Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain

Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It almost perfectly describes my book habits. The major difference is that I carefully examine the used and new prices; if they are sufficiently close, especially given shipping charges, I go new. But they often aren’t. Read the article and note this:

And what of the woman who sold me the [used] book [over the Internet]? She told me via e-mail that her real name was Heather Mash and that she worked as a domestic violence case manager in a women’s shelter not too far from Berkeley. She didn’t set out to subvert the publishing and bookselling world, she said. Like most of us who sell online, Ms. Mash began because she had too many books and wanted to raise money to buy more. “I would rather sell a book for a penny and let someone enjoy it than keep it collecting dust,” she said.

Many of the scholarly books I own concerning Melville or Tolkien would once have been unavailable or, if they were available, ludicrously expensive, and reading them probably would’ve required a good university library. Now I can buy them relatively cheaply; instead of $20 for Jane Chance’s The Mythology of Power, I got it for $4 or $5, counting shipping. Once, such books probably wouldn’t even have been available in paperback; the only option would’ve been hardbacks costing $45 – $100.

Although the New York Times article implies this hurts the publishing industry, I wonder if it really helps: a decreasing reliance on old books (or the “catalog”) means that publishers will be forced to pay more attention to new books if they are to make any money. At the same time, the real question is the extent to which used books are substitutes or complements for real books. With some works—like the classics cited in the article—the answer seems to be substitutes. With others, though, I suspect that readers are more likely to buy more books because they can better afford it.

The article implies that Amazon is partially a problem, but I would observe that people use Amazon because Amazon is incredibly, extraordinarily easy and cheap. It’s also simple to learn, as if easy and cheap weren’t enough. And the selection is good; for example, I recently mentioned Norman Rush’s extraordinary novel Mating in a post on The Mind-Body Problem. At this Amazon link, a dozen hardcover copies are available for “$0.01,” although this is deceptive because the $3.99 in shipping means that you’re actually paying $4. Still, that’s incredibly cheap; in a Seattle used bookstore not long ago, I saw a hardcover copy for $11. Furthermore, you can’t even buy new hardcover copies of Mating, and a used hardcover will probably last longer than a new paperback. Is it any surprise that I react to this situation with self-interest?

What can or should publishers do? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it means competing with their own catalog in terms of price. Or it might mean something else; I’m reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent piece in Harper’s, Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading:

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.

[…]

I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature—art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage. Amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other. Their definitions of what profiteth a man are too different.

And one more point, this one from The Zen of Graphics Programming by way of a Slashdot comment:

Anecdote the third: A while back, I had the good fortune to have lunch down by Seattle’s waterfront with Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (one of the best SF books I’ve come across in a long time). As he talked about the nature of networked technology and what he hoped to see emerge, he mentioned that a couple of blocks down the street was the pawn shop where Jimi Hendrix bought his first guitar. His point was that if a cheap guitar hadn’t been available, Hendrix’s unique talent would never have emerged. Similarly, he views the networking of society as a way to get affordable creative tools to many people, so as much talent as possible can be unearthed and developed.

This semester, the University of Arizona bookstore charged around $400 for class books, or around $340 used. A combination of new and used books from Amazon ran to about $250. I’ll keep the $150, thanks. But I’ll probably end up spending the rest on other books.

Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers' Gain

Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It almost perfectly describes my book habits. The major difference is that I carefully examine the used and new prices; if they are sufficiently close, especially given shipping charges, I go new. But they often aren’t. Read the article and note this:

And what of the woman who sold me the [used] book [over the Internet]? She told me via e-mail that her real name was Heather Mash and that she worked as a domestic violence case manager in a women’s shelter not too far from Berkeley. She didn’t set out to subvert the publishing and bookselling world, she said. Like most of us who sell online, Ms. Mash began because she had too many books and wanted to raise money to buy more. “I would rather sell a book for a penny and let someone enjoy it than keep it collecting dust,” she said.

Many of the scholarly books I own concerning Melville or Tolkien would once have been unavailable or, if they were available, ludicrously expensive, and reading them probably would’ve required a good university library. Now I can buy them relatively cheaply; instead of $20 for Jane Chance’s The Mythology of Power, I got it for $4 or $5, counting shipping. Once, such books probably wouldn’t even have been available in paperback; the only option would’ve been hardbacks costing $45 – $100.

Although the New York Times article implies this hurts the publishing industry, I wonder if it really helps: a decreasing reliance on old books (or the “catalog”) means that publishers will be forced to pay more attention to new books if they are to make any money. At the same time, the real question is the extent to which used books are substitutes or complements for real books. With some works—like the classics cited in the article—the answer seems to be substitutes. With others, though, I suspect that readers are more likely to buy more books because they can better afford it.

The article implies that Amazon is partially a problem, but I would observe that people use Amazon because Amazon is incredibly, extraordinarily easy and cheap. It’s also simple to learn, as if easy and cheap weren’t enough. And the selection is good; for example, I recently mentioned Norman Rush’s extraordinary novel Mating in a post on The Mind-Body Problem. At this Amazon link, a dozen hardcover copies are available for “$0.01,” although this is deceptive because the $3.99 in shipping means that you’re actually paying $4. Still, that’s incredibly cheap; in a Seattle used bookstore not long ago, I saw a hardcover copy for $11. Furthermore, you can’t even buy new hardcover copies of Mating, and a used hardcover will probably last longer than a new paperback. Is it any surprise that I react to this situation with self-interest?

What can or should publishers do? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it means competing with their own catalog in terms of price. Or it might mean something else; I’m reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent piece in Harper’s, Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading:

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.

[…]

I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature—art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage. Amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other. Their definitions of what profiteth a man are too different.

And one more point, this one from The Zen of Graphics Programming by way of a Slashdot comment:

Anecdote the third: A while back, I had the good fortune to have lunch down by Seattle’s waterfront with Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (one of the best SF books I’ve come across in a long time). As he talked about the nature of networked technology and what he hoped to see emerge, he mentioned that a couple of blocks down the street was the pawn shop where Jimi Hendrix bought his first guitar. His point was that if a cheap guitar hadn’t been available, Hendrix’s unique talent would never have emerged. Similarly, he views the networking of society as a way to get affordable creative tools to many people, so as much talent as possible can be unearthed and developed.

This semester, the University of Arizona bookstore charged around $400 for class books, or around $340 used. A combination of new and used books from Amazon ran to about $250. I’ll keep the $150, thanks. But I’ll probably end up spending the rest on other books.

Links and Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals and Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

* Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals is fun, but not as good as Mating. Read that first.

Mortals has lots of thought on the subject of identity, and internationalism, and love, and other Big Ideas, but they don’t quite coalesce into a whole. Still, to say a book is good but not up to the standards of Mating isn’t too terrible a comment, given the high standard of excellence. Ideas recurse through Mortals, growing bigger and smaller in relation to each other; in one early scene, Ray, a spy built closer to the ineptness of Austin Powers than the skill of James Bond but nonetheless an intellectual, thinks, “Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished.” It’s not the only process of improvement that’s never finished. Yet those ideas and the events reflecting them are not so cohesive or moving as they are in Mating.

* The New York Times inquires: If you’re online, are you really reading? My response: isn’t it obvious? Steven Berlin Johnson already answered preempted the piece with his response, Dawn of the Digital Natives.

* The uses of book blogs over search engines, argued by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

* Books Briefly Noted: Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone shows promise that fizzles into too many stilted conversations, clichés (Carlisle, Wisconsin, is “a small, tight-knit community” and Emily’s face is “a mask of irritation” in a sentence that’s awkward as a whole), and banal statements. For example, from the air, “Emily lifted her eyes from the brown squares of land carved up by rivers and roads […]” Compare this to Bellow, as originally posted here:

“And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed. From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun. They shone out like smelters’ puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over. As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height. And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”

—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

(Notice James Wood’s remark in How Fiction Works: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust.”)

Granted, it’s not entirely fair to compare first-time novelists to a master, but any novelist needs to realize that they should be comparing themselves to the best, because if they aren’t, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s. Nonetheless, I will reiterate that Kuehnert might improve over time, and even Bellow’s first was clearly not his best. In one passage, Kuehnert writes, “Where I saw, grass struggled to grow in gnarly turfs, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away […] it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.” Notice the smooth alliteration and consonance of the first sentence, with the sibilant “s” of “saw” merging into the end of “grass,” then the repeated “g’s” and finally the harmonious end of “beer” and “butts,” in a sentence expressing anything but harmony. The comparison to a bald head works, and the contrast between where Emily is and what’s within easy reach functions as a metaphor regarding her larger experience. Alas: passages like this are far rarer than the one about flying. In addition, she keeps using bad near-synonyms for “said,” and, even worse, likes attached adverbs to those synonyms. Stop!

* The LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, asks about writing and running.

Of course, maybe I’m not one to talk: neither of the unpublished novels in my proverbial drawer discuss running or feature athletes, and this note bemoans the lack of writing rather than solving the problem.

(Ugh: look at five and a half minutes in the first transition zone. I was disoriented from the swim and couldn’t get my shoes on and then forgot my helmet.)

* Ars Technica tells us that Yahoo’s music store is closing for good—and anyone who bought music from them won’t be able to play it in the future. This fear is the major problem with the Amazon Kindle, as discussed here, here, and here.

Links and Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush's Mortals and Stephanie Kuehnert's I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

* Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals is fun, but not as good as Mating. Read that first.

Mortals has lots of thought on the subject of identity, and internationalism, and love, and other Big Ideas, but they don’t quite coalesce into a whole. Still, to say a book is good but not up to the standards of Mating isn’t too terrible a comment, given the high standard of excellence. Ideas recurse through Mortals, growing bigger and smaller in relation to each other; in one early scene, Ray, a spy built closer to the ineptness of Austin Powers than the skill of James Bond but nonetheless an intellectual, thinks, “Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished.” It’s not the only process of improvement that’s never finished. Yet those ideas and the events reflecting them are not so cohesive or moving as they are in Mating.

* The New York Times inquires: If you’re online, are you really reading? My response: isn’t it obvious? Steven Berlin Johnson already answered preempted the piece with his response, Dawn of the Digital Natives.

* The uses of book blogs over search engines, argued by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

* Books Briefly Noted: Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone shows promise that fizzles into too many stilted conversations, clichés (Carlisle, Wisconsin, is “a small, tight-knit community” and Emily’s face is “a mask of irritation” in a sentence that’s awkward as a whole), and banal statements. For example, from the air, “Emily lifted her eyes from the brown squares of land carved up by rivers and roads […]” Compare this to Bellow, as originally posted here:

“And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed. From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun. They shone out like smelters’ puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over. As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height. And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”

—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

(Notice James Wood’s remark in How Fiction Works: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust.”)

Granted, it’s not entirely fair to compare first-time novelists to a master, but any novelist needs to realize that they should be comparing themselves to the best, because if they aren’t, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s. Nonetheless, I will reiterate that Kuehnert might improve over time, and even Bellow’s first was clearly not his best. In one passage, Kuehnert writes, “Where I saw, grass struggled to grow in gnarly turfs, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away […] it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.” Notice the smooth alliteration and consonance of the first sentence, with the sibilant “s” of “saw” merging into the end of “grass,” then the repeated “g’s” and finally the harmonious end of “beer” and “butts,” in a sentence expressing anything but harmony. The comparison to a bald head works, and the contrast between where Emily is and what’s within easy reach functions as a metaphor regarding her larger experience. Alas: passages like this are far rarer than the one about flying. In addition, she keeps using bad near-synonyms for “said,” and, even worse, likes attached adverbs to those synonyms. Stop!

* The LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, asks about writing and running.

Of course, maybe I’m not one to talk: neither of the unpublished novels in my proverbial drawer discuss running or feature athletes, and this note bemoans the lack of writing rather than solving the problem.

(Ugh: look at five and a half minutes in the first transition zone. I was disoriented from the swim and couldn’t get my shoes on and then forgot my helmet.)

* Ars Technica tells us that Yahoo’s music store is closing for good—and anyone who bought music from them won’t be able to play it in the future. This fear is the major problem with the Amazon Kindle, as discussed here, here, and here.

Richard Price on Clockers, research, and much more

Prior to the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series, I’d never heard of Richard Price’s Clockers. Now that I’ve been reading about it, I’m determined to read it, especially because the series has excellent taste—Norman Rush’s Mating was another featured novel.

See a marvelous interview with Price here. I can’t find a good representative sample of the interview, which is too big to summarize, but I’ll note this:

Q: So why not do a nonfiction book?

A: Because nonfiction is nonfiction. There’s nothing for me to do there except report. I ask journalists the same question: Don’t you want to just make this stuff up? And they’ll say to me, “You can’t top this stuff.” Their attitude is, you know, “I’m very good at summarizing what’s out there. And what’s out there is: God’s a first-rate novelist.” My attitude is like, is if it’s already out there, to me, that’s like clerical work. Although it’s not–I know that. But to me, I want to take all that stuff and fashion a metaphor from it. Because oftentimes, the way life unfolds, it’s very random and chaotic. It’s only in the history books where you look back everything seemed like it all happened in seven streamlined paragraphs. But daily life is much more meandering, and what a novel can do is condense and essentialize, and highlight. That’s what I like.

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