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.