The Demise of the Book, Again

Written by larry on August 15th, 2013

A recent blog entry by someone better-known than me forecasts the end of books and bookstores as we know them. Perhaps. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.

The highest-profile evidence of change in the air was surely the demise of the Borders Bookstore chain, but I’m certain you’ve witnessed the end of booksellers closer to home. One sad note for me was reading that Lorem Ipsum Books (great name, no?) in Cambridge was up for sale, with the article I read mentioning that it was historically a labor of love, and never really gained any traction financially. Great place to browse, though.

And I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. If I told you I never browsed a book in a store and immediately reserved it at the library, I’d be lying. I’m also guilty of supporting the market for used books, at the expense of new ones.

What does it all mean? Well if Mr. Godin is saying that the classic bookstore with its huge stacks of musty volumes, a schoolmarm-ish lady behind the counter, and a big cat sitting on an upholstered chair nearby is on its way out, I’d have to agree. But I’m less willing to believe that twenty years from now paper books will be obscure museum pieces. I love my Kindle. But I also love to hold a paper book in my hand. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

So what might a bookstore look like in 2040? Well, it will be doing a lot of things besides selling books. What? Well, think of the things that avid readers enjoy besides books. I could imagine playhouses, meeting places, hosting traveling museum exhibits or guest speakers, providing classes, and so forth. The local bookstore might be where you go for the recitation portion of a college class, after receiving the lecture portion online. Or pretty much anything else that involves both the mind and physical presence. Will they charge¬†√† la carte, or offer memberships? I don’t know. I’ll leave the specifics to the attention of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, except to say that maintaining the status quo would be suicidal.

Libraries? Same thing. Already, they’re becoming social places, bridging the gap between the online and physical community. In the cities that value them, they’re not going away any time soon. In the places that don’t, it probably doesn’t matter much.

But what about the paper books themselves? Dated anachronism, or timeless store of value? Ebooks offer immediacy, ease of transportation, and democracy of access – freedom of the press is no longer limited to those who own one. In contrast, the traditional edition offers tangibility, reliability, resistance to alteration after the fact (1984, anyone?), and resilience against theft – which would you rather lose, your iPad or that dog-eared copy of 50 Shades?

Set your WABAC machine to the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re all riding around on horses and bicycles. You pick up the newspaper and read this editorial:

Exciting technological breakthroughs over the last several years have made the automobile even better and more reliable that it already was. Despite the initial expense, traveling by car is faster, more comfortable, and far more practical in bad weather than any other means of transportation. At first the auto appealed only to the mechanically-inclined, but in just a few more years, the bicycle will be gone completely from the public scene, except for the occasional die-hard. And once the last of them pass on, the only bikes will be in junkyards and museums.

There were over 100 million bicycles manufactured worldwide in 2012.

Ebook versus the Dead Tree edition? It’s a big world. There’s room for both.



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