Monday, February 8, 2010

Talking about the saltometer

It’s Monday, and I could talk about the Amazon-Macmillan melee for the third or fourth time. (The buy buttons are back, by the way.)

I could talk about the Justice Department’s critique of the proposed Google Orphanarium for Abandoned Books. (The revised agreement is better, they said, but still “suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement.” In other words, it’s still a monopoly on orphaned books.)

I could discuss Dani Shapiro’s essay on how the mentality in writing has changed. Instead of expecting suffering and rejection, young writers anticipate blockbusters and insta-success. But what could I add? Shapiro already explains the dangers of the blockbuster mentality for both young and established authors.

Her best line addresses students in writing school: If they were enrolled in medical school, in all likelihood they would wind up doctors. If in law school, better than even odds, they’d become lawyers. But writing school guarantees them little other than debt.

Apparently, braille is dying. Only 10 percent of blind children in the United States learn it. Instead, they rely on audiobooks. That’s something I could write about, right?

I mean, listening and reading are two different things. They are two different ways of learning... and, that’s pretty much all covered in the link.

How about I talk about the saltometer, instead? The saltometer is how one bookstore owner measures where readers do most of their browsing. After a snowy day, customers track snow and salt into the bookstore, and the owner follow the prints to see where people spend most of their time.

It’s anecdotal and imprecise, but it measures something different than, say, sales.

For example, I often browse in the philosophy/religion or language sections; but I rarely buy. I’ve probably paged through a half-dozen books about Edgar Cayce but didn’t purchase any of them. I can almost talk myself into buying a Tagalog/English dictionary, but common sense sets in somewhere between the language section and the cash register. These are browse/no-buy books.

Contrarily, I don’t spend a lot of time browsing for certain authors. If I see a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neil Gaiman or Mark Twain that I don’t own, I buy it — even if I have no intention of reading it in the immediate future. I don’t read the back cover or sample a few pages. I classify them as buy/no-browse. (Yes, that approach has burned me a few times, but I’m a volume consumer.)

So, Tricia, I know you’re a browser. Where would your saltometer lead?

-Jason Lea,

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