The Present and Future of the Reading Business

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a long article on the current state and possible future of Barnes & Noble.

It’s an interesting article with a strange, near-defeated tone. It goes out of its way not to lament the current state of affairs that is the bookselling business and the late-twentieth century distribution model of the corporate publishing industry, but it holds an undercurrent of resignation from paragraph to paragraph, as if its author isn’t quite certain whom she is trying to convince but knows she can convince herself least of all. It portrays Barnes & Noble as a compelling candidate for its own adjective: an honorable enterprise begun by one man selling used books in a great city that grew humbly until the late-1970s, when a young entrepreneur bought it and fueled growth and revenue.

It doesn’t mention the scores of independent bookstores that collapsed based on Barnes & Noble’s discount practices and corporate publishers support of them. It doesn’t mention the once-quaint shops who shuttered their windows because selling a book for list price could no longer attract foot traffic from anyone but the most dedicated of shop patrons; most readers were happy to spend the money the saved buying inexpensive hardcovers on coffee or cheap tchotchkes like bookmarks or novelty pens or sparkling journals. It doesn’t mention predators and their prey, and the collateral damage experienced by those caught between the two.

When it mentions Amazon, it does so in the usual manner of portraying it as a “Goliath,” large of body and might but weak of honor or resolve, a giant who exists solely to serve as a foil to his opponent, who may be lesser of stature but on whose side Providence resides. When it mentions Amazon, it can’t help but also mention the way publishers “gnash their teeth” in reference to a company who has created the best modern digital reading device of the new millennium and whose CEO seems dedicated making his customers’ experiences better. Amazon has “deep pockets” compared to the humble beginnings of our hero bookseller, who’s sprinting against it. When it notes Amazon is worth $88 billion compared to Barnes & Noble’s $700 million, it is more to inspire readers to consider all that Barnes & Noble has managed given how little it actually has than to acknowledge the certain and measured prosperity of one enterprise over another.

When it mentions corporate publishers–the ones who so heavily discounted books Barnes & Noble sold, the ones who participated so eagerly in a distribution model that left no room for competition between independent booksellers and the chain down the street, the ones who propagated a system in which 20% of all independent booksellers have closed their doors in the past decade–it calls them “great.”

Perhaps we should expect nothing else from The New York Times, more institution than publication and one whose modern identity depends most strongly on a reputation it earned during the days when men were men and content was all the news that’s fit to print–on paper. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect a piece more heavy on authority and appeals to reason and less reliant on the emotional ploys that may tug at our heartstrings, making us yearn for those days of yore without ever remembering the troubles that accompanied them. Perhaps it’s best we don’t wonder what all those independent booksellers who were forced to close their shops are doing now.

I’m not sure.

What I do know is this: Amazon has done more to enable readers to enjoy reading than any other institution in recent memory. It has done so not by concentrating on buzzwords, nor by focusing on technology or competitive practices.

Rather, it has done so by focusing on reading itself, and by extension, readers. Amazon might not have brought the first digital reading device to market, but it produced the first good one. That was the Kindle 3, now known as the Kindle Keyboard. Before the Kindle Keyboard, devices were universally awkward and buggy, with clunky keyboards or finicky touchscreens, outmoded file standards or prohibitive price tags. The reason the 2010 holiday season was so great for e-books was simple: the Kindle Keyboard.

And, perhaps, the iPad, but because Apple barely warrants mention by The New York Times and its article, it will barely warrant mention here despite that, just a few weeks ago, it might have done as much to revolutionize education and publishing as Amazon has revolutionized trade publishing and distribution.

It’s become something of a trend to treat Amazon with contempt. Maybe it really is just because they’re so large and make an easier target, and maybe people just don’t wish to kick corporations like Barnes & Noble–or publishers–when they’re down. Corporations are people too, after all. Or so they would have us believe. If only for the tax write-offs.

It’s disheartening to see independent booksellers cast their lots so squarely, and with such hostility, against Amazon and authors who use Amazon’s services. It’s to some degree understandable, as embracing a new way of doing business might disrupt practices, but then again, there’s no longer any way to stave off disruption. Right now, publishing is disruption, and the businesses who are struggling most are the ones who are struggling against disruption rather than accepting it and figuring out how to continue to do business.

Because there are ways. They are not easy, nor secure, but neither is business, not at its best. Business that truly changes things is never easy or secure; it looks beyond the bottom line (which is so, so low) and the ways things are and thinks maybe there’s a better way. Maybe there’s a way for readers to buy more books for less money. Maybe there’s a way to effect a totally “green” enterprise, one in which no forests are felled to produce paper on a shelf, one in which trees do their jobs of nurturing nature instead of being ground into pulp for people who, when wistfully discussing books, mention scent before story, and who think of books as objects to be touched rather than stories that touch them. Maybe there’s a way to let authors have more control, and become more engaged in reading and storytelling–and maybe even give them a bit more of the profit in the long run. Maybe there’s a way to make the idea of shelf life and print runs obsolete while at the same time enhancing the very best of writing and storytelling.

The truth is, there is a way. There are millions of ways, one for every writer and reader out there–because the way for any one is different from the way of any other. And while it is worthwhile to both acknowledge and respect the past, it is less so to attempt to live–or read–within it.


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