Book Curation in Stores and Beyond

We know curation from settings like museums and galleries. Curators are the managers who present the exhibitions. What they are good at is displaying a range of relevant content within a certain context. So it’s not hard to imagine what book curators do: they present books in a way that helps readers find them.

One of the most familiar jobs book curators do is helping rich people or celebrities show their collections of books in their living rooms or personal libraries. Want to know what’s on Gwyneth Paltrow’s bookshelf? Here is an interview with her book curator. However, book curation can also happen in public places like bookstores, coffee shops, furniture stores, schools, hospitals, and so on. Why? Because in those places, people can either buy books or read books.

Bookstores—large and small, chain and independent—need to sell as many books as they can. Good curation can help a lot. Large bookstores accommodate books of every kind, but there are still ways for them to help readers find books. For example, they usually separate the books into fiction and nonfiction with subcategories. Powell’s has used color-coded rooms for more general categories, and they have supplemented this system with special areas and shelf talkers to highlight “staff picks” and help readers navigate the shelves. There are also some strategies that can help smaller bookshops. For example, put the most popular books (according to the sales in the store) at the very back of the store in order to lead the customers on a journey of discovery before they reach their destination. Arrange the books that are most likely to be opened along the window so that passers-by can see that people are always reading. In either case, the curation should be based on close observation of readers’ shopping habits and preferences.

The most interesting book curation happens in stores that do not primarily sell books or that only sell books with specific themes. What they have in common is smaller book collections compared to larger bookstores. For me, what these stores do is accommodate ideas. Instead of shelving books by genre, staff can arrange books according to one core theme. For instance, if there is a book section about architecture in a particular area, books on environmental science, geography, and lifestyle can go together. Take another example from a store selling more than books: The MUJI stores I have been to in Shanghai and Fukuoka have big book sections for people who shop there. The stores provide people with a comfortable and slow-paced environment where life itself matters a great deal. I learned from the book Tokyo’s Constant Booksellers that when book curators were hired to choose and display books in the stores, their top priority was to find simply styled books that could help people slow down and enjoy living. For example, you can find a book with just pictures of people reading in different scenes and positions. And the way books are displayed there invites you to open and explore every book. They are categorized not by genre but by topic and aesthetic effect.

Places like coffee shops and lobbies in school buildings and hospitals can also facilitate reading by displaying books that might interest and inspire readers. Hospitals are a good place for people to read: it is a way for them to take their minds off the worry or physical discomfort they might be experiencing. So how do book curators know about people’s tastes? By talking to customers, students, and patients. Start the conversation by discussing hobbies instead of books—people’s hobbies can potentially tell you what they want to read.

Reading can happen wherever there are books or wherever people need books. For booksellers, reading can lead to sales, so find your own niche approach to displaying books.

The Importance of Independent Bookstores

Independent bookstores have historically served as community landmarks and valuable resources throughout the world. The experience of shopping at a bookstore that is genuine, individualistic, and an asset to the local community cannot be matched by shopping at chain stores or online. Moreover, a book is no ordinary item to shop for. Whether it is a picture book for preschoolers, a fantasy series for dreamers, a biography for devoted fans, or a nonlinear peregrination for intrepid readers, a book has a singular ability to illuminate one’s intellect and imagination.

The United States is home to many notable bookstores. One of these is New York City’s Strand Book Store, which offers nearly twenty miles of new, used, and rare books as well as an array of literary and artistic proceedings spotlighting icons like Chuck Close and Salman Rushdie. Another is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, which caters to the high-profile writers, professors, and visitors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and provides a cultivated reading series that has featured some of the most influential and renowned writers in history, including E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, stands as the world’s largest independent bookstore and fosters book groups and a wide range of events promoting up-and-coming authors as well as prominent public figures like Senator Bernie Sanders. And finally, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, California, has become a celebrated historical landmark.

Highlight: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has established itself as a creative and intellectual landmark not only in San Francisco but also in the literary world as a whole. On their website, they describe their philosophy: “As the increasingly concentrated mass media and new information technologies change the way people live, work, and think, we believe that nurturing the ability to think critically, to discern truth, and to communicate knowledge is essential to a democratic society.” Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and college professor Peter D. Martin in 1953, City Lights became the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore and a center for the Beat movement.

City Lights has also served as a press, boasting nearly two hundred books in print to date. In the fall of 1956, City Lights released Allen Ginsberg’s legendary Howl and Other Poems with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. Frequented by literary icons such as Ginsberg and his fellow lettered insurgent Jack Kerouac, the bookstore transformed the neighborhood into an enclave for the Beats. The street right across from City Lights was officially named Jack Kerouac Alley and has been decorated with lively, intricate murals and words of poetry.

Today, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers remains a hub for literary fans of all kinds, publishing everything from poetry to translations, politics to philosophy, music to spirituality. It still specializes in promoting the writers published by its independent press, as well as writing from the Beat movement that is difficult to find anywhere else. The store boasts rare, first-edition titles such as Love Is No Stone on the Moon by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and From Nicaragua with Love by Ernesto Cardenal. In 2001, the city of San Francisco designated City Lights an official historical landmark. It was the first business to receive this designation, which is usually reserved for buildings. As its website states, City Lights continues to publish “cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, literary translations, and books on vital social and political issues.” City Lights has also formed its own nonprofit foundation promoting “the goal of advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.”

The importance of City Lights has persisted in revolutionary intellectual culture, and it remains a beacon to independent bookstores across the globe.

Publishing Roundup: Harlequin Romance, Oyster, and the Rise of the Independents

It’s time for another publishing news roundup, straight from the Ooligan source! Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the bubble of our little publishing house, but it’s important to remember that there’s a whole lot happening out in the publishing world right now, given that the whole industry seems to be teetering on the brink of a massive overhaul.

News for big publishers is a bit bleak this month as Harlequin, the classic romance publisher of Fabio-covered, bodice-ripping fame, was sold to News Corporation and, consequently, HarperCollins Publishers for $415 million at the beginning of May. Following the announcement of their sale, Harlequin reported a 14-percent decline in profits from the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014—no doubt a consequence of their continued struggle to keep up with the increasingly digital market of the romance industry. A larger than average number of romance readers consider themselves frequent or avid readers, and they appreciate not only the anonymity of reading romance on e-readers but also the instant accessibility and decreased price of the e-book format. Because of this, romance as a genre is shifting to a primarily digital format faster than many other genres out there. Indeed, a 2012 survey by the Romance Writers of America found that nearly 50 percent of romance readers are likely to buy books to be read on an e-device, and there is little doubt that this number has since increased. Harlequin is an old enterprise, having been founded nearly sixty-five years ago, and publishes nearly 110 books every month. However, the New York Times reported that, in 2012, 50 Shades of Grey outsold Harlequin’s entire North American retail sales, and even though that romance giant provided a boost for romance sales everywhere, Harlequin did not manage to survive the most recent round of mergers (starting with the merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House in 2013) that drastic changes in the publishing industry have brought about.

In other digital news, Oyster Books, a book subscription service that is quickly attempting to become “the Netflix of book borrowing,” made a leap toward its goal in early May as it partnered with over 500 new publishers and now offers over 500,000 titles for borrowing. Among these publishers is giant HarperCollins, which alone added nearly 10,000 titles to the Oyster database, including massively popular titles such as Life of Pi and American Gods. Many sources are calling Oyster’s claims to be the Netflix of books hyperbolic. As the International Business Times points out, it’s impossible to compare the way that people consume books to the way people consume television. The monthly price for Oyster is $9.99 for unlimited borrowing, unlimited being the buzzword here. However, people read a lot slower than they watch films and television shows. IBT estimates that, at the rate at which the average person reads, each book would still cost them about $2.49 apiece at Oyster’s monthly rate. That’s only a little bit less than the cost of owning the books in an e-book format, nevermind the fact that many of these books are available through library e-book lending services for free. Oyster CEO Eric Stormberg insists that he’s competing by offering not only a larger volume of works but also works that can be attained more quickly after a book’s release than it might be through the library. Right now, that time gap is probably be the key to Oyster’s success. Given that they still haven’t even stretched themselves to the Android market, their success or failure remains to be seen. Only time will tell if people are willing to buy into an e-book subscription service.

Lastly and most optimistically, the market climate seems good for independent publishing houses right now. As big publishers continue to squabble and generally have a hard time adapting to change (see the battle happening between Hachette and Amazon currently), independent publishers such as the profiled and discussed in Publishers Weekly are really finding their place in the market. The same is true for independent bookstores, which, in an increasingly Amazon-centric world, are finding more and more business from people who miss the warmth and community of visiting a local bookshop. Hopefully, these trends will only continue to bring success to the little guys.

Where Poetry Month is Year-Round

National Poetry Month was initiated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to “increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while… celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated.” The website for this annual celebration suggests many ways to participate, including “put a poem on the pavement” and “buy a book of poems for your library.” Far and away, “put poetry in an unexpected place” is my favorite suggestion, because it recalls for me a magnificent book hub in the heart of my old neighborhood.

As often as not, when I mention Milwaukee to people unfamiliar with the Midwest, they respond with, “where?” They ask about cheese curds and beer, or about Laverne & Shirley—all totally relevant subjects, but these aren’t the city’s only cultural signposts. Folks are often surprised to learn that Milwaukee is also home to one of the country’s great independent bookstores, specializing in small-press poetry, chapbooks, and broadsides. Founded in 1979, Woodland Pattern Book Center is a nonprofit arts organization in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, taking its name from a line of Paul Metcalf’s poem, Apalache: “South of Lake Superior, a culture center, the Woodland Pattern, with poetry but without agriculture….”

Woodland Pattern Chapbooks

One of the shelves of chapbooks at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern

With more than 25,000 small press titles—the largest selection in the country—Woodland Pattern boasts a massive inventory of poetry, chapbooks, broadsides, and multicultural literature, including lines from the likes of Wave, Ugly Duckling, Octopus, Gray Wolf, Fence, and others.

“As booksellers and as presenters of art and literature,” reads the center’s website, “we want people to know that there is more than what you see at your chain bookstore, more than you are taught in school, more than what is reviewed in the papers.”

For the better part of ten years, I lived mere blocks from Woodland Pattern. Nearly every day, I passed by on my way to work, or while out wandering the neighborhood. The shop sits curbside on a two-lane, high-traffic, not-particularly-pretty street, so its whitewashed façade—adorned with a fresh mural each year—was always a welcome sight. But here’s the thing: I’ve never been real big on poetry, and believing that there was “just a bunch of poetry” inside, I couldn’t find a reason to go in, content to appreciate it from outside.

However, age, education, and friends’ thoughtful recommendations have had their way with me. Last summer, on an extended visit to Milwaukee and newly hooked on Eileen Myles, I wandered into this neighborhood shop/national poetry treasure for the very first time. Inside, I not only found the book I was looking for, but also had the distinct pleasure of being surrounded by so many thousands of mostly unfamiliar volumes. Woodland Pattern feels how every bookstore should: colorful, mysterious, friendly, and a little bit overwhelming.

As if all those books were not enough, Woodland Pattern also hosts readings, writing workshops, art exhibits, film screenings, and music performances, with an emphasis on experimental and improvisational work; that such a place exists, still, is a testament to the significance of independent arts, and to the idea that poetry can sustain itself in the most unexpected places.

Authors Lend a Helping Hand

It is common knowledge that independent bookstores have been struggling to stay in business. Studies have shown that fewer and fewer people are actually finding books in bookstores. With the rise of e-books and bookselling websites, readers are finding it more convenient to order books from the comfort of their own homes than to browse a bookstore’s shelves. However, some major names in the writing world are taking action and attempting to increase sales in these independent bookstores.
In the beginning of September, Sherman Alexie sent a letter to some of his fellow authors, asking them to take part in what he calls Indies First by working at one of their local bookstores on Small Business Saturday. Authors such as Richard Russo and James Patterson will be taking part in Indies First come November. On top of these efforts, Stephen King published his new novel solely in a print format with no current plans of making it into a digital format. In his blog, Neil Gaiman asked his fans to order presigned books from their local bookstore.
All of these efforts by well-known authors have helped these bookstores’ sales, and have made these stores more popular amongst local readers. While this attention obviously helps small independent bookstores, they are not the only ones that can benefit from author attention—this growing interest in small bookstores could also help independent publishers. Since publishers produce the books that bookstores sell, it follows that the success of one will lead to the success of the other.
With the rise of bookselling sites like Amazon, some small publishers have begun to suffer along with independent bookstores. The profits they once made selling their books in stores has gone down with the decrease in bookstore patronship, and e-books are not always as profitable for publishers as print versions. On top of the cut that sellers like Amazon take out of an e-book sale, plus the cut that goes to the author, there is much to be desired in terms of profit. Add the fact that in order for people shopping on Amazon to come across a small publisher’s book, the publisher has to pay the site for advertising and recommendation space, web sales get expensive for small publishers fast.
With all of these obstacles in place, anything that can boost the business of independent bookstores is a major help for small publishers. An increase in customers may lead to more advertising opportunities in local bookstores. Small publishers would be able to work with these bookstores to increase sales, perhaps by building a “recommended reads” section when an author comes to a store. That way customers who are drawn to the bookstore because of an author will see more books similar to the ones they like, and be more likely to buy them.
Thanks to the interest of major authors in the independent bookstore business, small publishers may be able to see an increase in profits due to the rising popularity of bookstores over online shopping. Providing customers with the personal experience they long to have with their favorite authors allows bookstores to offer a service that online bookstores cannot, which in the end will help the independent bookstore business stay alive, as well as help the small publisher.

The Battle for a Digital Pricing Model that Works Part 2: The Fall of the Old Republic

By Rebekah Hunt
The Economist reported, in August of 2006, that print journalism has been in decline since 1990. Jobs in the industry fell by 18% between 1990 and 2004, Knight-Ridder sold off its newspapers, and New York Times share prices had been cut in half within four years.The obvious explanation, and the one most often given for these trends, is the mercurial rise in internet use over the past decade.
It is most likely true that the free availability of information on the internet has seriously impacted the public’s interest in reading a physical newspaper, adding up to large losses in the newspaper sector. But what about book publishers who, as the Times reports, aren’t faring much better than the papers? Has the rise in worldwide availability of digital media contributed to book industry losses as well? In the same way that Apple killed the arena-rock star, has the internet killed the print media star?
The short answer is yes, but it’s not as simple as that, so don’t go into mourning for the paper trade just yet. According to the Times, a steep decline in paperback book sales began in the 1980s, before the widespread adoption of the internet as a primary media source, “when retail chains that edged out independent bookstores successfully introduced discounts on hardcover versions of the same books.” This accomplished two things: it crippled the already wobbly publishing industry, and it changed consumer expectations of what a book should cost. I am going to repeat that, since it is essentially the crux of the entire issue: changed consumer expectations.
Reread that, breathe it in, take it to heart, because consumer expectations are the soul of the market. However much we may love our books, the print media are not the beleaguered Rebel Alliance, and the internet and Apple are not the evil Galactic Empire. It’s not a David and Goliath struggle here. Just like Sony, Geffen, and BMG, publishing houses are massive corporations with bottom lines and products to sell. The real Rebel Alliance is made up of consumers, bloggers, independent authors, self-publishers, and content creators of all types. Basically, people who write stuff and people who want to read stuff. To follow the analogy even further along this line, the internet is the Force, in that it “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” (in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi).
The most important effect the internet has had on the publishing industry is that it has changed consumer expectations of what media should cost, how easy it should be to access, the scope and variety of options that should be offered, and the level of control the consumer should have over purchasing options. The immediate availability of every type of media online, the relative difficulty of the acquisition and consumption of printed media, as compared to things like songs or television shows, and the initial resistance of publishers and authors to offer their books digitally created an uncertain place for book publishers in the market. This point was proved when book giant Borders filed for bankruptcy and shut down its stores.
Since newspapers and book publishers deal not only in information, but also in a physical product, they are experiencing some difficulties producing and selling their products in tandem with their digital content. If their digital content is offered for free, it cannot replace the revenue from sales of the physical product. By the same reasoning, the physical product cannot fund the free digital content if it is already losing money. Since publishing companies have been forced to cut budgets everywhere they can, downsize staff and reduce page counts, it seems impossible for them to retain the readership they so desperately need. The mainstay of the newspaper industry is in advertising dollars, but the book industry only sells content. So, how will the book industry harness the power of the Force and make money in the new digital universe?
Again, the music industry is a good place to look. According to a recent article on, the Napster/iTunes effect on the music industry is a leading indicator of what is possible for the future of book publishing. “CD sales have declined thirty percent in the last five years and digital downloads have not completely made up that gap created by the technology.” They say; however, “…different means of consumer consumption and distribution are responsible for the economic decline of the music industry.” They explain that it is the choice that consumers now have of listening to music before they purchase it, along with a sharp decrease in consumer perception of the value of digital content that are responsible for the decline in sales.
There are multiple giants for publishing houses, magazines, and other print media to slay if they don’t want to follow Borders into the tar pits of history. The largest of these, as with the music industry, are the challenges posed by digital distribution. The music industry has undergone massive change in response to the consumer-driven popularity of digital download sites. While this change was painful at first, most of those resisting it were at the top of the industry food chain making millions of dollars on overpriced, overexposed, overprocessed, records anyway, and the market has enthusiastically ignored their plight. As a result, the industry has been forced to evolve. With the rise of iTunes and pay-as-you-listen consumer sites like Pandora, the music industry is alive and well, and poised to take on any challenges the new market presents. But how will the publishing industry fare?
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, the Dark Side of the Force (digital piracy)/A New Hope (the publishing market evolves); and the week after that for the Return of the Jedi (an ebook pricing strategy that works).
Image by Declan Fleming. Used with permission under Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.