The Bargain Book Business: An Overview of Recent History

Illustration by brewbooks via Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Until the 1970s, the book industry comprised dozens of independent companies, some small and some large, whose only business was book publishing.  Bookstores were likewise independent and locally owned. I worked in two bookstores during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At that time, the publishers set the retail price for each title and sold them to bookstores at a 40% discount. Bookstores, therefore, could not compete on price.  Publishers also determined how many copies of each title to print, based on their assessment of how well it would sell. To this day, most titles do not make a profit in the book business. Publishers have always relied on their best sellers to make up for weak sales of other titles. In fact, publishers with enough popular titles could afford to publish book they considered important but knew would lose money.

Once a print run was finished, the publishers would keep it in a warehouse until it sold all of the copies. At that time, it could decide to print more in the case of titles for which there was still strong demand, or simply let it go out of print and delete the title from its catalog. Sometimes, if a title was taking up too much valuable space in the warehouse, the publisher sold what was left (the remainder) to other companies who sold them at greatly reduced priced.

A number of shocks hit the book business beginning in the late 1970s. In 1977, Crown Books opened its first store. It challenged the publishers’ right to set prices and offered everything at a discount. Finally stores could compete on price. Then in 1979, the Thor Power Tool Company lost an important case before the Supreme Court.

In that case, the company argued that it had reduced the value of unsold inventory to what it considered fair market value according to “generally accepted accounting principles” and that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly refused to allow a write-off for the lower value of the inventory. The Supreme Court ruled, “There is no presumption that an inventory practice conformable to “generally accepted accounting principles” is valid for tax purposes. Such a presumption is insupportable in light of the statute, this Court’s past decisions, and the differing objectives of tax and financial accounting.”

The book business had treated its inventory much the same way as Thor Power Tool. Publishers could no longer afford to keep backlist titles as long as they had before. Without strong customer demand for a given title, it became more of a liability than an asset, and publishers adjusted by reducing initial print runs and remaindering books much sooner than it had before.

In 1994 pioneered selling books online. Unlike a traditional bookstore, it had no physical presence and no warehouse. It had no constraints on the inventory it could offer. Its customers could order the most obscure titles in print. Later, Amazon and its competitors started offering used books. The remainder book business has also gone on line.

Many web companies sell remainder books in quantity to other companies that take delivery on the inventory and sell it, either in a store or in a home-based Internet business. Many others sell remainders online individually to customers, both directly and through “affiliate marketing.” That is, a company such as my own All-Purpose Guru Alert offer links to one or more of the larger companies. The link is at the top left in the sidebar of every post.

The All-Purpose Guru Alert offers bargain books according to a newly popular kind of sales site, offering one carefully chosen title every day to complement the major topics covered The All-Purpose Guru family of blogs. The links for past deals still work as long as the larger company still has the titles in stock, but supplies are limited.

Promoting corporate libraries

I received a comment on an earlier post from a man whose wife–a hospital librarian–just got laid off, ending library services at that hospital. The hospital administration must have figured that all the doctors and staff can easily enough find information themselves. Promoting corporate libraries is one of the responsibilities of the librarian.

The fate of this library reminds me of another ill-planned closing that I was involved in fixing. Back when I worked for a temp agency, one of my assignments involved going to a hot and dusty warehouse on the near north side of Chicago to sort through boxes of what had once been the archives of one of Chicago’s largest banks. The bank had given the archivist one or two days notice of the archive’s closure, and she had to box up everything in a hurry.

Two years later, the bank decided that it needed its archives after all. In her haste (and perhaps also in a display of passive resistance) the archivist had not carefully kept, for example, all of the papers of the various past presidents, in order, or even in the same couple of boxes.

My job, then, was to sort through the mess, to put like things together, and to account for everything on the inventory list. An experienced archivist from the temp agency then reconstructed the finding aid and organized everything.

The doctors and hospital staff primarily use various proprietary full-text databases. They can probably access  them from their offices, but the time they spend looking for information might be better spent on something else. The librarian can find it more efficiently and less expensively.

Most hospital libraries also include materials suitable for the general public. Patients and family members often need information. Where better to find it than the hospital library? Who better to help them find it and understand it than the hospital librarian?

And those databases that the doctors use? Someone has to make sure the hospital has the ones they need at the best possible price, which may entail some kind of consortial arrangement with other libraries. Someone has to keep track of how everything is working and contact the vendor if something goes wrong. If there is no hospital librarian, who else is qualified to do that?

The hospital administration may soon regret laying off the librarian and shutting down library services to save money. They may find it a false economy, in which case they will have to spend money in a few years to restore the library and its services.

In both the case of the bank archives and the hospital library, though, it is wrong to blame the “bean counters” in the corporate administration and leave it at that. Probably no one in the administration understand what librarians or archivists do, the services they provide, and how they can help boost the bottom line.

Therefore, the tasks of the corporate librarian do not stop with acquiring and maintaining the collection and equipment, cataloging new acquisitions, and finding information for the people who need it. They must also include promoting the corporate library to the administration. The librarian knows the value of the library’s services and must make sure, by a variety of means, that the administration does, too.

Most public and academic libraries, and some corporate libraries, have a large enough staff that the responsibility for promoting the library’s services to the government, college, or corporate administration falls on the head of the library. In one-person library staff, all library tasks from the highest administrative responsibilities to changing the paper in the copier fall on that one person.

It is easy to see why, in the press of all the work needed to keep the library running, a solo librarian can let promoting the library slide. It is also easy to predict the consequences when times get hard. The corporate administration will eliminate any services that do not understand and therefore see as essential to the company’s core mission. And the administration is guaranteed not to understand the library without the librarian’s careful promotion of its services.

Basic writing skills for term papers and Internet writing

student writing

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Everyone probably learns some basic writing skills in high school and college English. In my experience, if they don’t promptly forget these skills, they are at least reluctant to apply them to other classes besides English. Nevertheless, we’re never finished with the need to write and do it well. Teachers of other subjects besides English expect well-written term papers. So do people who read Internet content. Here are four basic skills that every writer needs to know: paraphrase, summary, critique and synthesis.

When a paper or article requires research, the writer must reproduce the ideas from the sources, but not copy the exact wording. Exact copying with proper attribution is called quoting and requires some kind of typographic convention such as quotation marks or block indenting to differentiate the quotation from the writer’s own prose. Exact copying without proper attribution and typography is called plagiarism. In school, it qualifies the student for an automatic F, or should. Out of school it deserves equally dire consequences.

A paraphrase means a restatement of the source in completely different words. All of the ideas in the original are present in the paraphrase, so both are about the same length. Rewriting a paragraph or short article requires a student to demonstrate reading comprehension and restate the source without introducing a foreign point of view.

A summary entails selecting the most important points in the source and expressing them in the student’s own words. It will be significantly shorter. It requires the student to demonstrate not only understanding the source well enough to express its ideas correctly, but also his or her ability to discern the difference between the central points and the supporting details.

Hey, look! You don’t even need a computer!

These first two techniques demonstrate the student’s reading comprehension and ability to restate ideas accurately and objectively. They do nothing to demonstrate the student’s own thinking. A critique of some source writing requires not only an objective paraphrase or summary, but also the ability to point out its strengths and weaknesses.

“Criticize” does not properly mean, “find fault with,” but it does require evaluation and judgment. Has the original author written facts? Opinions? Rumors? Do the original writer’s data justify whatever conclusion the passage reaches? Is the source well reasoned and well written?

Alas of too many politicians, newspaper columnists, and other commentators indulge in mindless ranting. It merely demonstrates that they have forgotten, if they ever learned in the first place, what a proper critique requires: dispassionate analysis, acknowledgement of some value in viewpoints contrary to their own, and recognition of problems with viewpoints they agree with.

Any research-based writing ought to be based on more than one source. The student must find information from a number of sources and combine it all into one unified piece of writing, a process called synthesis. A teacher need only look at the footnotes to see if the student has made the attempt. If a paper has, say, three points and all of the footnotes in each point refer to a single source, the student has done nothing more than copy three points from three sources and put them in some order.

A synthesis requires all of the abilities of the first three skills plus the ability to notice and make connections between the facts and ideas expressed in two or more other writings. A good synthesis will therefore express the student’s originality. The paper will present ideas that are not fully present in any of the source material. In contrast to the previous example, in a good three-point paper based on three sources, each point will refer to each source.

So far, I have described these techniques in terms of student writings. Internet writers have particular need to recall these basic techniques. Unlike in the print world, “content” does not refer to the intellectual content of a piece of writing, but to its expression in words. The web has hundreds of places where writers can submit articles. Nearly every one of them demands original content. Everyone who expects to get paid for writing articles will send the same intellectual content to multiple sites, using a process called spinning.

At first glance, spinning sounds dishonest, like what politicians’ public relations staff does to put their bosses’ gaffes into the best possible light and paint their bosses’ opponents as some kind of extremist. In the world of Internet writing, however, spinning simply means the process of taking one piece of intellectual content and turning it into multiple articles that each constitute original content acceptable for separate publication.

Software designers offer products that, they say, will automatically spin an article. I have never been tempted to investigate them. Everything I read about it tells me that computer spinning varies from unreadable to unintelligible, and it takes a lot of work to mold it into something worth submitting for publication. So if I want to repurpose this post, what can I do with it?

First, I can rewrite every paragraph using different words. The resulting paraphrase will likewise be something over 1000 words long and suitable for submission to other sites that welcome long articles. I can write as many paraphrases as I want to. Second, I can write any number of summaries, either of the whole article or some part of it, and submit them to places that feature shorter articles. Each summary may emphasize completely different points from the others.  In that case, I may be able to prepare a synthesis of several of them that results in another long article, completely different from this one.

Since in my view, my research, reasoning, and writing are impeccable, I don’t see how I would write a critique while spinning my own articles. I can use that technique as appropriate when I write a new one, but of course, apply it to someone else’s writings.

And I need to say as explicitly as I can that spinning someone else’s intellectual content for publication is every bit as dishonest as plagiarism. The techniques of paraphrase and summary should amount to only part of an original article. Perhaps paraphrase a couple of paragraphs from each of two sources. Summarize longer passages from other sources. Critique them if you choose. But to have any article worth publishing, make your own synthesis along the way. Spin your own writing as much as you want in any way you want. Professionals use the same basic writing skills as students.

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Star for Life

Why do we still need libraries?

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People have been asking that question for at least 20 years. I first became aware in the late 1980s that some college administrators regarded the library as obsolete. They thought it a good place to cut the budget. At that time, online databases had only recently become available for public use. There may have been some magazines and scholarly journals available online. “Everything’s online” was nothing more than wishful thinking on the  part of the ignorant.

Since then, the amount of information available on the Internet has increased exponentially. We could once say that older materials were not available online, but now we have retrospective full-text databases for newspapers and magazines enabling people to read material published more than two hundred years ago from any available computer.

Google Books has been busily scanning out-of-print books, and Project Gutenberg has transcribed a lot of them, too. Ever since Amazon introduced the Kindle, it is no longer necessary to touch print even to read the latest best sellers. Most people today prefer to read books in print form, but how long will that last?

And so the question arises with renewed urgency: why do we still need libraries? But first, let’s consider, what is a library?

  • A collection of information and entertainment materials in a variety of formats, notably books, magazines, and other printed materials, but also microforms, audio recordings, video recordings, and electronic media in various formats.
  • A building or room that houses the collection.
  • The technology necessary to play all the different recordings or read the various microforms and current or obsolete electronic media, as well as computers, printers, scanners, etc.
  • Above all, the staff, who, besides simply warehousing and maintaining all the stuff, understand the collection and help people identify, locate, and use what they need.

What, then, does the library offer that people cannot find online? Some of the following points might become obsolete in the foreseeable future, but certainly not all of them.

  • As regards the collection, the library offers proprietary databases. It pays a pretty hefty price for subscriptions, a price far beyond the resources of any individual. These databases are, of course, online, but available only at the library.
  • In most cases, the collection also includes some unique materials not available anywhere else, such as manuscripts and archives, and rare materials in special collections. One large library might have an exhaustive collection of old railroad timetables where another might have more materials related to dentistry than anyone else. Not many people need the material in these collections, but those who do rely on it heavily. Libraries put some of it online, but certainly not all of it.
  • Material in special collections and archives is not limited to manuscripts or printed matter. Libraries may own many artifacts such as costumes, arts and crafts, items owned by various local luminaries, and much more.
  • Many libraries loan out laptop computers to people who cannot afford their own. In other words, libraries extend access to the same online wonders that prompt the question of whether they’re still necessary.
  • As regards the building, the library makes an excellent meeting place. Most libraries  have some combination of auditoriums, small group study rooms, large group meeting rooms and classrooms.
  • Library buildings also have tables and chairs where people can read and take notes. More and more, they reserve some spaces for quiet study and others for conversation.
  • Library materials require careful attention to climate control, making library buildings ideal cooling centers when it is dangerously hot outside and safe places in the winter for people having any kind of trouble heating their homes.
  • Since so much of the non-print collection uses obsolete technology, where else besides the library will anyone find a beta player, a computer that can read various sizes of floppy disc, a turntable that can play 78 rpm records, etc. Not all libraries have all of these machines, but most larger libraries have several of them.
  • Libraries also have the latest machines to be able to handle the newest media in their collections, and have them earlier than most individuals do.
  • Besides the technology necessary to use the collection, libraries also have multi-featured copiers and scanners, various recording devices, expensive software, etc. that patrons can use  for a wide variety of projects.
  • It is quite possible to have a library without books, but  not without librarians and other staff. Some librarians and staff work directly with the public, while others support them by working in back offices, doing too many different essential tasks to enumerate here.
  • Librarians help patrons identify and locate the materials they need.
  • Librarians show patrons how to use the catalog, databases, and other discovery tools.
  • At least some of the librarians are subject specialists and experts. They can consult privately with patrons who need more help than the other librarians can offer.
  • Software like Finale, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, etc. have a very steep learning curve. Someone on the library staff knows how to use them and how to show patrons how to understand them well enough to accomplish their tasks.

Librarianship is a profession, just like, say, pharmacy. Anyone can go into a drugstore and buy pills off the shelf. If they don’t know how best to use them, only the pharmacist can give the best answers. (People can look on the web, but if the answer is reliable, a pharmacist or other professional wrote it.) Anyone can open Google and perform a search. A librarian can show people how to use Google more effectively or point out that the catalog or proprietary databases will have more pertinent information.

I can’t see any time when the work of a librarian will become obsolete. For that reason alone, we will need libraries for the foreseeable future. Libraries will look very different in the future–maybe even the very near future. Who knows what new technology will hit the market next week that will give people a fresh reason to wonder why we still need the library? Whatever it is and whenever it appears, the library will have it and library staff will show everyone how to use it.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Manchester Library

All ___ are not ___: a common statement that’s nearly always wrong

Am I the only person annoyed with this linguistic atrocity? Do a Google search some time on “all ___ are not”, filling in the blank with any common plural noun, or a collective noun with “is” instead of “are.” You’ll find statements like

All women are not a size 2.
All teenagers are not brats.
All paper is not 8 1/2 x 11.
All coffee is not espresso.

These sentences make a statement in the negative about all women, teenagers, paper, or coffee. And they are all false statements. Some women are a size 2. Some teenagers are brats. Lots of paper (in this country, anyway) is  8 1/2 x 11. Some coffee is espresso. Here is what the writers probably meant:

Not all women are a size 2.
Not all teenagers are brats.
Not all paper is 8 1/2 x 11.
Not all coffee is espresso.

Instead of creating an overly broad generalization, this construction negates one. These statements are correct.

It’s harder to argue with a statement like “all women are not the same,” partly because it’s vague enough that the answer “but some women are the same” does not obviously falsify it. Still, careful writers ought to avoid the construction and start the sentence with the negative.

The only time a statement like all ___ are not ___ can be correct is when “all” is somehow modified to make the sentence mean “most,” as in, “Two thirds of all newspapers are not recycled.” In that case, the statistic may or may not be correct, but the sentence is not automatically wrong, as it would be if it started with “all.”