Mainframe Bookselling and Internet Commerce

Peter Brantley -- January 27th, 2014

dec pdp-11At the American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia this week, I was asked to give a talk with Ginger Clark of Curtis, Brown on the author-library relationship for ALA’s Digital Content Working Group. I enjoyed our panel; after Ginger covered the basics of what agents do for authors, we both wound up discussing the boom in self-publishing, particularly in genres with avid readers such as romance and science-fiction.

One of the messages I conveyed is that libraries don’t have ready access to self-published works, either directly from retailers or via traditional licensors such as Overdrive. Libraries need to figure out how to acquire that material and make it available to their patrons in a manner fair to both authors and readers. I volunteered DPLA, as an example, to create a platform that would enable the acquisition and lending of self published material to the public library market, but research libraries and archives also have to establish relationships with either retailers, authors, or both in order to procure and preserve self-published literature for cultural heritage. Since much of this material is available only on Amazon’s KDP or fan fiction websites, and frequently is in non-traditional formats such as “shorts,” it is vital that our libraries put some shoulder to the wheel in this new domain.

Part of what is powering the surge in self-published material is the rapid development of simple web-based tools for ebook authoring, and the maturity of Internet platforms ranging from Livefyre and Wattpad to Amazon, Apple, and Google. The last Books in Browsers in October 2013 highlighted the rise of a sense of digital craft, where fine workmanship in narratives can be generated in ebooks as a direct byproduct of the growth of HTML-ready tools; EPUBs and Kindle files are in effect trojan horses for the encroachment of web standards into digital publishing. As the use of web tools proliferate, generating more self-published material, it will be harder and harder for libraries, and other distributors for that matter, to gain access to this content. For libraries, this calls for advocacy.

The growth of this literature is a direct continuation of past disruptions that at first glance might seem rather dissimilar. On the day before our panel at ALA, I was honored to be part of a seminar series in economic history as a guest of Professor Daniel Raff at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, discussing the business causes behind the failure of Borders. Dr. Raff has launched an examination of the sudden unraveling of this bookselling chain, whose final bankruptcy caught even many publishers by surprise. There are many factors in that story, and it will take some time for him to gather all of the perspectives. Yet engaging in an oral argument stimulated my thinking.

My key argument was that regardless of whatever troubles Borders encountered, there were a strong set of external, influencing factors. Chief among them was the ability of a new Internet-based company, Amazon, to wholly rethink the movement of print books. Amazon, as has oft been repeated, established relationships with distributors, eventually built warehouses, and optimized partnerships with their shippers – revisiting every step of the traditional supply and logistics business in turn. This new way of doing business was fundamentally distinct, and massively more efficient, than the routines and relationships that publishers, distributors, and booksellers had built up over the prior decades. From my perspective, the loss of Borders in 2011 demonstrates, in part, the impact of Internet efficiencies on older ways of doing business.

This is a sad and quixotic result for a bookselling industry that was to a large degree birthed from a generation of 1960s entrepreneurs at Bookstop, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and other book chains, all of whom were technical innovators in their day, as David Wilk of Booktrix observed to me recently. In the 1970s, and then especially in the 1980s, this group of founders created the first automated efforts to describe supply chains, stock and inventory management, and analysis of consumer preferences using then state-of-the-art programming on mainframe and mini-computers. The extent to which one bookselling group gained more efficiency than another was in part due to the ability of each firm to capitalize on innovation in IT automation.

But optimizing transactions on mainframes is a world of difference away from the efficiencies delivered by Internet-based technologies. Mainframe computers could automate, but the Internet can distribute. In the long arc of digital technology, the surge in self-published literature and the growing interest in digital craftsmanship and storytelling are just one of the more recent consequences of that transition. The full impact of this shift from early computing silos to high-speed, reliable networked information access, and the disruptions it inflicts to the business routines of traditional publishing, is just beginning to be obvious.

3 thoughts on “Mainframe Bookselling and Internet Commerce


    Interesting. But why is Amazon heading backwards so fast? Building warehouses when it already has a system, the Amazon Marketplace, that makes them redundant? Why not ship everything directly from the producer to the customer, in Amazon packing if needs be, something already happening on a smaller scale? Amazon’s Marketplace and its bank of credit card numbers are more important assets than its warehouses. If anyone else provides a better way to link producers and customers, without old-style wholesaling and warehousing, Amazon will be in trouble.

  2. Richard Naylor

    A link to your ALA Midwinter PW article was sent to me by Amy Edelman from Indiereader with whom I have working to try to get access to her well reviewed self-published titles through Overdrive. (IndieReader exists to review self-published works — ).
    I have been working with Overdrive to come up with well reviewed books from small presses also that libraries can promote. I have also been exploring setting up a librarian review site for small press works. I think we help readers discover all the good books hidden outside the Big 5 land but we should work at it!
    I am always looking for ways to advance these twin goals — curation of small & self-published books.

  3. Carol Buchanan

    That’s all well and good, but sometimes the libraries are flat out uninterested in self-published works. I face that situation here in Montana, where my local library formerly known as Flathead County Libraries (now “ImagineIf”) does not support local authors. The library in Kalispell (the county seat and my place of residence) has 1 copy of Gold Under Ice, The Devil in the Bottle, and Brother Crow, Sister Corn, but no copies of God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana although it won a 2008 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. The library at Flathead Valley Community College has God’s Thunderbolt and Gold Under Ice, but not The Devil in the Bottle.

    Because Overdrive requires a minimum of 5 books and I’m working on #4, I can’t get into the e-library (ImagineIf Montana), which is powered by Overdrive.

    The problem is not exclusively on the side of self-publishers. We encounter various requirements and sometimes downright prejudice.

    Carol Buchanan
    The Devil in the Bottle
    Gold Under Ice
    (Finalist, 2011 Spur Award for Long Novel )
    God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana
    (Winner, 2009 Spur Award for Best First Novel)

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