Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The E-Reader's Dillemma

I'm currently sitting in a nameless Big cORporate bood DEaleR'S cafe, sipping my coffee-flavored-coffee, and two thoughts just struck me.

First, my laptop screen is REALLY dirty, you don't realize how much dust these things pick up until you take them out of your man-cave and into the sunlight. Wow.

Second, I haven't actually bought a book here in a while. I'm a pretty voracious reader, and still splurge on the occasional hardcover from my favorite authors, although I usually get bargain books, used books and paperbacks. Lately however, I've been reading primarily on my Kindle, in particular a lot of classics from Chesterton, Dickens, Wells and others that I've picked up for free from Project Gutenberg and other web sites.

Now, I don't feel too bad for this particular book retailer. They'll be OK for now, and have hopped on the eReader bandwagon (must we use this initial-lowercase format for everything electronic? That's the last time I'm going to write it that way, I think a hyphen might be dignified, as in e-reader), but I started thinking about how this would effect smaller booksellers.

Now, I don't actually HAVE a local bookstore anymore, the nearest one that springs to mind is about 30 miles away (hi Rob!) and, although it's an excellent shop, it's a bit far for impulse shopping.

E-readers have a lot going for them in terms of portability, easy access, the ability to find and read free out-of-copyright classics, and the ability to find new authors and the ease of carrying multiple books. What they lack is the human touch of shopping with a knowledgeable bookseller and the chance to support local business. (For the most part, what you DON'T miss is the supposed tactile experience of reading a book. I've found from my experience, and from talking to others, that when you're reading, you're reading the STORY not the PAPER).

But how does the local bookshop, already struggling in the shadow of Big Lit, survive in the world of portable gadgetry, let alone during the Great Recession?

Of course, the best of the small bookstores already all have one thing in common. They're not really book stores. Oh yes, they sell books, but more than that they sell the Reading Experience. They have authors in to talk and sign autographs, they have story hours, book clubs and discussions, they give you paper cups of wine when you show up, all that. They become the center of a community of readers.

How to apply that to the e-reader experience? After all, most of the folks who buy Kindles and Nooks love to read, if they simply loved gadgets for their own sake, they'd have an iPad.

Well, there's the hardware business, for one, e-readers are expensive, but unfortunately they're mostly too proprietary to let the local shops carry them, but that could change. But people who carry e-readers also like to have nice little cases to protect their investment, and book lights, and all the swag you can clip onto the darn things. That might be a possibility.

I've also mentioned that when I really like an author, or think the book is worth hanging on to, I'll lay out the cash for the hardcover edition. I'll keep it on my shelf and re-read it from time to time. Now, I wouldn't say booksellers should focus exclusively on new-release hardcovers, but they definitely have a certain cachet even among e-reader users.

How about this? I tend to listen to my music digitally, but often what I'll do is buy the CD, then rip it to my computer to listen to on the go. Then I always know I have the CD on my shelf to go back to later. What if booksellers had "premium" books, that included a free digital download of the text in the purchase price. The nicely bound hard copy could sit on your coffee table or bookshelf, and the weightless digital copy could travel with your gadget. To take it one step further, what if there was a better way to notate page numbers on digital copies, so you could read at home in your book-book, and then find your place in the e-book on your lunch break?

I'm not really sure what the best way to go with all this is, but I don't think the increasing popularity of e-reading must or should spell the end of the local book shop. In my perfect world, there'd be a way it could actually be GOOD for them.



Neil said...

I'm not sure how to help the demise of the small book store. Other goo bookstores in our area:

Nighthawk books, Highland Park
People of the Book, Highland Park (Jewish books)
The Raconteur, Metuchen

I think I must now make a trip to the Clinton book store.

Neil said...

This article might shed some light on another reason, aside from big-chain competition, for the decline of used bookstores: <a href='http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2268000">Confessions of a Used-Book Salesman</a>