Borders Books Reflected
Borders Books Reflected (Photo credit: thisreidwrites)

I hope the readers of the Scholarly Kitchen will not think ill of this detour into the world of trade publishing, but it’s part of my ongoing investigation of publishing ecosystems.  Yes, ecosystems:  a good metaphor in search of concrete examples.  We all tend to think of publishing in terms of its products (the editorial fallacy rears its ugly head once again), but you can no more think of a journal article as an article in and of itself than you can talk about a dog sniffing its way along the rim of a crater on the moon.  The dog, like the article, was meant (that is, has evolved) to live somewhere else.  Advocates of article-level metrics, take note.

And so we have the beloved trade book, printed in different sizes and formerly sold just about everywhere.   During the second half of the twentieth century, bookstores moved beyond their historical location in downtown urban areas into the suburbs, following Americans, following the money.  With the advent of the destination superstores, some of which stocked over 100,000 titles, browsing a bookstore was like a trip to an enormous library. I recall my astonishment at seeing the complete Loeb Classical Library at a huge Barnes & Noble store near Lincoln Center in New York and the complete works of Italo Calvino in a large Borders bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  Now that particular B&N store is closed and Borders is bankrupt. And that’s the problem:  fewer places to find the Loeb Library, fewer enticements to pick up and read Cosmicomics and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . . . .

A print book without a bookstore is like our dog walking on the moon (or an article without a journal!).  It’s part of the ecosystem, as essential as oxygen and water.  Publishers know this and can already see what is ahead for them as the print ecosystem is torn up.  A bookstore is a place where readers learn about books, where they buy things simply because they have been handsomely packaged and well-displayed, all of which constitutes a large part of book marketing.  Without bookstores people will buy fewer books, and those who are motivated to buy books even in the absence of bookstores will learn about them elsewhere:  in newsgroups, from Twitter feeds, and on the Web pages of Amazon. I think I will tweet about Cosmicomics right now.

If people are still finding books even without bookstores, why should publishers care?  There are several reasons:

  • Publishers are not very interested in having customers find or discover books; they are interested in them finding the publisher’s own books.  A large, established print publisher is in a position to get preferred display in a bookstore.  But with online modes of discovery, any particular publisher’s advantage disappears.
  • As more and more books become digital, more and more business shifts to Amazon, the market leader by far in ebooks.  Amazon’s growing dominance worries every publisher, as Amazon stands between publishers and readers.
  • At this time the modes of discovery outside of bookstores are simply not as effective as the mode inside bookstores.  The collapse of bookstores thus weakens all publishers.
  • Since established publishers cannot meaningfully dominate a sales channel that is fading, and no one except Amazon dominates any of the emergent channels, authors have less and less reason to work with these publishers.  This opens up a multitude of new competitors.

Which raises the interesting question of whether consumers prefer print or digital formats.  My own view (as a dedicated reader of ebooks who also has a pile of print books on the bedside table) is that the print vs. digital battle is overblown.  The real question is where you find things.  With bookstores collapsing everywhere, the print business collapses along with it.

Let’s imagine someone walking into a bookstore. Choose your favorite–if it’s still open.  So I might choose Bookshop Santa Cruz in my former hometown or, say, McNally Jackson in downtown Manhattan.  You wander into such a store, where you browse among the thousands of titles.  You find something you like, and now have a choice. You can buy it on the spot or you can “showroom”–that is, you can buy it elsewhere, probably online at Amazon.  If you buy it on the spot, you will walk out with a print edition.

Showrooming gives you two options:  order a print book online or an ebook, which most of the time means a Kindle edition.  For the print book the online price appears to be lower than the price in the physical store, but after you factor in shipping costs or the cost of a loyalty program ($70/year for Amazon Prime), there is no compelling reason to order the print book online.  So McNally Jackson gets a sale for the print book, and they deserve it, as they curated their shop well and took the risk of carrying the inventory.  Amazon gets the sale for the ebook.

But if that bookstore did not exist, what would you do?  You might find the same title through a Twitter post or GoodReads or perhaps by searching on Amazon’s own site.  (GoodReads, by the way, was recently acquired by Amazon.)  You are not standing in a physical store as you consider this.  You can order a print edition online, but it costs a couple dollars or perhaps as much as $10 more than the digital edition.  Why pay for print when you can get the digital edition immediately at a lower price?  The advantage of the physical bookstore–the immediate availability of inventory–is not at play here.

So the question comes down to this:  Are you expressing a preference for ebooks over print or are you simply expressing an interest in lower prices? This is not for a minute to dismiss the affordances of digital content (the search capability–though this is not always important for trade books; the ability to look up words in a built-in dictionary; the tool to change the size of the type; etc.), but it does seem that price and availability and not digital affordances are the real drivers of ebook sales.

So the trade marketplace moves inexorably online and inexorably from print to digital.  What has not happened, though, is a change in demand. Many people may actually prefer print to digital. The problem is that the collapse of the print distribution network is driving the business to digital despite what individual consumers want.  In other words, the switch from print to digital is an emergent property of the changing ecosystem, not a matter of consumer preference.

During the past couple months I have been in untold conversations about eliminating print from the journals world.  Newsletters make this case every day, and SSP is sponsoring a Webinar on the topic.  Are we getting ahead of ourselves?  Are we dropping print because it is convenient for librarians or because scholars prefer it?  And when we ask what scholars prefer, have we really given them the option?

Trade publishers pine for bookstores.  Part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is an awareness that their businesses were built for one ecosystem and another one is evolving before their eyes.  People may clamor for print (which would reinforce the publishers’ historical position), but the marketplace is increasingly becoming reluctant to provide it.

The simple truth is that with one exception, every link in the value chain must be profitable or the entire chain breaks.  Bookstores are breaking and are taking the entire chain along with it.  Amazon’s hands are outstretched to receive the new customers, to play its dominant role in the new ecosystem.

The one exception?  Authors.  Most authors don’t now and have never been able to live on the proceeds of their work.  A few do, and do so spectacularly.  That spectacle draws authors in:  it’s not the prospect of a good and interesting job but the chance to win the lottery that makes a writer out of a normal human being.  When we express regret at the passing of the old print paradigm, don’t shed a tear for the authors.  Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


96 Thoughts on "An Industry Pining for Bookstores"

“At this time the modes of discovery outside of book stores are simply not as effective as the mode inside book stores. The collapse of book stores thus weakens all publishers.”

I don’t believe this to be true. Firstly, an on-line book store has infinitely more space than a physical one and all items are one or two mouse clicks away. Recommendations like “People who bought this also bought” enhance discovery, while ratings systems help me avoid poor books.

Secondly, In addition to the on-line store itself, hyper-links have created a level of discovery beyond the imagination of book store owners twenty years ago. Amazon has made it beneficial for me to recommend and post a link on my blog to books I’ve read. Discovery has been crowd sourced. Impossible in a physical book store.

Thirdly, there’s eBooks. I can discover and purchase an eBook from anywhere, any time, on nearly any device due to apps, tablets, phones, and e-readers.

Let me give you this example. At the weekend I went to Home Depot for a trimmer. In front of me stood a dozen types on the shelf, all makes, all size. Which to choose? Which were good, bad, indifferent? Why spend more or less? It was difficult to tell from the three bullet points on the shelve’s label. Instead if took out my phone, went to the HD website and looked up my three prime contenders. I ended up on Ryobi’s homepage on the HD website and discovered all the benefits of opting into their interchangeable battery system. That’s what I purchased. I did not purchase it because of any element of discovery or benefit of the physical store. The only benefit was immediacy. Which is not reflected in the eBook world.

Which brings me to the larger issue with this article. The industry is not pining for book stores. Physical shops complicate matters. Ask distribution warehouses who need not be concerned about messy returns from countless book stores across the globe. Ask Customer Services, who need to process these returns. Ask Marketing Depts. who need not work with book stores small and large and have to deal with physical promotions. Ask accounting who know when an eBook is sold, it’s sold. Ask customers, who have voted with their feet and their wallets. I have not seen anyone pining for old school book stores, except those with nostalgia.

Doesn’t your example of the trimmer at Home Depot disprove your point? You “discovered” the trimmers at a physical retailer, which allowed you to narrow your choices before going online for more information. Also, the “if x then y” algorithms used by online retailers are in my experience very poor indicators of my own preferences. Of course, this is just anecdotal–with no data to support the relevance one way or another. As for customer reviews, well let me just say, I’m skeptical about their origin and their relevance especially when it comes to books–a “product” whose relative value is personal and subjective.

HD is not a fair comparison. It doesn’t sound like a helpful and knowledgeable salesperson was there to help you. (No surprise!) Not the case for a small local bookstore!

Why is HD not a fair comparison? Are we to believe staff are any more knowledgeable or plentiful than were in Borders?

Is a bookstore clerk going to provide a better opinion on which C++ book I should by for my coding needs than a highly relevant blog or Amazon reviewer? What about the book that covers my course in structural biology? Unlikely. Can they tell me what’s popular? Yes, but so can any website with a best-sellers list.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good second hand bookstore for a novelty trip, but they’re not adding anything but deep discounts to the value of my experience.

Sad. I suspect you’ve never been in a quality local bookstore nor a neighborhood hardware store. Both, regrettably, are becoming quite rare.

I got the same feeling reading those comments. For myself, I still go to my local independent bookstore (in Denver, this is the Tattered Cover Books and has been for years and years). This is where I buy the books I want to read or give as gifts. Every time I visit there, I exhale a breath of relief to see the doors are still open and people are still shopping and sitting about lazily in arm chairs, reading real books. These readers sit under stocked shelves which still have handwrirtten notes by store employees telling us which books they enjoyed and why we should give this or that a try.

That’s the small bit I do — having my book purchases made locally — to keep the small book store open. At least a little while longer …

Then you’re both incorrect. I have a local bookstore and that I have a large amount of credit with (due to the buying and taking back of books). I like bookstores, it’s fun picking up an odd second hand book because it has a cool old cover. In the same way I may buy a Beach Boys vinyl from a record store.

But that’s not the point of this article, which says publishers are pining for bookstores, although there’s no evidence provided by the author. Along with other incorrect suggestions like ‘discovery is better in a bookstore’ (no evidence provided) and people are buying ebooks just because they’re cheaper (no evidence provided).

“Bookstores are breaking” BECAUSE of the “chains.” My local independent bookstore (back here in the boondocks) was a mecca to people from hundreds of miles away because it carried the the scholarly, the esoteric, the ancient, and the unfairly forgotten and not just the currently popular. Mr Esposito could have found every Loeb Classic and every Calvino on its shelves and then handled and perused them. B&N and Borders moved in a couple of towns over and it (and other independent bookstores) went belly up, after a long fight (and with the Borders preceding its demise).

Dear Thomas Hilock,
David Foster Wallace spoke to your condition thusly:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

I think you’re partially confusing Discoverability and Availability. Millions of books are available online, but you may only be exposed to dozens in one browsing session. In a bookstore, discovery is based on line of sight. Out of thousands of books, you may be exposed to hundreds. Exposure to more books, even briefly, must be a good thing for publishers, and the reader is more likely to come across a book they didn’t know they were interested in.

Scarcity of shelf space has pros and cons. If a bookseller has a book on their shelf that’s over 4 months old, it’s probably because he knows that book is going to continue to sell. Bad books get their moment in the sun and then they disappear so as not to get in the way of books people might actually want to purchase. It’s like a 5 star rating without the commentary. This gives the advantage to publishers with a backlist with broad appeal. But publishers that appeal to a narrower audience might prefer the internet where shelf space is not an issue, and targeted marketing can bring that specific audience directly to that book.

What worries me as a reader is that as books lose their physical presence, are they going to be out of sight out of mind? People have to be constantly talking about books to drive online discoverability. What happens if that level of conversation ever slacks off? People talk about books less so people think about books less so fewer books get sold and fewer people talk about books. I’m sure books won’t ever disappear completely, but they may diminish, and that’s not something I’m happy contemplating.

Amanda, you’ve helped clarify that the point is one of discoverability rather than availability. One caveat though, about shelf space: it’s not bad books alone that disappear from shelves too soon: too often, it’s the excellent books — literary or scholarly — that simply do not yield the sales levels required to justify their continued presence in a numbers-driven ecosystem. Bad books often thrive like cockroaches in this environment as well as online, while the rare species suffer in both.

Good distinction: Discoverability vs. Availability. The key to discoverability in “line of sight” terms is the difference between cover photo thumbnails and book spines. On a store’s categorized shelf, we browse more spine titles per unit time than we might see cover thumbs on a web page (Amazon’s, for example). Problem is, we have to spend extra time and effort to get the the store. I love browsing at my favorite local independent bookstore and I appreciate talking to folks there–but I have to get there and more of my life is moving online so I don’t get there as much.

As a reader and an author, I love the community of literature. The value comes from dialog about ideas and that seems to be, if anything, growing. As a media analyst and futurist, I notice a trend toward smaller chunks of text and images–perhaps away from longer treatments. A professional tradebook author may gain more from writing two or three shorter ebooks rather than one long tomb with authoritative print heft.

What can be frustrating is the very small text unit that doesn’t allow space to develop a concept much beyond, “Hey, what d’ya think of this?” The dialogue medium seems increasingly to be a short post pointing to a longer article on a blog page (such as this one), possibly followed by a book purchase if one wants to go deeper. But maybe we get too distracted to spend much time going deeper. That seems to be the core issue.

The big publishers are moving too slowly. Why didn’t one of them buy Goodreads? In the end, the knowledge and entertainment exchange ecosystem is doing fine. It’s just shifting from one set of players to another. I’m also not convinced that the physical book is going away, though it does seem to be shifting into another kind of niche.

I am not nostalgic. I simply love bookstores. I love the windows that shine with titles, the smell when I enter, the kids grubbing through stacks with shiny eyes. I usually love the folks who run them. I love to hold books in my hands and turn pages. I truly do not enjoy reading at length on a screen and slurring pages back and forth.
Yes, I do buy books on line, usually when I know the title, and I do take out books from the libraary and I buy from catalogues. I want that physical book in my possession, to grab whenever I have a free moment.
I can count the number of ebooks I’ve purchased on one hand.

Most of the people I’ve seen pining for book stores are those who had jobs there. (And readers who enjoyed the ambience…)

I was surprised to read “The one exception? Authors. Most authors don’t now and have never been able to live on the proceeds of their work.” in the Scholarly Kitchen.

Publication promises tenure for academic authors. Otherwise, they would not accept publishers’ contracts that never pay any royalties.

It is a fact that, while it’s still difficult to make a living as an author, it is now easier than it ever was before, and more authors than ever before are living well from their writing instead of barely getting by, as we were when we were at the mercy of publishers who were reliant on the bookstore chain. Authors who previously worked with publishers are leaving in droves, providing they can get the rights back to their backlists, in favor of self-publishing. It is far more profitable for us to present our product directly to readers without the interference (and associated overhead) of all the links in the publisher-bookstore chain.

Don’t feel sorry for the authors at all. Things are only getting better for us, and for readers, with this chain’s breaking.

What a clear and cogent piece (despite the misunderstandings of your first two commenters!) I was just thinking about writing about this subject, motivated by the recent Bowker data announced by PW (half of all book sales are now online) and today’s NY Times article about bookstores resorting to seeking charity to stay open. The next step in this discussion is that all books are not equally affected by this change. The shift to online buying does accelerate the shift to ebooks, as you make clear (at least to me). But not everything works as ebooks, and that will be the next painful truth that will cripple some publishers more than others.

I think that’s right, Mike. The book business is an ecosystem but–to strech the metaphor–each species or genre of book has it’s own characteristics and is differently effected by the environmental shift that online retailing creates.

I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I misunderstood it. For example…

“Trade publishers pine for bookstores. Part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is an awareness that their businesses were built for one ecosystem and another one is evolving before their eyes. People may clamor for print (which would reinforce the publishers’ historical position), but the marketplace is increasingly becoming reluctant to provide it.”

Who within a publishing business is pining for bookstores? I’ve worked in publishing and I never met a sul who said “What we need is more physical bookstores”. Perhaps more competition in online outlets, but physical bookstores, no.

Also, who is clamoring for print? Amazon sell both print and eBooks, yet since 2011 eBooks have sold more. The value of a print bookstore could be seen as the vultures descended on Borders, ransacking the shelves, looking to find a bargain as books reached clearance prices. They were not queuing up when friendly ‘knowledgeable’ staff were there to help.

If this were true, then why have ebook sales leveled off at about 20% of the market for the major trade publishers? I have seen no projections that give any confidence that ebooks will even pass the 50% market share anytime soon, except in some specialized nice sectors. And they likely will never even get to 20% in some areas like art publishing.

eBooks are becoming are more mature market, that is obvious, with growth down to single digits. However, that’s only half the story, as during the same periods of massive growth for e, the print book market contracted in some areas by as much as 16% over two years. Still the growth of eBooks isn’t really what we’re debating, but the desire for publisher wanting brick-and-mortar stores, which I have yet to see good reasoning behind that argument.

I expect the major trade publishers are charging too much for their digital products. They seem to be trying to force people to buy their print editions, which are often priced lower…I would guess because they are scheduled to be remaindered and they want to get rid of them.

I will tell you “who within a publishing business is pining for bookstores”: for one, the marketing manager who can no longer count on a leading bookstore to give a new title a book launch event (upon which much publicity also depends). Readers still want to meet authors in person and have a print book autographed. Clever new techniques to make digital book events possible are lousy substitutes.

Speaking personally, I had the recent experience of stumbling across books in a physical bookstore that my multiple online stores never suggested or recommended to me, and that I wouldn’t have found because I wouldn’t have been searching for them.

That said, I think bookstores need a business model shift. Taking the music industry as an analogue: Concert tours used to be “promotional” tours to sell recordings. With the rise of the Internet, now, the recordings promote the live concert. Bookstores need to do something similar. They used to use books signings, readings, book groups, personal recommendations to sell books. With the rise of Amazon, perhaps, bookstores should start charging for the personal experiences (like live concerts) that Amazon will never be positioned to provide.

One model that might be tried more is consignment. If bookstores truly are showrooms now, why don’t publishers just use them that way, shipping books to stores with no sales up front but only payments made when copies are actually sold? That would take care of one major problem bookstores have: inventory costs. (This is the model on which University Press Books in Berkeley was originally established.)

Consignment is problematic for publishers and, I would think as well, bookstores because of the time and tracking element. The less time spent doing followup on placements, the better. When, as a small press publisher in the seventies, I did consignment sales, the bookstores were always losing the books and claiming they didn’t give me the receipt that I was holding in my hand. (And in those days, those books were printed at great expense and often laboriously bound by hand!)

I think something like a point-of-sale model with Amazon or other large distributor doing the fulfillment and the bookstore getting a cut is the best approach. If bookstores then want to make a deal with an author or publisher to keep a book on their shelves for people to browse, then order it online to drop-ship (or be digitally delivered) to customers, I think they’d find they’d have plenty of material to fill their shelves at little or no cost to them. They could then focus on in-store activities designed to draw in potential readers (readings, workshops, book discussion groups, etc.) and rotate their featured stock accordingly.

As I said before, booksellers need to collaborate with Amazon, not try to stave off the inevitable.

Exactly – the independent bookstores and the remaining chains are trying to follow the old model, for less and less in return, Doing more in local events, and keeping sample books on hand for drop-ship sales or downloads – that would be thinking ahead and being creative.

Concur regarding consignment sales… more trouble and expense for a small publisher and indy author than it was worth in sales.

Another factor that seems to be impacting the publishing ecosystem is the advent of print-on-demand. As brick-and-mortar bookstores fail, publishers become unable to afford to take a chance on new authors without a compelling reason and a good chance at significant sales. So, new authors have turned to what used to be called “vanity presses,” though today they have little to do with vanity and everything to do with finding a viable avenue to being published. POD publishing gives authors a chance to compete with the big boys in the matter of a single day on Amazon, if their cover design and promotional skills are up to the task. Unknown authors can now produce a print version and ebook on their own, without having to wait to be chosen by a slush-pile reader in New York. Of course, that increases the availability of poor books in the stream, but that’s fine, let the books rise or fall on their own. As has been said, good marketing just make a bad book fail faster. Personally, I love the traditional bookstore and I hope it never goes away. But, as an author, the reality is that those stores, at least right now, will not even touch POD books. However, that seems to be only at the corporate office level. If brick-and-mortar wants to stay competitive with the online retailer, they are going to have to reconsider their attitude toward POD titles.

I agree with your last statement. Until publishers and bookstores start seeing POD as a printing and distribution method they can benefit from, not a “vanity” publishing method they must compete with, the old-way publishers are going to suffer in this new ecosystem. POD is hardly synonymous with self-publishing, although Amazon (I think short-sightedly) does nothing to dispel this notion. I run an independent press (FutureCycle Press) that now has 54 titles in its catalog, with 20 more scheduled so far for this/next year, all editorially vetted by a team of writer-editors and painstakingly produced by someone with the skills to do a professional job. Our printer? CreateSpace. Our ebook platform? Kindle Direct Publishing/Kindle Select.

The way we see it: The best of both worlds for all involved is an “archival” POD title that never goes out of print for those who prefer paperbacks over ebooks plus a digital version that can be checked out from a library or purchased online. Amazon has exactly the right idea in this regard. When they finally make it easier for publishers to distribute to libraries (without requiring a CreateSpace ISBN, which we will not use) and also fold in their existing cataloging data into their Kindle software (so readers don’t have to reinvent the wheel via “Collections”), their model will be far superior to anything else.

The technology is already in place for people to come into a bookstore and browse, then order print or ebook versions online. Amazon already has pricing in place for wholesalers and resellers who sign up with them above and beyond the typical affiliate-linking programs. What physical bookstores need to think in terms of doing is working with Amazon, not against it, to develop point-of-sale software to allow them to capture part of the profit from a sale. Then they should use their space to encourage discovery and build loyalty; to make visiting their store a pleasant way to spend one’s time, a place writers and readers can come together for readings, small workshops, book discussions, etc. Provide the hotspot and encourage people to showcase and purchase online…with the bookstore getting a cut of every sale. Why not? The bottom line could be as good or better than with the way they are doing it now, if it’s done right, and it would also build value for the community.

And ebooks? Hey, none of us is getting any younger, and the planet is getting more and more crowded. I for one am not physically capable of lugging around books anymore, nor could I afford the square footage required to house all the books I’ve read and want to read. Gone are the days when I used to sleep with twelve books in bed with me. Digital is great for downsizing while, at the same time, expanding one’s world…and it saves energy and trees. The way I see it, there’s a lot more at play here than the money.

First of all, some bricks-and-mortar stores now have Expresso Book Machines in them so that customers can buy and print out these POD books right on the spot. Second, university presses started using POD over a decade ago. At Penn State Press, beginning around 2000, we printed a small quantity of hardbacks, around 300, to start, mainly for the library market, and then would issue the paperback in POD form only. Also, we digitized a good many older titles and kept them in virtual inventory only, as POD titles, to take advantage of the “long tail.” This strategy solved two major problems facing scholarly publishers: cash flow (since one no longer had to invest in slow-moving inventory) and warehouse expense (since few titles actually needed to be kept in print inventory any longer).

As a writer of historical fiction published by a teensy local press through POD, I actually wish that brick and mortar bookstores could be easier to work with. My own books have local appeal (being set in the Texas Hill Country and in South Texas) and are distributed by Ingram with the standard discount and returnability. Borders was easy to work with and stocked my books readily, so does Hastings. But Barnes and Noble is not and will not – even with the discount and returnability. The local independent bookstore now focuses more on children’s books, and the big independent store in a city an hours drive away will only stock my books on a consignment basis. Which I will not do any more, having been stalled on payment for sales, paid with a bouncing check, and had all records of my books lost or misplaced. This leaves me with some museum stores, seasonal special events and direct sales … and Amazon. (And ebook sales, of course.)

Your post reminds me of a conversation I had with my next door neighbor Leon about 25 years ago. At the time Leon was 93 years old and he told me when he was 15 (I estimate around 1905) he apprenticed as a blacksmith. He said he gave it up after a year and became a well digger because it became clear to him there wasn’t much future in the profession.

Leon was a pretty sharp guy even at 93. My point is that what you describe is not really new. Technological changes are probably a little faster than the transition from horses to cars but the result is the same. Professions change, reorganize and even disappear while new ones emerge.

Also over my career I have seen IBM dominate computing and then drop into a niche player with the rise of Microsoft which now seems to be fading with Google and Apple fighting to be the dominant players in the tablet and smart phone world. While Amazon is dominating e-book sales at the moment, in all likelihood before long either through an new technological change or some other factor they will fade and some other company will dominate.

Yes, David I agree they currently are very successful after a pretty rough period where I think they were reduced to a niche (business services) company. They have run with that focus and done extremely well.

In the late 1970s they dominated the whole realm of mainframe business computing and in 1980 after they introduced the IBM PC they dominated microcomputing. That domination faded as mainframes became less important and microcomputers became a commodity. With those technological changes Microsoft began dominating because they controlled the operating system which is what mattered at the time. With the rise of network computing operating systems matter less and less and Microsoft is fading. Now as PCs are loosing some of their importance to tablets and smartphones and things are likely to change again.

The point I was trying to make is that as technology changes, the dominant company tends to stick with the business model that made them dominant and some other company that is a little more forward looking and happens to be in the right spot at the right time takes over.

How and where we discover books–and, most importantly, where we buy them–are the primary sources of change in the book business ecoystem. And the stackholders are not just bookstores or publishers but authors and readers.

You point out that the modes of discovery outside of bookstores are relatively primitive compared to what happens inside a bookstore. But another key piece is what motivates a consumer to buy something in one place rather than another. There’s an “xchange of value in these transactions. Online the value delivered is low price and convenience. At an independent bookstore the transaction value is quite different. What’s needed is a more diverse way of delivering value online that doesn’t depend on low price as the key motivation.

Trade publishers have not typically dealt with customers directly. They dealt with distributors and bookstore chains who dealt with individual stores who dealt, usually very effectively, with physical book buying customers.
As digital obviates the need for brick and mortar interfaces, publishers find themselves face-to-face with customers and clueless as to what to do next. They are strangers in a strange land. Enter Amazon and their ilk. Hip and streetwise in this new world, they know how to leverage the pros and diminish the cons. Thus, trade publishers lost their bargaining position and tools.
What they pine for, if these consummate realists pine for anything, is the golden past or a future that maintains their status. Neither is realistically possible so they deal with those hip and streetwise digerati as best they can. This dance is ongoing and trade publishers are learning new moves as they endure the humiliation of their missteps.

Great post — very comprehensive and insightful. I like that you get at a lot of the hard business aspects and delineate printed books, bricks and mortar bookstores which house printed books, and get at the implications of declining use of either or both. One quibble:

“Publishers are not very interested in having customers find or discover books; they are interested in them *finding the publisher’s own book*”

This one doesn’t jibe with my experience. While at a Big 6, we certainly liked it when a consumer chose “one of ours,” but we definitely saw books as increasingly competing with other media for consumer attention and narrative consumption. And realized that trying to market “just ours” to consumers could be ineffective and/or just plain odd. That’s been played out by many vertical offerings, discovery sites, and apps launched by publishers which include titles of all publishers, not just the owner(s) — Book Scout, Bookish, etc.. I’m not certain these will work — in fact, pretty sure most won’t — but I do think that publishers wish to see *books and *reading remain viable and critical parts of the cultural and business landscape and that some of these cross-publisher efforts will gain traction and resonate.

Thanks again for a great post.


Joe shouldn’t apologize for talking about trade books on TSK because, in fact, trade publishing continues to be an important component of scholarly publishing. The largest university presses at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc., regularly publish trade books and compete fiercely for them, sometimes even paying five-figure advances, and most presses affiliated with state universities have robust regional book lists, which are generally all aimed at the trade market and sold through bookstores. What he might want to talk about is how scholarly presses engage with bookstores, both the chains (Borders was a bear to deal with on returns, chargebacks, etc.) and independents (like University Press Books in Berkeley, which operated on a consignment model).

Maybe those public libraries that still purchase print books will become the place to discover new books. I still go to my public library to see what trade books are available.

My personal preference is for ebooks, because I can carry my whole library in a device smaller than the average paperback and because I can adjust the type to suit my eyesight. However, in an ideal world I wouldn’t have to make the choice. I’d be able to browse my favourite bookshop for something I like and buy it in the knowledge that, by so doing, I have bought the right to read it in whatever format I like – perhaps through a code printed on the receipt that allows me to download it to my Kindle free of charge. Exactly how the money is distributed between the bookshop and Amazon is something for the industry to sort out, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.

I’ve definitely heard this idea before–bundling print and e formats. It makes a lot of sense from the consumer point of view, and it doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. I’ve always assumed that it must be very difficult in practice, otherwise more people would have tried it. Maybe one of the chefs could do an analysis on this subject?

The difficulty with doing this is probably not technical, but related to distribution rights and payment structures. The movie business has (somewhat) gone to this model of distribution where a person can buy a Blu-Ray title that includes the DVD and the digital version (either on disc or as a download) for slightly more than the cost of the Blu-Ray alone. Personally, I don’t mind paying a small premium for that kind of accessibility. I would love to be able to buy a physical book and, for a few dollars more, get the digital version as well.

“When we express regret at the passing of the old print paradigm, don’t shed a tear for the authors. Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.”
And without authors, what is it that they would have been holding together???? That comment–by an author, no less–seems to reflect one of the attitudes that have made it so difficult for authors to make a living in the business.
And, yes, I miss Border’s tremendously, and am holding my breath for Barnes and Noble.

Hi Kevin:
Really appreciated your comment. As a writer, I thought his article was pretty good until that head-scratching last line. I only buy books online when I have to, otherwise it’s off to the store, nothing can compare. Take care, Rick (also still mourning Borders demise)

Discoverability in a physical bookstore is a big city priviledge. Publishers need to venture out of NYC once in a while if that is how they think new books are found. Sure you can find lots of new books if your bookstores are huge and you have lots of bookstores near you. My local choices were a single small independent with a couple of visits a year to a larger store two hours away. Limited shelf space means your choices are limited to items no more than a couple months old and your taste better run along pretty traditional lines. My discoverability EXPLODED once I discovered internet shopping.

My small local bookstore allows me to browse available books online and order through them. I can pick it up at the store with no shipping cost. While there, I may “discover” another title that looks interesting and so on. But I have the book shipped to them, paid to them, and visit them, all in attempt to keep the doors open a while longer.

The point is there are many students leaving school, whether that be at 16 or 18, who can barely read in the first place; so what is a book store to them?

Everyone has gone internet crazy, and the trend appears never ending. Even libraries are starting to look a bit bare these days, with the exception of the childrens section (thank heavens, because if we do not teach our children to read, there really is no future).

It is very similar to the idea that the Spread sheet solves all; and even I wonder as Credit Manager, how I would have got on 30 years ago typing my own letters on a typerwriter. Even at the age of 20, I dictated my letters through a telephone recording systems which went down to the Typing Pool. These days many children can almost “touch-type” by the age of 11.

In the case of the Typing Pool, it has had quite a severe effect on girls in particular securing their first job, since being a copy- typist was usually your first job. Now you have got to know certain software and most children cannot spell, without a “spell-checker”. Where the fun really cuts in when the Amercanese starts to cut in with diffrent spelling and the Americans’ fixation with “ize”
as opposed to “ise”. This is particularly irritating to us Brits and other Nationalities who take exception to their language being barstadised by some American multi millionaire.

I now type all my own Summonses, Particulars of Claim, general correspondence; and it seems only Directors or Partners of company actually have a true secretary.

This brings us back to books, since the books that seem to sell the best are small childrens’ first picture books, and cookery books; the latter being a little odd, since few people cook for themselves these days; especially in America and UK where the take-away/delivery is doing very well, even through the current ecconomic crisis. I have also noted that the “Recipie Card” (very much the in thing in the 1970s) has come back in to fashion (at least in the UK) where you belonged to a club that sent you a batch of cards with various receipies, methods and a picture of the would be finnished product on the other side, on a quarterly basis.

The main issue is people are too busy whizzing around and being dictated to by a computer when to do things and effectively, certainly as far as commerce is concerned, I wonder whether we have reached a stage where the machine is now controlling the human. Even a small book-shop come coffee shop which was intended to take older folk in particular in to a tea-shot and pick up a book. It was part private library, part book-seller as well as the coffee shop, but within two years, that closed. The two biggest Stationery and Books stores in my town have now closed and vacant possession.

The main reason was that TESCO opened a similar shop in-store (although no books, but comics for the kids) and was nearer to the bus stops. So a giant killing off yet another defenceless ant.

Most people do not have the time to read for pleasure anymore, since they are aways reading off a screen. As another contributor says, he reads “e-books”, as opposed to buying one. If that is the case, more and more people will stop reading for pleasure.

It is perhaps ironic that the computer was supposed to give us all this “free-time” and yet actually the only way it has, is through unemployment being the “free time”.

You mention some good points. I do think that bookstores will continue in the future but not as we know them today and that all has to keep up with the current technology to keep alive, the thing is to be ahead of technology so that no one gets hurt don’t you think?

Reblogged this on Between Worlds and commented:
As with almost everything that is written (that is not pure fact), the arguments are, of course, debatable. But I think these are excellent, VERY important points to consider. I would read an ebook, but I do generally prefer print books, and they’re becoming a less available and more expensive. I used to love bookstores; I would still love them if I had time to hang out in them now, I’m sure, but they’re slowly all closing down. How do people not realize how sad this is?

If you think a book is worth reading then you should be willing to spend a little money on it. Otherwise, go to the library. Libraries are great.

For me, the experience of buying a book at a friendly, bustling bookstore is far better than browsing around online. My college town has none of these, so I usually shop at Barnes and Noble at home. Too bad chain bookstores are eating up the little discount ones.
Your point ” Are you expressing a preference for ebooks over print or are you simply expressing an interest in lower prices?” was true for me. I tend to do a cost-benefit analysis of online books because they usually are cheaper compared to hardcover editions.

As a book lover and someone who wants to work in the publishing industry it breaks my heart to see bookstores fading.I’m determindely ( maybe naively ) optimistic that they will fight and stay. Nothing makes me happier then walking into and browzing through a good bookshop, certainly not clicking through Amazon. There’s no denying that technology has started to and will continue to play a huge role in the publishing industry but I would love to see the two mediums grow and co-exist rather than see print collapse. There’s a niche for both. A beautifully bound book is a treasure, being able to read the paper on your tablet, a huge convenience.

Joe: I think you are missing the point. It really doesn’t matter what “the publisher wants”. Ultimately it comes down to who is best fulfilling the needs of the consumer. The fact that Borders went out of business and B&N isn’t far behind gives you a big clue about the answer.

I was at a focus group of nurses this morning for a nursing publication. They stated that when they have a question, they don’t go to back issues of the magazine we represent. They Google the question or go to PubMed and look for articles that address the issue. Whether my publisher likes it or not, that’s what they do. So instead of bemoaning the demise of bookstores, publishers should be figuring out how to meet consumers’ needs in a changing environment.

As one reader on the train said the other day when a fellow passenger noted he had a kindle in his briefcase while engrossed in the traditional book he held in his hands : “Sometimes you just want to go acoustic.” Thus, perhaps as one of the most important comments made in this thread points out- “instead of bemoaning the demise of bookstores,” publishers should indeed be figuring out how to meet customer needs”- technology and tradition aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to books- If a clothing store chain like Urban Outfitters can successfully sell books- it’s a matter of thinking outside the box. Read Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow Lighted Bookshop (2006),

Really interesting discussion. I agree with the points about being able to browse and the business as a whole improving because of that. It reminds me of record stores, which have had a similar decline in physical retail – I remember being told that a top-selling record was not only great for the company that issued it, but for record sales in general, because consumers would go to the record store for the top-selling record and then see or hear something else that caught their eye and which they would purchase as well.
I guess it depends which retail channel is better for browsing, bookstores or online sellers. I may be old-school, but I would much sooner browse through a bookstore, because I can look at all the books that might interest me – not just at the ones that an algorithm thinks I would like – and read the parts that I think will help me decide whether to buy – not just the parts that have been chosen by someone else for online posting.

The analogy between browsing in bookstores and browsing in music stores isn’t quite apt. Listening to music in music stores is rarely available to the same extent as one can browse through any books on the shelves in a store, whereas online books can usually be browsed only under restrictive conditions (not more than 20% of the content) that limit what one can see while much music can be sampled online much more freely, including the entirety of many songs (with many available through YouTube videos as well). I have discovered much more older music I like online than i ever did in visiting music stores, whereas the reverse is true for books.

And I’ve discovered a lot of music I never would have heard otherwise from hearing it on the PA system in record stores.

I’ve discovered a lot of music I never would have heard otherwise from hearing it on the PA system in the gym. I’ve also discovered some great books watching people on planes. It’s one of the elements of the physical world (acoustical and otherwise) that it is naturally shared, leading to discovery.

Really interesting article. Bookstores really are a means of curating a collection and I honestly had never thought of it that way, even as I consider getting a MLIS. I live in a small town and we don’t have great bookstores, so most of my personal purchases come on amazon or simply by borrowing at the library – print and ebook. I have a “to read” list on goodreads that is over 170 books long and always growing. However, we still utilize the local bookstore for childrens books, especially as gifts. I could wander bookstores for hours and am incredibly distressed at the notion that they might go away. For that reason, I also try to support local bookstores when I can – at home when buying kids books and on vacations if I find something interesting. Big book stores get told what to put out for marketing purposes, so the best section is always staff recommendations. The publishing world in general is going through many changes. It is hard to figure out how to best meet the needs and wants of the public while still managing to make a profit.

I’M pleased that WP Freshly Pressed this article. Long comment thread is indicative of contentious topic. I agree with Owl Canyon Books that technology and tradition are not mutually exclusive. But, the concern is that traditional paper books will disappear. Will it be enough to only have books available through some technological device? At this point, I do not even use a Kindle because I read too fast and still find the constant refresh rate annoying. Because I am a bibliophile, many people have lent me theirs to convince me. I remain unconvinced while appreciating their value to others.
There is indeed a sense of discovery to be felt within a brick and mortar bookstore, walking shelf after shelf of books. I do not yet experience that on-line. Yes, a library is still a place to discover books this way, but it won’t be if book publishers are financially unable to maintain that printed alternative. As the blogger suggests, the real question is where you will find things you want to read.

In my city, a new independent bookstore just opened. I can hardly wait to go. I don’t think the last line of this article that “our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together” is meant to ignore that someone must write those books, but rather to honour brick and mortar booksellers whose love for books makes them risk financial loss. The blogger’s point that the simple truth is “that with one exception, every link in the value chain must be profitable or the entire chain breaks” is key to determining the future of books. This isn’t about publishers, or authors, or readers; it is about everyone who wants to read books.

You wrote, “Without bookstores people will buy fewer books,” but this is simply not true. People are buying more books now than ever as a result of ebook readers. I do love bookstores, and am of an age that I miss the great ones that did not try to complete with the B&N or Borders; that is, they carried literature published by smaller, more intellectually-based presses — before some of those were bought up by Random House aka Bertelsmann. I love bookstores a bit less these days because, as a publisher and a reader, it is increasingly rare for them to carry books that are less commercial (i.e., more intellectual and innovative) than most. I simply cannot find a wide variety of the type of books I want in a brick-and-mortar store. Worse, our company also has had problems with some bookstores simply not paying their bill. There is a new trend occurring around the country: not-for-profit bookstores. They do, in fact, carry the more unusual titles publishing by the small and smaller presses. And they are having success. Evolution happens.

1) Without authors, there is no book industry in any form. Everything else can go, even writing. People once made their livings telling stories.

2) DRM is hurting publishers in that it limits their sales to players like Apple, B&N or Amazon who sell DRM ready readers. Ditching DRM means they could have more control of their own ecosystem. (Apple is unusual in that their hardware supports multiple DRM schemes.)

3) The heavy readers I know have gone electronic. They all really appreciate not having to lug and store all that paper just to feed their reading habit.

4) Video stores can give us a glimpse of the future of book stores. There is a huge, instantly available selection. It is still possible to buy physical artifacts online for gift giving or collecting. (I’m not exactly sure where RedBox and its ilk fit in. They may be transient or they may evolve into a print on demand station that provides pretty gifts like Hallmark.)

An left important factor has been left out of the discussion. What if you do NOT find a book that you want in that bookstore. With declining shelf space in bookstores devoted to books and more devoted shelf space devoted to tchotchkes, that is now highly likely.

Then go online. Or to another store if there’s one around. The bookstore is only one of your options. It is a diverse ecosystem.

If I don’t find the book I want at my local bookstore, I ask them to order it for me. They always do. i don’t expect any brick and mortar place to have every single book that’s in print, but if they can order it, they absolutely will do it.
And in the meantime, I can find something else to read while I’m there. Something I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t seen it on a shelf or display.

There are so many tentacles to try and tie down in this debate. I reckon that eventually systems that work will happen, but a lot of pain is unavoidable. Some of the issues still to get sorted (in my mind, anyway) are:

> I’m in the UK, and although hordes of independent bookshops keep closing down, there’s still resistance to consider adapting to change. Maybe music shops can do more as well. In both cases, why doesn’t someone improve on the headphones that let you listen to the music shop’s whole stock… Why not go digital and let you listen to anything that exists? In a bookshop, a parallel – why not a screen to let you sample Amazon’s whole range of books?

> I have two small publishing companies. We do the usual book signings / talks, but far fewer than usual. Why? So many bookshops, including our single remaining chain, don’t bother to advertise the event, or even to set it up correctly. We traveled over a hundred miles once, for a talk + signing event for two of our authors. It turned out that there had been no promo whatsoever, and the town where this happened also apparently closes down on a Saturday afternoon, so no passing traffic either.
I’ve tried to get bookshops to push for author videos that they can show in their shop. Imagine – you don’t need a physical body, the author can speak around the country and overseas all at the same time, at no cost or time hassle to author, bookshop, publisher, etc. No bookshop owner I’ve spoken to has shown the slightest interest in the idea.

> As suggested in one of the comments above / earlier, a link between Amazon and bookshops could probably be mutually useful. Amazon seems to be thinking about a physical presence already; if they do it themselves, that would really mess up bookshops & chains as well.

> I gather there’s legislation of some kind in the States that requires a publisher to give the same discount to smaller shops as they do to chains. I’d love to see that happen over here.

> Finally (apologies for the long spiel, I rarely have time to post comments, let alone to read discussions much). I wish our PA and / or BA (Publishers’ Association , Booksellers’ Association) would find some way to lean on the government regarding discount levels. I can’t compete with supermarket demands of 80% + discounts. Nor with major bookshops demanding thousands of pounds to display a book in their window. If we have laws regulating speed limits on the roads, why not a limit to discounts?
By the way, why can France and other EU countries still have a form of retail price maintenance, if we can’t? We can’t even limit rates on payday loan companies, who can charge over 4,000% p.a. When I was in South Africa, there was a Usury Act that put a 30% limit on any kind of lending whatsoever. How come a first world, EU-linked country can’t do that for the man in the street? People would have more money to spend on books if they weren’t being skinned this way.

I really am sorry for this post, it’s not what I set out to do. I just do get fed up with the big players doing what they like, with no protection for the smaller players, whether authors, publishers or shops generally. It affects more than just the book trade, and probably in the States as well?

As a micro-publisher AND author-photographer (of regional photographic-essay books), I can assure you that I lament, and am paying the financial price for, the passing of the physical bookstore. When the Borders store – the only large trade bookstore in the region where I have primarily published – went under, the sales of my four titles in that region dropped by 90%. Overnight, the overwhelmingly dominant place where my books were sold, displayed, and publicized, disappeared. With the disappearance of that Borders store, I lost not only the individual retail sales of visitors to the bookstore, but the occasional large bulk order from corporations, conventions, and meeting planners who found my books by browsing the bookstore. Has Amazon been, net, beneficial to my business? Although I get occasional, ongoing sales through Amazon’s small-publisher Advantage program, overall, the demise of the physical bookstore has been disastrous. I suspect, without empirical evidence to back it up, that the era of the small-press regional book is dead. This area of publishing has always been extremely dicey, but I would venture to say that as a business proposition, it is now near-suicidal. There are now only a handful of places (museum gift-shops being few and far between) to display and sell such books.

“Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.” This is mostly true. We are rapidly reaching a point where a book can only be available for purchase online and from Amazon. The ability to discover a good new book on-line is actually becoming more difficult as the website itself falls under complete control of a handful of websites. You may find this article piece about independent Black owned Bookstores interesting:

Everything you mention impacts the variety of what is discoverable, which impacts what is purchased and impact what is published.

My sympathies go to the reader.

How curious that many of these commenters yearn for the days of buggy-whips and iceboxes! As a consumer (—–> c o n s u m e r) of both scientific/research and trade content I relish the forward evolution of content. It’s about content, people, not the happiness of a small-shop book monger. Let’s focus more on the advantages to the ——-> consumer. I’ve never, in my 59 years, had it so good as a consumer of content !! From content research capabilities to purchasing options, I find this a golden age. Why the hell would I want to regress to the myriad limits of a small, capital-strapped corner bookshop?? Yes, I very much enjoy those little shops that remain. Particularly those dusty numbers with the lovely smell of old bindings and creaky wooden floors. But I love them as a novelty, people…a hobby. These systems have been replaced by something more efficient and offering a wider spectrum for the consumer — by magnitudes! Those who want to travel by covered wagon today – enjoy your experience (while you wring your hands bemoaning the old days). I, on the other hand prefer to board a Boeing 777 with a tablet loaded with beautifully indexed selections of everything from The Silmarillion to the latest findings regarding dark matter in The Astrophysical Journal.

I can see why you may feel this way. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the vast majority of people, we are losing much more than just indy bookstores. We are also losing the large bookstores as well. Borders is gone, B&N has announced 20 store closures, a year, over the next decade. .

Today Amazon sells more books that all the other competitors combined. Amazon owns AbeBooks, Goodreads, AbeBooks,,, The Book Depository, etc

While technology is great (I’m no Luddite), but when a handful of corporation take over the outcomes is never good. Do you really want a world where is the only place we can buy a book — and only in electronic format?

Again it is not just books: It is also journalism that is effected. Large corporations armed with technology are killing independent newspapers and magazines left and right. As a result they literally control the news we get.

The author Jaron Lanier, in his book, Who Owns the Future: outlines a potential solution. But solutions are useless until we recognize we have a problem.

One should also consider the impact on one’s local community. Amazon may indeed be cheaper and easier, but as more and more people shop online, your local shopkeepers go out of business, and your townspeople lose their jobs. With a few exceptions of things like bars, restaurants and hair salons, your downtown turns into a ghost town, your property values drop as your area becomes depressed, your town receives less tax revenue, etc. You may end up sitting in your hovel as you watch Amazon executives fly overhead in those Boeing 777’s. Or perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones and get a minimum wage job with no benefits in one of Amazon’s warehouses:

Then there’s the problem of your local hardware store closing because it’s cheaper to get things online, when your pipes burst and you need a new replacement part. Ordering a gasket on your tablet and waiting for 2 day shipping while your basement floods may not be ideal. Or needing that last minute gift, etc.

Of course! Supporting a local bookseller is an investment in one’s community. Needless to say, with less competition Amazon’s book prices will increase.

An interesting financial analysis of Amazon here, which suggests two potential futures for the company:

This leads to two views of the company. One, to put it crudely, is that at some point, when it has gained enough market share to get away with it, it will ‘flip a switch’, put up prices or cut capex and start making a return.

The other view is that this isn’t actually possible – that Amazon is a sort of Ponzi scheme. It can only grow by running at zero profit – as soon as it puts up prices or cuts capex the business will collapse, and as soon as the share price stops going up all the staff will leave.

Ah, but we’ll all eventually have 3-D printers in our homes to produce all the hardware we need!

Yes, but we won’t be able to afford the raw materials to run them, let alone the licensing rights to any plans for printing objects because the only jobs available will be minimum wage ones in factories assembling 3D printers.

Thank you, John, for bringing this conversation back to where it belongs — the consumer. Successful vendors supply what consumers desire to purchase, not what and how the vendor wants to sell. My wife’s unsuccessful baking business at the local farmers’ market proved that years ago.

Some of us don’t read as well from an e-book or enjoy reading it as much. Instead of mocking people for liking “buggy whips” maybe you should realize that not everyone’s brain works the same way and that the brains of some people who have spent decades (heck, in my case, only two decades or so since I am 28) reading from the printed page don’t adjust to e-books quite as well as you did. Not everyone is wired the same way.

Really interesting and lucid take on the changing publishing industry.

But … wow, you are so off base on the motivations of writers that it’s more than a little shocking. You’re like the classical music snob I met once at a party who could only fathom anyone would be interested in playing rock and roll if they were doing it “for the money.”

Writers are not made “out of a normal human being.” They write because they have to write. They write because they have something to say. The passion comes from the inside.

The writers I know would like to make enough money writing so that they’re financially independent, in order to be able to quit the day job … and write more! They want to be able to spend more time at “a good and interesting job” — writing.

So please spare us the straw-man argument about why we shouldn’t care about authors.

I can only speak for myself as a reader/consumer (never worked for a bookstore or a publisher) but… I hate e-books. I simply can’t absorb the information as well as from a printed book and I hate the feel of holding a tablet/reader in my hand. It doesn’t even feel like reading a book! If print becomes harder to find I am basically just going to have to read much, much less or hunt down old used books I never read. I am going to do what I can to get my kids to like print too (they won’t be exposed to e-books at all until school and I will try to teach them to read before then) but it depresses me so much that something of such value to me (the printed book) may die in my lifetime. Losing bookstores which I ADORE (I avoid buying online whenever possible, but if I have to, it’s from the Barnes & Noble website) would be bad enough, losing print would be absolutely devastating and basically end my reading hobby. Everyone who appreciates what e-books have done for them should realize there are some readers who just can’t read e-books enjoyably and would no longer be able to enjoy reading if print is gone….

as an author/writer/avid book lover and journal reader, I was with this article until the last paragraph. it is exactly the author who you should shed a tear for. After decades of being published at the whim of the editors’ picks, (and as we know, most of those authors living lavishly are either celebrities or publishers’ favorites, not necessarily the most talented or critically acclaimed of the brood) now true writers who love the art of writing can publish their works and gain a greater majority of the royalties. Amazon may prove to be no better than the monopoly that was once the publishers’ playground, but it at least opens up the marketplace. now, that said, there are some books that make it to print and maybe are not the best, but the final decision making is in the hands of the readers, and every author has the write to be read by someone who wants to take the time to read their words.

A good and lively debate on this subject sparked by a well written article. I’m a freelance editor working mostly with small publishing groups. I also worked at Yes! Books in Washington, the early 90s, a beautiful example of the local bookstore catering to a specific consumer that sadly went out of business.

As someone involved in publishing at this time, one thing I get from this discussion is that the two marketplaces, the “physical” marketplace of the bookstore and the virtual marketplace of digitized books, are really providing consumers with quite divergent services. This leads me to wonder if, rather than comparing them and focusing on their competitive aspects, we shouldn’t instead discuss the ways in which they compliment one another. True, the emergence of the e-market has changed how materials are published. And there have been accompanying economic repercussions. But in our capitalist system we tend to have a knee jerk response about competition when we could look at the situation differently.

Before there was publishing, there was the art of hand written books. And before there was writing, there was the oral tradition. Of course the advent and development of writing affected oral traditions. But oral traditions are still with us. They have not died out. They have continued to be part of the human approach to recording real and imagined events. They simply had to make room for these other methods. A written account is a totally different animal from an oral account. They are two different mediums that coexist in human culture.

I see no reason why the publishing of paper books cannot coexist alongside the publishing of e-books. We are simply experiencing a transition of the two finding their relative places in our culture. I doubt that the publishing of paper books will ever truly cease, provided the resources necessary continue to be available. A paper book is a unique entity that can be viewed as a complete universe. Digitized works have practical aspects that are very helpful with scholarship (I found them so when I was a graduate student), research of all kinds and the ease of portability. But, they do not have the soul that a paper book has. They don’t have that tactile quality that allows the reader to immerse themselves in a work through their eyes, hands, fingertips, to have a somatic experience with a book. The two mediums of publishing thus provide for the different needs of the reader. It needn’t be a case of “either… or”, but rather a case of “both… and.”

The virtual marketplace can provide quick access, that is possibly more affordable, and an unlimited virtual storage space that is ideal for research. But, in all honesty, in my own research, as helpful as digitized formats are, I always end up having to search out the hard, physical sources because the digitized material does not contain the most pertinent keys to my topic. In short, digitized publishing is convenient, but it isn’t always of the highest quality in terms of information, at least in my experience.

As a reader, I will always gravitate to the local bookstore. I like the containment of a physical structure and I like the contact with a community of fellow readers who I can actually look in the eye. I neither need nor want to have limitless choices in that context. It interests me to see what the bookseller has chosen. There is also no comparison with the informed local bookseller whose advice and conversations are priceless.

Local bookstores are community centers. They are as much about people as they are about books. They are the communal glue for literacy and literary culture as is the public library, another priceless institution. You cannot experience an author reading live to their audience on a digitized marketplace, you cannot speak with the author afterwards, but you can at a bookstore where they make that platform possible.

I think the real issue is how publishers need to adapt to the advent of digitized platforms. But I have no doubt that they will, as will the booksellers.

Vikram Seth, in his novel A Suitable Boy, gives a beautiful description of the rich experience the reader enjoys at the local bookstore and the irreplaceable relationship the reader has with their bookseller. He captures that essence of the local bookstore that is an oasis in daily life. Find the book and check it out. Bet it’s easier to find within the hard copy. 😉

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