Is it the Death of the Printed Book?

I often get asked about what I am going to sell once the eBook has destroyed the printed book.  Lol.

People are alarmists.  They like to get worked up.  Just watch political commentators or weathermen.  Their ratings go up if they are wringing their hands about the imminent destruction of either the American Way of Life or the next weather pattern. When the predicted storm of the century turns out to be one inch of rain, well, no harm no foul. 

It’s that way with changes in media too.  When radio was becoming popular, commentators predicted the end of books.  When movies became popular, commentators predicted the end of radio…and books.  When TV became popular, people predicted the end of radio and movie theatres…and books.   Obviously all incorrect.  Did video kill the radio star?  Nope!  The radio star is still going strong.

So when people predict that eBooks will kill printed books, I have to yawn.

Now, I do believe that things in the industry will change.  My experience as an independent bookseller has been that the sort of customers who shopped big box stores are exactly the same type of customers who like eReaders, so there will be a battle for market share between these two.  Publishing houses may print dramatically smaller print runs of physical books.  On-line sources will take a bite out of reference materials like encyclopedias and dictionaries.  The text book industry is due for a big change.  But the accounts of the death of the book are exaggerated. 

As long as there are people who prefer a particular format, there will be businesses who will offer to sell it to them.  Best Buy carries vinyl records, for Pete’s sake.

Here are the sorts of readers who will keep buying books—

Sensualists

People who like the feel of a book in their hands find eReaders unsatisfying.  I have one customer who buys books from me and ships them off to have them carved out and reinforced so she can fit her Kindle into them and give her Kindle a real-book feel.  She loves her eReader, but it feels insubstantial to her. 

After he fourth purchase, I asked her how many Kindles she owned.  She told me that she owns one, but likes to swap out the covers like another person might swap IPhone cases.  That’s most excellent.

In addition to the physical sensualists, there are the visual sensualists.  People who like the looks of a room lined with bookcases filled with books.  The books become conversation starters, trophies of reading accomplishments and intimate revelations of the reader’s soul. 

Browsers

EBooks (and on-line sellers) are great for the people who know exactly what book they want.  But for people who want to wander the stacks and find something they didn’t know about, you need a brick-and-mortar bookstore.  If you want to explore books that are also out of print, you need a used bookstore.

Collectors

The people who search out and hoard first editions, limited releases, signed books will not be searching these things out in digital format. 

Parents

Board books are made for infants who are likely to put the book in their mouth.  Do you really want your eReader to go there?

Pop-up books?  When eReaders can produce a Richard Sabuda pop-up, I will be impressed!

Gift Givers

A wrapped book is a gift.  A copy of an email certificate for an eBook, not so much.  There are whole categories of gift books that need the printed form: coffee table books, oversized kids books, pop-up books, miniature stocking stuffer books, art books with art that deserves a venue larger than 10.1 inches.

Communitarians

Reading is a solitary act.  But bookstores are explosions of community.  Our bookstore has poetry readings, writing workshops, author-led discussions, Scrabble games, knitting clubs, and, up near the register, what Eric Jackson calls “one continual community meeting” arguing politics, literature, art, urban revitalization, raw foods vs. hamburgers, Jeopardy vs. Family Feud, or which Wonder Twin was the best.   Try to get that while shopping for an eBook.

In addition, these contacts help strengthen the community.  When the mural up the street was vandalized, the Scrabble club contributed to its renewal.  When they heard that our troops in Afghanistan were short helmet liners, the Trenton Knit and Stitch knitted and delivered a box of helmet liners.  After arguing near the register about the lack of publishing opportunities for Trenton writers and artists, the Trenton Review was born.  In the midst of a recession, from the contacts they made at this bookstore, two people were able to find jobs from the network of people they met in the bookstore.

People who value community and reading will always value bookstores and the books sold there.


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