How Can Booksellers Survive? Try Taking the Fight to Amazon

Bookstore Interior

Media watchers have gleefully predicted a total collapse of the brick-and-mortar bookselling industry for, oh, about twenty years or so by my count, yet I still have no trouble finding a store in which to buy the latest issue of The Paris Review, or the new Stephen King novel, or a fun picture book for my niece. Actually, I have a choice of stores in which to do these things: four independents and a Barnes & Noble within a mile walk of my apartment and another two dozen or so a subway ride away. “But what about the rural of us?” you rightly ask, and to you I say, “Same thing.” During my last trip to the farm country of the Hudson Valley I found three bookstores including another B&N and not including a record store that also sold books. While the cottage industry of publishing doomsayer Nostradami may be just as lucrative these days as retail bookselling, the latter is still alive and thriving. There are scores of good reasons for this that all add up to an essential truth: brick-and-mortar bookstores have significant competitive advantages over Amazon and other online retailers, many of which are too rarely leveraged in the increasingly desperate battle for book sales.

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Yes, Those Are Comics!

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From “Mr. Wuffles,” a comic in picture book format by David Wiesner

Comics, the medium to which I have more-or-less devoted my professional life, has a tough time earning recognition in fortresses of traditional publishing like the Caldecotts, Newberys, and other Youth Media honors run by the American Library Association. For all the hard-won progress by forward-thinking librarians and comics advocates over the past few decades, it’s still hard for many to understand that a graphic novel is a book, and the act of reading comics involves the same mental agility employed while reading prose (sometimes more!). Any bruising over this is worsened upon noticing that many honorees over the years actually are comics; they just don’t outwardly exclaim it. So thanks to Reading With Pictures for this amazing post on the 2014 Youth Media Award winners that are comics in disguise!

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Otis, Melvin Goodge, and A Story of How Books Bring Us Together

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The best part about working on a book is that you never know where it could take you. For Melvin Goodge, one of the top-ten cartoon art historians by anyone’s measure (especially mine), it led to an entirely unplanned academic career, the birth of a new publishing format, and a cherished friendship.

While today we all know Melvin Goodge as a professor of Speech Bubbles at the Huntley Smoot University for Comic Sciences, way back in 1978 he was just a fresh-faced associate editor hungry for a little experience and a job that paid something to do anything at all with words. After answering a couple classified ads and landing just one interview, he wound up in the offices of Ringer Publishing Paperbacks. But somehow, Goodge wasn’t assigned a pile of submissions to read or a pile of breakfasts to purchase for the senior editors; by happenstance and two fortuitously timed sick days his first task was the plum assignment of shepherding into being the first paperback to feature all-new material from the hit comic strip Frank and His Friend. Continue reading

How Does Your Reader Buy Books? (and other things you should already know)

“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”

All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.

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Why Books are Better Than the Internet — That’s Right, I Said It

The Folger Library in Washington, 1938 -- Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

The internet is overwhelming; that much is clear. The murky part comes in trying to define exactly how it fits (or should fit) in our lives. This is the subject of a recent wave of books that all take different positions and are all expertly reviewed by Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik divides these prevailing internet philosophies into three schools: the Better-Nevers (“the internet will destroy us all!”), the Ever-Wasers (“eh — this conversation happens with every new technology, everyone calm down”), and the Never-Betters (“the internet will save us all!”). Though all arguments are interesting (as is the article), what struck me most of all was Gopnik’s comparison of the internet to a library, which got me thinking — for the first time, much to my surprise — of how the internet compares to books, and how this might help us find a tree to hold on to in the information flood.

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