs a ‘celebrity’ home-grown startup company to break out and really make a mark on the map. I don’t think North Carolina has a venture capital ecosystem—yet—but I’ll remind everyone that outside of New York, there are more US banks in Charlotte than anywhere else.

Innovative business needs a mix of hungry young professionals, other talent (including the older, wizened vets of past bubbles to provide mentorship, and in some cases – also money), supporting services, and ideas — but mostly ‘the kids’, either fresh graduates or talented folks still in grad school, mostly in their 20s.

Silicon Valley is not just the brainchild of Stanford — it’d be more accurate to call it the intersection of Stanford and Berkeley (and a half dozen other schools). MIT has the luxury of Boston, where one person in five is a student, a professor, a researcher, or otherwise affiliated with higher education. [New York is an outlier; it’s fair to say they already have everything, the trick is finding space for it at a rent you can afford.]

Colleges are the most obvious way to begin to collect a “young urban base” – but the more complicated part is retention: it does us little good to train programmers and engineers, only to watch them move out after graduation to take jobs in Boston and San Jose. Tech in isolation is also bad; Georgia Tech is a very fine school (I say, as someone who went there) but the reason Atlanta is not a tech mecca like Cambridge or Palo Alto is because “there is no there, there”. Atlanta, poster child of sprawl, lacked ‘comfortable density’; there is some Old Money but Coca-Cola heirs do not invest in startups; and perhaps most vitally: GT Engineers graduated into a desert. Even if you stayed in-town, eschewing the suburbs, there wasn't* the opportunity to mix with designers, film-makers, graphic artists, social scientists, young MBAs with an entrepreneurial bent, older engineers with the skills but getting bored at 70s-vintage corps, and yes, English majors.

In the 90s, Atlanta sucked. Even the Olympics in 1996 couldn’t fix that, and in many ways it actually stunted the development of Atlanta’s start-up ecosystem for a decade. Believe me on that one. I live here.

[* this is changing.]

Atlanta is changing. I feel the most important change is the Savannah College of Art and Design, which opened an Atlanta Campus in 2005. Georgia Tech is, of course, still Georgia Tech, and Georgia State is undergoing a 30-year shift from a commuter-only college to a vibrant downtown residential campus (I’d say they’re about 10 years in on that one). Atlanta has a film industry now (I’m shocked too), Turner continues to thrive as a mostly-ignored outpost of the Warner empire, young professionals have places to live and work in-town, and yes, Atlanta is also home to some pretty hardened veterans of the past two tech bubbles. Like the Research Triangle, Atlanta is going to be a place to watch. Atlanta in 2030 will be amazing, if we can afford the global-warming-inflated air conditioning bills.


If I had to do this tommorow, I’d be in Oakland. You don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to, and Oakland combines crumbling 50s era manufacturing neighborhoods with close proximity to Silicon Valley plus mass transit; call it a slam dunk, and someone is going to do this, maybe even accidentally, because honestly in the Bay Area there just isn’t any more room. Renewal Ahoy. (the same goes for Richmond, CA by 2020, and watch the North Bay SMART corridor right after that.)

If I had to do this in my own hometown, I’d be stuck, because property values on Marietta Street may already be too high, and too many of Atlanta’s other neighborhoods are way-too-residential (almost suburban in character, actually). [There is one excellent in-town industrial strip that I’m keeping tabs on though, just in case I win the lottery; sadly it’s also mostly active, and not nearly as ‘run-down’ as I might like]

If I had an opportunity to pick anywhere: New Orleans has the most potential — and also the most risk. Also NOLA lacks even a fossilized industrial base, and while I’m sure Tulane, Layola, and Xavier are excellent schools we’re missing a marquee Tech school here. Austin, Portland, Charleston, and a number of other Very Fine And Liveable Places™ present the same challenges: either a lack of comfortable density, graduate schools, tech and manufacturing base, or all three. Not saying you can’t launch a company out of Austin; many have – just that we’re missing at least one vital piece before “Silicon Hills” becomes something you have to google to even get the reference.


Innovative business needs a mix of hungry young professionals — but what do those hungry young professionals need?

Cheap places to live and eat. Things to do on a Friday Night and on Weekends. Engaging, challenging work. Opportunities to meet like-minded folks for all kinds of things — yes, dating, sure: but also those multitudes of social interactions that fall short of a hook-up but are even more important. It’s not enough to have a decent job and a nice apartment if you’re stuck out in the suburbs and have to drive 40 minutes to get to anything interesting. Believe me: Sprawl kills innovation just as surely as student debt does. (To date, I have not heard of any world-changing businesses that got their start because some innovator was stuck in traffic.)

[image source:, flickr user [Duncan]]

It doesn’t have to be Manhattan, or Hong Kong — when I talk about density, it’s more about being able to walk to a dozen places for lunch from your office (and cheap delivery from another dozen). Density is about knowing the copy shop is 15 minutes away, and the offset printer no more than twice that. Density is beers after work because you and your co-workers all walk, or take transit, and there’s only one or two who would have to call a cab. The problem has always been that once you build up a great, walkable neighborhood — with dining and entertainment options, plus a mix of small office and apartments — hell, everybody wants to live there. The rents go up. It’s a catch-22; after enough gentrification the artists, shops, and restaurants that made it such a nice neighborhood can’t afford the rent either.

Silicon Valley is beginning to suffer from this as well; despite all the advantages they currently enjoy as both a community and a tech hub, no one can afford the rent. (This is one reason I cited Oakland, above. The tech center in the Bay area is going to shift to where the young people can afford the rent.) “Rent” is just an indicator for larger costs-of-living, not to mention the costs of doing business. Even if you wanted to start a company “out of your garage” in the grand American tradition, a house with a garage will run you at least a half million out there.

“Comfortable Density” doesn’t have to be downtown — in fact, most downtown areas are too dense. After a few decades it’s all big business and big towers and maybe a conference center or stadium or three. Getting downtown is a chore. I personally like ‘rescued’ urban neighborhoods, either converted industrial or renovated historic. I would insist on mixed-use: it does no good to build a commercial-only district, because after 5pm they roll up the sidewalks and your neighborhood becomes a ghost town. The same goes for shopping malls, and commuter college campuses: these can be great social spaces, but everyone goes home before the sun sets.

[image source:, flickr user David aka JohnnyEnglish]

A lot of small college towns have a great character — they can be really fun places to live, punching well above their weight class because of the mix of interesting people, fun and funky stuff to appeal to students, plenty of cheap places to eat, and a lower cost of living that attracts artists as well as the students. My ideal “urban campus” might try to capture a lot of small-college-town-downtown, just in a place where we have a mass-transit rail station to tie us into a much larger metropolitan area.

If we take several of these threads — renovating neighborhoods, mixed use, live-work-play, walkability, and access to a larger community — we can see the outline forming. And also, we have a test case:


Want To Make A Creative City? Build Out, Not Up : 31 July 2012, NPR Talk of the Nation

[yes, that’s Cleveland: East Fourth Street Downtown. image source: Wikimedia Commons]

The place comes first, before you can make it “The Place” for… whatever. In the case of Cleveland, a project to redevelop old commercial and warehouse space into viable apartments had to be accompanied by a parallel development of restaurant and entertainment space: Not just a place to live downtown, but places to eat and meet, things to do, and stuff that’s open evenings and weekends.

That was well underway by 2009, and then in 2012 (at least according to the NPR Story) the tech firms were following.

Cleveland has a new downtown that is drawing new residents (and given the usual demographics, these residents are young and educated). Cleveland also has Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Add on University Circle, plus a number of distressed urban properties ripe for renovation and Cleveland looks like a great place to build a tech incubator campus.

— except maybe we’re ten years too late. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying that it’s going to be more expensive. (And if the added expense means corporate partners to finance the deal: the final result may be a little too ‘corporate’ for innovation.)

So it’s not just a matter of finding the next Silicon Valley, we need to find the next Cleveland.


There is a new vocabulary developing — Coworking, Hacker Space, Maker Culture, Fab Lab, Incubators, and Silicon everywheres

Many people have seen the need for bits and pieces, building a coworking space or a single project in isolation. These work, on their own, but if there were a concerted effort to build a “campus” then I strongly suspect the whole would end up as much more than just the sum of its parts.

The New Urban Campus

…3000 words in and finally getting to the topic. Fantastic.

“So What In The Hell Is Your New Urban Campus, Prof. Blind?”

I’m so glad you asked!

Like a college campus, it is more than just a couple of classroom buildings and an administrative office. To be a Campus, in addition to the “work” space, we need places to live, places to eat, open&green space, flex space for impromptu meetings and other ‘nonoffice’ office space. Campuses are comfortably dense, and walkable. Campuses are multidisciplinary and inherently multi-use. When I went to college, I had access to a wood shop and welding equipment in addition to the library and computer labs — and the college had a print shop, a newspaper, a bowling alley, even a small grocery store.

Some campuses have walls and gates and parking lots, but the best of them are certainly much more like neighborhoods: the campus empties out onto the city streets. Uses and cases blend into each other — a single sidewalk linking labs to classrooms to greens to dorms to offices to restaurants and bars and shopping.

So now follow me:

Let’s say we’ve identified a site — as stated, my preference is for urban re-use, so either converted industrial or renovated historic — and as the property is “distressed”, we’ve picked up the land and some bare-bones buildings on the cheap. Ideally we’d be looking at 5-6 story, low-rise architecture; not so tall that residents feel apart from the new neighborhood, but enough to give a sense of privacy to the upper floors, and also enough to pack the residents in. Ground floor, everywhere, is retail and restaurants, the upper floors can be a mix of office and appartments on a building by building basis.

[image source:, flickr user Exothermic]

And this would be fine for a commercial venture: renovate, market, lease, and then cash out.

Let’s go one step further: imagine a “block”, a stretch of street a quarter mile long. (A quarter mile, for those of you who no longer walk city streets, is 400 meters: 4 football fields, or perhaps it might be easier to visualize if you imagine walking at a leisurely pace of 1.5 miles an hour; you could traverse it in 10 minutes. If you were window shopping, you’d walk down one sidewalk, then cross over and walk back in less than half an hour. If you were in a hurry, you could make an appointment one block away in five minutes.

As far as scale goes, I might want to develop both sides of a given street for two blocks, a half mile. If we can close this off to cars and restrict it to pedestrian and bike traffic only, so much the better. The ground floor everywhere along these blocks is retail: shops, restaurants, maybe a theater, certainly some bars and other entertainment venues. The next floor up (the 1st floor in Europe, the 2nd floor here in the States) would be additional office and retail: maybe an upscale shop, or 2nd-floor seating for a larger restaurant, or a dentist, a hair salon — or an agent to help you find and rent a local apartment. Above those two storeys would be the rest of the mix, offices and apartments, or even condos.

At one end of the strip, we’d have an Incubator: Shared loft office space above a copy shop, with a machine shop/3d printer/fab lab in the back somewhere for prototyping. Designate additional shop space for Artists in Residence – know a woman with a deft hand, a knowledge of welding, and some sculptural experience? I’d like to offer her a 6 month paid residency. If we have the space, heck, we might even have a full-scale offset printer on site, but with that said:

At the other end of the strip, we’d have a Big Ass Bookstore — no, not just a corporate big box, but something more of a scale with Portland’s Powell’s and keeping the spirit of Gaiman’s quote, “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”

In keeping with the “New Urban Tech Campus” vibe, I might start with the technical bookstore use case I spelled out three years ago, but past that: a modern bookstore needs to be more, just to compete with internet options, so maybe the bookstore becomes it’s own mixed-use model: a coffee shop, sure, but also the local civic center, default meeting place, and Heart of the neighborhood. Indeed, with the bookstore as a anchor on one end, we’d be able to easily duplicate the development for another two “blocks” – we could go for a mile long stretch or just work radially, a block north and south, perhaps with other “incubators” or maybe even an actual school [OG Campus] somewhere in the urban mix.


This idea is actually being tried:

“You’ve probably heard something about the Downtown Project, the $350 million initiative spearheaded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh that’s aiming to bring a renaissance of sorts to Downtown Las Vegas, the old city center several miles away from the touristy Strip. But unless you’ve been there and seen it with your own eyes, it’s hard to really grok what’s happening there — the scope of the project is so grand and its aims are pretty ambitious.”
A Look At The ‘Downtown Project’ That Wants To Bring A Tech Renaissance To Old Las Vegas : TechCrunch, 28 March 2013

In all of this, it is perhaps most important to remember The Lesson Of Cleveland: It’s not an ‘if you build it, they will come’ proposition. First you start with the neighborhood, the place. You make that enticing. Make it livable, and a place the young professionals want to live in. You don’t build a tech park: you open coffee shops and restaurants. You offer living options that don’t involve 50 minute commutes. You follow the indy bands: Where can I hear a great band playing good music for under $10 (not including a bar tab) — and why can’t I live there?

The Lesson of Cleveland is that Yes, given a 10 to 15 year time frame and a patient developer: you can get out ahead of the trend and actually build a neighborhood that people want to live in.

So where can we find plenty of distressed real estate, a strong design community, a manufacturing base, and (in the suburbs, at least) some capital that might be tapped to build a New Urban Campus?


[It’s a shame about the state government up there though; otherwise This Might Already Be Happening.]

Focus, Passion, Knowledge, Application - and local applications

filed under , 17 October 2013, 22:55 by

As I personally experience epic changes, the blog will of course reflect that.

For the past five years and more, I’ve been focused (more or less) on bookstores, and bookselling, and books.

I love books. Books are my personal friends. That will not change, and will not ever change.

My passion for books—and bookstores—will not change no matter what my employment.

My willingness to provide free advice to corporate booksellers: things they might be doing, or trying, or changing? Well, that ends today. No More Freebies. However, as I explore the expanded issues of urban renewal, repurposing old spaces for new uses, gentrification, building both walkable retail districts and walkable multi-use neighborhoods, making cities Work:


I think that’s a rich vein of blog topics for me to mine.

Even if I am no longer directly employed as a bookseller I don’t see much else changing here at RocketBomber.

[*sniff*] “so I got that goin’ for me, which is nice”

Rate of Change

filed under , 8 October 2013, 14:44 by

There have been just 4 transitions in ‘publication’ in recorded history:

Oral to written word:

Note here: the invention and widespread adoption of writing in general is why we have a recorded history to begin with. So from 200,000 BCE or thereabouts until 3000 BCE – The ancient Atlanteans could have met and defeated both the Giants from Space and the Lizard People from the Center of the Earth, but since they didn’t write anything down, we just don’t know. Could an advanced society exist without literacy? I don’t know; the internet seems to do OK [*rimshot*]

— a strong master/apprentice system would work, and if one can get hands-on with any mechanical technology while an expert simultaneously explains it to you, then you can likely get by; European medieval tech reached some pretty awesome heights (clockworks, windmills, agriculture, architecture, small-shop manufacturing) while being 99.9% illiterate.

Aside: Atlantean High School Shop Class was probably awesome

Hand-written copies to movable-type/printing press:

Movable type is great stuff, but the addition of the “press” made such an impression [heh.] that “press” is still a short-hand for much of the publication industry.

Note here: the basic tech behind Gutenberg (woodcarving unto blocks, or casting metal to make type; a vertically operated press to apply uniformly distributed force unto a flat plane) existed as early as the Roman Empire, 1st Century CE: the term “press” derives from the operationally-identical wine presses that had been in use for over 1000 years by the time Gutenberg sets up shop (records are sparse, understandably, but Wikipedia cites 1436.)

It might be best to compare Gutenberg to Henry Ford – neither was the sole inventor or innovator of the technologies they combined, but each engendered a revolution after that combination of several ideas birthed a single new production method that could be adopted and adapted by others.

I just handed someone a graduate thesis. [again.]

Vertical to Rotary:

Most of you were following along just fine right up to this point.

{sigh.} I’m striving to do this without puns (without additional puns) but I can’t: Rotary Printing was revolutionary.

There are a number of ways to translate linear motion into rotary motion (the internal combustion engine springs to mind) but on an industrial scale, whether we consider wind- and waterwheels, steam turbines, or electrical motors — the ‘native’ form of many (if not most) power options is rotary. If one were looking to build an industrial-scale ‘press’, eventually you have to abandon the ‘press’ part, technologically if not linguistically.

The advantage of rotary is speed. The progress continues despite any obstacle (so long as we can still talk to each other) but the acceleration of knowledge is an integral function dependent on speed.

From an artistic standpoint, quality physical 4-color offset printing is amazing. Not an ultimate evolved form, but certainly an Optimal Expression, like marble and bronze from the Classical eras, or oil painting of the 1700s, or progressive rock from the 1970s.

I just handed someone a graduate thesis. [again.]

Rotary printing technology fueled the publishing boom from 1904 until 1992: faster was better, cheaper cost structures meant expansion into riskier (that is to say: more interesting) genres, empires of print were built and prospered until they got bought out by conglomerates, and it was all fun and games and profits until Internet.

Physical to Digital:

Until 1904, change took centuries. — oh, I suppose change has always been ‘rapid’, but scales of both time and geography were much more of an obstacle to Gutenberg in the 1450s than they are to the author-publisher or blogger of today.

In 1904, a major technological change was all-but-handed-to established publishing houses (and newspapers) who could use the innovations on the ‘back end’, unseen production to rapidly accelerate their other, primary function: namely, sales of the printed word to the public. The technology was quickly adopted before it could become disruptive. In fact, it’d be another 6 decades or so before an ‘indy’ press could evolve, though the pulps of the 40s and 50s were certainly a precursor.

[and the indy press of the 1960s counter-culture relied not on industrial scale but now-inexpensive ‘antique’ hand-operated printing tech — one more graduate thesis, you’re welcome.]

Digital is not just an innovation in the back-end production, though. Distribution and customer demand are also directly impacted; our modern internet is much more like the free-for-all book market of 17th century Europe combined with the proto-newspapers of the late 18th century.

[Graduate theses, two of ‘em in fact: pick distribution or demand. No more freebies, though — from here you’re on your own.]


Given that the ‘digital’ book revolution is only 42 years old at this point [Sorry, Amazon – you didn’t invent this market; you’re 36 years late to the party] I’d say, from a historical perspective—if not a business one—it is still way too early to call.

What we can expect from the new technology is that nothing is going to be the same again —

while also: there are certain aspects of writing that have been true since 1021 CE and the industry that has arisen since is just one more tool we, as authors, can use to be known — to get published.

From Atlantis to Homer to Horace to Gutenberg to Random Penguin.

  • From the origin of speech until 3000 BCE: hundreds of thousands of years.
  • From cuneiform to papyrus, from papyrus to vellum, from vellum to paper; millennia of technological progress: but the transition that matters is from scribes to print, 3000 BCE to 1450 CE.
  • Print fosters scientific discussion, and engineering, and math; and eventually patents, and corporations, and corporate competition. In 1904, industry returns the favor with industrial scale printing technologies.
  • And then, suddenly, digital and internet.

Hundreds of thousands of years, To thousands of years, To a single century, To a handful of decades, To Now.

Unless the whole of technology and civilization suddenly slows down: having everything change ‘overnight’ (once a year or so) is going to be expected. The hard part now is that technology is advancing faster than humans can accept and adopt it. The natural pace of change, on a human scale, is a single human lifetime.

How many changes can you accept in your lifetime? You and I will likely be more adaptable than some (who can’t program a VCR and don’t “do” computers) but even so: Our grandkids will come up with solutions to these technological ‘problems’ that seem alien to us.

Congressman Lewis and "March, Book 1" Book Signing, Saturday 17 August 2013

filed under , 16 August 2013, 20:50 by

I don’t usually shill for my store…
…not least, because the corporate overlords and I don’t always see eye-to-eye…

And also,

I mean we do book signings all the time. All the damn time. I didn’t blog when we had Stephen King. I didn’t blog when we hosted (then Senator) Hillary Clinton. We’ve hosted Khaled Hosseini. Gregg Allman. John Smoltz. Steve Harvey. Jen Lancaster. Laurell K. Hamilton. Kathryn Stockett. Emily Giffin. Stuart Woods. Daniel Silva. ok so now I’m boring you,

How about book signings for The Oatmeal, The Blogess, Cake Wrecks, and Hungry Girl?

[now you’re paying attention? see, this is why I don’t blog these things…]


Tomorrow in the store we’ll be hosting my congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis who will be signing his new book — it was released this past Tuesday — and while that might be reason enough

— this gets a mention on my blog, because John Lewis’s new book is a graphic novel illustrated by Nate Powell (Any Empire, 2009 Eisner Award Winner Swallow Me Whole – both also from Top Shelf)


From the publisher:

“Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

“Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).

“March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

“Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.”

relevant press:

SDCC: Rep. John Lewis’s MARCH: Book One : Pam Auditore,, 16 August 2013 — the coverage at The Beat includes two YouTube clips that I am Shamelessly attributing to them, before stealing them:

Top Shelf’s Comic-Con sparks media frenzy and sell-out success! : Top Shelf’s website, article dated 2 August 2013

More Shamelessly Attributed (and stolen) video! [wait 30 seconds for the ad…]

[even more media clips can be found in the Top Shelf article]

John Lewis on the Colbert Report from Tuesday, 13 August:

[part two with Colbert here, Congressman Lewis was also a guest last year, 4 June 2012; plus additional coverage of the Colbert appearances at Top Shelf]

SDCC: Congressman John Lewis Debuts “March” at Comic-Con : Corey Blake, Comic Book Resources, 12 August 2013

More Video! (from the source cited above!)

Congressman Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell will be signing at the Barnes & Noble in Buckhead, Atlanta, on 17 August starting at 1pm.

If you can’t make it in for the event, a limited number of signed copies should be available after the event — no guarantees though: copies are reserved for attendees first, and availability also depends on how long Congressman Lewis can stay to sign stock. Call the store after 4pm EDT to inquire about availability and to also arrange for payment and shipping (we can take your information and credit card payments over the phone).

And I’d also like to point out publisher Top Shelf has limited, signed and numbered hardcovers available to order direct from their site (we’ve only the paperbacks in stock at the bookstore) so that may be an even better option for some (or most) collectors.

March, Book 1 is also available as an ebook, for those who must. For your online shopping convenience, cut-and-paste the ISBNs below:

paperback 9781603093002
digital 9781603093026, ASIN B00CTBU3NC

The PC may seem dead, but in fact it is just evolving.

filed under , 14 August 2013, 12:03 by

The PC is Dead? We all have tablets now, or phones, and no one needs an actual box that sits on a desk that you attach things to? No one needs a 1995-era PC?

I think it would be fair to say a vast majority of people didn’t need a PC to begin with:

  • web browsing, including
  • web shopping
  • email
  • music
  • games

To this short list, add in “social” for whatever that means for you: skype, reddit, facebook, flickr, instagram, twitter, telnet to ‘dial in’ to your fav BBS.

You need a big fancy box with the fastest processor and graphics processing workhorses and big honkin’ monitors (monitors, multiple, natch) and the associated desk, chair, et al.?

The answer was always No. But for a time, the only way to get to the web, play games, and send drunken IMs to xGFs was on a computer, the old fashioned PC box-on-a-desk type.

Wouldn’t you rather play games lounging on your couch, rather than hunched over in a stiff-backed chair? Of course you would, which is why game systems from Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and later Microsoft all proved to be popular. Game systems are of course computers as well, it’s just no one usually thinks of them that way.

PocketComputer.jpgEmail? “Sent from my iPhone” — same for facebook, twitter, and all the quick-message-type interactions that take place these days. The best computer is the one in your pocket.

Tablets? Did we need tablets? It’s basically a smart phone with a bigger screen that doesn’t make phone calls — so apparently yes, not only did we need tablets, they started selling like hotcakes. (At least, the iPads did, and later, the Nexus line from Google, and some poor fools are still buying Amazon’s Fire, so there’s that market, too)

Many of us need a computer for a little bit more than casual connectivity and recreation. We write, or code, so we need a keyboard. We manipulate numbers, or pictures, or both. We create. So there is a cohort that needs the old-school-PC-form-factor.

…Yes, of course, there’s an app for that: you can do anything and everything from a tablet apparently. But who wrote the app? and what does her rig at home look like?

I’m not going to argue that the “PC” as it was defined in 1990 will somehow make a resurgence and come back to prominence. It’ll likely disappear — or PCs will be built into your living room TV set at some point and you’ll use a wireless keyboard and mouse (or, ha!, a virtual keyboard on a tablet) to access your home PC.

You won’t have a dedicated appliance: the computing you need will be available from whatever screens you already own.


The Computer in Your Pocket

“The mobile phone is today’s PC, but not necessarily in the way you think. Fifteen years ago, the PC was the central hub in one’s interactions with the wider world. This was largely because of the state of miniaturization; our electronics simply weren’t small or efficient enough to make mobile phones and laptops nearly as powerful as desktops.”
The Right Tool For The Job : Devin Coldewey, 25 March 2013, TechCrunch

also, can I share with you one of my recent obsessions? Man, but I luv the Idea Channel:

Are Cell Phones Replacing Reality? : Mike Rugnetta [et al.], 5 December 2012, PBS Idea Channel on YouTube

Mike makes many points better than I can, so even though the topic of the video is a bit tangential to the points I’m trying to make, I had to include it. However one basic starting premise is the same: Your mobile phone is the computer you keep in your pocket. Your phone is not only your primary screen (even over a TV screen) — increasingly, it is also your primary computer.

In addition to the ‘traditional’ mobile space (can we call a 5-year-old smart phone market traditional?) there is also the current proliferation of tablets and the tendency for everything new these days to sport a touch screen and a wireless connection. Tablets are adding keyboards, and laptops are going ‘detachable’ with their screens. It’s a mess.

“As the Transformer’s name suggests, it also transforms into another device: Pull up on the PC screen to separate it from its stand and it becomes a tablet you can move around the house. It has a handle and a kickstand for propping up on flat surfaces. Like the desktop version, the tablet runs two systems: Windows 8 Remote and Jelly Bean 4.1. Though this concept sounds smart, it’s laughable in practice. The screen measures a whopping 18.4 inches diagonally and weighs an arm-straining 5.3 pounds.”
A PC and Tablet “Brick” for the Price of One : Katherine Boehret, 19 March 2013, All Things D

“It’s official. A study released by Google yesterday shows that mobile devices, and smart phones in particular, are now the dominant means of Internet connectivity in five key global markets. Google conducted the study of smart phone versus feature phone ownership rates throughout last year, pulling data from the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Japan. It found that, while smart phones were were quickly pushing out older feature phones… together, a full 10-percent more people own these connected mobile devices than PC’s or laptops (78-percent vs 68-percent).”
You’re Now More Likely to Find a Computer in Your Pocket Than on Your Lap : Andrew Tarantola, 26 January 2012, Gizmodo

“The iPhone remains the flagship of Apple’s entire product line. It exhibits not merely the highest degree of fit and finish of any smartphone, but the highest degree of fit and finish for anything Apple has ever made. When first you hold it — where by you I mean ‘you, who, like me, is intimately familiar with the feel and heft of an iPhone 4 or 4S’ — you will be struck by how light it feels, yet in a premium, not chintzy way. Within a week, it will feel normal, and your old iPhone 4/4S will feel like a brick. …

“Using the iPhone 5 on LTE is nearly indistinguishable from using it on Wi-Fi. Web pages load in a snap, Siri parses input and responds promptly. It’s as big a difference from 3G (and whatever bullshit AT&T calls “4G”) as 3G was from EDGE. …

“So, as of this week, we have computing performance in our pants pockets that nine years ago required a professional desktop workstation. …

“Think about this: eight or nine years from now, we should have phones that are computationally equivalent to today’s Mac Pro. (Maybe even sooner, given the sorry state of the Mac Pro at the moment.)” [/blockquote]
The iPhone 5 : John Gruber, 18 September 2012, Daring Fireball [blog],

Are we talking about the death of the Personal Computer, or the declining popularity of one particular user interface, the keyboard-and-mouse? Because it sure looks like we’re making and buying a whole lot of computers these days.

Oh, and what happened to the ‘must-have’ gadget of 2009? The dedicated e-reader?

“Not coincidentally, the rapid decline in e-reader sales comes only two years after Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) introduced the iPad. Even at considerably higher price points, the capabilities of tablets like the iPad offer consumers much more than merely cool, electronic paper turning, making the additional cost well worth it. The dramatic rise in tablet sales is as quick as the decline of the e-reader: IHS forecasts 120 million tablets will be sold this year, rising to 340 million by 2016.”
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Death of the E-Reader : Tim Brugger, 13 December 2012, Motley Fool

“Multi-use tablet sales are dominating single-use ebook readers. IHS estimates that ebook sales will decrease 36% this year from 23.2 million to 14.9 million and continue to fall to 7.1 million in 2016.”
Tablet’s Dominating Ebook Readers : Chuck Jones, 14 December 2012, Forbes


The Computer on the Wall

aside: Has anyone heard more about the “Steam Box” or other dedicated hardware from Valve recently? Was January the last time we saw any rumors or announcements?

I think it’s interesting that we’ve had two big product announcements in this space (PS4 and XBox One) but no word yet from Valve. Of course, you can already play Steam PC games on your living room TV, but without a plug-and-play box Valve is kind of restricting themselves to just the nerdcore demographic. (On second thought, maybe the entirety of their client base, so I guess no loss?)

Both the PS4 and new XBox are, in their guts, desktop gaming PCs — this was perhaps always true of the dedicated game consoles but seems especially so in the new generation. And both Sony and Microsoft are leveraging the large user base already to bring “computer” functions to the TV.

Even your Blu-ray player is a small computer — and again, perhaps this was always true, though that old VCR has a lot of mechanical pieces in it too — and with the latest generation of video playback we’re seeing quite a bit of computer-functionality brought to the forefront. I don’t know if it is possible anymore to buy a player that doesn’t connect to the internet for Netflix and YouTube playback, and a growing list of devices only do streaming video, up to and including the new $35 Chrome stick from Google.

With the prevalence of Bluetooth and Wifi enabled peripherals, just how far away are we from a Blu-ray player that accepts wireless input from an actual keyboard? (I think anyone who has attempted to type in a search using the arrow buttons on a remote feels my pain on this one.) And will we be able to use the keyboard before or after we’re all managing our queues with the smart phone anyway? Will a future device even have a remote control, or will we just use our mini-tablet or smart phone to begin with?

Given the size of the Roku, AppleTV, and Chromecast — and in parallel, considering the size of the Mini-ATX or even the engineering of the Raspberry Pi — how long before both the streaming box and a small PC are incorporated into a thin flush-mount LCD TV? Both the Chrome stick and the ‘better’ version of the Raspberry Pi retail for $35 each — when a decent TV costs $700 what’s another $70?

And, of course, the All-in-One Desktop PCs already look like this.

I think it’s just a matter of ‘installing’ a bigger monitor, and sitting on the couch. Why is there a hedgerow between PC and TV manufacturers? And wouldn’t a company like Samsung or Sony (which do both anyway) already have one of these in the market?

Maybe we just need a new word for the new computing device, like ‘smart phone’ or ‘tablet’.

ScreenPC. There you go. You’re welcome. This is a generic term, by the way, as I just introduced it as such and anyone who attempts to copyright or trademark it will have to come up with a fairly good reason why they’re entitled to it, given that people have been using the term generically to discuss wall-mounted or free standing television replacement PCs since 14 August 2013.



The ScreenPC is a handy seque to my next point:

Is the PC Defined by the Form Factor, or the User Interface?

…or does either matter? If it’s my personal computer, the computing device I use daily, why isn’t it also my “PC”?

Here’s another question for you: Is my “personal computer” the hardware, or the combination of software-and-data that I define as mine?

“Now, a clever piece of software lets you carry your own personal PC which you can carry inside your pocket – and once you have finished using it, no-one will ever know. Technically, what you are carrying is not a whole computer – instead it is a simple USB memory stick. But within it is a full operating system (like Windows), and when you plug it into a PC, that computer will restart into your own personal set-up, called Tails. When you have finished, shut down the computer, put the USB stick back in your pocket, and the PC will never know it has been used.”
Not just for spies: The PC on a memory stick that doesn’t leave a trace of your browsing history or documents : Daily Mail Online : Eddie Wren : 12 June 2012

It has been said that the difference between the “old” PCs and the “new” devices is in how people use the hardware: Lean Forward (into a desk) vs Lean Back (on a couch)

“When people started using the iPad, it was speculated that the iPad seemed to be a ‘lean back’ medium, like print, as opposed to the ‘lean forward’ medium of the web on a personal computer.

“The distinction between a ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ medium apparently began with interactive television. The terms have commonly been used by hand-wavers such as marketing people, media theorists, and futurists. The distinction has very little real scientific basis. There isn’t any clear idea what these terms really mean.

“Still, there’s something going on here. Jakob Nielsen, in studies of reading via print versus the web, found major differences between the two. To the question of ‘How readers read on the web,’ Nielsen answers: ‘They don’t.’” [/blockquote]
Engagement Styles: Beyond ‘Lean Forward’ and ‘Lean Back’ : Craig Will,, 15 March 2012

“The idea behind lean-forward mediums is that people are engaged when they use the Web. They are in scanning mode, actively looking for content – and their attention span is much shorter. People use the Internet with purpose. Articles should be shorter and get to the point sooner, videos should be snippets or separated into clips of only a few minutes long.

“Lean-back mediums on the other hand are the times we sit down and veg out watching TV, read a book or flip through a magazine. Our attention span is much longer because these are passive mediums and we are in a consumption mode. This is why most long-form doesn’t work on the Web.”[/blockquote]
Lean-forward vs. lean-back media : Jeremy Rue : 4 May 2010

“One of the old debates about the emergence of the personal computer as a media device centred on the lean-back (think television) versus lean-forward (think PC) distinction. The meme was that computers would never replace television because of that difference in engagement. In some ways the tablet (think iPad) has shattered that as it has very clearly become the couch computer.”
Lean Back versus Lean Forward : Sherman Young, The Book is Dead [], 15 December 2011

“While cellphones have become ubiquitous as mobile devices, it’s been a much longer road to popularity for tablet computers – portable electronic devices that try to fill a void between tiny screen cellphones and more cumbersome laptops.

“Roger Fidler was one of the original proponents of these portable “electronic tablets” when he ran the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in the early 1990s. See this story and this 1994 video showing Fidler’s vision (Fidler is now at the Reynolds Journalism Institute as Program Director for Digital Publishing).

“Many companies subsequently produced various forms of tablet computers as reading devices, such as the SoftBook and the Rocket eBook in the late 1990s and Sony’s e-book readers in the mid to late 2000s. But most of the devices failed to gain much traction with consumers.

“Other companies in the 1990s also worked on developing “electronic paper” or “e-ink” technology that would be used in wafer-thin flexible displays that theoretically could be rolled up and put in a briefcase, backpack or purse. But years passed with no consumer product hitting store shelves.

“Then with Amazon’s release of the popular Kindle e-book reader in late 2007, buzz about portable tablet computers heated up again. By 2010 and 2011 a number of sophisticated tablet computers were being produced, usually with color displays and/or wireless Internet connections for downloading up-to-date news and information.” [/blockquote]
the transition to digital journalism : Kinght Digital Media Center, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism : Paul Grabowicz, 4 December 2012

The link above is:
…just in case you missed it. There are a number of great resources linked at the bottom of the KDMC post, and they keep updating them. Just today, in testing the link (I usually do, before posting) I noticed the page had been updated just yesterday.

And of course, because I can as it is on YouTube, here’s that 1994 video linked above:

(It’s another tangential discussion, given my article above, but once again worth watching. The archived viewpoint of 1994 is fascinating)


Is it the interface that makes a PC?
A brand name? Marketing, market penetration, install bases and number of users?
The operating system?
The form factor?
Use cases, software, and intended design?

…or is a PC defined by how we actually use any and all of these devices?

The PC isn’t dead — in the late 1970s the “Personal Computer” came upon a virgin landscape and started to proliferate. Like any organism, it first exploited the easily-grasped resources (markets, in this case) but with increasing numbers also comes increased competition. To survive and prosper, computers had to differentiate and exploit new markets. Not just the computer but the whole ecosystem evolves, and revolutionary new forms (laptops, tablets) might dint the progress of older models, but don’t necessarily kill off their predecessors.

Computers are adapting. As we select the best type for each need, we’re guiding their evolution, but the whole ecosystem isn’t a zero-sum game. The whole digital world is still growing. A computer will fill every conceivable, supportable niche — and even some that aren’t sustainable so long as there is a dedicated and invested small fan base.

An Amazon Rant turned into something else entirely: College Bookstores, Warehouse Jobs, And The Glories of Inefficiency

filed under , 30 July 2013, 13:57 by

disclaimer: Yes, I work for Barnes and Noble. I also speak for myself, have better ideas on how to run a bookstore than the damnable corporate overlords, the information presented here is publicly available not derived from my position as ignorable field management mucking about in the trenches, and all opinions below are my own. Having satisfied the “code of conduct and business ethics” I now thumb my nose at the necessity for a disclaimer and wonder when we let the lawyers get in the way of a good drunken rant.

[note to self: copy that bit above as the new boilerplate disclaimer for business-related posts, and add it to my ‘about’ page for the blog.]


Amazon is getting credit for expanding it’s warehouse work force from 20,000 to 25,000.

Amazon has at least one quarter of the business. (as much as 27%, by some estimates.) B&N, nationwide retail book seller, has a sixth.

source: – the numbers halfway through 2012 (according to PW) were 27% Amazon vs. 16% B&N

Out of courtesy, I won’t steal and embed PW’s chart, but you can find it in the article linked, which I recommend you go ahead and read […or here, direct link].

So Amazon is looking to increase its warehouse work force by 25% (alongside the additional warehouses built, economic activity, etc etc) and gee that looks great. “Amazon is creating jobs! Let Me Go Make A Speech About It!”

I know Amazon sells other stuff, but the huge investment in customer fulfillment logistics has to be wedded to the expectation on Amazon’s part that these moves will increase their overall sales, including their share of all book sales: Big, and looking to get bigger. A proportional increase in market share to match the increase in staff would take them from a quarter of the retail book business to a third, 33%, one in three of every book sold.

You know, just by hiring 5,000 people to work for, what was the figure, $11-15 dollars in hour? — doing physical labor in a warehouse, which should be admired, not denigrated as it is hard work but honest — but c’mon, even with Amazon stock options: this isn’t a career path. It’s a job, a decent job, but with exceptionally few opportunities for promotion and no lateral opportunities for advancement.


B&N has a smaller share of the retail book business [it pains me to admit]. But B&N employs 34,000 full and part-time employees as of April 27, 2013, in 1300+ storefronts: the 675 superstores and the 686 college bookstores. [source: page 5 of B&N’s most recent annual report]

Damn. B&N now has more college bookstores than Big Boxes. This is… OK? That business decision is above my paygrade. It seems wrong, though. College bookstores are great, I have to admit: solid margins on textbooks, guaranteed customer base, extremely seasonal (the beginning of semester crush) but also regular and something that can be planned for, and around.

There are drawbacks though — and I’m going to take some space to say this even though it is taking me far away from my topic:

  • College Bookstore locations are, in almost all cases, owned by the college and only the operations of the bookstore are leased. This is even worse than having a landlord, as the College owns the location and also still technically owns the business. I’m sure B&N signs multi-decade deals, or at the very least, provides strong incentives and options for schools to renew whenever the operational agreements expire — but this is not the rock-solid business some assume

Oh, look, there it is in the most recent SEC filing under “Risk Factors” (pgs 33-34):

B&N College may not be able to enter into new contracts and contracts for existing or additional college bookstores may not be profitable.

“An important part of B&N College’s business strategy is to expand sales for its college bookstore operations by being awarded additional contracts to manage bookstores for colleges and universities. B&N College’s ability to obtain those additional contracts is subject to a number of factors that it is not able to control. In addition, the anticipated strategic benefits of new and additional college and university bookstores may not be realized at all or may not be realized within the time frames contemplated by management. In particular, contracts for additional managed stores may involve a number of special risks, including adverse short-term effects on operating results, diversion of management’s attention and other resources, standardization of accounting systems, dependence on retaining, hiring and training key personnel, unanticipated problems or legal liabilities, and actions of its competitors and customers. Because the terms of any contract are generally fixed for the initial term of the contract and involve judgments and estimates which may not be accurate, including for reasons outside of its control, B&N College has contracts which are not profitable, and may have such contracts in the future. Even if B&N College has the right to terminate a contract, it may be reluctant to do so even when a contract is unprofitable due, among other factors, to the potential effect on B&N College’s reputation. Any unprofitable contracts may negatively impact the Company’s operating results.”

to that I would add:

  • College bookstore locations vary greatly in size, but most are smaller than 20,000 sq.ft. – while the big box superstores start at 20,000 sq.ft. and most are a good bit larger.
  • Operating a separate chain of college bookstores under the same trade name leads to brand dilution and customer confusion. Technically, if you bought it at a college B&N, I can’t even process the return at one of our trade stores. Yes, I know they’re only 6 miles away. Yes, I know they have a big B&N logo on the front, just like me. [Oh, of course I know a work-around. I’ve been working-around our computer systems for years]
  • Related: So the B&N at Georgia Tech sells textbooks, iPads, computer software, college-badged sweatshirts, some home goods (dorm goods?) — they both rent and buy back textbooks, and (most hurtful) they have a larger manga selection than I do at my store. This is all because they are on a College Campus, operate as a College Bookstore, and That Is A Different Business. I don’t and can’t do any of that. But there is this Big Fat B&N logo right above the front door… Since the GT store is listed in the phone book as “The Georgia Tech College Bookstore” *no one and I mean no one* can find that telephone number, but oh boy howdy can they find the listing for “Barnes and Noble, Atlanta” so at my very fine bookstore not only do I get my daily call volume, I also [joy, joy] get to inform and educate the general public about the idiosyncrasies of our byzantine corporate structure, the hedgerow that exists between the college and trade divisions of my company, and why *I* can’t buy, sell, rent, order, or process a return on their textbooks for them. It’s fun. On top of an already stressful job, why, it might drive one to drink.
  • The built-in divide extends to our website: use the store locator, and you’ll get the Trade locations but none of the college bookstores. Good luck even trying to find their address online. And yes, customers call my store every day looking for even this basic information on the two B&N College Bookstores in town.
  • …of course, none of this would be material if we had more trade stores — but even before Riggio sold the B&N College Division back to Himself, our real estate/development office avoided placing trade stores to compete with the college bookstores. Per the disclaimer above: I have no inside knowledge of this, as that is above my paygrade; but I can read a map and have some idea of how real estate development works.

None of this would matter were it not for the deliberate muddling of the B&N/B&N College brands. This isn’t just a customer service issue: how much of the stock valuation and potential spinoffs, sales, mergers, buyouts or buy-ins of the Nook/B&N brands are potentially spiked because of uncertainty about which operations (trade, college, online retail, and online digitial) are included in any potential purchase or investment? The four, or five, Barnes & Nobles each need a brand and identity — hell, make that six Barnes & Nobles if we include the (recently-abandoned?) nook hardware. By keeping it all much-too-close, and by being secretive and playing the spinoff game too close to the vest: the whole company suffers.


before I was sidetracked, I was talking about jobs.

Right now Amazon employs 20,000 warehouse serfs, and is looking to hire more. — 20,000 out of 88,400 full- and part-time employees [source, pg 3, 2012 Annual Report, pdf] — so order fulfillment is just a sideline for Amazon as they only dedicate a quarter of their staff to the task. One presumes the other 75% of Amazon is working on either web solutions, hardware, collectively hypnotizing Wall Street, or crushing my soul.

If one were lucky enough to get an Amazon warehouse job in Tennessee, what are the chances you could move up from that job, internally within Amazon, to Seattle and some sort of web, corporate, purchasing, accounting, or human resources position?

[I’ll leave that as an exercise for the student.]

Barnes and Noble, with even less book market share, employs more people: 34,000. Now of course that included the home office staff, our warehouse employees (yes, we have those too) but mostly it’s the booksellers in 675 Big Box Bookstores, doing the impossible and exceeding expectations daily*.

[* in 2008]

I am the first to acknowledge the bookstores have changed. In 2008, B&N had 718 Big Box Stores and the company employed 40,000 full- and part-timers. (not including seasonal hires: each December would add another 10,000 temp ‘booksellers’ to that total). The benefits, frankly, were awesome: even part-time, 20hr a week employees qualified for health benefits (in 2008) and (in 2008) the number of full time positions was roughly equal to the number of part-time. There was an employee development track, and a ladder: from part-time to full-time to “lead” to “dept. manager” and from there into a salary management staff position. In 2008. Or going back, from roughly 2000-2007 while the chain was still actively expanding, with multiple new store openings in each metropolitan area, annually and while the corp. still looked to develop talent from within.

Why, one could join the company in 2001 as a part-time, seasonal bookseller, but if one had aptitude, a willingness to work flexible hours, and kept showing up and doing the job – between training, on-the-job experience, and making the most of available opportunities: a bookseller could go from the back room to front of store and on to store management.

I did.

That door closed in 2008. While the chain was expanding, and promoting from within, opportunities abounded. Now, in 2013: we’re closing more stores than we open, and rather than look for talent in our own staff — sadly — there is a full-on corporate initiative to actively recruit managers from other retailers.

[If Len, Mitch, Dan, or Steve feel it is necessary to fire me for letting that slip, fine.]

In the 5 years past, B&N has gone from a culture that actively developed and promoted talent internally, even as far down as the individual store level, to… well, to what? To a caretaker organization merely overseeing their own long fall? Yet-another-retailer who hires only part-timers – because that’s what Wal-Mart is doing and we have to compete with the lowest common denominator? Paring back on customer service because payroll is the only variable the corporate office has control over, even when our own customers say the only reason they shop online is they no longer get the service in-store that they are accustomed to?


A fading bookseller chain can only manage 25,000 bookseller jobs (we’ll assume the rest are in a warehouse or at corporate) while Amazon boasts 20,000 warehouse jobs (since they have no bookstores we have to consider these as equivalent) and Amazon is looking at adding 5000 more.

I would love to devolve this down to a single equation, but I think the whole post above kind of negates that.

Bookstore jobs were good jobs, up until Amazon ruined it, and my corporate overlords went Full-On-Wal-Mart on our employees.

Amazon Warehouse jobs are really excellent warehouse jobs. That said: warehouse jobs suck.

And it all comes down to ‘efficiency’

We’re losing jobs because the old jobs were ‘inefficient’ and for some reason that is bad.

Inefficiencies are Great. Bookstores should, honestly, be as inefficient as possible, as that is the singular bookstore characteristic that spawns discovery.

The Future of The Book

filed under , 23 July 2013, 00:12 by

Every book blogger* is writing one of these damn “insightful” “thought pieces” on the future of the book.

There are a number of players/factions to consider — Publishers, Amazon, Bookstores, Authors (both established and aspiring) — major changes in technology, and consumer behavior, and minor distractions like whatever motions Apple or Google are making towards this space this year (that will change next year). Pick your favorite horse in this race: with a wealth of information out there, it is easy enough to cherrypick sources that back up whichever conclusion best fits the proclivities of the blogger. What we lack is real data — number of kindles sold, number of (self-published, non AAP-member) ebooks sold, total number of books (e- and otherwise) sold and by how much and how much in each category including the bestsellers —

We are left with “experts” estimates of market share, some incomplete data about how the publishing industry or book retail is doing in aggregate, and a whole lot of anecdotes. (The anecdotes are understandable, perhaps; as a group we do like to tell stories)

“I was just at a Big Box Bookstore in Podunk Adjacent off of State Route Zero, and let me tell you what I saw there…”
“I’ve been self publishing with Swindlepub Digital Editions for ever now, and let me tell you about my sales there…”
“We at Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, LLC, are just a small press compared to the Top Ten or Big Six or Big Five** but not only are we forward-looking, with both a website and a facebook page, we’re also moving forward with ebooks — in about 18 months time. But recently we’ve been stymied by DanubeVolga. Let me tell you about their most recent nefarious plot…”
“Sisyphus & Damocles Books has been open for decades now, here in northcentral Bumblebridge, and we’ve been proud to serve our community. Recently though, times have been harder. Let me tell you our story…”

* (book bloggers as a term including the book/publishing business bloggers, book reviewers, authors, editors, the occasional mainstream-but-web-only magazine writer, and of course: drunk and pissed off booksellers — represent! — who blog in their free time)
** (why does talking about the book business this way make me think of college sports, and for all the same, wrong reasons?)
*** I hearby claim the trade names Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, Publisher and Sisyphus & Damocles Booksellers: Mine! Back off. If I win the lottery this week I’m going to have those incorporated by Friday.

Anecdotal evidence is the worst sort. We all have a story. Why, I work at a corporate chain bookstore where the phone rings off the hook, we’re grossing a good seven figures annually (no, not the number you initially thought of: better than that), and I personally am so overworked it seriously impacts my health. If physical books are dying, maybe they could do it a little faster, before I keel over from a heart attack?



assertion one: “Ebooks are going to completely displace other forms of books because of all the obvious advantages — speed of delivery, lower costs, the advantages of digital storage over the requirement of physical space for books, and (of course) disintermediation: e- facilitates an order-of-magnitude increase in access to markets by authors, and access to works by readers.”

verdict: True. but…

To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).

A web page is open, active, engaging, and part of a larger conversation. Via hyperlinks, an author can automatically and seamlessly link to sources, whether they are linking to research, to other related works of their own, to maps and images that support the text, to notes in an appendix, or to The Fine Video Version of one of the earliest Musical Stylings of Sir Richard Astley.

Web sites and the related tools we use to access and browse them have already consumed the newspapers, are currently munching their way through the magazine herd (killing off the old and weak), and soon enough will also turn to face book publishing like a hungry predator.

The common objection that would enter at this point is “But, well ebooks aren’t web pages. Completely Different.” Right…

There is absolutely nothing stopping me from publishing a novel on the web. I could do it as a collection of chapters linked from a table-of-contents index page, I could do it as a series of blog posts (like an old Dickens novel, in magazine installments), I could even just put up 100,000 words in a single HTML or text document. Unlike music, images, or video – text is small: the “T” in HTML is text, as is the first “T” in HTTP. Text is web native.

Hell, one could do it in a Reddit thread. [Redditor Prufrock451 has a movie deal. So don’t tell me Reddit isn’t a viable publishing platform.]

Ebooks are, in fact, web pages [right down to the CSS, XHTML, and XML] — it would be trivial to code an ebook reader as an extension to Firefox and Chrome, just as there are currently pdf readers — and the rest is all marketing, and payments.

Payment is what it comes down to, and why so many are so insistent that ebooks are both new and special, as their current income streams are (in whole or in greatest part) dependent on sales via the current channels (primarily KDP, with a nod to Smashwords). Ebooks, as a payment model for authors, are great, fantastic even. Indeed, I thought the old model where we sold books through bookstores was also pretty great, as both a sales opportunity and payment model for authors.

Setting payments and royalties to one side, for now: The function the publishers serve (served?) was only secondarily as a source of ongoing income. Publishers provided advance capital for the production of books, as the party (the only party?) willing to assume pre-publication risks. While books-in-aggregate are a commodity in much demand, selling units in the millions annually, with revenue in the billions, and while also serving as source material for TV Shows, Movies, and mountains of internet fan fiction — each individual book, though, is something of a flyer, a bet on the part of author, editor, and publisher that this one book has what it takes to sell not just a thousand copies, but hundreds of thousands.

A publisher would pay an advance against future royalties, either on delivery of a manuscript or occasionally, a payment before the book was even finished. Indeed, the advance might have been the only thing that enabled the author to actually complete the book, given certain financial realities authors (and the rest of us) face.

After a publisher was done with it, the book would enter the realm of marketing, and the dire punishment of retail bookstores. Bookselling is an awful, soul-crushing business where we tease authors with the likes of Patterson, Grisham, and Rowling but the reality is your book gets 90 days (or less) in a retail store, with some decent placement before customers (assuming customers are browsing bookstores these days: the internet tells me they aren’t) (my personal experience as a bookseller contradicts that) but after the initial release window: well…

Bluntly: you’re screwed. Nah, I kid. No really, though: if this is your first book, unless you win the publishing-and-bookselling-hunger-games, you’re screwed.

As an author your best strategy for publishing is to keep writing – each new release sells the backlist, while your backlist builds the fan base. And This Was True in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1930 — before Amazon, ebooks, the world wide web, and every other wrinkle in the publishing industry since.

At least temporarily, ebooks and the various e-publishing platforms (functionally, as of 2013, that’d be KDP for the Amazon fans and Smashwords to help you pick up all the rest) are an excellent mechanism for payments – if you work at it. But ebooks are not a publishing platform, any more than blogging software is a publishing platform, or a working knowledge of CSS and HTML is a publishing platform.

Given that the web is your future — disintermediation taken to a logical extreme — well then: we need ways of monetizing books on the web that don’t rely on Amazon. Direct sales? Advertising? Subscriptions? A return to the 1400s economic model where people wrote because they had something to say and were copied because what they said was interesting and no one got paid? Because historically, that’s how publishing worked.

…just one more opportunity to link you to my 2009 essay: Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato
[someone remind me to update that – I suppose I could wait for a 5th anniversary, but I think I should get to it before that]

If one is either advocating or defending ebooks, I’d just ask whether your focus is on the potential of ebooks as a new format — or merely on Amazon’s payment model. — you know, both are important (getting paid may actually may be more important) but it would be dishonest to conflate the two.


assertion two: “Bookstores are dead, the equivalent of buggywhip salesmen in an automobile age.”

verdict: False. well, “false” to a point…

I have a much longer post in the works on the social function of bookstores. If all we did was sell books, the fate of bookstores would be much more cut-and-dried, but your local bookstore is a social nexus: more of a coffee shop plus source of fallback (or primary) internet these days.

But even considering only the sale of books:

About once a day someone walks in, looking for a “coffee table book” on whatever topic: Alaska. Amsterdam. Australia. Belgian Beers. Coca-Cola memorabilia. Steam engine memorabilia. Sea shells. College Football. College Lacrosse. [Name your college] – [name the city] – [name the country] – [whatever]

Of Course there has to be one of those full-color, large format books on whichever topic because I, with only 1.5 hours to prepare, suddenly thought that such a book would now make a perfect gift – let me go ask my Local Big Box Bookstore.”

[*expletive deleted*]

(My inability to meet demand — indeed, the inability of anyone to meet unreasonable demands — doesn’t make the demand less important: this is an economic opportunity) (see also: Case Study #5 and how damnably tricky it is to stock “coffee table books”)

Horsepower used to be, well, Horse Power: you either schlepped it yourself, or you got on a horse. There was also a transitional period (roughly, 1810 to 1910) when long-distance travel became steam-powered but local traffic was still by horse. Parallel to that, was the replacement of horses on farms with tractors, combines, and other agricultural equipment. The Horse was once the go-to option for so many tasks, but the internal combustion engine changed all that. …Almost. In the modern age: we have both NASCAR and the Kentucky Derby.

Cars replaced carriages for daily transport and tractors replaced draft horses on the farm, but horses are still used for sport, recreation, and ranching.

…and even in a car-dominated landscape, so many of us walk. Some for recreation, even. [Hell, some people jog and run for fun…]

This isn’t the non-sequitur that it appears to be — I previously wrote on this topic in 2010: Publishing Buggywhips.

The web has had 20 years to totally overwhelm bookselling. In a buggywhip analogy, this would be like going from 1902 to 1922 with the concomitant sociological changes that accompany technological change. Bookselling is actually holding up pretty well, considering.

People today still walk into a bookstore, and then ask me for a book. They’re willing to pay a little more for the right kind of book. Sometimes it’s a book they didn’t even know they wanted, until they saw it at the store — a book completely unrelated to their initial query (the question that actually brought them through my door).

To beat a dead horse: The physical book is a dead as the horse.

But have you thought about how many horses there are, still working? It could be a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park, or the once-a-year attention paid to horse racing around the Derby, or Olympic equestrian events, or a rare opportunity to see the Lipizzaner Stallions. Hell, it could be show-jousting at Medieval Times. Even in a car-dominated future without a need for horses, we have both use cases and economic models that prove Horses Aren’t Dead Yet. These are all special cases: some are traditional, others historical artefacts, some intentional throwbacks to a historical age – no longer an actual economic use but sold to the public as a recreational opportunity.

(Books: Not Dead Yet.)

Do I want to live in a future where the only book stores are Book Museums? No. No, I do not.

But if that’s my option, you can bet your ass I’m dressing up as Ye Olde-fashioned Bookseller down at Colonial Barnes & Noble.


assertion three: “Well, *I* buy ebooks and everyone I know buys ebooks and my friends on twitter and facebook and offline buy ebooks and I just don’t see how bookstores are going to be viable in 5 years…”

verdict: So this is sampling bias, selection bias, confirmation bias or some combination of all three.

Let’s say you’re a blogger, writing about the publishing future and ebooks and perhaps specializing in ebook publishing tips for first-time digital authors. The comments on your well-thought-out opinion pieces and e-publishing link roundups all agree with you that dead-tree books are dead (or soon to be so) as are the physical storefronts that sell them, and even the delivery of books (physically) by UPS rather than digitally via Internet is only a transitional phase.

Ebook evangelists are like the newspaperman of 1923 bagging on the last remaining horses. Suddenly one notes the societal changes that have been occurring over decades, one picks the winning side, writes an essay, and then you pat yourself on the back. But there are many disruptions that will take place in the transition, and also future problems and fallout that you haven’t considered yet.

A world of ebooks without publishers is also a world without George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones, a world without Robert Kirkman and Walking Dead, a world without J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, a world without J.R.R. Tolkien and hobbits — hell, even a world without Tarzan, Conan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, and Finn.

We can sandbag on publishers all day, and not everything done in the name of business or publishing is gold, but if you believe that quality wins out, no matter the hype or the competition, or the handicaps the ‘independent’ faces — then fine: we agree to disagree.

The three legs of the tripod are Books, Film/TV Adaptation, and Fans — remove any one leg, and you no longer have a franchise: Star Wars originated as a film, but I can guarantee Lucas wouldn’t have made the Prequel Trilogy if it hadn’t been for decades of Del Rey Star Wars novels along with the massive collection of Dark Horse Star Wars Comics. Harry Potter was already a book phenomenon, but only steamrolled the teen & tween fanbase after Warner Brothers started making films. Game of Thrones (book fans know the series as “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was a perpetual runner up to Wheel of Time until HBO took Martin’s series under its wing. And while discerning comic book aficionados were both familiar with and (dare I say) rabid fans of Kirkman’s work, it took a TV Show to make the Walking Dead a mainstream fan property.

Lord of the Rings, anyone? How about three, count ‘em, three Hobbit movies? (There was only the one book…) Oh, or Iron Man? Who was an Iron Man fan 2005? …yeah, put your hand down; you’re lying.

What do all of these franchises have in common? Corporate backing, big-name publishers (OK, I’m giving Image Comics a pass here, they are ‘big enough’), fan enthusiasm, and books stocked in bookstores.

Right now, all those mainstream fans of nearly every franchise know about bookstores; there’s one out by the mall, down the street from the cineplex, next to Joe’s Crab Shack. Most of those fans — let’s call them civilians — don’t know or care about ebooks. They may or may not own a tablet, they certainly don’t own an ereader, they own a smart phone but they use it for Angry Birds, to text, and [*gasp*] to make the odd phone call. And they don’t care about ebooks. They buy one, or maybe two books a year. They outnumber you, ebook fanboy. Between the 22% who reported they read no books last year and the 31% that read between 1 and 5 books, That’d be half of everybody.

From the link above: “The shift toward e-book… is being driven by those who are college educated, those living in higher-income households, and those ages 30-49. Those groups disproportionately report they were reading e-books.”

If you match that description, fine. You have your personal anecdotal evidence and I just handed you 2-year old Pew Research data to back up some of your points.

But what about the Hunger Games, Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, Pretty Little Liars, Blue Bloods, plus a couple dozen you and I forgot about — Past the first two, I can’t say I’ve heard of any of these properties lighting up the ebook charts. But they sell books, initially sufficient to prompt the adaptation and then like bonkers once comely actors are attached and pictures hit the internet.

Yes, indeed: the internet sells books. But it’s more about teen heartthrobs and Google Image Search, and less about Amazon and KDP.


What we have here is a stalemate: On the one side, we have ebooks. Apparently everyone, even my Mom [true fact], is buying ebooks — and I, the Lone (old-school, physical bookshop) Bookseller Left on the Internet… I’m just a plaintive, fading voice in the e-wilderness, unable to see the e-forest for the e-trees.

I’ve been assured that the digital revolution has already taken place and we’re just taking a decade or two to sort through digital winners and losers, and well: nothing I’ve said or can say will shake your convictions.


“To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).”

The digital revolution already happened. I’m defending one payment structure: distribution and sales of books through bookstores. Ebook partisans are merely defending a different payment structure, Amazon et al. and the “electronic book” — but both models are susceptible to digital disruption.

“Modern” publishing (I’m going to pick 1836) had a good run, 1836-2007 — 172 years. Over the course of that run, corporations lived and died, business models rose and fell, new and cheaper book formats were born, and at the tail-end of that era: the internet came to prominence. We are now 5 years into the “new” publishing model…

Or, we are 5 years into a dead cat bounce. Are “Kindle ebooks” the future, or merely that last gasp of 200 years of publishing business?

I think the current environment has much more in common with the post-Gutenberg early era of newspapers (1605-1700): we are still figuring out what the platform can be used for, what we want to use it for, and how we can use internet publishing to make money. (I’ll remind you again here: Dickens’ first book was serialized in an 1836 magazine.) Straight, non-DRM web distribution is still the disrupting factor that has yet to be felt in Amazon’s KDP biodome, and however enamored one is of Amazon’s ebook payment structure — the payments have nothing to do with books or publishing. Project Gutenberg predates the Kindle by 37 years, the Internet Archive hosts 4.4 Million ebooks, and facilitates 15 Million downloads each month [hattip] — so, yeah.

Amazon’s e- efforts almost seem like a sideline in comparison.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

And before you come at me as obviously wrong [I am, as always, obviously wrong], ask yourself: “Am I about to defend books, digital distribution, or merely the new payment models that have been laid over the old publishing model?”

and with that parting shot: I open the floor for discussion.

Bookselling: Not Dead Yet.

filed under , 12 July 2013, 18:31 by

[feeling better] [‘tis only a scratch]

Books are a 27 Billion Dollar business.

That would be a U.S., 2012 number; and even after we exclude the massive K-12 & Collegiate text book business, BookStats calculates the entire U.S. trade book industry (i.e. what you’re buying) is still $15 Billion, up 6.9 percent from 2011. [BookStats estimate for 2012 quoted here]

In parallel, the US Census Bureau reported that Bookstore Retail for 2012 was $13.4B of that total. Obviously there are differences between the two numbers — total Book Retail ≠ Publisher Revenue, not least because there are multiple sales channels, all the annoying non-book product lines invading most bookstores, and of course the fact that publishers sell to retailers wholesale at a discount. These are the numbers, though — and I’ll remind you the Census retail number is for *stores* and does not include online sales.

For comparison:

  • 2012 U.S./Canada Box Office was $10.8 Billion, up 6% compared to $10.2 billion in 2011 [Source: MPAA, pdf]
  • 2012 Consumer Spending on Home Entertainment (DVDs, Blu-rays, and Video On Demand) was $18 Billion [Source: Digital Entertainment Group, pdf]
  • 2012 Television Production (television programming only, excluding broadcast and cable networks, and Movie production) was a $36B business [source: IBISWorld]
  • And lastly: In 2012, the “traditional video game market” (excluding mobile) was $58 Billion [Source: Reuters]
    (also, HA! ‘traditional’ video games! next we’ll be hearing about “artisanal locally-sourced small-batch” video games)

Of course, it is easy to conflate the manufacturing, distribution, and ‘retail’ segments in any content business — the dollars spent in aggregate are no guarantee for anyone of future business, or proof of any particular business model. As much as some people may miss the old Tower Records storefronts (“Tower Records” still exists as a bad website, and as a licensed brand outside the US) the old record store model was not sustainable in a new world of MP3s and streaming digital.

[I might argue that point… but that’d be a different essay]

Anyway, the point we’re starting with is that Billions are made in the manufacture and sales of books — and while $10 Billion can be tucked into Amazon’s revenues and all but disappear, Books Are Not Amazon. Or Dead… Yet… or ever… I hope.


Since at least 1744, there have always been two parallel tracks for book sales: the retail bookseller, and the mail order catalog. If it is not immediately obvious, Amazon is in fact a mail order business, juiced and enabled by the internet but still a very different shopping experience from storefront retail.

Mail order got a big boost in the 1880s when Sears, Roebuck, & Co. leveraged the network [a rail network] to speed up both ordering and fulfillment by an order of magnitude. Amazon is a big damn company, books are a minor sideline these days — but that fraction of Amazon that sells stuff is the heir of Sears & Roebuck, an obvious evolution and not something that is new or revolutionary.

Books by mail became a thing (a massive, popular thing) 70 years before Amazon with the Book of the Month Club: After a couple of false starts, the now-iconic Book of the Month Club was founded in 1926 and by the 40s was (arguably) the nation’s largest bookseller. [I don’t have 1940s book retail numbers in front of me at the moment, hence the qualifier, but in 1949 after a little over 20 years in business, the BotMC shipped it’s 100 Millionth book.]

This history of the Book of the Month Club is incomplete, especially as it seems to stop in 1994, but in addition to the 100-Million factoid above, there are some other great nuggets:

“Although BOMC’s membership continued to grow in the first half of the 1960s, the company’s sales began to stagnate as the impact of increased numbers of retail book stores — many of which sold bestsellers at discount prices — was felt. Another important factor was the rise of paperback books. The proliferation of book clubs and the resulting competition was yet another cause for the slump. Between 1962 and 1963, BOMC saw its sales slip from $19.8 million to $17.6 million. To compensate for the shrinking number of books purchased by members, the company spent more money on promotion to beef up membership.”

Widespread discounting of bestsellers, the popularity of a new format, and newly expanded competing sales channels led to flat growth of an established book seller? You don’t say.

“In the early 1980s the company determined that there was money to be made by publishing books on its own or in cooperation with publishers, rather than only buying the rights from publishers to sell BOMC editions of their books. In 1982 BOMC established its own original publishing division. Its first publishing projects were reprints of such classics as All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (published by BOMC in 1982), William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (published in 1987), and the Revised English Bible (published in 1989). The publishing division then moved on to anthologies and multivolume sets.”

Moving beyond book sales and into publishing? Rescuing forgotten titles and publishing the classics? Why does that sound familiar?

The New York Times reporting in 2001:
“Since the 1980’s, however, the club system has been under duress. National bookstore chains made books more widely available, alleviating the need for mail-order services. Then online retailers began competing to sell books even to the truly isolated or lazy. As a handful of perennial blockbuster authors came to dominate best-seller lists, the club’s management began paying multimillion-dollar contracts for the rights to several of an author’s future books at once.

“Even the idea of a single ‘book of the month’ was becoming obsolete. Computerized databases enabled the club’s managers to tailor the ‘main selection’ each month to the previous buying habits of individual members. A member who responded well to nonfiction would see a steady diet of it as the club’s main selection, while a neighbor might receive only novels.”[/blockquote]

“The Book-of-the-Month Club Tries to Be More Of-the-Moment; New Judges and Niche Marketing Are Part of a Comeback Plan” : David D. Kirkpatrick, NYT, 28 June 2001

Goodness, using computerized inventory and sales history data to individually tailor recommendations.

“There is one kind of book club which could have a bright future: specialist clubs that harness the internet. Two successful new clubs in recent years have been Bertelsmann’s Black Expressions in America, aimed at black women, and Mosaico, a Spanish-language club. For specialist titles, bookstores cannot compete for range with a book club, and the internet lacks the personal touch of a trusted team of editors.”
“Book clubs: The final chapter? The future looks bleak for an archaic corner of old media” : The Economist, 15 May 2008

If someone at The Book of the Month Club had thought to engage their readers/customers on a Goodreads level, the past two decades in book retail would have unfolded very differently. If Goodreads had bought the BotMC in 2008, instead of being acquired themselves by Amazon… well, what-if games are hardly productive and do little to change conditions on the ground.

However: History (in retail or otherwise) is hardly as inevitable as it seems, and the future is more fluid than most realize.


The past 20 years of Books is not the story of The Big Box Bookstore, nor was it all about The Rise of Online Empires.

The success of both the nationwide chains and of Amazon are both aspects of a single phenomenon: The past 20 years of bookselling are best seen as a change in customer demand for books.

There has been a lot of noise and bluster about showrooming, the book discovery “problem”, the merits of book recommendation algorithms, and the shrinking shelfspace allotted to books in stores. In my opinion, way too many of these opinion pieces romanticize bookstores and don’t take into account how everything has changed since 1993. You know, 1993? World Wide Web, you might have heard of it?

Before the web — and web browsers, the now-invisible but indispensable invention — There was no “online”. At least not in the ways we casually assume today…

The conversation began with pulps in the 30s and Zines in the 60s. As in so many other aspects of our modern life, technology took these modest print efforts and dialed it up to 11: more reviews, more posted reading lists, more fan-to-fan conversation, discussion, flame wars, and FAQs: more fan nexus — hell, being able to even find other fans who like what you do — this “book discovery” that was about Individual Enthusiasm and Consistent Effort and Engagement — that had nothing to do with Amazon and everything to do with dial-up BBS, CompuServe forums, Usenet groups, Listserv mailing lists, and all the other proto-Reddits that your Grandma used a long long time before you, youngling, fired up your first Game Boy for the pokemons.

And yes, while my own experience is heavily sci-fi flavoured, the genres/pulps are the industry leaders in publishing: first to paperback, first to e-, first to a self-sustaining internet community telling stories entirely divorced from the publishing treadmill. Evolution, growth, and development take place on the margins, and the fringe.

In 20 years, discovery hasn’t changed: There is nothing Amazon’s user reviews add to the process that wasn’t already there in the letters column of a fan zine. It is all about the dialog, even when (these days) the dialog is with a machine. “What’s Hot, What’s New?”

Anatomy of Book Discovery: A Case Study : Patrick Brown, posted to Goodreads, 14 June 2012

Book Discovery: Give Me Blind Dates With Books Suw Charman-Anderson, Forbes, 28 March 2013. check the update at the bottom of that article; it led directly to the new website

Why online book discovery is broken (and how to fix it) : Laura Hazard Owen, PaidContent, 17 January 2013

The discovery process is the same today as it might have been in 1989. What has changed is the volume of information available to readers. Once, you had the NYT Book Review, the New York Review of Books, a handful of others… now a world of reviews are a Google search away.

The increase in information about books led to a subsequent demand for books: You have no idea how much you want something if haven’t heard of it yet. There has also been an explosion of “broadcast channels” discussing and recommending books; the biggest of these was Oprah (is Oprah? How’s her book club v2.0 working out) but what other individual sites lack in stature, they more than make up for in numbers: 1000s of people with blogs (or tumblrs, or pinterest boards) (or even maybe facebook – I’m not on facebook so I don’t know about book culture there) — tens of thousands of mini-channels, and at least a dozen ‘major’ sites, all discussing books.

The change in customer demand is often referred to today as “The Long Tail”, a term coined (and/or repurposed to describe this phenomenon) by Chris Anderson — don’t get too bogged down in the Wikipedia entry on this one: that was hijacked by some math nerds a few years back — the basics of the long tail is that when customers can find obscure books they are also more likely to buy them. The immediate corollary is that someone, somewhere will buy even the most obscure book but only if they know about it — undiscovered is the same, functionally, as out of print.

Many commentators describe The Long Tail as uniquely an internet phenomenon, something that only came about with the rise of internet retailers. I politely disagree, and if you would care to know why: I invite you to get a job at a big box bookstore. Come work for me for a month. Answer the phones. Deal with the shopping public.

The change in customer demand does not begin and end with a web site and is not limited to online sales. When someone wants a book, they will seek it out from any retailer, and their buying decision is affected not by the discovery process but rather the same mix of price and convenience that backs all of their sales decisions. Say you just heard about the Cotton Malone thriller series from author Steve Berry – you may not have heard of Steve before (he’s a NYT bestselling author now, but also a bit of a b-lister) (sorry, Steve) — but via some mechanism on the internet, like a by-the-way-comment in a tangentially related blog post you suddenly are aware of The Templar Legacy (isbn 9780345476159) and you think, “Hey, maybe I should read that.”

So you pick up the phone, call your local bookstore – they have it, and you buy it over the weekend. You’re out running errands anyway on Saturday, stopping by the bookstore is easy. Convenience is a matter of personal perspective: maybe ordering online is easier, But There Is At Least One Bookstore Chain With 700+ Stores (still out there in July of 2013, even, not dead yet) and for many people it’s easier to buy in stores.

This example is not only hypothetical, but even if I’m right, the story is anecdotal. Online retail is obviously taking over everything. It’s not like I can point to 13 Billion Dollars in store-front retail book sales as reported by the US Census Bureau or 4.5 Billion in retail sales from a major chain — in an economy that may be recovering but still sucks.

…Nobody is going to a book store anymore, obviously.

When we talk about bookselling, we throw around figures in the billions – in the arena of business news, this isn’t enough to register with observers.

We can talk about monthly sales in the hundreds of millions. I can point out that with reported annual book store sales of $13 Billion, that means bookstores bank more than one billion dollars every month — on average, anyway ;) — and I’ll remind you a third time that the US Census reporting on book stores explicitly excludes online sales channels.

An industry that is dying, obviously.


For those who might argue otherwise: That bookselling is in decline, that retail storefronts can in no way compete with the efficiencies of online retailers, or even that no one wants a bookstore any more. Well, that is another topic.

[update 14 July 2013, 5:00pm EST : some sentences were added to clarify my thoughts on how the explosion of information on the internet is what expanded customer demand.]

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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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