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Joe’s Metadatarium: Creating New Forms of Discovery in the Bricks-and-Mortar World

Basset hound

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It’s no news to anyone in publishing today that digital technology is a great disruptor. I am mostly on the side of the disruptors, but every once in a while I get a pang for the analog world. What is it we’re missing when we go all digital? To what extent have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

What I will miss most if current trends continue, is the loss of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I can live with “peer review lite” such as we have at PLOS One, community-based (and often unreliable) content a la Wikipedia, attacks on copyright, and bloggers (ahem) who claim to speak with the same authority as longstanding, prestigious publications with a comprehensive program of editorial review. But bookstores — no, please, don’t let them go away. If the three independent bookstores in my town were to fail (we lost our Borders when the chain collapsed this year), I would no longer have any reason to leave my home.

But it’s not only my personal interests that make me cling to bookstores. From a professional point of view, bookstores are the most astounding agent of discovery ever invented, putting Google and the myriad tricks of Amazon (“If you liked this book, then you will like that book”) to shame. A bookstore is like an aquarium filled with metadata — a “metadatarium.” The sign says “Books” outside; you walk through aisles of books; there are signs to point to categories; tables are stacked with books; fellow browsers think and talk books; and there are the books themselves: a collection of content injected inside a clamshell of metadata, ranging from the author’s picture to the index. You can’t tell a book by its cover, but you sure can try.

With the collapse of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, courtesy of our friends at Amazon, a great cultural institution is being lost. We lose the bookshop as a cultural center; we lose our own analog search engine. This loss is felt unevenly in different parts of the community and the publishing industry. For example, only a handful of literary journals ever find their way into bookshops — STM publishers need not apply — and the books in bookstores are mostly general interest or trade books, with a decreasing number of professional titles to be found by the casual browser. The reason for this is the inventory problem: book retailers have to get a certain amount of revenue for each square foot of floor space, and it is much easier (though not easy) to get that revenue from popular titles than from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And this is where the Internet and Amazon have it all over the physical bookstore — in the breadth of inventory, whether that inventory is in print or digital form. It’s simply amazing to think how puny even the largest bricks-and-mortar bookstore is in comparison to the holdings of even a small research library.

We need a utopian solution.  We need our bookstores, but we also need Amazon’s inventory. We need libraries–and we need a way to pay for them.  We need analog tools for discovery and digital modes of delivery.  We need a Third Place for community and a Cloud-based infrastructure to deliver all information to anyone anywhere anytime.  And I need a place to kill some time on Saturday afternoons.

So I’m announcing the launch of Joe’s Metadatarium, a chain of bricks-and-mortar community spaces for books and other information products. This chain will be funded through an appeal on Kickstarter, managed with the perfection of Apple, and later taken public on NASDAQ, to the benefit of the 401K plans of its shareholders. The mascot will be a basset hound named Cicero, and the principal swag will be a Roman-looking coin with Cicero’s head on it. When you go to the Web site, you will hear a hound’s howl. The dog, you see, has stock options.

At the first Board meeting we will discuss whether the plural of “metadatarium” is “metadatariums” or “metadataria.”

The Metadatarium will be part bookstore, part library, and part performance space. It will be conceived of as a showroom for books. This in itself is not a new idea; I refer you to the wonderful video of a showroom for books, which was pointed out to me by Bob Stein. The video is in French, but you can follow it easily even if you do not understand the language:

The video shows an old-fashioned bookstore, with books displayed spine-out on tall shelves. A browser goes to the shelves with a shiny device that looks like the current crop of e-readers. The device is placed next to a book and a digital copy is downloaded to it. The physical books thus are for display only; the commerce is entirely virtual. The bookstore has become a showroom, but the fulfillment is precisely the same as if you ordered an e-book for the Kindle or Nook.

But do you need the physical bookstore at all if you can simply download the e-book from the Cloud?  Of course you don’t, and of course you do. You don’t need the store if you already know what you want to buy.  The Metadatarium is a showroom and only incidentally serves as a storefront. The aim of the Metadatarium is to create demand. It is thus a marketing service and its economics are akin to those of other marketing services.

As a place to generate demand, the shop in the video could do a better job. It should have a performance stage where authors can read their works, making the Metadatarium into a community space. I am astounded by the routine turnout at my local Bookshop Santa Cruz, where authors, both local and national, come to read, chat with their audience, and sign books. The store is always crowded; it’s where people go to hang out. I’m told by single people that it is a great place to meet people of the opposite sex, and also people of the same sex, something that is not part of the network effects of a purely virtual establishment. And here is the key to the economic future of the bookselling business: a reversal of the former relationship of products and services. The most conspicuous precedent for this strategy is the turnaround of IBM under Louis Gerstner, who took the company from one that sold hardware and gave away services (e.g., complex systems integration) to one that sold services and provided hardware from multiple vendors.

The Metadatarium is thus a book display space with a stage for performance, but it is also, literally, a public space, a library, another of the great Third Places in our society. For people who cannot or won’t purchase a book, the library provides most of the services we associate with a traditional library (which, at least in my town, includes Internet access, public meeting rooms, and lectures on topics ranging from financial planning to political action). The Metadatarium library is in part supported by public monies, but its catalog (browsable at home or on site) includes options for the purchase of books, print or digital, which earns the library revenue. And not the 5% commission that an affiliate gets from Amazon, but the 30% of an online retailer working directly with a publisher under an agency plan.

There are about 120,000 libraries in the U.S. today. While we grieve every time a bookstore closes, we should rejoice to think that we could be opening 120,000 new ones.

The management of the Metadatarium has as its primary economic goal to bring as many people to the physical space as possible. The business is one of audience aggregation, which is the end of providing a showroom for books, a lending library, and a performance space. As a marketing services firm, the Metadatarium packages and “sells” this audience to publishers, which provide free copies of books for display and pay the Metadatarium to have their authors make appearances. The Metadatarium’s physical presence (in every town, on every campus, and don’t forget the prison population and the makeshift libraries of Occupy Wall Street) is as a matter of course accompanied by a robust Internet presence and a panoply of mobile apps. The Metadatarium is in the business of monetizing its audience wherever it travels. It thus supports an online bookstore (publishers set prices, as they should), virtual community activities, and such services as book clubs and used-book sales. It is Amazon with a showroom on Main Street.

How will this venture make money? With great difficulty. But with hope at its heart, it will seek public funds for its library function; it will earn commissions on the books it sells; it will earn fees from publishers for stocking books and hosting author appearances; it will have a cafe (think of the lobby of the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, with its bar, coffee shop, and world’s best WiFi); and it will have membership fees from the people who desire its premium services.

Now to get this going on Kickstarter. I’m going to my local bookstore to look for partners.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

21 thoughts on “Joe’s Metadatarium: Creating New Forms of Discovery in the Bricks-and-Mortar World

  1. I was struck by a possible reversal of causality in your abstract. “The decline of bookstores has made discovery increasingly difficult.”

    Wasn’t it “discovery becoming increasingly easy (online)” that made “The decline of bookstores “?

    But if bricks and mortar bookstores disappear, I will miss them. I have always regarded Borders as a coffee shop with a better reading selection than Starbucks, and better coffee than the public library.

    Posted by Dave Pullin | Nov 1, 2011, 8:22 am
    • I don’t know–I can walk into a good bookstore and walk out with half a dozen books I’m excited to read. When I go to Amazon or bn.com, I almost always have to know in advance the book I’m seeking, and rarely, if ever, stumble into something I’m interested in reading.

      Posted by David Crotty | Nov 1, 2011, 12:39 pm
      • Very true and same for the library. I have make huge discoveries by browsing in section I don’t usually read.

        Posted by David Wojick | Nov 2, 2011, 7:32 am
  2. This is not unlike the vision that inspired Bill McClung and some of his colleagues at the University of California Press in the 1970s to launch University Press Books which, by the way, operated by having university presses provide copies of their books on consignment. Later, a publication much like the NYRB was started to complement the bookstore and provide a forum for more extended discussion. This bookstore, which had a branch in NYC for a while, still exists.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Nov 1, 2011, 9:49 am
  3. This is a wise and delightful essay. (Just in case I don’t end up on the Board of Directors, I’d like to vote in advance for ‘metadatariums’–the plural ‘a’ just sounds too fusty!)

    Posted by rcayley | Nov 1, 2011, 10:08 am
    • I find the name awkward, plus technical. How about something catchy like “bookie”? But then how about a virtual version? (Sorry to go digital on you.) In any case part of the analog value is visually scanning a selection. In a virtual version you could scale the selection, from bargain bin to big library, and beyond. You could also sort it different ways. Just a thought.

      Posted by David Wojick | Nov 2, 2011, 9:20 am
    • I disagree. Metadaria sounds better! I love the video above. Where can I get an ebook reader like that (that opens out with two screens)?

      Posted by rhondagonzales | Nov 3, 2011, 10:55 am
  4. Love the essay and am willing to “bite,” so long as you also let us take Cicero for walks. And perhaps he can double as a Therapy dog. Mind you, various libraries already have therapy dogs – try a google search. The concept you’re describing sounds to me like today’s very successful public library, yes? with some new ideas for revenue generation, so our cities don’t close those public libraries down at the same time as those bookstores are closing? Ann

    Posted by Ann Okerson | Nov 1, 2011, 1:34 pm
    • This is in fact what some public libraries are starting to do. But I would not rule out academic libraries for this. It’s a different constituency, but the need for a communal space to share ideas really is not restricted to any single area.

      As for walking Cicero, I think that privilege comes with premium membership.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Nov 1, 2011, 3:38 pm
  5. Great idea! If you make it a public-private partnership it could actually serve as a library plus space for commerce. And if you add in music and movies, you could increase revenue generation, especially if it becomes a place to showcase musicians or movies in the evening, after the authors and readers have left for the day. There’s a restaurant in Washington DC called Busboys and Poets that’s already doing something along these lines.

    Posted by Sarah McCormack | Nov 1, 2011, 3:40 pm
  6. I’ve been advocating the same thing for a while. Overdrive has a purchase option available in some of the library catalogs it supports, and Springer has also offered POD versions of some of it’s very pricey titles to university researchers through it’s <a href="http://www.springer.com/librarians/e-content/mycopy?SGWID=0-165802-0-0-0MyCopy program, and marketed through university library catalogs. It puts cheap editions of expensive books into the hands of the students and researchers who really need them. But they’re POD editions.

    Also, my French is, as they say, shitty, but at the end there, did the woman go to the “bookstore” to pick up physical copies of books they saw on their trip? That makes sense too, but why not pick them up at a library?

    As for the economics, this store caught my eye for their model not unlike McClung’s where the burden is more evenly shared. If publisher’s picked up shipping both ways (let’s say the publisher also pays for shipping on returns, or the invoice is delayed until the book actually sells) your model changes drastically. But publishers would need a new customer category, so they wouldn’t run afoul of the law if they didn’t offer the same deal to, say, online for-profit retailers. Hmmm. What might be a whole new customer type? How about library retail?

    A book sales program wouldn’t necessitate public support as a library’s lending program now does, but could in fact support itself, and in turn subsidize a library’s lending programs. Unless libraries intend to become mere transactionists as PDA seems to be taking them, they need to take their mission into a more commercial context, and to fill the gap that the extinction of the physical store is creating. Libraries need to start thinking about physical book advocacy. Of course they need to provide electronic services, but they should consider also becoming advocates for the physical book, and they should work to keep the culture surrounding physical books alive. This is at the core of their definition, but with the combination of the current economy, and a conversion to electronic resources, the part of a library’s mission that promotes books and book collections is becoming an afterthought. There is little difference between what a good bookseller does and what a good public-facing librarian does, I know this, I have worked with both. Reconsidering the mission of those skill sets might be of great benefit to all of our constituencies. I wish university libraries would lead the way in trying this, but I suspect that public libraries, faced with a huge increase in demand, and ever shrinking budgets, may be the first to consider expanding their mission. A public library might be more willing to try selling books to help subsidize lending services. Might consider doing more than providing only temporary access to books, and think about including selling books too, and offering book ownership as another option in their menu of services. With an Espresso Book Machine, and the option of selling both new and used— even mixing books for sale with books for lending, combined with open public spaces for authors and readers to meet and converse, the power of libraries to serve us all could be greatly expanded. Let’s hope it does. I will do my part. I will add that customer type to my discount schedule, net 90 on consignment, 50% discount, freight both ways. Most of our books are also in the Espresso program. I’ll let you have those titles at 60% when you print them on site. Any takers?

    Posted by tonysanfilippo | Nov 1, 2011, 7:18 pm
  7. ps, you should either offer editing of comments or a preview on comments. It seems I spilled a small bowl of apostrophes on that last comment.

    Posted by tonysanfilippo | Nov 1, 2011, 8:39 pm
    • We often clean up little typos for people when we have time (that wasn’t today — the snow damage and related power outages in the Northeast have set life off on a set of weird detours this week).

      The best preview is review, as a fastidious emailer once taught me. His emails are works of art, not because he previews them but because he reviews them — multiple times before sending.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Nov 1, 2011, 9:45 pm
  8. Relevant quote here:

    It’s easy to say that brick-and-mortar stores are dying and Borders is bankrupt, so who cares about bookstores anyway? But physical bookstores are still the main place book shoppers discover new titles, Kelly Gallagher, VP of publishing services at Bowker, told me. “When you walk into a bookstore, you’ve got about 15,000 choices within eyesight. [But] the most images or books I’ve ever been able to find on a single page on Amazon is about 33 items.” Beyond the bestseller list, he says, the main way that readers find out about new authors and midlist authors (i.e., pretty much all the authors currently published by Amazon) is through impulse purchases—most of which take place in bookstores. “About half of all titles sold in a chain bookstore today are impulse purchases,” Gallagher said.

    Discoverability even matters for shoppers who eventually intend to purchase a book in digital format. In a recent study of children’s e-books, Bowker found that the number-one way customers became aware of the title was in a physical store. They went there to look at the content, then went online to purchase the e-book.

    Posted by David Crotty | Nov 2, 2011, 10:54 am
  9. I’ve had an iPad since May 2010 and it has entirely changed the way I interact with texts. I used to borrow new fiction from my local library, but now I buy all my books because a) they are so cheap and b) I love receiving them instantly (no need to wait for that popular title to come into the library). I have no sense of loss of bookshops: they are messy; the staff are not helpful; the book I’m looking for is usually not in stock. I don’t think there’s anything exciting or serendipitous about browsing through book stacks – in fact I think it’s a waste of time. Searching online, thanks to terrific reviews by the Guardian and other online news sites – as well as recommendations by other readers – is a much more satisfying way of finding new content. But I have sympathy for library users who need the other benefits: a meeting place; use of the internet; a place to stay warm – so I would support Metadataria – and I think the name is terrific; a good idea to move away from liber as we move away from ‘books’ to other containers of good writing.

    Posted by Bobby Graham | Nov 17, 2011, 1:22 am
  10. Great article and great idea – with the same goal in place, here is our brick and mortar offering we are launching in a couple of months in Canada: http://enthrill.com/edistribution/video-presentation This has been in development for about one year. Funny you should mention the Ace Hotel – I discussed this project with one of our publishing advisors in that very lobby!

    Posted by Kevin Franco | Jan 2, 2012, 2:20 pm

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