jareksteele

April 11, 2016

Scorched Earth – Bathroom Bills and Boycott in North Carolina


maxresdefaultWell, I’m in a fix. Last month, North Carolina passed a law that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This isn’t a shocker, and North Carolina isn’t by itself.  Nearly 200 anti-lgbt laws have been introduced in many states since January including in my own state of Missouri. North Carolina  isn’t even the first to introduce a “bathroom bill” nor are the citizens of North Carolina more bigoted than citizens of any other state – but they are the first in this current volley of activism against lgbt rights to be boycotted by Bruce Springsteen.

mainsignI’m not gonna lie. When I read that, I felt vindicated for spending my adolescence idolizing The Boss and learning all the lyrics to every song on the Born in the USA cassette tape my best friend had in her basement, my ear close to the jam box speaker. I wanted to be Bruce. After I transitioned from female to male I realized I couldn’t pull off his look, hard as I tried, but damn I felt validated.  I felt SEEN, actually seen by Bruce!
And I’m no stranger to protest. I’m no stranger to activism. I’m all about boycott when it targets obscene abuse of power.  There are few things more satisfying in a David v Goliath battle than the support of the masses – a revolution built by the common man and the miracle of social change by the will of the people. It’s intoxicating.

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And just so we’re clear – bathroom bills such as this would require me to use the women’s restroom.

For this wave of revolution to be in support of me and my transgender brothers and sisters – well, that just brings tears to my eyes.  I’ve been denied healthcare, neglected in hospitals, insulted and verbally assaulted, laughed at, ignored, and yes – chased out of bathrooms (then followed to my car afterward).  People in my own queer community have mocked my identity right in front of me. Out loud. Being transgender isn’t a fad or a phase or a fashion statement. It’s dangerous.  People act like bathroom bills are about protecting innocent young women from predators, but what they’re really about is isolating the “other” and publicly shaming and shunning them. The violence that happens in a public restroom with a trans person in it happens to the trans person.

The other part of my identity is my role as an independent bookseller, and therein lies the struggle. When I saw this open letter from 269 children’s book authors and illustrators I thought, “Oh my god – my industry -MY PEOPLE support me.” They in no uncertain terms condemned this hateful legislation and stated they would boycott NC too.

And then my spirits crashed.

Here’s an excerpt. “…But you have our word that we will never abandon our thousands and thousands of readers in North Carolina. We stand with those who share our guiding principles and fundamental beliefs of equality, inclusion,and fair treatment. Thus, we will continue to visit your schools and libraries. ” (bold and italics mine)

What this means in reality is that they’re boycotting independent bookstores located in North Carolina. According to Malaprop’s Bookstore in North Carolina, Sherman Alexie was the first to cancel an event with them.  I love Sherman Alexie almost as much as I love Bruce, but I have to speak truth – cancelling appearances with independent bookstore because of the bathroom bill while keeping appearances at schools and libraries is wrong.

 

While I wholeheartedly support pretty much any tactic to fight these regressive, hateful laws that target trans people, Malaprop’s are the good guys. They’re a lot like Left Bank Books in that they’re a progressive independent bookstore in a conservative state. Sometimes it’s necessary when protesting to be sure you’re not throwing away the good with the bad. Scorched earth just leaves ash.

When I made this point on Facebook I got pushback. “Boycott all or nothing.” “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the common good.” “Entire forests can grow from the ash.”

Like I said, revolution is intoxicating.

But if I may, let me suggest this – I get sacrifice for greater good, but why sacrifice an ally who actively works toward the same goal? What other allies would we sacrifice? And then, once allies are sacrificed, what is the greater good?

concertBruce Springsteen cancelled a show at the Greensboro Coliseum, which is “one of the most actively booked facilities in the country hosting more than 1,100 events on an annual basis” according to their website – that’s 22,000 seats filled 1100 times a year – which means over 20 million tickets and untold ticket revenue that has not paid for gender neutral bathrooms, hasn’t hosted talks about the issue and hasn’t used that considerable clout to persuade their home state to treat trans people fairly.

malaprops_bookstore_cafe_logo_040716Malaprop’s, by contrast, uses a yearly revenue of at most .2% of that venue’s revenue to do all of those things and more – and the authors who are cancelling are still going to North Carolina – they’re just skipping the bookstores in favor of libraries and schools.

One boycott makes a statement by interrupting an obscene flow of cash and making a point to thousands of people by interrupting their plans. The other destroys an ally that is making every good faith effort to be the change the state seeks. It would be like boycotting MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, the coffeehouse at the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Louis, because of racism in Missouri courts.

None of our states are innocent of bigotry against transgender people. In 2015, more transgender people were murdered than in any other year on record. In fact, I can’t think of a single place where I can, even 12 years into my transition, relax in my body. Protest is necessary. Revolution is necessary.  But we must support the allies who support us.  We cannot allow them to be swept up as collateral damage in our quest for social justice – especially when the goal we seek is a more humane world for the underdog.

March 28, 2013

Goodbye Goodreads – How Amazon will ruin a Good thing.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 7:49 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Perky snapshot of the happy couple gripping their departing souls.

I saw the news first in a series of notifications that Facebook sent me on my phone alerting me that people were commenting on a post I had made on the Left Bank Books page.  I hadn’t actually made a post today, so imagine my surprise that we were getting so much attention!

After struggling to find the actual post on my phone for a few panicked minutes I resorted to firing up ye olde laptop, and there it was, the offending status.

Apparently while I was away from the switch today, one of my alert co-workers posted the news that only comes as a shock to those who think Amazon or Goodreads gives one flying.. well, you know.. about stupid little things like diversity, independence and healthy competition in the book industry.  Goodreads sold out to Amazon.

Yawn.

After a couple of seconds of scrolling through my friends’ statuses, I found the link to Goodreads announcement promising “exciting news” complete with a perky picture of Otis and Elizabeth, founders of Goodreads, clutching Kindles with Goodreads stickers on them.

I scanned the message and found the usual blather about being able to “touch millions of people” and blah blah blah.  Then in the second paragraph I just had to stop for a second.  “We truly could not think of a more perfect partner for Goodreads as we both share a love of books and an appreciation for the authors who write them.”

Here’s my message for Goodreads –

Really, Goodreads?  You’ve forsaken all the other opportunities to partner with independent bookstores, Kobo, even Barnes & Noble & the Nook?  How about iPad?  Also, who at Amazon has a love of books or authors?

And who, for the love of all that is good in the world, will FINALLY notice and successfully challenge Amazon’s blatant attempts – and dare I say it, success – at monopolizing an entire industry?

I’ve had my issues with Goodreads before, and truthfully I’ve been way too preoccupied with running my own bookstore to spend much time reviewing books for free for a company who will then use those reviews to sell books somewhere else.  Back when I started my Goodreads account, I noticed that you couldn’t remove the Amazon link from the places to buy the books, but I did settle with including Indiebound and my bookstore among them.  Heck, I even started a Goodreads account for the store and encouraged – yes, that’s right Otis and Elizabeth, encouraged – the booksellers who work with me to review books there so that we could feature those reviews in their staff pick pages on our website to, you know, sell books.  We actually talked about it at staff meetings there for a while, looking for ways to better incorporate Goodreads into our ways of recommending books because you had a pretty cool idea.

I’ve now deleted all the accounts to which I have administrative access.

And, ok sure. Kindle is the Kleenex of e-readers.  And, alright yes, you’ll reach a crap-load of readers, but here’s the bigger picture – and yes there is a bigger picture than Amazon:

You just turned your back on another, more interesting crap-load of readers who use Kobo and Nook and have zero interest in Amazon’s app, Kindle or other godforsaken tool.  And this particular crap-load of readers actually spend more money per e-book, and have stronger loyalty to libraries, independent stores and other bricks and mortar stores – an attitude which, incidentally, nurtures books and reading in a way that selling your reader information to the biggest of all Big Brothers just doesn’t do.  I’ll spare you the speech about supporting local economies, because I do realize it’s too much to ask to call the world around you to your attention on this, your “emotional day” when you feel like a “college graduate.”  I’m so very happy for you that you’ve graduated from the low rent, unwashed masses of independent readers, sellers, writers and publishers who actually built, with the suggestions, recommendations and conversations, the empire you just sold.

p.s. – It doesn’t soften the blow when you mention job offerings.  It just sounds the bell that means you’re going to hire people to accumulate more of our, scratch that, their data to sell.

Anyway, to riff off the Goodreads message:

I’m not excited about this for three reasons:

1. With the reach and resources of Amazon, Goodreads can introduce more readers to our vibrant community of book lovers and create an even better experience for our members and create a more generic and cold experience for your members.

2. Our members have been asking us to bring the Goodreads experience to an e-reader for a long time. Now we’re looking forward to bringing Goodreads to the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle, and further reinventing what reading can be blowing the opportunity to bring the Goodreads experience to ALL e-readers and tablets in the world.

3. Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity (so they won’t have to underwrite your operating expenses), under the Goodreads brand (so they can get around monopoly regulations) and with our unique culture (which will gradually be colonized and then assimilated to the Amazon culture, whereupon your brand will disappear and Amazon will take what you’ve given them and watch you fail with glee.)

I’ve reached the end of my interest in this particular subject for the evening.  I’ll drink a toast to your “graduation” when I open my Schlafly Pale Ale.

October 30, 2012

Operation Book Deployment: The Penguin Random House Juggernaut

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Tonight I’m watching Sandy stomp her way inland from the East Coast, infiltrating tunnels, flooding subways, soaking parks and attracting Anderson Cooper and his doppelgangers to the flooded streets like dogs to the cat litter box.

It’s hard not to draw the parallel to the other news taking shape relatively quietly under the noise of the election and stormageddon that Penguin and Random House, two of the biggest, most bloated publishers in the world will merge creating a publishing Superstorm of their very own.

The New York Times article about this is a must read. Especially this little gem where they report Penguin Random House will “invest in books and in new ways of deploying them.” (apparently we deploy books like unmanned drones now) “This could include digital platforms for selling books directly to consumers… as well as new digital formats.” [italics and sarcasm mine] Awesome. Now bookstores can compete against publishers AND Amazon. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t want to destroy bookselling? Anyone?

Let’s just dial it back a tick and take a good look at what’s going on here, shall we?

The United States Department of (in)Justice looked up from their Kindles briefly to side with Amazon on the Agency Model lawsuit – a decision that was as patently ridiculous as the Seahawks/Packers Replacement Ref call – and the heads of virtually every major publisher in the world looked at each other, held up their stock trade orders high above their heads and said in unison “SELL.”

Why?  Because the Agency Model allowed the publishers and bookstores to combat the rape of the the bookselling industry by Amazon.  Now that the assault is legitimized by the government, publishing is trying to find a way to shut that whole thing down.

What do you do when your company has no control over its profit margin and is being willfully undercut by it’s main customer?  If you own an independent bookstore, you call that a normal day.  If you’re a corporate giant like Penguin, you merge with another more powerful giant so that you have bargaining power.

But what does this mean for the other 99%?  The authors, the booksellers, the readers?  It means less competition.  For everything.  And that, my friend, is bad news for everyone.

  1. If more of the big boys merge (MPS, Hachette, HarperCollins, etc.) authors will have even fewer places to shop their books, meaning they’ll get paid less.  Meaning they won’t be able to even make the modest living they do now.
  2. Which leads us to consequence number two – readers won’t enjoy as many new releases.  Not only will authors get squeezed out of the game, the types of books that get published will represent a narrower and narrower range.  If there are only 2 or 3 big publishers, who is going to take a chance on the next Kurt Vonnegut?  Who is going to stick with the next Gillian Flynn through a couple smaller releases before the big “Gone Girl” break?  More importantly, who will represent the infinitely important books to marginalized people (think Stone Butch Blues to an entire generation of working class Butch Lesbians and Gender Queer people.)
  3. How can I put this?  Bookselling isn’t generic retail, folks. It’s specific.  Sure, you can scroll through endless lists for recommendations, but you need a real, live person to tell you if those recommendations (often paid for by the publicist or publisher) are bogus or on the mark.  Really, if you love cats, poetry and humor, an algorithm might not direct you to I Could Pee On This – but I would.    And that sells books.  I mean, I know I’ve talked about a lot here, but isn’t selling books the point?  Readers don’t want to be “deployed” to.  They want to talk to someone they trust.

I haven’t even touched on the cash flow nightmare owing only a few gigantic vendors would cause for hundreds of bookstores, or the jobs that will be lost when this merger deems the additional sales reps, credit reps, editors, publicists and eventually entire imprints “redundant.”

The only (and I do mean only) tiny, infinitesimal scrap of light this trend allows through the gathering clouds is the small hope that Amazon and its unregulated Monopoly could possibly have to actually participate in the economy rather than suck it dry.

But that is a very small consolation prize.  Like getting an ice cream cone after watching your house burn down.  For the record, I’m requesting chocolate.  With sprinkles.  And a waffle cone at the very least.

July 20, 2012

A Gentle(wo)man’s Profession


Dog and Pony ShowKris, Danielle and I landed in NYC an hour late on Tuesday because in the words of our pilot our plane was “broken” and we had to find another one.  We missed our first appointment and went straight to our temporary digs courtesy of Air BNB where our host met us with a cold beer and his pitch.

Everyone in New York has one, so this came as no surprise, but jumping into a discussion about how he could break into digital-only publishing before we put our bags down didn’t set an auspicious tone for the rest of our trip – which was to condense what we do at ye olde bookstore into a brochure and 30 minute spiel in the hopes of reminding them to send authors our way.

We persevered though.  Danielle had micro-scheduled us with machine-like precision so we did talk to about 100 of the publishing industry’s decision makers – everyone from publicists and editors to assistants and interns (and if you don’t think a competent assistant has power, you obviously have never a.) worked as one or b.) worked with one).

Having me along was overkill.  I don’t typically jump in and talk over anyone, which meant that I was mostly silent, which is actually fine.  My strength is observation.

And here is what I observed:

Women.  Powerful, decisive, funny, intelligent women.  I didn’t do an official census of Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins or any of the others (that would have just been creepy) but in almost every case women filled those cubicles AND the corner offices.  The brain power, the holders of institutional knowledge, the creative thinkers – women.

This is no surprise.  Left Bank Books, almost every bookstore in the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, and many many other independent bookstores in the country are owned at least in part by women and employ lots of women in powerful, decision making positions.

Women read more than men.  Women form book clubs.  Women care more about fiction than men do, but they also read nonfiction.  Women, in large part, drive the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely the Sonny Mehtas of the industry, and we met with some really outstanding male publicists this past week.  It’s not an all-girls club, but women are the heart of it.

One of the coolest (and possibly most surreal) parts of our trips to New York are our visits with Kris’ cousin Sallye, who happens to be one of the buyers for Barnes & Noble.  Sitting at a table listening to the two of these powerhouse book people, the Montagues and Capulets of bookselling, talk in tones sometimes as passionate as Romeo and Juliet, about the industry and the books in it is pretty awe-inspiring.  As I’ve said before, I’m not exactly a scintillating conversationalist (which doesn’t matter because the two of them hold forth with an energy that is no joke) so I listen, observe, and learn.

You can’t see the brown pants and black socks here. Just trust me though.

And here’s where a thought struck me, first with Sallye and Kris, and has been percolating in my brain since my conversation with our friend Eve, who also lives in New York but works in the Fashion Industry (I capitalize that because she works with Estee Lauder in the sense that “works with” should also be capitalized – a fact that is hilarious to me when I show up for dinner wearing brown pants, black socks and no apologies).  Anyway, she mentioned that in the Fashion District being “pretty” earns women “intelligence points.”  People take you more seriously if you select the right shoes – like you understand the industry- which is the opposite of her -and almost every other woman on the planet’s- other experiences in other industries.

Flash back to our meetings with the publishers.  These women had the right shoes, too (I guess, but I wore Adidas to a fancy restaurant so how would I know?) and they have equally spectacular brains and instincts, but they and the rest of our industry are being squeezed.  “Restacked” as our host at one downsized smaller complex of offices put it.

Why?

Here are two industries dominated by women (and some pretty awesome men).  In one – the fashion industry- men have a large place along side women – tandem.  In the other, the domination of the industry is by Amazon (Jeff Bezos) and e-readers  – again Bezos (Kindle), Leonard Riggio (Nook), Steve Jobs (iPad), Joseph Jacobsen (co-founder of E Ink, which was subsequently sold to a Taiwanese concern) etc. to destroy the current model.

“Destroy” might not be the right term to use for B&N at this point.  They do persist with bricks and mortar stores and don’t lock you into their e-book format with the Nook.  Compared to Bezos, Riggio is a book selling champion.

Things have gone sideways indeed, if I (of all people) am cutting a massive corporation slack, but I digress.

I’m not trying to make a case that the Patriarchy has conspired to kill literature (or that the fashion industry is a bastion of feminism).  But isn’t it odd that an almost exclusively male industry (the tech industry) threatens the book?  Like the only way for guys to get back in was to make it about the most powerful… gadget?

I’m not suggesting that e-readers don’t have a big place in the modern reading experience.  In fact, as a last minute add-on, we visited the offices of a company who is re-conceptualizing the e-reading experience to actually work in tandem with independent bookstores (and other “curators”) and give readers who like the digital experience a solid choice besides Amazon.  Exciting stuff.

Exceptions to the rule aside, I just wonder why one industry has been so successful at colonizing and then cannibalizing another.  The winner in these kinds of struggles isn’t always right.  Often it’s just the entity that is unable to use its inside voice. The loudest voices in the room are very often (although not in my case) male.

Books weren’t broken before we all decided what they really were missing were batteries.  Despite being a deeply flawed industry, books (publishing and selling) work because of not in spite of the number of contributing voices.  And it is no coincidence that so many of them are women’s voices.

July 18, 2012

There’s No Crying In Bookselling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:40 am
Tags: , , ,

There's No CryingI’m awake in the middle of the night in New York City – not in the Maritime Hotel, where I’d like to be soaking my heat stroked body in a cool Gin & Stormy, but stone sober in my bed reflecting on my day today, and steeling myself for tomorrow’s meetings with Gotham’s bigger publishers.

Ostensibly, we’re here to pitch our more than 200 event per year reading series to their publicity departments so that they’ll send their authors to St. Louis in general, and us in particular.  The reality is that we’re selling the idea that publishers, authors and readers still need bookstores.

Sometimes the act of selling and reselling this idea to other people, especially the publishers (who have found themselves somewhat paddle-less in this dammed up creek of an industry), is invigorating.  Language isn’t just powerful between the covers of a book,  it’s just as powerful in naming your own fate.  In fact, that’s how the purveyors of the notion that the Kindle is Christ returned have succeeded in convincing us that we need to follow, lock step, into the Amazonian future – and that anyone who rejects that notion just doesn’t get it because they’re a luddite or are delusional.  They simply control the conversation.  They spout statistics about the increase in e-Book consumption and seamlessly equate that with Amazon.

They’re good.

Above every conversation involving books, e-books, publishing, writing or reading hangs the specter of the apparently inevitable world domination of one e-tailer.  Even if that’s not what we’re talking about – that’s what we’re talking about.

Yeah, I could go on and on about how they do this – from tax evasion to the DOJ’s bogus anti-trust lawsuit against anyone else trying to sell e-books to the simultaneous no-bid contract with the United States government to buy Kindles.

But what I’m really thinking about tonight is my woodworking shop in my garage at home, and my bicycle that’s waiting for me to ride it, and my son who just got his first tattoo, and the stack of 6 books on my nightstand waiting patiently to be read, and the friendship and respect I feel for the co-workers who surround me every day. A word from our sponsors – This life was brought to you by an independent bookstore.

I guess this is why I’m up in the middle of the night doing our payroll and paying Simon & Schuster before we meet with them tomorrow.  Because as invigorating as changing the conversation is, as necessary as it is to name our own fate, it is also endless and stressful.  Many times too much so.  I can think of a few booksellers who’ve moved on because of it.

But to badly paraphrase Tom Hanks, there’s no crying in bookselling.  So I will close with this, wake up tomorrow, tilt at a windmill or two, and count myself lucky.

Then I might go have a drink.

June 11, 2012

The Apathy and the Ecstasy


I started my job at Left Bank Books when I was 29 years old – two days after interviewing with owners Kris Kleindienst and Barry Leibman in a borrowed shirt a size too big which I kept tucking in and untucking in the minutes before my interview, trying to decide which way made me look more attractive as a job candidate.  Should I look more business-like?  Tucked.  Or should I look like the ubercool booksellers at the counter?  Untucked.

My terror about the interview lessened as I talked to them about the store.  It’s history and traditions sang to me a siren song tuned specifically to my desires.  We talked, planned and joked through the interview and I knew I was a goner.

Then my terror returned at the end of the interview when I was asked to take the “Bookstore Quiz” – a two page short answer test on titles, authors and the finer points of shelving books.  I froze, and despite having completed an independent study of all of Virginia Woolf’s writing the year before, I could not summon one single title she had written.

When I handed my test back to Kris, I mumbled something about how sorry I was to have wasted their time.  I was hired before I left the building.

We are now ten years past my Left Bank beginning, and I own this dream with Kris.  In those years I have seen writers succeed and fail, publishers rise and fall, bookstores open and close.  The book survives because it is necessary to our democracy.  Access to it is necessary to our democracy.

I tell you this story because I want you to know what my career means to me, and what the notion of independent bookselling means not just to me, but to many thousands of others.

And to ask you a favor.

Right now, the department of justice is proceeding with an antitrust lawsuit against several publishers and Apple over e-books.  I summed this up on my last post here: https://jareksteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/feed-the-monster/

Part of the court’s process is that they have to allow for public comment on this issue.  The deadline for this is June 25 – a mere two weeks from now – and even one letter from you (yes you family, friends and customers) will make a difference.

The lawsuit (encouraged in large part by Amazon) says that publishers shouldn’t be able to set the prices on the e-books they publish.  They say this is “price fixing.”

Amazon wants to be able to continue their war against independent booksellers (and lots of other indie businesses) by selling ebooks at a fraction of their cost as a loss leader so they can sell you other products.

The publishers, hundreds of bookstores, and many, many authors and readers want the opportunity to offer these books too – something that becomes impossible when a massive giant sabotages the rest of the industry, creating its own largely tax-free monopoly.

Books – even e-books- aren’t free to produce.  The artist’s work is worth something.  The editor’s work is worth something.  The publicist’s work is worth something.  The bookseller’s work is worth something.  If publishers can’t set a price on their own product to cover these costs, parasites like Amazon can devalue literature until no-one will be able to afford to produce it, and no-one without the money to buy a Kindle will be able to access what is produced.

That is very dangerous.

The enemies of a fair marketplace are betting on public ignorance and apathy here.  If you zone out, click away and forget this, they will be very happy.  But there is a clear right and wrong.  A free market depends on a healthy and vibrant marketplace with plenty of competitors to check and balance each other.  If this lawsuit is successful, only one business will win the right to tell you what to read, and your choices will disappear.

You don’t need to be a bookseller to care about this.

Please write a letter – even if it’s only a few sentences telling the Department of Justice and the Judges that this lawsuit, if successful, will only benefit one corporate giant – which is the opposite of how it’s intended – and send it here:

John Read
Chief, Litigation III Section
Antitrust Division
U.S. Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530

Then send it here:

John.Read@usdoj.gov

Then to be sure your voice is heard, send a copy to dan@bookweb.org (the American Booksellers Association).

For more information, go here:

http://news.bookweb.org/news/aba-members-urged-make-their-voices-heard-re-agency-model

Your grateful bookseller,

Jarek Steele

February 6, 2012

Publishing for one is publishing for all – a word about IndieBound’s new policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:28 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In one of those deals that are reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s midnight deal at the crossroad, Houghton Mifflin announced that it would publish Amazon Publishing’s books via its new “New Harvest” imprint, thereby adding more dubious credibility to the Walmart of the internet.  It may not seem like a huge deal to the ordinary reader, but consider this:

When Kris tried to order a book published by a major publisher in bulk quantity for a customer a couple of weeks ago, she looked at Amazon to see what kind of competition we had.  This is not uncommon.  People look there to see what they “should” be charged and then ask us to match it without knowing that Amazon sells many books below the cost of what we actually pay for it.  (I say “we” meaning real bookstores who don’t get the deals Amazon gets.  My proof?  An actual Amazon invoice from a major publisher that was misdelivered to us recently listing an additional two percent discount for them that we don’t get, but I digress.)  Anyway, Kris looked on Amazon and then called customer service at said big publisher and asked if we could get the same deal as Amazon so we could sell the book at a competitive price.  Not only were we told that Amazon doesn’t get special deals from them, the “customer service” rep told her to order it from, you guessed it, Amazon.

Yes, the publisher actually directed one of its customers to order one of their products from its competitor.  This is sort of like Foot Locker calling up Nike and being directed to order their next shipment of running shoes from Payless.  I’m sure the folks at this publishing house don’t see us as actual competition for Amazon.  After all, we are David to the Amazon Goliath.  We won’t be stocking New Harvest titles, but will this paper cut make a difference to the Mighty One?  Yeah, right.

And yet…

Today, in a very proud moment, I opened an e-mail from IndieBound (the folks that host and manage the vast e-commerce database for most indie bookstores in the country) that announced its new policy:

While Amazon is seeking to distribute its print catalog through conventional means, it seems that they are simultaneously pursuing a strategy of locking in ebook exclusives which other retailers are not allowed to sell.  IndieCommerce believes that this is wrong, and that any book title for sale should be available to all retailers in the same formats and on the same basis.  So, IndieCommerce has made a decision not to list these titles for sale through IndieCommerce sites.

 This means that the American Booksellers Association is calling Amazon on its shady business practices.  Sure, Left Bank Books can “not sell” Amazon… er, I mean “New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin” titles.  Who would care?  But this is a definite step in the right direction.

Left unchecked and unregulated the monopolization of the bookselling industry will not “introduce as many authors to as many readers as possible” as Larry Kirshbaum suggests.  It will, instead, stamp out, delete and destroy the efforts of other publishers, bookstores and authors who want to “introduce” their own favorites that might just have come from somewhere else.  It will also fool readers into thinking they have a choice, when really all roads lead back to Bezos.  It’s corporate greed clothed in fake populism.

Exclusivity is the enemy of democracy.  It is anathema to fair play.

One small voice drowns in the cacophony of bullies, but a chorus of independent voices – some small, some big, some new, some old rising together in a crescendo is a beautifully loud thing.  Today, I’m proud of our organization, who is listening and responding to the needs of its members.

Well done.

January 18, 2012

Winter Institute Diary Entry # 1, wherein I confess my love for my profession

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:09 pm
Tags: , ,

Maybe it’s the allure of hotel coffee and bad box lunches, but I do love this conference.  More than that, I love independent booksellers.  Taken out of context,we are a worrisome group – (mostly) Introverted readers who also run businesses that employ introverted readers and sell books to other introverts.  Definitely not a textbook business plan.  As a group, though, we are thought leaders.  We shape and define the literary conversation.  As Ann Patchett said in her speech this morning, we are capable of creating trends just by willing it to be so.

Ok, I skipped out on the last two educational sessions today.  Give me a break – I have been social and outgoing for a solid 4 1/2 hours.  I need solitary time.  Just me and my keyboard.

But let’s talk about the past 4 1/2 hours here in New Orleans, where 500 of my closest bookselling friends are gathered to talk to each other about this rebellious, resilient industry of ours.

I didn’t think I’d like listening to the President and CEO of Ingram, but I actually sort of did (whilst remembering the very uncomfortable conference call a couple of years ago wherein the credit department of said wholesaler scolded me for paying our bill a few days late each month).  I set down the chip on my shoulder long enough to actually benefit from what he said, and I came away remembering this most of all:

(paraphrased) If selling books is your main focus, you will fail.

My first instinct was to dismiss him.  I didn’t take two planes to The Big Easy to be told that if I focus on selling books, I’ll die.  But he illustrated his point by talking about a company that had been a leader for over 100 years, who invented laptop word processors, and introduced the first PDA to the world – Smith-Corona.  Their mission: To be the best typewriter company in the world” was too single focused, too narrow, and technology upstarts devoured them.

I started thinking about my quest to be the best bookstore in St. Louis.  I realized I was thinking too narrowly about who we are and what we do.  Certainly we must choose a path that is focused with laser-like specificity – do one thing and do it well – but what if the definition of that thing is unchained from its dock?  Does it float out to sea, or does it gain steam and chart a new course?  What if we redefine what it means to be a bookstore?

Image

I definitely don’t have the answer to that.  Most of my professional life is spent balancing two ideas: preserving the  the core identity and traditions of our 42 year old store (and hundreds of years old profession), and pioneering uncharted territory to ensure its future.

For Christmas I learned how to tool leather and made a guitar strap for my son that says, “Be truthful, gentle  and fearless.” (a quote from Gandhi)  It has become my mantra in days of uncertainty.  I have trouble with being fearless, but I do feel good about the armada of other souls who are untethered from their docks, who are choosing to chart similar courses with me.

December 14, 2011

Them’s Fightin’ Words: Slate Magazine’s Misguided Rant Against Bookstores

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:35 pm
Tags: , , ,

Farhad Manjoo - Bookstore hater

Oh, man.  Where do I begin?  I thought I had said what I wanted to say about this in my last blog post, but obviously there’s more to say.

Danielle, our Events Coordinator here at Left Bank Books, forwarded to me this gem from Slate Magazine in an email with the subject, “your next blog post?”  Before I even got past the title I knew I wasn’t finished with this topic, although I really wish I was.

The issue: Farhad Manjoo (pictured), Slate Magazine’s Technology columnist, wrote passionately about the apparent idiocy in shopping at a locally owned independent bookstore like mine.  It was a response to Richard Russo’s article in the New York Times defending the bookstore.

Manjoo sets it up like this – Bookstores are “some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find” and are “cultish, moldering institutions.”  His reasoning?

  • Bookstores present a frustrating customer experience.
  • You don’t need to browse because you can peek at e-books on your couch.
  • Bookstores mark up their inventory to pay for rent, payroll, etc. which is inefficient.
  • Bookstores aren’t local.
  • If you spend more money for a book, you can’t spend more money on “real” local goods.

He does establish early on that Slate is an Amazon affiliate.  Given their cozy relationship, it really shouldn’t be surprising that they – and he – would champion them.  But let’s put that aside for the moment.

Most of what irks me about Manjoo’s article has to do with what I posted last time – the smug assurance that shopping at a local bookstore makes you a chump.  I think I said pretty much all I wanted to about not making your customers feel stupid for their tastes, so I’ll leave that alone as well.

What I will take issue with is his assertion that independent bookstores are just the latest sacred cow that needs to be slaughtered in order to move into the Bezos led future.

Rather than get into a protracted fist fight about Manjoo’s article, I think I’ll illustrate just what a locally-owned bookstore really does for you and your community, then you can decide where and how you want to spend your money.

Here’s how a bookstore really works:

In 2008, Left Bank Books bought True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo from John Wiley & Sons, who listed the book (hardcover) at $25.95.  We put it on our shelves as part of our “relatively paltry selection” and then sold it to customers at the list price, $25.95 plus tax.  On each sale, we made $10.38.

With our $10.38, we paid booksellers (creating and maintaining jobs), paid for our booksellers health insurance, paid our rent (helping to keep a vibrant and relevant neighborhood from being boarded up and abandoned),  bought office supplies from Pedro’s Planet (a locally-owned office supply company), paid sales tax (maintaining the infrastructure of our community).  If we sold the same book today to a member of our loyalty program, 1% of that would have gone to their chosen local charity.  I think that’s a highly efficient use of that money, which, by the way isn’t a bookstore markup.  It’s the actual price of the book.

$15.57 went back to John Wiley & Sons, and of that, Mr. Manjoo received whatever royalty he negotiated with the publisher and John Wiley & Sons kept the rest.  Yep, they’re in Manhattan.  However, the $11,000 (our cost) worth of books from local authors who published their books themselves that we keep on our shelves are not from Manhattan.  Neither are the books produced by Reedy Press and other local publishers, the cards and t-shirts produced by All Along Press, Firecracker Press, Sleepy Kitty, STL Style and other local printers.

The customer who bought the book, ordered and hand sold by Left Bank Books employees, then probably went next door and bought clothing, food, lotions, etc. from other neighborhood stores, or, if they ordered from our website (which lists every book in print and let’s you create the all important wishlist) they received it at their home and used the internet to shop other local places because they value that.  The customer who bought the book on Amazon also clicked through to other Amazon products and bought them there because that’s how Bezos wins, by selling books as a loss leader to make you buy other stuff.  They did not log off, get in the car and go buy local as Mr. Manjoo describes.

Speaking of authentic local experiences, we didn’t do an author event with Mr. Manjoo, but we do other events – around 200 per year – in conjunction with local libraries, churches, the Ethical Society, cooking schools, universities, high schools, grade schools, glbt centers and other local institutions.  For free.

The customers who didn’t buy that book looked at it on the shelf and noticed other books shelved next to it, and by serendipity picked up a book they would have never known existed if they relied on an algorithm to suggest it for them.  They liked that book more than Mr. Manjoo’s book, so they bought that instead.

Ah, you say, but what about e-books?  Your precious corner store can’t give me those!  Well, yes.  Yes we can.  In fact, with the help of Indiebound we offer free apps for your iPhone or Android to help you do just that.

I guess all of this is to say bookstores are not “cultish, moldering” institutions, but physical representations of an industry that changes every single year.  We are small, flexible and determined to change along with it.  Not all of us will survive, but those of us who do will still serve an important purpose, and will still respect and support our customers and community.

December 6, 2011

“This is the Part Where Amazon Jumps the Shark” or “Go Forth and Destroy Your Community Sayeth Amazon”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:16 pm
Tags: ,

Amazon Launches Christmas Attack on Local Shops.

 Well, here it is.  Irrefutable evidence that Amazon embodies corporate greed.  First, let me say that the article posted on Gawker illustrates what virtually every bookseller, small business owner and sales tax payer in multiple states already knows – Amazon’s culture of corporate sleaze knows no bounds and it will not rest until it is the only retailer left standing.

Apparently they are now outsourcing their corporate espionage by paying their customers $5 to go to their local stores, scan products, report back to Amazon with the price, leave the store and buy from the big A.

Booksellers like me get pummeled by stories like this all the time.  It seems like there is a never-ending supply of reasons why I shouldn’t open my email, look at my Facebook feed or read the news.  It all seems so bleak these days.  My local pharmacy got eaten by Walgreens, Paypal performs Dickension freeze on charity payments (but then backs down because everyone but them saw the stupidity in what they were doing).  The list goes on.

In fact, I don’t even like watching TV because I know that one of those godforsaken Kindle commercials will come on and not so subtly mock me for liking to shop somewhere else.  “Oh, haha, you bought two Kindle Fires?” the creepy, all-knowing man says to his (is it supposed to be charming?) slightly ditzy girlfriend who was stupid enough to read traditional books.  “Who’s the other one for?” wink, wink, nod, nod.  She giggles.  She admits that it’s for her.

Yes, all the cool kids are reading e-books and shopping on Amazon.  Good thing I’m not cool.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m competitive.  I believe in healthy competition, and god knows I’ve lost sleep over times when my bookstore has fallen short. It’s just that corporate sleaze is, well, gross.  Look at Jeff Bezos, up there standing in his “see, I’m casual, approachable – a sort of madcap, devil may care kind of multi-billionaire” blue jeans and blazer.  Look closer.  See the smirk?  It’s us he’s laughing at – and I don’t just mean me and my brothers and sisters in bookselling or other retailers.  He’s laughing at you.

In my store, rule number one is “Never make the customer work harder than you.”  

Rule number two is “Never make the customer feel stupid.”

At one fell swoop, Amazon has put its customers to work for the cost of the sales tax they didn’t collect from them, and mocked them for having a different opinion.  It has long cloaked its tax evasive maneuvers and its practice of selling the entire book industry as a loss-leader in a sales pitch to you and me – one I’ll admit I almost fell for.

The pitch?  “Regular retail stores are bilking you out of your hard-earned cash by charging fair market value for their products.”  Not only that, but you would be foolish for paying more than what they charge.  That’s right – DEMAND better prices from your bookstore.  Take control!  Negotiate a better deal!  Sounds so empowering, doesn’t it?  Do you feel empowered?

Or do you feel bullied?

Amazon wants you to negotiate on their behalf because you’re cheap labor.  The lower they can drive the prices, the harder it is for anyone besides Bezos to make a living.  Nobody wants to work for slave wages, least of all the authors you love.  Paying less for their books than it costs to make them is insulting on lots of levels and doesn’t make any economic sense.

But back to Amazon and their latest ploy to get their customers to act against their own self-interest.  I’m sure they will defend this and mock those of us who say it’s gross and unethical at the very least.  They’ll feed us all a line about how smart you’ll be to stick it to your local retailers by helping Amazon undercut their sales.  The smug bully grin so prevalent in most of Amazon’s communications will make you think that theirs is the winning side.  They’ll supply the arguments that support the notion that everyone who’s not on the Amazon train is a chump.

But the cracks are evident, here.  Corporate bloat isn’t cool and it’s getting harder and harder to disguise greed and unregulated monopoly in a camouflage of populism.

Meanwhile, I can offer this – if you shop at my bookstore, I will not pay you five dollars to spy on my competitors.  In fact, I’ll probably recommend them if we can’t get what you need.  I won’t degrade your favorite author by giving away a lifetime of her work so that I can sell electronics.  I will not make you feel bad for reading traditional books, nor will I mock you for choosing an e-reader, e-book or anything else I offer even if I don’t personally like it.

After all, customers are people, not pawns.  We still like to shop with people who respect us.

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