The Book on Books

I remember as a small kid (still in the single digits) I would love it when we went to the Walt Whitman Mall.  There was this little bookstore there.  It wasn't a Barns & Noble or a Waldenbooks or even a B. Dalton.  It was a narrow little place with untidy stacks books on wooden tables and rows of shelves along walls.  There was no cappucino bar, no overstuffed chairs, no bear claws, no wi-fi.  Just books. 

In the pre-Wikipedia, pre-internet, pre-cable TV days, a good bookstore was a great place to pass the time.  My mom would drop me there on her way to A&S or McCrory's or wherever she was going.  I would happily stand in that back right corner, where the sci-fi/adventure section was located, and pour over the works of Alan Blish, Alan Dean Foster and Harlan Ellison.  It was in this tiny store I discovered Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual, and Star Trek Blueprints, the Holy Grail for Trekkers in the 70s. 

Fast forward thirty-off years.  Small booksellers are quickly becoming an anachronism.  I am to blame.  Yup, me.  OK, well me and you, too.  When was the last time you strolled a small, independent bookseller?  But really, who (or what) is to blame, and is this really a bad thing?

I have no idea.  Much smarter people than me, like Michael Hyatt, have offered all kinds of opinions.  What I offer, dear friends, is a eulogy of sorts. 

Small booksellers are victims of society - a society where efficiency is king.  And these shops are the antithesis of efficieny.  Why get in my car and drive to the mall (waisting gas!) to browse a store that may or may not have the book I want.  Or maybe I don't even want it; there are no reviews here!   How am I supposed to know what to buy? Do you expect me to - gulp - ask the guy in the store?  Where are the reviews that "15 people found useful?"   Where are the other books that "people who looked at this item eventually bought?"  What am I supposed to pay?  Where are the "10 New and Used?"  (Disclosure: I am a Book Review Blogger for Thomas Nelson Publishers, and my reviews are available on Amazon in that capacity.)

Truth is, you don't even need to buy the book anymore - ebooks abound!   You can even read many books right on Google Books.  Why even buy a book?

Personally, I love the feel of a book, especially a hardcover.  There's something about digging an old, familiar copy off a shelf or out of a box and re-reading it.  I especially love when I come across a dog-eared page. I knew I stopped here at one point.  Why?  Was I dozing off?  Was my lunch break over? Things like that connect us to the past in a way that a pdf file never could.

But they are sooo... expensive!  Twenty-five bucks for a first-edition hardcover novel!  Honestly, I never buy hardcovers anymore, unless they are deeply posted off their cover price.  I just can't afford it!  And, I'll be honest - I am more likely to order a book from Amazon as go to Barnes & Noble.   So I am to blame!

I'm all for a market-driven economy.  After all, if browsing small book stores was really important to a lot of people, then they would still be doing it! They would not be shopping online.  But, the market has determined a couple of things:
  • It is much more efficient to shop online, or from a mass-market bookseller.
  • The value people place of having a nice, bound copy of a book is much less than in the past.
  • The value people place on what's inside hasn't changed. Just the means of delivery.
  • If the publishing companies and retailers can get off their collective duffs and realize that formats and devices don't matter, and develop a workable, cross-platform ebook solution, then printed books are probably doomed to the fate of vinyl records - still available, but rare, and appealing to a niche market only.
That last is key.  For example, there are plenty of audio formats that are far superior to mp3 files - Vorbis ogg comes to mind as one - lossless formats, smaller file formats, just better formats.  But, mp3's are everywhere.  Why?  They work everywhere. You can have a Zune or a Sansa or an ipod, Windows, or Linux or Mac.  Doesn't matter.  Picture frames play mp3s!!!  As a result, this lossy, inefficient file format is King of All Audio right now.

Once ebook sellers start marketing their readers based on the features in the product instead of locking them into some stupid proprietary format, ebooks are going to take off like crazy. 

Until then, I still love me some page-turning books. 


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