"B&N had been committed to making uniquely bad calls"
March 24, 2020 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Smorgasbords Don't Have Bottoms - on book publishing in the 2010s
No one wakes up in the morning hoping to be as vapid as possible. But eventually you internalize the squeeze. Everyone down the chain adjusts their individual decisions to the whim of the retailer, or to their best guess at the whim of the retailer. If it’s Barnes & Noble, you may hear that a cover doesn’t work, that the store won’t carry the title unless you change it. If it’s Amazon, you may not hear anything at all. You go back and adjust your list of wildly optimistic comparative titles — it’s The Big Short, but . . . for meteorology! But is anyone still talking about The Big Short? Maybe it’s Hillbilly Elegy, but for meteorology. You change the cover, of course. Every cover has handwriting on it, so yours should, too. Prior success is book publishing’s best asset. If it worked well once, why not try it again, and again? Covers have to be readable on Amazon, and also attractive on Instagram: hence the sea of large, legible text, very often centered, all caps and sans serifs — and all-caps sans serifs! — tracked out and bold.
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Worked in the managing editorial department of a larger indie trade publisher from 2013-2017. Pull quote checks out. Also this: The danger is that for conglomerate publishing — like conglomerate filmmaking and conglomerate TV production — diversity and inclusion may be another trend, an ephemeral gesture to be dropped once something else comes along. The extreme whiteness of the industry is a crucial part of the problem, but so is a coercive bookselling environment and an ever greater tendency toward profit seeking. Without structural changes, the industry will float from one idea to the next, incapable of differentiating good from bad, deep from shallow.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:25 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]

I keep missing Borders, and also keep waiting for Barnes and Noble to just permanently self-destruct due to replacing most books in stores with toys, gee-gaws, tsotchkes, stationary, puzzles, Funko Pops and pretty much anything else not nailed down and can fit through their door.
Besides books.
Maybe Daunt can turn it around, but meh.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 10:31 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]

What is weird is reading this in the middle of the pandemic, when no bookstores can be open and Amazon is just further consolidating its power.
posted by emjaybee at 11:24 AM on March 24 [6 favorites]

"Some authors really are the kinds of deeply disturbed individuals who enjoy promoting themselves on social media, but most of them are not."

Speaking as an author--ouch.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:43 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I'm on a few publishers' email lists;they have not been particularly nimble about the current emergency. I'm surprised not to see sales on ebooks, given how many people are stuck at home. I used to be a bookseller, still love books, and it would take a couple of years for me to read the ToBeRead pile, as well as re-read things I'd kind of like to re-read. And like most of us here, a lot of what I read is online.
posted by theora55 at 1:09 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

Yeah, as I was reading this I kept thinking, "This sure was written before the pandemic." I'm pulling for Barnes & Noble and the indies but I fear they (along with many, many other retailers, restaurants, etc.) will be finished off by months and months of people staying home to avoid contagion. This goddamned virus is gonna screw the world over in ways we can't even predict yet.

I can't overstate what a lifesaver it was when Borders came to my neighborhood in Long Beach, CA in the 90s. The internet was starting up but we were still very much in the tentacle grips of the monoculture, and as a nightcrawler weirdo trans baby with all kinds of health problems I was losing my mind in a deeply unweirdo So Cal town that totally closed up shop at about 10 PM every night. It was a claustrophobic sprawl. (Think Sunnydale without vampires, or the Bronze.) It was on you to find anything interesting, and when you did find it that usually meant a long drive to LA. Then Borders showed up and suddenly there were endless shelves crowded with books and weird magazines, there were actual live events, and you could get these big fat warm pretzels that I still ache for. I wiled away many happy hours there reading great novels, Bunnyhop, Juxtapoz and even some glossy fetish zines while I listened to people plunk guitars and I drank cocoa. It was such a good thing. It always had a bustling crowd and when Bezos killed the chain they practically had to chase the customers out the door with a broom. The store eventually got reskinned as a big bland medical building where my parents go for urgent care visits, because Long Beach is Long Beach and eventually everything nice becomes something fucking grim.

There are many reasons to hope the coronavirus doesn't get much, much worse. One of those reasons is that if it does, Amazon will become even more powerful as the alternatives wither away. It'll be a coast to coast Long Beach where we're all locked up at home with nowhere to go, ever. At least we'll have lots and lots of channels to watch, right?

I sure could go for a warm pretzel with mustard.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:06 PM on March 24 [12 favorites]

I never have and never will buy anything from Amazon. But software that I am required to use for compliance purposes uses Amazon cloud services. Every time the link turns up, I grit my teeth and consider when I should retire.

My local bookshop is celebrating 100 years in business. I am sure my orders have contributed.

Mind you, they must wonder about what happens to some of the books. I have ordered three copies of "The Book of Ebenezeer Le Page" - and they all have disappeared from the house.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 3:28 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I never have and never will buy anything from Amazon. But software that I am required to use for compliance purposes uses Amazon cloud services. Every time the link turns up, I grit my teeth and consider when I should retire.

Metafilter.com runs on those same cloud services, so it's not all bad.
posted by sideshow at 3:40 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

here's a new way to support the indies.

I quit buying from amazon several years ago after several shipments weren't securely packed....though I still use it as a shopping list.
posted by brujita at 3:42 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

Working at a barnes and noble was honestly the worst job I've ever had and I've done jobs that involved raw sewage or moving 100+ lb loads up hill all day. It was hideously boring and the height of middle store managers actively finding ways to yell at people with no work to do for doing no work. It was a minimum wage job with zero benefits that expected you to treat it like a career. They only cared about selling their terrible Barnes and Noble club cards and based everything on selling customers a card that would require at least 5 or so books ordered to pay for itself. It involved dealing with customers who jacked off in the bathroom to opened porn (the store term was sophisticates) without any authority to make them leave.

It was degrading at every level and maybe it was just my store, but I have no sympathy for that company. They deserve what they get for treating employees that way.
posted by Ferreous at 8:05 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]

Reminds me of the famous William Goldman quote (he was an author too):

“Nobody knows anything," he wrote. "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one."
posted by sammyo at 7:31 AM on March 25

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