Smorgasbords Don’t Have Bottoms

From N+1 Magazine:

For the first time since 2011, when Borders shut down, or 2007, when Amazon launched the Kindle, or maybe 1455, when Johannes Gutenberg went bankrupt immediately upon printing his game-changing best seller The Bible, the news about book publishing has seemed less than dire. A June 2019 New York Times article captured the mood: “Independent bookstores are thriving again, and print sales are rising while e-book sales are declining. Even Amazon is investing in physical bookstores across the country.”

A decade ago, few in the industry anticipated the comeback of indie bookstores. But the numbers are unambiguous: between 2009 and 2018, the number of indies in the US grew by nearly 40 percent. Ninety-nine stores opened in 2018, up from seventy-five in 2017. The indie model depends on expertise and endless hustle — as well as the active participation of consumers who have been galvanized by buy-local campaigns. The new independents host constant readings and book groups, and many also offer subscription programs and curated perks, like signed first editions, for their regular customers. Increasingly, the owners of these stores see their purpose in more ambitious terms: as rising rents threaten third places everywhere, indies’ physical locations become as valuable as their inventory. The stores are sleek and splashy and well-lighted places, their vision of reading centered on enthusiasm and edification. Their employees may be no less adventurous or snobby in their tastes than bookstore employees used to be, but now they hand-sell on social media, not just IRL. On the stores’ Instagrams, copies of Ducks, Newburyport and the latest Krasznahorkai pose on park benches next to scattered autumn leaves, or on beautifully pockmarked desks, latte adjacent. The bookstores have cats, and the cats, too, have Instagrams.

Meanwhile, up in the cloud, things look even brighter. As digital audio attains complete domination over CDs, audiobook sales keep rising, reaching nearly $1 billion in 2018, the seventh year in a row of double-digit revenue growth. Helped along by our smartphone addiction, the podcast boom, and the unending American commute, audiobooks have become the industry’s most durably growing sector and, though they have been around for nearly a century, its zeitgeist, with publishers happily experimenting in formats and release strategies. Audiobooks have gone where no physical books could — namely, into readers’ ears. There is every indication that they will remain there.

There are even encouraging signs at Barnes & Noble, the largest and most important bookstore chain in America, the last remaining obstacle to Amazon’s complete control of the sector, and, until recently, an ongoing source of gloom and worry for the publishing industry. It feels like B&N has been perpetually in decline, making poor decisions, and on the verge of utter collapse. But hope that this might change arose last summer, when Elliott Management, the hedge fund of the Republican megadonor and “vulture capitalist” Paul Singer, bought B&N for $683 million and brought in James Daunt to run the chain.

. . . .

Every article about [new Barnes & Noble President James] Daunt mentions the fact that Waterstones looks a lot cooler since he brought it back from the brink. B&N stores do not, at present, look cool; the caption of one photo in the New York Times’s glowingprofile of Daunt, published the same day as a glowing Wall Street Journal profile, read: “The homogeneous table legs at the Barnes & Noble in New York. At Waterstones, the look is varied.” Those of us whose primal bookstore memories include browsing Adbusters at the Borders next door to Circuit City, the smell of burnt milk wafting from Starbucks over B&N’s art history shelf, and the seemingly random stacks of hardcover frontlist fiction at the always empty Media Play never noticed homogeneous table legs. Homogeneity was the water we swam in. We are the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, but we bought both at big-box stores.

. . . .

Though he did recently describe the vibe at B&N as “crucifyingly boring,” Daunt has more than aesthetics on his mind. When he arrived at Waterstones, Daunt decreed that store managers would take back control of their own stock: in the Guardian’s words,“What sold in Hampstead might not go down well in the Highlands.” He also abandoned co-op, the somewhat crooked practice of publishers paying for display space and the reason why every B&N feels the same. British publishers grumbled, but they also realized they finally had a serious retail partner. Customers, meanwhile, were pleased to discover that there was more to British book production than memoirs by footballers or the Gallagher brothers. A similar change in direction at B&N, accompanied by even a modest uptick in market share, would mean a more diverse bookselling landscape. For a reading and buying public accustomed to bespoke retail, exhausted by the strip mall experience, and far from the closest independent bookstore, more attractive and autonomous Barnes & Nobles would be an improvement over the homogeneous table legs of the status quo.

. . . .

Unlike Waterstones, Barnes & Noble stores are enormous, their decadent square footage an artifact of the supersize 1980s and ’90s, the apex of the exurban dream. Too many of these giant stores are located in places frequented by dead-mall enthusiasts with drones and GoPros. In the short term, Daunt’s revival efforts are likely to lead to an even more accelerated schedule of store closures than B&N has experienced in the past decade. The parent company, too, seems cause for concern. Hedge funds have a gruesome, destructive record in retail. Along with private equity, they have fueled the retail apocalypse to a far greater extent than Amazon. How long will Daunt’s leash be? And how much time can he spend letting it out?

As consequential as it is, the indie resurgence is modest when weighed against the shelf space lost to the closure of Borders, or to the B&Ns that have reliably shuttered every year. Indies have benefited from the patterns of gentrification that have proved so punishing to other kinds of small businesses, and future growth may be inhibited by those same forces. (Bookstore owners’ public opposition to minimum-wage increases and unionization in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere suggests other tensions in the ecosystem.) Daunt has called the US “extraordinarily underbookshopped,” but it isn’t clear that either he or independent bookstore owners can do much more than stanch the bleeding.

On closer inspection, the news of decreased ebook sales, like that of B&N’s revival, is more complicated than the publishing press’s cheerful headlines suggest. When ebooks first emerged on the scene, the response from publishers (and, by extension, authors) veered from anguish to jubilation. Ebooks were going to destroy traditional publishing, as Amazon tightened its stranglehold — but they also, in the short run, expanded total revenues, as popular products tend to do. In the early 2010s, publishers enjoyed strong years of sales growth, driven in large part by ebook sales. Ebooks weren’t bad for writers, either — amid the byzantine royalty structure, in which it has been written in stone that authors should earn different and seemingly random amounts depending on the format their book is being conveyed in, it’s far better, for no discernible reason, to sell an ebook than a paperback.

The fear, though, was for the future. Would readers abandon print books for ebooks? If they did, would that leave publishers at the mercy of Amazon — which had cornered a market it helped create, via the Kindle — and its aggressive loss-leading discounts? 

. . . .

The real omission from the good-news stories is any honest acknowledgment of Amazon. The company sits comfortably at the peak of its influence, its supply chain built on the back of tax evasion, labor exploitation, corporate lobbying, massive profits from its web-server business, and federal antitrust enforcement that has hovered between lax and corrupt. Amazon’s power has been vast and growing for so long that it’s no longer new or noteworthy in the publishing press, except for the occasional article about its depressing brick-and-mortar bookstores, where endcap displays say things like “Books Most Frequently Highlighted by Kindle Customers.”

. . . .

Sadly, publishing will never be as interesting as the complete and total restructuring of society. But with a market share of 45 percent of print books and 83 percent of ebooks, Amazon remains capable of crippling the industry and upending its practices with little more than an algorithmic tweak.

. . . .

With the launch of the Kindle in 2007, Amazon helped reach the most “underbookshopped” readers of all — those without easy access to a bookstore or a library. The device remains a utopian innovation, a smartphone without most of the smartphone’s oppressive qualities. For all its disruptive impact on the industry and the environment, the Kindle has given readers a profound degree of choice and flexibility in their reading habits. Its accessibility features represent a true advance on the print book for the visually impaired and physically disabled. Amazon and its hardworking subsidiary, Audible, are making similar progress in audio.

In the past decade, Bezos’s early, antagonistic mentality has been diffused across a massive platform with limited oversight and the default ability to make life hell for publishers. 

. . . .

These days the buttons don’t have to vanish for publishers and authors to get screwed. Since 2017, third-party sellers are no longer relegated to links in small type: now they can compete for orders directly through the buttons. When you click buy now or add to cart, you might be purchasing a book — even a new book — from a reseller, even when you intend to do no such thing. You might end up with a foreign-market edition, or a secondhand edition at such a steep discount that the brand-new paperback seems like a bad deal. Or you might forget about the book altogether, because throughout the shopping process Amazon has been encouraging you to choose one of its own titles instead. Imagine an independent bookstore whose employees are always interrupting your browsing to offer a cheaper, bootlegged copy of the book you’re holding, and to point you to an array of even cheaper books they wrote themselves. Now imagine that process weaponized with vast amounts of information about your browsing and purchase history — and that of millions of other consumers.

. . . .

In a 1980 Senate hearing dedicated to conglomeration in the publishing industry, E. L. Doctorow warned that “when the publishing and distributing of books is finally in the hands of five or seven giant corporations, we will have a condition equivalent to that of the broadcast industry — network publishing and network bookselling.” The point wasn’t that he objected to commerce or making money, he said elsewhere in his testimony:

Publishers have always wanted to make money. . . . The point is that [the] delicate balance of pressures within a publishing firm is upset by the conglomerate values. The need for greater and greater profits and the expectation of them overloads the scale in favor of commerce — depending on the particular house and its editorial resources, faster or more slowly: the crossword-puzzle books and cookbooks and sexual-position books and how-to books and movie-tie-in books and television-celebrity books gradually occupy more of the publishers’ time and investment .

With the Penguin Random House merger, book publishing is down to the lower end of Doctorow’s estimate. The Big Five are increasingly at the mercy of a monopsonist that also serves as the digital storefront for self-published writers hoping to disrupt the big publishers. The publishers now earn over 10 percent of their annual revenue from ebooks they sell through the monopsonist, which, in return, withholds all the sales data from them, with the paltry exception of units moved. Publishing-friendly media — book reviews, and also newspapers more generally — has meanwhile been hollowed out.

Link to the rest at N+1 Magazine

PG had never heard of N+1 Magazine before stumbling across the OP.

He’s not certain whether he will hear of it again or not.

PG is regularly struck by how often the undoubtedly young writers for various online startups with pretensions toward literary commentary and reporting about contemporary book culture sound like a collection of old geezers dreaming about the good old days when Meg Ryan ran their local bookstore and Tom Hanks quit Amazon to join her there.

1 thought on “Smorgasbords Don’t Have Bottoms”

  1. The full OP is very long, frequently misinformed and riddled with anti-Amazon bias. He starts by quoting the NY Times to the effect that “Independent bookstores are thriving again, and print sales are rising while e-book sales are declining …” which is pretty clear evidence that he confuses the trad publishers efforts with the whole market. So far as I can tell only Amazon knows what is happening and, as usual, they are not talking (save that I believe they did say the e-book sales rose again in 2019, whatever “sales” means in this context). None of this is surprising as he regards David Streitfeld as a reliable source for Amazon’s activities.

    What is clear is that he forgets that publishers and bookshops are middlemen and that the people who matter are the writers and readers. The middlemen are only useful when they add value but the writer seems to give them value independent of their contribution in putting books before readers.

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