Sunday, February 09, 2014


This quote is from the Shatzkin report which analyzes the forces affecting book sales and is slowly trying to redefine what a book “is.”
“Another way to look at it came from my friend, Andrew Rhomberg.  Based on his experience with start-up Jellybooks, he formulated five major book discovery paths: serendipitous, social, distributed, data-driven and incentivized.
I take this to be a summary of the ways that “book” sellers are trying to respond to the reader’s need to find manuscripts they can really cherish by whatever means.  I haven’t quite got it all straight, but so far:
Serendipitous is a happy accident, usually as a result of “browsing” bookshelves, so these websites supply thumbnails of covers in hopes they will be as suggestive as the spines in bookstores.
Social is when your friends say, “Oh, you must read this!”  The assumption is that your friends have the same tastes that you have.
Distributed is news sent to lists.  Maybe people sign up to find out about certain subjects.  Science, environment, teaching methods.
Data-driven is data scraping of mass purchases to see what people find “popular.”  Sales as predictors of more sales.  The snakes all bite their tails.
Incentivized is somehow targeted to likely buyers.  I take it to be a more complex version of data scraping that takes into account links, allegiances, “types” of people.  is the link to these five elements, cleverly labeled as different “berries.”  This is cute and useful, but primarily for mainstream pop material.

The idea contradicts a previous Shatzkin insight, which is that “print” is particalized -- if not atomized.  That is, there are so many ways to transmit print and for so many reasons in so many contexts that it’s impossible to capture the whole phenomenon.  Mostly what booksellers are thinking about is casual citizens buying popular fiction and nonfiction, mostly political.  They drop out consideration of reference works, instruction manuals, written standard tests, hymnals, spoken text, keystone religious texts like Bibles or Korans,  specialized scholarly works, and so on.  Artisan books, ten-of-a-kind, family records, and other non-mass productions are irrelevant.

I belong to a number of “listservs” which are meant to share info among scholars or specialists in a number of fields.  The main content of the messages is requests for book recommendations or printed sources of information which includes websites, archives of past messages, and unpublished personal work.  Often a person will describe a course they are organizing, ask for recommendations, and after a period of time has passed will compile the suggestions into a list which is often quite long and international.  A loop has formed among video functions like TED Talks (lectures), books, reviews, discussions, and back to new books or maybe televised classes that include a transcript.  I hear a lecture, look up the professor, read reviews of his work or articles s/he derived from the main work, and then decide whether to get the book -- or not.  Even so, I often find that people new to a field end up reading the same old stuff, like blinded donkeys turning a millstone.  For instance, word about the newer Blackfeet stuff hasn’t really gotten out yet.  On the other hand, there’s room for a lot more to be written.

I think the key problem is a meta-problem:  the failure to shift from concrete object-like practical sensory “things” to a much deeper understanding of principled concepts.  Now that some of us understand this is a function of brain organization (the connectome), much of it learned in public schools based on industrialization and militarization, the problem becomes how to shift consciousness from obedience and “groupthink” to exploration.  It’s a little bit like my wrestling with Netflix, which is always making suggestions to me based on what I’ve already watched and which they define by genre or subject.  But what matters to me is the QUALITY of the film, not the subject.   The “stars” are supposed to address this, but it’s not very successful.  Prizes like the Academy Awards are also supposed to indicate quality, but too much happens "backstage," political and sentimental.

Sometimes I’m interested in a film that relates to a category of thought I’m investigating.  Sometimes I just want to look into another world.  THINKING is something Netflix never considers.  They’re looking for FEELING -- as intense as possible -- and, in fact, much of book-sales is meant to capitalize on feeling more than thinking, even the ones that analyze politics because the covert goal is to rile people up to buy other books.  “Immersion” is the catch-word.  “I couldn’t put it down.”
But to most of the people doing all this computer-based data-scraping and analyzing, the only social category visible is themselves.  I have yet to hear from anyone discussing how to sell “books” about Indians to Indians.  Maybe the tribal college bookstore, tied to classes that guarantee sales.  Why do rez kids have money for sweets and drugs, but not for books?  And yet kids tend to read comix -- when they can locate any -- while standing there -- even to steal them, always an indicator of value.
In writing my short Blackfeet stories on this blog, (compiled as "Willow Sticks" or "Twelve Blackfeet Stories," available at  I’ve tried to stick to plot-based, character-anchored tales that lend themselves to re-telling between people.  I’ve noticed that kids and naive readers will try to convey their feelings about a movie by telling what happened.  If people re-tell these little stories enough that they become “rez-myths,” near-reality, I would be pleased.  In fact, some of them ARE real stories that shouldn’t be more specific.  The permeable membranes between reality/fiction and print/told are not considered in book sales and yet they are crucial to the “social” seeking of books.

Proof of my premise that many people are still stuck in literal, concrete thinking is the great difficulty for them when it comes to identifying pornography.  They know basic taboos:  no cussing, no nudity, no explicit sex, no slang, and yet they cannot grasp the overarching pornographies of our society, the stigmatizing, the withholding of compassion, and constant use of distorted women (Barbie dolls) to promote everything from chewing gum to tractors.  They do not see that addiction to beer and power is as dangerous as addiction to the list of drugs the government provides.  

Nowhere in the thinking of booksellers (or movie renters) is “quality of content.”  And yet people believe that being published is a certification of value -- not just a label of sale-ability that might be quite cynical.  They don’t know that people can publish their own books.  If a book is not a certain size and bound a certain way, to them it is not a book.  An 8 1/2” by 12” spiral bound manuscript does not look to them like a book.  Now I've gone to a smaller size.  Now they say, "She's been published."  Even the more sophisticated still don't register an academic press.  They only know mass media.
So, clearly, from the point of view of people who just want sales, it’s important to give readers what they want.  But from the point of view of authors who want their books understood and kept, none of that matters.  The target is something altogether different and possibly something that the potential readers have no idea exists at all.  A paradigm shift comes from the gradual accumulation of evidence that the theory just doesn’t work.  Then there’s confusion until the next really effective theory turns up.  We’re waiting for that now.  What are the true indicators of quality content in print?  I hope these kids are not coloring inside the lines.

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