< One For The Books


Friday, May 23, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The new media are thriving. The old media are dying. That seems to be the theme of our program from week to week to week. But, of course, it's much more complicated than that because increasingly the old and new are merging into one another.

This week, we're devoting the program to the oldest of old media - books. Chances are you'll be buying one or two this holiday season, but where and how you'll buy them and in what form are open questions.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nowadays, some 60 percent of all books are not bought in brick-and-mortar bookstores; they're purchased at airports or checkout counters, Wal-Mart or Costco, Toys R' Us or Williams-Sonoma, or online.

In case you were wondering, 11 percent are purchased from Amazon.com. The rest are bought at bookstores, but mostly the big chains. The membership of the American Booksellers Association, which serves independent bookstores, has dropped from more than 5,000 to roughly 1,700 in the last decade. Should we decry the state of publishing today?

SARA NELSON: One of the reasons why it's fashionable or why it's common to decry its state is because most of the major publishing houses are now owned by conglomerates, and foreign conglomerates, at that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sara Nelson is editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly.

SARA NELSON: And they're publicly-traded companies for the most part, so there is a demand on the part of editors and publishers to double-digit growth. You know, it used to be a rich family owned a publishing house and they published books because they wanted to publish them, not because they expected to make 12 percent. I mean, in those days, private equity was Nelson Doubleday opening his checkbook.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But nowadays, publishers put their muscle behind books that can sell themselves, and corporate chains, like Barnes & Noble and Borders, reserve their precious real estate for the highest rollers.

SARA NELSON: The books on the front table in the stores - and the books on the front page of Amazon, also, and other online retailers - they don't just get there because somebody liked them. They get there because they were paid by the publisher for a certain kind of distribution. They call it co-op, and it's product placement, basically.

AVIN DOMNITZ: Whereas when you go into an independent bookseller, you are taken care of by a bookseller.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Avin Domnitz is CEO of the American Booksellers Association.

AVIN DOMNITZ: That is the hallmark of the independent bookseller, that they know the material, they know the books and that they can discuss them with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that fact has not been entirely lost on readers. Both the independents and online sellers like Amazon offer reviews and recommendations, and, in fact -

AVIN DOMNITZ: In the last four years, the only segments of the book industry that has maintained or increased market share has been online and independent stores.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That share may increase still more with the development of machines that can produce books in a few minutes in stores on demand. We'll be hearing more about that later on. But Domnitz says new hardware will someday shift the balance back to the little guy.

AVIN DOMNITZ: I think it's a great equalizer. One of the things that the chains did is they brought to the world this enormous inventory that most independents had difficulty matching. Having books available in print-on-demand format, you can walk into any bookstore, large or small, and ask for a book, and as long as it's been digitized, any bookstore can get any book at any time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or at least they will. But, says Sara Nelson, that's precisely the problem - the most serious, most insoluble problem confronting the industry today - too many books.

SARA NELSON: It depends whether you count self-published books or not, but it's between 2-and-300,000 books a year. You see the problem, which is that even people who want to read books can't begin to get to them, let alone how you begin to publicize and market all those books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frankly, I can't see reducing the number of books. That seems, well, un-American. But I can see the difficulty in cutting through the clutter. There are fewer newspaper book reviews, fewer book shows and a declining number of forums for public discussion, especially of fiction. The term of art for this problem is disintermediation - not enough mediators.

There are fewer of them, at least in print, but there are plenty of them online and in thousands of living room book clubs across America. And there is one on TV that's worth more than all the others combined, a Titanic, omnipotent mediator who tries to use her powers for good.

OPRAH WINFREY: It's the only book I've ever read that when I put it down I immediately wanted to read it again. Usually I want to -

CECILIA KONCHAR FARR: You know, I look at the bestseller lists every year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cecilia Konchar Farr, professor of English at the college of St. Catherine.

CECILIA KONCHAR FARR: And when Oprah's on hiatus, people read fewer novels. And when Oprah chooses novels and recommends them, more novels top the one-million-dollar mark.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Konchar Farr studied the phenomenon in her book, Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changed the Way America Reads.

CECILIA KONCHAR FARR: I'm jealous. I'm jealous that she can get [LAUGHS] so many people to read the book she says to read and I can only get 20 or 25 at a time, the students in my class, and it's only because I have a grade book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Case in point, Jonathan Franzen, whose family drama The Corrections was deemed by academics and other cultural arbiters to be a crossover book that would bridge the audiences for both middle and highbrow fiction. They sang its praises and the publisher obliged with a print run of 90,000.

Oprah recommended it - a gift horse that Franzen unceremoniously kicked in the teeth.

CECILIA KONCHAR FARR: The literary establishment brought our whole audience to it and got 90,000. Oprah said two sentences and got over 600,000. And 600,000 people buying that book would put it in the realm of the least successful Oprah books. Anna Karenina - when she chose that, it sold [LAUGHS] almost a million copies that year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Franzen later apologized. He didn't get it. The publishing industry did, but there are other titanic forces at work, other gift horses that the industry has not been so quick to recognize - like Google Library.

Google announced that it will include in its database the full text from some of the world's leading research libraries. When doing searches, users will be able to browse the full texts of public domain material but only a few sentences in books still covered by copyright. They'll see up to three snippets, a term that has yet to be defined but has provoked furious debate and two lawsuits, one brought by the Authors Guild.

JONATHAN BAND: Their attitude is, well, gee, they're making so much money. I'm not making any money. Why should they be allowed to use my work without my permission? Shouldn't they have to pay me? But, of course, the Fair Use Doctrine doesn't work that way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Band is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

JONATHAN BAND: What Google is doing is providing a tool that, if anything, will help the publishers. It will make books more relevant than they are today. Because right now, a lot of students, when they are given a research assignment, they just go to Google or another search engine. They don't see books, because books are invisible on the Internet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any indication that showing a snippet does hurt the commercial potential of a book, and is there any indication, actually, furthermore, that showing the whole book invariably hurts the potential for selling that book?

JONATHAN BAND: So far, if anything, the evidence goes the other way. Some publishers have discovered that the more content that they put online, meaning not just the snippets but pages or even chapters, the more readers want to buy the book; that the sampling really does help drive sales.

CHRIS ANDERSON: I think the traditional publishing industry probably serves about 2,000 authors well. Meanwhile, there's 200,000 books published each year. So there's 198,000 authors who really [LAUGHS] need to find a better way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Anderson is the editor of Wired and the author of the book - and the concept - called The Long Tail, that predicts with the steady growth of online sales that more books will be sold in smaller quantities.

The famous example is Touching the Void, a book that languished for years until it soared up the bestseller lists on the tail of another book, Into Thin Air. All it took was Amazon's observation that people who liked that book might like this other one, too.

In these days of disintermediation, marketing is king, free marketing especially of the kind of that occurs online. And Anderson says if you really want to boost sales, make the books free, too. After all, advertiser-supported TV and radio are free and magazines are so cheap they might as well be.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Free allows you to maximize your reach. It's basically a form of marketing. And free books get books into the hands of people who wouldn't otherwise read those books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but you don't expect publishers to put ads in books.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Well, I mean, first of all, why not? In the 1950s, pulp fiction was all about putting ads in books.


CHRIS ANDERSON: And I'm not sure that we shouldn't have a version of the book that is sponsored and could be given away for free by the sponsor.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, he says, that's not how most people would buy them. He wouldn't. But why not? He wants options - easy access to out-of-print books, books with ads, books on tape, even E-books, though he doesn't really like them - and digital downloads. He doesn't see a problem with too many books.

CHRIS ANDERSON: You know what? My interests aren't perfectly served by the inventory on the shelves of Wal-Mart. And, you know, thank God I have a choice now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the National Endowment for the Arts released a new study about reading. It found reading proficiency declining across the board and that nearly half of Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.

Well, the NEA might not like it, but that's a choice, too.


BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So at the end of the show, we'll play our staff's favorite picks from the 12-word novel challenge we issued two weeks ago. We limited ourselves to just 12 winners, imposing the same rules on ourselves as we did on you. And to be honest, we didn't always agree with the staff or each other.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if the contest had been for great first lines of novels, the winners would have been completely different. So just to whet your appetite for the dozen winning novels to come, we thought we'd throw you a few entries that we consider great first lines.

BOB GARFIELD: John loved his apartment. Then his wife discovered it and ruined everything.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harvey hated that his parents were vampires, so he married a Catholic.

BOB GARFIELD: Insanity didn't run in his family, but you have to start somewhere.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marvin dances for a living. Betty thinks he works odd hours banking.

BOB GARFIELD: Actually, that's a movie. [LAUGHS] That's that Japanese movie that Richard Gere ruined.


What was it called?


Shall We Dance. Okay. Audience, [LAUGHS] I had not read this until just now, so [LAUGHS] I'm going to do my best. Don't bother Frederick while he's playing his cello, said the severed head.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: My uncle? All these months I thought he was your uncle.

BOB GARFIELD: That was just a taste.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you. Laurie Eckhout, Emily D., Mary Spaniel, Lorraine O'Connor, Rosie Jonker and Gene Newman.