Clay Shirky posts on his blog about the recent open letter from the American Booksellers Association to the Justice Department, asking them to investigate Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target for pricing best-sellers below $10. (Amazon’s $9.99 e-books in particular are singled out for comment.)
The ABA believes that this low pricing will “devalue” books, and lead to further attrition among already-beleaguered bookstores.
Shirky writes that many bookstore-lovers are echoing the ABA’s arguments. He suggests that many of these are doing so not out of any inherent love for the book, but because they like their local bookstores and do not want to see them close.
The problem, as Shirky points out, is that the bookselling line that used to stand these bookstores in such good stead has been eroded by the many price and convenience advantages on-line stores offer over local stores. Therefore, if local bookstores wish to survive, they will have to find alternate sources of support.
Shirky suggests that one possibility might be to move toward a more NPR-like model, with sponsorships and donations. The bookstore would change from a profit-oriented business to more of a not-for-profit, kind of like a library that sells books instead of checking them out.
On BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow agrees with Shirky concerning the decline of the bookstore, but not about moving to a non-profit model. Doctorow thinks that instead bookstores can stake out other niches.
On the low end of the economic spectrum, they might use the Espresso print-on-demand machine to become mini-print-on-demand shops for public-domain and user-provided books. On the high end, they could stock rare or specialty items—books as objects d’art.
We are experiencing a lot of transitions in this newly digital age. Printed books to e-books, printed journalism to net journalism, brick-and-mortar bookstores to large chain and on-line bookstores. It is still too early to say how all of them will go.
But whatever happens, it will not be the end of the world. Nobody wants to have to change, but sometimes it is inevitable. It is about time for organizations such as the American Booksellers Association to drop the arms they’ve taken up against their sea of troubles, and figure out how to ride the waves instead.