Thursday, February 2, 2012

The future of bookstores

I will start with a disclaimer. Despite the grandiose title of this post, I don't think that I am fully qualified to prognosticate on the future of bookstores in North America. However, this will not stop me from making wild generalizations and speculations about the position of the book within our contemporary society.

There is a fascinating article in Macleans Magazine titled "Heather's Fix" which you can read by clicking here. In the article, the titular Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo, is shifting the brand of Indigo from "Books and More" to mostly "More". In the near future, in Indigo stores across N. America, books will account for about 50% of available product within the store itself. The other 50% being made up mostly of "lifestyle" products, a nebulous and unhelpful term that we can essentially conclude to be material goods such as pots, pans, throw rugs, candles and other such knick knacks.

The article, well-written and informative, provides context. From the article:
Big booksellers able to evolve are the fortunate few. In February 2011, Borders Group Inc., the second-largest book chain in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy protection, and Australia’s major bookselling network, REDgroup Retail Inc., collapsed; Barnes & Noble Inc, the world’s biggest book retailer, has been searching for a buyer since last summer.
Some credit Indigo's survival to above par management, while some pessimistically point to government interference in the early 2000s. Regardless of Indigo's previous survival, the relevant fact is how the CEO hopes to maintain the long term profitability of the company.

In addition to context and to bare bones sketches of the long term plan, the article provides a bit of philosophy in the form of hand-wringing regarding the corporatization of books, an essential art form that has been around near the dawn of linguistic ability. One anonymous publisher is quoted as saying that books are different than any other material good. They attract a different type of consumer. Books are not ephemeral and are meant to be cherished. The publishing industry is apparently anathema to corporatization. Part of this is due to the fact that books sell better by word-of-mouth than by near-omnipresent advertising such as movies or television. Therefore, books take a bit longer to sell as word disseminates through the media and Internet. On top of this is the pragmatic aspect. Books take longer to consume than a two hour film. Therefore it is more likely that people are more likely to respond positively to something they can ingest in totality in one sitting.

Of course, this article does the job of good journalism by implying rather than over simplifying. The larger questions, merely hinted at, are questions of a society's taste for culture and art, something many many many cultural studies departments are picking up on in an increasing attempt a) to be relevant and b) to self-analyze.

Why are bookstores dying? Is it because of the widespread adoption of e-books as the form in which books come in? The numbers would suggest that this is only part of the answer. Or is it because of our society's decreasing desire for the abstract and increasing need for the visual?

The answer to that question is an entire book that I might write one day, after spending a year researching instead of sitting down after reading one article and busting out a thousand words on the topic. That is to say, the question of where our society is headed, as symbolized by the decay of bookstores is a much larger question.

I propose, in this space, not to make judgements on the prioritization of the visual, but rather, attempt to show that it is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It is simply a thing that is happening.

Books are not dying in any way shape or form. To say such a thing is facetious and ignores the cyclical nature of societies. At some point, books will return in a much larger fashion, but perhaps not in the physical sense. Perhaps they will be beamed into our brains via a WiFi connection installed in the cranium. However, at this time, books are not dying. For absolute proof of this, look no further than the two twin pillars of modern publishing: Oprah's Bookclub and Harry Potter.

Oprah's Bookclub is perfect corporate synergy. The primary market for books includes middle class women. To see proof of this statement, look at how Indigo is marketing the "lifestyle" products: yoga accessories, candles, sweaters, etc (the gender stereotyping that Indigo is guilty of is an entirely different blog post). Oprah's Bookclub merges the tastes of middle class women with the publishing industry. Whether or not Oprah personally chooses the novels is irrelevant. The books she is choosing are being sold to middle class women, who are already more inclined to purchase books in the first place. By having a national bookclub, Oprah creates a sense of community around the books. People are more likely to buy the books if only to stay "in the loop", or to keep up with discussions on the show.

On top of this, there is the increased individuation of modern society. As our lives become overwhelmingly individual (see Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature among other books), we search for tenuous connections. What better connection than an artificial and self-consciously non-online connection in the form of a bookclub? The bookclub affords individuals a way to avoid the time-trap of online anonymous activity. Humans require face to face communication. If we have to discuss something, why not discuss something to make us feel smarter? There's always an element of class aspiration when it comes to Oprah (she's just like us, she was poor and now look at her) and there's a sense of class aspiration when it comes to "higher brow" forms of culture such as novels. Certainly there are fewer "television clubs" than "bookclubs".

If Oprah's Bookclub is perfect corporate synergy, Harry Potter is a monster of synchronicity. The same elements that I spoke of (eg desiring of human connection beyond online interaction, class aspirations, wanting to stay in the loop) are applied directly to Harry Potter except with one special addition that makes Harry Potter a bigger deal: young people. That's the key difference. Young people, tweens, specifically, are the ultimate niche market. Their income is wholly disposable and their appetite for consumption of culture is insatiable. For proof of this, simply pop onto Tumblr for five minutes to get a sense of the recycling and consumption and remixing of mass amounts of culture on an epic scale. Tweens have a ravenous desire for culture and the ability to share that culture amongst themselves. There's another blog post or even book to be written about the compulsion to remix in our society, but this isn't the place.

Harry Potter capitalizes on everything that I have mentioned. I mean really, let's be honest. This isn't a judgement against Harry Potter, but the whole thing is essentially one big mashup of archetypes and class aspirations, isn't it? It's a gigantic Hero's Journey, which for some psychological reason resonates with audiences far more than any other story (according to Campbell and Jung et al). Plus, it's serial fiction, a form that cries out for sustained attention. Serial fiction manages to survive much longer even when it should die if only because of the all-too human compulsion for closure.

So, to sum up, this mini-argument, Harry Potter, in cold analytical terms, is capitalizing and exploiting many elements of human psychology not just in the story that is being told, but how to story is told and to whom.

Of course, to prove that Harry Potter is an essential element of modern day publishing, look no further than the "teen fiction" department in any bookstore. It's massive and it is full to the brim with clones of Harry Potter and Twilight. Most of which, and I mean most, are serial fictions with sustained narratives over multiple entries that are drawn out Hero's Journeys. And they are selling like gangbusters. Simply search "the rise of teen fiction" for a taste of how much this is selling. (I don't have numbers specifically. I don't need to; this is my blog, after all.)

So books are not dying, to conclude this section of the post. Books are selling well, but (and here's the important part) not in every case. Obviously, literary fiction is not selling well. And by literary fiction, I mean authors similar to Eugenides and Franzen and whatnot. Unless you are a huge name on Oprah, such as Franzen, your "Great American Novel" is sure to fail.

There are two (and a half) reasons for this, in my mind. One, if we agree that the primary audience for books are middle class women, then rich white dudes writing about rich white dudes is not speaking the experiences of the audience. Now, this is a total generalization and is anecdotal, but if you read much of the discussion on Goodreads for novels, you'll immediately notice that most of the users are female, and most of the users are critiquing novels in the form of either how well it entertains or how believable the characters are. This tells me that many readers are searching for identification within stories. They seek to make parallels between what they see and what they read. Therefore, a long 500 page novel about the plight of a rich American married couple who are involved in the environment and their rich musician friend is not going to resonate with the primary audience members. Of course, the feminist in me is already pointing out the fallibility of claiming there is such a thing as a homogenous experience that "all" females could possibly connect with. Likewise, white middle class women are buying books about the experiences of the other, such as Memoirs of a Geisha or The Help or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or whatever the hell it's called. So obviously, despite what I just said, there is a desire for a different viewpoint, but it is not the rich white male's viewpoint they want anymore.

The second reason why I think the "Great American Novel" is failing is because of the primacy of genre fiction. Literary fiction is dying within the past twenty years because of the last paragraph and because of times of recession. When people are in a recession, look no further than pop culture in order to escape. Science fiction, horror and fantasy, if I can arbitrarily make three categories to encompass them all, attempt to work through the problems in our society in an allegorical way, along with the attempt to escape from the harshness of realism. The rise of genre fiction can be seen in the domination of dystopian teen fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction (even Cormac McCarthy tried his hand at that), the meteoric rise of the vampire and other such monsters (paradoxically naturalized and humanized, robbing them of their original fear factor, ie working through anxieties through monsters).

A third, but not entirely big reason, is the impossibility of filming the "Great American Novel". The Corrections, despite its National Book Award and omnipresence on "best of" lists remains only a book as of 2012. HBO is casting a TV series, but I remain skeptical that it will eventually appear. Freedom, Franzen's newest novel, is so specifically "Russian" in form and scale that no single two hour film will do it justice. Add to that, there are a cultural relativism at work within "literary fiction" a type of elitism that proposes books are inherently better for you than film. Which is rubbish, but again, another blog post to figure this out.

Therefore, if we can bring the entire argument together, if bookstores are dying and trying to market both e-books and physical books, then they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of bookstores selling copies of Franzen-clones in stores, they should be selling copies of Harry Potter/Twilight clones in stores. The people who are reading "literary fiction" are probably doing so on their Kindle or iPad anyway. Tweens are buying books by the truckloads; stock the shelves with them. Middle class women are buying physical books and movie tie-ins; stock the shelves with them. Oprah needs to bring back the bookclub if only to inject a little life in the publishing world.

Personally? I'm a white middle class male. I enjoy reading both Franzen and about "the other" through genre fiction. I want to see the revitalization of the publishing industry if only because I read so much and because I prefer to read. I would never say one medium is superior to another because that's wholly facetious, but I can say what I prefer. I just think that the book industry is going about things in the wrong way. Instead of implicitly comparing books to consumable lifestyle objects, I think publishers should be focusing on the permanence of the books. Stop selling yoga shit and start selling bookshelves and way to display books, and lavish looking books. Barnes and Noble do this, as when I was in Mall of America, I found an entire section of high end hardcovers collecting public domain stuff. What a brilliant idea. Too bad this section was pushed away in favor of selling chocolates and yoga mats and exercise books. Put more confidence in the taste of the reading public, and you might be able to sell them on the permanence of books in our increasingly ephemeral lifestyle.

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