Like physical music, books are constantly on the forefront of the argument about “dying industries”. Except, I think those arguing forget that books have been the longest standing piece of history since humanity learned to write, record and preserve history. What makes them think they would suddenly vanish? Could it be the effect of technology? Sure. Could it be the advancement of mankind beyond physical books? Possibly. Is it actually likely that books (and bookstores) will vanish out of the world? Absolutely not.
Borders Group, Inc was a book giant that collapsed and closed at the end of 2012 due to a series of bad management decisions over the course of ten years. One of those decisions was not jumping on the e-book bandwagon, but the bigger mistake was partnering with Amazon during their startup and not creating a website of their own (like Barnes & Noble did). Amazon siphoned control of the book industry from the Borders’ (and Waldenbooks’ for that matter) long-standing customer
base. This was not a mistake by Amazon and a brilliant business move to become the powerhouse at the forefront of the book world, even ahead of Barnes & Noble. This business move is what drives the question, “are bookstores becoming obsolete?”, not because they are actually a dying breed.
Is the industry changing? Sure..I can’t argue that fact, but so are all the industries of the world. They’re having to change alongside everyone else in order to stay current, to stay profitable and to stay in the mind’s eye of the consumer. Consumers now have the ability to have everything they want at the click of a button. They’re able to order just about anything and have it delivered to their house without ever having to leave it, and, I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand staying in my house for longer than 24 hours. I like to window shop, even if I don’t purchase anything and end up buying online later, I still need to get out of my house. Bookstores allow for readers to escape the confines of their houses. Most people shoppingbuy on impulse, that is, they are browsers not knowing what they’re looking for and stumble upon something they didn’t know they needed. That simple concept is the big perk of a bookstore and the downside of online shopping. Its almost next to impossible to “browse” online because of the amount of product available. Unless you’re being prompted by the cache and cookies saved on your browser by “similar product” or “people who bought this item also bought this” windows, you are never (almost never) going to just browse around for product you’re not specifically looking for – which is exactly why those little windows and cookies and cache were created. Companies pay millions of dollars to store cache on your computer to “make it easier for you” by remembering your browser history. Is it actually easier or just a super-clever marketing scheme to build business?
As an avid reader, and current bookseller, I can attest to the fact that physical books aren’t going anywhere. As of today, there is a dispute between Amazon and Hatchett Book Group,one of the top five biggest publishing companies in the world. The argument? Amazon wants a higher profit percentage for selling digital books, Hatchett isn’t going to give it to them and, like a petulant child, Amazon is punishing authors to try to get their way. They pulled titles, delayed shipments and even cancelled pre-ordering for huge authors like Stephen King, Michael Connelly and even J.K. Rowling because of their publishing company. The big problem? Authors make a living on writing books and hurting their main source of income, because of greed, is not the way to win their affections. Douglas Preston, another prolific Hatchett author, wrote a response to the dispute, published it in the New York Times and had over 900 authors sign it in agreement. A slew of German authors recently posted their own article in the NYT regarding the same matter and their position.The other issue with this whole thing? Say Hatchett gave into Amazon’s demand to just be done with the whole thing, what would stop Amazon from bullying other publishers or even music labels for higher profit percentages of MP3 purchases? Thats right, nothing. It is in the publisher’s best interest to hold fast and force Amazon to give up because the slope is slippery when it comes to profit interests. Amazon is not the only place to shop and they seem to have this notion that they should be when it comes to purchasing online.
Keep in mind, this is not an attack on Amazon or digital books. I think the addition of the ebook format has advanced the reading community to a new level; more people are reading now than ever before because of the convenience. I think the portability of ebooks is fantastic, but there is something about holding a book in your hand that is more engrossing than reading on an electronic device. I recently was using my e-reader for a book review and it was taking me forever. I’m usually a pretty fast reader (about a book a day in hardcopy) and I couldn’t understand what it was about this book that was taking so long. Then I realized, it wasn’t the book. It was the format. I realized I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, I couldn’t read faster than the computer would allow. It had taken me 3 days to read half of the book. I instantly put my ereader down, purchased the hardcopy and finished the entire other half of it in 5 hours. My ability to speed read depends on being able to work at my own pace, which is infinitely faster than any computer inside an e-reader. A study published by The Guardian in April of this year, reported that reading comprehension in the digital format falls below the comprehension levels of the exact same reading in physical books. So, not only are we reading less than what e-readers give the illusion to allow, but we’re not even understanding or remembering what we read as much either.
Which leads to my final poke at digital books. Amazon created a reading pass, much like their Prime service, where, for a flat rate, you can have access to/read as many books as you want in a month. You know, like a library. But wait, aren’t libraries free? This reading pass is just another marketing tactic to control the book industry and make lots of money doing it. Because, in all seriousness, how many people, on average, read more than 1 or 2 books a month? So now they’re making twice as much money off people who think they’re getting something for less, especially when most of the titles on their list can be found for less than the cost of the pass, if not for free, on sites like Bookbub. Libraries give access to generally the most current titles along with a selection of bestsellers and books not too far dated in the past. Often times, libraries can even transfer titles from one location to another, if not mail it directly to your house, when it becomes available. Digital books are format protected usually and cannot be transferred to other e-readers. Like music, purchasing a digital copy of a book is simply that, a copy, not the actual book. In the fine print of Terms and Conditions of most digital download sites, by clicking “I Understand”, the consumer is agreeing to having a copy and gives the website the right to delete access to that copy whenever they want. I don’t like the idea of buying something without actually owning it, not to mention show it off to my friends.
Books decorate houses so people can say, “Look! I’ve read all of these!” and prove their intelligence, or for the avid fan, as bragging rights when you get a signed copy by the author. When people talk about books they love, they light up. People get excited about a story that touches their heart, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, because they want to share with you something that took time, effort, focus and understanding. At this point, we’re only being spoiled by the digitization of books. The Literacy Project Foundation shows staggering illiteracy statistics. In the United States alone, in 2013, 44% of adults do not read a single book in a year and 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade reading level. The impact on society is worse when statistics like “3 out of every 5 people in American prisons can’t read” and “to determine how many prison beds will be needed in the future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on readings tests” are discovered. If physical books became obsolete, those numbers would be astronomical and, I daresay, too unrealistic to imagine.
It is our job as readers to promote books. Loaning books to people interested – even if that means you never get that book back (which is terrifying sometimes) – means you’re participating in the perpetuation of reading. Buying physical books, through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, keeps authors writing, history being preserved and the exchange of ideas happening all around the world. The Library of Alexandria continues to hold some of the oldest documents and books ever written by man. If physical books suddenly vanished and were no longer being printed, why would we even need digital books? As I see it, if books were no longer available to be held at all, we wouldn’t be reading anything anyway and the whole concept would be rendered moot. Thus, we can conclude, books are not a dying industry and its not even possible that they could be within even the next ten lifetimes. Changing with the times does not constitute death, otherwise the world ends tomorrow and you should just kill yourself now.