Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book habits

I mentioned in my previous post on "The Trouble with Amazon" that I would lay out some practical ideas for engaging with the book industry.  These thoughts may be pretty loose and scattered, but they're simply an attempt to get down what I bring to the table on this matter, and something of an invitation for responses and ideas from others.
  • One of the most significant difficulties I run into in these discussions is that I'm thinking mostly in terms of academic research literature, and this is a very different thing than someone discussing novels, or poetry, or even much of the non-fiction that is published.  Academic work is such a niche market that its problems and solutions may be completely different than in other areas.  What might be helpful is a state-of-the-industry report that is more realistic for the scale we are talking about here, because there's no reason to think that books on Barth or Aquinas should behave in the same way as the latest works of fiction when they hit the market. 
  •  I think it's worth considering the relationship of used bookstores to those selling all or primarily new items.  We can probably all recognize the value of used booksellers, but I'm not sure what the relationship is between these sellers and the health of the industry as a whole.  If we are recycling one copy of a book that is still in print by the publisher and being sold new in local stores, what is the effect of our buying it?  This isn't to say, of course, that we shouldn't be buying books used- I think we should.  I simply want to recognize that a used bookstore plays a very different role for book culture than does the independent new-book seller.  Often I think the two can be unhelpfully lumped simply because they are both situated in contrast to the large commercial retailers. 
  •  I don't know about others, but a relatively common gift that I receive from a great aunt (or closer relations frustrated by trying to make heads or tails of my book interests) is a gift card to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Borders.  Because of the ubiquity of these three, it's an easy recourse for making sure that the right book gets got by the gift recipient.  Something like this would be great for smaller bookstores or for specific publishers, but the obvious problem is that none of these places are a one-stop ordeal where you can find virtually whatever you want... this is likely why only a few of such places offer gift cards, and why those that do (I'm guessing) don't do nearly as much business through these cards.  A solution to this dilemma that might bring a lot of business to smaller outfits during the holiday season, could be a co-operative venture for gift card arrangements.  Operating something like those community business discount cards that the basketball team or high school band sells you, participating publishers or booksellers could work together and accept a single card, making this sort of gift a more viable option alongside Amazon gift money.  The Booksense Gift Card operated like this, but has unfortunately just recently shifted to be effective in-store only, so that you can only purchase items from the place where the gift card was originally purchased.  I'm not sure what problems led to this change or how they might be avoided in the future; I'm also not sure whether such gift cards have been used by publishers (e.g., Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, and Paulist Press join together to offer a gift card redeemable at any of their websites). But it's an idea worth thinking about.
  • Encourage smaller stores to improve their web presence.  This could be as simple as a facebook page or a home at Blogger or Wordpress, but visibility and access seem to be a primary problem in getting to a greater diversity of stores.  When my wife and I took a short vacation the other week about a half-hour west of where we live, I looked up stores on Indiebound and found a small place that would have otherwise gone unnoticed (and missed out on the money we paid them for two books and lunch).  You can also add stores to Indiebound yourself, so even if a bookstore you know of isn't included or doesn't have any sort of web presence, it's an easy fix and a significant help to people who are looking for places in the future.  I recently added Black River Books (which I mentioned here last summer) and Second Story Books (which is a wonderful place for rare & used items... I was shocked that this wasn't already on their map, given its importance).  Encouraging publishers you enjoy to improve their updating system is also helpful.
  •  Amazon, apart from being a juggernaut with some troubling intentions, is also simply a good tool with a lot of good intentions.  You might as well use it to its utmost.  If you're going to buy something from there, use the student discount.  Keep in mind that Amazon acts as an easy marketplace for used books, which has nothing to do with its policies towards publishers on new ones.  Take advantage of the organizing capabilities of the site for wishlists and book searches, and incorporate non-Amazon items into this process through their Universal Wish-List.  You can also use Amazon to find out what books are forthcoming... this helps especially with regard to the last point I made in the last paragraph, about updating systems.  Often books are in Amazon well ahead of their publication date, even if the publisher itself doesn't have a user-friendly updating system... simply do a search in Amazon for what you want ("theology" or "ecclesiology" or "virtue ethics"... it's usually most helpful if search terms are pretty broad) and sort your search results by "Publication Date".
  •  Keep in mind that buying books still helps publishers, even if it's from Amazon.  For the sake of some perspective- another place that students and professors buy books is at academic conferences.  These venues are popular because of the significant discounts that are often offered.  But enjoying these discounts means that publishers are losing money too, perhaps a comparable amount as they would with deep Amazon discounts.  Often conferences are a net loss for publishers-- and they don't help brick-and-mortar stores any more than shopping on Amazon does, even though they provide the flesh-and-blood encounters that Amazon doesn't.  The point of this is to say that easy targets like Amazon don't have a monopoly on threats to the book industry.  And, on the bright side, even shopping at Amazon or at a discounted conference booth keeps books moving, and that is a good thing. 
  • A good deal of what people are trying to preserve with independent bookstores and a vibrant publishing environment is the wider discourse that is made available by print.  In keeping with this goal, part of the solution should be talking about books.  As a library cataloger, a student, and an academic blogger, I enjoy finding out what new work is being published.  I've especially come to enjoy periodical literature because of how varied and changing it is.  Within my own interests, I try to pass some of that along here on the blog.  I've also contacted many readers privately when I run across something that I think may interest them in particular.  In situations where there isn't a huge advertising blitz or general expectation from the reading public already in place, it's word of mouth and regular conversation that will keep literary communities functioning properly.  Indeed, literary communities are more likely functioning as they should when bombardment by advertising is less involved in what gets circulated, and more reasoned review and response stands as the norm.
So these are a few scattered thoughts.  Consider this an open thread on book habits, or practical aspects of engaging with published literature, maintaining an eye to the health of the industry.


        1. Buying used books on Amazon is a very good point. I almost always do that.

          Sometimes these are warehouses too, but often they're not. You almost always get a better price, and honestly I think used books can have more character than new books anyway.

          For the niche books, this is often the only option anyway.

        2. Very thought provoking post, Evan.

          As a son of a librarian and a brother of a librarian to be, I try to get most books from either my local public or university library. I think I'm one of the few law students who has set foot in the main undergraduate library to get books, haha.

          Anyway: when I want a longer book or one that I know will take me awhile, I often buy it used, either from a local store or on Amazon or ABE books (plugs from Garrison Keillor don't hurt).

          As for my law school casebooks, I definitely try to buy them used on Amazon or The main publishing companies that publish the casebooks (Lexis/Elsevier and ThomsonWest), as far as I know, are not hurting for money that much. And the steep, steep drop in resale value in many casebooks means that it's not worth it to me to buy a $100 casebook and then only be able to resell it for $5. I am not exaggerating at all -- this happened with several books last year. I'd rather buy a beat-up version for $25-$50 and take less of a hit on its resale value, esp. if it's for a subject I have little need for a casebook when more practical treatises are available should I need them if/when I'm a practicing attorney.

          I've used for about four years to keep track of books I want to read, and what books I have read in the past. I add titles to the list as I come across reviews or get recommendations, and purge the list of ones to read if I'm not as excited about reading them a few weeks later (often after re-skimming a review or two). It's a good system for me.

          I do try to patronize independent bookstores that sell new books as often as possible. Several years ago I could use a generic Booksense gift certificate at many different Booksense stores (Politics and Prose, for example), but I think they stopped taking them at Olsson's when they were still in business (RIP Olsson's). Luckily Philly has a few good independent bookstores that I've enjoyed using -- whenever I wince at the "higher" prices they charge, I tell myself I'm supporting a local business that is part of the community -- and perhaps more appreciated than a generic big Borders. There are some communities that have the shared gift card programs you mention, but they're definitely not widespread enough.

          Enough rambling!