Friday, May 19, 2006

Indie booksellers, rest in peace

Alas, much of this piece is spot-on, even though it stings to admit it:
The real change in the book market is not the big guy vs. the little guy, or chain vs. indie stores. Rather, it's the reader's greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude. In the modern world we are more pressed for time, and we face a greater diversity of cultural choices. It was easy to finish Tolstoy's War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips. As a result, we tend to consume ideas in smaller bits, a proposition that (in another context) economists labeled the "Alchian and Allen theorem." Long, serious novels are less culturally central than they were 100 years ago. Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts.
This and other corresponding stories were brought on by the news of the closing of Cody's, a venerable independent bookstore located in San Francisco. The nice thing about independently-owned and operated stores is, yes, having a personal contact at a brick-and-mortar establishment who knows a thing or two about what the store sells and can point inquisitive customers in the right direction, or, alternatively, turn them on to something they might not have thought about or heard of before.

Given the advent of the Internet, however, specialized knowledge of literature -- and books, in general -- has become almost a moot point. Word-of-mouth is one of the strongest selling points of any book, simply because it depends largely upon an interpersonal recommendation: when someone whose tastes you respect mentions a book in a positive context, you're more likely to seek it out. Cowen is smart to point out that forums on the Net -- reader reviews at Amazon, for example, as well as litblogs -- have taken this idea into a new medium. If someone over at Bookslut or Conversational Reading can make a good case for reading XY's new book, then, well, why not check it out?

Yes, e-commerce will probably be the death of the traditional independent bookstore. I'm probably like most people who like to read: my budget is limited, so I'm more likely to buy used books, or shop online for the discounts. It's extremely rare for me to pay full cover price for a book I'm looking for, be it at an independent OR chain bookstore, simply because it doesn't make a whole lot of fiscal sense to do so. It would seem, then, that the alternative to putting more money in the pockets of the behemoths is to apply the same philosophy that spurs you to shop outside the mainstream to e-commerce, as well: buying books from individuals on Amazon Marketplace or eBay, or shopping at independent online booksellers like Powells or discount retailers like

Cowen is right: there's more out there now, meaning more avenues to explore and about a fraction of the time to explore them. Specialized knowledge of books and literature could either become a blessing or a liability; there was a widely-circulated piece in the May 14 New York Times Magazine called "Scan This Book!", by Kevin Kelly, a writer for Wired, that suggested the future of books would be not unlike that of an MP3 playlist. Knowledge of books, Kelly suggested, would become highly compartmentalized; subject matter could be cross-indexed to death, which is fine if you're looking for scads of information on one particular topic but, as Scott Esposito pointed out, could have the backlash effect of reducing the scope and vision of a particular book to a mere collection of loosely-associated parts. Probably the most appealing thing about a well-written book of any type is its potential to compress the world in all its contradictory glory between two cardboard covers; to contain multitudes. In a world driven and governed by soundbites, that's harder and harder to accomplish.


Anonymous said...


Tightly controlled electronic book copyright schemes may actually restrict the circulation of material. No more passing a good read to a friend. The copyright scheme will prevent this. I guess let them borrow the computer it is downloaded on.


Good to see you last weekend.

Jason Comerford said...

True, but copyright schemes haven't exactly stopped trading digital music files; that market flourished once the music industry realized it was fighting a losing battle. It's conceivable that book publication in the future could couple traditional printed texts with a day-and-date release of an encrypted PDF file that you can read on your laptop, or cell phone, or whatever they think they'll make money from. When photocopiers were introduced to the market, the publishing industry howled, as did the film business when VHS was introduced; I think eventually they're going to stop kicking and screaming and roll with it.

Nice to see you too, as always.