About a dozen years ago, when journals were entering the gauntlet wrought by the peril and potential of the Internet, I remember thinking (and saying to any poor soul who would listen), “Wait until this hits books.” Back then, books were off-limits somehow, their hard covers repelling new media’s assaults. E-readers were being introduced, but none made the mainstream. Handheld computer-based attempts were ill-fated. The rumble of thunder seemed too far off to cause a worry.
Little did we know that we’d witness a fast-moving tornado when the storm finally hit.
While you can debate the commercial success, aesthetics, and longevity of it, Amazon’s Kindle has proven to be the wind shift that signaled the storm’s arrival. Other forces — the rise of viable print-on-demand (POD) technology especially, but also shoddy author contracts, publishers focusing too much on a few authors, more authors self-publishing and a rise in social acceptance of the mode, and other background trends — are tearing through the land of the printed book, leaving the industry exposed on many sides, apparently with little shelter.
Now that the twister’s finally arrived, the constant rumors of Borders folding or being consumed have been joined by the news that Barnes & Noble is considering putting itself on the block. While part of this may be a business gambit, the gambit is only necessary because the business is less viable than ever.
Publishers are changing, too. Mass-market romance publisher Dorchester Publishing is dropping its paperbacks entirely and moving to e-books and POD fulfillment for print titles. This means Dorchester is seeing that online retailing is going to drive their business, not remaindered print in bookstores.
The book as a product is changing, in a way analogous to how music changed from something packaged on a tape, on a record, or on a CD, to a file on your smartphone or iPod. In a mournful eulogy to the book and to the bookstore, Sven Birkets of the Wall Street Journal writes:
What is disappearing, with the speed of ink drying on a folio leaf, is the public profile of books, our sense of their literal and symbolic presence. We have all seen what is happening to libraries, as increasing numbers of them put their funds to digital use, moving books up, up and away from what used to be the central ports of access—the reading rooms—to make more room for monitors.
If I continue the analogy to packaged recorded music, I have to say that I find little to mourn in Birkets’ essay (he also rends his garment over the disappearing bookstore). After all, I used to love to go to Raspberry Records where I grew up and flip through the bins in search of great new vinyl. Did music have any more of a “public profile” because of records stores that were tucked away in mini-malls or regular malls? Did a Tower Records stuck in a suburb give music some sort of cultural relevance beyond what the music and artists could?
Music has followed its listeners and moved onto nice consumption devices with significantly more capacity and much better commerce experiences. Now, books are doing the same.
What will give books real-world presence? People reading, people talking about them, people watching movies derived from them, people reading books based on TV shows. It’s the same way the white headphone cord of the iPod gives music a new way to be in the real world.
But will book reading actually suffer? I doubt it. My kids would love to have Kindles so that they could read spontaneously. They get addicted to a series (don’t get me going about “Pretty Little Liars” right now), and once one book is polished off, they want to start the next one. But the scarcity model of book publishing means having to wait days between reading events if ordering a book from an online retailer; calling around town to find a book and often failing; or checking the library which often doesn’t have the latest materials. Does waiting, calling around, or getting frustrated help the reading experience? Not at all.
The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.
I used to go to the record store, only to find that a particular new release was out of stock. Now, there is no similar experience with music. I can get what I want, when I want it, and can be listening to it minutes later. I probably listen to more music — and a more diverse set of artists — now than ever before.
Movies, music, and radio became more available with inventions like on-demand video, digital songs, and podcasts. Books are just the next in a long line of media changing from analog physical carrier to digital file storage.
We know what it’s like when things lose their physical attributes and the scarcity related to it. So far, it’s proven to be one of the best things that can happen to something we love.