I’ve worked in publishing for about 15 years, but every year I’m caught off guard by the January phenomenon of aspiring authors who’ve resolved that this is the year they’re publishing a book. Manuscript submissions and calls about the publishing process become more frequent, as do inquiries about how to get into the industry itself. When we field these calls at the Association of Book Publishers of BC, we direct these individuals to various resources and wish them luck, but in 2021, I’d also suggest they pay close attention to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when pitching themselves to the industry, whether as an author or a publishing professional.
The year 2020 was tough: at the end of it, BC book publishers were projecting a 30 to 40 per cent decline in their annual sales, in line with what was being reported across the country. While many bookstores were reporting strong sales leading into the holiday season, store closures through the first and second waves continue to impact publishers’ cash flow, forcing difficult decisions about acquisitions, printing, marketing and overall business operations. It’s too early to say if the fourth quarter results of 2020 will indicate a gradual return to normalcy.
Industry consolidation also presents challenges for independent publishers, who invest in new and diverse voices. The pending sale of Simon & Schuster, announced in November 2020, to Bertelsmann/Penguin Random House, will create a behemoth that dominates market share. Books written by established and bestselling authors, and published by well-capitalized multinational companies, have a competitive advantage in a changed marketplace, where booksellers and, in turn, consumers may gravitate toward safer bets. Authors will also find a narrower market for their work, which may mean lower advances.
So where are the opportunities for change in book publishing in 2021 and beyond? The pandemic hasn’t really highlighted how much is possible so much as it has underscored what should have been happening already.
Nothing will replace in-person book events. That said, online events have increased accessibility, and I expect these will continue in a hybrid capacity, even when social gathering restrictions are lifted. Some of the best virtual events I attended in 2020 were those in which the audience could interact via the chat or be present on-camera.
Publishers also got creative, reinvigorating their sales and marketing strategies. They offered higher discounts to independent bookstores, experimented with digital licensing for schools and libraries and creatively engaged readers online. In BC, Orca Book Publishers’ digital class sets, Rocky Mountain Books’ Think Outside podcast and Arsenal Pulp Press’s author Twitter takeovers and @arsenalpups Instagram account are examples of successful adaptations.
Publishers are well-equipped to work from home, and many are meeting their operational needs by hiring more remote staff. While these are still early days, we may observe that publishing begins to decentralize from major urban centres with higher costs of living, better positioning West Coast companies to compete for and retain talent.
I taught in the SFU Master of Publishing program last fall, working with a brilliant cohort of emerging publishing professionals. While they’re understandably anxious about their job prospects, they’ve recognized that their experiences working independently and resourcefully in a remote learning environment are an asset to prospective employers. Up-and-coming authors and publishers alike will need to be comfortable using collaboration tools (not just Zoom!) and to hone their skills as thoughtful and efficient communicators.
Finally, we can’t let the pandemic overshadow our need to grapple with the industry’s diversity problems. Just as the deeply rooted societal inequalities that were further exposed during the crisis will not be undone simply because anti-racist books sold well in 2020, neither will book publishing’s own lack of diversity. There are numerous initiatives underway in Canada to hold the industry accountable for its lack of diversity, and to change who and what gets published, including the BIPOC of Publishing in Canada collective. The pandemic presents a watershed moment for publishers to re-evaluate outdated practices and to expand their communities and their impact.
Whether you are hoping to get published for the first time, move into a career in the industry or stay the course, publishing in 2021 and beyond is going to require more of all of us. I hope we’ll answer the call.
Diversity panels and half-hearted efforts at inclusivity haven’t brought
the change our industry needs. If Canadian publishing truly wants to excel and
uplift, we have to ask some difficult questions about who we publish, what we
publish, and how we publish—and we must ensure that both writers and the
industry professionals working to publish them represent the change we seek.
Cherie will talk about the need for ‘diverse’ voices in decision-making roles in publishing. Sharing her own experiences and challenges she will examine how publishers can provide readers with what they want while giving them an opportunity to fall in love with what they don’t yet know they want.
Cherie’s talk will be followed by a conversation with CBC journalist, Angela Sterritt.
About Cherie Dimaline
Cherie Dimaline‘s young adult novel The Marrow Thieves shot to the top of the bestseller lists when it was published in 2017, and stayed there for more than a year. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Kirkus Prize in the young adult literature category, the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award and, among other honours, was a fan favourite in the 2018 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads. It was also a Book of Year on numerous lists including the National Public Radio, the School Library Journal, the New York Public Library, the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire and the CBC. Cherie was named Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts in 2014, and became the first Indigenous writer in residence at the Toronto Public Library. From the Georgian Bay Métis Community in Ontario, she now lives in Vancouver. Her most recent novel for adults, Empire of Wild, published by Penguin Random House Canada in 2019, was named Indigo’s #1 Fiction Pick of the Year, and is forthcoming in April in the US through HarperCollins.
About Angela Sterritt
Angela Sterritt is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and keynote speaker from British Columbia. In 2018, Sterritt won multiple awards for her CBC column, Reconcile Thiswhich explores the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in British Columbia. Sterritt’s feature on missing and murdered Indigenous, women, girls and two-spirit people was nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists Award. She is now writing a book on the topic.
Heidi Waechtler was once an MPub student—and now she’s the Executive Director of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (or ABPBC, which being able to say quickly and correctly is almost a right of passage for Master of Publishing students).
She sat down to answer the questions we all have as we’re nervously researching, applying, and starting the degree: why did you choose this program? What doors did it open for you? And was it worth it?
Check out her responses below:
“My decision to apply to the MPub program began with what you would now call FOMO, or ‘fear of missing out.’ (Okay, I didn’t enter the program that long ago.) I had friends who were completing the program or had recently finished, and even though I already held a certificate in editing from SFU, was working in a publishing-related job (as the project coordinator for the Magazine Association of British Columbia), and had begun building a professional network, I realized from hearing about the assignments my friends were working on that there was still a lot I didn’t know about the actual business of publishing. The program made sense to me as a way to ground what I knew in a combination of academic study and practical training, and to receive feedback from working industry professionals along the way.
After completing the coursework, I ended up doing my internship in the editorial department at McClelland & Stewart in Toronto, and eventually became the managing editor at Coach House Books, where I worked for four years. In both roles I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the country’s top publishing professionals and authors. Two years ago, I moved back to Vancouver to take on the position of executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia – bringing me back almost full circle to an industry-facing role where I now draw on my experience to work on policy, marketing, and business development initiatives on behalf of the province’s book publishers.
Looking back on the late nights spent in the MPub project rooms with my colleagues, I realize the most important thing I took away from the program – besides how to do a P&L or write an effective call to action – was the knowledge that if I were capable of managing the complex, open-ended assignments in a condensed timeframe, I could manage whatever challenges the real publishing world would present me with. Write snappy yet intelligent sales copy for a book that wasn’t yet completed? I’d done it before. Come up with an idea for out-of-the-box promotional swag to include with a review copy? I had a couple of vendors in mind already. Proofread a manuscript overnight so we could rush it off to press? Hand me a coffee, and consider it done.
There are realities about the industry I could have only learned on the job, but the MPub program helped me become more confident in my own ability to see a project through to completion and also – thanks to the aforementioned project-room time – more humble about the value of collaboration.”
Like nearly everyone in the publishing industry these days, the publishing professors at SFU have plenty going on. For example, take Dr. Juan Pablo Alperin, who teaches PUB802: Technology & Evolving Forms of Publishing, is the Public Knowledge Project’s Associate Faculty Director of Research, is the recent recipient of the Open Scholarship Award from the Canadian Social Knowledge Institute, and on top of all of that is also the man behind many research projects at the Scholarly Communications Lab, which he co-directs.
While not all of them are directly related to the trade industry, almost everything they do is about scholarly publishing. We wanted to highlight some of the interesting things he and his team have been working on lately.
Cancer in the News
Alperin’s team is looking at news coverage of government-funded papers in biomedical research (specifically cancer) by analyzing how many times each study is mentioned in the news, and where. More specifically, they are looking at how the news is shared based on the 4 tiers of news coverage in both traditional and non-traditional outlets—a hierarchy that editors often use when determining the value of a story.
Open Source Altmetrics
They’re also working on building a tool for academic journals to have article-level metrics. Altmetrics are alternative ways of measuring scholarly impact, such as references in online news media and social media, as opposed to more traditional measures that identify things such as number of citations.
RPT (Review, Promotion, and Tenure) Project
Alperin and his team investigated the review, promotion, and tenure (RPT) process in the U.S. and Canada. Their goal was to deliver recommendations to universities and colleges that would encourage behavioural change towards a greater opening of access to research results.
They began by collecting RPT guidelines from over 100 institutions and assessed the degree to which they included Open Access (OA) recommendations.
“Despite countless policies and mandates promoting open access, as well as the development of tools and resources that facilitate it, and despite years of advocacy work, the majority of researchers are still not compelled to make their research outputs publicly available because the incentive structures that drive faculty’s research dissemination strategies remain unchanged,” says the team.
They found that only five (1%) of the RPT guidelines they studied explicitly mentioned OA, and in four of the five cases it was only “done to call attention to the potential problematic nature of these journals (which are seen as potentially of lower quality than subscription journals).”
The team is continuing on to Phase II of the project, where they will be studying faculty perceptions and beliefs regarding the RPT process, how RPT documents influence perceptions of the process, and the factors outside of RPT guidelines that influence how faculty disseminate their research.
Social Media Use by Researchers
In April, the team hosted a roundtable discussion about using social media to share science stories. Invited were: a YouTuber, an Instagram biologist, a traditional science journalist turned freelancer, and a journalist from Hakai Magazine (which specializes in citizen science).
Science Writers and Communicators of Canada
Similar to the roundtable discussion on how scientists are sharing science stories via social media, this project also looks at how science communicators are using untraditional methods to share their message (such as vlogging, instagramming, etc.).
As Science Writers and Communicators of Canada recently added “communicators” to their focus, Alperin’s team wanted to look at who and where these communicators are and how to best support them. They also wanted to look at how they differ from conventional science communicators in terms of standard ethics, accuracy, and practice; how they see themselves, and how they reach their audiences.
The findings will help identify the goals and challenges of science communication in Canada, and how to best support, train, and create outreach activities that will improve the quality of public engagement with science.
The team combed the social web to identify public concerns about diabetes to direct academic research on the disease. This method of harnessing public engagement to directly impact research helps connect and involve the general public in academia, and vice versa.
Measuring Facebook Engagement
Many people share things over social media privately, such as through direct message or email. This sharing, known as dark social, currently cannot be accurately tracked. So the team looked at how altmetrics measure dark social, and found that there is a considerable amount of sharing done out of the public sphere that is captured by altmetrics.
And some of their work has been recently published in papers:
Zika and Language Use on Social Media
In this paper, they looked at how during the Zika virus outbreak there was an uptick in Zika research. Although the purpose of sharing research was to communicate with and inform the general public, the team used a language detection algorithm and “found that up to 90% of Twitter and 76% of Facebook posts are in English” despite English not being the first language of those at the centre of the epidemic.
Among other things, their paper says, “Our results suggest that Facebook is a more effective channel than Twitter, if communication is desired to be in the native language of the affected country.” They also explain that altmetrics favour English-language communication, large Western publications, and Twitter, meaning we need to build nationally relevant metrics in order to more accurately measure social impact.
Looking at Networks on Twitter
This paper looks at how primary research literature affects the public’s understanding and engagement with science; and how knowledge diffuses using social media. In their small case study, they found that Open Access articles shared tended to stay within small communities comprised of mainly researchers and did not generally reach the outside community.
It’s been around a month now since the classwork portion of our Master of Publishing degree wrapped up, and now that I’ve had some time away from the intensiveness that was the last few weeks of school it seems like a good time to talk about the Media/Tech Project.
In the fall semester we devoted six weeks of our lives to starting fictitious publishing companies complete with a detailed list of books. But what to do in the second semester of a publishing degree?
In the spring, the program moved away from books to focus on media and technology (in the past, the program focused more heavily on magazines). As the publishing industry changes, it has become clear that in order to for publishers to remain relevant, they must understand how technology impacts all aspects of their business. It’s not enough to focus on print and traditional forms of publishing. We have to look ahead to what publishing could become. And so, our class became Media/Tech Project guinea pigs.
While we started off the semester working on the Media project and finished with the Tech project, for all intents and purposes they were the same thing—the second was simply an extension of the first, which meant the project ran the entire course of the semester.
On the second day of class after the holiday break, we were divided into our groups and told to form media companies based on direction we pulled out of a hat. One group was assigned B2B (they pivoted and become NFP2NFP instead), another group got arts and crafts, and the final group pulled politics. From there, the groups were tasked with building a media entity from the ground up.
How do you build a brand? How do you become financially viable? How do you grow sustainably? What gap in the market are you meeting? What will your product be?
In our groups, we began to answer these questions and sketch out our business plans. Nearly every week, groups met with instructors to pitch their updated businesses, which evolved as we completed more research and received more feedback. At the beginning of the project, it was stressed that our start-ups would need to be agile, and that became our mantra as the semester progressed and the work piled up.
And every week, we were given additional pieces to complete. Brand guidelines. Marketing and advertising plans. Financials. Websites. Podcasts. The list went on.
Halfway through the project we were divided into additional groups with specific skills (this is where the Tech project came in). The Web Development, Analytics, Media Production, and Ebook teams provided focused support to their media entities following a series of mini lectures aimed at providing them with hands-on skills. Of course, all students were invited to attend the other teams’ lessons.
And just like the fall book project, we made it through to the end of the semester, presenting our launch-ready companies to panels of industry guests. Some of the most rewarding feedback we received was that our final companies were even pitch-worthy to potential buyers. And some of the best presentations I’ve ever seen were on that final day as well: one group even “recorded” the beginning of a podcast as part of their presentation.
While the Media/Tech project will undoubtedly look very different by next spring as our field continues to evolve and the skills that are in demand change, what I hope future classes also take away from the project is the importance of being flexible and ability to find creative solutions.
I’ve talked to a handful of Master of Publishing alumni lately, and somewhere in the conversation I always ask what advice these accomplished, successful women have for the next generation of publishing professionals. Their answers have been strikingly similar: work hard, accept opportunities, ask questions, and seek out mentorship.
And it’s that last point that I want to focus on today, both from the perspective of the mentees (Shirarose Wilensky from Arsenal Pulp Press and Paula Ayer from Greystone Books), and a mentor whose name has come up again and again (Nancy Flight from Greystone Books).
Ayer and Wilensky’s stories are similar in a lot of ways. They both completed the Master of Publishing program at SFU around 10 years ago; they have both done freelance work and have worked for independent publishers in Vancouver; and they are both local editors who have recently transitioned into roles with substantial responsibility.
Wilensky just took on the position of Editor at Arsenal Pulp Press after freelancing for the past few years; while Ayer became Editor at Greystone Books in the fall after spending nearly a decade working at Annick Press. As a current student in the MPub program, it’s been both reassuring and exciting to get a glimpse of where my career could also take me within the next decade when I talk to alumni.
“Take every opportunity that might be offered to you, talk to as many people as you can, go to events, and volunteer at the Writer’s Fest,” Wilensky suggests when I ask about nurturing your career path. Ayer lists all of the same things, and adds that you should also showcase your special skills.
And of course, they both speak to the value of mentorship, and cite the value of the connections they made in the MPub program.
“I can’t overstate the importance of mentorship. If there is a specific person you really admire, approach them,” Wilensky encourages, saying that a good way to find a mentor is to find someone who is doing what you’d love to be doing in the future. “Recognize and appreciate how important, valuable, and rare these relationships are.”
She highlights how mentors can share both professional and personal advice, and can give you those always important job recommendations. In return, she says, make sure show your appreciation for your mentor, who is likely very busy with their own career.
Ayer echoes her advice. “Use the connections you make—don’t be shy to send them an email, go to industry events, keep nurturing those relationships, and show people you can do good work.”
The editors are quick to highlight the mentors who have played significant roles in their careers. Ayer thanks long-term MPub instructor Mary Schendlinger from Geist Magazine and Colleen MacMillan from Annick Press who she says gave her opportunities, believed in her, and were brilliant teachers. Wilensky mentions Nancy Flight, also a past MPub instructor and current Editor Emerita at Greystone Books, whom many other alumni, Greystone employees, and MPub faculty have highlighted as being a VIP in the Vancouver publishing industry.
After hearing so many great things about Nancy Flight, I wanted to talk to her about the essential role she has played so many people’s careers over her own 45-year career in publishing (around 24 of those years were spent at Greystone).
“I love doing what I can to help foster their skills,” she explains, adding that it is always exciting to meet others who are passionate about publishing and show aptitude in the industry, pointing out the that the MPub program is ripe with talent. “And it’s wonderful to see people blossom, and see where they’ve gone with their careers.”
“It’s really important to me to encourage woman that they can do both [have a successful career and fulfilling home life],” Flight continues. “It’s wonderful to think that there are all of these young people who are more than ready to take on the challenges [in publishing].”
As a mentor, Flight notes the importance of mentees making their goals and interests known so that the mentor can tailor their advice to the individual relationship. However, she is quick to clarify that mentorships can be as formal or informal as you’d like—there is no one right way for the relationship to work.
Mentorships are a win-win for both parties: people like Wilensky receive great advice that helps them advance in their careers; while people like Flight are able to cultivate talent that they can later hire or recommend to another publisher.
Reflecting on the BC publishing industry, Flight confirms what we’ve been hearing from our many guest speakers all year: that the publishing community is very welcoming and friendly. “There is a feeling like we’re all in this together and we want to help each other.”
It was also around this time that our conversations with industry leaders, which took the form of keynote lectures, panel discussions, workshops, and one-on-one mentorship sessions, began to change. At the beginning of the week we talked data, marketing, trends, and growth. But as we began to talk diversity, inclusion, and responsibility, we discussed not just the problems in publishing, but what we can do to make a positive difference.
Discussions centered around how to create space for marginalized groups, the importance of mentorship and support, and ways in which we can make our industry more representative and balanced—both in terms of who works in the industry and what is published. These things matter so much.
“It was intense…it was daunting and overwhelming at times,” said MPub student Jesse Savage. “It was great to have everyone come out and hear everyone’s stories, and gain some perspectives and start conversations. I think after hearing everyone talk, I’m really interested and excited to see how things are going to change…it’s pretty clear that things have to change.”
Industry leaders from a variety of publishing backgrounds (including Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House Canada, Indigo Books and Music, Rakuten Kobo, Theytus Books, Orca Book Publishers, and a variety of smaller publishing houses), along with academics and authors, also noted the impact the week of listening, discussing, and learning had on them. The deeper conversations have inspired MPub students, external participants, and professionals alike to get back to their important work with a renewed sense of fidelity and responsibility.
As Digital Broadcaster Ryan McMahon said, “We’ve made this connection, and now we’re all going to continue to work together on this conversation, and that’s a really amazing offer by everyone who participated.” McMahon also gave a special public talk on the Wednesday evening, where he problematized Canada’s recent race to Indigenize everything, and challenged people to really think about how thoughtless actions and platitudes will only further harm Indigenous Peoples. He also talked about how we need to be aware of who is in spaces—and who is missing; why the conversation about colonization needs to happen before we talk Indigenization; and why building relationships needs to be at the centre of all we do if change is going to happen.
Much of what he and other guest faculty shared led to the MPub cohort looking at publishing with fresh eyes. We leave with the language to have these hard conversations, a better understanding of what needs to change, and ideas on how we personally can affect change. I hope that moving forward from this week we will continue to not be afraid to ask hard questions, push for better representation in the industry no matter our positions, and break down barriers within the publishing industry.
As promised, the week was one of transformative change and learning.
Faculty guests included: Dave Anderson (Rakuten Kobo), Kristin Cochrane (Penguin Random House), Gregory Younging (Theytus Books), Hazel Millar (Book*hug), Will Ferguson (award-winning author), Noah Genner (BookNet Canada), Kevin Hanson (Simon & Schuster Canada), Robyn Harding(bestselling author), Rania Husseini (Indigo), Jónı́na Kirton (Indigenous author), Ruth Linka (Orca Book Publishers), Janice Lynn Mather (Bahamian author), Nita Pronovost (Simon & Schuster Canada), Felicia Quon (Simon & Schuster Canada).
Next year Emerging Leaders in Publishing will be held February 4-8, 2019 and is open to everyone interested in learning more about the publishing industry in Canada.
In addition to coursework and a final project report, the Master of Publishing Program also includes one four-month professional placement, which can be completed anywhere.
Students take the lead in arranging their own professional placement (with the support of the faculty and the industry), with the process beginning as the first semester of school comes to a close. In January and February students begin to finalize the details, and by April most students have their placements arranged. The placements typically run May to August (around 12 weeks). Students enter their placements at a higher level than traditional interns, and have more input in how the placement will work. For example, students are encouraged to brainstorm challenges in a particular area of publishing they are interested in and then present solution-based proposals.
Professional placements are arranged in consultation with the faculty in the Department of Publishing, who help students determine what their goals and aims are and then suggest professional placements that may be a good fit or industry professionals they should connect with.
So what steps do you take to find a placement?
Determine your interests. What type of publishing are you drawn to? The list of areas to explore is very long—starting with book publishing in the first semester and ending with magazine publishing in the second semester. Be open to plans changing and to new ideas coming your way.
Connect with guest lecturers. Introduce yourself to them after class, send them a thank you email or tweet, or invite them out for coffee. This is the time to grow your network and connect with many people who will support you throughout your career.
Research different publishers. Check out their websites, go to their events, and and become familiar with the types of books they publish.
Set up informational interviews with publishers that pique your interests. An informational interview is very similar to a regular job interview, except you are the one asking the questions. Call or email publishers you are interested in doing your professional placement with and ask if you could arrange an informational interview to help you get to know more about the company because you are interested in working for them.
You can ask things like:
What kind of work do you usually have students do?
Are there any interesting projects going on that I would be able to be a part of?
What kind of instruction would I receive here?
How many students do you usually have at once?
What is the culture of the workplace like?
Why do you like about working here? Is there anything you don’t like?
What are you able to offer in terms of compensation?
Are there opportunities for employment following my placement?
Is there anything else you think is important for me to know?
Make sure to follow up the interview with a personalized thank you email or card.
Watch the Quill & Quire job board and follow SFU Publishing on Twitter and Facebook for professional placement postings. Some placements are competitive and you will need to apply for them as you would a regular job. Other placements are arranged more casually, but you will still need to send your placement your resume for them to have on file.
Update your resume and cover letter. SFU has Career Education Specialists available at each campus to help one-on-one with resume and cover letter writing, mock interviews, networking strategies, and more.
Remember that it is going to be okay. Everyone finds a placement and that faculty are here to support you throughout the process.
“Generative art” is a blanket term for any creative work produced in part through programmatic or algorithmic means. “Playful generative art” makes use of highly technical disciplines—computer programming, statistics, graphic design, and artificial intelligence—to produce chat bots, digital poetry, visual art, and even computer-generated “novels.” These pieces may be motivated by serious social or political issues, but the expressions are decidedly unserious, often short-lived or quickly composed. Creators working in this medium are rarely artists first—as programmers, designers, game developers, and linguists, they use the tools of their trade in unexpected and delightful ways. Generative art also has much to teach us about issues at the intersection of ethics and technology: what is the role of the artist in a human/machine collaboration; what is our responsibility when we design programs that talk with real people; how do we curate and study ephemeral digital works? Digital artists, writers, technologists, and anyone interested in media studies are invited to attend.
"Your margin is my opportunity" ~ Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Last week while on a day trip to Seattle, I decided to make a stop at Amazon’s first“Brick and Mortar” store, in the University of Washington neighbourhood of University Village.
I had two goals in mind. I wanted to see if I could get a personal book recommendation from an employee and I wanted to purchase a book without leaving any data. I am not averse to providing personal information, but I like to have the choice.
Now the company was moving into the physical space. How consumer-centric would it be?
As I wandered into Amazon’s first physical book store, I was struck by nostalgia for the small independent bookstores. Amazon has gone full circle. The small independent bookstores were decimated by massive, multi-city block stores such Chapters in Canada and Barnes and Noble in the US. In turn, Amazon’s entry into the online bookselling business in the late 1990s had, by the early 2000s, badly bruised the competition. Books began to take a back seat to lifestyle merchandize, kitschy cards, stationary and stuffies. Amazon grew bigger, squeezed publishers on pricing, and further backed the physical bookstores into a corner. Books were longer realizing a sustainable margin for the big chains. By 2010, Amazon dominated book selling through online sales of print books, and leading the way in eBook sales and its proprietary electronic reader – the Kindle.
The Seattle storefront reminded me of a modest neighbourhood book store in a great community setting. There was a cupcake shop and kids toy store nearby, and kids were playing on an outside playground. People were coming out of Amazon chatting and smiling, heading off to get a coffee and talk books.
An employee greeted us inside the store. She held an electronic gadget in her hand and smiled warmly as she beckoned toward the inside of the 7400 square foot store. In the very centre of the room, sat a huge flat screen TV. I am not sure if it was 4K, but the three kids sitting in front of it sure looked happy. They were playing the iOS-born Crossy Road using Amazon Fire TV.
Next to the TV was a table bedazzled with Kindles of all makes and models. A salesperson was talking to a customer about Amazon’s Digital Assistant Alexa (allegedly named in tribute to the Library of Alexandria). “Alexa” is actually the wake-up word used to activate Amazon’s Echo, a voice command device for the “smart home”, which answers questions, reads audio books, orders pizza, and becomes increasingly better at offering suggestions and choices the more data “she” has to analyse.
The more questions you ask of Alexa and the more you interact with it, the more it can “help make your life easier”, assures the salesperson. The customer is clearly unsure as to how all this works and suggests that it might make too much personal information freely available.
The salesperson quietly tells him that the information collected by Alexa is used to enhance the customer experience; to make shopping easier. Developed for the voice-activated “smart home ecosystem”, Alexa also personalizes search results for pretty much anything: books to vacations and, of course, helps the user order or restock items through Amazon.com.
Not having access to Alexa in Canada, I was completely enthralled, but I was getting data-saturated.
I refocused on books and decided to ask the nice employee who greeted us at the door if she might be able to help me find a book. She whipped out her device and asked me what title I wanted. I said I was looking for a recommendation of some titles. I told her I wanted to buy something for a friend who was interested in sports writing, more specifically, newspaper sports writers’ work outside of their journalism work.
She frowned and said she was sorry. She could only search by title and that she did “not know all the books in the store.” She suggested I try the Sports, Entertainment, Biography and Reference sections. She assured me that all the books in the store were 4 or 4.5 stars. I asked what that referred to and she said all the books in the store were curated according to the reviews at Amazon.com.
I walked to the Sports section and browsed some titles. I found an anthology of sports writing. It looked good. I checked the price on the back – $14.95. Knowing that Amazon would use the online price, I walked back to the employee and asked what the barcode on the cards attached the shelf was for, pretty certain it was a way to get the online price. She told me it was for internal inventory control.
On my way back to the shelf I ran into another employee. I showed him my book and asked if I could find the online price. He led me to a price checker. And there I discovered the book was listed at $11.99. Perfect, I thought. I did not have to give any personal data and I will get a nice discount. As I turned to leave, the employee suggested I also download the Amazon app. All I had to do was click the tiny camera icon on the app I could scan any price by using the bar code on the shelf to get the lowest price.
I said I was told the barcode was for internal inventory control. He looked baffled and told me they use the code to allow customer access to the most up-to-date online discounts. He noted that the online prices were always fluctuating “for various reasons” and that instead of changing the physical cards on the shelf, they just do it electronically. Makes sense.
I download the app and head to the children’s section. Already I knew by even using Amazon’s WiFi on my phone my data footprint was becoming visible, but I was not planning to log in to the app, just use it to check prices.
I scanned one children’s book and I got the prize in Canadian dollars – more than the American cover price. Not good, but not too surprising given the current exchange rate.
I scanned another title. This time, I was instructed to log in. I would just go buy my books. I did not HAVE to log in anyway, I could always use the scanner, but if I did log in would I get a better price based on my own shopping habits? Would I get a “personalized” price? I did not see how they could be that customized (yet) since the sales person was scanning the book itself. And as I did not log in to the app, I have no idea what steps I would have been taken through on my phone.
Ha, I thought. Minimal data breadcrumbs and I have two books, an enjoyable shopping experience (for the most part – still wondering about the internal inventory control comment – and I have US cash so I don’t have to worry about the weak Canadian dollar in the purchase.
“You have saved 35%!” the beautifully-dressed salesperson told me. Great, I think, and hand her my two American twenty-dollar bills. Her brow wrinkles and she says, “I am sorry. We are a cashless store.”
What?? I have no US credit card on me, and using my Canadian Visa is going to wipe out my discount and probably even add to the list price. I ask why in the world Amazon doesn’t take cash.
She smiles and says, “We want to replicate the online experience as much as possible.”
“But, you’re a physical store with physical books and I have physical money.”
She was sorry, she said.
I handed her my credit card. I could almost feel my data downloading into the Amazon vortex as my card slid through the machine. So much for avoiding the data trap…
“Have a wonderful day!” I heard from behind me as I headed out the door and thought about the rumoured expansion of Amazon’s physical stores into everything, not just books…
 The location opened in the fall of 2015, with plans for a second one for San Diego, and according to some industry experts, as part of rollout of hundreds more.
 (Just last week Amazon released two new “siblings” for Alexa: the Echo Dot and Tap).