Monday, May 14, 2012

On Publishing & Writing — A View From The Bottom And From The Outside, Part I

Someone in an office in Kansas can now put a hit on someone leaving a restaurant in Islamabad. Drones.  It is possible for someone in Switzerland to halt all electronic currency transactions in Iran to crush their economy or for someone in Israel to send a digital disease to rogue governments to disable their nuclear programs.

People — police, your boss, criminals, your spouse, your political opponent — might know where you are now and could look at your email, Twitter and Face Book.  Corporations can and do track your purchases and set up a profile of your interests for marketing purposes.  They will know if you have a special weakness for Prada or Hagen Daz Pistachio. And if your prescriptions suggest the onslaught of dementia, you might be receiving a phone call saying that you inherited a considerable sum of money.  “All you have to do is provide me with your credit card number.”

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are companies that will reduce your credit standing, no matter how good it is, simply by noting that you have shopped where, statistically speaking, people with bad credit ratings shop. Nothing personal. Just crunching the numbers. Could some authority (Homeland Security, Patriot Act) commit an error in surveillance that could result in you being plucked from the world as you know it, face indefinite imprisonment and possibly torture?

No this isn’t Chicken Little talking.  I carry no signs saying we are approaching the end of the world.  But I might carry one that says technology is changing at a speed never before experienced. Of course I’d try to make it a little catchier. But we are rushing into technology faster than we can develop the ethics to manage it, faster than the average human can comprehend its impact.

There has always been change. But how long did it take us to get from the quill to the Selectric?  Now, how quickly have we come from sending a report by mail with a quick 24 to 48-hour turnaround to bouncing information off satellites in nanoseconds?  These changes not only alter the way we work, find information, but how we deal with time. Smart phones enable us to connect with everything instantly.  The Yellow Pages are nearly nonexistent.  Maps? No need to unfold that mile-wide map while you’re looking up a street address.  A voice will give us step-by-step instructions.  We can announce anything at anytime to those in our circle of friends or acquaintances. We have games to play if we’re stuck in a traffic jam, even movies to watch. There’s an app for everything you consider important in your life and some you would never have imagined had they not become available.

Among the most interesting aspects of the change that technology is bringing about is that something as absolutely trivial as Twitter can be absolutely earth shaking.  Oppressive governments are being brought down by the sudden emergence of the cell phone and a 140-word tweet — that silly, little app that allows you to keep track of what Lady Gaga had for lunch. 

These changes are affecting every aspect of our lives.  How much longer will there be movie theatres?  With 46-inch HDTV screens largely affordable to a good portion of the world, why would we pay $20 for a ticket and $15 for a box of popcorn? How do we get our news?  How do we do our banking? How do we stay in touch with friends and relatives?  How do we buy a house? There is a map of all the homes in any given city with its estimated market value just a click away. What’s happening in medicine? A scan of my body can reveal serious problems long before they might become apparent, before I can feel pain or discomfort, or a doctor can figure it out in a standard physical.  This is incredible. Security?  Face recognition. The technology is there for more invasive tactics that can keep you safe or prevent you from dropping out. You cannot leave.  You cannot escape.  Ever.
In that sense, it is surprising that books are still important. Let's go from a wide-angle lens to one that focuses on the details of merely one, relatively benign aspect of our culture — books.  I suspect everyone involved in it is confused.  We are confused because technology not only changes the way books are produced and sold, but for the first time how they are read.

For many years, even centuries, the book business remained essentially the same. There were bookstores. For the most part, people who wanted a book went to the bookstore. If you were in a big city you went to a big bookstore.  I you lived in a small town, you went to a smaller one, or perhaps an area of the local department store that sold books and magazines.

Things began to change some during the malling of America.  Urban flight happened.  People fled downtowns and near-downtown neighborhoods to live in the suburbs and malls grew up overnight to serve them. Lots of light and parking and security. Being able to buy books in substantial quantities, often these mall stores did more aggressive marketing and offered a steeper discount on cost to the customer.  Little bookstores began to feel the pinch of well-branded chain bookstores like B. Dalton and Walden Books. These new chains did fine along side other chain stores offering other mass-produced products.  It was the way the majority of consumers consumed.

After only a few years, the population shifted again. While the suburbs aged, recently graduated young professionals returned to work and or live in an urban environment.  Young singles and young marrieds not only wanted a place to buy a book, but they wanted a place to pick up a cup of coffee, a bagel and possibly a date.  They wanted the biggest possible choice of reading material (and music). The birth of the book superstore emerged.  The breadth of selection, the comfort, the coffee shop and the steep discounts, as developed by Borders and Barnes & Noble, not only continued the onslaught of big business over independent bookstores, they devoured the mall model as well.  Walden Books and B. Daltons, already owned by Borders and Barnes & Noble, went away.  Only the most spirited or most innovative independent stores stayed afloat during this speedy evolutionary process.

With Walden Books and B. Daltons dead or dying, and many of the independent bookstores, large and small, fading fast, the Super Bookstore reigned. But even that reign turned out to be minor and short-lived. Previously the book business saw movement in bookstore size and in book size — packaging. Essentially, the business process remained the same. 

As the big bookstore box chains found out, the Internet introduced capabilities none had apparently imagined and those capabilities would expand exponentially.  First it was fairly simple.  On-line book sales were merely a variation on the mail-order model.  However, there were other business trends happening.  Just-in-time inventories were becoming popular among retailers

Amazon, taking advantage of what the Internet offered as well as such business innovations as just-in-time inventories — that is not having more inventory on hand than you need on a day to day basis — decided to set warehouses around the country, where a single, low-cost building on cheap land could supply a big chunk of geography.  When a single Borders store ordered 200 copies of the latest Stephen King book, some of which they’d keep in the back room, and some they might have to return, the store was using expensive space and far more intensive labor. There would have to be physical inventories, shipping and receiving and sometimes shipping again, as well as complex accounting at each store.  Amazon, on the other hand, could order books as they needed them. As they sold them they could ship direct to the customer, a task that can be handled in assembly-line fashion.  Shipping labels, shipping fees, accounting were done by computers.

Because they didn’t have the overhead of the big-boxes, Amazon could offer even steeper discounts on books.  The customer didn’t even have to leave home. They could browse the stacks (so to speak) on the computer and validate their choices by seeing how the book was reviewed not just by The New York Times, but also by readers like them.  Book lovers could communicate with each other on the Amazon site, find lists, participate in book discussions, while Amazon passed along reading recommendations based on each reader’s very particular reading interests. What else could the book lover want?

Part II On Wednesday

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