This one is for the comic book readers, the D&D players, the gatherers-of-Magic. Recently, I visited a shop you know very well, even though you’ve never stepped inside. Not part of a chain; better. Shops of this kind are all different — each is weird in its own way — and yet perfectly consistent. They are scattered across the world, and recently, I found my new favorite.
My parents live in northern Michigan, and every year, in the summer, we visit them for a few weeks. The county seat is Gaylord, a town of a few thousand people boasting the standard allocation of big boxes: Walmart, Lowe’s, T. J. Maxx. Farther down the road, there’s a quiet strip sporting a questionable alpine theme. Walking there, I came across a narrow shop with a neon Superman logo in the window.
If a shop has a neon Superman logo in the window, I will enter. If it has a neon Superman logo in the window, a Bat-symbol next to it, and a dragon under the eaves, I am already inside.
The shop was pleasantly cluttered, and a large fraction of the merchandise was used, giving it the feeling of an excellent garage sale. There was a coat of arms hanging on the wall just inside the front door. Voices carried down from a loft space above — shouting, laughing, making bold claims. I heard the clatter of dice.
You, comic book reader, card player, dungeon master: You know this place.
There were, of course, comics.
But this was not, strictly speaking, a comic book shop, because the comics were outnumbered by Magic cards…
…and bolstered by RPG sourcebooks…
…and offset by Warhammer 40,000: DARK VENGEANCE.
You know this place.
Like a church or a guildhall: If you are a nerd, you can walk into one of these shops, anywhere in the world, and find succor.
(Sometimes, you can also find a shelf in the back, near the fire exit, loaded with old fantasy and sci-fi novels selling for $2 each.)
I believe that all nerds possess, in their history, a home nerdhaven. My own origins are split between two shops that faced each other across a wide road in Troy, Michigan, far south of Gaylord, closer to Detroit.
My first and truest home was Troy Stamp & Coin, located in the shadowed crook of a winding mini-mall’s elbow. As the name implies, it was a nerdhaven of a different vintage. Philately and numismatics held no attraction for my nerd-cabal, but this was the place with the comic books. We rode our bikes there after school, side-stepped the glass cases, ran for the rack of new releases. The lighting was terrible and the staff was surly, but the X-Men were engrossing.
When I was thirteen, a rival outfit opened across the street. Its fortunes were buoyed by Magic: The Gathering, newly released, already wildly popular. This was a newer kind of nerdhaven, more sharply focused on the fantastic. Besides Magic cards, there were D&D sourcebooks, Warhammer sets, and dragon-shaped paperweights. This is where I had my first encounter with the archetypal Comic Book Guy, and where I learned that nerdhavens could be hostile places. This new shop was palpably cooler (which is to say… nerdier?) than Stamp & Coin, but it also had a darker tint, as if the martial spirit of all those war games was leaking out into the air. There were fedoras.
Well. If you go to church every week — and even if, in the end, you decide you don’t like church very much — you learn the words by heart.
Sure enough, walking into the shop in Gaylord, I felt the way I imagine a lapsed Catholic might feel upon stumbling into a rural church in a far-off country. Everything was familiar. Hello, board games. Greetings, graphic novels. Been a while, pale unpainted wargaming miniatures. I knew what to do and where to go. I moved from section to section, first browsing, then digging deep: Ah, maybe they have some old Booster Gold comics. Oh, here’s that new version of Risk. Whoa! These D&D books are ancient!
Of course, there was new stuff, too — games I didn’t recognize from the mid-90s. A nerdhaven is, by necessity, a confederation of powers; some wax while others wane. Have you heard of Dice Masters? I had not heard of Dice Masters. Apparently Dice Mastersis huge!
As I explored the shop, the voices clamored louder in the loft space above. I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing up there, but the sonic field was rich and familiar: rustle of paper, pop-fizz of soda, howl of misfortune.
The roster of Essential Social Spaces includes, among others: the library, the union hall, the community garden, the coffee shop. To that list, we must add the nerdhaven. The question, though: Is it on its way out — winding down as nerds go digital? Or is it here to stay, a humble fixture wherever there exist enough nerds to muster a Magic tournament? (These shops support a $700 million market, according to an industry website, but I can’t decide whether that’s big or small. I think it be might be small.)
I hope they’re here to stay. At the shop in Gaylord I made my circuit of the nerdly Stations of the Cross and walked out with ten antique D&D books, three comics, two vintage sci-fi novels, and a board game.
‘Tis nerdhaven. I shall come again.
Next Story — The Pickle: A Conversation About Making Digital Books
Currently Reading - The Pickle: A Conversation About Making Digital Books
The Pickle: A Conversation About Making Digital Books
1: Opening Salvo
Okay, Craig, I know you’re critical of the arrested state of ebooks today. For my part, I’m more… curious. It’s clear to me that, for all their commercial success, we don’t know what books on screens are supposed to look like; not yet. But that shouldn’t be surprising; the first Kindle came out a mere eight years ago, and most people have been reading books on screens for a few years at most.
It’s only now that we’re starting to see the really interesting work emerge.
I believe you’ve read The Pickle Index, and I think we can agree that it represents something interesting and new. The novel’s digital edition is much more than words on a screen; instead, it masquerades as a recipe app, complete with menus and lists and a wonderful little map. It’s quite slick; if it was a real recipe app, it would be a pretty solid one! Its creators, Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn, use the idiom of the app to pull you more deeply into the story, to make you, as a reader, feel somehow like an accomplice.
But the Pickle Index app (for reasons I don’t want to give away to people who haven’t read it yet) can only tell the Pickle Index story; the way it works is bound up with the tale it tells. Eli and Russell can’t reuse this machine for, say, The Istanbul Protocol or The Dragon Wizard. Those stories wouldn’t fit.
So, with your earlier criticism in mind: What do you think? Is this matching of content to container the road forward, or is it a lovely cul-de-sac? Is the non-naive, non-repackaged future of ebooks more of these unique apps, or is it some new, reusable “master format” that we have yet to invent?
Note to readers: This is (going to be) a long, loopy conversation. The Pickle Index is crisp and compact. Consider sampling its tangy delights.
I was an economics major in college, and one of the things you do as an econ major is draw a lot of graphs, many of which purport to show the supply and demand for a particular good. You’re always looking for the point at which the curves cross. That point tells you, among other things, the price for that good.
I drew so many of these dumb graphs, and yet I never noticed the deep assumption built into the exercise: That of course you must choose a single price for a good.
So you can print it in the catalog.
So you can write it on the tags.
I learned all of this around the turn of the century, and prices have gotten a lot more interesting in the years since, thanks to the internet and, more specifically, to the fact that so many prices are now shown on screens rather than printed on paper. Today, the notion of the price is breaking down, being replaced by something more flexible.
Some of the forces behind that change are of course quite cold and rational, powered by new algorithms. But more of them are humane — the kind of forces we never learned about in econ 101 — and powered by a new interface.
Well. Not even that new.
The slider is a hot piece of technology that will play a central role in the future of prices.
The slider need not be cold, and it need not be rational.
It’s not economic efficiency that moves the slider, but emotion.
And for my money, this is the most interesting checkout screen on the whole internet.
That’s what you see when you’re about to buy a Humble Bundle. There’s a lot going on there, so let me just break it down quickly. The Humble Bundle is a popular product with roots in indie video games that’s expanded into music, movies, books, and more. The deal goes like this:
You, the potential customer, are presented with a bundle of merchandise. Maybe it’s a dozen video games; maybe a truckload of digital comics.
You decide what price you’d like to pay for all of it together. It can be as little as one penny! (This is section 1 in the screenshot above.)
You also decide how that price should be apportioned, splitting it between the content makers, a set of related charities, and the company Humble Bundle, Inc. (This is section 2 above.)
There are some nuances. Most bundles include extra content that you only receive if you meet a certain minimum payment — $10, perhaps. More interestingly, bundles almost always offer extra content that you receive only if you exceed the current average payment — an incentive that, of course, has the effect of slowly raising that average over time.
Honestly, it feels less like a checkout screen and more like a video game.
Humble Bundle’s sliders are the most elaborate you’ll find anywhere, but the basic element is all over the place. The indie video distributor VHX has a nice one:
And while the sell-anything site Gumroad lacks a draggable slider…
…it delivers a clear message: There is no the price.
(Kickstarter offers the same ability to pay extra, but it’s often lost in the complexity of the project rewards. I think Kickstarter projects tend to feel more like small catalogs — listing many fixed prices — than sliding scales.)
The slider is a natural fit when you’re buying something from a specific individual, possibly someone known to you or whose work you’ve long admired. It acts as an affinity-meter through which you can convert surplus units of love and gratitude into cold, hard dollars.
But there’s more to the slider, particularly in Humble Bundle’s implementation. It has to do with communication.
The information content of most payments is one bit: either you agree to the asking price and make the purchase, or you don’t. When a payment goes through a slider, that information content increases. When it goes through an interface like Humble Bundle’s… well, I mean, look at this!
A payment can bloom into a rich little packet of information, much better than a survey because it’s weighted with dollars.
(It’s quite possible you feel exhausted just looking at Humble Bundle’s bank of sliders. In practice, they’re easy to manipulate and surprisingly fun to fiddle with. It’s really worth playing around with them for a moment.)
The slider is not appropriate in all, or even most, situations. It would, for example, be an affront to see one on Apple’s checkout screen. “Oh, really, hugely profitable megacorporation? I can elect to give you more money? Thanks.” Most products’ prices will stay fixed — catalogs and tags.
But the slider still has gains to make. There are a lot of products out there that would benefit from a more flexible, more emotional form of payment. Maybe most products created and sold by individuals should be sold on the slider. Maybe most writing should be! We don’t know yet.
That’s exciting. It means we’re still learning new things about prices and markets, and about people, too.
We’re learning that a price can be a bundle of information richer and more useful than simply “deal or no deal.”
We’re learning that it was perhaps never quite right to price indie movies the way we priced refrigerators.
Soon, we might have to start revising those economics textbooks.
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