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Bookstores: How sick are they?

Cover of "Glass Houses"

Cover of Glass Houses

Recently I’ve seen what I call “backlash” articles* about the health of bookstores. You’ve probably seen them, too. In the wake of the Borders chain closings, some media are hitting back with counter-programming (either out of nostalgia or as a way to stand out.)

Their message is simple:

“We love bookstores and they aren’t all dying. Look at this tiny independent where the defiant owners are making a brave stand.”

I love brave stands. I’m also fond of truth and this is an obvious case where the part is not the whole. It reminds me of all the people who object to the digital revolution with, “Look at all those e-books with all their different platforms. It’s a mess so it won’t survive.” I dislike stupid stands.

Perhaps the problem is confirmation bias. They’re looking for reasons why what will happen, is happening, won’t happen. Whatever bump in the road they find they take gleefully to be an insurmountable obstacle. Actually, multiple platforms for e-books are a sign of health (assuming competition is good in that it keeps prices down and choices up) and of growth (as in growing pains due to rapid, unexpected expansion.) The technology to make us all publishers is developing.

“Developing” implies transition from stupid to primitive to flawed to workable to better to a higher state (and eventually to a new tech.) Instant/indie publishing is not going to be perfect all at once. Nothing is, though not long ago I heard a Luddite say he wasn’t going to buy a computer until the tech wasn’t “perfected.” Hahahaha! He was calling from the corner of Unreasonable Expectations Boulevard and Are You High? Avenue.)

There is  a reductionist view with a subtext that categorizes anyone who predicts the demise of bookstores as a gloating goblin. I’m not gloating. I love bookstores. As (I’ve often pointed out, having milk delivered to the house was convenient, too.)

But I’m not saying bookstores will disappear completely. You’ll just pay more if you want the premium paper product. Heck, you already do that, but the price of old media will rise more. You can still buy turntables, for instance, but if you want to hear the scratches on Billy Joel‘s Glass Houses, you’re paying a very high price for a new needle to make that old pig spin.

Paper books are going to co-exist with e-books for some time…at least until consumers really get kicked in the teeth by manufacturing costs. Books get cheaper when produced in volume, but as digital sourcing rises, e-books don’t have to replace all paper books to make paper book production go from unattractive to cost-prohibitive.

There are too many variables and my brain is too small to say precisely when it will happen. I’m simply confident it will occur and one day, maybe even you will say, “Oh, look, darling! A bookstore! There isn’t a bookstore within 2 days’ drive of our house! Let’s go in and buy coffee and look at their tiny collection. How quaint!”

Yes, Virginia, 100 years from now there will still be paper books.

But you’ll be sewing and gluing the binding yourself.

*Chazz definition: A backlash article is an article written to assure the reader that the writer is the sane voice of wisdom when in fact they’re really just knee-jerk contrarians railing against all evidence. Like how the writers at Slate work from the premise, “We’ll hate on what everyone loves and make snide remarks at what everyone thought unassailable because we’re the sophisticated cool kids! Anything goes as long as it doesn’t agree with Salon.”

Filed under: Books, DIY, ebooks, Media, publishing, Rant, self-publishing, , , , , , , , , , ,

Bookstores are disappearing. Time to sell my book collection.

Malcolm Ingram, Canadian independent film dire...

Image via Wikipedia

I came to two realizations about books today:

1. We aren’t being brave enough.


2. It’s time to sell my book collection.

Two film directors (Kevin Smith and the guy behind Donny Darko) talked on a podcast about cross-promotion with their movies and how five years from now there will be no bookstores. Though they are both authors as well, their main focus is film so they could be dispassionate about our sick industry. Contrary to what you may have heard, that’s a reason to take their assessment of bookstore extinction more seriously, not less. People inside the publishing industry often have their judgment clouded.

When confronted with such dim prospects for bookstores, many inside the book industry answer:

1. Nonsense! Horrors! Unthinkable!


2. It won’t happen that fast. We still have lots of time to bleed the old paradigm dry.

But five bookstores a day are closing across the United States. E-book sales are growing faster than most publishers anticipated. It won’t be long before even your Grammy is buying her books in an electronic format. At first she’ll hold back on buying in, but when the variety of large print books diminishes—they always were a marginal asset—those electronic readers that allow her to easily bump up the text size will push her over the edge. The rise in e-book reading tells me we’re already past the time when digital book consumption is only about the early adopters. That goes double once Christmas morning hits.

Sure, there will still be specialty bookstores, or rather, premium collectibles bookstores. You’ll come for the books, but it’s the coffee they sell which will make the serious money.

I write this without glee. I love bookstores. They are my last retreat. Where else besides my office, will I go willingly? Bookstores and libraries are to me what graveyards and remote girls’ schools with lax curfews are to vampires.

I hope many bookstores find a way to survive. A bunch of them may do it, but those will be digital books on the shelves, mocked up to look like tree books. Yes, grandfather, there will still be tree books, but you’ll pay substantially more for them. Big print runs keep the unit price low by producing large volumes. Those print runs are about to be cut (further) so that paper book you’re so attached to will be a specialty item. (Have you noticed the rise in the prices of buggy whips lately? It’s crazy.)

Then I listened to another podcast. Blowhard’s Malcolm Ingram was speaking with a porn actor/director. Ingram observed that the skills are transferable to mainstream film. (Insert your own joke here.) But he was talking about technical skills. Then he mentioned that it’s never been easier to make a film. It’s true. The cameras come fancier and cheaper than ever. YouTube is a young filmmaker’s playground (search Nigahiga and you’ll see what I mean.)  Technology has democratized filmmaking. “I’ve directed two documentaries,” Ingram said, “and I’m borderline retarded.”

That, ladies and germs, is indie spirit.It’s brave. It’s what we’re lacking.

What’s true for film is also true for publishing. Becoming an independent publisher has never been easier and the technology to make a book and market it is only getting better. People have done it. A bunch of industry experts with their own agendas are holding with opinions which were once valid. They get less valid each day (and another five more bookstores go extinct.) They have their reasons to mistrust self-publishing, but if they’re still confusing self-publishing with vanity publishing…frankly, now those people are boring me.

We’ve already hit the iceberg so stop wringing your hands about whether we’ll make it to New York harbor. Honestly, your obstinacy is titanic.

Oh. That other dire conclusion? Paper books are on the way out. I have thousands of them.

It’s time for me to sell them while someone’s still interested in buying them.


Filed under: Books, DIY, ebooks, getting it done, Media, movies, publishing, Rant, self-publishing, , , , , , , , , , ,


Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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