... another door opens

A couple of weeks ago, I found my copy of Booked to Die. Both copies, actually, pulled out of two different boxes. One Booked to Die is a paperback full of post-it flags from when I used this book in a discussion group a five or six years ago. The other is a nice, later-printing hardcover that I brought home last year, a surrogate for the fine first edition I sold 12 or 14 or so years ago at a time when we needed money. Since closing my bookstore in Carmel, Indiana in February, and moving on to Kenyon College in Ohio, I’ve mostly been living out of boxes. The logistics of this move have been especially complicated, and I haven’t found time to unpack a whole lot. This move hasn’t gone the way my wife and I originally expected. As a result we’ve been apart for most of the last five months – she still working in Indiana while I’ve been trying to find my bearings in Ohio. Folks at Kenyon have been great, friendly and welcoming, but this still feels like a huge leap into a vast unknown. Without my wife around and with all the back and forth that we’ve been doing, it’s been a weird and difficult transition.

Pretty much from the moment I landed in Ohio, I found myself thinking about Booked to Die, John Dunning’s wonderful novel about books. Protagonist Cliff Janeway talks about his apartment, and about the “wall-to-wall books in every room.” He says “once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect.”

I’ve unpacked a few books in our new house, but many more of our books are still in boxes. Rooms and shelves need to be made ready, especially when the configuration of the house the books came from is so different from the house they’re going into. Books take time.

In the meantime, I’ve found that the healing effect of books just doesn’t work when they’re all boxed up. As Dunning writes later in Booked to Die, it’s “a comfort to see a book you loved on the shelf.” Seeing them seems to be key.

Each morning as I arrive at my new workplace, the vast and wonderful Kenyon College Bookstore, I walk past the mystery section. When I arrived on February 15, I found a few familiar books already there. Armand Gamache’s latest case stood out, but it seemed lonely without the rest of Louise Penny’s wonderful books to keep it company. I see Harry Bosch in 9 Dragons, and over and over again I relive that heartbreaking shooting in Hong Kong. But most of what surrounded me in my own store in Indiana was absent when I arrived in Ohio. The many real friends I made in my store might not follow me, but surely my fictional friends should be here!

Over the past few weeks and months, when I’ve had a few minutes, I’ve worked on the mystery section. Lydia Chin & Bill Smith are here now, along with Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin, Kiki Lowenstein, Sweeney St. George, Peter Diamond, Kate Fansler, Lincoln Perry and Lew Archer. Kiki’s creator, Joanna Campbell Slan, even stopped by for a conversation/demonstration a few weeks ago, and I can’t tell you how lovely it was to see her here. Marcus Didius Falco, Siri Paiboun and Joe Sandilands have arrived, bringing along their entire lush worlds; I feel like I’m in India every time I see The Last Kashmiri Rose. I wouldn’t call Lou Ford a friend, but he’s found a place on our shelves too – perhaps a matter of keeping enemies closer? I’ve brought in the rest of Louise Penny’s books; I’m even happier to see that they’ve been going out too. The section has a ways to go before it’s a really good one, but it has come a long way and, yes, it’s a comfort to see these books every day.

It’s been really interesting to reread Booked to Die this week, and to think about it in the context of where the book business is right now. Booked to Die is a great novel, as elegant as mysteries come, with a stunner of a last line. So you can read it with all the pleasure and rewards that we get from the very best mysteries out there.

More importantly, though, Booked to Die is about books themselves, and how we relate to books more as objects than as texts. Cliff Janeway appreciates great literature, and he’s dismissive of bad books and bad authors – by name. Throughout Booked to Die, he tells us about books he loves and uses characters and situations to talk about himself – “I was like Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: I had started out a sane and decent man and slowly the obsession had turned me crazy.”

Still, it’s impossible to read Booked to Die without seeing that Janeway’s love of books is mostly about the objects themselves. He tells us that the right way to build a collection is to keep the books you like – always good advice – but Janeway’s own words and deeds make clear that the worthiness of the text is merely a threshold. That love of the words might get you in the door, but what really excites him is the book itself – its features, points, signatures, associations, etc. – and the thrill of the chase. This novel is filled with Janeway’s loving descriptions of books. More than once, characters talk about how handling books is like having sex.

Booked to Die was published in 1992, and it’s a perfect description of a particular moment in antiquarian bookselling, a pre-internet era when books were found in real bookstores, or purchased and sold through notices in AB Bookman’s Weekly. Back in those days, we didn’t usually think about the book and its text as distinct things (even though we pursued first editions and dismissed book club editions). The text, the paper it was printed on, the binding and the covers that held it all together – all this we thought of as one thing.

Things are different today. The internet forces us to consider text apart from the means by which that text is delivered. You have to wonder what the ultimate bookman Cliff Janeway would make of this. I’m no Cliff Janeway, but I too love the look and feel of a book, and not just because I find the book to be a great way to access text. I’m reassured by the books that I own, and take pleasure in seeing books not just on their shelves, but on nightstands, dining room tables, the floor by the couch and everywhere else my books can be found. No one who owns two copies of Booked to Die can pretend to be anything other than a lover of books as objects.

Still, at the end of the day, much as I enjoy the feel of book in my hand and the presence of books around me, I know that it’s the words that matter. So why do I find the separation of text from the means that text is delivered so troubling? Some of it is simply a matter of being forced out of the comfort zone of books. Some of it is crass: will there continue to a place for independent bookstores in the new digital age? (Given that I draw a salary from an independent bookstore, this is no idle concern.)

But more generally, what I really wonder about is what the transition of text from print to digital means, and how our relationship to words will change. It’s one thing to say that digital is “just another format,” just like the difference between a paperback and a hardcover. But do we really mean it? We already know, for example, that folks relate to audiobooks differently from print books. Of course they do: there’s a reader involved, and that reader is bound to bring a new element to the table.

Even when we’re talking about hardcovers and paperbacks, there’s a difference. Think about what the rise of the mass market paperback meant to the mystery genre, the kinds of writers who found an audience in mass market. Think The Killer Inside Me would have seen print were it not for a paperback mill like Lion Books? Even today, the mystery genre perpetuates a distinction between work published in hardcover and work published in paperback. Isn’t that why we have different awards for paperback originals?

We don’t any of us know how the digitization of text will change our relationship to text, but we already know that it’s going to be different. What kind of pride of ownership will a digital library engender? What does ownership mean when the provider of your e-book reader can snatch back a text without warning?

It’s already obvious that many value words differently when they arrive via download. There’s enormous consternation over the pricing of digital books. I was startled by this statement, posted on a mystery discussion list that I follow: “I recently decided to try a new author who has been around for a while, has several books out. Each of them was $11.99/$12.99 on Kindle. Really hard to understand since only one of them was a recent pub. But, since I draw the line at the $9.99 that Amazon promised, I ordered none of them.” As I bookseller, I’ve always believed that the hard work was in persuading a customer to try a new writer. Here’s someone who’s been persuaded, and yet he was dissuaded by a hard line on price that he believes a retailer “promised” him.

I don’t know what the price of an electronic text should be. Much of the conversation focuses on the fact that without ink, paper and binding, electronic texts must inevitably cost much less than paper texts. Still, writers need to be paid. Editors need to be paid. A book needs to be marketed, in order to find its audience. Paper and binding are small slices of the cost of a book. Who’s to say that the digital infrastructure that makes electronic texts available is any less costly?

I took the job at Kenyon College for a lot of reasons, but a big part of it is my own confusion about how we deal with words in this digital age. Last year, I confronted the fact that most leaders in the independent mystery bookselling community were unwilling to engage Amazon in a conversation about electronic texts. I began to see that I needed to look in different directions, that as the owner of a small, genre specialty bookstore, I didn’t have all the resources I might need to think through and to implement a way forward.

Right now, technology is driving the way we approach, relate to and own words. I like Apple and I like Google, and I use their products and services many times every day. But I’m not at all sure that I want decisions about the future of text to be made by the technologists. We know that leadership isn’t going to come from the big New York publishers and, frankly, we probably don’t want them involved. We don’t want to give the same people who’ve made so much of a mess of the business over the past few decades any opportunities to mess up our future.

Readers encounter words in any number of contexts, and we are fortunate that there are so many different ways in which writers and readers intersect and in which readers share words with each other. But in the business of words, bookstores are where the rubber meets the road. It’s in bookstores that readers exchange dollars for words. At least bookstores are where this interaction has taken place for the last few hundred years.

With the proliferation of electronic texts, the exchange of money for words moves out of stores and onto websites. Even chain bookstores are looking for ways to drive customers out of their stores and onto websites. The last time I walked into a Barnes & Noble store, I was greeted not by the traditional display of alluring new titles, but by a large kiosk promoting the company’s electronic text reader. This, too, is all very interesting, but are book lovers well served by this display?

My new position at the Kenyon College Bookstore offers a different vantage point from which to consider these issues and different resources to draw on. Kenyon is many things, but most of all it’s a community that values words. Where else but Gambier, Ohio would a village Fourth of July celebration include the naming of a 2010 Poet Laureate? Words matter here.

More to the point, it’s my hope that Kenyon and other communities that love words will find ways to take charge of the environment we’re in. The lack of vision and leadership among big publishing companies is allowing the New Economy to dictate how readers access texts. Is that what’s best for book lovers? Folks at Kenyon have the right tools – the passion and the intellect – to think about where we are and where we ought to be going. Wouldn’t you rather see decisions about the future of text made by people for whom words come first?

I don’t have any answers, but I hope I’m now where I need to be to ask the right questions.

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This coming week, I’ll traveling as part of Sisters in Crime’s summit team. Each year, SinC’s board sends a delegation to visit industry leaders to learn more about what they’re working on and to report back to the membership. This year, we decided to talk with Amazon, Google, Apple’s iBookstore and Smashwords. We plan to begin reporting at the conclusion of this trip. If you’re not already a member of Sisters in Crime, I urge you to join, not just to see our report but for all the benefits of SinC membership. Visit www.sistersincrime.org for details.