Friday, September 2, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 5

The death of print… We hear that a lot these days, but it’s really only been a fear for a few years. After a deadly war where independently-owned booksellers and publishers fell on the battlefield, and the economy brought the corporate chain bookstores to their knees, the face of publishing and bookselling simply had to change dramatically. The end of the first decade of the 21st Century saw the most revolutionary technology upgrade to publishing since the 15th centruy – the e-book.)

by Andrew Gifford

Polarization (2007-2010)

Publishers and booksellers are crazy. For publishers, there’s always the dream that we can somehow turn our company into Cary Grant’s publishing house from Bell, Book & Candle: the penthouse office with the wall of books, the feisty secretary, the ever-suffering assistant, and the lunatic, drunken author who’s a sort of controllable hybrid of Orson Welles and Hunter Thompson. And, of course, we’ll hook up with Kim Novak in the final reel.

I don’t know what booksellers are after. All the owners of the indie shops I know are weirdly driven people who belong on the fringe of society. They’re interesting but, in every case, totally dysfunctional and utterly devoted to their tiny empires. I scoff at them, but the truth is that we all suffer from the same demons. A true publisher can look in the eye of a true bookseller and see the same thin strand of insanity that drove us to and keeps us in this business.

The insanity, and general sense of isolation and individuality that keeps us fractured and a few steps behind progress, was most evident during the rise of the ebook. Most distributors and publishers didn’t even bother retooling enough to measure actual ebook sales until first quarter 2010. Up till then, the ebook was a weird fluke. The general attitude was that the horseless carriage could never beat a horse. If Man was meant to fly, you know, he’d have wings. That sort of thing.

Of course, prior to 2010, it was clear that ebooks were the coming thing. Nobody really turned a blind eye to them, we just…didn’t pay attention. Or, maybe, we didn’t quite understand them. This weird ass thing was going on but we’re all – booksellers and publishers alike – so defeated and breathless, we don’t care to stop and think about it. After the great battle, and with Borders falling all around us, and with the economy doing its crazy little thing, the world of books became simple hand to mouth survival. We’ve destroyed our once great cities and now live like post-apocalyptic refugees. Ebooks? Whatever! It’s a few extra bucks here and there. We’re glad for it because we haven’t eaten in days.

The smart people behind the design and development of e-media, though, weren’t quite as desperate and feral as the rest of the book industry. At first, ebooks were more trouble than they were worth. Each reader needed its own format and ISBN. The Nook, the Kindle, the now defunct Borders reader (did that ever take off?), the Sony reader, and regular ebooks each devoured an ISBN and, if you wanted to do it right, had slightly different and always vague formatting rules. So the tech heads had to come in and work with lunatic presses on half a dozen versions of the same book, assuming the desire to actually get an ebook out there was even on the table.

By 2009, Apple had stepped in and quietly standardized the ebook industry, primarily to service their iPad. In 2010, along with accurate measurement of sales, ebooks all fell under the ePub format. A one-stop shop format that would go out to all ereaders. Now, for a small fee, it was possible for publishers to convert a file, shoot it to the distributor, and then wash their hands of the whole mess. A small, happy thing made possible only because the ereader industry, in 2009 and 2010, became a multi-billion-dollar business. It’s in the interest of the powers that be to get the publishers on board because infinite selection equals countless ereader sales. And every ereader sale equals a sucker who’ll happily upgrade to the next version of the device each year.

Ereaders are a tried and true business model – gadgets manufactured by slaves are sold by the millions at a huge markup. And gadgets breed demand. Gadgets breed a mindset where perfectly functional devices are thrown away after a year or two to make way for the next best thing.

To further sweeten the pot, publishers see more bang for the buck. Even if you pay for the conversion, it’s still cheaper than some massive print run that’s plagued by overstock fees and returns. The ebook revolution is every publisher’s friend. And who suffers? Well…the authors. Their royalty checks are suddenly halved, or worse. But…that’s another topic.

For the purpose of this discussion, ebooks proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the chain bookstore dark lords. It spelled the end of the chain bookstore format. Why go all the way out to the mall to curl up with a book and a cup of coffee when you can have the book before you’re done grinding your own coffee at home?

Back to that endless credit scheme I talked about earlier. Borders maintained for years off of ordering books and immediately returning a portion of them. In one sense, they had publishers and distributors over a barrel. You had to meekly accept whatever new insanity they thought up to further their own profits at the cost of everyone around them. But now the readers were compulsively buying the bulk of their books electronically and, with the economy on everyone’s minds, typically buying print books online as well. It’s that change in structure which allowed most distributors and publishers to refuse service to Borders in 2009 and watch them, from relative safety, as they bled out. Any publisher worth their salt lost nothing when Borders finally collapsed, and probably hadn’t sold them a book in a couple of years.

Barnes & Noble continues, thanks to the death of their primary rival and to Nook sales. But their chain stores are hopelessly locked on the same path and will go the way of Borders within the next two or three years.

So we find ourselves at another turning point. Now, more than ever in the past, it is the time of small presses and indie bookstores. Not since the early 90’s has a moment of opportunity like this appeared. We can retool, we can be reborn, and we can step proudly into the next era of books and publishing. The death of Borders, the inevitable demise of Barnes & Noble, and the rise of ebooks are the best things that could have happened to print books. We should celebrate all these things because, despite what the doomsayers scream, we are seeing the rebirth of print sales. The pendulum has swung back to where it was in the 70’s.

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