Blog Archives

Bookstores & Paradigm Shifts

  My email circle of friends and (self-imagined) world problem solvers recently discussed the expanding role of e-commerce. As with most of our conversations, this one began with something else. One member of our august group forwarded an email of dubious accuracy, which ostensibly related humorously poor predictions of future events by people who could be considered experts about such things.

Here they are:

  • “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
  • “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – – Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” –The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  • “But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
  • This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
  • “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
  • “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
  • “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
  • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
  • “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this,” – – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy,” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
  • “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.
  • “The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University
  • “I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — The head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.
  • “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse , 1872
  • “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

I didn’t fact check any of these quotes, and I’m sure some are inaccurate or at least taken out of context, but the point of the email, I think, remains valid. It is difficult for anyone to predict what comes next. It may be even more difficult for experts in the field because they are so heavily invested (intellectually, not monetarily) in the status quo.

Of course, our email discussion drifted to computers and how none of us imagined a time when we’d need more than a couple of floppy drives and a dot matrix printer, then it shifted to what we use our computers for now, and eventually it evolved into a discussion about internet shopping.

That’s when I brought up Borders Books and its unfortunate demise. I would never have predicted it. I went there often, and the place always seemed busy. People would go there to shop, browse, seek help from polite, knowledgeable employees, or just sit and sip coffee at the in store cafe while working on their thesis or next book. I loved this place. But I must reluctantly admit that if Borders did not have what I wanted in stock, which most often was the case, I went home and bought it from Amazon.

That got me thinking – a dangerous habit, to be sure, but I can’t seem to help it. Was the closing of Borders indicative of some broad paradigm shift that extends beyond just their business model? The explanation I most often see for Borders’ failure is that they were slow getting on the e-book bandwagon. I don’t know if this is truly part of the reason. I’m sure it’s not the whole reason. A retail store that sold CDs and videos also went out of business near me and it brings me to wonder if there may be something even more fundamental underlying the issue that may affect not only other bookstores but all other types of exclusively brick and mortar retail stores as well.

A physical store has to limit its inventory because of space. This was not a problem when peoples’ tastes were limited by whatever radio, TV, and magazines made popular, and when consumer choices were limited to what major producers made available. The internet is a game-changer. It expands our options and allows us to sample different things we would never have been exposed to without it. Before the internet, many of these things probably would not have existed. They would have been squashed in infancy because major producers did not feel they fit current tastes, and people’s tastes were largely constrained by what these cultural gatekeepers allowed to become available. Of course, I am speaking mainly about books and music now, but it may apply to other areas, too.

My first experience with this was with music. What you heard when I was young was whatever they played on the radio. That was pretty much it, and it was fairly limited. I won’t say some of this wasn’t great music because it was, but a composer or band that created something different that music producers did not think they could sell easily would have little chance of wide exposure. If you didn’t live next door to these garage bands and heard them practicing, chances are you would never have had a chance to hear what they came up with.

Digital music changed this. Bands could reach out to the world on the internet. I recall the first time I heard an online recording of a song by a then fairly obscure European band, which quickly became one of my favorites. I had never heard music anything like this before. I loved it. I’m not sure where I found it, now. It may have been on YouTube or possibly provided as a link in an email from someone, but the point is that before the days of the internet, I would never have heard this. It certainly would never have been played on the radio because it did not fit an established genre and I doubt any producer would think it would ever become popular. I doubt it could be called popular now.

This is the point I’m driving at. Mass popularity may soon be an outdated idea. The things people know, believe, and like are limited by their exposure to them. With a worldwide internet, they are exposed to more, so their tastes can become more diverse.

Small publishers, music producers, and individual artists can now compete for audiences. I find that much of this ‘indie’ stuff appeals to me more than that which is cranked out by big companies. Physical stores won’t carry it. They couldn’t if they wanted to. Even if the worldwide market for it is large, it may not be big enough in individual areas to justify a carrying it in a brick and mortar store, which can only stock that which they can sell in enough volume to turn a profit. If your tastes deviate from mass market ‘pop’ stuff, the local store may not be the place for you to find what you will most like.

We are just starting to see this with books and music. I seldom find music I like in stores because they don’t carry it. Yes, they can order it (usually), but so can I. In fact, I can get it instantly by buying the MP3 album. The same kind of thing may be happening now with books.

I still shop at physical stores. Sometimes I even browse. But if I’m looking for something in particular, chances are I’ll be shopping for it online.

On Digital Books and the Evolution of Genre Fiction

I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music.  It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on.  But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.

I think it may.  One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea.  The advice? –  Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience.  Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.

I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice.  It happened with music.  It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.

So what does this mean for fiction?  Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to.  Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.

Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind.  Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited.  Still, these seem to make sense to me.

Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available.  What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them.  If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.

Genre melding – This is already happening.  There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc.  Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.

More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.

More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in.  A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality.  A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.

Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers.  The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.

Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction.  It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available.  Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.

Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good.  It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with.  You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently.  The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group.  But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form.  I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things.  Taste in music or literature is a personal matter.  It’s like food in that way.  If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?

Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want.  First there is the quality issue as stated above.  The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful.  This can make the good stuff hard to find.  But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices.  It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu.  It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing.  Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good.  Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious.  It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more.  The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce.  On the plus side, it is available somewhere.

There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now.  There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling.   But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers.  I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts.  Sometimes more is less but in this more is better.  More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers.  Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.

Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress.  What can I say?  I like it.  You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.

%d bloggers like this: