Do You Prefer Print Books? Enjoy Them While You Can

While I might beat the self-publishing drum at times, I don’t celebrate when I hear publishers are in trouble, or bookstores are closing down, because there are always people behind the headlines, and it has ramifications for the entire book world.

The closure of bookstores, in particular, is disheartening.

And when people say – as a lot of my friends do – that they have no interest in e-books, and can’t imagine ever using an e-reader, I get it. People have an emotional attachment to print books.

You see them in bookstores, wandering the aisles in a daze, stroking the spine of a book as if it were the photo of a lost love. They take it from the shelf, carefully, open it, stick their nose right in, close their eyes, and inhale. They trace their fingers under the words. They caress the pages.

Books are beautiful things. I have a strong attachment to them myself. I don’t want a future where there are no bookstores and where printed books are a rarity. Unfortunately, I have very little say in what the future is actually going to be like.

I don’t own an e-reader, and only bought my first e-book the other day. I read e-books on my laptop, and having the internet a click away means it is difficult to get into what I am reading for any sustained length. I only bought the book in digital form because it’s the only form it has been released in.

I think we will see a lot more of this in the future. It’s much cheaper to produce digital-only versions. While some costs are the same – cover, edits, marketing – there are a whole bunch of costs that don’t exist in the digital world – storage, printing, returns – that make e-books less of a financial risk.

Publishers, especially small publishers and self-publishers, are producing a lot of editions exclusively as e-books. But there is another threat to print books, and those that publish them.

Bookstores are in trouble. Borders, the second-largest chain in the US have filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, and may end up being liquidated. The largest, Barnes & Noble, have planned a huge amount of store-closures, are seeking a buyer, and are only showing growth in their online operations.

In Australia, the book world was shocked by the sudden collapse of Angus & Robertson.

Waterstone’s is closing hundreds of stores across the UK and has also been seeking a buyer for some time. The largest chain in Ireland is under pressure and has undergone another round of restructuring and re-branding. The second largest went out of business last year.

When a chain goes down, it doesn’t just affect the shareholders and the workers, it has repercussions throughout the industry. Towns are often left without a bookstore, forcing people online. Publishers are left with less outlets to distribute to, and lower orders, which hurts distributors and writers.

Some people may feel that struggling chains deserve some of what they are getting, that their increasingly homogenous selections, and constant demand for greater discounts, has left them with few friends amongst readers, and in the publishing world.

If this is your view, ask yourself one question. What do you think it will be like when the only physical place you can buy a book is a supermarket?

One thing that chains were always good at was selling lots and lots of books. And while their selections might have been limited in certain respects, and while they might have made it difficult sometimes for self-published writers and smaller presses to get their books stocked, it is far worse in Tesco and Walmart, who have a tiny selection of books, and tend to go for safer bets.

Independent bookstores have been hardest hit. They have smaller margins, less cash reserves, and rarely attract outside investment. While the owners are always businessmen, often their shop is a labour of love. They will take risks on new writers, on unusual books, and not always have their eye firmly on the bottom line.

Like small, independent presses, indie bookstores will nurture a writer. They give a book time to find an audience, rather than returning it to the publisher after a month. They will talk to customers, find out what they like, and steer them away from the more obvious choices and ask them to consider something a little different.

They host readings, poetry nights, book clubs, all of which rarely make them money, but they are interested in building a community around their store. They are book-lovers themselves, and their passion shines through.

But their books tend to be more expensive.

In the past, their customers were willing to pay a premium for the more diverse selection and the personal touch.  However Amazon, with virtually any book a couple of clicks away, have stolen a lot of their business.

In the last twelve months, a string of venerable indie bookstores – real institutions – have closed. Many more have announced that they either need a buyer, or investment, or they will go the same way.

Digital guru Mike Shatzkin said that if bookstores lost another 15% of their trade they would go out of business. In the latest figures (for February), sales of print books were down 34.4% year-on-year.

If this keeps up, pretty soon the only place you will be able to get a print book will be a supermarket or online.

If you don’t like e-books, and you can’t see yourself using an e-reader, there is something you can do about it.

Go to your local bookstore and buy a book.

But do it while you can, because they way things are going, they won’t be around for much longer.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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16 Responses to Do You Prefer Print Books? Enjoy Them While You Can

  1. Catana says:

    I have to say that in all my long years of browsing bookstores, I’ve *never* seen anyone stroking a book or sticking their nose in to smell it. I think this is one of those neo-romantic myths that cover luddism. Most people don’t have an emotional attachment to print; they’re just used to it. For some, any major change is uncomfortable, especially if it means they have to learn something new.

    Print books aren’t going to go away. They don’t need either bookstores or big publishers to survive. Those are just marketing platforms. There was a time when neither one existed, but people still bought books. Books have evolved. The book business has evolved and will keep evolving. Authors will be using new services along the lines of lulu.com and Creatspace that produce paper books. A multitude of small, online publishers offer the choice of digital or print, and that trend will probably increase.

    By the way, if the big publishers go out of business, you aren’t going to be finding books in supermarkets. But I predict that, in urban areas that can support them, small bookstores will rise again, having found ways to juggle digital and print.

    Like

    • Hi Catana,

      They only do it when you aren’t looking!

      Seriously though, I hope you are right about bookstores, but the signs aren’t good. I would love if this led to the resurgence of the village bookshop, but I can’t see it happening. The bigger share of the market that Amazon and the supermarkets capture, the more vociferous they can be in demanding discounts. Will people buy books in a small, local shop when they cost twice or three times as much? Personally, I doubt it.

      Dave

      Like

      • Hektor Karl says:

        Some independent stores try to handle this by focusing on used books, posters, collectables, etc. But this seems like a niche strategy at best.

        I think you’re right that the costs of significant book-dedicated floorspace require higher margins than people (will) want to pay.

        Like

      • You’re right Hektor, and look at Barnes & Noble now. CDs, DVDs, games, at what point do we stop calling it a bookstore?

        Like

  2. JB Toner says:

    I love books. Not an original statement, I know, but in my case it’s remarkable, because I have an allergy to coarse paper. I used to work in the civil service, and came home every night covered in rashes all up and dwon my arms from handling manila files, especially old ones. Quite often when I read paperbacks, I get rashes on my hands and arms, but I struggle onward. For me to finish a book an author has to really good!

    Have you seen the wonderful comic TV series “Black Books”? Now that’s what the small independent bookstore should be like!

    Like

    • I love Black Books. I would pay double just to hang out there every so often.

      But I look at the next generation, will they have any emotional attachment to print books? Will they even have bookstores to have fond memories of?

      Like

  3. I do! I stick my nose into books and smell them! There, I’ve outed myself. We DO exist. *grins*

    Like

  4. Jeanne Miller says:

    Very interesting article. I too just recently started buying ebooks. I also have the app on my computer so it makes reading for any length of time uncomfortable as I have an old pc..no laptop. I can’t wait until I can get a real Kindle reader.

    Let me say this. I love books…the feel, the smell, the look…everything about them. I’ve recently discovered that I love Ebooks too. The convenience, the price, the surprising quality…so I intend to love them both. They don’t need to be mutually exclusive and in my home, they won’t be. 🙂

    Like

  5. Werner says:

    Back in December, I received a Nook as a gift. At the time, I thought I’d want an e-reader, but realized I still loved the look, feel, smell and heft of a book. I see them as the manifestation of a person’s thoughts and ideas, fantasies and dreams. I returned the Nook.

    After repeated exposure to e-readers, I caved and bought a Kindle a month ago…and I’m almost reluctant to say it, but I love the thing. Don’t get me wrong I still love physical books; I just picked up three this weekend.

    Traveling to New York City this past weekend I stopped at a place I’ve been dozens of times – a roadside restaurant that also sells used books. When I started going there years ago, you would be able to choose a free book whenever you ordered a meal. Now, they give you three free books with a meal. I asked why the change and the server said, “People aren’t taking as many anymore. The food end of the business is still good, but we can’t give enough books away – let alone sell them.”

    I think over the next 10 years there will be very few bookstores left. The last bastions of printed books will be public the libraries, which with time will also be endangered in many communities.

    Like

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