How Bookstores Might Survive

Big publishing news: Barnes & Noble, as a corporate entity, has put itself up for sale. It’s probably not big news to anyone watching the publishing industry in general, lately. B&N’s nook has a more aesthetically pleasing form factor than the Kindle, but its interface–which runs a version of Google’s Android–is clunky at best, its input system awkward, its overall experience lacking.

The only other experience it offers, unfortunately, is coffee, really.

No, seriously, consider a Barnes & Noble. Or a Borders, for that matter. With so many new books published at such an incredible rate, do you really think that’s where they make their coin?

I live in Manhattan, basically. There are a bunch of Barnes & Noble stores. Why do I go to them?

For the bargain-priced hardcovers (which are mostly remainders, and which I’m pretty sure B&N makes no money on), for the free wifi, and for the author events.

Other than that, I’ll find someplace else. If I want to buy a book, I either go to Amazon’s Marketplace or the Strand.

The reason Barnes & Noble is floundering is because the business model of selling books is starting to make less sense as more retailers find new ways of doing it. iTunes is now the nation’s leading retailer for music, purchases from which, by extension, must be digital.

One wonders if we’re on our way there now.

What’s missing–and what’s been missing for a while–are retailers and publishers who grok that we need new ways of doing things because we’ve been discovering so many new things to do lately. Books are an interesting medium, in that they are the one that neither requires anything for function nor have an ephemeral aspect. When you buy a DVD, you’re buying a disc to play in a player. Same with a CD. What you’re actually purchasing has nothing to do with either of the things you’re purchasing to experience. Somewhere between CD and player, there’s music. Somewhere between DVD and TV you get a movie.

Written stories are different. Books are different. You go out to the bookstore, and you buy a bound bunch of dead leaves, and you don’t need anything to read it. You don’t have anything to plug in. You only need enough light to see by.

I think that difference is part of what held the publishing model together for so long. It’s only been very recently that quality digital reading devices have been possible, much less manufactured. Now that they’re getting so much better, we’re seeing a lot more people use them. I don’t think I see as many iPads, Kindles, and nooks on the subway as I see paperbacks and magazines, but I see both pretty much every day, which is crazy different from the situation just a few years ago.

Here’s what I think is going to happen: prices for Kindle are going to sink below $100, and eventually probably below $50. Prices for iPads will fall, as well. In that not-too-distant future, we’ll all have tablet-esque devices–whether Kindles or iPads or slate computers running Windows–like we’ve all begun to have cell phones and iPods. And just like with iPods, there will be companies that sell cheaper alternatives than their competition.

What we’re going to need is the book equivalent of an mp3. You can play an mp3 on any device, any computer, etc. My television can play mp3s. My phone plays them.

Amazon is close with this idea. I had Kindle on my iPhone. I have Kindle on my new phone and my computer. My purchases sync across the devices.

And so, ultimately, we need two things, one of which gives Apple an advantage: a killer media app for purchase. iBookstore is part of the iPad. You tell me why it took Apple to create one. You tell me why so many publishers have watched iPhones and iPod Touches gain unprecedented popularity with immediate access to hundreds of thousands of apps and not one of them thought, “Hey, let’s get our books on there.” You tell me why Random House never made an app that would have made their books easily readable on pretty much the most popular electronic device of all time, with a screen fine enough suited for reading.

People claimed for so long nobody likes reading on screens. People like physical books. Blahblahblah.

Bullshit. With the Internet, all we do is read on screens anymore.

Which is the other thing we’re going to need. We all read on screens, and we’ll be reading books on them, but pretty soon I think we’re going to realize books are the dead-tree luxury they’ve always been (how many trees do we kill to make a book? How badly has reading hurt the environment?). People will still want books. Maybe they’ll read something they love on their Kindle and think, “I would really like to have that book on my shelf.”

Because there’s always going to be something about bookshelves.

And so what they’ll do is go to a bookstore and purchase their deadtree copy.

Will bookstores need to carry them?

Of that I’m not sure. I kept hearing things about the Espresso Print-on-Demand machine for a while, but haven’t heard anything for ages.

But imagine that Barnes & Noble? Imagine you walked in and rather than all that barely used shelf space (which can hold only some of the books published within the previous six months or year, besides all the classics one must always carry), you could walk up to that machine that vaguely resembled an ATM. On which there would be digital copy of every book in publication, and which could print you a bound copy of any one you wanted for ten dollars within five minutes?

I’ve been a writer since I was in my teens, and even I know we don’t need books. We’ve never needed books. We need information, stories, written chronicles of ourselves, and books have merely always been the most viable repository of those things.

That’s changing. One of the reasons publishers are struggling is because they spent so long trying to convince everyone the world wasn’t changing and haven’t been able to keep up when they finally acknowledged things already had.


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