The Kindle, the iPad and the defensive bookseller

Nearly 60 percent of independent bookstores have closed in the last 10 years.

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?

30 comments
thepreachersgoldmine1
thepreachersgoldmine1

None of the iPad book readers offer magazine and newspaper. In Kindle for iPad's defense, its bookstore does offer a ton of free public domain. you might still consider the iPad Air. Yes, the Kindle is Digital Books or Outlines. Both the iPad and the Kindle let you. thanks

http://www.thepreachersgoldmine.com/

LUVVITT
LUVVITT

Ultimately I always give the importance to a library and a bookseller. Electronic books are helpful, but they can’t fulfill the demand of books.

xbox 360 slim
xbox 360 slim

E-books can never substitute books. The books will always remain because there are some people those who love to read books only rather than e-books which are quite expensive.

John Bardos - IdeaEconomy
John Bardos - IdeaEconomy

Bookstores in their current form are dead. I would love them to turn into library/cafes where we could still go and read printed books and then go and download to our iPads when ready to purchase. However, I don't think that will happen anytime soon.

I think many people are overlooking the obvious. You mentioned it above, we are going to have "digital books, complete with interactive games, mixed media, sound and more."

In the near future, books on an iPad are not going to be traditional books. They are going to be portals into communities of like-minded people, with constantly updated content, video, animations, and a million other things we can't imagine yet. Printed books will fade away because the alternative is so much better.

The music industry is not an accurate comparison because a song on an iPad or a song on a vinyl record is still the same song, produced in the same way. Only the medium has changed in music.

With books we are going to an entirely unimaginable level.
.-= John Bardos - IdeaEconomy´s last blog ..Linchpin by Seth Godin =-.

Brittany
Brittany

Personally, I think we're all barking up the wrong tree (e.g. trying to determine whether book sales will go the digital vs. the traditional route and how quickly they'll move that direction). The real issue is that the # of readers and therefore book purchasers continues to decline. If publishers/bookstores/Apple fail to curb the decline in readers, it's not going to matter whether content is being delivered on a iPad, in trade paper or via a blog. First and foremost we must create more readers. How the content is delivered is a secondary issue.

faris
faris

indeed my friend indeed. the idea of a 'book' is what will change.

and what bookstores, or indeed any stores, are FOR will change.

Will 'books' always be physical artifacts? Probably not. Will they get downloaded into physical artifacts for consumption? Almost certainly. Will they be made of paper? I very much doubt it.

As with everything, there will be some elements that remain similar, and some that change a lot....

Will intermediaties still need to exist? Or will you print books on demand straight from Amazon [should you want printed things] or download them. Are publishers well placed to have direct relationships with people, when til now their customers were the bookshops?

Will book stores become a proper third place?

Hey what happened to the virgin megastores? Oh they went away... but are there different ways to use square footage?

hmm hmmm hmmm

love
faris

C.C. Chapman
C.C. Chapman

Books will never go away completely. The printed page and the tactile feeling of a book in your hand is something that many of us will always cherish. Will it end up being like Vinyl? Who knows.

What I do know is that you took the words right out of my mouth. I'm meeting with a Publisher tomorrow to talk about the changing world and what you laid out is something I was going to raise directly with them and of course now I can just point them to your link (I wonder how many will print it out *shakes head*)

As always, thanks for the open and dead on thoughts!

Jason
Jason

I, sadly too, can anticipate the future you predict. Although I believe, that the life of the paper book won't end, fully. Rather, I feel that they will become a slightly more eccentric commodity; academics, 'antique geeks' and the rich. I accept that the Ipad may revolutionise how we read, and as with most revolutions there will be a bitter and bloody struggle. Revolutions are, by definition 'new', but what is new must become old...

John
John

Great point about the companies like Amazon and Apple gathering data and making recommendations. Don't forget that there was a time when the local bookstore would make personal recommendations based on a conversation. That is what Apple and Amazon are trying to recreate. Of course I would prefer the conversation but the recommendations are getting better online, companies like Amazon also have the user reviews.

I could see a company like hunch.com really improving the recommendations if it is implemented onto multiple sites. If you think about it the whole point of hunch.com is to collect data and make accurate guesses based on what it knows about you and social trends of humans. Think about it there was a hunch application on your favorite site for news and then on some other sites while you surfed the web. The personalization and what it knew about you would be amazing. Many sites are doing similar things with cookies these days. I will be fun to see where it all goes.

Tom
Tom

It's always pretty amazing to me that those in the center of the storm don't seem to know it's raining...

This all is reminiscent of the adoption of digital photography. Those camera shops that embraced it and changed their business to what their customers clearly wanted/needed, thrive today. Those that stuck it out ("film will never die") are out of business.

I'm amazed that these local book shops don't find ways to embrace the new platforms and leverage their own expertise of the content -- something that can't be easily replicated.

Tom

thomas miskin
thomas miskin

Hey

Double reply but just saw this and wanted to share :)

http://noquedanblogs.com/

If I was a bookstore owner I would be buying one of the round ones for sure! Anything to make the place more than somewhere to pick up a book - people can do that in supermarkets

thomas miskin
thomas miskin

Hi Edward,

I think bookstores will have a place in the post-digital future but they will need to be much more than just a bookstore.

A community focal point, somewhere that can be a fulcrum of social/meet-up activities. Somewhere to sit quietly for a while if you wish or catch up on what's going on locally.

The economics, as you rightly point out, suggest bookstores are in for a torrid time. Hopefully there will still be enough enthusiasts to keep some afloat.

I for one regard my bookshelves as a collection. Glancing through the shelves is a tangible physical interaction and a kind of cultural storehouse that in one glance evocates so much. I would be sad to see this go.

Dan Weingrod
Dan Weingrod

Great post as usual. Overall I agree. I own a Kindle and am sharing an iPad but I think books will be with us for a while in some form at least as printed and designed objects.

The best writing I've on this subjets has been on @craigmod's blog.Especially in his March post http://craigmod.com/journal/ipad_and_books/ - where he talks about e-books primarily replacing paperbacks or a lot of dead trees being shipped around the world. I am seeing more and more people who had said they would never accept the e-book experience over that of books converting happily to e-books.

In the end its ultimately more about content than the experience. E-books may win out sooner in rich multimedia/reading experiences and tree books may remain as specially designed objects, but if the content it good the platform will not matter. That puts it in the hands of the publishers to get smart about what they have been doing well for years and leave distribution and hardware wars to others.

Juan
Juan

I am an avid reader, spend about $60 to $100 a month in books, before the Amazon ebook reader I only bought printed books, well no anymore as I am migrating 90% to ebooks. There are several advantages besides lower price, personalization, portability, you can zoom in/out, you have dictionary on the web, besides that I read mostly WSJ,NYTimes, HBR, McKinsey, Businessweeek, etc on the web.
If local book stores don't change they will go bellyup, people like this manager don't have the remote idea of what is happening right outside his store, the world has changed and the changed already happened.

Dan
Dan

The Kindle and iPad are vaporizing book sales in the city by tech early adopters, but a few miles from the high rises, people are still living in the rough. They are wearing LLBean flannels and reading by candlelight.. and social media is still Myspace. :) The divide is becoming greater. I don't think technology will completely kill off the book for a while, but like you said, as those 35+ get older, the change will happen. The fringe will have to follow.
.-= Dan´s last blog ..#Magistral looks to save snowmen/women with this detergent spot by Grey Argentina. =-.

Sara McGuyer
Sara McGuyer

It wouldn't be a bad thing if books did go the way of vinyl. After a period of decline, vinyl sales are on the rise, probably due to the fact that many new releases include a free digital download. One purchase provides the item to collect and the format that fits with a modern lifestyle. Wouldn't it be something if every hardcover purchase included a free digital or audio version?

I think there are options for the industry to innovate, though that certainly won't happen with denial that consumers' tastes have changed.
.-= Sara McGuyer´s last blog ..Word of Mouth, Rock ‘n’ Roll Style =-.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

What vinyl is today, books will be in the future.
It's inevitable.

Unless the Vatican somehow regains control of all information!

Jeff
.-= Jeff Shattuck´s last blog ..The Axis of Awesome shows me how it's done. =-.

Meg Gerrish
Meg Gerrish

I do love my Kindle v1 (haven't seen an iPad yet -- sigh). I love that obscure titles don't have to disappear, and that cheap-reads for cheap entertainment don't require everything from chopping a tree to shipping hither and yon. I will enjoy the day when schools provide textbooks in digital format only, allowing spine-weary students to leave their luggage at home.

Amazon already has a partner for self-publishing, which will likely expand to full-service publishing, if it hasn't already. Could be a good thing.

And physical publishing will likely revert backwards. While cheap, assembly line books will continue morphing into digital, making a physical book will become, again, a cherished craft. The great books, prize winners and significant others will be made and available for collectors and libraries. And those books will last for centuries, unlike my copy of, say, "The Book Thief." An exceptional book, but I expect it will turn to dust inside of 30 years.

Books will never disappear. There is room for everyone to enjoy the playground. Enjoyed your essay, Edward. Thanks!

Helen Klein Ross aka AdBroad
Helen Klein Ross aka AdBroad

Bragging about having an ipad, are ya? [she says enviously] Great post, Edward. Like Susan, I agree kicking and screamingly. I've noticed that friends who for years fiercely touted the eminence of the book object, have recently succumbed to Kindles. I, too, appreciate the feel of a page, the new-book smell. But sometimes buy books in both e and handheld versions. Or, like Bruce, in audible form. (Crossover statistic is one I don't see reflected in recent polling.) Yes, parents will (I hope) always introduce their kids to reading but my guess is the kids will grow up to be platform-agnostic. Have you seen the new digital pop ups? http://dvice.com/archives/2010/03/augmented-reali-2.php
Now if only we could rejigger a new model for publishing so that when kids grow up, they'll have something to read. Your Amazon model-- interesting.
.-= Helen Klein Ross aka AdBroad´s last blog ..Algonquin roundtable turns virtuous =-.

Bruce DeBoer
Bruce DeBoer

I'm as sentimental as the next guy but I'm not investing in a bookstore unless it's attached to a very busy coffee shop / cafe that will support it. Even then ....

I listen to as many books as I read. I'm hoping for eBooks and Audio books to synch up soon, i.e. get both on your iPad/iPod, listen then go back and read important sections and take notes. Naturally the app will allow you to "bookmark" the audio so you can find the audio page to read and vice versa (start listening where you left off your reading) - you'll always know where you left of listening and/or reading.

Can books compete with that, as quaint as they are to hold?
.-= Bruce DeBoer´s last blog ..Everything is Social: How Creative Brands Can Earn Social Equity =-.

Susan Milligan
Susan Milligan

Kicking and screaming I must agree with you. From the horse and buggy to the Hummer, and the stereoscope to the TV. I hate it but I agree. Books and booksellers might dwindle. I love the warm feel, and the smell of a book. Remember Charing Cross Road?

Howie at Sky Pulse Media
Howie at Sky Pulse Media

Until I can browse a book store exactly the way we do now, stores are safe. It takes hours to browse in a way on line (page by page) that would take minutes in person. Visually with our eyes we can view so much at once. And we like being social so I think stores are safe...for now. The real question is are non-coffee table books going to be extinct. We do not need to waste trees/paper/ink on a standard paperback etc. So instead of showing up and buying a book...maybe the stores have 1 of each item and we just beam the product to our reader.

Just like CD's though there is resistance. The financial markets do not like revenue declines. But when it comes to real product the content is the product. Not the physical CD. Not the printed pages. So cut out all those vendors and the mark up and you get to the essence of value. But those vendors have power and will fight. I don't know what writers get. Bands/Artists got $1 per CD out of the $15 unit price. So of course a band is willing to sell a CD for so much less if they get all the $$. Books will be the same.

As to your premise of saving downtown's from chain stores that is a different story. I think we will always have a soft spot for unique stores and offerings. People do not brag that they bought a book on Amazon. But they will brag that they went to that special store in that special place so they can seem intellectual or hip or rich! And don't worry about Amazon cutting out publishers...the writers like NIN did will cut out everyone. And good for them since they are the essence of the content.

edward boches
edward boches

Lots of interesting comments here. Many seem to wish that the physical book will remain; yet others admit that its demise is a possibility. For me, it's less about whether those of us who love books will always want them and buy them, but whether or not subsequent generations, totally wired, digital, and used to consuming content via screens and pads will feel the same way. Wouldn't want to be in the vinyl record business right now, regardless of how nostalgic and warm those LPs sound.

edward boches
edward boches

LL Bean flannels, huh? You may be right, but I think that when the change comes it will come fast. Bet you those LL Bean flannel wearers have stocked their cellar with canned goods and water. Booksellers should start thinking about the flood that's coming as well.

edward boches
edward boches

I think the Vatican's days are numbered, too. The Catholic church has made even more mistakes and denials than the music industry. They need a really good social media campaign, but I don't see that happening.

edward boches
edward boches

Charing Cross Road. My, they don't make movies like they used to either, do they. Maybe I'll rent that, turn off my laptop, iPad and iPhone, watch an old movie, then read a good book. Then again, I'll probably just watch a movie on the iPad, then switch over to a digital book when it's done.

edward boches
edward boches

Thoughtful comment. A couple of things. 1. eBooks are more appealing from a cost perspective. 2. more, old, out of print editions are more easily available. 3. it is only a matter of time before a more digitally centric generation becomes the majority and has no old fondness for paper books or offline browsing. Typically, authors get 15 percent of cover price: $3.90 on a $26.00 book. They could cut a better deal going direct with online publishers/distributors. The real question is whether or not digital will replace physical and to what degree. If things follow the path of newspaper and if devices like the iPad accelerate the change, physical books and neighborhood bookstores have a real problem on their hands. Give you kid an iPad and see if he/she prefers it over a real book. Let me know.