The Future of Books

Books were very much on my mind this weekend. I’m nearing the end of “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War” by Tony Horwitz. The book is about the abolitionist John Brown’s attack on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) that hardened attitudes in both the north and the south (and especially here in Lowell) and greatly contributed to the coming of the Civil War. Horwitz, who also wrote the wonderful “Confederates in the Attic”, will appear in Chelmsford along with his author-spouse Geraldine Brooks this coming May 12th as part of the town’s One Book Chelmsford event.

Then yesterday, the lead story in the Business Section of the New York Times was “The Bookstore’s Last Stand: As Barnes & Noble Fights for Its Future, the Publishing Industry Holds Its Breath” which shared the epic battle now being waged between Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The article’s author, Julie Bosman, doesn’t miss the irony that the same publishers who a decade ago condemned B & N for (1) putting so many independent bookstores out of business and (2) using its scale to squeeze ever lower prices from the publishers, have now made Barnes & Noble the sole standard bearer of the publishing industry which sees in Amazon a huge threat to its existence. That is not to say that Amazon is anti-books, rather that Amazon is anti-middleman (Amazon recently started its own publishing unit and is already signing up major authors, cutting traditional publishing houses out of the equation).

The battle between Barnes & Noble and Amazon doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Despite having 703 bookstores spread through all 50 states, Barnes & Noble is valued at $719 million while Amazon is worth $88 billion. Plus, Barnes & Noble seems caught between two worlds: it sees the future as the e-book (the “Nook”) yet it must maintain the large costs of all of those big retail stores. The Times story asks, “How does B & N present itself from becoming nothing more than a coffee shop with digital connections?” The company is planning new things, adding toys and games to its shelves, eliminating the CD/DVD sections, and devoting more space to Nook sales.

But the core business of a bookstore is selling books. The article points out that only one-third of the people who enter a bookstore do so with the express purpose of buying a book. All other in-store sales are impulse purchases. I can certainly attest to the serendipity of wandering through the aisles of a bookstore, spotting an interesting cover, and buying a book that I’d never even heard of minutes before. As much as I enjoy reading on electronic devices (I’ve read books on the Kindle and the iPad), I think we will always have printed-on-paper books, perhaps just not as many. If the goal is to allow people to browse, there are other ways to allow that to be done. The computer is great for that but sometimes it takes a communal setting. How about the public library? Or a coffee shop like Brew’d Awakening or The Java Room where one could use either a personal or a communal electronic device to browse titles in the company of others. I’m not advocating the closure of big box bookstores; I’m just suggesting that if a place like Barnes & Noble is no longer economically feasible, there are alternatives.

Finally, I think the difficulties of the national publishing and bookstore businesses present an opportunity for small local writers and publishers. On Saturday at the “Lowell area small press book publishers round-up” we may have caught a glimpse of the future of writing and publishing. In that room full of talented authors, entrepreneurial publishers, and interested readers, there was a real synergy. I don’t know how many books were sold or how much money was made, but it was a great concept that has huge potential to grow, especially if big box bookstores become obsolete. We’ll still be able to buy bestsellers with a click of the mouse and the rumble of the UPS truck (which is how I came to own “Midnight Rising”), but our literary curiosity will be satiated locally by people we know or by people who we’ll get to know. To me, that’s not such a bad thing.

3 Responses to The Future of Books

  1. SeanT says:

    Great points here. Lots of interesting stuff going on right now in the book world. I’m not a big fan of B&N (haven’t been since it tried to acquire Baker & Taylor) and it’s interesting to see it getting it’s comeuppance from Amazon. I don’t see how B&N or any brick and mortar store can compete with Amazon in terms of sales volume especially since Amazon is essentially a retail behemoth wholesaler.

    I find the possibilities of print on demand interesting especially when independent booksellers such as the Harvard Bookstore invest in in-store book printing robots (Paige M. Gutenberg).

    One of the most interesting lessons for me from library school was the acknowledgement of the difference between browsing and searching. Each have their strengths and for the best results it’s prudent to use both—a sort of zen focused research method. Some of my favorite books I’ve found serendipitously, as you say, by entering a bookstore with no particular purpose or lingering in the area of the library that held a title of interest to me, and finding related books. When folks come to the reference desk to find material on a given topic I’m sure to tell them to look to the left and right and above and below the book. It’s more difficult to do this sort of shopping with an online retailer such as Amazon (despite their attempts to show you what “others have bought” based on your searches).

    Ultimately, as a bibliophile, I have to believe the guidance, integrity, and personal touch, exhibited by a local librarian, independent bookseller, or by a locally focused group of independent publishers will ensure the survival of the book industry in whatever reduced form it may take.

  2. DickH says:

    Today’s (Feb 1) New York Times has a report that Barnes and Noble will not carry books published by Amazon in its stores. B&N also wants the right to sell the titles as e-books, but Amazon retains the exclusive rights to distribute them via that means. B&N reasons that tangible books on its shelves just help market Amazon’s e-book business so they don’t want to be a part of it. Most of the reader comments following the story seem to come from fans of the independent bookstores that B&N drove out of business a decade ago. There’s not much sympathy for B&N’s plight.