03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Electronics Changes Books, Bookstores and Publishing for Christmas 2009

On the day before Christmas, I realized I didn't have a present for my friend, Tom Harapnuik, who'd given me a copy of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation a few nights before. Tom is a classy guy with a sense of humor as large and wild as that of our local Olympic Ombudsman, Stephen Colbert. Tom is also the kind of friend who spends a lot of time picking appropriate gifts. I'm surprised he has time to do this since he labors hard in the salt-mines of education.

He was such a good classroom teacher that he won a national award given to him by our Prime Minister at a private dinner in the Nation's capital. Then, in a stunning demonstration of the Peter Principle, the City of Vancouver took him out of the classroom and 'promoted' him to vice-principal in a tough inner city school. These kids are lucky to have Tom because he is a bright, dedicated, caring teacher who sees through bs -institutional or adolescent- like a career journalist from the beltway. He's man who always has a practical suggestion in difficult situations. Despite his pragmatism, he is also a man who loves books.

Well, I knew I couldn't give him any old crud, so right away I decided against Sarah Palin. -If I read to inform myself, Tom reads to escape. He likes pulp fiction and burns through it as though it were TV. The most successful book I ever gave him was Bangkok 8 which is the kind of novel I'd like to write if I ever return to potboilers. This year, I settled on Ken Bruen's London Boulevard because there was a wonderful review of it by Patrick Anderson in the Washington Post. I read it online. I read most things online these days...

Digitization has caused massive changes in book retailing this year. 80% of all book sales now take place online. Amazon is eating brick and mortar bookstores which are now closing in waves. Apart from online sales, 80% of all book recommendations (those resulting in sales) also now take place online. Newspapers, TV, radio, nothing counts as much in book sales as 'Internet presence'. Even Oprah is wired. This means, among other things, that days of expensive to produce Sunday Book Review Supplements are sadly numbered. There are only about half a dozen of these journalistic antiques left throughout North America, and newspapers are experiencing very hard budgetary times, so you can expect papers like the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and the Globe and Mail to cancel their book supplements by the end of 2010.

[ See The Globe and Mail's article concerning the sale of e-Books this Christmas at:]

As a devout print junkie, the impending end of Sunday Supplements makes me more than a little sad. I'm an old-school sucker for nostalgia. Chain bookstores, however, get little sympathy from me.

Because I'd left gift shopping until the last minute this year, I had to join the crowds at a chain store whose website told me the book was on their shelves. What they didn't say was that at the store the book was $10 more than the price listed on the Internet. I also found a copy of Made To Break which I'd promised to my eldest son's friend, a clever young fellow who'd fixed all our home computers. The chain store only had a single hard cover of M2B, priced at double the 14.95 cover cost of the paperback. I didn't have the young man's email address or I would have sent him the electronic edition for $9. But anyway, somehow a physically wrap-able gift is better than a digital file, isn't it?

Well, no. Apparently it's mainly old crocks like me who feel that way. This year, for the first time, has sold more e-books than physical books, and sales of its Kindle reader (now available in Canada) are also skyrocketing. The generation of kids who grew up reading on screens has reached into our colleges and universities and beyond into the lives of commuters and office workers on coffee-breaks. E-edition textbooks are much cheaper than their hard copy counterparts and this contributed significantly to the changes in retail sales of books. But the convenience, low cost (relatively) and variety of e-Readers are also contributing factors, as is the fact that you can now read many kinds of e-Editions on PDA devices, Blackberries, iPhones, MP3s, you name it.

For the past dozen or so years, people have gradually gotten used to the idea that books and magazines can have/will have/must have batteries and screens. Most reading, in fact, now takes place on screens (and this has substantially changed our experience of life as Sherry Turkle points out in Life On The Screen). E-readers are no longer a revolutionary idea. They're something whose adoption is ongoing. Now.

Do you remember how quickly cellphones and then MP3 players invaded our cultural space? Well, this year, people are deciding whether or not they read enough to buy a dedicated e-Reader or if they should simply settle for a application that downloads eBooks to a multi-function device. Those who want dedicated readers then decide whether they want to tote around a big one that fits in a bag or a smaller cheaper device that fits in a pocket. The market for e-Readers and e-Books has reached such maturity that Apple is just about to unveil their top-secret tablet in an attempt to steal this source of revenue from under Amazon and Sony. -Remember, like Shakira's hips, Steve Jobs' nose does not lie. Taiwanese manufacturers confirm the tablet is in the works. The AppleInsider guesses it will launch in March and sell about 160,000 units every month at about $600 apiece. (That recent piece appears here: )

Well, none of this specialized knowledge helps me, of course. Tom will laugh, but I had to line up as customer number 50 or so in the chain store's Christmas rush and fork over much more money than I would have on the Internet just to get him his damn present. The cashier overcharged me $3 for my own book. I got jostled, bustled, bundled and grumped for being backward by requiring old-school hard copies.

So, okay. I'm convinced. Next year, I will do all my shopping online. Anyway, there will be considerably fewer bookstores to visit next year. 200 Waldenbooks are now closing around the United States, and independent sellers are taking the biggest hit. Just as digital music files changed the record industry and closed down cd outlets, eBooks are shutting down bookstores. Independents are the first to go. In addition, there will be an enormous economic backlash as bankrupt booksellers default on their debts to book publishers who are already in financial trouble. Print is spiraling down. It will not disappear, but it will become a medium like Radio that appeals to and accommodates specialized audiences and purposes. Although the writing appeared been on the digital wall 20 years ago, book publishers failed to adapt, just as the music industry did. They handled with the transition in their industry in the same way the world handled climate change in Copenhagen. Don't shed too many tears for print publishing. They've been making their living by cheating authors since Gutenberg.

Meanwhile, it has never been so easy to publish a book. The Internet makes sites like Scribd, Lulu and (my favorite) Smashwords available for would-be authors eager to distribute their own works. I'm going to experiment with this myself in the New Year when I release a book length description of what will happen in North America under climate change as Cooler Climes and Higher Ground on the Internet. I spent two years writing the book. It will be available for free download on January 28th, 2010. Write to me at to let me know if you're reading it on a Kindle or an iPhone. I'd like to know.

Happy New Year 2010!

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