Giving Up Bookstores

C360_2011-04-12 11-50-21

I grew up in a small suburb of New Jersey I left in 1996 to attend college in Jersey City, where I stayed after I graduated while working in Manhattan. I left Manhattan at the end of 2001 to move back in with my family. During the time I’d been gone, Barnes & Noble built a store not far from the closest shopping mall, and after my return I often found myself frequenting that store like some people frequent the local bar. Rather than losing myself in a drink, I’d spend an hour in the newsstand, reading magazines I’d never buy, then browse the paperback racks all over the story. I was largely genre-agnostic, and found that categories often failed me, anyway (around that time I’d discovered the work of Jonathan Carroll. Generally a fantasist, but B&N held fast to stocking his books in the general Literature & Fiction section. I’d found Carroll’s work through Neil Gaiman, whose books were maybe a little less surreal than Carroll’s but in general not really that much more fantastic, and yet Gaiman was always in the Fantasy & Science Fiction section. So I generally took it upon myself to explore all the shelves I could).

After standing around with my head cocked enough to the right as to develop an almost permanent crick in it, I’d move on. Sometimes I’d have picked up a mass market paperback or two, always priced at $7.99. If I could find trade paperbacks–generally priced at $12.99 or more–on tables that include a “Buy Two Get One Free” promotion, I might pick up a few of those, but I generally bought and read way too many books to pay more than $10 for any one of them. I made exceptions to that rule solely for signed hardcovers I’d pick up from ABEBooks only after having borrowed the book, and enjoyed it, from my local library.

My next destination would be the bargain racks, where I might pick up a hardcover for $4.99 or so. If I found a particularly compelling one, I might be convinced up to $7.99, but that was rare; I found I thought most of those books had been remaindered for a reason. I might find two or three for less than $5, and I’d stick those under my arm, too, then make my way to the register.

It’s amazing how things have changed.

Nowadays, I’m no less voracious a reader. If anything, I read even more, when I can. I’m still largely genre agnostic; I’ll read whatever I like (and like to think that what I like is simply what’s good, but know it’s often more complicated than that). Lately I’ve been slogging through Walter Isaacson’s Ben Franklin biolgraphy with digressions into lots of indie thrillers and horror and science fiction novels, as well as some other miscellaneous non-fiction on science or history.

I still have a huge bookcase, more than eight feet tall and about half as wide. One of those shelves is filled with my favorite books I’ve had signed by the authors at various readings and events. On the floor in front of that bookcase are two cardboard boxes filled with books intended for other shelves I simply haven’t gotten around to putting away yet.

I can easily tell you how many of those books I’ve read lately: zero.

I can’t easily tell you the last time I pulled one of those books from its shelf. I have no reason to.

There are probably forty books between that shelf and those two boxes. They don’t take up much space, and what they do is uncluttered and neat.

This marks a huge difference from the rooms in which I lived several years ago. There was never enough space for my books in my dorm rooms. After college, when I’d gotten an apartment, I’d stack books on my nightstand, and then next to it when the stack became taller than the lamp on top of it, and then I’d stack a few by the bed, or some by my desk, and eventually I’d have several or even a dozen small stacks about the room. When I moved back in with my family, I immediately filled two five-foot Target bookcases, and then stacked extras next to them, and then had boxes in the garage and basement. I didn’t read all of them, mind you; they were books that had struck my fancy and I’d picked them up. Besides the Barnes & Noble shopping I described above, there were two other ways I’d buy books:

1) Buy the hardcovers or paperbacks used on Amazon marketplace for a penny, plus shipping. These were the books I’d read about or discovered in bookstores but couldn’t find in a library or elsewhere. On Amazon, I might spend as much as $8 or even $9 dollars for a hardcover (plus shipping, obviously, but I didn’t see shipping until after check out, and that was psychologically important for me as a shopper, apparently).

2) Buy books at library sales.

If you’re thinking of hundreds of books in multiple places–on shelves and in boxes and scattered around a bedroom and a basement and a garage, and probably even a few in the trunk of my car, you’re imagination is accurate.

How’d I go from all those books in all those places to one shelf on a single bookcase and then a couple of boxes in front of it? Especially when you know that I still read as voraciously as before, and if anything, I know have more books than I used to, rather than less?

Answer’s easy and obvious: my Kindle and iPad. I think I currently have 600 books on my Paperwhite. And honestly, for the most part, all those books are my new to-be-read pile; rather than shelving a book when I finish it, now, I can simply delete the file from my device. This doesn’t delete them permanently; if I want to re-read them, Amazon stores them in its cloud so I can download them again if I want to revisit them.

Here is where everyone says “BUT OMG WHAT IF AMAZON DELETES YOUR BOOKS?” “WHAT IF AMAZON GOES OUT OF BUSINESS?” “WHAT IF BEZOS HAS A HEART ATTACK AND SOMEONE ELSE TAKES OVER AN DHTEN TEH GOVERMENT FINALY INVESTIGATES THEM LIK THEY DID WITH APPLE BECAUSE THEY’RE EVIL FOR LOWRING BOOK PRICES AND SATISFYING READERS LIKE NO OTHER BOOK SELLER OR PUBLISHER IN RECENT MEMORY?”

To all of which I can only really respond, “Er. That’s a lot of what ifs. Maybe calm down? I don’t see any sign of Amazon’s business doing poorly. Bezos and company might post regular losses, but it’s obvious there’s a long term strategy in place, which is more than we can say for corporate publishers at this point. For twenty years now, Amazon has provided the single best customer experience of any company I’ve dealt with, and done so consistently with continuously improving it. I can’t think of a single other company I can say the same thing about.”

So reading is different; I do it on my Kindle, or via the Kindle app on my iPad. I prefer the former right now, but only because my iPad mini doesn’t have a high-resolution display (dear Apple: fix that? Thanks).

But so is buying.

I haven’t been in a bookstore in months. The last time I went, my wife bought a remaindered cookbook. It was the first time we’d set foot in a bookstore in more than a year.

How do I buy books now?

I don’t go to a bookstore. I get daily email newsletters from Bookbub and Book Gorilla, both of which list solely books that cost less than $5, and often much less. I think those are probably my primary drivers right now.

This week, for some reason I’ve thought it was a day later in the week but a date earlier on the calendar, which I mention because I thought today was the first of the month, and that’s the day Amazon refreshes its monthly deals. I don’t know how many books are listed for less than $3.99, but it generally feels like there are at least a hundred, and even when I’m not interested in a particular title I still feel like that’s usually down to my taste rather than the quality of the book, most of which seem at least competent.

Finally, less frequently, there are alternate ways. Some days I drop by Amazon’s main site to browse its selection, or I might see an author I follow on Twitter post a compelling link (this is very rare. Unfortunately, I find too many authors flood their streams with links to their books. I tend to ignore them), or see something on Facebook or a post somewhere.

I don’t walk anywhere. I don’t burden my arms with the pulp of dead trees.

When it comes time to check out, I don’t pull out my credit card. Why would I? Amazon has my credit card information saved. All I have to do is click. I likely have to get up, but that’s only if I’m not in the same room as my Kindle. Often I’m not; often I buy books with the intention of reading them later and the knowledge that they’ll simply appear on my device the next time I power it up. Which is also kind of neat, because sometimes I’ll forget I bought a book, and there will be four new titles on my screen when I start my Kindle, and that makes me smile. It’s like I’m surprising myself.

This is all something I’ve seen publishing pundits and “analysts” worrying over. “How do readers discover new books?” they ask. I think this is one of the big reasons they laud the old bookstore discovery model–it’s one corporate publishers had control over, largely based on the depth of their pockets. They could control when and how you saw a book. They could pay Barnes & Noble for prime table or endcap placement. I think one of the biggest problems corporate publishers have with Amazon is that they can’t control those things any more. Amazon has way more power in their relationship than they want, and more and more often simply shrugs its shoulders at their requests.

Me, as a reader, I think this is great. Through Amazon, I’ve been discovering far more books by far more authors than I ever might have before. It’s not just Amazon, of course; I mentioned my Twitter and Facebook profiles, and indeed my feeds there are filled with new authors and new books. When my wife wants new books, she generally finds them by talking about reading with her friends in some forum or other. Publishers always maintained that word of mouth is key to selling and marketing books, but I think that’s become more powerful than ever before, and when publishers and analysts are scrambling to wring their hands over “metadata” and “discovery.” I’m not saying that those things aren’t important, simply that, as a reader, I give the former no thought and hope only for the latter, and I’ve found a great number of ways to discover great new books to read. At the end of every month, I look forward to the 1st of the next, when I get a total refresh of my new familiar Bargain Books section.