It’s my fault. I knew that a group of working women who wanted me to talk about my business would gravitate towards the media-saturated subjects. So I decided to confront these subjects head-on: the internet, Amazon, Borders, eBooks. Officially, I named the talk Loganberry at Sweet Sixteen, and focused on the industry changes over 1.5 decades. The changes are extreme. I illustrated this by beginning with the used book trade and an illustration of book searching with trade tools like the defunct AB Bookman. Can you believe we used to read books wanted ads like personals, just 16 years ago? Even the ladies found this ludicrous.
On to the new book industry: there’s so much to talk about here. There have been lots of format changes over the years — trade paperback originals, audio books, POD; chain stores, internet, wholesale terms — but none as incisive as eBooks. The media has hounded the advent of the eReader, and heralded the demise of paper. That everyone jumps to the conclusion that books are dead is unfortunate. Television did not kill radio. Paperbacks did not kill hardbacks. Audiobooks did not kill print.
The evolution of format continues, and while we are still in this proprietary-technology stage, it is akin to the Beta era of home movie viewing. Isn’t it great that new readers are being cultivated by the allure of the device? Isn’t it nice to see people reading on the bus again? These are new readers, folks, and of course they loaded up their new Christmas toys with new reads, and of course that makes a sales impact. I bet these new readers will be happy to discover paper books too, once their hobby becomes ingrained in the psyche. I hope there will be bookstores to peruse when this time comes, and more importantly, I hope the publishers survive to see the day.
Meanwhile, the biggest threat to indie bookstore survival at the moment, Amazon.com, has declared war on proper citizenship by refusing to collect and pay sales tax. They have just declared that they will close their distribution facility in Texas and not build a proposed second one, so that they can avoid the sales tax mandate that the State of Texas has issued. What poor sports. We all live somewhere, and we expect our municipal services. Surely there is some justice left in the world, and reason to believe in a level playing field.
This morning, as expected, Borders Group announced their filing of Chapter 11. It does not mean the end of Borders, but a third of their stores will close. It could mean the end of some of the smaller publishers, and one wonders how Penguin can sustain a $41 million loss. Do we care? Ah, but we do. I do. Books are the cultural hub of our society, in whatever format, and bookstores are a cultural center for thinking neighbors. We need them to be a cultured society.
But the questions at my talk were all self-centered.
- “How can I sell my books on <the internet>?”
- “What is my <rare book> worth?”
- “Can you answer my <personal research question>?”
- “Where can I test <an eReader>?”
While these are questions I answer on a daily basis, they are not the questions I expected from a quick history of the last decade of the book business. I was hoping for a wider view, a concerned citizen’s outrage.
- “How can we help independent bookstores survive?”
- “How do eReaders effect the livlihood of authors and editors?”
- “What would it mean if several big publishers went out of business?”
- “Is there another model authors and thinkers should persue?”
- “If libraries and bookstores disappear, what does that mean for our communities?”
- “If retail businesses die in my neighborhood, what does that mean for the safety, cleanliness, and schools?”
- “What is the real cost of freedom? When is saving a buck a really expensive proposition?”
Yeah, I didn’t quite expect that either. But I did expect someone to at least care.