jareksteele

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.

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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

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