I stopped in at my local bookseller today to pick up a copy of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Despite owning a Kindle and an iPad, I still enjoy holding a real book, admiring perfectly kerned type (in this case a digital version of Bembo, originally designed by the Bolognese Renaissance type cutter Francesco Griffo) and feeling the pages as I turn them.
Plus, for some odd sentimental reason, I remain dedicated to supporting local bookstores in hopes that my loyalty will save our downtowns from yet another Starbucks, CVS or chain of some kind. (Yes, I know it’s a futile effort, but one has to try.)
I asked how business was and got “eh” for an answer. A reply that suggested the cash register definitely wasn’t getting enough of a workout.
Having just read a number of pieces about publishers’ recent negotiations with Amazon and Apple, having observed the jaw-dropping reaction of kids turning book pages on an iPad, and believing that it’s only a matter of time before a generation of digital natives grows up and introduces their kids to Make Way for Ducklings on a digital screen, I suggested that local bookstores, even those woven into the fabric of a community, were facing an uphill battle.
“Nah, books will never go away,” the manager responded a bit defensively. “I’ve tried the Kindle and it’s just not the same.”
I asked if he’d experienced books on an iPad but he hadn’t. “Well you should see what it’s like to turn pages on that device,” I replied. “It’s pretty cool.”
“Maybe, but I still don’t think books will go away. We have parents in here all the time introducing their children to books. The tradition won’t die.”
Not one to pass up a good debate, I suggested that was only because most parents were probably over 35, and digital or not, they grew up with books as their primary medium for reading.
“But what happens when everyone under 25 reaches parenting age, having consumed most of their media on a screen, and introduces their kids to digital books, complete with interactive games, mixed media, sound and more?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I still don’t think books will go away.”
The manager uttered that same sentence, unconvincingly I might add, at least four times during our conversation. But never once could he back it up with any reasons as to why he might be right.
The assumption held by the bookstore manager — that physical books, along with their most dedicated advocates, the local bookseller were too important to disappear — reminded me of Clay Shirky’s recent SxSW talk about abundance breaking more things than scarcity.
Shirky is fond of telling the tale of how 15th century scribes, honored and revered for their rare skills, were instantly made obsolete by the printing press. If Amazon and its Kindle along with Apple and the iPad aren’t the epitome of abundance today, then I don’t know what is.
The sad thing for books and local bookstores is that they’re both victims of a publishing industry that remains hopelessly archaic. As I reminded my bookseller, I’ve probably bought 50 Knopf titles in the last 10 years, yet the publisher has no idea who I am, what I read, the volume of books I consume, or what’s on my library shelves.
Amazon on the other hand knows a lot. As does Apple and iTunes. Enough to make recommendations, add my information to their clouds of content, and even predict my future consumption. Meanwhile publishers think that bookstores, rather than readers, are their customers.
If you read between the lines of Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece this week, publishers are as defensive as my local bookstore. They believe that their talent –for identifying, nurturing, and supporting those needy authors who have to be constantly encouraged and coddled in order to finish a book — is indispensable.
But what’s stopping Amazon from hiring the best editors themselves, signing authors to better contracts, and taking publishers right out of the picture? I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon eventually puts both publishers and bookstores out of business while the two insular industries are busy proclaiming their invincibility instead of pursuing innovation.
Ironic to think that booksellers and publishers — both of whom are literate, intelligent, and well-read — can be so good at seeing the writing on the page and so bad at seeing the writing on the wall.
I hope that physical books and the local bookstore are around for a long time. But I’m putting my money on Amazon and Apple. What about you?