05 March 2013

From a Garret Near Holborn

  • A columnist at The Economist offers his opinion on the future of bookstores against a backdrop showing the prior location of one of my favorite London hotspots. "Prospero" (a truly ironic pseudonym for this particular column) remarks that

    To survive and thrive, bookstores should celebrate the book in all its forms: rare, second-hand, digital, self-printed and so on. Digital and hybrid readers should have the option of buying e-books in-store, and budding authors should have access to self-printing book machines.

    amidst his concerns on "monetising" the store, including possible membership fees and/or admissions charges for doing things other than sheer browsing... and perhaps even for that. Of course, this neglects one of the main problems with bookstores — and the Foyles location on Charing Cross Road is far from immune to it: Difficult access. In the long run, the real advantage of Borders and Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million in this country has been their separate parking lots. That's not much of a possibility in London, given the congestion tax and fees that keep real people from driving in the area. But books are heavy, and walking in the rain to the nearest Tube station with a flimsy plastic bag full of a hundred quid or more of books is not inviting... and neither is a walk back to Birkbeck, for that matter.

    In the end, the combination of "not being out of stock" and "don't have to schlepp the stuff home" is one of the major advantages of online retailers. Physical bookstores need to recognize that — particularly in less car-obsessed cultures — they can't compete with those advantages and should instead emphasize their own, like social interaction and actual shelves to browse.

  • (c) Roz ChastThen there are the perils of the midlist. This isn't supposed to happen to anyone. It's especially not supposed to happen to those who wrote one of the dozen or so best American novels of the 1990s, regardless of commercial category or commercial success. If it was going to happen, though, it's not much of a surprise that it's one of the media-conglomerate publishers screwing the pooch, especially in the face of cable-TV options (which, based on anecdotal data, do at least as much for sales as do theatrical releases). Dr Russell's books are all still in print... of course, publishers these days try desperately to avoid reverting rights, but that's a not-entirely-separate issue.

    The key point is this: At acquisition time, a publisher is attempting to predict what will actually sell at a given, kept-secret, acceptable velocity at least 18 months in the future. That might be theoretically possible, with about a 30% accuracy rate, in certain kinds of specialist nonfiction fields and/or for certain kinds of never-varying crap from certain highly branded authors (like J___ P___, N___ R___, and D___ S___). Applying memes from those areas to archly literary fiction is silly and stupid, and reflects all too much the lack of a science background among publishing management (and, for that matter, the lack of a scientific basis for their assertions and conclusions). It's similar to having the physics department do the tenure reviews for developmental biology... and it's that good only if one stays within the sciences; in this instance, given who the management at Random House actually is, it's more akin to teaching evaluations and tenure decisions being made for a promising developmental biologist by the theology and comparative religion faculty without even having read her papers.

  • I'm shocked, shocked to see that the Sons of the Revolution literally are the sons of the revolution in the People's Republic of China. Who would have guessed that a culture with an even longer and stronger tradition of primogeniture than European nobility would revert to that default once its borders were secure?
  • Meanwhile, a 0.03% tax on financial-instrument transactions has at least a chance with some of the saner Heffalumps. Of course, there aren't a lot of them; perhaps it can be recast as an "exchange enablement fee", since it's transaction-based instead of results-based? There's not much potential for a drag on the market (although seeing Wall Street in drag would be entertaining indeed)... and those claiming that it will be a competitive disadvantage should remember two things: That a similar fee is being adopted in major markets everywhere else in the near future, and that there are some markets in which the race to the bottom is literally a race to the bottom.
  • Consider the problem of having a celebrity's name, or a dead author's name, as one's natural (given) name. Actor's Equity has a stupid rule that nobody may ever reuse a name once it has been used on a playbill, thus explaining some of the silly stage names adopted by people (well, almost as much as evading bigotry does, anyway). There's no such requirement for authors. Can someone who shares my forename, despises all dimunitives of it, has no middle name at all, and has the surname "Dickens" write under his own name, or must he choose a pseudonym? (We'll pretend for a moment that, after decades of bullying by both teachers and students, he hasn't gone through a name change voluntarily.) The IPKat notes an opinion that actually goes into the reasons why, and why not, that allows a corporate natural name to continue in trade against a trademark claim. Of course, this also goes into pseudonym selection...