A View From the Front Line

Ah, ebooks.  The literary bloggosphere’s favourite subject.  One of my favourites too, but today I have a little bit more to offer than hysterical doomsaying: today I would like to report the results of a case-study I have informally conducted over the last month.

Under the general header of “ebooks” we actually have a number of issues.  Amazon selling popular hardcovers for $9.99 for their Kindle is a wildly different issue than Google scanning orphaned academic works, or textbooks converting to digital, expiring formats.  It is the latter I have had a startling new experience with – the former, and other issues, can wait for another post.

I work in a bookstore, one which specializes in academic texts – that is to say, books on subjects of remote and specialized subjects, hard to find but invaluable to the very small audience.  I challenge anybody in Toronto to find a better and more well-stocked selection of the works of Giorio Agamben or Jean Baudrillard.  Of Anthony Giddens or Hannah Arendt.  We have an African Literature section that, at this writing, exceeds five bookshelves.  Our best-selling title of September 2009, so far, is Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice.  You get the idea.

In order to finance our indulgence in this very small, specialized field we also carry course books and, occasionally, text books for the Toronto universities.  I am absolutely sympathetic to the plight of the textbook publisher.  Textbooks take a lot of time and expertise to publish and then sell only to a limited audience; that audience is absolutely hell-bent against buying the product and do everything they can to buy the books used.  Textbooks wind up expensive and publishers feel pressured to release “new” editions as frequently as they can in order to gain market share back from the used market.  If anywhere in publishing there is an ideal place for an electronic book, this is it.  Students get the books cheaper than they would the printed version, publishers have fewer overhead costs, and the limited licensing allows them to keep the product up to date and salable without the cost and nonsense of printing a whole new edition.  And, there’s no textbook to move into the used market and become next year’s competitor.

Well, here is the front line reality.

First, a note on my research methodology.

We have the textbook for a large graduate program – roughly 1200 students.  The book comes in two formats: a physical textbook just like we all remember from school, and a “code” which retails for $30 less than the book and which gives the student access to the book in an electronic format for 12 months after the code has been activated.  (The physical book also includes the “code” for the e-version bundled with it.)

Every student needs this book in some format or another.  The book they used is custom published for them, and we have the exclusive right to sell it.  So if the students want the book, short of buying it directly from the publisher, they have to come to us.  The book is a new publication this year, so not only are there no used versions available, the students would not have been able to inspect either the physical or the electronic versions before buying.  Further, I am one of only three people who ring books through the cash register and I am nearby or present even when I am not physically doing the selling, so I can safely say I have seen the vast majority of those books actually sold.

How did 1200 students choose to purchase their textbook?

After one month we have sold approximately 900 physical books.

We have also sold approximately 8 “codes” for the ebook.

Two of those ebook purchasers later returned to buy the physical book.

Now, it is true that at first – for the first 100 books, let’s say – I was selling the hardcopy book pretty hard.  I gave the students the full run down of all the ways that the e-version was lacking.  But after it became clear that overwhelmingly they wanted the book in any case, our tactics switched – suddenly we were hard selling the ebook to absolutely no avail.  We ran out of the hard copy book at one point and even though we still had hundreds of the ebook codes in stock, nobody wanted them.  They all left their names for hard copies.

What can we say about this?  Despite the usual caterwalling about the price of the textbook, it wasn’t, apparently, enough to persuade them to use the ebook even though it was $30 cheaper.  The students were turned off by the look of the thing, a flimsy envelope of cardboard with a scratch-off number on it.  They talked about how they couldn’t read on a screen.  How they needed the book with them in class (despite having laptops with, presumably wireless connections).  Some didn’t like the fact that after 12 months they would have nothing to show for their purchase, as the license to use would have expired.  The two who bought the textbook after trying the ebook both didn’t appreciate that they couldn’t print it out – I guess they thought they could create their own textbook at home.

But first and foremost, they didn’t like the price.

Yes, it was $30 cheaper than the textbook.  But it was also still over $50.  Hundreds of times I heard the phrase “For that much money, I might as well get the book.”   This one blindsided me, I’ll admit.  I know students that will drive to downtown Toronto from Aurora to return a book because they found it for $3 cheaper on Amazon.  I thought a $30 savings was a no-brainer.  So, apparently, did the textbook publisher.

This is going to be a tricky one for the publisher to negotiate, because even an ebook of a textbook isn’t going to get much cheaper.  Students have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the majority of the cost of a textbook isn’t the paper (and how often have I heard “wow, all that for such a small book?” or “But it isn’t even hardcover!” as if the book is a bag of almonds bought from the bulk store and priced by weight).  A textbook is – or ought to be – a high-end work of scholarship requiring one or more highly educated people to devote several years of their career to write.  The book needs to be peer reviewed and fact-checked by equally-qualified people, then marketed and distributed as usual to a very limited audience.  In short, you need to pay for the intellectual property, not the paper.  Eliminating the paper will yield some savings but will not reduce the book to a $9.99 blowout.

(It bears mentioning that this illusion that an ebook is etherial and costs nothing to produce is perpetuated by Amazon, who keep their ebook prices artificially low for some unknown but no doubt nefarious reason.  Novels are also created at great cost of time and effort and should also cost something, regardless of dead tree content.)

So this year, at least, the book held its ground against the rising tide of electrons.  Is this representative?  Did the textbook publisher mess up in some other way?  I am going to be satisfied saying that I no longer consider the battle for the textbook market cut, dried and determined.  I suspect the publishers will cry themselves to sleep over this one.  We’ll see what they come up with next year. ..

Reviewish: Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel

After only my second foray into the novels of Michael Tremblay  (the first being The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant earlier this year), I am a solidly devoted apostle.  After this year’s Canada Reads competition I find I am in good company.  We in English Canada have been a bit slow on the uptake, I think, but we’re finally cluing in on what our fellow devotees in French Canada have known for thirty years:  Michel Tremblay is one of the finest storytellers in the world.

Therese and Pierrette is the second book in Tremblay’s Plateau Mont-Royal series, following about one month after the events of Fat Woman.  The cast of millions present in Fat Woman have largely taken to the background and we accompany Therese (the Fat Woman’as neice) and her friends Pierrette and Simone as they figure in their Catholic girl’s school.

One of the “complaints” I recall being voiced during the Canada Reads debates is that the structure of Fat Woman doesn’t “go anywhere”, that no clear story is being told – that hasn’t changed.  That was never a problem for me; in fact, that is part of the genius of Tremblay’s work.  He offers a slice of life, a portrait woven of the characters’ actions, thoughts, memories and digressions that reconstructs so accurately the sensation of living.  Any traditional novel-wide narrative structure, of beginning, climax and finale, he intentionally subverts by giving away the ending.  Tension created by fights, incidents and dangers is immediately diffused by a omnipresent storyteller’s intervention with a “years later” digression.  The effect is that we are not distracted by needing to find out “what happens next” or by being carried away by the plot; instead we can focus on the immediacy of the events.  You are drawn into the moment and are free to appreciate the relevance of that paragraph rather than looking ahead to the next event.

This trick of focusing the reader’s attention on the page and words rather than a story is reinforced by the “block of text” formatting which also put some readers off Tremblay’s work.  You can not skim his books – not only is it physically difficult to do so but there is no benefit to doing so.  The reward is in the moment, not in the cumulative effect of the whole.  I have never seen a Tremblay play but I can see how his talent for drawing you into the now could be so engaging on stage.  He creates a beautiful moment without it being reliant on a meta-reactions like shock, suspense and anticipation.

That said, I loved returning to the characters from Fat Woman and discovering what has become of them, just as I would enjoy catching up with a friend and hearing how their family is faring.  We learn the latest on the playground-guard whom Therese kisses in the first novel, and the fate of Dupliesse the cat, so mortally wounded when last we saw him.  Victoire and Josaphat-le-Violon find some closure and we get a brief glimpse at the Fat Woman and her looming infant.  Tremblay doesn’t exhaust us with unecessarily melodramatic tragedies and incidents.  Life is lived by the inhabitants of his Montreal just as you or I live our lives.  It’s charming and inspiring without being syrupy and white-washed.

I bought the entire Chronicles of Plateau Mont-Royal from Talonbooks; six books all told of which I have now read two.  I considered diving right into the next one right away but, just as email correspondence can become dry by virtue of its over-immediacy, I think I’d better wait and get some distance before I visit again.  The visits are so rewarding that I want to savor them.  The lives will sit there and wait for me until I am ready.