More than once a week this year, headlines crossed my desk about the death of publishing, the demise of books, and the cold-blooded murderer that is the eReader. The Chicken Littles of the publishing world have clucked about lost points in retail sales of books and the increasing digital format trend. This is partly true. Book sales were actually up 3% last year and increased even more in online stores. eBooks exploded with sales over 175% compared to 2008.
Books are not going anywhere. Neither is publishing. Since Gutenberg made his epic contribution to the human race, publishing has secured a place as one of the largest and most profitable industries in history. In that time, publishing has adapted to major technological changes, survived economic meltdowns, persisted through political censorship, and made it to the other side of catastrophic price wars. The likes of Simon & Schuster and Random House are not going to lay down simply because more than 25% of their potential customers bought electronic version of books instead of much more expensive, hard to warehouse, and returnable physical books. If the mainstream publishing world's enthusiastic embrace of eReaders is not evidence enough that they are doing fine, than their stable sales through the largest economic disaster in our nation since the Great Depression should be.
Small publishers need not worry either. They are vanguards in this new trend, innovating and competing in ways the big boys can't catch up with. Like the music and movie industries have experienced, independent book publishers are on the cusp of transitioning into the very lucrative mainstream market.
If anyone should be concerned, it is the bookstore. Amazon's healthy five-year trend indicates that the flight from brick and mortar is not subsiding anytime soon. Couple that with the middleman-eliminating eReaders than bookstores have a great deal to worry about. And their 15 point drop last year is only the beginning. It is the bookstores that need to break into the market with a bullhorn explaining the value of the printed book, not the publishers.
And so then, what is the value of the printed book? eBooks are cheap to produce and cheap to buy. They have negligible environmental impact. They are easy to store, tote, and transfer. They are interactive. What does a printed book have that eBooks don't?
The role of the printed book is still critical, if not for the publishing industry, but for the human race. Our permanent record, whether through artistic expression in fiction, or through knowledge in non-fiction, is kept on printed books, not on electronic signals. Without the printed book, there is no record of our time, place and civilization.
Bookstores are repositories of our most important examples of human wisdom, knowledge and art. The role of bookstores is to protect and promote that. Publishers can reserve eBooks for all those billions of dollars worth of fluff they put out every year, but should keep the important works in print and in bookstores.
In this new frontier, bookstores will be the ultimate source of vetted high quality material. We as book readers will know that if it was important enough to make it into print, it is important enough to buy. That's a hard case to make for an online shopping cart.
Jennifer Havenner is the Director of Publishing for Independent Publisher The Way Things Are Publications.