Friday, September 18, 2015

[Big-Box Bullshi+] and The Future of the Book

The old Barnes & Noble across the street from the new Barnes & Noble, Anywhere, USA.

[Note: This article originally appeared on Buffalo Rising on International Read an eBook Day 2015.]

I worked for Barnes & Noble, technically for a single day, at store #2275 in Colonie Center (near Albany) just prior to the official launch of the original NOOK eReader in New York City in October of 2009. As a graduate student nearing the end of my program, my thinking at the time was that it would be a good idea to secure some sort of employment prior to graduation in order to avoid instantaneous, and crushing, poverty as soon as my second MFA arrived in the mail. That was the theory, at least. Friends congratulated me for making it through the three rounds of interviews for this retail job because of my intense love for all things book and book-related.

I, however, was dubious from the start.

Training consisted of a lot of time spent alone in a storage room with a series of cringe-worthy, and sleep-inducing, instructional DVDs (“Hello! My name is Jane and this is my NOOK.”) When there were group sessions, I realized that I was a little older and a lot crankier than the other new hires arranged around a folding table in the break room and that my questions were distinctly not popular with the HR rep (who resembled the character of “Flo” from the 70s sitcom, Alice, the one who snapped “Kiss my grits!” when she got mad or confused). When I inquired about the company’s transit benefits, thinking that I could get a discount on my CDTA bus pass as I had done with other employers and other transit systems elsewhere in the country, she said that they weren’t offered in The Capital District. When I asked if there was an employee stock purchase program, she replied with rote information about the 401(k) plan (which is a totally different financial animal). At the end of a particularly draining day of corporate onboarding, she blurted out defensively, “Barnes & Noble is one of the largest retailers in America! We just happen to sell books.”

Which spoke volumes to me.

Just prior to being hired at Barnes & Noble, I had had an essay published in a new anthology put out by a very well-respected independent house in Boston. The book was featured prominently on a table with similar titles near the front door and I walked by it dozens of time during my laps around the football-field sized retail outlet. (I didn’t tell anyone about my recent publication because I didn’t want to be like the waiter in LA who is really (truly, “honestly!”) a screenwriter.)

At the customer service kiosk at the center of the miles of shelving units, I (allegedly) helped people find books (often recommended to them by Oprah) in person, over the phone, and via The Web while simultaneously manning a live register near the mall entrance to the cavernous space. When the bell rang, I was to run to said register and start cashiering like I had been there the whole time. The hiring manager had made a really big deal about starting me at $8.00/hour (as opposed to the regular $7.75/hour) because I have, or would soon have, three degrees in English.

In retrospect, he would have been better off hiring a former high-school track star.

When I left the mall at the end of my first full day just before midnight, I knew that I wouldn’t be back in the morning. Or ever. It was raining, I had forgotten my umbrella, and two men were sharing a crack pipe in the bus shelter before I boarded the infamous #55 Albany/Schenectady back to my overpriced studio apartment. Central Avenue is the poster child for The Geography of Nowhere (a great book by James Howard Kunstler published in 1993) and its numbingly generic sights and sounds on the way home made me think a lot about my life and its dubious direction. When I neglected to set the alarm for my early-morning shift, I was making the conscious decision to write my own books, rather than to sell books written by other people.

And then Barnes & Noble launched the NOOK and I kicked myself repeatedly, and metaphorically, because I wouldn’t be able to buy one with my now ex-employee discount.

When Barnes & Noble went on to launch their “Simple Touch Reader™,” no doubt in an attempt to compete with the Amazon Kindle with “Special Features” (also known as “ads”), I started wondering how long it would be before people would no longer need the brick-and-mortar Barnes & Nobles. I’ve been reading electronically for over a decade, I started out with simple .pdb files on the LCD screen of an old Handspring PDA while living out in California, and people have been asking me two questions ever since: 1) If I fear blindness, and 2) Why I hate books. I’m happy to report that I am not (yet) blind and have since graduated to reading more-robust ePub files on my iPhone, trading the big-box book buying experience for the smaller squares of book apps from Apple and Google (among others).

And this is the future of reading, writing, and bookselling.

But most people are quick to defend “real” books and to assert that Barnes & Noble is our last line of defense against Amazon. To which I counter that Barnes & Noble is no friend to the local economy (or to readers) and that (blasphemy!) “real” books are just an environmentally-unfriendly delivery method for the stories that we are compelled to tell and crave to be told.

Across Wolf Road from Barnes & Noble store #2275 sits the old, empty Barnes & Noble, both of which are “down the street” from the old, empty Borders. (Coincidentally, and accidentally, I was standing at the Area-E kiosk inside of Borders store #100 in Cheektowaga (test-driving some SONY® hardware) when The Borders Group announced officially, in July of 2011, that it had failed to find a buyer and would immediately begin the process of liquidation. An older employee, who had been on the phone with an irate customer (who was suddenly left holding hundreds of dollars in potentially worthless Borders gift cards after said announcement), slowly hung up on the caller, mid-rant, saying quietly to no one in particular, but to everyone around her, “I don’t have to be nice to these people anymore.”)

“America is becoming a container landscape of big boxes connected by highways. When a big box store upsizes to an even bigger box “supercenter” down the road, it leaves behind more than the vacant shell of a retail operation; it leaves behind a changed landscape that can’t be changed back.

Often, big box retailers sign leases on land for decades or centuries. Thousands of empty buildings will never be torn down, simply because the retailer will continue to pay the mortgage in order to keep the building empty. An empty building staves competition off of the parcel, which is one contributing factor to the phenomenon of the empty big box.

Maintaining vacant sites is part of the giant land conquest going on among big box retailers. When a big box retailer shuts the doors of one building and moves across the street to a new building, it is generally true that it is because it is actually cheaper for the company to build an entirely new store from scratch than it would be to interrupt business at the old building in order to renovate. But there is also the fact that when the retailer closes shop and builds across the street, it has just doubled its land use control in the area. Empty big box buildings can be thought of as place-holders for real estate.” (Big Box Reuse, Julia Christensen, The MIT Press, 2008)

Most of the cash collected over the years from Borders store #100 headed out-of-state to Ann Arbor, Michigan. With Barnes & Noble, at least, profits made from sales in Albany and Buffalo stay within New York State, with your dollars hopping a train to B&N headquarters in Manhattan. Still, this is unfortunate for both Albany and for Buffalo because with those dollars go jobs.

“[T]he employment boost promised by the chains is nothing more than an illusion. It’s true that big-box stores create hundreds of retail jobs. But they eliminate as many by forcing other businesses to downsize or close. As local stores contract and close, communities end up with no overall growth in retail sales or employment. It’s what Dr. Kenneth Stone, an economist at Iowa State University who has studied the economic impact of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other retailers since the 1980s, calls a “zero-sum game.”” (Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, by Stacy Mitchell, Beacon Press, 2007)

Another issue with big-box bookstores is the way that they buy the books that get placed on their shelves. In order to avoid a massive digression into this antiquated system, however, suffice it say that the entire process is predicated on massive overconsumption in that Barnes & Noble over orders (predominantly) blockbuster titles from a handful of publishing conglomerates, but has the right to return any unsold copies without any real financial penalty from those publishers. A study cited in Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff (Free Press, 2010) “raises an interesting point in terms of unsold books (an average of 25 to 55 percent of what gets printed, depending on the genre), which are usually either trashed, recycled, or sold to a discount bookstore.” (p. 119)

Trees senselessly slaughtered.

“[M]or than half of the books that publishers print are returned. Most cannot be sold again at full price, are tattered or damaged from shipping, and end up being pulped. In Canada alone, an estimated 50 to 100 million books are pulped per year. That’s around 600,000 trees, or, to put it another way, more than 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted to produce books that are going to be pulped anyway. Per year. If you think those numbers are high, remember that the publishing industry in the United States is 15 to 20 times bigger.” (David Gaughran, Let’s Get Digital, Arriba Arriba Books, 2014)

Most defenders of “real” books are also (and unfortunately) blissfully unaware of the fact that making a book entails an actual manufacturing process requiring massive amounts of both raw material and energy choosing, instead, to imagine that paperbacks and hardcovers, because they are printed on something that is perceived to be completely “natural,” were plucked from the branches of trees owned by HarperCollins by two guys named “Simon” and “Schuster” (in the same way that Juan Valdez used to handpick every Columbian-grown coffee bean himself). “The pulp and paper industry ranks fourth in both volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, which combine with nitrogen dioxide to produce ozone, as well as in emissions of particulate matter released through fuel consumption and the papermaking process.” (Rethinking Paper and Ink, Jessicah Carver and Natalie Guidry, Ooligan Press, 2011) In a related article, titled “The Paper Trail,” DISCOVER audited its own environmental impact in May of 2008, with Jennifer Barone reporting that “[t]he quantity of [paper that the magazine] uses every month releases 614 tons of carbon dioxide – Making it the single largest source of emissions in the production chain. Harvesting and transporting the trees to the mill bumps up the CO2 count another 22 tons. At the printing plant, producing one month’s edition of the magazine consumes 63,364 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 1,704 therms of natural gas.” Carver and Guidry also point out the fact that “deforestation accounts for 62.7% of all carbon emissions in the publishing industry.” (p. 25)

After ink (which, more than likely, contains heavy metals) has been committed to paper, the process of bookbinding involves the use of a number of petrochemicals in various forms. “Publisher’s Note on Making a Plastic-Free Book: When we decided to publish a book called Plastic-FREE, we knew we wanted to make the book itself plastic-free. As it turns out, that’s something of a challenge – with plastic coating on the cover and jacket, polyester or nylon thread in the binding, and plastic glue throughout, most books are full of plastic! So we’ve stripped things down. The jacket is uncoated, the thread is made of cotton, and the boards and spine are exposed. Our printer even managed to find a plastic-free glue to use. With all that in mind, we assure you that if the book’s not 100% free of plastic, it’s as close as can be!” (Beth Terry, Plastic-FREE: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can, Too, Skyhorse Publishing, which was, unfortunately, “Printed in China” in 2012. Note: Although a book might be “Printed in The United States,” its components are often sourced from all over the world. (Rethinking Paper and Ink)) Believe it or not, but even the editorial oversight of a given manuscript can be outsourced as I recently discovered with a thriller published (in English) in Thailand that was riddled with typographical errors.

It is no secret that the entire publishing industry is in an incredible state of upheaval (from acquisition, to production, to distribution, and on into retail) and it is fascinating to watch. While Borders was dying a slow death under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it attempted to “restructure,” Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale (to no avail as Borders attempted to do just before it went belly up), then decided to spin off its educational unit, NOOK division, and/or brick-and-mortar stores into separate companies, and is now pinning its hopes to a new CEO, who recently jumped ship from Sears Canada (itself shuttering store locations across the border), and to a new plastic bag design. (No lie: “"You don’t get a shopping bag when you shop online — you get a box," says Glenn Kaplan, Barnes & Noble's creative director.” Or: “More petrol!” shouts a firefighter trying to put out a massive blaze.)

A restaurant in Toronto (not to be confused with Barnes & Noble’s new education platform that “breaks down the barriers between students and knowledge”)

When people lament the collapse or closure of big-box bookstores in their area because these massive retail outlets gave people access to books, I say, “Good riddance!” advocating, instead, for additional libraries and increased funding for existing library locations. And libraries, it turns out, are doing some pretty amazing things these days. BiblioTech, America’s first completely digital public library, opened in San Antonio, Texas, in August of 2013 and a virtual library was installed in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station in April of that same year, providing titles to SEPTA and Amtrak commuters. A library in Massachusetts was the first to set itself up as a digital publisher and the building that houses the main branch of The McAllen Public Library (again with the Texas!) was once an abandoned Wal-Mart.

Authors and publishers are now skipping the big-box middlemen and offering titles directly to readers, which is exactly what I did on my first, and last, day as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. While I was running back-and-forth, back-and-forth, across the stained and faded industrial carpeting of store #2275, editors from both Toronto and New York City were expressing interest in a collection of experimental essays that I had recently co-authored. In the same way that I didn’t set my alarm for my second shift, I didn’t write back to either editor, but instead went on to produce a purely digital edition of this book which is now available worldwide (with sales in The US, Canada, Australia, and The UK). The big city editors were responding favorably to the 60+ page book proposal that I had sent to them months prior and they were both looking for more information about the concept and about the potential market share. I was simultaneously elated by the international attention and bored by the additional paperwork that they were throwing my way. Traditional publishers sell books to bookstores, but independent authors and publishers have the opportunity and advantage of selling their books directly to readers, which is exactly what I did. (“From Geek to Niche,” as I’ve come to think of this relationship (to intentionally misquote the popular Larkin Company slogan, “From Factory to Family.”))

Encouraged by my first foray into the digital marketplace, I published a second collection of essays which was reviewed favorably in print (The Columbus Free Press called The Last Invisible Continent “an important book, a superb mixing of the personal and the political”), has led to several speaking engagements and invitations to guest lecture (most recently at The Just Buffalo Literary Center), and a spot on the required reading list for an English class of alumni writers at my undergraduate alma mater.

The American, Canadian, and Australian dollars (as well as the British pounds), that I’ve earned to date have all dropped into local accounts at Buffalo-based financial institutions and my cut of each sale is exponentially higher on these sales than they would have been if I had signed with a traditional publisher. (Author earnings, counter-intuitively, on a self-published eBook priced at $2.99 dwarf what can be made on a hardcover priced at $25, per unit sold, when you cut out all of the expenses associated with conventional print publishing.) And rather than worrying about having to earn out an advance for my publisher in order to even get to my royalties, my earning potential on my own work is both immediate and lifelong. Most books only have between four and six weeks to prove themselves before they get returned, remaindered, or destroyed.

The dogfight between printed books vs. eBooks is being fought daily on Twitter, but the huge publishing companies (for the most part) are running scared, acutely aware of the fact that they might not be able to make up for time already lost, their “Remember us?” tweets almost amusing in their desperation. The numbers don’t lie, though, as books for Kindle outpaced their printed counterparts (referred to in a Christian Science Monitor on the subject as “dead tree books”) in the spring of 2011, according to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos.

Digital, and digital-first, titles allow for greater experimentation with both form and content. Territorial issues are also minimized (some countries slap exorbitant taxes on imported books). For publishers big and small, nothing has to be “out of print” ever again.

But most remarkably, though, the bookstores and eReaders are already in your pocket/purse/briefcase/backpack if you’re one of the, say, 2 billion people on the planet who own a smartphone. (As Clive Thompson pointed out in an article for WIRED way back in 2009, “We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.” (17.06))

Just because you can do it yourself, however, doesn’t mean that you should (or that you have to).

Publishing is currently in an incredible state of flux. The MFA-to-agent-to-esteemed-New-York-publishing-house route is quickly being dismantled by greater access to print and digital self-publishing platforms to legions of new writers. Early rock stars of this paradigmatic shift include Amanda Hocking, who cranks out young-adult fantasy and vampire romance, and Barry Eisler, who famously walked away from a $500k advance in favor of producing his own work. These two authors, however, are the exceptions rather than the new norm and what we’re going to need, increasingly, in this brave new world of publishing are some old fashioned editors. Many aspiring authors will bristle at the concept of adding gate keepers back into the publishing equation, but not everyone who types up 100,000 words will immediately become the next great American novelist (in the same way that not everyone who sits behind a cello will become the next Yo-Yo Ma).

Which is where Buffalo comes in.

As is often said about Buffalo, it has “good bones,” not only in terms of architecture and infrastructure, but also in terms of writing and publishing. The University at Buffalo has hosted the international E-Poetry biennial while Canisius and Medaille attract top talent to their respective “Contemporary Writers” and “Write Thing” author series. In addition to these venerable academics are incredible literary events like the Edible Book Festival and the annual (inedible) Buffalo BookFest (both sponsored by The Western New York Book Arts Center), The BABEL Series, and the Small Press Book Fair (truly the best of its kind that I’ve ever attended), as well as a flurry of small publishers, like Starcherone, No Frills, and BlazeVOX [books] (check out their phenomenal buffaloFOCUS pages, which highlight the work of local poets and fiction writers). What the Buffalo/Niagara region can add is an essential (trusted, proven) curatorial component.

Random Penguin Penguin Random House isn’t likely to relocate from Manhattan any time soon, but because of its strategic location between New York City and Toronto and its (awesome) DIY culture, Buffalo is well-positioned to be the new epicenter of North American independent publishing. I’d love to see the Mooney and Brisbane Building illuminated by book professionals (authors, editors, illustrators, and graphic designers) burning the midnight oil, transforming Lafayette into Silicon Square in the not-too-distant future, and more Canadians reading their work at events, like Silo City, here in Buffalo and more New Yorkers reading their work at events, like the Art Bar Poetry Series, in Toronto.

Integral to all of this “Book-Oriented Development” is a minor adjustment to consumer (read: reader) behavior. “[B]ooksellsers in San Francisco asked Civic Economics [a consulting firm based in Austin, Texas] to calculate what would happen if Bay Area consumers shifted 10% of their spending from chains. The forecast: $192 million in increased economic activity for the region and almost 1,300 new jobs.” (Bloomberg Business Week, March 1, 2010) Luckily, eReading no longer means being forced to buy solely from Amazon. Kobo (a Canadian start-up acquired by Japanese Web phenom, Hiroshi Mikitani) has partnered with The American Booksellers Association to allow customers to buy eBooks from their favorite local bookstores. The ABA is currently running an ambitious “eRead Local” promotion through November 29th that will pay independent bookstores $5 a pop for new customers who register with Kobo online through their favorite local indie. (But wait, there’s more!) New registrants will also receive a $5 credit to their newly-opened accounts that can be applied to their first eBook purchases through those local bookstores. The awesomeness continues as these designated independents will then receive a percentage of all future transactions from sales via Kobo. (At the top of my marketing genius wish list: Bak Boards made available at The Hotel Lafayette loaded with titles like The Last Fine Time, by Verlyn Klinkenborg (who recently read from this exceptionally fine novel at The Larkin Square Author Series), City of Light, by Lauren Belfer, and Buffalo Lockjaw, by Greg Ames, all purchased from Talking Leaves, for hotel guests to read via the Kobo app for Android.)

Speculation on the future of the book changes by the hour (the one that I’m working toward is a blended portfolio of digital, public libraries, and independent bookstores), but there is great opportunity in the midst of all of this chaos. Because of the digital disruption that continues to democratize the publishing industry, it is now entirely possible for independent authors, publishers, and readers to (quite literally) choose their own adventures without any involvement from an agent, a NYC publisher, or a big-box retailer (like Barnes & Noble).

 “A [book] is a [book] is a [book].” – Gertrude Stein

To adaptively reuse a line from Mark Goldman’s City on the Lake (Prometheus Books, 1990) from a chapter titled, “A New Economy for the Changing City”: “Located on the border of America’s greatest trading partner, Buffalo could once again become a great port of transshipment, the primary point of entry for Canadian and American [authors and publishers] eager to access one another's vast [readerships].” (p. 233)
Michael Allen Potter is a graduate of The Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, a huge fan of The Central Terminal, and founder of The Hydroelectric Press.