jareksteele

March 28, 2013

Goodbye Goodreads – How Amazon will ruin a Good thing.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 7:49 pm
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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.

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
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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.

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