Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Rats Are Alright

- to envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. that, finally, the door opens…and it opens outward - we've been inside what we wanted all along. das ist komisch - david foster wallace - from 'some remarks on kafka's funniness' -

There's a post over at The Digital Reader where Mike Cane invokes an old Seth Godin post to say that bookstores are now catering to the 'rats.' Rats are, in Cane's interpretation of Godin's analogy, what's left when everyone else has jumped the sinking ship (the analogy is pushed too far and breaks down in both cases, i.e. the rats are red herrings). In this case the rats are those customers for whom books are a once in a while casual purchase, maybe one or two a year, consumers with little overall investment in literary matters as a whole. Rats, to Cane and Godin, are the people who don't matter to bookstores because they don't generate stable retail income, and, as soon as book stores begin to die, they are the people who will find new amusement without a second thought for what came before, as evidenced by said lack of purchasing power: if you're committed you will buy. In short, rats don't put up a fight for any industry, they cannot be turned to in order to abate an inevitable decline.
iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.
Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
(from Godin, cited by Cane)

When the 'best' book buyers have headed off to Amazon and the Kindle, or now to Apple and the iPad, or to Barnes and Noble and the Nook, etc., then it's only the dregs-ish book buyers that remain, right? The ones that have no effect, the ones that are no use?

Well, apparently Amazon only have a 6% equivalent of the print market in Kindle ebooks (we're talking about 2009, let's ignore the other industry players for the moment, I don't think things have changed too drastically this year, or at least we've yet to see).  I think, to judge by the amount of people who jumped the music industry ship, that they as an industry had a lot more heavy users who were a lot more motivated to jump. But maybe that 6% equivalent that Amazon have acquired represents the cream (retail figures-wise) of the print book buyers, and those people each rack up 500 book sales a year, and the remaining rats only buy one book, and the entire book selling industry is screwed… Well, not according to the 2009 sales figures (American figures, just to keep in line with Godin) which stayed essentially the same, bar a few low-to-mid single digit percentage drops here, and some similar raises there, compared with 2008. These figures come after two years of Kindle sales poaching the 'best' readers. These figures come in the midst of a recession felt world-wide (where uncommitted rats might tighten their book buying belts). These figures come in a year with no Harry Potter or Twilight (surely the rattiest of novels?). In fact ebooks in general only accounted for 1-3% of total book sales in 2009, suggesting that the defection, if it is of the elite reader/buyers, might not be such a crushing blow to the industry.

Imagine if it was true, imagine if all the hardcore book buyers had jumped ship…it didn't matter at all. The industry stayed just about the same. It would have turned out that the rats, en masse, are its bread and butter (because I think the whole rat metaphor's condescending as hell I will mix it all day long).

I think it's strange to suggest that hardcore book buyers (read 'book lovers,' read 'bibliophiles') would leave behind the bookstore for the Kindle.  That, to me, sounds like a kind of ratty thing to do.  If I just bought one or two books a year, but I was (for the sake of argument) a lover of shiny novelty, then maybe I'd check out one of these ereader things everyone's talking about and buy a few more (e)books on it once I had it too (i.e. I would contribute to overall ebook sales, at least in years one or two, far more than I used to contribute to the print book industry which has lost my sales).  If I was (I wish) able and willing to buy 500 books a year I would imagine that nothing could drag me away from doing such a thing. You don't buy hundreds of books a year because you like words, or stories, you do it because you like books. The music industry analogy doesn't really hold because it's relatively easy to get over the mediocrity of CD packaging (bar some high level examples of the form). But when you have to hold an object in your hands every time you interact with it then it can lead to some…intense emotions.

But all of this is broad brushstrokes (of course). We have no figures to tell us how readers (and what kind of readers) move this way and that. We have no way of knowing whether people that buy 100, or 300, or 500 books a year are reading good things, or bad things, new things, or old things, whether they're bibliophiles or merely prolific readers. We have no way of knowing when and if they're going or have gone.  And as for the rats, we have no way of knowing when they'll jump ship, or if they'll be pushed, and if they go then where they'll land.

Whatever though, these people on one book a year aren't rats. Their one-or-two-books-, one-or-two-albums-, one-or-two-DVDs-a-year is what keeps everything afloat because they're legion…which does make them sound a bit like rats I guess, with their power laying in their numbers. And in fact, if you look at my bookstore buying then I'm a rat, I buy one emergency present there around Christmas, but otherwise it's all libraries and The Book Depository. And I love music, but yeah, I'm probably a rat to HMV, because I try and buy straight from the artist where I can. I jumped from the high street ship years ago.

Sometimes the people who appear to be rats by some skewed indicator of retail capitalism (which Cane and Godin both seem to play into: "if you don't buy enough, you're a rat, you're not important to the industry we care about" (even though, as I've argued, you probably continue to drive it with your couple of sales)), sometimes these are the people who care the most, but they're simply driven outside of the systems which were meant to provide for them, but instead did anything but.


Why did the music stores disappear? Why did the video stores disappear? Why did Blockbuster just file for bankruptcy? Why are Barnes & Noble and Borders both closing stores?
I think he takes exception to the term “rat,” really. Blame Godin for choosing the metaphor. The fact remains, changing the terminology, that when your best customers leave, you can’t support a business with casual customers.

I offered the following in a comment:

I can’t lie, I found the ‘rats’ term to be loaded, and the more I thought about it, it seemed to be reflected in the sentiment, that those left behind are the unsavvy ones, that if you don’t buy enough then you’re not ‘good’ for the industry everyone else is escaping anyway.

I agree, a business built on casual customers struggles to get going, but I’m not so sure that it can’t be sustained on them. Casual customers support supermarkets for instance (there’s not so much loyalty to a particular brand that people will travel for them, people tend to transition quite well), and I think this is a useful analogy to what music and book stores became long before digitisation.

Barnes and Borders and Blockbusters and Tower, I believe, are all in trouble because they never catered to a hardcore clientele, they catered to the supermarket crowd, those who wanted cheap and easy, not to the real ‘best’ customers who would stick with them when times got tough, but those who, when the money ran out, went for cheap, free, and easy elsewhere.

If Tower had cared for people who really loved music they’d have made long term sustainable profits on a small scale, rather than the short and explosive gains that late stage capitalism prides. Tower is boom and bust, Borders is boom and bust. Local bookstore and music stores are sustainable and dependable, bar the threats imposed on them by the wider market. Local indies suffer when they’re driven out of business by the big names, which then themselves die on the features they were built on (cheap, easy) when digitisation takes over. Then the indies can’t come back because now ‘free’ (or even just ‘non-physical’) is normalised.

I wonder how many bibliophiles with a great local bookstore have switched to the Kindle?

The conversation is continuing in the comments over at Mike's blog if you're interested in taking a look.

*Update 2*

I'm waiting for Mike to moderate another comment I left over there, and I thought I'd repost it here in the meantime as the sentiment is perhaps a little clearer:

I’m just not so sure that the reason it’s got to that stage [where big bookstores are closing] is that the dedicated hardcore buyers defected to new media leaving the book stores to perish. Dedicated buyers would, I assume, love to stay with the bookstores they know and trust, but those stores got shut and replaced with massive book superstores. These hardcore buyers had no commitment to the big book stores (which were never really for them, but instead for the rest of the population who were far more casual in their buying, who wanted ease not terrifying variety, a good book not a long search, who prided good prices and efficiency over shop character and staff knowledge, and who can blame them, books aren’t their obsession, they merely quite like, or even like them a lot, and their few dollars, multiplied over and over and over sure added up…), so when there was another option which, while not as good as the dead indie stores, gave back the variety they’d missed, the big buyers, the hardcore, went online, and maybe switched to ereading too. And as ereading gets more popular, the casual crowd are seeing that it’s perhaps even easier and more efficient than the big stores, even though they were aimed at them, ever were. So now they go online too, and some of them find out that you can even download stuff for free, which is even better than cheap and efficient. So the big stores die (and in their death throes deploy a certain kind of competition which kills off the last of the indies). When the dust settles, the big stores long gone, with few indies able to return, everyone who gives a damn about reading will be online and ereading. This is a fate, and maybe not a bad one. I have no doubt that there are others too.


Tablazines said...

Interesting read but I don't think the comparison to the music industry is correct. The music industry has always treated it's customers with disdain. Keeping the prices of CDs artificially high, putting out albums with only a few good songs on it and then getting rid of cd singles so you were forced to purchase a whole album to hear the song you really wanted. It's no wonder their business shifted with the average customer feeling no remorse for them. I don't see the parallel in the book industry.

Also, I'm curius to hear exactly what booktsores should have done to attract and keep the hardcore readers.

cryurchin said...

Hi Tablazines,

Unfortunately I stand by the comparison with the music industry. The aggressive marketing of book fads, the move away from dealing with small publishers, the silencing of the voices of well-read and enthusiastic staff in small shops, it all adds up to a nasty parity to music retail.

This article is particularly good case in point:

I agree that the comparison is not exact, but it is, I think, still worth making as we have no other real corollary.


Tablazines said...

Wow... Thank you for that article. It definitely opened me eyes. The book business is just as seedy as the music business.

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