I spent last week with a laundrylist of childhood diseases my daughter brought home from kindergarten, heavily medicated and nursing myself with unhealthy quantities of Hulu. I probably saw the commercial for the World of Warcraft videogame that featured Chuck Norris a couple dozen times, and read Farhad Manjoo's smarmy follow-up to his universally despised Slate column. With his cocky yet stock Google-researched voice, I realized that Manjoo was positing himself as some omniscient guru. Not dissimilar to the mythic figure cut by Chuck Norris in jokes. Seen in this light, I began to view Manjoo more as an undeserving knucklehead with a megaphone and mostly harmless. And that’s my prescription for how to successfully quit loathing Farhad Manjoo.
I started writing something comparing the two (Farhad and Chuck), which evolved into a more elaborate appreciation for bookstores. The medication wore off with many of the loose-ends unresolved, and I need to work on other things than this amusement so I'm just throwing it up on our blog for anyone to check out who may get a kick out of it.
Independent Bookselling Will Survive Only Because Farhad Manjoo Allows It to Survive
On December 13, in the thrall of the zombie daze of holiday shopping, Farhad Manjoo, Slate's technology columnist published an article deriding independent bookstores as “some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.” After a maelstrom of criticism and name-calling (from amongst others, Salman Rushdie), he backtracked somewhat with a piece on December 21, saying 'Independent Bookstores Are Not Doomed,' with the self-righteous subtitle, “Here's how they can fight back against Amazon.” (Not, 'Here's how bookstores are fighting back against Amazon.') In other words, it would be possible for independent bookstores to survive after all... if they heeded the sage wisdom of Farhad Manjoo. And Farhad Manjoo could win a staring contest with his eyes closed.
What was especially irksome about Manjoo's side-step was that he didn't bother speaking with a single bookseller to find out what they were doing to combat digital retail benefits, or how bookstores were already using technology to enhance a shopper's experience. To read Manjoo, you'd think the threat of Amazon on the book trade was newly born, rather than being a credible danger that surviving bookstores have dealt with for the past decade or longer. As someone who finds bookstores difficult to use (as Manjoo admitted in his initial piece), one might think that speaking with someone who operates one, or shops at one, would be in order.
Rather, Manjoo devotes the crux of his latter Amazon prescription to smartphone apps, which I'm actually thankful for, that rather than elaborating on his previous preposterous generalizations the tech guru stuck to technology. He states in closing:
“...apps will become just as important to local retailers as websites are now. If you own a store, I’d suggest you start thinking about building such an app. Right now, Amazon is stealing your customers. This is a way to fight back.”
Rome wasn't built in a day because they didn't ask Farhad Manjoo for help.
There is an indie bookstore app available through Indiebound that allows shoppers to “browse indie bookseller recommendation lists,” download ebooks from independent bookstores, find indie bookstores in their area (in addition to other locally-owned businesses), as well as search and order books. Apparently this tool didn't show up during the exhaustive research Manjoo conducted while crafting the brunt of the argument in his well-informed article. But then again, Farhad Manjoo doesn't scroll with a mouse, he uses a lion.
There is an unfortunate representation by some media of bookstores as places that are adorable and cuddly and demanding of our charity, like a kitten awaiting adoption. I found both of Manjoo's articles to be exceptionally condescending and offensive, and I'm not even a bookseller. Even Will Doig's rebuttal of Manjoo's piece on Salon seemed to hang its hat on the argument that bookstores are an invaluable thread of our cultural fabric and therefore deserve our support, as though we wouldn't otherwise shop there. Which makes me slightly queasy; just because store owners don't have a jazzy title like mortgage consultant doesn't mean they aren't businesspeople. People are choosing the experience of shopping at an independent bookstore, but they are also receiving a service. It isn't a toss-up between cutting a check to a non-profit or shopping at that cute bookstore on the corner.
A recent article in the New York Times reports that holiday bookstore sales are up considerably nationwide over 2010, with R.J. Julia bookstore in Madison, Connecticut, boasting a whopping 30% increase.
Ebook sales statistics abound and I gloss over them warily, preferring to stick with our own internal numbers. At Two Dollar Radio, less than 4% of total per-unit sales are ebooks, which equates to less than 2% of gross income. We have had ebooks fail to break even in sales, which rarely happens for us in print. To give a sample of a recent publication from 2011, a period during which “ebook sales rose 81%,” a book which received reviews from large media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review, and several others, sold 3,000 print copies. During that same window, the book sold less than 50 ebooks.
We're becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the readership of our press and the readership of our authors does not primarily reside in the ebook market. If there is a future for us there, I can't yet spy its promise on the horizon. It is my hardheaded belief that the sum contribution ebooks have made to the book trade and the publishing profession as a whole has been to devalue our product and our livelihoods, and all Amazon is doing is upselling gadgets while attempting to modernize their archaic delivery method. The single greatest champion of small presses isn't Amazon or online retailers, but independent bookstores.
Much of the pity bookstores receive is induced as a result of Amazon receiving unfair tax benefits. However, what bookstores deserve even more than our communal pity is a level playing field. It is outlandish that Amazon, a corporation that has imparted untold damage to our culture and our communities since their inception through their brutish business principles, is still permitted to operate in such a nefarious manner.
It's difficult to put into words the value I believe independent bookstores possess, as it undoubtedly is for so many others, which is why we resort to nostalgia and whimsy. I shop at independent bookstores not out of some social obligation, but selfishly, because I want to, because the package they offer is indispensable. I imagine the same belief is shared by those others I see in the stores as well.
* All Chuck Norris jokes borrowed from chucknorrisfacts.com.