1351_06_2---Books--Shakespeare-and-Company-Bookstore--The-Latin-Quarter--Paris_web.jpgYesterday’s post, in which I mused about whether we were living through a “phony war” period in publishing, generated thoughtful comments in several places around the web. Several readers questioned my statement that we were likely to see a steep drop in print book sales in the near future. One said that e-books had been boosted by the Kindle, but “they could just as easily be just another fad like Tamagotchis, as I personally ascribe the drop in hardcopy book sales to a mix of the recession and the fact that there’s just nothing out there I really want.” Another said print and hardcover sales were not really “at war” and that they could continue on parallel tracks. Another said that e-book sales had enormous room to grow (inarguable) and that it was more likely print sales would grow alongside of e-books.

I’m afraid I must disagree with all these commenters. I do think the decline in print book sales is inevitable and probably irreversible, as I’ll explain. But I want to emphasize a couple of points: First, I hope it’s clear that I am not celebrating this trend. I personally love bookstores and all those other things that are part of the print-book experience–yes, the smell of books, the pleasure of reading a beautifully designed volume, and even the book sitting on my shelf as a souvenir of the experience of reading it. I’m too young to have known Fourth Avenue when it was New York’s Booksellers’ Row, but my idea of paradise is Harvard Square in the 1970s when practically every block had a bookstore on it. I think any community without a bookstore is impoverished, and I certainly hope never to see the day when new books aren’t available in print form.

Second, although I believe the number of bookstores and amount of shelf space is going to shrink drastically, I’m not in the least suggesting that wonderful stores (and beautiful printed books for that matter) aren’t going to survive. In fact, it’s the wonderful stores that will survive–the RJ Julia’s, the Books & Books, and, I trust, my neighborhood’s tiny jewel-box of an indie, Three Lives & Company. Stores like these, creatively run, deeply connected to their clientele, carefully curated, and a pleasure to visit, can thrive just as other creative retailers do even under tough conditions. Thankfully, booksellers like this can be found all over the country. Just yesterday, NPR highlighted some first-rate booksellers who are beating the odds (read the piece or listen here.) And although I find many chain bookstores disappointing, there are some that serve their localities well. (In Encino, CA, 3250 local residents have liked a Facebook page devoted to saving their Barnes & Noble.)

Likewise, the printed-book-as-object, though it may become more of a luxury item, is always going to be one of the world’s best gift items (including gifts to oneself, of course). And much as I like reading on my iPad, I’m always going to prefer a paperback in the bath or at the beach. For this and many other reasons, printed books are not going to disappear.

BUT a publisher has to accept the realities of the marketplace, and for better or worse, like it or not, the market is going to see a steep falloff in brick-and-mortar retail and a corresponding downslope in the sale of printed books. Those two facts are closely connected and I’ll expand on why in my next post.

Editor’s note: This is reprinted, with permission, from Peter Ginna’s Dr. Syntax blog. Peter is publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press. PB


  1. Of course, there is the fact that publishers are discussing how to bring ebook sales to brick and mortar stores so the stores can stay open. After all, customers find out about a book by walking by catchy images and summaries while drinking a coffee in Barnes and Noble etc. Heck, I know U.K. citizens who cannot get certain books unless they fly over or order ebooks, that still come over to buy the paperbacks/hardbacks.

  2. I find this quite an interesting opinion piece; interesting in it’s evidently contradictory nature, that is.

    While it goes to some length in it’s claim that well run old fashioned bookstores can survive, it finally acknowledges that the sales of paper books will inevitably suffer a steep fall off. The reality of business and commerce is that if this steep fall off comes about, and I agree that it will do so later in the coming decade, then it is also inevitable that paper books will need to be sold in a completely different way.

    If they are to be sold as now, on pre-packed shelves, printed in runs of thousands or tens of thousands, then they will become far more expensive than they are now, with drastically lower sales and resulting profits. The business model of a book store on or anywhere near the high street will collapse. Only specialist category, specialist interest stores might survive. One in each city perhaps.

    Only if they are sold via Print on Demand can costs and prices be kept down. This leaves a tiny margin available for the host of the printing machine(s) and the nature of any book shop built around it will need to be a very different one that we know of today. Something like a small Argos store with catalogues and a queue.

    So on thin margins I don’t grasp how such traditional book stores will possibly be able to stay in business in the form that they are, or even close. Irrespective of how cozy or comfy or welcoming they may be.

    The suggestion that those traditional books stores could partly morph into eBook stores is a valid hypothesis, but I don’t really get it on a business level. Yes it may be useful from time to time for readers to “find out about a book by walking by catchy images and summaries while drinking a coffee in Barnes and Noble” but it doesn’t come close to adding up commercially as an income stream for a book shop to survive.

    The ‘sniff and feel generation’ is already fading at the edges and in ten years time will be even more faded. Paper books will continue to be popular and widely read for more than 20 years into the future, I am sure of it. But it will be a very specialist market and stores selling a small range of paper books from pre-packed shelves will not be able to survive.

  3. Right now, most of this discussion is predicated on the assumption that eBooks are more or less equivalent to pBooks. Publishers and retailers are doing a lot to maintain that perception of equivalency with pricing, DRM, region controls and so on which lessen some of the advantages of eBooks, albeit artificially.

    However, the experiential potential of eBooks is so much greater than pBooks that even these foot-dragging ploys will eventually be overwhelmed. Perhaps the first of these critical advantages will be the enhancement of social reading. Commercial efforts are already underway trying to bottle, control and monetize social reading.

    Consumers who read are probably more aware of their surroundings than most consumers. How long will they suffer the intermediation of publishers and retailers who are thwarting the fuller realization of this potential? What are their alternatives? Will there be a call to arms? Will there be an Adali Stevenson saying, “Eggheads of the world unite. You have nothing to loose but your yolks!” 😉

  4. Frank, yes, that assumption of sameness of print and screen books is suspect. Here are some print attributes in context with screen books.

    Navigation: This is the attribute of haptic communication in which the manipulation of the mechanical format conveys additional meaning without distracting comprehension of content. Primate dexterity and a deeply embedded capacity for hands to prompt the mind are fully optimized by the codex mechanism.

    Legibility: There is nothing more illegible than a black screen. Network loading and interruption, application, device and platform incompatibilities, battery drain and power requirements impair screen legibility. Browser default line length and justification distortions reach extremes of illegibility. The printed page is immediately legible.

    Persistence: Print is passively persistent and provides both storage and display functions for a single, one-time cost. Screen persistence is not assured due to content decay and mutability, provider interventions or demise and multiple media, software and hardware obsolescence. Fail-safe eye legibility is an exclusive print attribute.

    Authentication: Print is self-authenticating with a capacity to sustain continued forensic and bibliographic investigation. The overt nature of print content assures a positive or negative result for queries. Print content and its material presence is inherently immutable. The print attribute of self-authentication is a perfect complement to the self-indexing capacity of screen books. With screen book the very encoding needed for transmission and display also enables immediate indexing and automated search and discovery. But do not attempt to authenticate simulations of books on the screen.

    Constraint: The constraints of print are attributes. The material constraint eases economies of authorship and production, and packages research and creative investment. Constraints of book design, typography, paper making, printing and binding assure refined product delivery to readers. Assured re-reading across time and cultures provide research validity and organization. Immutability and commitment to physical format adds consequence, and therefore precaution, to errors of spelling and punctuation.

    Overtness: with a print content you can confirm what is there and you can confirm what is not there. And those findings are repeatable and stable as multiple works are compared. There is also an overt physical existence of the conceptual work that provides continuing confirmation of its own existence and its own disposition and location among other shelved books.

    Situated Space: Print requires physical space. Such a prerequisite is not that different from prerequisites of screen reading for electricity, device display and connectivity. Deny prerequisites and the medium is silenced. How can space be an attribute? Space is an attribute across a wide range of book function. At one extent the book is worn as a devotional amulet in a space next to the body and to another extent it is situated in a classified niche space within the shelves of a large print library. Both such situated spaces add meaning to the conceptual work as it is contextualized by other persons and adjoining volumes.

  5. I agree that the function of bookstores being a catalog for readers to use before buying on their Kindles/Nooks is not really sustainable. And the notion that the publishing industry can survive on gift books is wonderfully optimistic. Sure there will always be paper books, just like there will always be LPs…but I don’t think LPs can sustain an industry any more and I don’t think paper books can either. Not for long, anyway.

    The fundamental point is valid…eBook readers tend to be the biggest readers and most of their purchases are going to be eBooks. It’s these regular readers/buyers who sustain bookstores (occasional readers pick up a book at the grocery store or big-box store). Without them, bookstores close. I don’t think there’s any getting around that (unless the bookstores become non-bookstores, e.g., gift shops that happen to sell a few books).

    Is it sad? Sure. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent wandering in bookstores and I’ll miss that. But I agree it’s inevitable and, likely, coming sooner than we think. The good news, small publishers like me have never been able to get into book stores. Readers will have a far broader range of selections available to them…should they choose to take advantage of this.

    Rob Preece

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