No golden age of books: “five hundred or so legitimate bookstores” in the US in the 1930s

As people lament the closure of chain bookstores like Borders as well as independent bookstores, having fewer bookstores may not be sending us to some dark age. Indeed, easily accessible and abundant bookstores may be a relatively recent feature of society: there were few bookstores in the US in the 1930s.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in the book [Two-Bit Culture by Kenneth C. Davis] to tell you how Davis argues the story, but early in the book, I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers…

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

This data suggests that there is a big difference between books being published (and there is a reason the printing press is regarded as a major invention in human history) and how books can be purchased by consumers. There were not a lot of bookstores where people could browse thousands of volumes, let alone go online at Amazon.com and find tens of thousands of books.

If there was a paucity of bookstores in the 1930s, might the profile of libraries have been higher then? Libraries would have been one of the few places where average citizens could have found a wider range of books. Indeed, just before this period was when the Carnegie libraries were built:

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji.

That is a lot of libraries when there were only 500 or so bookstores in the entire United States.

Three and a half shelves of sociology books at Barnes & Noble

While browsing at a local Barnes & Noble store, I again noted something of interest: they have three and a half shelves of sociology books.

This is fairly common as sociology is lumped in with sections like Cultural Studies and Criminology. Just across the aisle to the left was fifteen shelves of Current Affairs and just behind this was at least 15 shelves of History.

I’m not surprised by this: sociology in the public’s eye has a low profile. If you look closely at the books in the sociology section, you can find a number on sociological topics that are not written by sociologists such as Nickel and Dimed, There Are No Children Here, The Social Animal, Triumph of the City, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. So there is really less than three shelves of books by sociologists. This is the case even with several books on the shelf that have received recent attention such as Going Solo and The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Along with anthropology, I can’t think of any of the big academic disciplines from which you could find fewer books at your average chain bookstore.

Is this simply indicative of the small number of people who go into a Barnes & Noble and purchase sociology titles or does it illustrate the broader profile of sociology in American life?

Sociologist talks about the downside of choosing your own news

A sociologist suggests you may be missing something by only choosing what news you want to read:

It’s in no sense odd to find American academe wrangling over journalism. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Clay Shirky of New York University have recently been hammering away at each other, seeking to determine whether investigative journalism can only be conducted by highly resourced news machines (like the Guardian’s) or by a more individual, digital-first approach (like… um… the Guardian’s). But what’s sociology got to contribute here?

Plenty, Klinenberg says, outlining the fundamental bargain that underpins newspaper life. You, the reader, want crosswords and cartoons, recipes and TV programme guides. You want all the stuff that journalists serve up with a sigh (because, well, it’s not exactly journalism, is it?). And, in return, as part of the deal, journalism is allowed to have a civic purpose – to report and analyse the workings and frailties of democracy – beyond quick ways to whip up a cottage pie.

That bargain, sealed in print, means you can’t have one without the other. Put your cash on the newsagent’s counter and you get some things you desire and other things, from Cardiff or Chad, that you didn’t know had happened until you turned to page five.

Of course, like any other neat thesis, there are readers and editors who don’t quite fit. But the nature of print – flipping from column to column, noticing stories that intrigue you, naturally expanding your spheres of interest – isn’t “versioning” at all – it’s more eclectic. An iPad or Kindle version works within narrower bounds. A Facebook version is even more selective, tailored to your most immediate demands. And the logical version at the end of this line is utterly simple: no deals, no bargains – just what you want, electronically provided on the basis of past predilection.

This is part of a larger question about the consequences of people only being exposed to certain points of view. Only selecting news that we want to read can be self-reinforcing as then we only seek out certain kinds of stories, limiting our view of the world.

I wonder, though, about blaming this issue on the medium. How much does having a newspaper in hand really increase the odds that someone will read something that didn’t plan to? Can’t people simply pick out parts of the newspaper that they want to read as well? Further, was there ever really a “golden age” where average citizens always tried to engage with alternative points of view? I would guess not though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile ideal. We need citizens (and journalists) who can understand our complex world which transcends simply “left” or “right” understandings. Perhaps the Internet makes this easier in some ways but I would guess the Internet could be changed to meet these challenges or people’s behaviors could be altered.

This reminds of an argument I was reading last night. People could argue, rightly, that all media viewpoints are biased in some way. However, this doesn’t mean that we can just throw out all news sources and say they don’t have something of value. What should be consistent across different sources are facts and then there can be disagreement about the interpretation of these facts. Of course, what is considered “fact” may be up for grabs as well – see the recent debate over Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”

Sociologist discusses the problems of the publishing industry

A sociologist discusses the major issues facing the publishing industry:

One year ago I interviewed John B. Thompson in the Rail about the state of the publishing industry. Thompson is a Cambridge University sociology professor, and his 2010 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century was the result of more than five years of talking to editors, publishers, writers, and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. about the rapid changes in the traditional structures of book publishing. Given that these transformations have only continued, I thought it worth checking in with Thompson a year on. An updated second edition of Merchants of Culture will be published in March by Penguin (U.S.) and Polity (U.K.)…

[Thompson:] There are two major developments that are having a profound effect on the publishing industry today and that are creating a situation of deep uncertainty about the future. The first is the continuing economic crisis that has metamorphosed since then into a deeper and more pervasive recession and that has created a tough economic climate for publishers and booksellers. Retailers are often operating on tight margins and reduce their liabilities by ordering less and stocking more cautiously. Booksellers will return more books to publishers in order to reduce the amount of capital tied up in unsold stock. But even these measures may be insufficient as many retailers have been and will be forced out of business. And when retailers close, publishers lose shop windows to display their books and are faced with substantial write-offs for bad debts. This further depresses profit margins that were already under pressure from static or declining sales. It’s an economic snowball effect…

Well, it’s the intensification of a surge in e-book sales, especially in the U.S. While physical book sales are static or declining for most publishers, e-book sales are surging ahead—it is one of the only areas today where trade publishers are seeing serious growth. And the growth is startling: For most U.S. trade publishers e-books accounted for 1 percent or less of overall revenue in 2008. In 2011 the figure is likely to be between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses). And, interestingly, the biggest shift from print to digital has been in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction like romance, science fiction, mystery, and thriller. For fiction as a whole, e-books accounted for around 40 percent of overall sales for some large trade houses by mid-2011. But in some categories of genre fiction and for some authors the percentages were even higher—60 percent for some categories like romance, and even up to 80 percent for some authors. Narrative non-fiction has also seen a significant but smaller shift to digital. Anything more complicated—such as books that use color, like art books or children’s books—has so far lagged far behind. This change is already forcing the key players in publishing to reconsider their positions. Practices that have become settled conventions in the field are suddenly opened up to scrutiny, and players who have interacted amicably for years suddenly find themselves locking horns in new conflicts where the rules are no longer clear (as happened, for example, when Random House and Andrew Wylie clashed over Wylie’s decision to launch Odyssey Editions). To what extent the game of trade publishing will actually be transformed by this development remains, at this stage, unclear. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the key players are able to adapt to the new information environment that is emerging around them. We are living through a revolution of sorts, and one of the few things you can say for certain about a revolution is that when you’re in the middle of one, you have no idea where and when it will end.

New technology means that a lot of people need to adapt, producers and readers included. Two additional areas I wish Thompson had commented on here:

1. It would be interesting to hear more about publishers and other actors are trying out some new ideas in order to make money off e-publishing. Amazon now has a publishing wing. Are the major publishers really shifting major resources and people to this or are they trying to hold the line? Do the recent commercials on TV and radio for books (examples from James Patterson here and here) represent these publishers continuing to hold to the old model? How much overlap is there between the e-book and traditional publishing world?

2. Thompson talks a bit about the future role of books. I’d be interested in hearing more about whether how the “long tail” phenomenon and growing e-book sales in certain genres will change larger cultural meanings and understandings. Not so much whether books will matter (I think they still will) but how they matter. Will popular e-books really only matter if a movie gets made or the author makes it to a popular daytime talk show? What books will become “classics”? Fifty years from now, which books will form a “canon” for this era?

Time magazine: “100 Best Nonfiction Books”

Perhaps you have seen the popular Facebook questionnaire where you are asked how many of the 100 great works of fiction you have read. Now someone can start one of these lists for non-fiction books: Time has put together a list of the “100 Best Nonfiction Books” – since Time first started publishing in 1923.

I would really like to know how these books were selected. Fast Food Nation? Ball Four? No sociology books? For example, The Truly Disadvantaged influenced a lot of policy about inner-city neighborhoods and public housing.

While people probably read some of the best 100 fiction texts in English classes, where would the average student or American run across these non-fiction books? Many are not used in school. Non-fiction books don’t seem particular popular compared to genres like mystery or romance novels.

It would be interesting to see sales figures for all of these books.

Study of over 5,000 children’s books from 20th century shows gender bias

A team of sociologists looked at “nearly 6,000” of children’s books from the 20th century and found that there were patterns of gender bias throughout the entire period:

“We looked at a full century of children’s books,” McCabe said. “We were surprised to find that books did not become consistently more equal throughout the century. They were most unequal in the middle of the century, with more male-dominated characters from 1930 to 1969, than those published in the first three decades of the century and in later decades.”…

The study, “Gender in Twentieth–Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters,” was published in the journal Gender & Society. The study found that:

•Males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters.
•No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.
•Male animals are central characters in more than 23 percent of books per year, while female animals are in only 7.5 percent.
•On average, 36.5 percent of books in each year studied include a male in the title, compared to 17.5 percent that include a female.
•Although books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters, a significant disparity of nearly 2 to 1 remains for male animal characters versus female.

This may not seem terribly important in the grand scheme of the world but at the same time, children’s books can play an important role in the socialization process. I would be interested to see how the authors discuss the changing role of children’s book with the advent of mass publishing, television, movies/DVDs, etc. And is there any way to assess the impact of such texts on children who read them?

Just off the top of my head, I’m struck by the number of children’s books examined. Over a 100 year stretch, this would average out of 60 per year but this seems like an unusually large qualitative data set.

Sociological study links reading as a teenager to better jobs at age 33

Sociologists looking at a long-running British longitudinal study have uncovered a link between reading as a teenager and job outcomes at age 33:

Of all the free-time activities teenagers do, such as playing computer games, cooking, playing sports, going to the cinema or theatre, visiting a museum, hanging out with their girlfriend or boyfriend, reading is the only activity that appears to help them secure a good job.

This is one of the conclusions of an Oxford University study into 17,000 people all born in the same week in May 1970. They are now grown up and in their early 40s and the sociological study has tracked their progress through time.

At the age of 16, in 1986, they were asked which activities they did in their spare time for pleasure. These answers were then checked against the jobs they were doing at the age of 33, in 2003.

Mark Taylor, the researcher at Nuffield College, Oxford found that there was a 39 per cent probability that girls would be in professional or managerial posts at 33 if they had read books at 16, but only a 25 per cent chance if they had not. For boys the figures rose from 48 per cent to 58 per cent if they read books.

This reminds me of a recent argument from two American sociologists that giving college students more opportunities to read and write led to better educational outcomes, which presumably might be related to better jobs down the road.

I suppose this could also lead to an interesting discussion about whether this motivation should or could be used with teenagers. Would teenagers buy into an argument that reading now will help them down the road? My guess is that this argument would be difficult to make as the future and its jobs might seem a long way off. Also, should we be pushing people to read for instrumental reasons (like getting a job) or do they have better life outcomes if they read because of curiosity or for pleasure?

How to respond to the demise of Borders

With negative business news about the bookstore Borders, a number of commentators have weighed in with opinions about how to respond. On one hand, Borders is a big box bookstore that helped push independent and smaller bookstores out of business. On the other hand, the demise of Borders suggests that bookstores in general are on the way out in favor of online retailers.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich writes about how the closing of the Borders store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago affects the shopping district:

By Saturday, Borders’ marquee Chicago store, at 830 N. Michigan Ave., will be closed for good. And — here’s what I think is the real news — the city’s premier shopping street will be without any bookstore for the first time in decades…

Borders was hardly a landmark on par with the old limestone Water Tower that stands just outside the store’s windowed walls. It had occupied its prime corner for only 16 years, barely a blip in Chicago history.

But 16 years is half an eternity in retail time, and Borders had come to seem as basic to the street as traffic.

Back in 1995, when it opened, spinning through its revolving doors was like stepping into a literary Oz, a unique place that, even though part of a chain, pulsed with ideas, people, cappuccino.

Even people who sniffled that it was killing smaller bookstores — most memorably the cozy shop just up the street run by the legendary Stuart Brent — came for the books and the buzz.

I myself have spent a good amount of time in this store, browsing books and music. This location was a nice change of pace from the typical retail store (clothing, in particular), a place to get out of the heat or the cold, watch people go by on Michigan Avenue, and enjoy browsing.

Instapundit provides a different perspective. After some comments about how Borders leftist leanings might have driven some customers away, Instapundit quotes an email from a reader who cites the irony of people lamenting the end of Borders:

Is this — like much of the newspaper industry — a case of the leftist 20% of the populace chasing a way a lot of potential customers over politics? Or is it mostly just technology and convenience?

STILL MORE: Reader Gary Rice has thoughts on the sudden onslaught of Borders-nostalgia:

Re; Borders…. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Borders and Barnes & Noble were the bad guys? Corporate behemoths destroying the local independent bookstore with their Wal Mart like pricing models ? Wasn’t there even a Tom Hanks romance movie about this exact subject?

So Amazon comes along with a better pricing model and now we are all supposed to mourn liberal Borders’ demise? It is a wonder these people remember how to read, because they sure can’t remember anything else….

Heh.

A good point: can we lament the end of Borders today after criticizing it for over a decade? Perhaps we can: bookstores could be considered “third places,” a middle location between home and work where citizens could gather to read the news, talk to each other, and shop. I suspect there will always be people who like going to bookstores (I will still enjoy it though I’m not sure I would go out of my way to go there) but perhaps they simply can’t survive on the scale and size of a Borders or Barnes & Noble.

These sorts of strange juxtapositions may one major marker of our globalized and fast-paced economy. Do we want any bookstore or a big box bookstore or an online bookstore or an independent bookstore? People vote with their dollars and visits and within twenty years, the entire landscape can change.

But I doubt we would see the same kind of mourning if Walmart suddenly went out of business in favor of online retailers. There is something unique here about bookstores.

Paying attention to Presidential reading lists

Americans are apparently interested in what the President reads.

A question: who exactly is interested? On the whole, many Americans read very little and these numbers grow among the younger generation. Tevi Troy argues, “We as Americans seem to like the notion that our presidents are reading more than just their daily briefing books — especially since, we assume, their busy schedules make it hard to find reading time.” So we expect more reading from our President than what many Americans are willing to do themselves?

Another question (perhaps too cynical): how much is the Presidential “reading list” just an opportunity to help shape an image?