Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book -- books.

So Linda and I were in the paper this morning, in an article about e-books versus books (or book books, as I call them).

I'm always amazed by how little of what one actually says actually makes it into the paper -- having to share space with other storekeepers and all.

Anyway, I wrote the following yesterday, in response to a comment on my Alien's April Fool's Day interview, but didn't want to publish it ahead of the article and possibly steal a march.
Really, only one duplicate comment -- the remark that e-books have "no soul, no funk," so I'll print as is.


Boofa comments: "Bookstores are definitely going to take it in the shorts over the next ~10 years..."

Well, you know -- some bookstores.

Bookstores are beset by many problems, and have been for years. Most fail for internal reasons. I admit there is little margin for error -- but small indy bookstores haven't had a margin for error for decades now.

I figure that anyone who browses in my bookstore and then goes home and downloads a book was already the kind of customer who browsed my bookstore and went home and ordered it from Amazon or went out the Costco. I lost those customers long ago.

Border's problems were internally inflicted long before e-readers came around. Barnes and Noble stock is in the toilet, even though the last I checked their actual sales were pretty good.

I think everyone is extrapolating from the music industry....

It's still really, really early in the process, so it it's all guesswork. We're looking for things to compare it with -- but that's a little like fighting a new war with the last war's tactics.


I don't think it's going to play out the same way.

I don't think it NEEDS to play out the same way. Music is music -- and it seems to me the delivery system isn't as important as the music.

Same with movies -- the delivery system isn't as important as the movie.

(With the big exception of the theaters -- which are probably a better analogy to books -- people tell me all the time they have quit going to movies because of the cost. Whereas, true movie lovers love the immersion of the big screen. I suspect theatrical movies, like books, both have romance built into their very existence and will survive the digital revolution.)

I truly believe that the delivery system of paper-bound books is a large part of the appeal.

I know at one point of my own life, I shed all the books in my office to try to create a spare, zen-like room. Until I visited my sister's house, which was packed with books. I soaked up the atmosphere of literature and realized I missed it. I went back home and let books accumulate again.

E-books have no soul, no presence, no funk. No nostalgia. No feel and smell and taste and touch know, it's all "bits." I can love a books, but it's hard to love "bits." When I finish an e-book, that's it. Vanished into thin air except a memory.

Whereas I finish a book, and I put it on the shelf, and it gives me a little frisson everytime I see it. And the sheer mass of memory on those shelves is going to be replaced by --what? An e-list? Gag.

Both Linda and I have had customers come in and tell us they bought an e-book and don't need their credit or whatever. You know what? I think those people will be back. I think they'll miss the romance of books. True lovers of books have a romance with reading. They'll see a friend curled up on the couch with a novel and they'll feel the pang of regret.

Others have told me that having so many books is a "burden." Really, a burden? O.K. shed the damn things. What's that got to do with anything? Your library can be as big or small as you want it.

Most of the arguments for e-books just don't really hold up that well. Access to thousands of books? many do YOU read at a time.

If I gave you a device that produced thousands of pairs of pants, would that be something you want?

(I don't know, maybe some of you wear more than one pair at a time...)

As long as I have a book in the hand, and a book on the table, and maybe one more book on a bookshelf, I'm fixed. Hell, I may toss two or three books in a backpack for a week vacation, but I'll probably still only read one.

I can 'toss' it into my backpack and 'throw' my backback into the car and let the book rattle around and get dog-eared and 'drop' it on the ground and dust it off and write all over it and give it to a friend or throw it away or keep it forever.

You need more information? There's this thing called "the internet" that has more information than ALL of US could ACTUALLY READ in our ENTIRE LIFETIMES!!!

I think a big part of the appeal of an e-book is that it's a new gadget. So those predisposed to gadgets are all over those mothers.

I think bookstores are making a huge mistake -- aided and abetted by the American Booksellers Association -- of being enablers to the digital. My advice would be to shut the door firmly in it's face, and say, "Go sell yourself without MY help."

In fact, that's what I'm going to do.

I also think that even those people who buy e-books, will also buy book books.

Or, more likely, buy gadgets that have e-book components, like I-Pad. Hell, I might buy a I-Pad.
I might download free books that I never would have actually purchased in a million years, but which I might want to glance at or browse. Sort of like I read the N.Y. Times Book Review and read all the reviews but not actually read all the books.

If I lose a sale I never had, is that a problem?

I do think there is a danger, at least at first, of losing enough business in the book trade -- say, 10 to 30% -- that the whole book trade loses cohesion, which makes it weaker, which makes it lose more business, in a downward spiral.

But it doesn't have to happen. If the publishers and distributors and bookstores and writers are willing to fight for the book-book, and take the blows, and wait for the readers to come to their senses.

(And, most worrisome, they don't overreact, enable the e-reader to take their customers without a fight -- or buy too deeply into the music industry analogy.)

In fact, I'd deny them the right to call it a BOOK at all. It isn't a book -- it's a gadget that delivers information. It ain't a book. (Probably a lost cause that, idiosyncratic -- just like I think audio books aren't really books, but performances, plays...)

To me, E-books are like Pringles -- they have the same ingredients as potato chips, but they aren't potato chips.

Most readers don't give a damn about the "business" of books (or music, or films.) They don't really understand that much of what they love comes from the structure of business. Customers are like hippies -- they think that if they love music and books and films they will magically happen. Their favorite writers and artists will make money! And keep on delivering. Dude, let's all hold hands and wish really hard!

So are e-books going to put the bookstore business out of business?

In my gut, I don't feel it. In my gut, I think bookstores are here to stay because BOOKS are here to stay. C.D.'s ? DVD's? Who cares?

Books, I care.

E-books are like microwave dinners -- cheap and convenient and tasteless. Books are like fine meals, and bookstores are like fine restaurants. (And bookstore owners are like chefs, eh.)

I have predicated my entire existence in business with the idea that if I like something, or I think I have something other people will like, and if I buy it and carry it and display it, that there are enough other people out there who will like the same thing and buy it.

So...with that in mind, my attitude toward books hasn't changed one iota (I was going to say, bit, but I don't like that word anymore...), and I suspect there are enough people out there who feel the same way to keep me in business for at least the next few years.

I've also concluded that there are many many customers I can't have -- they buy elsewhere because it's cheaper or the other store is bigger or any number of reasons. So I deal with the customers I CAN have, and build from there. There have been many occasions when I've lost 10 or 20 or 30% of my customers because of changes in the industry, but I've found that if I keep doing the Core Thing, that I'll eventually get some people back.

And if I can't, I move onto the next thing.

But I think books are the kind of thing people are going to stick with, and/or do both and/or come back to. And those people who discard books onto the dustpin of history -- they probably weren't really ever my customers in the first place. (It's hard to see them as lovers of books -- lovers of info, maybe, but not books.)

I sell book-books. To people who love books. I think I'm O.K. with that.


H. Bruce Miller said...

"E-books are like microwave dinners -- cheap and convenient and tasteless."

Cheap (relatively) and convenient, yes. But why "tasteless"? The words are the same as in the "book book" version. Is it the paper and the glue and the binding that give a book flavor, or is it the words?

I'm currently reading "Middlemarch" on my Nook. I first read it many years ago in hardcover book form. I can't honestly say that as a literary experience, reading it on the Nook is any different than reading it as a book book.

Your comments remind me of something George Will wrote back in the early 1980s, when the computer was starting to replace the typewriter as the favored tool of writers. Will sneered at writers who used "word processors," declaring: "The product of a word processor is to writing as processed cheese is to cheese."

That sounds silly today. (To many of us it sounded silly then.) Of course it's the end product that counts -- the words -- not the medium used to produce or deliver the words. I think few would argue that all writers should go back to using typewriters (or maybe quill pens) and someday the argument over e-books vs. book books will seem just as absurd.

I will continue to buy book books when that format seems most appropriate and/or desirable. For instance, the other day I bought a battlefield atlas of the Civil War because (a) I want to keep it permanently as a reference, and (b) an e-book couldn't adequately reproduce the many maps and diagrams it contains. For content of a simpler and more transient nature, such as popular fiction, the e-book is ideal.

Duncan McGeary said...

Then again, you sort of confirm my statement by saying what paper books you want to buy.

Some would find it "silly" that you don't just download that,too.

I think my Movie -- Book analogy is better. It's super easy to download a movie nowadays, and relatively cheap, but some of us -- hopefully enough of us -- want the big screen experience.

Where that threshold is for each individual reader will decide the fate of books.

I think there are enough of us who find paper books more pleasurable -- and others who will come back to us, and who want libraries, and all, that books and bookstores will survive.

Of course, I stay diversified in any event, because nothing is certain.

Duncan McGeary said...

Personally, I think cliff and cave writing is much more personal. You really want to say something when you're willing to mix your own paints, climb a cliff, and express yourself.

We've been going downhill ever since.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"It's super easy to download a movie nowadays, and relatively cheap, but some of us -- hopefully enough of us -- want the big screen experience."

Your movie-book analogy is a good one. We go to the theater to see movie-movies -- the ones that can really only be appreciated on a big screen (generally big spectacle-type movies -- for example, "Avatar"). I think as long as movies like that continue to be made, people will keep going to theaters to see them. And as long as publishers keep publishing books that are worth keeping on one's shelves, people will keep buying them. But the read-it-once-and-forget-it books will probably be replaced by e-books. And that won't be a bad thing. IMO.

(But movie tickets HAVE gotten too damn expensive. By the time you buy popcorn and sodas you've blown through 30 bucks.)

Duncan McGeary said...

Used books are already pretty cheap. With credit, your average paperback is only 1.50 to 2.00. Trade paperbacks 3.00 to 4.00; Hardcovers 6.00 to 8.00.

That's why I think new bookstores will have to transition into new and used (or add candy, like Strand's in N.Y. or whatever...)

RDC said...


Can one say wishfull thinking? Or maybe, at best, trying to convince yourself that physical books will remain more than a nitch business.

The fact that you have used book readers that are walking away from their credits should be raising very big red flags. It is occuring must faster then I expected and I was an early adopter long before Amazon ever thought about getting into the business.

If you are a heavy reader, then once you try e-books, it is very very difficult to go back to paper. E-bboks are simple too convenient. Especially if you do as I do and use your smart phone.

I just wish I could find someplace to get some value for the 2000 or so paper books I am now getting rid off. Most likely a donation to the local library.

H. Bruce Miller said...

There's a really deep hostility toward e-books -- and maybe toward those who own them -- on the part of some "book book" people. Viz. the comment by Tina Davis at the conclusion of today's Bulletin story: "I have no interest in reading a book on an electronic device." I could almost SEE the sneer on her face as she said the last two words.

Like George Will saying "word processor."

Duncan McGeary said...

Let me ask RDC and H.Bruce and Broofa where they bought their last ten new books before they got e-readers?

I guessing it wasn't from an independent bookstore...

Duncan McGeary said...

Actually, lets extend that -- the last ten books you read, new or used....where did they come from?

Duncan McGeary said...

It's hard for me to get worked up over customers I never had or never could have.

I don't really care if Amazon customers buy Kindles, or Barnes and Noble customers buy Nooks.

I have customers who feel that local independent stores are worthy of their business -- and if they could be enticed by Amazon, or bit torrenting, or Costco, or the Library, or Barnes and Noble, or the thrift stores, or everything else out there, well, they'll be enticed by the e-reader too.

We are already dealing with a fraction of a fraction of a fraction.

My own store is more of an "incidental" sale type store -- browsers, tourists off the street.

My job is to have enough good books displayed that they'll buy one or two -- despite the fact they could go out to B & N or get online and buy from Amazon -- and I'll just ad e-readers to that list.

If I lose 5% of my biz to e-readers, I just have to get 5% better at what I do, or get 5% better books. If I lose 10% of my biz, then I start to assume I can pick up market share from those stores who can't handle 10% loss.

And so on. You adapt and endure.

Or don't go into small business.

Duncan McGeary said...


Hopefully, I'm not underestimating the loss. I'm usually pretty good at scoping out the dangers...and I'm just not feeling it.

H. Bruce Miller said...

I'm pretty sure my last 10 paper books were bought from B&N or Amazon. We don't have many independent bookstores in this town, and the few that are here have a rather limited selection (sorry, Dunc). I used to patronize The Book Barn when it was still open, and if we had something like Powell's (or even close to it) I'm sure I would shop there. I love to browse.

Iris said...

My last ten books I read came from my public library here in Edmond, Oklahoma. Last book I bought was used, and I prefer hardcovers. I do share your love for paper books, even though I can't even remember the last time I bought a new hardcover, because it's just not in me to pay $20 or more for one. Maybe it's my inability to support that kind of pricing even for a book I really want has added to the problem of new book sellers. I will pay for attractive packaging, though, if they make it worth my while, just like I used to do for record albums. But what I tend to do nowadays is use the public library to audition a book, then if I really want it in my personal library I'll buy it - as cheaply as I can get away with doing so!

RDC said...

It would have been Borders, Barnes and Nobles or possible an airport book store.

On second thought the last two physical books I purchased was in your store.

Duncan McGeary said...

"...We don't have many independent bookstores in this town..."

We are WAY above normal.

The estimates I've read say there are probably less than 3000 indie bookstores in the U.S. With a population of 380 million, Deschutes should have 1.25 bookstores.

We have 5.5 new bookstores, not counting B & N.

We have two in Bend, (Between the Covers and Camalli), and one in Sunriver, (Sunriver Books) and one in Sister and one in Redmond (both Paulina Springs.) And me -- working toward half a bookstore.

All are at least equal to the Book Barn. Paulina Springs are excellent bookstores, and so is Sunriver Books, and Camalli and Between the Covers are pretty good too.

"....and the few that are here have a rather limited selection..."
Nonsense -- there are more than enough good books. Fuck. Powell's isn't even common in the U.S.A. much less Oregon or to compare with Bend.

There are also plenty of good used bookstores; I've been all over, and The Open Book is better than 90% of the used bookstores I've seen, and my wife's store is pretty good too.

"(sorry, Dunc)" You should be.

Face it, Bruce. You're like 94% of the population -- you buy from the "big" guys or Amazon.

This is a fact.

So a whole lot of these 94% could buy Kindles and Nooks -- and it wouldn't make any difference to me.

I think people think they support local bookstores more than they actually do...

Duncan McGeary said...


I understand the hesitation at the price of new hardcovers. But my wife and I sell used books at our two bookstores for 1/3 cover price -- with credit, that works out to 1/6 cover price.

Most used bookstores are in that range.

Not a whole lot more than a cup of joe.

Again, like Bruce -- you found it convenient to get your material from somewhere else....

Duncan McGeary said...

"...On second thought the last two physical books I purchased was in your store."

Doh!! You're just trying to confuse the issue, RDC.

"It would have been Borders, Barnes and Nobles or possible an airport book store."

That's more like it. See? I rest my case...

H. Bruce Miller said...

"We have two in Bend, (Between the Covers and Camalli), and one in Sunriver, (Sunriver Books) and one in Sister and one in Redmond (both Paulina Springs.)"

I'm not going to drive to Redmond or Sisters and back just to browse in a bookstore, although I must admit the one in Sisters is nice. Haven't been to the one in Redmond yet. I used to buy books at Book Barn because it was downtown and I often go downtown. I go to Sisters infrequently, Redmond hardly ever.

"Nonsense -- there are more than enough good books."

I think the customer is the only legitimate judge of that, eh? They might have "more than enough good books," but they might not have the particular book(s) that I want to read. I like to support the local merchants, but I'm not going to go into a bookstore and buy a book I don't want just for the sake of buying a book.

"Face it, Bruce. You're like 94% of the population -- you buy from the "big" guys or Amazon."

I don't deny it. If the locals could offer me the same array of choices I'd buy from them. I really believe that factor, just as much as price, is the reason Amazon and (to a lesser extent) B&N are hammering the small indie bookstores.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"Music is music -- and it seems to me the delivery system isn't as important as the music."

A real audiophile like Jack Elliott will give you an argument on that. Vinyl sounds better than CDs and CDs sound better than MP3s. CDs replaced vinyl and MP3s are replacing CDs for reasons of convenience and cost. Audiophiles lament the change, but they're a small minority.

Broofa said...

A Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath is required reading for anyone who wants to debate the impact of e-books. It explains why authors are abandoning the big-6 publishers in favor of self-publishing. This is a phenomenon that I think a lot of people are ignoring. Anyhow, that article has a done of great data and observations. (It also makes reference to a hysterical video of a monkey molesting a bullfrog, which is probably right up this audience's alley ;) )

Duncan, I worry that you're showing a bit of nostalgic tunnel vision here... a dangerous thing in business. You're right not to be worried about the people that browse your store but buy on Amazon - you lost those customers long ago, if in fact you ever had them.

You're real concern should be the customers you're going to lose because they find they prefer reading e-books over traditional books. Make no mistake, this *will* happen, because e-books offer many unique features, such as the ability to fit dozens or hundreds on a device the size of a small notepad, or do instant dictionary lookups, or text search. Even something as simple as the fact they remember your place when you fall asleep can be a compelling advantage to someone who cares about that sort of thing. And once people have tasted one of these forbidden little fruits, it's really hard to go back to the old way of doing things.

Don't think that will happen? Go ask the folks over at Tower Records or Boomtown what happened when music went digital. So what happens when 50% of your customers simply stop reading paper books because they just no longer like the form-factor any more?

Sorry to be so gloomy, but this is a reality I think you'd be foolish to ignore. I'm as nostalgic about books as the next guy - I really do love them - but I don't read them any more, not since my wife got me a Kindle for our Anniversary. I was astonished the other day when I realized I hadn't picked up a paper book in at least 6 months. If you'd told me a year ago that would happen, I wouldn't have believed you.

On a slightly different note, I've come to feel the biggest issue with e-books is not the impact they'll have on bookstores, but rather the impact they'll have on public libraries. I recently blogged about some concerns I have on that front and I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'll invite other commenters here to offer up their opinions as well.

H. Bruce Miller said...

Broofa: I read your post about libraries and e-books. I'm not sure I agree with your premise that the No. 1 reason people go to the library is to borrow a (paper) book. From what I've seen when I go to the library, most of the people are there to use the computers. And there are many reasons besides that for people to go to a library -- for instance, to use its extensive collection of reference books and other materials, including microfiche newspapers.

Also, if substantial numbers of readers switch to e-books -- which certainly seems to be happening -- and libraries fail to meet their needs, libraries will seem less and less like a good value to the public. And since the public votes for the money to keep the libraries in business, that could be fatal.

H. Bruce Miller said...

Just for the record, I do NOT go into Duncan's shop or any other local shop, find a book that I like and then go out and order it from Amazon. That's cheesy. I would rather support the local merchant (provided he has what I want) than save a dollar or two ordering from some on-line outfit. That goes for all products, not just books.

Broofa said...

@HBM: Libraries do offer other services but books take up most of the space, time, and budget. If ebooks displace those books, what fills the void? Will libraries figure out the answer in time to convince taxpayers to keep funding them? I don't think answers like "computers, reference material, and microfiche" are going to cut it. Those things will all only diminish in value as technology evolves.

The library needs a strategy that lets them add more value as technology progresses, not less. And that means investing in a strategy that doesn't continue to pit them against the march of progress.