Bye Bye Twice Sold Tales

Closed SignThe flood of bookstore closings doesn’t seem likely to let up, at least not soon. Now that I’ve transitioned to the dark side, I wonder how much time I’ll spend in good old-fashioned, paper bookstores. Borders has garnished much attention lately, with the most recent news in their ongoing saga that they are about to be delisted from the NYSE. They’ll be closing a hundred more stores, at best. At worst, they’ll go out of business entirely and take all 650 bookstores with them.

I’ve always felt that one grand exception to this trend will be second-hand bookstores. They’ll continue to sell all the books that are already out there. They can specialize in limited and collector editions, and all around remain a bastion of paper. So I was dismayed to read that one of my favorite second hand bookstores in my hometown of Seattle, Twice Sold Tales in the U District, will be closing. I used to shop there almost daily when I worked at the neighboring University Book Store. I couldn’t afford many new books, even with my employee discount, so was always on the prowl in Twice Sold Tales. (Though the U Book Store did give me great benefits, and I read a ton while actually at work… those were the days.)

Twice Sold Tales will be missed, but I can take some heart in that it’ll continue online. And the owner seems to be making out nicely as he relinquishes his location to Chase. Really? Is this the state of the book world these days? Banks are chasing away bookstores. Also, what will become of the kitty cats who inhabit Twice Sold Tales? I’ve always thought that would be a grand way to be reincarnated, as a cat who lives in a second-hand bookstore.

Must I dash this dream too?

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How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

Arnold Bennett, British Novelist

While reading the remarkable series on changes in publishing by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I came across her mention of Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999 by Michael Korda. This book deserves a whole post, but for now I’ll let the title speak for it.

This post is about one–just one of what I suspect will be many–gem that I discovered through this book of lists. In 1912, the eighth nonfiction bestseller had a fantastic title: How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett. He was one of many bestselling fiction writers that the book spotlights, though like Fannie Hurst has since fallen into relative obscurity. In addition to fiction, he made a splash with some of the first self help books. This one has just 69 short pages, and is well worth the time.

And according to the book, that is indeed saying something:

Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money — usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

Who knew cloak-room attendants were so well paid in 1912? Bennett may be out of time, he died in 1931, but he seems to have made good use of the years he was allotted, at least judging by his prodigious output. One of the things this little book drives home is that we’re far from the first generation to feel that life moves a bit too fast, or that things don’t make quite the same sense they did before. This guy had the industrial revolution, then a world war, then a big old depression to contend with during his lifetime. If he had been granted more time, he would have seen… well, another world war.

Our lives are insanely simple compared to all that, and yes 24 hours a day is plenty. I loved this passage:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly secular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: — “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

The book is now public domain and can be found for free on Google eBookstore and for the Amazon Kindle.

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First Thoughts on My New Kindle

I finally broke down last week, and bought myself a Kindle. I debated for a long time between it and the Kobo reader, but with the problems Borders is facing, ultimately opted to go with the industry big boy. I also was tempted into the ebook world, in part, to see what indie authors have been producing. Almost all of them seem to worship at the altar of Kindle.

Here’s my initial thoughts:

  • Absolute first impression: The screen resolution is amazing. This is more apparent with the pictures that come up when you shut the thing down than text itself, but all of it really does look a lot like paper. I spent a big chunk of this weekend reading on my new toy, and my eyes might even feel less strain (bigger text, after all) than they would from a paper book.
  • The case is essential. I didn’t get it at first, and the thing was just too light, didn’t feel anything like a book. But now that I have the case, it opens like a book and has the right weight to it. Plus, it has a handy little night light that’s great for reading in bed. The leather cover also has a good feel, and smell… yes ebooks can smell nice too.
  • It’s not just a bookstore at my fingertips, but instant access to pretty much every book in print today, plus tons of classics in the public domain (available for free) and new offerings from indie authors. It’ll be interesting to see if I continue my lifelong habit of stockpiling books, or prowl for a new book once I finish (or give up on) the one I’m currently reading.
  • When I first sat down to actually read a book–not to play with the settings–it all felt a bit surreal. I had an immediate urge to put the thing down and go find a real book. This passed, and part of the problem may have been that I didn’t like the first book I tried to read on it. I’m now working my way through The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and not noticing the Kindle. (The House of the Seven Gables is fantastic by the way, and I do occasionally wonder what Mr. Hawthorne would think of having his books available on such a new-fangled gizmo.)

Still, I don’t see me giving up paper books any time soon. Nostalgia aside, I have a ton of them (probably literally) around the house, both books I’ve not read yet and those I’ve read and will want to revisit someday. Though I bet I won’t buy all that many new paper books, not when the ebook variety doesn’t take up space.

Those piles of unread books that stare at me and inflict much guilt… they need trouble me no more.

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This Blog Is on the Move

I’ve moved this blog from a self-hosted WordPress.org site to WordPress.com, which will require a whole lot less maintenance. I  also noticed what’s called a “high degree of latency” on my self-hosted site. That’s fancy talk for it was way too freaking slow. I’ll add a post later on the pros and cons of each approach to blogging. (I will seriously miss Google Analytics.) But just wanted to get a quick note up to say that regular posts shall resume shortly. WordPress.com allows me to keep my original domain, so it appears that none of the links to the blog have changed. It’s all just backend, boring stuff that’s different.

Oh, and there is a new blog theme for the new year too. Whadaya think? Kinda spiffy, ain’t it?

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Permanence of Paper: Letters from Dickens, Burroughs, and Hawthorne

I recently came across the University Archives site, and then promptly got lost in its literary offerings. It’s a testament to the staying power of paper. We’ve all heard about how dastardly ebooks are compared with the paper variety. They aren’t bathtub proof. They don’t have concrete solidity. They don’t smell good.

But eBooks aside, what about e-mail? Has it not already threatened paper? And what about future collectors? Will they horde author e-mails? Aside from the facts that there can be infinite copies of any particular e-mail and that most e-mails don’t live much longer than a few milliseconds, there is something that doesn’t feel nearly as worthy of future attention.

Not like paper.

Check out this remnant from Charles Dickens, where he “begs to inform Mr. Scholl that he spoke to Mr. Scholl’s man” about getting some changes made to the lighting outside his house. I love that Dickens writes of himself in the third person. Though apparently Dickens never did get his new light. Not surprising for someone who scribbled all day, he has terrible handwriting. My suspicion is his letter may have gone unanswered because poor Mr. Scholl (or his man) couldn’t read this note.

Then there’s this letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s typewritten, and on stationary from Tarzana California. I think at one time I knew Tarzan was a comic strip back in its day, but interesting to see how much Burroughs promotes his work. My thinking is he would be doing a fine job on Twitter if he were still writing today.

Going even further back than both of these bits of paper, here’s this one from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s more of a receipt, than a letter, but a super fancy one which Hawthorne signed while plugging away at his day job. He apparently worked as surveyor in the Salem Custom House, before he was ousted when the Whigs came to power. Even then, getting laid off could often be a boon to the writing life.

Each of these bits of paper undoubtedly survived way past the time their creators ever imagined they would. Will anyone be able to say the same about e-mail a century from now? Maybe. Perhaps none of it is ever really deleted, and historians two hundred years from now will wonder why all the fuss was made over free shipping and low-interest loans.

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Here Cometh Google: Thoughts on Google eBookstore

Google made its long awaited entry into the world of ebooks today, with the launch of Google eBookstore. The program has a number of things that make it unique in the ebook world. Check out Publishers Weekly or Google’s own blog post for the nitty gritty.

Unlike the stores for iPad, Kindle, and Nook, Google eBookstore is not tied to any particular piece of hardware. They’ve made free apps available for Android and the iPhone/iPad. They also support the Adobe eBook platform, which means that their ebooks can be read on Nook and Sony readers. Google eBookstore also supports any Javascript enabled browser. The only real noticeable absence is the Kindle, no big surprise there. Though my hunch is Google also won’t make a Windows Phone 7 app available any time soon.

Other than the basics, here’s my initial impressions of the program:

  • The integration with independent bookstores is awesome. Independents can partner with Google eBookstore to sell ebooks on their own websites. I love this, no more guilt if I find a book in a great independent but then don’t want to go home with it right then. Powell’s has already signed up for the program, and my hunch is that there will soon be a stampede of independents to join them.
  • There is a whole lot of noise about how this program lives in the cloud. You buy the book once and then can sync it across multiple devices (Kindle offers a similar feature through Whispersync). I get why this is cool. It’s difficult. But was there a problem before all the fancy devices came along? Nope. It was simple to open my paper book right where I left off… and it was never much of a hassle to take it with me, especially since then I didn’t have to carry all this other crap (smart phone, tablet, laptop) with me.
  • You can’t get to Google eBookstore from the Google home page. You have to click on “More” in the top navigation, then “Books” and then a link that actually takes you into the eBookstore. Plus, the URL they chose for the program is: books.google.com/ebooks. Overall, kind of buried. It seems they don’t expect customers to treat this store as a destination, but it’s about having Google ebooks surface as people search, or as they shop on partner/independent sites.
  • The merchandising is worse than clunky, like the featured categories at the bottom of the store home page with amateur graphics and no cohesive design elements to pull it all together. Again though, none of it feels like this bookstore is being built as an eye candyish destination.
  • I found 1,537 reviews of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. One of the three editorial reviews at the top of the page is in Chinese, so not a whole lot of help to me. Also, even on the full reviews page, each review is given just two lines. I’m not sure why they don’t show the full text of about 10 reviews per page, and let me scroll through them. Again though, this approach seems to speak more about search, than a shopping destination.
  • The program also boasts “more than three million titles including hundreds of thousands for sale.” That line threw me at first. If there are hundreds of thousands of titles for sale, where does that leave the other 2.7 million titles in the store. Apparently, these are all free. They’re public domain. Of course, every store for ebooks has all the classics available. The question really will be how much of a differentiator will the millions of obscure, public domain titles be. This plays well into a search strategy, where these books will surface. Each one may not pop up often, but presumably when it does it’ll be massively qualified… and free.
  • One of the headlines on the main overview page is: Discover the world’s largest selection of ebooks. Ummmm… is that possibly a swipe at Amazon? Their original tagline was: Earth’s Biggest Bookstore. It also highlights how Amazon has drifted from its original selection, selection, selection mantra to focus on the exclusivity of its platform.

All around, a big new competitor just entered the ebook arena. For a product that just launched, it feels pretty complete. Though understandably the window dressing is still to come.

It’ll be fascinating to see if ultimately the ebook market sticks with the one-stop shop (Kindle or possibly iPad) or if it prefers this multi-faceted approach where the book itself is merchandised and sold by one company, the order for it is fulfilled by another, and the device on which it’s read is manufactured by a third.

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Are Enhanced eBooks Really Enhancing Anything?

One of the things I hear often about the children’s book market is how picture books are suffering. Shelf space is evaporating for them as Barnes & Noble and Borders scale back their number of stores. And kids–at least those who read at all–are jumping into full-fledged novels much younger than they did even ten years ago. End result: Less demand for picture books.

The iPad is often touted as the savior for a re-imagined picture book, the enhanced edition. I’m still not all that sure that I get what a book can do on the iPad that makes it better, but I started to think that maybe I should get me one just to make sure I’m not missing anything. Then I came across Oceanhouse Media. They produce ebook versions of Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears.

Here’s an example of what they’ve done with the Grinch on the iPhone:


I love that Oceanhouse is trying to take picture books into this new medium, but, um… why not just get the paper book here? Both kid and mom look so uncomfortable, squished around this screen. The only real advantage isn’t an advantage at all. Parents no longer need to read the book to their kids. The app will do that for them. Mom is there in the video of this Grinch app, but she’s pretty much superfluous.

So… rather than going on a rant about how I wouldn’t trade the time I spent with my mom and Where the Wild Things Are or, a few decades later, my nephew and No, David!, I’ll just say I don’t get it. On their site, Oceanhouse indicates that they’re not particlarly interested in developing concepts for single apps, but would like to hear from owners of “branded content.” That pretty much says the value in these apps is Seuss or the Berenstain Bears, not the app itself. It’s all in the branding, not the so-called enhancement.

Maybe this new medium will one day re-invigorate the picture book, but what we’ve seen so far isn’t it. These apps need to do something new, something unheard of before, something not possible before. They can’t just reformat picture books with little cues about objects in them, but need to invent a totally new art form. In the meantime, I’ll stick with picture books. Maybe everyone on my list this year will get one, new titles by new authors.

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