Alberto Mingardi  

Aid to bookstores?

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Star novelist James Patterson is donating 1 million dollars in financial aid to independent bookstores. Patterson apparently maintains that "federal government's financial support of troubled industries like Wall Street and the automobile sector should extend to the bookstore business". This seems to imply that any industry which is troubled by technological innovation should be able to cash in on taxpayers' support. To be kind, I find this a troubling statement.
I'd be, however, more sympathetic to Patterson's general goal. He believes that "it's essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more." If I understand Patterson right, he seems to believe that "browsing books," the old way, is often a way to stimulate a more diversified and interesting reading diet. Besides Amazon's sometimes helpful recommendations, people tend to buy online what they already wanted or desired--you could argue that they are a bit less likely to stumble upon new authors and works. Personally, my experience goes actually in the other direction: through the Internet I have immediately (and sometimes recklessly) purchased books that I found mentioned somewhere else (very often, I repent). But I can picture that for a more casual reader it goes the other way around. Stumbling upon authors' names and talking with booksellers is a great way to get to know books you didn't know about--and that may interest you.
I can also see why Patterson, though understanding the potential of ebooks, would like to see small independent bookstores kept in business. They add, so to say, to the biodiversity of the books' market environment. Each bookseller has preferences, develops a personal relationship with her consumers, provides bottom-up information to the publishing industry. Booksellers are great thermometers of people's likes and attitudes. Plus, I typically find this kind of conservatism rather understandable. We are used to paper-books, and some of us came to worship their materiality. It is an art that dates centuries back. No wonder an important novelist wants to help it to survive.
In a way, I believe that Patterson is doing something admirable. He has preferences--for the paper book versus the ebook, for the small bookseller vs the large chain--and he is putting his money where his mouth is.
One rather obvious question is: are Patterson's checks big enough to make a difference? He "pledged to donate $1 million over the course of the next year; currently, he's given away $267,000 to 54 bookstores". This means that he has donated, on average, a bit less than $5,000 to each bookseller. It is rather unlikely that such a small amount of money helps independent bookstores to thrive in an increasingly difficult market. It'd be more interested to know something on the criteria Patterson is following to give away money to bookstore X instead of bookstore Y. He can do whatever he wants with his money--but I do not really understand how he could have an impact.
I think that at best his checks may be a "thank you" note to people that endure in a difficult business, in spite of temptations to change their trade.
Is this a way to subsidise inefficiency? Is it pure charity? Or is Patterson a pioneer in a way, in the sense that certain firms in the cultural market would need to be supported by donations, alongside sales, to stay alive? Is the independent bookstore the new opera house?

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Tom West writes:

If bookstores die, then books as a culturally relevant artifact die a generation later. (They'll still be around, but like poetry, they'll be functionally dead for most of the population.)

If bookstores go, then publishers go, and if publishers go, then readers switch to something where they don't have to play gatekeeper.

Current readers will keep trying, but new readers? Why bother wasting most of your time, when there's video, music, Facebook, news, cute cats, etc. on the same device that you read on?

Can this one fellow make a difference? Sadly, it's swimming against the tide. The Bookstore business isn't in a temporary slump, and it's never going to get better.

(However, things could be pretty rosy for a generation of readers as e-books become nearly free and we've already paid to suss out the readable writers. Life is often pretty good while you're eating the seed corn.)

Phil writes:

The $1 million might be publicity expense, rather than just altruism.

If he really believes there's a chance government might help independent bookstores, this is like a lobbying expense. If he gets his name in the news, that's good for him and book sales and speaking engagements.

Maybe it's like a lot of visible charity -- he really believes in the cause, but he wouldn't do it if people didn't wind up knowing he did it.

Hazel Meade writes:

Many so-called "independent" bookstores are more in the business of ideological proselytizing. The reason they are struggling is because they prefer to stock their shelves with political tracts, instead of book the public really wants to read. They consider it their mission to "educate" the public by pushing ideological literature on them.

For a humorous takes on this, see the "Women for Women" feminist bookstore portrayed in the 'Portlandia' TV series.

Of course "Christian" bookstores do the same thing, just from a religious angle. There's nothing wrong with it if they can survive.

"Independent" when it comes to bookstores generally means "not owned by evil corporations that are trying to brainwash you" as far as I can tell.

Tom West writes:

The reason they are struggling is because they prefer to stock their shelves with political tracts, instead of book the public really wants to read.

Given that the "soulless" chains are also teetering, I doubt it's simply a lack of books people want to read.

Amazon, by dint of having several billions of dollars of investor money to give away for several years, has lowered the anchor price for a book (in many people's minds) below what the supply chain can profitably sell a book in person at.

And Hazel, it's not just political tracts. Some independent bookstores try selling just science fiction, graphic design, children's books, or heaven forbid, mysteries instead of trying to stock everything they possibly can in a few hundred square feet.

In each case, they're trying to attract customers who are interested in the same thing they are. And to be honest, the idea of an owner who is actually interested in the *contents* of the books they sell is attractive, even if *I* am not that interested in those particular contents.

ilya writes:

It seems that he – as well as many other people – want to have more of the activity of browsing the books.

It would be great, indeed, to have a place where you can browse the books, and where there are people paid to talk about the books. Presumably there would also be some managers, and ideally a table where you can sit and start reading the books you like?

Now, if you want to have your own copy of a book, perhaps you could scan a book and order it from Amazon to arrive at your doorstep the next morning?

Does Patterson cite any cultural benefits that explain why such a place really needs to *stock* the books?

In fact, I can imagine exactly the opposite. If a shop has to stock the books, the employers are motivated to advertise the books that have been just printed, rather than equally culturally significant books that have been printed some time ago.

Now, we want to have more of this, so this place should be subsidized by a public. Naturally, it would make no sense to force people who live far from there to part with their hard earned dollars, so we're talking about people who live nearby. This shouldn't be too expensive; perhaps such a place can allow the members of community who subsidize it inside for free and charge those who come from far away.

An alternative model would not tax the public, but rather ask the users of such a place to pony up some daily, monthly, or better yearly (same as gym - people buy in in January and disappear for the whole rest of the year) membership fee.

Oh wait, it seems like we have some of those places... what's the name for it... ah, right, the one with taxes is called library and the one with fees is called book club. So, um, let's have subsidized modern libraries, and book clubs?

Hazel Meade writes:


Well, you have to admit that the ones asking for bailouts are probably more in the "Help, I'm being oppressed by evil capitalist market forces!" camp.

Moggio writes:

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Mark V Anderson writes:

I have definitely expanded my book reading by using Amazon over when I went to bookstores. It is so much easier and less time consuming to find a variety of books on Amazon than it is at even the best bookstores. I suspect that bookstores are declining rapidly because people that read books tend to be smarter and don't waste their time with the inferior technology of having to physically grab each book and try to figure out how good it is by leafing through it or looking at the blurbs on the cover.

It is also true that books themselves are becoming less popular, but that is for a different but related reason: that the internet is so much easier and attractive to access. So the young read fewer books than the past. I am not as thrilled about the decline of books, because I am concerned that people are reading into subjects in less depth they used to. Although you can find many book-length pdf's on the net, so this might be a needless worry.

John Flanagan writes:

I was in a bookstore at Christmastime. It was nostalgic, but uneconomical. My Kindle is not just a reader: it is a library, too.
With email notices, I am exposed to a variety of books, inexpensive books, of which I would not otherwise have known were available. With links from various blogs, I am able to preview, sort, and buy books that, a decade ago, I would have been ignorant of.
I read more, enjoy more, review more with my Kindle HdX, at economical, sometimes bargain, prices than ever before. I have a lightweight stack of books with me at all times. With Cloud support I have an even heavier stack available. With Whispersync, I listen when I cannot read, and I never lose my place. I see the UPS man less often. And I don't by bookcases anymore.
To me a bookstore is like the old neighborhood, you go there to appreciate how far you've come.

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