Its a month to the new year,and in a yearend ritual,chances are,if you get enough readers trading ideas about alternative lives,many will admit to dreaming of running in a little bookstore. Or perhaps,of whiling away the longest stretches of time browsing in one. But the odds are stacked up against us,no? Independent bookstores,we are told,are a dying proposition,and even those big chains are looking at an uncertain future. Retail has migrated to the internet,and in these times of competitive discounts,there in the world wide web,they who have the best inventory will hold sway. Why,even the book,as a printed,bound product,is said to be a thing of the past,with the popularity of e-readers not only altering ways of browsing,but also upending the editorial and business model that sustained publishing.
Two new books deepen the debate so far. Novelist Ann Patchetts collection of non-fiction writing,This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,has her famous essay of a year ago,The Bookstore Strikes Back. She recounts the desolation that gripped her and fellow residents of Nashville,Tennessee in the US when first one of the local bookstores shut down in December 10 and then in March 11. Missing the role bookstores play in aiding discovery of books,the local library tried to crowdsource ideas,and hosted author interactions,etc. There was even a suggestion that a corner of the library be given over to a bookstore,though it was obviously shot down.
Patchett then teamed up with a couple of kindred souls and did the math on funding a new bookstore. Of course,it worked. It helped that the bookstore came up as she was promoting her bestselling novel,State of Wonder. For one,she found the bookstores she visited on the tour to be incredibly giving of ideas,and a couple of them hold a mirror to us browsers: Hang merchandise from the ceiling,because people long to buy whatever requires a ladder to cut down. The childrens section should always be in a back corner of the store,so that when parents inevitably wandered off and started reading,their offspring could be caught before they busted out of the store. For another,she got a chance to promote her store.
But more than that,she became a surprise mascot for the viability of bookshops,to remind readers of what had been lost by migration of bookselling to the convenience and discounts on the net: The community centre,the human interaction,the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.
Meanwhile,in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,Brad Stones account of the revolutionary role of the company and the rise of its visionary owner is a chapter on the project to launch what came to be marketed as the Kindle. In retrospect,with the big publishers still struggling to determine exactly how e-books have changed their business,and what they need do to be ahead of the curve,it is riveting to read how unawares they were when Bezos sprang his pricing model on them. He had plucked out of thin air the price point of $9.99,having seen the success of the 99 cent iTunes charge for a digital single. He foresaw publishers reservations about a new book for which theyd charge Amazon,say,$15 as retailing well below cost. Amazon would initially absorb the loss in each sale,but inevitably,there would be pressure on the publishers to lower the tag to align with the lower cost of producing an e-book. (For example,there is no cost of paper,printing.) So even as Amazon got publishers on board to supply e-versions of their books before the launch of the Kindle,the $9.99 idea was kept a secret.
And when it was announced,allowing Amazon to corner greater marketshare and increase its leverage with publishers in ways more revolutionary than just altering the cost of books,it was too late. If I could rewrite history, a publishing executive told Stone,I would have said,Thanks so much,I love the idea of the Kindle,but lets have an agreement that says you will not sell below the cost. (The computation of cost,of course,being debatable.)
For us readers,the takeaway? Maybe the last word on the interplay between the welcome discounts and choice from web retailers,the unique pleasure of being in a genuinely book-driven shop and the convenience of e-readers is yet to be written.