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How do we go forward?

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the dangers of clinging to past ways of doing business.  Contrary to what aging boomers like me believe, older experienced managers don’t always offer the best ways of solving problems, because we’re wedded to what worked for us thirty years ago, when we were starting out.

It’s the book business that interests me most, and I realize that I’ve been only looking backward: I want small neighborhood bookstores, and book reviews and independent publishers so that a myriad voices can be found.  Instead, we have megastores, online marketing, fewer juried review outlets, and a handful of conglomerates publishing blockbusters.

We’re not likely to return to that, but we need some of the key elements of the old model if we are going to preserve multiple voices, and if people are going to make a living writing, publishing and selling.  We need a way to browse, as you can at a bookstore, and we need a way to get good reviews of many books.  We also need a way for new writers to find an audience, which used to happen when the independent bookstores hand sold books like mine (I didn’t become a national bestseller until my sixth book, and nor did Sue Grafton.  Publishers today won’t wait on slow bloomers like us–we get two books to break through, and then it’s on to the new new thing.)

When I look at the blogosphere, I find it hard to cull out the voices I want to listen to.  It’s true there are some great book blogs out there, like BookSlut, but the big questions for all Internet media are: how can you make it pay, and how can you make it visible?

Similarly, if we move more and more to an e-book universe, how do you browse for books?  The Amazon model, where they suggest “you might like Bloodsucking vampires of Outer Space” based on a previous purchase simply cuts out all other choices.  The Amazon model also demands that you pony up a big cash outlay to get your book featured on their home page, just as Barnes & Noble demands a big cash outlay to have a title put in the front of the store.

So, my creative friends and readers, what are some ways to think differently about how to get books and readers together in the age of the Net?

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  • bernadetteinoz

    The internet has changed my reading habits enormously and all for the better although I do accept this might be because I am in a relatively small city (1 million people) in Australia. Our bookstores have always been pretty mainstream in what they offer. We don’t have any niche stores that cater to specific genres and basically have two chains available to us. So every store has the big best titles authors from each genre and that’s about it. Most of them don’t even stock many Australian authors. So for me the internet and the way it allows all niches to have a voice has been terrific. My favourite ways to find new (to me) authors are:

    Online reading clubs/book discussion groups (e.g. 4 Mystery Addicts which is a Yahoo Group of 1200 odd members from around the world) – these have author chats, book discussions and recommendations galore. People share their reading lists and news from authors in the countries they are from and generally populate each others reading piles with great titles.

    Niche blogs and blog aggregators such as the excellent Crime and Mystery room at Friend Feed – there are blogs by book reviewers, fans and authors all collected together for reading and/or commentary.

    The reason I like both of these methods is that they do, in a roundabout way, offer the old-style things that you were talking about. Sure the reviews aren’t juried but it doesn’t take long to spot the fakes from the genuine reviewers. And with all those readers and book lovers there’s multiple channels for hearing about new authors from many countries. Many of the online clubs have theme months for books set in different countries or written by authors from different countries and they often have debut author months as well. Last year about half of the books I read were from authors who were new to me and I don’t think I discovered a single one of those from a ‘traditional’ source like a bookstore or mainstream media review.

    Neither of these two options pay, although I’m not sure anyone involved wants them too, but they are getting more and more visible. While 1200 members might not be that many in terms of book sales the group was half that number not so long ago and I’m sure each person in the group does as I do and discusses the books and news with loads of other people who aren’t members so the information is probably reaching far more than that number.

    Eventually I suspect a lot of the sole writer book review blogs will get swallowed up by conglomerate blogs as has been happening in the tech industry and that might offer the sort of visibility you and other authors are looking for. It might never be that people are paid for reviewing and/or promoting your books in the same way that used to happen but I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing and, more importantly, it won’t stop authors from getting paid because people are still buying books.

  • We’ve lost something tangible with the age of the net. You mentioned the browsing; as part of that, I miss the weight of the book as I pick it up, turn it over, flip through to see the print inside. Then there is the smell of the bookstore and being surrounded by millions of pieces of paper. And finally, for me, it’s being transported for just a short while when I stand in an independent bookstore on a busy Chicago street inhaling the new stories offering themselves up.
    I recognize you are addressing the business end, but I’m still too saddened by e-books and Amazon to consider playing their game. My preference would be more indy publishers and grassroots support of budding writers.
    Just found your blog and am so glad to be reading it!

  • What Lara says is right, up to a point. It’s lovely to browse in ‘her’ kind of bookshop. But there are many other shops and other places that have ceased to exist with the passing of time. It could be that we reluctantly have to accept that smelling the books won’t always be possible.

    I review books, in my own peculiar way, and not like the ‘proper’ newspaper reviewers. I get sent far more books than I can read, and I have been offered money by a publisher, which I declined. I would love to be paid, but I need my independence and it needs to be clear I’m not praising a book because there was money involved.

    I rarely browse in shops. ‘Old age’ makes it harder to read the spines of books, sideways, on the shelves. But I have no shortage of ideas for new books to try, and I think it’s nearly all due to blogs and similar internet sites. I’ve found new ‘friends’ on blogs, and after a while I know whether I trust their judgement enough to try reading what they’ve recommended.

    In the past I have carried home ‘handsold’ books from the indie shop, only to find that the book ‘that’s just my kind of book’ isn’t at all.

    My reviews attract readers outside my regular blog readers, and they seem to find me via google and other search engines. Sometime I follow the trail the other way, to see how easy it is to find my latest blog on a Sara Paretsky book (say), and whereas I’m sometimes found on the first few pages, sometimes my blog can be hidden on page twelve. And people still find it. Maybe that’s the new kind of browsing?

    I have my own bookmarked list of trusted blogs. We can all search for what we like, and end up with the internet version of our friendly local shops.

    How to avoid the other problem Sara mentions, namely how to get started as an author, slowly, is harder to address. I know several excellent writers who are struggling with publishers, while I’m still bombarded with books that are nowhere near as good as theirs. Publishers make mistakes. Self publishing can work. Possibly by using the internet to make your book known. The best example of this is Crime Always Pays ( http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.com/ ), where Declan Burke advertises both himself and writes about numerous excellent books by others. I read him daily, and I’m sure there are many more like him.

  • Blogs and the internet, in my opinion, are all about the long tail. Keen readers of (say) crime fiction are a niche readership – as Bernadette says, we have the Friend Feed crime fiction room, and also use RSS feeds to discover and comment on each other’s blogs, and to link to eg Amazon new crime fiction titles. We are not in the business of mass traffic or making money, but we are a loose group, all over the world, who share reading tastes. Hence we recommend books to each other all the time and keep the long tail alive.

  • No idea how to solve this problem, and it isn’t just a problem of new authors finding a publisher – one of my favourite crime authors beside Sara Paretsky, Barabara Paul, stopped writing as she has no publisher (according to her website), and – for exmaple – Jerry Oster seems to have the same problem.

    I don’t want to miss shops like amazon as I can order used books there that are no more available (including some of your books here in germany), but I don’t want to miss the small bookstores, too, as I wouldn’t even know about some of my favourite authors beeing just an amazon-customer.

    Blogs and websites about books are great, but standing in a bookstore, looking around, reading and searching for books are something I don’t want to miss.

  • genny

    Although I do listen to “books on tape/cd” when we are on road trips, I want the books I read to be real books that I hold in my hands. I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to reading.

    I do regret the loss of so many independent bookshops–especially the used bookstores. This past weekend we were in CT and I was thrilled to see that one shop–“The Book Barn” in Darien CT was full of prospective buyers. Actually it was hard to find a place to park. That always make me happy.

    Sara, speaking of bookshops, there’s a couple in your neck of the woods on E 57th St–“O’Gara’s & Wilson” and “Powell’s” What a loss if those type of shops leave the landscape.

  • genny

    I just realized that in my prior post I incorrectly listed the “Book Barn” as being located in Darien, CT. It’s actually in Niantic, CT. We had been also been in Darien during the weekend. I should do a better job of proofreading before hitting “Say It!”

  • I went to the U of Chicago library last night, and as I entered the stacks, the smell of books rose up around me. It was a Proustian moment, connecting to me to my many decades of life as a reader, and making my stomach contract as I thought of losing this. Even the University library will soon be digitized; you won’t go into the stacks. You’ll type in a call number and the book will be delivered to you by robot. For me there is no substitute for the book, the collection, the ability to browse through the stacks or the bookstore.
    It seems to me that Lara, Genny and I have two choices: we can figure out how to make our need for the physical object in a physical space–i.e., books in stores and stacks–a viable reality once again. Or, second choice, figure out what the changing face of books will be and learn how to navigate it in a way that we get our needs met.

    Harald–you’re touching on another important problem. I’m distressed to know that Barbara, whose books I’ve greatly enjoyed, can’t find a publisher. The same is true of other friends of mine. Publishers are raising the bar far above profit-making to demanding some huge minimum of sales that most writers can’t make.

  • genny

    One positive outcome of the economic condition is that more people are going to their public libararies. They can check out books to read rather than spending money to buy them.

  • I just read this blog entry that explored an experience of publishing in Italy:

    http://www.theartsfuse.com/2009/02/15/WANT-A-BOOK-TOUR-GO-TO-ITALY/

  • Pingback: Sunday Salon 2009-03-15: Can no one else see the silver lining? « Reactions to Reading()

  • Rose

    Thank you for discussing the publishing and book store comment. I have often gnashed my teeth on entering Borders and missing my independent mystery books stores in Washington D.C.

    I am a private person, as much of my generation, dealing with Facebook and the necessity of having a public persona. I, too, have loved the touch and feel of real books. I understand my life at present as having to deal with the stream of time, how to use it and feel comfortable with it. My parents listened to the first TV shows, date and time certain. I tape the programs that are the certainties of my life. And yet there needs to be new energy within my use of the media. I was happy with snarky progressive Air American and MSNBC during the election, but not now. Issues are too complex to feel the brotherhood or sisterhood of only like-minded folk and the myriad of podcasts provide stimulation without comfort. I think we have to initiate new habits now. Maybe we cancel our subscription to the town newspaper and get up to a more life-renewing one online. (I think we will probably make our struggling newspapers into ones that we support online to keep their great reporters.)

    At any rate, I am interested to find out how others find comfort and insight in this stream of time. Maybe this is just a desire for control of our realm when political and social realities are so complex and amorphous? R.

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