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Print Books (and Bookstores) Aren't Dead, But the Book Business Is about to Change

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2010-12-16-256pxEl_Ateneo_Bookstore.jpg
My last 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.

Photo: El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires, via Flickr, taken by Dave