E-Books Can Save the Independent Bookstore

January 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 7 Comments

I read this post on  A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook and started to reply, but my comment got so long I decided I might as well write an entire post on the subject.

The thing about e-books is that they are a new technology.  The argument was made in classical times that reading books would destroy the memory; indeed, the availability of books altered the oral tradition forever.  (And I mean any books; this was long before the invention of the printing press).  Ah, but people do still tell stories, even thousands of years after those pesky things called books came on the scene.  Likewise, I think e-books are here to stay, that they have their good and bad points, and that things in the world of books are going to be quite different in a thousand years.  The time of transition is going to make this feel like an apocalypse, but don’t fret.  Posterity will look back on us and laugh.

I have read several e-books.  I use my tiny old-school 2001 black and white PDA.  I downloaded all these books for free because they are pre-copyright era.  What I like about e-books is that they mark your place; they will scroll for you so you can continue to read without holding the device; there’s room for another title (or several) if you happen to finish the current one; and, of course, they weigh nothing and take up no space – a big factor if you’ve ever had to move 18 35-pound boxes of books into a fourth-floor walkup.  This is only a small part of the picture.

The thing about going paperless in general is that when you keep your information in a digital format, you can search it electronically.  At our last book group meeting, one of our members was able to pull up a given passage in an 800+-page book within about two minutes.  The only reason it took so long was that we were having trouble remembering exactly how the key sentence was phrased.  If she had wanted to, the owner of this Sony Reader could have marked the passage while she read it, and pulled it up later in seconds.  Those of us who spend time in research and study should realize instantly how valuable this can be.

Not everyone is impressed with the marvels of technology.  The potential of the e-book is truly, truly enormous for students and serious readers, if they would but realize it, but it’s epoch-making for bookstores.  I hope they catch on in time.  Let me explain.

What’s killing independent bookstores is the secondary, or used, book market.  Let’s be honest here.  The ideal model for the bookseller is that every individual purchases every book she reads, and then hoards it away until her death, at which point all those beautiful books promptly disintegrate.  The reality is that books are lent, given away, checked out from libraries, or read through for free within the confines of the shop and never bought at all.  From the author’s perspective, it’s a nightmare, because the better the book, the higher the chances it will be passed from hand to hand, accruing precisely zero dollars in royalties for the artistic genius who created the work.

E-book readers are serious readers.  They are also serious readers with money.  (Remember, current e-readers cost upward of $300).  If they enjoy the convenience of the e-reader, they are going to begin to rely on it more and more.  Their friends and family will start to buy them e-book credits for gifts because it’s such a no-brainer.  They will probably escalate their reading habits because the book will be so portable and available.  (I can even read mine in the dark without disturbing anyone).  Publishers – and bookstores, I’m getting there – can make more money by selling thousands of electronic copies of a book than by printing, shipping, storing, and remaindering.

Let’s step back and make a comparison to the world of music.  One would have predicted that recorded music would kill anyone’s interest in attending live performances because of the cost.  You can get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of hours of enjoyment per dollar from an album than a concert, right?  Well, what actually seems to have happened is that performers have achieved greater fame, because the recordings reach more people.  Then the problem with illegal downloading cropped up.  Where are we now?  Not only has downloaded music not killed the music industry, but almost every person I know (including my dad) has an iPod and they’re paying 99 cents a song.  Further, downloading music has allowed more independent bands to achieve recognition, since they don’t have to rely on being “discovered” before they are heard.

Does everyone see yet how this could be paralleled in every respect for e-books?

What publishers need to do is to make sure that e-books can only be downloaded or transferred from one device to another a set number of times.  It’s far less likely that someone is going to lend his Sony Reader to someone for the length of time it would take her to read an entire novel.  At $10, she could just… buy her own copy, right?  What can you buy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore for $10?  Answer:  Remaindered books, but not much else.

Now, this is where bookstores come in, and what I would do if I owned one.  They continue to offer readings from popular authors.  They continue to offer a cozy, quiet environment that is pleasant for reading.  They continue to employ a knowledgeable staff, who continue to present Staff Picks and display special books that are hard to find elsewhere.  The only change is that they offer a way to download e-books on the premises.  Then!  Then they can take out a table or shelf or two of paper books, and make room for more cozy chairs and sofas.  The bookstore becomes the last remaining quiet place in town, and people come there to drink an expensive hot beverage and read in peace.  The hot beverages are more prevalent because they can’t “ruin” books any more.

E-books are not going to kill literature.  They’re not going to kill it because only the most prolific readers use them.  If anything were likely to kill literature, it would be – hello!television.  Lack of education.  Decline in readership.  But those things haven’t succeeded yet in killing books, because more books were published last year than at any point in all of history.  I’m sure there will be even more this year.  And if more of those books are electronic, so much the better.  Higher profits per unit spells greater success for publishers, and more books for me.  Whether bookstores can figure out how to run with this opportunity and make money off it is really only a matter of time and creativity.

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7 Comments »

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  1. Thanks for leaving this comment on my blog. I truly appreciate your perspective on the issue. You make some great points that I have not been aware regarding the constructive effects e-books will incur upon independent bookstores. My unresearched claim that e-readers will hurt indies was solely attributed to diminishing sales cited by two of my friends who work at booksellers.

    Given that Kindle (or other alternatives) are convenient and reliable devices, they will become more popular among the serious readers who would spend the money. Also your point about the unlikely chance of loaning the device will actually boost sales of the book, in both electronic and paper forms. At the end of the day it’s more or less a matter of personal preference.

    The next big step, I guess, would be for the indies to come up with ways of selling e-copies of books.

  2. I’ve always felt that I would never get an electronic reader (mostly because it hurts my eyes to read from computer screens too long), but you’ve pointed out a lot of positives about it. I don’t know if electronic devices will ever shoulder out books, but by the time they do, I’ll probably adjust and just keep on reading!

  3. I agree that sales at indie bookstores are most likely declining. I blame Amazon sales, though, not e-books.

  4. I can’t believe you’re one in the camp of blaming of used books for the decline of indie bookstores!! Ah well!

  5. I think that the Internet is hurting books worse than e-books. I know I can sit and zone out while surfing for hours when I wouldn’t sit and watch tv for hours. E-books seem like they would balance that a little, but that still won’t save the indies.

  6. All right, well, if used book sales aren’t hurting indie book sales, then what is? Naturally indie book stores that sell used books are not part of this discussion.

  7. I’m an independent bookseller. My shop sells new and used books. We get by…and used books are a key part of that, cheaper in most cases than current e-books. They can also be traded back in for credit toward more books.
    I do want to offer e-book downloads. I will establish a means on my website as soon as I can. A few large independent bookstores have done it (witness Powells.com). At present, it’s prohibitively expensive for a smaller, neighborhood shop like mine. One of my wholesalers (the same big distributor used by Amazon and the chain stores) offers an e-book solution…requiring an up-front payment from the bookseller of $5000.00.


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