Fighting Against History Part 1

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.

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10 Responses to “Fighting Against History Part 1”

  1. Peter Says:

    Very interesting post. There are too many things I want to say to say them all right now. I’ll just say this: I recently read a book called “What Are You Optimistic About?” One contributor, Walter Isaacson, answered: “Print As a Technology” and wrote the following (pg. 282): “Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 550 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the Internet.”

  2. J-Troop Says:

    I’m riding the bus almost every day these days and Andy, it might make you feel better to know that no one – not a single soul – is reading on an e-reader on the bus. But many, many people are reading books. I often just stare blankly out the window, thinking.

    Our children are growing up platform-agnostic (I do love that phrase). My daughter is a compulsive reader at 9, has asked for a Kindle and will probably get an e-reader in the next couple of years once the prices come down to a reasonable level. But she’s surrounded by heaps of books, none of them bought from Amazon (I might be exaggerating here). I know we’re in the minority, but we’ve made a choice to patronize our neighborhood children’s bookstore, there are two more within a couple of miles and our beloved University bookstore, with wonderful service and excellent selections. We’re blessed with, get this, six + fabulous bookstores within 7 minutes. This makes it easy on us, but kids today consume books alongside other media. I don’t think books are going away, but I do think there’ll be many more choices for them. And I think some of those choices, if coupled with fair compensation for writers, will be better for the environment . The kids? They love that. They think bigger than we do. And even with a Nintendo, cell phone, tv, vcr, dvd, Netflix on demand, netbook with cable speed wireless and access to Hulu for 30 Rock, The Office and Glee, and an iPod with its own name, what’s my daughter’s favorite activity?

    Reading a book. By a country fucking mile.

    Yes, bookstores are going out of business, leaving a hole in the heart of some communities, but at the same time, people are trying new models and seeing if they work. I’m not yet sure about how I feel about the Espresso book printing magical machine wonder, but I’m thinking that it might be far more important than we’re giving it credit for. And it will bring people into the store.

    I love technology. We have to look to the invention of paper, then the invention of the printing press, hell, the rise of the mass market paperback to understand the incredible shift that’s going on here. I don’t think bookstores are dying as a breed – booksellers have been around for how long? Can we count that high on our fingers and toes? But while the goal of the bookseller remains – get ‘content’ into the hands of ‘consumers’ (aka sell ideas, stories and culture to humans) – the trappings are changing. Sackcloth and ashes, ermine cloak, business suit or leather jacket, it’s all about adaptation. I, for one, am hopeful.

    And sometimes, like with nonprofits, organizations just run their natural life cycle, fertilizing the ground for new endeavors. Painful, but true.

    Soylent Greenishly Yours…

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks, Jessica, but I gotta say that all I’m hearing is Kindle, Kindle, Kindle. It is a little silly, because e-book readers are – well- just ways of reading books. It is a little like having endless articles and discussions about acid-free paper. I remember in the Eighties, when I went to author events at Cody’s, everybody wanted to ask the authors what they thought about word processers. So what?

      Publishers (I think) are looking forward to the brave new world of e-books. After all, there are no manufacturing costs, shipping costs, warehousing costs, and (this is a big one) no returns. And at the moment (listen up agents and authors), they are giving royalties to authors for ebooks that are less than for normal books. That is a good deal for publishers. Not such a good deal for authors.

      Publishers are a little freaked out about the fact that Amazon and BN.com are selling ebooks for $9.95. They are assuming with good reason that these retailers will someday be able to force a new suggested list price that is similar to that. This would have dire consequences for pubishers and authors.

      But there we go trying to predict the future again.

      Thanks for sharing your comments.

  3. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Well, Andy, you probably have a unique ability to address this issue, given your experience with Cody’s and now as an agent.

    I agree that browsing in a bookstore offers visceral pleasures and serendipitous encounters that don’t happen on Amazon. It’s like the old kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling… and ordering a carton of M&Ms over the Internet just isn’t the same as standing with wide eyes in front of a counter piled high with jars of all sorts of goodies.

    There will be opportunities as well as losses with the shift to electronic format. I’ve written in my blog about how electronic publishing could dramatically grow the audience for short stories (download a story for 99 cents like a song on iTunes?). And self-publishing could possibly become a viable path for new, unknown writers — like bands developing followers on MySpace.

    So I am trying to keep an open mind and be optimistic.

    But it’s a struggle.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks, Ilana. Of course what you say is true. I have seen a lot of silly ideas captivate people in publishing over the years. My favorite was “multimedia”. Some time back in the Eighties. Everybody was talking about it. I never quite understood what it was except that it had to do with books having cd-roms bundled in them. E-books are different for all the reasons you give. That is why I’m feeling a little discouraged (as a lover of bookstores, that is).

  4. Sarah Smith Says:

    I agree with much of this, and I miss Cody’s a lot. But as for encyclopedias and other reference sites? They are more useful, more available, and there are more of them–think, for instance, of ENCYCLOPEDIA TITANICA, a really wonderful site that would never have been possible on paper. They include videos and sounds–e.g. the LOC’s Internet Sound Database. They are much more easily searchable. They include wonderful books that would never be findable otherwise, such as the multilingual International Children’s Digital Library, a great place to find the Brazilian Portuguese books my daughter’s kids like to read.

    And, yes, they have the same possibilities for serendipity. I can’t count the times that I’ve started on one online encyclopedia entry and found myself, three happy hours later, at the end of a winding trail that might have included the Gnostic gospels, Jung, the Roycrofters…

    I don’t love most eBooks yet. I hate the presentation and design of most eBooks, and most readers are primitive. But I’m reasonably certain that, as they get better, they’ll attract intelligent, creative people who will do interesting things with them.

  5. Mike Shatzkin Says:

    You ought to write a book.

    But you also really ought to read something on a screen! Don’t you have an iPhone or a Blackberry? Download the Constitution or some other document should always have all the time (what? you don’t have any documents with you all the time?) and put it in there. Or download Kindle or something else to your bloody notebook computer and check it out. Read something where search adds value (like a book with too many characters to keep track of in your head.) Or, be like me and get hooked on having whatever you’re reading in your possession at all time EVEN in the middle of the night WITHOUT turning the light on and waking your wife.

    And it was more than 12 years ago when you did that seminar, I’ll bet. If memory serves me right: Amazon opened in July of 1995, which was about when I first heard of it (coincidental; a friend of mine in NY owned a brownstone and Jeff Bezos was his tenant and he was out in Seattle with his family on summer vacation, etc.) but by July of 1996, everybody knew about it and by July of 1997 they had cut their prices and made it unattractive for other bookstores to open online stores. Ingram set up a service called I2S2 to allow any store to be an Amazon but when Amazon cut their prices, everybody saw it as “churn” and said no thank you.

    Amazon saw the value was in owning the customer, not just in making the sale. Everybody needs to understand that: publishers, other retailers, and authors.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Mike, thanks for the post. Yep. It might have been more than 12 years ago, but not much more. I do read things on line, although I don’t have a reader. But, as I said, they are pretty impressive.

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in and hope we will hear more from you about all things “e-“

  6. Book Banning at Amazon.com « Ask the Agent Says:

    […] is this dispute all about?  What’s at stake here?  We have made several recent blog entries on the implications of the e-book revolution. E-books are currently a small niche market for trade […]

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