A Spy at the Bookstore?

December 14, 2010

Spy vs Spy comic - top secret

I felt guilty. At the back of my local bookstore, the owner’s wife holds a monthly book group. But tonight, as she introduced our next book, I was already planning to purchase it as an ebook. And then the woman next to me revealed the same guilty secret. “Can we read this as an ebook?” she asked the bookstore owner’s wife.

I’d learn many interesting thing in the minutes that followed, as a fierce conversation broke out instantly around the table. In fact, everyone in the room had more to say about ebooks than we’d had about that month’s book selection! There was excitement about Kindles and Nooks – even from the people who didn’t own one. So the first thing I learned is that it’s a very hot topic. But the second thing I learned is you’re much less enthusiastic if you own a bookstore..

I tried to be sympathetic, pointing out that bookstores were cut out when people bought their books as ebooks. But unfortunately, I made the mistake of mentioning that bookstores obviously get a piece of the book’s sales price — prompting another comment about how ebooks are much cheaper than printed books. This made the bookstore owner’s wife look very, very uncomfortable. She pointed out that ebook prices get heavily subsidized — that she believed Amazon was even taking a loss on some ebooks.

“Maybe it’s all a conspiracy, to drive the local bookstores out of business,” someone said. “Amazon has invented a device which only lets you read books you buy from Amazon, and never from your local bookstore, so they can drive all of their competition out of business. Then in the future, if you want a book, you’ll have to buy them all from a single store in Seattle!”

“Or two stores,” the Nook owner said proudly. “You could also buy books from the Barnes and Noble chain.”

But then we got some surprising news from the bookstore owner’s wife. She’s already planning to sell ebooks from the new Google Bookstore. Apparently there’s a way to integrate Google’s ebooks into the web sites of local bookstores. There’s some configuration issues, she’d said, which still have to be worked out, but it gives her customers a way to give some money to their local bookseller.
Unless you own a Kindle, someone pointed out quickly. Because the Google bookstore hasn’t been able to work out a deal with Amazon. Yet…

I felt like I was watching an enormous change as it was happening around the world. Those were the main points of the discussion, but it was fascinating to hear each person’s individual perspective. One 80-year-old woman said most of her reading now was just cheap, used paperback books — and that she could buy hundreds of them for the cost of an Amazon Kindle. And another woman said she liked the tactile feel of a book — and the chance to start a conversation if someone recognizes the cover of your book.

But then someone argued that could also be a disadvantage. After all, one of most popular ebook categories is romance novels — because finally, nobody has to know that you’re reading them! I added that maybe some people buy a book because they secretly want people to see them reading it. In fact, Stephen King buys print copies of books that he’s already read as an ebook — just so he can have it as a conversation piece on his shelf!

Of course, he can afford to do that, because he has more income than most folks, I was thinking. But I was already getting a dirty look from the bookstore owner’s wife. The book group was probably started solely as a way to get people to purchase the store’s books. And to be fair, that’s one of the most unappreciated functions of a local bookstore. It becomes a kind of local support group for actually purchasing and then reading new releases.

The fact that we were having this discussion shows what a bookstore can do for a community. So I’m glad to know that some bookstores may be evolving into re-sellers of digital ebooks. Maybe someday our book group will meet, and no one will have a printed copy of the book.

Because every single one of us will be reading the book on a Kindle.

Stephen King autograph on a Kindle

“Writers will begin signing e-books,” a headline promises at the web site TechEye. Er, wait a minute — then where are the writers going to put the pen?

But it turns out there’s a new technology — and also some other possibilities that I hadn’t thought of. For example, one PR professional suggested that instead of a signature, authors at a book-signing could pose for a digital photograph with all their fans who waited in line. (And yes, you could e-mail that photograph to your Kindle, where you could then access it from your home page.) And the photos could also be uploaded to Facebook or posted on weblogs — or even uploaded to your cell phone, so it’s next to the apps where you’re reading the author’s ebook!

Of course, it’s also possible to use a pen-shaped mouse to draw a digital signature onto the photograph, so the fans could still get their autograph after all. But according to TechEye, there’s an even more interesting possibility. A developer named Tom Waters teamed up with an IT contractor for NASA to create an application called “autography,” which captures a writer’s autograph on a digital blank page so that it can be inserted directly into ebooks! This could spread a new tradition throughout the world of ebooks, according to an insider for the publishing industry who was interviewed by the web site. “Autography has initially been developed as a iPad app which works with the iBookstore, although Waters says the final service will be device and format agnostic…”

This might be a better way to handle ebooks when authors are promoting their new releases at a bookstore. (I’ve already collected several stories about fans who asked the authors to simply sign the outside of their Kindles.) Last year at a Manhattan bookstore, this happened when humorist David Sedaris was promoting a new collection of essays called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — and he came up with the perfect inscription. “Mr. Sedaris, in mock horror, wrote, ‘This bespells doom’,” the New York Times reported, adding that the event “may have offered a glimpse of the future.” When the Times contacted Sedaris later, the author revealed that actually, he’d already signed “at least five” different Kindles — as well as “a fair number of iPods…for audio book listeners!”

William Gibson, the famous science fiction author, also experienced the same phenomenon — during a special book-signing at the Microsoft campus. (Gibson acknowledged to the fan that this was a first, and then autographed their Kindle with big, black letters using a permanent marker.) Later, the fan discovered that William Gibson was also talking about the incident on Twitter. “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft,” Gibson announced to his fans. “Actually, *touched* very first Kindle.

“Appealing unit, IMO,” added the science fiction writer.

Gibson’s new book ultimately became Amazon’s best-selling science fiction book in September, and it’s possible that the extra publicity helped. It’s fun to think about this as two worlds colliding — that it’s the virtual world of ebooks confronting the real-world physicality of printed books (and their authors). But while this ritual may be undergoing simple changes, it could offer hints about something larger.

One fan even confessed to the New York Times that she actually felt embarrassed as she’d approached the author, because “if you’re asking for your Kindle to be signed, you’re taking the bookstore out of the process!”

Linda Watanabe McFerrin wrote Dead Love
I’m still excited about the fact that I got meet a real book author, just before her big book-signing at my neighborhood bookstore! And along the way, I got a really fascinating perspective on how the publishing world could be changed by the Kindle…

Linda Wantanabe McFerrin had just published an Anne Rice-style novel called Dead Love, about a half-zombie woman and the lovestruck ghoul who’s pursuing her. In fact, after the book-signing, she was driving down to California’s Central Valley, where the next afternoon she was planning to participate in a “zombie walk”. (Where a bunch of zombie enthusiasts, wearing costumes, collectively celebrate their enthusiasm…) But she had a strange arrangement with the bookstore, because they hadn’t yet actually stocked her book. So they let her come in and sell her own copies – just for the prestige of having an author in town!

Before the book-signing, Linda and her husband were waiting for me and my girlfriend at a local modern “Italian fusion” restaurant. We all talked for over an hour, and then walked the two blocks over to the bookstore. The crowd was moderate but enthusiastic, and they really revved up when she read from her book. Linda started her presentation with a very unusual teaser for the crowd — “Would you like me to read to you about zombie sex?” But afterwards, I got to talk to her publisher — who was also in the crowd — who also had a fascinating idea about the future of ebooks.

He suggested bookstores should install “ebook kiosks,” where their customers could browse and purchase the latest ebooks for the Kindles and other reading devices. Then the bookstores could still claim a commission for every ebook that they’d sold! I’ve given the idea a lot of thought, and I’m not sure exactly what the business model would be. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great idea.

The truth is, I know people who are already using the bookstore as a way to browse for ebooks — which they’ll eventually go off and buy somewhere else. Sometimes they’re even making their ebook purchases from Amazon while they’re still in the bookstore! Using an iPhone app, they run a price-check in Amazon’s Kindle bookstore — and if the price is lower, the bookstore loses. The ebook kiosks could resemble those Redbox vending machines that let you rent DVDs, except with the ebooks, there’d be nothing to return!

Anyways, it’s the kind of “insider perspective” that you get when you talk to an actual book publisher during a reading by one of his authors. He’d dedicated his life to the distribution of printed stories — and he’d given a lot of thought to the health and future of bookstores. And best of all — he actually has a Kindle too! I enjoyed talking to him — and he didn’t seem curmudgeonly at all about the popularity of digital readers. Plus, I finally got to have the conversation I always wanted to have.

“I saw figures in the New York Times,” I said, “which suggested that publishers actually make more money off ebooks than they do off of printed books, because they don’t have to pay for the shipping and printing costs.”

“I saw that article too,” the publisher replied. “They seemed to be using figures for New York publishers rather than independent publishers.” But he seemed to confirm my general suspicion — that if you’re worried about the future, it’s the bookstores who are more likely to be hurt by the popularity of ebooks.

Looking back on the night, it was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. (I’d thought I would’ve asked the author for writing tricks or professional advice — but instead, we just all had a wonderfully spontaneous conversation.) Okay, I’d also had a huge mango sangria at the Italian restaurant, so I was probably a little more talkative than usual. But I figured it was a special occasion — because it’s not every day you have drinks with a passing-through author and her publisher!

Click here to buy the zombie novel “Dead Love” as an ebook!

Or click here to read our review.