Is the YA Book Bubble Bursting?

Charlie Jane Anders posted a brief but intriguing piece recently at io9 (based on a Wall Street Journal article) that speculates on the possible end of the current young adult book boom. The film and book industry that serves the YA audience seems to be collectively holding its breath in anticipation of Divergent‘s performance this upcoming weekend. In Ms Anders words:

“Studios are hoping it’ll show there are still audiences for young-adult films other than Hunger Games, after the dismal performance of several other films.”

She goes on to cite fatigue over the similarities between different YA books and movies as one of the causes of the seemingly receding YA market.

“…studios are getting wary of novels that feel too much like cookie-cutter copies of other stuff. Especially Twilight clones.”

This argument resonates with me because as a lifelong reader of genre, I’m sensitive to the difference between the artful use of common genre conventions—like a dystopian society under the thumb of an oppressive government—and the recycling of tired clichés because they moved product previously—like the Romeo & Juliet combinations referenced in Ms Anders’ post.

Ms Anders also provides a couple examples of new, more literary sources, as potentially a positive direction for producers, including The Giver, but doesn’t encourage a lot of enthusiasm.

“…the larger problem remains—in books as well as in movies, there’s no ‘mega franchise’ to replace Hunger GamesTwilight and Harry Potter among the tween and teen crowd. At least, not yet. Maybe that book is being written as we speak.”

I really like that last hopeful note. The image of someone toiling away somewhere in—what I imagine to be—a cramped, drafty space, maybe at night after a day job, to produce the next big hit is heartening. Because whatever feelings I might have about the relative literary merit of books like Twilight, any “mega franchise” that drives young people to seek out other reading options is a boon to book culture at large.

During the last book sale we attended, I was surprised at the number of young readers who came to our booth. Several were looking for Twilight and The Hunger Games or something very similar, sure, but also many of them were exploring genre books in different directions, as a result of having read those books already—some of whom even had a more than passing interest in true classics.

I guess my point is that we maybe should all be crossing our fingers that Divergent is successful this weekend, leading more young readers to the book, and hopefully on to other books.

Bookstore Browsing and Chaos Theory

Charles Stross—the exceptional writer of Accelerando* among other great books—has posted a piece on how readers will discover books in the future, which I believe is both completely accurate and deeply chilling:

“In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.”

It’s a polemic about the inevitability of virulent bookspam entering our e-readers.

“Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering.”

In general I’m not afraid ebooks and their attendant marketing because I am neither a Luddite nor paranoid about Minority Report-style** targeted marketing; but I am hesitant about our ebook-dominated near-future. Something essential in my life as a book lover will be lost when I can no longer browse an interesting shelf in a well appointed store.

In a post on book buying, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative notes in an offhanded manner that browsing in big-box book stores isn’t fun anymore because e-readers:

“…solve the “problem” of that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. When we were in Paris last month, Julie and I took so much pleasure in the gorgeous small bookstores—all independently owned—all over the Left Bank. If either of us read French well enough, we easily could have lost hours, just browsing. You don’t have that experience often in American bookstores anymore. It used to be fun to browse in record stores too. Times change.”

Mr. Dreher, rightly, bemoans the lack of depth in the stock of big-box bookstores, but fails to see the small independent bookstore as a valid alternative. Many have written about the long tail approach to retail—selling a higher volume of unique items over time rather than, say, a box full of one bestseller the week it comes out—a mode of retail that is largely seen as an online option. But doesn’t that description apply to some of the better, especially used, bookstores you’ve visited?

The most successful independent bookstores that still exist have combined both bricks and mortar and online operations—thriving off both the long tail online and the personal service that many punters still appreciate: a good chat about books followed by some recommendations. But what the bricks and mortar bookstore offers that surpasses even the best online experience is physical browsing.

Amazon-style automated recommendations have arisen to try and simulate the real-world experience of stumbling on something new while browsing, by bombarding us with suggested purchases. The problem with these systems is the rudimentary nature of the AI involved. I frequently buy gifts through Amazon, or order for friends and family. For example, I’ve ordered a large number of craft books for my lovely wife. So the amazon bookshelf assembled just for me contains a surprising number of books on Estonian needle-craft. Not only do these suggestions not interest me, but my wife isn’t Estonian and to my knowledge has never asked me to order a book related to Estonian heritage.

The only way to improve the Amazon system is to continually click “not interested” as you browse their recommendations in order to affect the overall results. But the minute I order another knitting book for my wife, I will screw with the algorithms again.

But here’s the more important factor that online systems can’t even come close to emulating: the chaos of browsing.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
—Albert Einstein

The recommendations of online systems are based on the statistical likelihood that you, the buyer, will be enticed to buy something else based on trends in your past purchases. In the words of Michael Crichton’s characters in Jurassic Park:

“They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been cherished scientific belief since Newton.’

And?’

Chaos theory throws it right out the window.”

Browsing a good bookstore is like visiting an art gallery where everything is for sale—a curated experience that is then randomized by alphabetical shelving. Chaos enters the experience through the shelving of unlike works next to each other under broad categories.

A certain frission occurs for the book lover when she glances away from the body of work of a familiar author to light upon the spine of something new—drawn by the title, or a vague familiarity with the author’s name, or even the colour and texture of the binding.

This is a feeling I have treasured all my life and however much I like my iPad—and I love the damn thing—or however much I like browsing random pictures and snippets of text on various websites—nothing I’ve experienced online comes close.

Booksellers have complained of “showrooming” for online book sales and have even considered charging for admission to their stores as a way of solving the dilemma of browsers who leave their stores to buy the same item online. This is, of course, patently ridiculous. A long time local Ottawa book dealer once told me a story about a customer who wandered into the back of the store, found a quiet corner to take off all their clothes, then proceeded to the front of the shop and climbed into the window display; where he sat quietly until the police came. “Showrooming” is the least of your worries as a shop owner.

The only avenue open to independent bookstores to close deals is to provide a better experience through personal service or superior selection of stock—it’s not volume, it’s quality.

And a shop that provides a high-quality browsing experience—cleanliness***, organization, good lighting, peaceful atmosphere, interesting stock—will encourage the spread of chaos.

——
*Seriously, why are you not reading this book immediately? I’m looking at you…
**Though I do blame Minority Report, in part, for all the streaky fingerprints littering the screens of the key electronic interfaces in my life…and for freakin’ Windows 8.
***As book lovers we all have stories about dirty, disorganized, dingy shops that we’ve found hidden treasures in, but do you really prefer that kind of store or would you rather leave with a good book and not the urge to wash your hands?

Geek Market Postgame Highlights

We survived the Geek Market and are now in various states of recovery, thanks for asking.

A convention or trade-show-type event like the Geek Market is an exhausting, but rewarding enterprise.

We sold some books, sure, but the best part really is connecting with new book lovers over our shared interests; and this year’s Geek Market afforded us a great new venue for that exchange. It’s always heartening to discover there are still book people out there, of all ages and backgrounds.

And for those of you who are visiting this website for the first time because you joined us at the booth this past weekend, we hope you keep watching this space for new offerings and developments, welcome.

We’d also like to thank our families for all their hard work and tolerance—you know who you are—we couldn’t do these things without you.

Ottawa Geek Market, Oct 19-20, 2013

Just a reminder to check out the Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this weekend, October 19th and 20th at the Carleton University Fieldhouse, 1125 Colonel By Drive. Please click here for more information. Last years’ event was a blast and we’re thrilled to be a part of this one.

Albino Books will be at booth #115. You can click here to find a floorplan and see a list of other vendors.

We’ll be selling a wide range of books (used & collectible paperbacks & hardcovers, fine press limited editions, sets) and other interesting paper items in all price ranges from $5 on up.

We highly recommend going to the Geek Market in general, and hope you’ll come by to say hello and check out the Albino Books display.

2013 Aurora Award Winners

Over this past weekend the 2013 Aurora Awards winners were announced at Can*Con in Ottawa. Albino Books would like to congratulate all the winners on some fine work.

But on a personal note, I’d like to congratulate Hayden Trenholm of Bundoran Press for winning the “Related Work” prize for the Blood and Water anthology. Blood and Water* is an excellent collection of short fiction grouped around the theme of resource conflicts of the future—a wonderfully Canadian topic for speculative fiction.

All of the stories in Blood and Water deserve your attention, but I want to highlight one entitled Hard Water in particular. Hard Water is one of those classically Canadian—in this case fundamentally East Coast—stories of rugged men braving a harsh environment in order to eke out a living. The kind of story that many of us living in contemporary, mostly urban, Canada bear begrudgingly at best. But Hard Water employs this familiar framework to support extremely persuasive SF conceits—in an authentic-feeling, sea-going adventure.

Hard Water also happens to be a story written by my sister Christine Cornell, who I am just going to go ahead and be unashamedly proud of in public. Thank you for your indulgence.

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*Makes a great holiday gift, FYI.

Albino Books Now Up & Running

Welcome to Albino Books. For more information on your hosts, please visit the About page.

Albino Books

Albino Books was founded by booksellers and fans who love Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales, Hardboiled and everything in-between—as a venue for freewheeling discussion, genre-related news, reviews, criticism, and dealing in books & ephemera.

Worldcon '09 books display

The first sale we’ll have a booth at will be the next Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this upcoming October 19th and 20th, 2013. Please come by and say hello.

As the site ramps up, we’ll have more information on how to buy books from us, but a significant portion of the content here will always be dedicated to news, reviews & editorials. Many of the books, comics, posters et cetera , that we show you pictures of will be for sale, unless otherwise attributed, so if you’re interested in purchasing something, just use the Contact page to let us know.

We we also be featuring the work of a select group of other contributors with a variety of of different approaches to genre culture—we’re trying to jump-start some conversation.

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.
—Franz Kafka