I spent the weekend at “The Last Book Auction” in Archer City, Texas. You can read what the Austin Chronicle had to say about it [there’s even a picture of me in the gallery]. I’d read about this book store and really wanted to go, and this seemed like the perfect reason to make the trip.
I am not sure what I expected to find there, but I did find what I think was the perfect example of why the publishing industry is so fucked up, and has been for years, and why the change coming to the field is good. These are some thoughts I wrote down as I watched everything unfold:
-This is supposed to be one of the iconic indie bookstores in America. The book store is run by one of America’s most successful authors, it is four buildings, 400k+ volumes…and its mostly all crap. I was shocked at how awful the selection was. At least 50k of the books were remainder fiction. Probably another 100k were just nothing–auction catalogs, random galleys, brochures, stuff like that. At least 75k were not in English; German, French, Italian, etc. I had a very difficult time finding even ONE book I wanted to read or looked interesting.
-This might be because of the organization of the store. There was no rhyme or reason to it. There was ostensibly an organization method, but it was not followed in a way that anyone could discern. It was just row after row of old, crappy books, and no way to tell what was where, or even a master list of what they had. I know it sounds hard to believe; I asked them about it multiple times, and they looked at me like I was being offensive for asking them simple things like, “Are these organized in any way,” and “How do you find a book you’re looking for?” Really, like the fact that I wanted to find something to buy was a burden to their delicate genius. You work in a fucking bookstore dude, you aren’t Larry McMurtry, calm down.
-I’m never going to complain about a B&N again. I now understand why indie bookstores all went out of business. That’s the thing that so many people who complain about large multi-nationals don’t understand: None of them started that way, and they are now big because they do a BETTER job than small stores. Wal-Mart got big because it did a better job at serving its customers than the crappy mom-and-pop stores it replaced. Starbucks is everywhere precisely because they are good, whereas most small coffee shops suck. I’ve never seen a better example of this then this past weekend.
-I think I was the youngest person there. By a large margin. Go look at the pictures of the auction. I could have been the grandson of most of the buyers.
-I legitimately think there were almost as many people there reporting on this event than participating in it. There were two documentary crews–both of which interviewed me, though neither knew who I was, which was totally appropriate for this–multiple TV stations, reporters, and other people like that. I’d say there were only about 100 people there to actually bid on books, maybe less.
-This really brought home a point about physical books I have known for a long time, but haven’t really internalized: They are truly done. This is a long-term demographic shift, one that is inexorable: Going forward, humans truly are people of the screen.
-This of course does not mean people will be reading less. Far from it. All empirical evidence indicates that more people are reading more than they ever have. It’s just not being done on paper. It’s being done on screens. This is going to have a profound impact on how the world, especially the publishing world, works.
-Of course, no one in publishing understands this. They can’t. They are all old and set in their ways, and old people don’t change, especially not the type of people who go into publishing. But the funny thing is, this book auction really drove another point about publishing home for me: The people who work in publishing don’t understand anything about what interests actual people. Larry McMurtry has collected like 400k books, and I really strained to find ONE that interested me. If you’ve ever seen my apartment, this should make you laugh; I basically live in a library. I think I have 2000+ books ringing my place. The history of book publishing is not littered with them missing big hits; thats their WHOLE history. Virtually EVERY iconic book that people love has a story of being rejected for years and getting published by accident. And most of the biggest books of the past decade are from genres that didn’t EXIST the decade before (vampire fiction, etc).
-Why? Because the people who work in publishing are a weird, self-selecting lot who only care about publishing things that impress their small group of friends. They don’t have ANY idea who their customers are or what they want. Self-publishing has opened the game to new authors, ones who couldn’t get published before, and lo and behold, lots of actual people are buying those books. This to me is going be one of the major trends in entertainment over the next 25 years: The opening up of endless new genres, styles, and artist who were closed to the system before by going around the old gate-keepers and focusing only on what sells.
-Want some easy and obvious examples of this? Look at this list of the 10 highest grossing authors this year. These ten authors have sold hundreds of millions of books this year (combined). Taking out the ones who wrote books that became movies this year (Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling), when was the time you saw anything written about them in the MSM? James Patterson is more meaningful to more Americans than almost any other artist–when was the last time you read ANYTHING about him or his books. Yet, you see endless pieces about all kinds of authors that no one reads, but are considered “important.” I have to get off this subject, I could write 10k words on it right now.
-No, I didn’t bid on anything at the auction. As much as I love books, I only buy them if I want to actually read them, and I found almost nothing there that I cared about reading. I know, right? Hard to believe, but true. Welcome to the publishing business: Not caring about what our customers actually want, since forever.