If you are at all a fan of books and reading, you’ve by now heard that Borders books will be liquidating their stock and closing their remaining stores. This has to be incredibly tough on the 10,000 or so employees who will be jobless at the end of this process. And yet, I felt like I saw this coming. People have argued that e-books are killing off traditional bookstores, and that may very well be true. In my own case, it has been an interesting evolution, and an example that even someone with strong opinions can change his mind.
As e-books became steadily more popular, I shied away from them. The reason, I told myself and others, was aesthetics: I liked the feel of a book in my hand. I liked the smell of a musty old book. I liked turning the pages. I felt that paper books were superior in many ways. A paper book’s batteries don’t run out for instance (although reader’s might). Every once in a rare while, I’d give an e-book a try and it simply didn’t feel right to me.
Then, in June 2009, I got a Kindle and everything changed. The Kindle managed to capture a lot of the aesthetics of a real book without some of the drawbacks. It was easy to read from and it felt like reading a book. It’s battery lasted long enough that I was never concerned about power. Sure, I didn’t have those rich book smells, but on the other hand, I could mark up the book to my hearts content without feeling that I was “damaging” the book. And of course, I could instantaneously purchase new books with a few clicks.
It was the latter, of course, that signaled the death knell to bookstores. That and that fact that e-books are generally cheaper than their paper counterparts. (Sure, there are people that will argue that they should be even cheaper, but I’m happy to pay the prices as listed because of the additional convenience offered.) Because of the Kindle (and the iPad which followed), my book-buying habits have changed dramatically since June 2009:
- I prefer reading on the Kindle and even more on the Kindle App for my iPad. I am disappointed when a book is not available in e-book format.
- When I am looking for a book, I check Amazon first to see if it is available. If I know I want it, I buy it right then and there, often pre-ordering books that have not yet been released so that they will be downloaded to my iPad the moment they become available.
- When I do find myself in a major bookstore–a Barnes & Noble or a Borders–I will wander the stacks the way I have always done, browsing books, reading dust jackets, flipping through pages. But there is one significant difference: if I find something I like, I will pull out my iPad and see if it is available in e-book form on Amazon. And if it is, I will purchase it right there, or at the very least, download the sample.
In fact, there are only two classes of books that I buy in paper form anymore:
- Books that are not available in e-book form, for which there is no indicating of imminent e-book editions, that I feel I must read at once.
- Books that I am adding to my collection.
And in each of these cases, the major bookstores are at a disadvantage. For the former, I will seek out the book in my local library. For the latter, I haunt, almost exclusively, independent bookstore, online or otherwise.
Since June 2009, I have acquired nearly 100 Kindle-compatible books. In that same period of time, I’ve acquired maybe 20 paper books–but in nearly every case, those paper books were purchased because I wanted to get them signed by a friend or a fellow writer. This is a dramatic change from when I used to buy as many as 100 paper books in a year.
I am likely not a typical American book-buyer. I suspect overall, I buy and read substantially more books (regardless of their form) in a given year than the average person. But if you look at me in the context of American readers, I am probably fairly typical. And if other readers are changing their behavior in the same way that I am, then it is clear that major booksellers course is set, and that they are not long for this world.
I have struggled with this. I love books and bookstores have been the traditional home of books for centuries. That they are disappearing is sad. But ask yourself: what is a bookstore? In its simplest form, a bookstore is a place that sells books. Amazon, therefore, is a bookstore. Apple’s iBooks is a bookstore. Fictionwise is a bookstore. In this sense, the landscape is changing, evolving, but bookstores are still around in their new form. And I have to say in the big picture, I don’t see anything wrong with this. People lose jobs when bookstores shut down and that is sad, but it is also a fact of life in evolving industry. People lost jobs when travelers shifted from trains to planes. At the same time, new jobs were created. And there are new jobs to be had in this e-book world. Anyone who has dealt with the aesthetics of e-books knows that improvements are needed and people are needed to make those improvement. We are in a difficult transitional period but in the long run, I think it will be good.
And what about the mystique of bookstores? I think there will be bookstores (in the physical sense) for the foreseeable future because there will still be print books. Their customer base will change from the casual reader to the collector, but again like the transition from trains to airplanes, there are still trains around–some people like the mystique and convenience of the railways.
The advantages I have found in e-books outweigh, in my mind, the gradual disappearance of the physical bookstore. This is something I wouldn’t have imagined stating four years ago, but that is how it is for me today. The text of The Count of Monte Cristo is the same in paper form or e-book form. It is the reading experience and the cost that vary, and in my case both the experience and cost have been better in electronic form than in paper form. And I suspect it will continue to get better.