There’s lots of emotional activity over on my Facebook page—and everywhere else online!—about the future of bookstores. Some of the activity feels like examining the veins of the leaves on trees (e.g., I must have the ability to read my paper book in the bath tub, dammit!).
Let’s take a wider view. When you read and see the connections among the following 4 articles, you’ll get a good grasp of the forest.
We have definitely passed what Michael Cader has dubbed “peak bookstores” in the U.S. Shelf space for books is probably dropping faster than the number of stores as book retailers look for other items to keep their customers more satisfied and give those items space previously devoted to books. And shelf space available for publishers who don’t own bookstores is dropping faster than that because Barnes & Noble, the leading provider of bookshelf display space, is aggressively sourcing their own product both to improve their margins and to develop proprietary product not available to their competitors.
My point is that the idea of what makes up reading is changing. Books are going to be read with increasingly more convenient digital devices, and much of the nature of libraries and bookstores are going to change and even go away.That’s not a bad thing, and it should not be breaking news for people who are following things with a clear eye. The fear of what the future brings takes over most people who think about books and reading and writing in a way I can’t understand or explain, other than to say it has something to do with nostalgia and not a small dash of privileging one’s experience over what will soon be another’s. As well as keeping one’s job.
Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. “Recent” is not a synonym for “relevant.”
In the long run (next 10-20 years) we won’t pay for individual books any more than we’ll pay for individual songs or movies. All will be streamed in paid subscription services; you’ll just “borrow” what you want. That defuses the current anxiety to produce a container for e-books that can be owned. E-books won’t be owned. They’ll be accessed. The real challenge ahead is finding a display device that will focus the attention a book needs. An invention that encourages you onward to the next paragraph before the next distraction. I guess that this will be a combination of software prompts, highly evolved reader interfaces, and hardware optimized for reading. And books written with these devices in mind.