When I moved recently from the West Coast to the East, I had to part with many beloved things. Friends and a great climate, of course, but unexpectedly I had to leave behind a clutch of wonderful bookstores, where I would browse for hours on a Saturday afternoon, buying many more books than I ever had the time to read. Bookish tourists should stop in Santa Cruz, CA and visit the marvelous Bookshop Santa Cruz and the great used bookstore, Logos Books. The more academically inclined will want to step into The Literary Guillotine, which features many titles selected by the faculty of the local campus of The University of California. But here where I now live, in Westchester County, NY, the bookstores are few in number and all lack the charm of my former hometown.
What caught me by surprise after we moved is that I felt cut off from the book business. I no longer could find the new releases stacked in front of Bookshop SC, nor was I able to view the entire output of authors like Haruki Murakami or Italo Calvino in one place (Logos). I began to buy fewer books. That’s when I realized that I had not fully explored online book communities such as GoodReads very much because I had the luxury of great physical bookstores in California. Now that I am once again a New Yawker, however, I need to find new ways to find books.
This got me thinking about how people actually learn about the books that they ultimately purchased. This is a matter of great interest to publishers, of course, as they want to point their marketing dollars in the right direction. Previously, I was mostly discovering new books in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore–even when, I am ashamed to admit, I often bought the books as ebooks online. But now I am casting my net wider. I am reading The New York Times Book Review with greater interest, but I am also following book publishers on Twitter and may even reactivate my GoodReads account. There is a discovery gap to be filled in my life. How do people fill it in theirs as the number of local bookstores go into secular decline?
Hence this survey. The key stipulation of this survey is that it asks you to focus on books that you actually purchased for yourself. Gift books don’t count. Where did you first hear about these books? Which are the media organizations that publishers should be paying attention to? Publishers have a big stake in the success of any source of discovery. Are they smarter to support The New Yorker or Facebook?
We are living at a time of enormous innovation in all aspects of publishing. Well, almost all: the primacy of the distinctive author has not changed at all. But everywhere else–how we produce books, where we buy them, how we share them (if we can)–innovation and disruption are the norm. Not all of the new ventures in the book business will survive, but it is far too early to be predicting a shakeout. Some of the new engines of discovery will get out ahead of the others. Publishers will support them with advertising, which will push them even further ahead. At some point the basic rule of all media businesses will prevail: consolidation into a small number of well-trafficked sites and services.
In filling out this survey, you are casting a vote for how you will be reading years from now and you are making an investment in the media platform that will remain central to your life. That is, central to your life if you are among the bookish. And if you are not? God have mercy.
So please take a minute or two to share your discovery techniques and habits. I’ll compile the results and share them along with a summary of my findings in a follow-up TOC article.