The indie bookstore makes a comeback

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2010

… or at least it does in uber-hip New York, where the magazine that bears the city’s name reports on a new batch of shops for hardcore bookgeeks in the Big Apple [via MetaFilter]:

Contributing to the resurgence is the local-is-better ethos, which has bled over from the culinary and fashion worlds, causing readers to crave a more human-scale shopping experience. And the specter of a world without indie bookshops has inspired a new, perhaps quixotic generation of entrepreneurs to jump in. The new booksellers bring a modern approach to the business: In place of the dusty riots of yore are more curated, well-lit shops that emphasize personal service and community—book clubs, readings, charity projects, and even the occasional lit-geek basketball league.

I’ve always been a dusty riot kinda guy myself (yeah, I know, surprising much?, but hey, whatever works – if people are selling books (and making a living selling books) in brick’n’mortar non-chain outlets, I don’t care how they’re doing it.

What about you lot – what’s the state of the indie bookstore in your town or city?


Over-the-counter genetic testing kits at your local drugstore

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2010

As of this Friday, Walgreens customers in the US will be able to purchase a home-use genetic testing kit for US$30 or less… though access to the results (via the Pathway Genomics website) could cost another $200 or more, depending on what the user wants to know [via MetaFilter].

Though mail-order DNA tests have been available over the Internet since 2007, Pathway Genomic’s new campaign brings the personalized genomics market to a neighborhood near you, hopefully lending an air of trust and familiarity to the practice, says vice president of marketing at the company, Chris D’Eon.

“People trust their pharmacy and their pharmacist,” he says. “The world is moving towards a preventive health society and working with Walgreens is a huge opportunity to market [personalized genetic screening] to more people, faster.”

[…]

Customers who purchase Pathway Genomics’ “Insight Saliva Collection Kit” will collect their samples at home and return them (a postage-paid box is included) to the company. From there, all other steps are online. Customers need to buy the actual tests on their DNA separately and will receive their reports in about eight weeks via e-mail.

A report on how you will respond to drugs like statins or Tamoxifen runs $79. A pre-pregnancy planning report, which provides information on your baby’s risk for genetic disorders, is $179, and a comprehensive test, including your personal risk on a number of diseases, is $249.

People with important job titles are not impressed:

“This is a horrible idea,” says Dr. Michael Grodin, professor of bioethics, human rights, family medicine and psychiatry at Boston University. “Genetic testing is a complex, difficult and emotionally laden medical process which requires extensive counseling, contextualization and interpretation.”

Lee Vermeulen, director for the Center for Drug Policy at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, agrees, calling the test “reckless and inappropriate.”

“Regardless of whether they are told they are at low or high risk, the impact on their future behaviors will be affected substantially and inappropriately,” he says.

A high-risk result may alarm the consumer needlessly, doctors say, and a low-risk one may provide a false sense of security, lulling consumers to pay less attention to their health habits and skip preventive medical screenings.

Doctors also said genetic factors can only explain a portion of disease risk, and were concerned that customers getting a genetic “clean bill of health” would mistakenly think they were in the clear.

I’d be the first to say that you should have access to your own genetic code-base, but given the general public’s incredible susceptibility to quackery, oversimplification and medical mythinformation, getting any genuine use from it will remain the province of the highly-trained, while the fast money will be found in giving people the interpretations they most want to hear (or already fear to be true). The Food & Drug Administration is looking into the Pathway kits (which have allegedly never been approved by them for sale to the general public), but I think we can assume Pandora’s box to have been irrevocably opened at this point.

Or perhaps I’m being overly cynical again – might consumer-level genetic testing, combined with the internet’s open access to vast swathes of medical data, actually help us become healthier?


Bookstore futures from Shirky and Doctorow

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2009

bookstore signContinuing the increasingly ubiquitous discussion of the future of bookstores (in the wake of Borders in the UK going into receivership), two heavyweight thinkers have thrown their opinions out into the ring in the last few days. First of all, Clay Shirky, who notes that there are three basic groups of people arguing for bookstores to be rescued from what seems to be an unstoppable decline, and that it’s the one that treats bookstores as having in intrinsic community value that has the most hope of coming up with a workable model for the future:

[This] third group, though, is making the ‘access to literature’ argument without much real commitment to its truth or falsehood, because they aren’t actually worried about access to literature, they are worried about bookstores in and of themselves. This is a form of Burkean conservatism, in which the value built up over centuries in the existence of bookstores should be preserved, even though their previous function as the principal link between writers and readers is being displaced.

This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.

Then we get a response from Cory Doctorow, who can come at the question from multiple angles – as someone who has both frequented bookstores and been employed by them, and as someone whose creative output is sold through them. As always with Doctorow, out-of-the-box thinking comes as standard; for example, instead of seeing print-on-demand technology as a business-killer, why not look at how you can use it to add value to the bookstore experience?

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.

Plenty of room for one-person middle-man businesses in there, as well… maybe the publishing houses should start thinking in this direction, too. What if they outsourced the physical side of book publishing – design, layout, so on and so forth – entirely to custom designers? You’d quickly get a range of services from the utilitarian to the luxurious, and add an element of individuality to a medium that has become increasingly homogenised… [image by jayniebell]

Blue-sky thinking aside, Doctorow and Shirkey make it plain that there’s no reason bookstores have to die off… but it’s up to the people that run them (and, to some extent, those who use them, too) to make some changes in the direction of sustainability.


The retail show-down: will online trump big-box?

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2009

Deep discounts at Wal-Mart...Economic slump + increasing ubiquity of internet = ruthless tit-for-tat price war between Amazon and Wal-Mart:

The tussle began last month as a relatively trivial but highly public back-and-forth over which company had the lowest prices on the most anticipated new books and DVDs this fall. By last week, it had spread to select video game consoles, mobile phones, even to the humble Easy-Bake Oven […]

“It’s not about the prices of books and movies anymore. There is a bigger battle being fought,” said Fiona Dias, executive vice president at GSI Commerce, which manages the Web sites of large retailers. “The price-sniping by Wal-Mart is part of a greater strategic plan. They are just not going to cede their business to Amazon.”

And you can’t blame them for that. But will it work? Pundits have been predicting the demise of big-box retail on and off for most of the past decade, but Amazon’s recent massive gains might be the first solid sign of the tipping point:

This fight, then, is all about the future. Rapid expansion by each company, as well as profound shifts in the high-tech landscape, now make direct confrontation inevitable. Though online shopping accounts for only around 4 percent of retail sales, that percentage is growing quickly. E-commerce did not suffer as deeply as regular retailing during the economic malaise, and it is recovering faster than in-store shopping.

[…]

For rivals both real and putative, Amazon is expanding its slice of the retail pie at what must be an alarming rate. In the third quarter of this year, regular retail sales dipped by about 4 percent and e-commerce over all was flat. But Amazon sales shot up 24 percent, sending its shares soaring.

Amazon’s overheads per sale are, I presume, that much lower: no shop-floor staff to pay for, for a start. Or shop floors, for that matter…

The question is, of course, whether a victory by either side will actually work out better for us, the consumer. Lower prices are all well and good, but if they’re accompanied by increasing unemployment in the retail sector, will there be any real net gain?

I really like this quote from a former Circuit City executive, though:

“We have to put our foot down and refuse to let them grow more powerful,” she said. “I applaud Wal-Mart. It’s about time multichannel retailers stood up and refused to let their business go away.”

I now have this vision of the serried ranks of Wal-Mart’s executives stood outside Amazon HQ and sternly shaking their fingers at it. King Canute costume optional? [via SlashDot; image by lordcolus]


Should the state subsidise bookstores?

Paul Raven @ 14-11-2009

Here’s some food for thought from occasional Guardian book-blogger and Clarion graduate Damien G Walter. We all know that the book retail industry is in a bit of a pickle on both sides of the pond, but have you considered that it’s one of the few cultural spheres which receives no government assistance? Perhaps the state should step in and support book retailing in the same way as it does theatres, concert halls and museums? Take it away, Damo:

… these problems are all symptomatic of a fundamental crisis at the heart of both book-selling and publishing. Books and reading, among the most fundamental cornerstones of our cultural (and hence spiritual) life, have in recent years been allowed to slide into existing as a purely commercial industry. In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.

Would Waterstones be better able to fulfil our cultural needs beyond selling books if it received subsidy to do so? Would independent bookshops flourish if they could access grants to support their existence?

Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?

The obvious response to this (at least from me) is “isn’t that what libraries are for?”, but the counter-response would be “yeah, and when’s the last time the government increased library budgets with a focus on enhancing the experience of readers rather than drop-in internet users and community groups?” Over here in the UK, that was an awfully long time ago… and despite the best efforts of library staff up and down the country (plus some of the more dedicated borrowers), the situation gets worse every year. So maybe a strong campaign for increased library funding would be a better plan than suggesting recently-successful businesses go to the state with cap in hand… there’s plenty of recent evidence that state bail-outs rarely work the way they’re supposed to, after all.

How do you think the book retail industry can be rescued – if indeed it can (or should) be?


Next Page »