Nobody is going to want to hear this, but we might as well face up. One of these days, not too far off, bookstores will be a thing of the past. Books are going digital just like music has gone digital. Right now e-book purchases constitute less than 2% of all book sales. But while sales of trade books are down this year, sales of e-books are up almost 300%. You don’t need to be a statistician or an industry sage to see which way the wind is blowing.
I don’t feel very comfortable about this. I don’t even feel comfortable writing about this. Certainly when I was in retail, I didn’t even feel comfortable thinking about this. And most of the time I didn’t. But reality is beginning to impinge even on my own immeasurable capacity for avoidance.
About 12 years ago, I was on a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco with a bunch of high tech gurus. To give you an idea of how much the world has changed, one of the gurus was talking about this new internet company that he had just discovered. He called it “one of my favorite new bookstores.” The company was Amazon.com. I’d never heard of it.
The subject of the panel was the future of the book in the internet age. The gurus all said that the book was going digital. It was just a question of how long it would take for the technology to develop enough to create a good medium for reading text. They predicted it would be in about five years. They were wrong on the timing but right on everything else. I became argumentative and even slightly insulting. I also shamelessly played to the house, which was mostly made up of little old ladies. I said that the other members of the panel were technology obsessed and that the world of literature and culture was much too important to be left in the hands of engineers (I believe I raised my upper lip with just a hint of a sneer when I said this). The audience applauded.
The gurus treated me with contempt, or maybe with benign condescension. They knew that they were masters of the universe. They knew that that this arrogant little shopkeeper would be swept up in the dustbin of history. I decided to go epistemological on them. I spoke of the overweening arrogance of believing that they owned the future. I might have mentioned David Hume’s critique of the concept of causality. But my skills were merely rhetorical. That day I won the battle. But today it is manifest that I lost the war.
One of the mistakes I made that day was to confuse two different issues. Was technology going to bring about the death of the book or would it bring about the death of the paper book? I attempted to formulate the question as one of technology vs. culture. I think I understood the distinction all along. But I kept treating the two issues interchangeably, probably for opportunistic and rhetorical reasons.
Clearly the book isn’t dead. E-book sales are growing exponentially. People still want to read a good novel. A three hundred page non-fiction book on a subject that has been well thought out and well edited is a lot different from a blog. The people who are designing e-book readers talk about the necessity of sustaining the “trance-like” state of reading when using the electronic medium. That is the right question to ask. And they are coming very close to succeeding.
I have never read a book on an e-book reader. But I’ve seen them, and they are pretty good. And they are getting better fast. They have wireless delivery systems, so you can get any of 1,000,000 titles in seconds. And, of course, the books are cheap. The internet seems to have an unfortunate tendency of devaluing intellectual work as reflected in the price of the product. Amazon and BN.com are in price wars. Amazon is selling best seller e-books for $9.95. That is below cost, by the way. And classics and public domain titles are usually free.
When I say that the internet hasn’t destroyed the book, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had an incalculable impact. And it has eliminated entire categories of books. During the heyday of Cody’s in the 1980’s, dictionaries, almanacs, and encyclopedias were huge sellers at the store. We could expect to sell 20 copies of the Webster’s Third International Dictionary during the holiday season. Even the $300 Complete Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes with magnifying reader included sold fifty copies a year. And that is when $300 was real money. Similarly, a new edition of The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia was a major publishing event. – And a major scholarly achievement. During the Eighties, our largest section in the store was computers, mostly books telling us how to use software. Those sales disappeared after 2000.
These books are all gone. These activities have moved on-line. It is just too convenient. But something is missing. We have already spoken of the tyranny of Wikipedia (see blog entry: “Wikipedia and Me.”) There was something else that has been lost, though. The serendipitous pleasure of thumbing through these books and discovering a new word or a new piece of information. That just doesn’t happen now.
The same is true of browsing in a bookstore. A bookstore gives you the pleasure of wandering around and maybe finding something unexpected. Amazon and BN.com have tried to duplicate this with clever software solutions. But they all seem pretty artificial. It doesn’t replace the joy of browsing a bookstore. A number of people have come up to me to tell me how important Cody’s was in their lives. Some of them said they met their spouses for the first time at Cody’s. You can’t do that at Amazon.com.
Next week I’ll talk some more about some of my quixotic struggles against the Brave New World of the internet.