The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
For a long time, much has been made about the death of the book. Not writing or reading but the actual paper and ink thing you can hold in your hand and smell. The ever increasing number of ereaders and the record numbers of sales of Amazon’s Kindle Fire this holiday season would seem to indicate that the American public is on board to do away with libraries and bookstores in the very near future. Witness the recent collapse of Border’s Bookstores, for example.
Let’s not be too hasty in jumping to the conclusion that the demise of those businesses is entirely due to the public losing interest in books. Certainly in the past few years, a great number of businesses have gone under and books are one of those things that gets cut from most people’s budgets when times get tough. And maybe, just maybe, even Border’s was not being run very well, not adapting to the business climate in a way that would have allowed them to remain in business. No business is going to last long if customer’s don’t enjoy shopping there.
Many say the ereader will do the same thing to the book industry that the MP3 player has done to the music industry. Some years ago, when MP3 players first came into existence, it was widely held that it would be the death of the music industry. Certainly, there are no longer record stores on in every mall and they are few and far between. But not only can you still buy music on CD’s, the music industry has adapted in other ways. Here in Omaha, you can still go to a concert almost any night of the week, depending on what kind of music you like and there remain just as many radio stations as there ever were. If all music was being stolen off the internet, I’m fairly certain that artists would have ceased, by now, to put out any music at all if there were no way to make any kind of living at it.
The book industry has some advantages over the music industry. Until just recently, the ereaders were still relatively expensive, keeping casual readers from wanting to invest in a device they wouldn’t use that often. As prices are coming down, certainly the sale of ereaders will increase. And while you can buy a lot of books for 99 cents, most ebooks still cost as much as the paper copy. An important difference between emusic and ebooks is the demographic of the users. Who buys the most music? Young people. Who is best able to manipulate their computers to figure out how to get something for free? Young people (they are fearless when it comes to computers!). Certainly there will be people who will figure out how to get books off the internet without paying for them. But research shows that most book buyers are middle-aged or older and I like to think that even if I could figure out how to get a book for free, I wouldn’t. The most important difference between the book industry and the music industry? I simply cannot get in my car, turn on the radio and listen to a book for free.
All of that still doesn’t ensure that readers will continue to buy the physical copy of an author’s efforts. So what does? There are pleasures that simply can’t be gotten by downloading an invisible book onto an electronic device. There is a joy in wandering the aisles of a bookstore, scanning titles, gazing at covers and flipping through pages that can’t be replicated by paging through an internet site. And while an ereader may make a great tool to have with you on trips or in your purse in case you find yourself in need of a book, it is not the same as curling up in your favorite reading spot with a warm cup of tea and an actual book where your progress is marked by the turning of the pages and the placing of a bookmark. Yesterday I spent three hours reorganizing my bookshelves. Some people may consider that a chore but for me, the opportunity to hold each of those books, to ponder the possibilities in each, to look at those rows of color, that is a treat I look forward to.
I do have a confession to make. I began truly coveting an ereader last year and my family surprised me at Christmas by all pitching in together to get me one. I am loving it, I must admit. I can highlight, add notes, and look up words without marking my book or leaving my seat. I can carry multiple books at once and it fits in my purse in less space than most books.
I offered to loan my copy of this month’s book club selection to a fellow member the other day but she declined, saying she would rather read it from her ereader. I could take this as a bad sign for the book proper. But I live in a little bubble of sorts and prefer to see this in a positive way - because she is adamant about reading from her ereader, she will be paying for the book, putting money into the hands of the people who write and publish books. That counts for something.
I’ve just spent a few hours looking at all of the new titles that will be coming out this year from the publishers. There are, literally, hundreds of books to anticipate. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, will go straight to ebooks, thanks in no small part to the self-publishing industry. But for me, and tens of thousands for booklovers like me, those books will be merely words until we have held them in our hands, browsed the pages to get an idea of the writing style and carried that book home, maybe even pulling it out of the bag to read at red lights.