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Friday, May 19, 2006

Superstores vs. Independents: Is Tyler Cowan being a Coward?

In a recent post on Slate, Tyler Cowan writes about Laura J. Miller's book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. But while Cowan's piece is ostensibly a review, it is in fact something else, and the fact that it is something else is telling: instead of giving Miller's book the detailed analysis it deserves, Cowan instead uses it as a platform to advance his own theories and opinions.

Miller's book is about the decline of independent bookstores as they are replaced by book superstores. Cowan, however, doesn't see anything wrong with this development, since he feels that there is a snobbish mystique that surrounds the independents:

Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest.

Cowan's statement that "the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy" is categorical. But Cowan, who works as a professor of economics at George Mason University and should know better, doesn't offer any proof. He simply makes the claim in absolute terms and then quickly finishes his sentence with the rhetorically slippery qualification that this ploy is used "often artificially". (What would the alternative be? That deliberate marketing ploys are used "naturally"? "spontaneously"? "accidentally"?)

Unsurprisingly, given this opening, Cowan continues throughout the article to mix things up. He does this because the article is not so much an attempt to discover complicated truths about the current situation among booksellers, but an idealogical attack on the independents and a defense of the superstores. The superstores are better, Cowan thinks, because they can achieve scale-of-economy efficiencies the independents can't.

But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores' scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you're looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.

In short, the superstores provide lower prices and better selection. So what's to worry?

This species of argument is hard to counter. After all, the evidence that is readily available (that is, the impression many people have) seems to confirm Cowan's point of view. But Cowan is not talking about the long-term. He is only talking about the here-and-now. And the problem with the demise of the independents -- apart from the demise of the owners of the independents -- is its long-term effects. An appropriate analogy is the large amount of corporate consolidation that took place among major book publishers in the 1980s and '90s.

(By and large, that period of consolidation led to tragic results. One result -- a result that the publishers never mentioned at the time -- has been the complete walling off of the major houses from emerging writers who are not represented by an established agent. The adjective in that last phrase is key: it is the established agents who can really help a writer's career, but there is such a small number of them (and a smaller number still of those willing to look at unsolicited work) that, if nothing else, an enormous bottleneck has been created. The process of having one's manunscript read by a major publisher has slowed, not sped up. This sort of situation is inherently unhealthy, and, over time, is likely to have a deleterious effect on literary publishing ... a field of endeavour that isn't presently in need of any further complications.)

If we move from this analogy to a prediction about superstore book retailing itself, the most likely long-term effect of superstores dominating the market will be an exacerbation of the present trend of favouring a few titles at the expense of the rest. This favouring is done by ordering larger numbers of certain titles, putting them on more central display, and generally doing an aggressive job of promoting them while letting the other titles languish on the less-visited shelves.

As I understand the workings of book retailing, these marketing tactics are usually bought and paid for by the publishers. But this only proves it is the big houses -- with their big money -- that have the likeliest odds of succeeding. Therefore, when we think of the long term, the big publishing houses -- which, recall, are now strangling the chances of unagented writers -- will also create a situation in which their titles eat up even more of overall sales than they already do.

It needs to be emphasized here that the book market is not a perfectly level playing field and never has been. (This is one obvious reason why writers and agents prefer doing business with the big houses.) Instead, what is at issue is the degree to which corporate publishers and booksellers dominate. If they dominate too much, the result will be a vicious cycle that makes a mockery of one of the cultural advantages the book trade still has over the movie or TV industry: wider choice. And choice, supposedly, is a virtue in Cowan's scheme of things.


Like many idealogues, Cowan is aware of the weaknesses of his argument but does not wish to deal with them in an intellectually rigorous way. Instead, he presents them in an apparently fair-minded manner, but then, almost as quickly, sidesteps them. When discussing the question of whether all this consolidation of bookselling in corporate hands might have a downside, he writes:

Clearly, though, what Miller and others fear is that the culture of literacy that indie bookstores help cultivate and nurture—the eccentric interests, the peculiar niches—will be lost in the routinized world of the superstore.

Cowan's response is as predictable as it is flawed. The internet, of course, will be the savior of "eccentric interests" and "peculiar niches":

Amazon reader reviews, blogs such as Bookslut, and eBay—the world's largest book auction market—all are flourishing and are doing so outside the reach of the major corporate booksellers. Print-on-demand technologies and self-publishing are booming. Along with Google and other search engines, they will allow niche titles to persist in our memories for a long time to come. This is the flip side of the same computerization that elevated Wal-Mart and Borders: Information technology brings more voices into book evaluation and supply.

Note the placement of the first and second sentence of this paragraph. While it is true that the internet has enabled the development of readers' reviews, blogs and e-tailing, the second sentence is simply misleading. Print-on-demand (POD) publishing is "booming" because it is an accessible form of photocopying and semi-professionally binding one's work. Similarly, self-publishing is doing well because -- well, because it's always done well ... at least, in the sense that a certain percentage of aspiring writers have always taken this route.

In other words, the success of self-publishing has had more to do with the success of those who print the books.
A more nuanced argument would have discussed not POD and self-published books, but their market. It would have asked: is this market getting bigger? If so, how much? And are the books selling? How much? And to whom? But Cowan doesn't ask these questions because he isn't interested in the details. However, it is knowledge of the details that are essential to making sense of the POD and self-publishing phenomenon. Instead, by saying this area of the book industry is "booming", Cowan is content to imply it is an effective means for writers wishing professional success. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. Both POD and self-publishing are options that still have lightyears to go before they reach that stage. At best, POD and self-publishing only make sense as part of a larger career strategy.

Cowan concludes his piece with a nicely phrased description of ways a reader might find his or her way around the corporatization of bookselling:

If you don't like the superstores, it is easy enough to expand your viewing horizons through other means. Just go to new sections of your superstore (the best popular book on geology, gardening, or basketball is very good, whether or not you like the topic). Stoop or stretch to slightly uncomfortable levels. Use the stool. Peruse books randomly. Look at other peoples' discard piles. Spend more time in public libraries, which offer many of the best features of indie bookshops, including informed staff, diversity, and offbeat titles.

But it's too little, too late. Cowan's piece, ultimately, is an apologia for the corporate status quo. As such, it seems to have been seduced by its own rhetorical smoothness. Cowan might have served the cause of book-selling better by spending more time considering its complex realities. Above all, he might have viewed the current drift toward its corporatization with a larger dose of skepticism. He might have shown more courage.

(For an interesting discussion of Cowan's piece, see Dan Green's post and comments section on the topic.)


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