Go with a smile!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Death of the printed book.

It was bound to happen one day. There is news that Borders is filing for bankruptcy.

I grew up in a Singapore where a lot of good books were not available. I remember going for a talk, and the lecturer bemoaning the fact that Singaporeans never managed to get a lot of books from the stores. In those days, we had Times, we had MPH, and not much else.

And it’s strange to think that, for those years, since – this will surprise a lot of you – I wasn’t a bookworm in school, I got a lot of my knowledge from school books. Which means curriculum planning forms the basis of so much of my knowledge.

The arrival of Tower Records was a big thing in Singapore, even though, as we now know, Tower lasted only slightly more than 10 years. Those things were the big triumph of American capitalism. My teenage years of getting my ears opened to music took place in the last few years before the internet year 0. When I visited England in the early 1990s, I was amazed at all the used book stores in that place. There were an incredible range and variety of books on topics that I never ever knew existed. I went into Virgin megastore as a – so to speak – virgin. I left as a not so virgin.

Those were the days when there were a lot of books and records that I heard were very good, but were never available in the stores. Television’s “Marquee Moon”. Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”. Big Star’s “Third”. If and when you did find them, there was this amazement that that piece of treasure was in your hands, then you realised that it would cost you 1 week’s pocket money. Well I suppose you just had to save up.

I read an interview of LCD Soundsystem, where the guy said that he lived through this. (he’s 5-10 years older than me). I know about it. The legends that grow around certain records. The music would inevitably be good, but no matter how good, it would be a let down. In fact, while you were being deprived of it, you had to imagine what it sounded like. I can also trace my development as a composer to the fact that I sometimes had to wonder what the music sounded like, before I heard it.

In this way, I read about accounts of what Jimi Hendrix’s music was like before I heard it. The same was true for Captain Beefheart and Television.

In fact, in a way I feel sorry for the younger kids, who never had to deal with that type of deprivation. They never knew what it was like to go to a bookstore, read magazines about rock music, get seduced by all the lurid descriptions of how wonderful this or that music is like. It’s like from young, you only get to watch hardcore porn, and you don’t know what it’s like to have a fully clothed by nice looking girl slowly seduce you over a long period of time. They don’t get to go through the human mating ritual.

Like I said, Tower coming to Singapore was a big thing. Things changed in a big way. I never had to endure a lot of that deprivation anymore. MPH knew about Tower records, and they tried to steal a march. They refurbished the Stamford road building, and there was a “megastore” called Music Power House. I thought it was dumb that they wanted to rename Malaysian Publishing House as something else, until I realised that MPH was itself renamed from its original moniker of Methodist Publishing House.

The ethos of a megastore: there were a few factors. First, you needed to have a fancy and nice looking layout. Everything had to look more sexy than your drab Times the bookstore. You needed to have fantastic piles of books, and seduce people through sheer volume and variety. The message: you would never need to go anywhere else to shop for books. Second, you needed to produce a very homely environment, where people felt comfortable hanging out for hours at a go. Some people don’t mind drab warehouses with cobwebs everywhere. But others wanted the smell of expensive gourmet coffee in the air, nice sofas for you to rest.

Then, there was price. The megastores would be able to get new releases at lower prices than the other independent stores. I think a lot of other independent stores got killed as a result. And for most of the other books, they could price them higher because you are paying a premium for being able to walk into one store and get all the books that you want.

Then, there were the events. You would have book signings (not that common in Singapore, actually). You would have the book launches, of which Harry Potter were the most infamous. There was this time when I saw enough copies of “Order of the Golden Phoenix” to fill a 20 footer.

I wish I had taken pictures of megastores, I didn’t know that they were doomed. 2 years ago, I visited 2 megastores, in San Francisco and Denver. I didn’t know that this would be the last I would ever see of them. I should have taken pictures but I didn’t. Within 1 year, they were finished.

Ultimately, then, what is killing the megastores? I think the megastores are a very temporary and artificial environment. If you think about it, the thing that made them flourish is also the thing that kills them in the end. At first, there was no internet. They were superior because they and they alone had access to all the computer databases. They alone had access to all that knowledge about where all the good books were and where to find them.

In the second stage, everybody had the internet. Then it was even more a boon for them, because everybody had greater access to a wider range of books. Consumers being more well informed is on the whole a good thing because there is a lot of desire for books that didn’t really exist before. I think that the internet fuelled the rise of the megastores, because it released a whole load of pent-up demand for books that didn’t really exist previously.

There were other things, such as computer aided publishing making books a whole lot more presentable. You just try reading some books that were published in the 80s, before LaTeX came along. You would have shoddy looking footnotes. Maybe not so great looking indices. I think that a lot of the books in the age of the word processor have 10-20% of their length taken up by footnotes. That is incredible – hints of material that wouldn’t make it onto the actual book itself is such a large percentage of the total.

The cover picture looks tacky unless a skilful graphic designer was involved. LaTeX was responsible more for textbook porn than anything else, and was probably responsible for some peoples’ decision to go get a PhD. Yes, all because they make mathematics equations look fantastic when printed out.

There were other things: after I had read a book, I would google the name of the book, and read what some other people said about the book. That book itself would not be the be all and end all of a certain form of knowledge. I would then understand if the book was biased in a certain way, or if the author had certain predispositions towards certain viewpoints. I would read all the countervailing arguments. It was like reading a second book on top of the first, and it was massively helpful for me.

The classic example of a book that didn’t come with all the internet commentaries attached, was of course the Bible. If people in those times got to read all the semi-edited version of the Bible, a lot of the reverence for that book as a supernatural thing would have been lost, you might wonder if Christianity would ever have gotten off the ground.

However the internet brought along with it a lot of threats. First, book reading as a hobby would be threatened by the great availability of stuff on the net. Second, you had competition from Amazon.com. Third, you had competition from ebay.

The first indicator I got that Borders was on the way out – something that I should have known but didn’t – is the MPH warehouse sale. You had a lot of books that you didn’t manage to sell. And many books – they have a shelf life. The pages get yellow. Those books about current affairs will all clearly be outdated within 2-3 years – barely enough time for people to read it. Even history books – people always prefer history books to be based on the “latest research” but I wonder if that really makes it better. Novels – I don’t know why people have so much reverence towards “classic” novels of the 19th century, and books that were written 10-20 years ago are all written off, even the more “literary” ones.

Whatever it is, for a physical book, it would be extremely difficult to plan inventory. There are university courses all about planning inventory. A lot of people use statistical functions to predict demand. That sounds extremely laughable! If a book is a blockbuster, versus if it were a bust – as though it’s like a normal distribution, what kind of weed were those professors smoking?

The second indicator was Borders itself. It used to be such a pristine place. In the first year, people would treat that place with reverence. America was the most powerful country in the world, and it was like getting invited to the American way of life. You never saw so many books in your life. You just felt that you would read and read forever. I certainly felt that way, but soon after I left for a place that was actually in America and had no Borders until I was almost to leave that place.

Towards the end, the arrangements of the books became more sloppy. All the good books are bought up, and what’s left are the embarrassing extravagances. The quality of the material on display always goes down. People will look at a lot of the books in the bargain bin and start to wonder, “who ever thought of publishing a book like this?” or “this is such an obscure niche”. As hard as it is to plan inventory for the big blockbusters, planning for inventory further down the long tail is even more, devilishly difficult.

The third indicator was my own bookshelf. People discovering Borders for the first time would normally just grab a lot of books. I didn’t. I grabbed a lot of books from the warehouse sale instead. And as time goes by, the books you have on your shelf are much less sexy than when you first bought them. I’m sure that a lot of married men feel the same way about their wives. I just have a whole shelf full of books, and I don’t really know what to do with them. Some of them are going to be expired.

That’s when it occurred to me that Borders is sitting on a time bomb. A lot of their customers are the naïve buyers. After a while their poor Singaporean rooms will be filled up and there will be no more buying of books. The great enduring mystery of Singapore is why is shopping is the national past time when Singaporean homes are too small to accommodate that much merchandise. Eating makes more sense because you know what happens to the food in the end. And say what you want about the casinos, at least they strip you without taking away your living space.

Borders is predicated on the premise that people would want to spend a small fortune on a nice book. To be sure, books are really nice things. Even with the advent of backlit plasma screens, ink on paper is still the best. Kindle might close the gap, but nobody knows. But when it comes to information, packaging something like that in something that looks like a brick is somewhat arbitrary. Information is not meant to be packaged. It is not meant to be stocked up. Maybe as an artwork, the novel makes more sense. As a non-fiction book, the periodical makes more sense. The textbook, which attempts to give you a broad survey of closely related intellectual material makes sense. A non-fiction book, which is somewhat like a novel?

OK, the book would be fine for me in this regard: somebody takes the time and effort to take a lot of information and refine it into something higher and more valuable. There is a lot of value in the process of putting things together. Issues are rendered on a deeper level and you can see the deeper underlying patterns, rather than if you were to just read a whole load of blog articles / magazine articles. The analysis is better. But what if it’s a book that I didn’t really want, or a book that I only intend to read a small part of?

Then what you have is a lot of books taking up a lot of space. The package that the book comes in lasts much longer than the validity of the information. Yes, it’s a good thing that we got to learn a lot about the Sumerians based on what they wrote on their clay bricks. But there are too many books in this world.

Non fiction books make more sense if they are packaged in bits instead of atoms. That way you would never have to decide what is the inventory level. You only have to decide how to price them. Information works better as a flow. You should have to stop selling the books when you run out of physical books. You should only stop selling them when the information they contain becomes invalid.

The other thing, paper books are not really searchable. They have tried to circumvent the problem using the index. If and when eBooks becomes the default medium, you shouldn’t even had an index, except maybe to indicate when a concept is the main part of a certain passage, or when it is only mentioned in passing.

Also for the consumer, eBooks is also useful: I don’t want to learn everything in a book. I just want to look it up. I may not want to read it, ever. I don’t want a clunky volume taking up space in my room if I don’t need it. I’m careful about what I buy but I still end up getting my house flooded in all that stuff.

Information also wants to be free. There’s so much to be learnt from the random blog post, the breaking news on the internet, the commentary, and talking to people. The information is demand driven, wrested out by the interested person. Rather than you just have to read this book chapter because that is what some author somewhere a few years ago presumed that you would read. And it might not be everything there is to know because so much has to be held back / censored / redacted in order to satisfy editorial / journalistic / censorship board standards. If a book is written for the general audience, it means that it was written for somebody other than you, and you would also have to share it.

And with the death of the printed book, I think also about a way of life. I used to spend hours hanging out at megastores, whether for CDs or for books. I realise that this is not something people a generation older or a generation younger would do. When I’m browsing a bookstore, I would serendipiditiously come across something else that I like. That’s what I looked forward to while browsing bookshops. That’s why I was such a committed bookworm for about 7 years – there was always something to discover. The entire sensory experience, people all walking around you, colourful covers, and when you shut them all out, the random engrossing book chapter. Also finding the random interesting book, was like bumping into an interesting stranger. When you’re surfing alone it’s a much lonelier experience.

Then the last thing was the serene and happy hours promised by the first flush of the internet. The dream was that you would just put your money in internet stocks, they would do all the work for you. And then you would spend the rest of your leisurely life sipping lattes, reading for leisure, maybe discovering good music, cinema, surfing for interesting stuff.

No, the internet has taken away a lot of our job security. Taken away a lot of certainties in life. It’s hard to be a rich man these days without working your socks off. Poor and rich alike have to slog away. Most people will create new and wonderful things that nobody will ever buy. That is the new economy, and it’s very sad.

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