I was reading Peter Turner’s blog post Nobody Knows Anything—But Let’s Not Let That Stop Us this morning, in which he reviews some of his assumptions about the book trade (while on the long drive to Maine). I was struck in particular by the first of these assumptions:
As the volume of content that is available increases, both delivering and determining content of quality will become increasingly difficult and valuable. Delivering, here, does not mean only producing but having the content discovered, used, engaged in some way. Quality includes relevance and context.
“discovered, used, engaged”: it seems to me that these must be final goal in the process of book commerce. Discovery — readers’ (customers’) discovery of the book that suits their needs or interests — is the brass ring of bookselling. Without it we have books without readers, product without consumers. And it has always been recognized as a problem. O.H. Cheney emphasized it in his Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931
17. With the best of intentions, critics and literary editors are not providing the American public with the guidance on books it so urgently needs. The main difficulty is that too little is known by the editors as to those needs and too little is being done to find out. A large proportion of the American people get no information on books at all and do not read criticism even if it is available. Too large a proportion of reviews are favorable. The major causes of unsatisfactory criticism are absence of policy, crowding of new books and budgets inadequate to meet this crowding.
18. The guides for the book buyer furnished by the processes of the industry are not enough and in many ways undesirable. (Cheney p 130)
The problem, however, is growing far beyond anything that Cheney might have imagined. According to Bowker’s annual report on U. S. print book publishing for 2011, compiled from its Books In Print® database, 328,259 new book titles and editions were released in 2010, a rise of 9% over the previous year and of of 53% since 2003. And that’s not the major change. Since 2007 POD and reprints have increased, on average, a whopping 283% per year. In 2010 Bowker recorded 3,806,360 new releases in the category of POD and Reprints.
For the first time in history, lack of choice in books is not the problem; an over-abundance of choice is (watch Barry Schwartz amusing 2005 TED lecture on how this is a problem). The traditional problem of signal-to-noise, where the book you want is the signal and all the other books are the noise, is reaching an intolerable imbalance. The ability filter the noise, to help readers discover the book they want, is an increasingly valuable skill; it is not one that either publishers or writers are normally good at. Quite the opposite, actually. The trend in publishing has been to produce as many books as reasonably possible in the hopes of getting a few big sellers that will pay for the losses. Or, as Laura Miller (reviewer for Salon) put it for a 2003 interview in the Hartford Courant,
There’s an economy of scale in the publishing industry. Editors are being urged to acquire books, even those they are not so enthusiastic about. The pressure comes from above — one winner will pay for many losses.
This scatter-gun approach can only exacerbate the problem, and it is reasonable to expect it to continue as more publishers become parts of media conglomerates that need the big winners and don’t have the book business experience or ambition.
Amazon has not mastered it either, despite the recommendation system that revolutionized e-commerce. I think that’s because this final stage is about communities and values. People want to know who values the books that are out there, so they can sift through the over-abundance of choice. Amazon made a start here with the recommendations, but trust in these systems is now failing rapidly, with frequent stories of biased reviews or authors packing Amazon with positive reveiws (see Garry Marshall’s TechRadar report on this). Without trust, these recommendations are simply more advertising. Trust requires authentication; if someone you have never met tells you a book is wonderful, you have no reason to believe her or him. What is missing is community.
On-line, this is best provided by tools like GoodReads, but in the physical, social world we move in it is still the independent, local bookstore that can best do this. Amazon implicitly recognizes this with their price app that encourages their customers to start their browsing in bricks-and-mortar stores. Sol Malkin, founder and manager of AB Bookmans Weekly, wrote in 1961, that a bookseller’s challenge is to get “the right book to the right party at the right place at the right time at the right price.”. This requires knowing your customers and, by extension, your community, and not just the community of readers. London bookdealer Vivian Archer at Newham Bookshop makes this clear in a Guardian interview from 2010.
“”We’re a part of our community and I think that is key. Any independent has got to have good relations with every sector of the community. What you have to do all the time is find new areas to keep bringing people in. Counselling and childcare is huge for us at the moment – health and social care, vocational training. In a community like this, which is quite a poor community, people are going back to get some sort of training and work, and these areas are strong for us. It’s about reacting to what people need in the moment. In such a diverse area, with so many different languages, we’re changing the dictionaries we sell from one week to the next. The big languages at the moment are all Eastern European – Polish, Albanian, Russian, but we do lots of Portuguese for the Angolans.”
If discovery is the goal and trust the required element, then social networks and community bookstores appear to hold the key.