The bookshop will go, the book will survive
One of my lasting regrets, each time I go to the United States, is that my favourite bookshops have all closed. So, for that matter, have all the record (or CD) shops that I used to frequent. For many years, my favourite New York bookshop was Scribners on Fifth Avenue. That’s been gone for quite some time now and a shiny new branch of Sephora occupies the same space. The Barnes and Noble that I used to frequent once Scribners closed has also vanished. And the story is the same in the rest of America: bookshops and recorded music shops are an endangered species.
Media mavens will tell you that in both cases, the march of technology has taken its toll. I am old enough to remember the exact moment in the 1970s when the record industry’s total revenues exceeded Hollywood’s. Then, in the 90s, the music business enjoyed a huge boom in profits as people like me rushed to buy CDs of the albums we already owned in the LP format. CDs were not cheap – they were more expensive that vinyl, even though there was no logical reason for the high prices – but we bought them anyway.
Then, over the last decade, the party finally ended. The music industry tried its best to fight content sharing and downloading on the internet but those who fight technology are doomed to lick their wounds and weep. Now, most people access music through the internet and like all internet users are reluctant to pay much money for the content. The music industry is bust. Such great names in the business as EMI have gone bankrupt several times over and record shops have nearly all closed down or turned into multipurpose shops offering a variety of products.
Judging by the speed at which bookshops are closing – in America and in much of the West though we in India are a few years behind the curve – it is tempting to conclude that the book business will go the way of the music industry. Technology will destroy the concept of the book as surely as it has desolated the world of the CD.
Except that I am not so sure that the parallels are valid.
One way of looking at technology is to see its effects as being equal across media. So, just as the music business has collapsed, the news media seem to be following suit. Newsweek was sold to the Daily Beast for just one dollar and accumulated liabilities. Few American newspapers make any money. More and more papers close down each year. TV news is less and less profitable and it is not hard to imagine a situation a few years from now when news channels will either bleed to death or be kept alive for non-commercial motives.
It is tempting to see the book business as part of this phenomenon. After all, bookstores keep closing down. That must mean that people have stopped buying books, right?
Well, not exactly.
What the death of Scribners and my Fifth Avenue Barnes and Noble demonstrates is that people are not willing to go into shops and buy books. That’s all.
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that they are buying their books on the internet through Amazon or (in the case of Indians) Flipkart. The advantage with buying books this way is that not only are they cheaper (the on-line retailers don’t have to pay rent for bookstores) but that most on-line catalogues offer a greater range than the average bookshop. (If you are interested in this phenomenon then there is an entire book on the subject called The Long Tail.)
As for technology, I think it may actually work to the advantage of the book business. A few years ago, when the first Kindles went on sale, many of us looked at the devices with some curiosity. Would people actually want to download books and read them on the screen of an electronic device?
That question has been answered by the tablet revolution. These days people are content to do nearly everything on the flat screen of an electronic device: watch TV, see movies, check their email, adjust the household accounts and keep up with the news. Of course they are happy to read books on their Ipads or on cheaper tablets made by other manufacturers.
When I finally found a Barnes and Noble in New York this time, I was intrigued to see that the store was using its sales people to aggressively push its own tablet. It cost around $250 and allowed you to access any book on the Barnes and Noble catalogue (in effect, this means you can access every book published in the United States). One of the criticisms of book downloads is that publishers charge as much for them as they do for physical books even though downloads do not have any of the attendant costs of books (paper, printing, warehousing, shop-rent, etc.). But Barnes and Noble was selling downloads at reasonable prices. A sales guy looked at a current best-seller I had bought for $29.95. It cost around $14 to download – half the price of the printed book.
I may be wildly optimistic but my guess is that the book business will not go the way of the music industry or the news media. Yes, the bookshop is dying. And yes, the physical book will not outlast my generation. But the book itself will survive. What’s more, it will take on a magical new life, appearing on your tablet at the click of a button no matter where in the world you are. Further, you won’t have to scour the shelves looking for a book you really want. The same button will allow you to access every book that is published.
The big question: will people be willing to pay for books? After all, they don’t want to pay for news on the net and resist being charged for music downloads.
My guess is that book-lovers will pay. They will also be seduced by the attraction of low prices. At present, people who want to buy newly-published books are put off by the high cost of book purchasing. But when books are available at half the price (and perhaps even less once the market is hit by competition) some of that resistance will evaporate. More people will come in to a market where prices are low.
So, here’s my bet: as technology takes its toll of media, the oldest medium of them all – the book – has the best chance of survival.