Archive for the 'books' Category

ABA, DOJ, BBQ

Most of the “shop indie bookstores / fight the big box chains” rhetoric I’ve heard has been rooted in a vague all-purpose anti-corporate sentiment rather than concrete concerns. This recent letter from the American Bookseller Association to the US Department of Justice is useful in spelling things out:

Publishers sell these books to retailers at 45%-50% off the suggested list price. For example, a $35 book, such as Mr. King’s Under the Dome, costs a retailer $17.50 or more. News reports suggest that publishers are not offering special terms to these big box retailers, and that the retailers are, in fact, taking orders for these books at prices far below cost. (In the case of Mr. King’s book, these retailers are losing as much as $8.50 on each unit sold.) We believe that Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.

It’s important to note that the book industry is unlike other retail sectors. Clothing, jewelry, appliances, and other commercial goods are typically sold at a net price, leaving the seller free to determine the retail price and the margin these products will earn. Because publishers print list prices indelibly on jacket covers, and because books are sold at a discount off that retail price, there is a ceiling on the amount of margin a book retailer can earn.

The suggested list price set by the publisher reflects manufacturing costs – acquisition, editing, marketing, printing, binding, shipping, etc. – which vary significantly from book to book. By selling each of these titles below the cost these retailers pay to the publishers, and at the same price as each other, and at the same price as all other titles in these pricing schemes, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are devaluing the very concept of the book. Authors and publishers, and ultimately consumers, stand to lose a great deal if this practice continues and/or grows.

What’s so troubling in the current situation is that none of the companies involved are engaged primarily in the sale of books. They’re using our most important products– mega bestsellers, which, ironically, are the most expensive books for publishers to bring to market–as a loss leader to attract customers to buy other, more profitable merchandise. The entire book industry is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this war.

More at the link.

It’s a messy situation all around (from a publisher’s perspective, the chains are skimming off the “sure things” rather than supporting the whole line; from an indie store’s perspective, they’re hogging all the books that bring people in the door and making it impossible for small stores to use them; from Wal-Mart’s perspective, they’re just trying to get books to people as affordably as possible, and they only want to carry the items their customers are interested in), but it’s nice to hear facts rather than vague suspicion.

EDIT:
Techno-optimist Clay Shirky offers commentary, calling these “arguments that made some sense twenty years ago, but have long since stopped doing so.” Instead, he proposes that booksellers begin “treating the old side-effects” — i.e. the physical amenities that bookstores uniquely provide in addition to selling books — “as the new core value.”

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First thoughts on Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Riverhead, 2007

I really enjoyed Díaz’s voice here — even beyond the geek references, his writing has a clever & confident conversational elegance — and the content was often absorbing, but I was disappointed to find that the parts didn’t add up to a whole.

Díaz introduces us to Oscar, then looks elsewhere, only to return occasionally — so that this Life of Oscar is missing its main character for at least half the book. Díaz also declines to allow Oscar to grow. Is he crippling his novel’s potential power, or boldly avoiding cliche? I can imagine some defenses here — to read it as a tragedy (it’s the pathos, stupid, not the character development), and place it in a context of stories like Jaime Hernandez’s Death of Speedy Ortiz (in which the titular climax is never shown, only hinted at, and the title character’s importance is shown only through his effect on friends and family). But I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.

The much-discussed geek references are thrilling to geek readers who have never encountered them in a Pulitzer-winning novel before, sort of like hearing characters swear on early South Park. On a few occasions they really add another dimension of meaning to a real-life scene, or conversely demonstrate the depth of feeling previously unnoticed in lines from a campy old Stan Lee script. I wish this happened more often; usually they’re more superficial. Obviously Oscar gets a lot out of his fandom, but I don’t think Díaz ever really explores what he’s getting or how that works.

The most successful characters are the women. It’s especially rewarding to move around in time and have the past deepen our understanding of the future. As we learn about the tortures that shaped each stubborn young woman into a haunted matriarch, we begin to love and forgive them.

A couple formal things threw me — is Yunior narrating the whole book? Why is one (and only one) chapter narrated in Lola’s voice (after a brief second-person introduction in italics)? How is the story enhanced by the revelation that we’re hearing all this from a guy who sort of knew some of the characters in college? If hearing Yunior say “I guess I could have handled that better, but in the end I didn’t, oh well” makes the book more realistic, but less satisfying, are we better off?

Díaz is a joy to read; I’d love to see him do non-fiction, especially arts criticism. He knows a lot about people, and books, and what they can do to each other. I really wish this one had come together for me.


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.