Monday, August 8, 2011

Bookstore guilt: Not Interested

The closing of Borders led to a rash of articles like this one lamenting the loss of bookshelves, delivering the underlying message that now people will have fewer places to get books and caring people should all feel sad and depressed. Such nostalgia-driven sentiments are understandable, and you can't tell someone what they should feel nostalgia about (any more than you can tell them which faith to have or whom to fall in love with), but the arguments are logically flawed.

The reality is bookshelves are expanding at a more rapid rate than ever. The decline in new paper books is way more than offset by the avalanche of new digital titles. And it's not just the current crop of indie authors leading the charge. Small presses and digital publishers are staying fast and lean, moving rapidly to take advantage of the era's opportunities.

I don't celebrate the decline of bookstores, but I am not overly nostalgic about them, either. While I have done numerous signings in them and purchased books there, I get much of my reading material at thrift shops, yard sales, and the library. I am not a collector. Aside from a few core favorites, I read a book and then pass it on. I don't feel smarter standing in a bookstore, and even though I might discover titles by browsing, I see exponentially more titles on my computer every single day. And I don't think people are going to go out of their way to support inconvenient behaviors such as driving to the store unless they want the experience instead of the product.

My father-in-law was once CEO of a chain of 100 family-owned retail stores in the Midwest. They were expanding rapidly though the 1960s and 1970s. Then some Wal-Mart executives came to the family and showed the Sam Walton plan for market domination and made a reasonable offer to buy out the family chain, more as a courtesy than a cut-throat business move. After all, Wal-Mart planned to kill the chain one way or another and had little to gain with the offer.

My father-in-law said the family turned down the deal because Wal-Mart's plan was "impossible." The traditional retail business was built on a profit margin of 33 percent, while Wal-Mart was planning a 28 percent margin. It would never work, and even if it did, customers would remain loyal to the family chain where they'd been shopping for decades, even if they had to pay just a little bit more.

Wrong and wrong. The family chain collapsed within several years, and my father-in-law said the big shocking lesson was that people DID NOT CARE about nostalgia. They were going to go to the place that gave them the best deal at the most convenient location.

I was at a little bookstore in a small Kentucky town recently and I asked the owner if she could survive the digital revolution. She said, "People will always want books." I told her she had a great location, and she answered "This used to be the town bus station." She did not see the irony.

Just because bookstores die doesn't mean people will read any less. In fact, we are reading more, because it's cheaper, more convenient, and most of us have a device at our fingertips for reading. I am not going to feel guilty because "we didn't save the bookstores." The closing of a bookstore doesn't make us morally weaker, dumber, or less civilized. It's not a referendum on our ability to communicate or our intellectual curiosity. It's not any kind of harbinger at all except for the simple one that the bookstores are not serving our collective needs at enough volume to maintain a profit.

We aren't killing bookstores. We are birthing a new Golden Era of literature, by writing and reading and sharing ideas, and that's far, far more important.

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16 comments:

Romance Girl said...

I agree with you 100%. I do not go to a store unless I have to. I buy on line mostly because it is cheaper and faster for me. I don't have to waste my time and gas by driving somewhere only to find they don't have what I want. Tell me why I would pay twice as much at a local book store when I can buy from amazon (for example)for half the price plus when I buy I almost always get free shipping and it is delivered to my door. Seems like a no brainer to me. I was at a book signing last fall at B&N. Most folks were there for the signing or sitting in the coffee cafe playing on their computers. Not buying books there. I could go on and on; but why beat a "dead horse: , as they say.

leeallenhoward.com said...

I do feel a bit nostalgic, but not guilty. The book industry is following the digitization trend that the music industry has taken over the course of my lifetime (and people aren't listening less to music, either). Ditto for video. As much as I read, I'd need to be independently wealthy to buy books new in a bookstore. I save every way I can: getting them used, saving on shipping. And with my eclectic tastes, no bookstores in my area carries the kind of stuff I read; I can't even get most esoteric texts at the library. So I will remember the bookstore era fondly, but look forward to the digitization and availability of all things literary.

Jenna (Novella Reviews) said...

What I want from books are the author's words - to read the story they have to tell. Period. Bottom line.

Jenna

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I like going to book stores as it gets me a chance to get out and about, see what's on the shelves, that sort of thing. And I think, especially with the Harry Potter phenomenon, that more people really are reading lately, looking for awesome storytelling. If the price is right, as you've pointed out, they'll flock there in droves.

lauralynnelliott said...

Not only are people buying more digital books, but they are buying more paper books online. They are buying more EVERYTHING online. I just wish I could buy my groceries that way. LOL

author Scott Nicholson said...

hi Eva, the cool thing is we have so many choices

Lee, sounds like your kind of books are easier to find online

Jenna, yeah, THAT'S what the book is to me

Jeffrey, it will be interesting to see how Pottermore affects digital sales--I'll bet a whole lot of new people will get ereaders because of it

Laura I wish I could buy a brain online!

Neal Hock said...

Great post, Scott. I briefly shared something similar on my blog about this topic. One of the biggest things that irked me after the Borders collapse was folks saying that the collapse would hurt authors because there is now less shelf space. That sentiment couldn't be further from the truth! This is an exciting time for readers and authors alike, and the only ones it will hurt are those who are shortsighted and fail to adapt.

-Neal

Pj Schott said...

We won't be able to take paper books onto the Mother Ship.

M.P. McDonald said...

Great post and I totally agree. I live about 45 minutes from the closest bookstore, so I'm not too upset about Borders closing. I used to shop at one about 20 minutes from my house until I moved last summer. That Borders survived the first closings, but I haven't been to it since about Christmas.

I do love bookstores, but the last ten years or so, the selection of books had deteriorated to the point where going to find a book to read was frustrating, and when I would find one that appealed, it would be tradepaper back and cost $16. *gulp*.

I love my Kindle and the convenience, selection and savings it offers me.

author Scott Nicholson said...

You're totally right, Neal. The bookstore method did more harm than good

PJ, beam me and my Kindle up

MP, yeah, it's good to have a bookstore around but it's not a necessity

Jenna (Novella Reviews) said...

PJ - It's a cookbook!!

twignest said...

I agree with you Scott. I've always been a big reader, but since I got my Kindle I'm reading even more. But, I was in Borders the other day to see if I could find any of the books in my wish list cheaper than the Kindle edition. I had to pull out my Kindle to check my list and I did feel a little strange, sort of hiding my Kindle so no one would come up to me and start yelling I was the reason Borders was closing.

author Scott Nicholson said...

funny Jenna!

twignest, even worse that it wasn't a Kobo...

SBJones said...

Book stores are there to make money. If the business model fails to evolve then the business will fail. Cry when the libraries close.

author Scott Nicholson said...

SB, it is possible the libraries will not close, just move to our computers....and operate more efficiently and cheaply and save us all some tax money. But then you have the problem of "barrier to entry" for the poor, which is already a problem for people who can't afford cars.

Mark Terry said...

I agree. Although there are to my mind some inconveniences to the e-book experience (quirky formatting, shitty bookmarking, difficulty in paging back to check a character's name, and I'm not as wild about it for nonfiction for many of the same reasons), it's hard to beat the convenience and price. Yes, I really loved Borders and B&N. But the stores weren't/aren't terribly close to where I live, so unless I happened to be in the area, I generally ordered online. Now I don't even have to wait for the books to show up in my mailbox. I've got them within minutes and generally at a lower price. I have nostalgia for bookstores and paper books (which I do occasionally still buy), but I have some nostalgia for college, too, but it doesn't mean I'm going back.