At the end of the 19th century, there was concern about the future of reading because people were spending so much time riding bicycles. New technology makes people think either/or instead of both/and. Publishing will continue to be a hybrid business, and it will flourish, online and off, as never before, if the publishing community collaborates on thinking outside the big box, and is creative and resourceful in taking advantage of the huge opportunities technology offers.
Overlooked in discussions about bookselling is that print books are a unique medium. They can be converted into other forms and media, but they are irreplaceably valuable. Imagine the world without movies and CDs as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then imagine it now without print books. A catastrophe for our personal, professional, and political future. Can you imagine taking an oath on an e-reader?
Guest column by literary agent Michael Larsen
of Larsen Pomada Literary Agents.
Mosaic: An Online Bookselling Community
One way to assure the future of print books is to regard them as artifacts of culture, not just commerce. The solution to online bookselling is for the publishing community to create its own Amazon as a non-profit cooperative, formed and administered by American Association of Publishers and the American Booksellers Association with the advice and support of The Author’s Guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and other writing and publishing organizations.
Publishers would upload books into the system, post metadata, change whatever they wish whenever they wish, and fulfill orders. The cloud and the low cost of starting tech companies make this project easier and cheaper to accomplish than ever. Present and former Amazonians would be delighted to help. It could start just by selling books, then add features members want.
A possible name for the organization: Mosaic, because it would be a unified image yet each imprint would be distinct and enrich the whole. The slogan to improve on: “We care about books.” With the support of stakeholders in the industry, Mosaic will be fail-proof and a service to readers everywhere. Making the software available to other countries will make the idea universal.
Indies Unbound: An Offline Bookselling Community
It’s been predicted that Barnes & Noble will not recover from its problems and will suffer the same fate as Borders and the independents the chains destroyed. The creative destruction of four-story bookstores will be the greatest opportunity ever for independent bookselling, if they become community-based nonprofits or co-ops. The ideal size for a bookstore is 3,000-4,000 feet. A growing network of independent booksellers can thrive if they do these four things:
1. Become member-and-community-supported nonprofits like other cultural resources, such as PBS, libraries, museums, symphony orchestras, and dance and opera companies. A customer in Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala, California handed owner Joel Crockett a $100 bill as a deposit on future purchases, which him to start a Community Supported Bookstore program. Members buy enough books in advance, perhaps at a discount, to help assure the store’s survival.
If the ABA decides to receive petitions from towns with, for example, a thousand names of people who commit to buying $100 worth of books a year, the ABA can help find someone to run it, help the person to start the store, and have someone available to answer questions. Regional associations and other indies will help.
The publishing community can support the ABA in making the case to the government that booksellers who wish should be nonprofits. The AAP and the ABA can help support new booksellers who want to adopt this model. Towns, local realtors, and independent stores could help provide needed products, services, and space.
This could happen with libraries that want to start a store. The ABA can post the demographics required to sustain a store, and send them to librarians, Chambers of Commerce, and regional bookselling organizations asking for potential locations. This idea will lead to the revival of stores forced out of business.
2. Have Espresso Book Machines that enable stores to stock as many books as Amazon as well as printing books for schools and independent publishers. Wouldn’t it be better for stores to stock one copy of twenty titles than twenty copies of one title? I watched Jason Epstein’s excellent Book Business being printed at McNally & Jackson in New York, before being handed the book warm off the press. It took five minutes.
Since technology years are like dog years, in five years, it will take one minute. AAP and ABA should collaborate with Xerox on helping to get EBMs into bookstores now and encouraging publishers to make their lists available on EBMs. Color printing and printing in other formats should be integrated into EBMs as soon as the technology makes it possible.
3. Make Bookstores an ever more needed respite for screenagers by being community centers that
- respond to their community’s needs and tastes
- provide events and classes
- serve as a meeting place for reading and writing groups
- contribute to community events and causes
4. Continue to collaborate with other businesses to make customers aware that communities lose a quarter of every dollar spent in chains while indies spend that income in the community. There is a growing interest in locally produced food and independently produced goods. Indies can use signing and all the other ways they communicate with customers to convince locavores to become loca-shoppers.
The America we love will not outlive print books. Technology is transforming the world from a collection of me cultures into a hyper-connected we culture, a global village with a human family united by the same needs and desires. We need books more than ever to help solve the problems our institutions can’t.
Technology is giving us these two ways for the book community to enlarge the community of the book. If, for the first time, the book community collaborates on marshaling the passion of readers, writers, and professionals, print books will receive the support they need and deserve. Like writing and publishing, bookselling is a labor of love. Wedding community and commerce will create an enduring union that will produce happy readers, publishers, and booksellers.
The blog aspires to help you and me understand writing and publishing. To make the blog as good as I would like it to be, I need your comments, questions, and answers. I hope that you will find it worth sharing with your community of writers.
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