Are Printed Books Now Extinct in the Digital Age? Not Yet

Emma Mincks

 

Book lovers around the country are wondering what will happen to their favorite bookstores as the increase in digital publishing and the closure of brick and mortar book monoliths like Borders signifies. When Borders announced its closing last year, NPR published an article questioning how much longer the “bookstore experience” might last, and what the store’s closure might mean for other bookstores. Many have speculated that independent bookstores will thrive, while others project a gloomy end for anyone associated with the book business.

 

The debate over whether brick and mortar bookstores are obsolete was highlighted recently in an article by William Petrocelli in the Huffington Post. Petrocelli responds to this shrug away from bookstores and publishers, and argues that, in fact, everyone (including Amazon.com) needs bookstores to keep running at optimum production, since a large percentage of people see the physical book in a storefront and then buy it from a website or download the ebook format afterwards. Thus, window shopping at physical bookstores remains in vogue, although purchasing books may be lagging in some ways.

 

The publishing industry has been plagued with problems for years, even before the development of the Nook and Kindle. With the advent of the Internet, and especially online retailers such as Amazon.com, the bookselling industry had to reconfigure strategies for making a living. As writer Dan Gregory points out, without hundreds of Borders stores around the country, the publishing industry will print fewer copies and lay off employees who worked specifically with that company. While the publishing industry and mega bookstores such as Borders are obviously struggling, how is this affecting the book selling business for indie bookstores?

 

When speaking with bookstore employees and owners over the years, it seems as though the decline of demand for the physical book in the age of the Internet and the increase in the number of megastores around the country have been hurting indie booksellers in the past decade. However, with the recent closure of Borders storefronts, the consumer may be more inclined to shop at local independent bookstores.  

 

In some towns and suburbs, there may not be another ready option once the chain stores close. This could have a positive effect on small businesses because of the decrease in competition. However, it could also prove problematic if there are less physical books in general. Many small business owners have been hopeful that the closure would increase their sales, but for some there has been no drastic change.

 

According to Jeanne Simone of Again Books and Bazaar in Rapid City South Dakota, the overall amount of business has remained largely the same, although she now sells through Amazon.com as well as her physical shop. “I've had a steadily increasing customer base over the years. I've gained some new customers who used to shop at Borders and Barnes & Noble, and they make up for any customers that I may have lost to e-readers. I was a bit concerned about people not having as many good books to sell to me with no large bookstores in town, but that hasn't been a problem. People still order books on the Internet, and then sell them to me when they're finished with them.”

 

Smaller indie bookstores may have a niche market for increased privacy and personality from their loyal customers. Simone explains that “major stores have begun keeping track of everything we buy, and many people do not like this invasion of privacy. So instead of buying a new book or going to the library, where their reading preferences are tracked, they will buy a used book at a smaller shop.  I also have people who like me to order books for them through my store, ensuring their privacy.” Perhaps this increasing need for privacy when purchasing books will help drive steady business to smaller stores.

 

 

Half Price Books is one of the more well-known indie chain stores. Originally converted from an old Laundromat in Dallas, Texas in 1972, the company has since expanded to 115 stores in 16 states.  It continues to be family-owned, with Sharon Anderson Wright serving as current president and CEO.

 

In terms of how the increase of e-reader technology has influenced the business of smaller shops, it seems like it may not have decreased business as much as many speculate. Simone from Again Books says, “I've had many customers tell me they have an e-reader, but still buy real books because they like the feel of them and find it easier on their eyes.”

 

However, Anderson Wright  from Half Price states, “With the rise in popularity of e-books, we’re seeing fewer paperbacks produced, and therefore fewer paperbacks being sold to our stores.  There also isn’t the variety of authors like there used to be since publishing houses are less willing to take a chance on newer authors.  Therefore, when people are selling us books, we’re seeing a lot of the same books by the same big authors come in.” Unfortunately, this decrease in variety is a sentiment that may only worsen for booksellers and printed book lovers as the publishing industry continues to print fewer hard copies.

 

Only time will tell what will happen to the industry with the increase in technology use and closure of brick and mortar stores to purchase books from publishing houses, but Half Price Books and Again Books have both come up with clever strategies for coping with the changes in reader formats for the time being. For example, Anderson Wright points out that “people are still coming to our stores for books, but they are also looking online, so we launched HPB Marketplace back in early 2011 so we can offer our customers an online sales option. HPB Marketplace has titles from more than 20,000 individual sellers.” HPB is also looking into selling other items beyond books in the future. Again Books is selling books on Amazon for customers and as a business to bolster sales.

 

Many famous local indie bookstores have closed in recent years, although some speculate that their closure might be from other reasons than the e-book industry or the closure of larger stores. Bookseller, former Borders employee, and blogger Gregory makes a good point about one of the most prolific indie bookstores that recently closed its doors, Serendipity Books in Berkeley. According to Gregory, the identity of the shop itself was tied to the well-loved man who founded it, Peter Howard, who made few plans to have someone else take over the shop after he passed away. Once he did, the store struggled. This same author also aptly points out that one potential factor contributing to the Borders closing was the vast number of titles they started with, among other non-sustainable business practices.

 

Every bookselling company, whether large or small, needs flexibility and durability to survive the vast changes that will likely continue to shape the industry. Many people assume that the changes in publishing reflect the eminent future—a future without paper books, or when bookselling will become even more of a niche or antique market. However, it’s important to note that according to UNESCO, more than 328,000 new titles were published in 2010, which should prove to doomsayers that the publishing world is still thriving.

 

The changes in the industry have always been and will continue to be tumultuous for all stores in the business. However, consumers also have some choice in the way the industry advances and changes. Buying more books from larger brick and mortar stores as may slow the decline of the publishing industry, and keep books in print. Although supporting smaller bookselling companies is important, it is also stores like Barnes and Noble that keep the publishing industry running. When enough people shop more at all bookstores, they may help prevent the inevitable.

 

Author Bio:

Emma Mincks is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Shelby H, Luca Conti (Flickr -- Creative Commons).

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