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E-Book Invasion to Eliminate Brick and Mortar Bookstores?

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A story about Barnes & Noble and similar large book store chains feeling the heat due to lagging sales and the increased popularity of online competitors such as Amazon.com and e-book sales caught my attention a few days ago.

Six years ago while I was attending a writer’s conference luncheon, an industry expert announced to us that smaller chains and independent bookstores were in danger of extinction, being replaced by the mega-bookstores. “If you can’t imagine your book finding a place on the shelf in Barnes & Noble, you haven’t got a chance for success in this business,” she announced to a room full of hundreds of aspiring and published authors.

For more than a decade the publishing industry has been changing dramatically, printing fewer titles, tightening markets, taking fewer chances on new concepts or unknown authors. We expected all those changes with the merging of many of the largest publishers into even larger media groups. I couldn’t imagine e-books replacing printed books then, or ever people preferring to browse websites for books over browsing through a bookstore.

Barnes & Noble and similar large bookstore chains that I once disdained for their influence in publishing industry are now sort of a guilty pleasure of mine.

These companies manage to take a store the size of a department store, attach a café and some comfy nooks (hey, look, that’s the name of THEIR e-book reader!) with big upholstered chairs, and give the store the feel of a library—a place you can escape to and explore the wonderful world of books.

They even host writers’ groups, special events, book signings, and preschool story hours in these establishments, almost like a neighborhood library. And in the world of electronic books, none of those perks are necessary. But that doesn’t mean some of us don’t still want them.

Barnes & Noble was actually smart to release the Nook, their version of a digital reader. In a way they have one foot in the emerging market that’s supposedly killing them and one foot in the past—just in case the speculators are wrong.

I confess I have never held an e-book reader in my hand, but I have read plenty of text on digital screens and I don’t believe I would relish reading an entire novel that way or first investing over $100 on the low end or even upwards of $399 to read books on screen.

As a reader, unless you are voracious who needs to carry hundreds, even thousands of titles and can afford another average $10-14 per title to download your favorite books, I don’t see the cost advantage. I do understand the convenience and savings to distributors.

Reading to me is a warm experience—paperback or hard cover book in my lap, a cup of tea or coffee on a side table, and an opportunity to unplug from the glare of electronic devices. If a novel is enthralling, I can imagine reading it for hours on paper. Electronic screens are irritating to me. The way I read my books now is an experience I don’t really want to change. Many old-schoolers like me seem to have similar concerns.

Just last Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story entitled “Judging a Book by it’s Cover” about the importance of book covers and the future fate of books as works of art if digital readers (and e-books make up 9% of the book market now) gain in popularity. I wonder, who are these people who want to read their books electronically, and why? I suspect they like having the choice of print or electronic, of shopping online or in a favorite bookstore.

Right now, everyone is happy, but we may not be able to always have it that way.

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About Birgit Nazarian

  • This is a very good, fair piece clarifying the pros and cons of e-readers versus traditional books. I, too have been a book addict since the age of five and possibly before. Indeed, one of my favourite childhood photographs is of me sitting up in bed reading. The “warmth” and “comfort” of reading a ‘real’ book is like no other. Birgit Nazarian has used the perfect words to describe the experience. I too, love the smell and feel of all books, be they tuppeny-halfpenny tatty paperbacks bought at a market stall or exquisitely bound art books purchased at great price and sacrifice. Somehow they all bear not only the author’s imprint but those of a thousand other unknown pairs of eyes and hands which have held them. However, we can’t turn back the clock, uninvent the wheel – or I’m bound to add – the Gutenberg Press! I think that when I eventually buy the right e-reader for me – they’ll reduce in price like every other newfangled must-have once they become generally popular – it will be an addition, not a replacement for real books. The worst thing to happen to me for years is when we emigrated in March and I was forced to offload 90% of my beloved collection. I had to be so ruthless that … well, that’s a story for a piece of my own. A good, if not ideal magical solution would have been the ability to scan to an e-reader instantaneously every one of the books I gave away so sadly. Now what an invention that would be!

  • Paula

    I love books, have loved them since I began reading as a tot. I went nearsighted reading the tiny print of classics late at night. I love the smell of my favorite books,the illustrations and the covers. HOWEVER, I love my kindle too! To instantly get books, especially lesser-known books by favorite authors! It’s like being in heaven. And since I love older books, they are mostly free.
    There are a few kinks that have to be worked out, but every time a problem comes up I remind myself I am not reading off the dead body of a tree. My kindle is lighter in weight than most books, and easy to adjust the size of the type. It will even read out loud to me if I wish.
    Yes, I still love and covet paper books, but I will give them all up if an e reader can be always with me. Someday I’ll get an ipad, and the world of color book illustrations will be open to me. It’s like magic.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Wasn’t this the same type of issue that came up when audio-books were introduced?

    Granted, I could care less about reading (yea, I’m probably dumb), I have never agreed with the “bridge-burning” mentality that people seem to adopt with every new invention. We’re losing a whole way to experience & appreciate music because of that “convenient” mind-set with portable media players & Mp3s. Luckily,imo, books don’t lose any integrity / information when they get digitized…

  • My stories are available in digital form for those who prefer it, but I am in no hurry to buy an e-reader for myself. I prefer the feel of an actual book. They are also easier to carry and replace if damaged (unlike the expensive digital devices).

    Even if publishers stop printing paper books in the near future (but very doubtful), I’d still have a hell of a lot of paper books to read available in older and second hand bookstores. Rot your eyes out with yet another digital screen in your life, folks. I’ll stick with paper.

  • Gene Berkman

    You state: “For more than a decade the publishing industry has been changing dramatically, printing fewer titles, tightening markets, taking fewer chances on new concepts or unknown authors.”

    Last year 275,000 titles were published in the US by regular means, and another quarter million as print on demand. Maybe not every manuscript gets published, but more books are available than ever.

    The growth of Barnes & Noble in particular provided a boost to the publishing industry – dedicated bookstores that offer more than just recent bestsellers. As an independent bookseller myself, I have the benefit of a well-established and very diverse publishing industry that makes more books available than anyone can read or than any bookseller can sell.

  • Birgit Nazarian

    Mark, I agree, there are pros and cons. I thought more about it today. I could see how it would be, advantageous to have an e-book reader for doing research on a topic – having all your text books and materials on an e-book would be a great way to save yourself from hauling around a backpack of books if you’re a student or academic.

    On the other hand, every summer publishers come out with “beach reads” and I can’t see throwing a e-book reader in my beach bag or using it on the beach or similar places. I am really excited that this conversation opened up. It’s a topic I find fascinating and I love to hear other people’s opinions about it.

  • it will be interesting to see where this all ends up. like jon and birgit, i have no interesting in an ereader. part of it is because i work with computer devices all day long and have no interest in them when i leave the office.

    the other issues have more to do with the culture (and you can think of this as “old” culture if you like) of books. i like going to stores and looking through books (old and new), i like being able to loan a book to somebody else, i like having my books on the shelf, acting as artwork and adding to the look of my environment.

    with an ebook, i get none of that. yeah sure, there’s right-clicking for definitions, deep-linking, etc….but i don’t want to do that. i can see where somebody might see this as a handy feature, but it’s not for me. i’m immersed in the text and have no need for such indirections.

  • Birgit Nazarian

    By the way, Thank you, Mr. Johns for the link to the NPR story, I like NPR and it’s an interesting interview you have posted in your comment. Points of view all over the map on this I think. It’s lucky for us we have the choice of both books and e-books now.

  • Birgit Nazarian

    Mr. Johns, I agree with you about my lack of experience with the e-book reader. Maybe I should give it a try, but I just don’t expect I will like it as much as holding a book just because it’s yet another electronic device, hard, cold, running on some kind of power source. There is an argument for saving trees, by downloading books but e-book readers will eventually end up in landfills too. I am not sure what the life of one is. I think we are at opposite ends of personal preferences. You like e-books, I like collecting old books or borrowing a stack of paperbacks from the library and it’s hard to imagine changing my habits.

  • R. Scot Johns

    For a real insight into this subject go read the transcript to yesterday’s Talk of the Nation program on NPR, titled “E-Book Boom Changes Book Selling And Publishing” here.

  • R. Scot Johns

    This is one of the most inane articles I’ve read in years. Criticizing something you flat out state you’ve never actually done undermines any credibility your point of view might have had. The fact that you can’t personally imagine what people see in ebooks only shows your lack of imagination, particularly given the double digit millions of e-readers that have sold this year.

    Digital has dozens of advantages for the reader over print, such as integrated dictionaries, search capability, and hyperlinked connectivity to a larger world of information and social networking. Accessibilty alone is a key factor in digital’s accendance. For example, for the cost of a single e-reader a family gains a virtual library full of free classics – Huck Finn and Treasure Island and Peter Pan to name a few – so that a digital device is in fact an incredibly cost-effective purchase that promotes increased literacy. To say that “I don’t see the cost advantage” simply means that you can’t see.

    Open your eyes. Backwards thinking conservatives such as yourself will only be left behind while the rest of us advance into a thriving future.

  • I have to confess I used an eBook reader once. The grey-scale Digital ink screen is nice, no glare but you need external light. I would not use an iPad or a color screen to read.
    I do prefer the paper books, but I see an advantage to get old, out of print books, in digital format delivered to your device.

  • I feel the same way – a book is an opportunity to unplug! I don’t want to read a book on a screen. Same with print magazines, which seem to be thriving for that very reason.