Monday, March 04, 2013

Indie Bookshop Survival Guide

Is the fate of book stores a cliffhanger? this is suggested in a report in The Economist headlined The future of the bookstore: A real cliffhanger. The reason for this question is apparently due to the onslaught of e-books and e-tailers like Amazon, with the inevitable comparison to the music industry.

First, for the bookstore, the report says: 'For a bookstore to remain successful, it must improve “the experience of buying books," says Alex Lifschultz, an architect whose London-based practice is designing the new Foyles. He suggests an array of approaches: "small, quiet spaces cocooned with books; larger spaces where one can dwell and read; other larger but still intimate spaces where one can hear talks from authors about books, literature, science, travel and cookery." The atmosphere is vital, he adds. Exteriors must buzz with activity, entrances must be full of eye-catching presentations and a bar and cafĂ© is essential.'

Weren't most book stores already doing these things? Quiet cosy nooks, areas for talks, grand entrance displays and cafe's. Borders started this trend, and was very successful initially; people loved it, and everyone else imitated them. But they were also very silly about it, and went broke. Why did they go broke? Was it a problem with the management, the book-retail model, or the industry? Improving the experience of buying books is good. Loyalty is good. But what do customers really want? Unfortunately, only real book buyers know what they want in a book store. Mr Alex Lifshultz, are you a book buyer? Do you read? Do you have a library in your house? How big is your collection? Do you like hanging about in bookshops? What do you expect them to be?

The book seems to be the only commodity that is sold by people with little or no product knowledge. No none would buy electrical or electronic goods from someone who does not even know where the 'on' switch is. I remember my visit to Foyles many years ago, and how I was immediately impressed by how much the staff knew. For one thing, the book is not a commodity to start with. For another, change is not going to come from the big boys; they are the reason for the mess we're in.

I just read about an Indie Bookseller Award short-list in the UK. That's where I believe the change will take place.  The indies will have to make many sacrifices of course. Many have told me that they've always loved the idea of setting up bookshops. Here are some suggestions:

  • don't set up a bookshop because you think it's cool; or because you think you won't have much to do; or you can read all day; or because you have nothing better to do. Set it up if that's what you absolute want to do, and be prepared to work like a slave.
  • go local, cater to your town/region, build an in-shop/online community, promote your local writers, hold events, stock their books, even if they're self published, go to the universities and colleges, both faculty and students make good markets if you stock the type of books they want.
  • pick a niche you're good in, could be anything, but know it well, give it your best shot.
  • choose your books carefully, they should reflect the character of the owner; browse in remaindered stores for good bargains, forget about stocking current bestsellers unless the publishers are willing to give you the same terms they offer Amazon (even if you're buying only two copies), there's no need for you to become Amazon's showroom, but provide the option of back to back orders; consult your customers (they may know of books you don' or have missed), will also help build the community.
  • don't spend a fortune on fancy architects (whether they read, or not). A friend down the road might be able to help you at a fraction of the cost.

Learning grammar from books

 There was a story by Julia Eccleshare in The Guardian recently, "Can children learn grammar just from reading books? There's plenty of evidence that the best children's books contain all the grammar young readers need. They also make learning enjoyable – unlike textbooks."

I remember I used to hate English grammar in school. (This was in the sixties). I used to hate Malay grammar, too. (How's that for non-discriminatory hate!) Guess, the truth was, I hated memorising facts. But I read quite a bit. So, while I'd do badly in the grammar part of the paper, I'd get an 'A' for my karangan (and essay writing). Now, I'm editing books in English (some of which are good enough for international award short- and long- lists), but I dread anyone asking me what part of speech anything is in, or any other detail. If it sounds right, that's good enough for me. We have a proofreader in the UK who advises and corrects me, but, seriously, it does not happen that often.

Eccleshare says: "Why have schools been told that reading doesn't help you to learn grammar? My child is being prepared for the new Year 6 grammar test. Suddenly, a lot of literacy teaching time is focusing on that at the expense of time spent on "reading for pleasure". I can't help feeling that the children could learn the grammar better if they read more."

Have schools really been told that reading doesn't help grammar? Jeez. I have been out of school too long. Sure, we didn't have too many 'native' speakers teaching us English, but no one said that to us, though that didn't stop them from trying to drill rules of grammar into our heads (which I have duly forgotten after I left school).

She quotes S. Krahsen's The Power of Reading: "When children read for pleasure, when they get "hooked on books", they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called 'language skills' many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers."

And, "Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, I suspect that children simply do not have a chance."

And how high a level of literacy is that?

Digital round-up

1. Apple's iPad helped students score 23% higher on exams
2. New Jersey firefighters sworn in on iPad Bible app
3. Why Japanese readers don't like e-books

Apple's iPad helped students score 23% higher on exams

A report by Daniel Eran Dilger in AppleInsider say, "After launching a new iMedEd initiative built around Apple's iPad, the University of California at Irvine reports that students in the program have now scored "an average of 23 percent higher on their national exams" than previous classes, "despite having similar incoming GPAs and MCAT scores."

Wow! This is better than those useless 'brain enhancements tablets' parents spend so much money on. Under this Apple Distinguished Program, "incoming UC Irvine medical students receive iPads that provide digital copies of all textbooks, along with access to podcasts of all lectures and other instructional materials. The iPads also provide secure access to patient records and recorded data from "digital stethoscopes, bedside diagnostic ultrasound units and a variety of other medical devices."

Guess it makes a lot of sense. Students can listen to a lecture (especially a bad one) several times at home to understand what he or she is saying. (Students can even skip classed entirely and listen to the lectures!) How I wish I had them when I was in Engineering school.)

New Jersey firefighters sworn in on iPad Bible app

From another AppleInsider report.  According to an NBC 40 newscast, officials at the Atlantic City Fire Department had scheduled a ceremony to promote several firefightes to Battalion Chief and Fire Captain, but upon commencing the proceedings they  noticed that no one had a bible. One person, however, had an iPad, and the owner pulled up -- or downloaded -- a bible app. The firefighters then swore their oaths, each placing his hand on the iPad with the bible app open.

God moves in mysterious ways.

Why Japanese readers don't like e-books

A CNN Money report. The Japanese have always been regarded as a people living on the cutting-edge of technology. Sci-fi writer William Gibson considered Japan as a country with a "default-setting-for-the future".

The report says, "Japanese consumers still seem dead set against adopting e-books, showing less interest in them than even the print-worshipping French. According to an R.R. Bowker study, 72% of Japanese consumers said they had not tried e-books and did not want to try them. That compares with 66% of French respondents polled. Overall adoption rates in Japan remain the lowest in the developed world. Only 8% of Japanese readers have downloaded and paid for an e-book compared with 20% in the US."

Tokyo based e-publisher Robin Birtle notes, "The Japanese do like to have something physical."

Boy, does the Luddite in me want to cheer. E-books are such poor second cousins.