Some Media People Think Print Is Dying

Obviously ebooks are and will continue to be an expanding part of the book market, but I too find it strange that they now somehow account for the demise of Borders in the mainstream media’s depiction of said demise. I honestly can’t account for why most people on the book beat have been so dead-set on proclaiming the glorious ebook destiny that awaits us. Is this perhaps a part of the broader e-everything triumphalism that become a fact of life for now?

It’s a shame this story isn’t being covered more accurately, and that everyone is instead going for the sexier trend story — note that the Morning Edition story I cite above does mention that someone mentioned to the reporter that they thought this was about real estate, but she shrugs it off and offers no details, favoring the “electronic media” prof’s blather about the “larger transition” of book culture. That “someone” was me — I was interviewed at length, but you’ll note my remarks were cut out. I’m not upset to have been edited out, but I am upset that 1. as with the overwhelming majority of coverage on the subject, no publisher or retailer (i.e. someone with direct standing and a knowledgeable perspective) was quoted and 2. that the reporter was so clearly eager to follow the herd and make this a trend — instead of a business — story. (Although there is the occasional reporter who accidentally hints at the truth while getting the gist of things wrong — such as this New York Times report that says online sales killed Borders, while also noting, late in the story, widespread reports that independent bookstores located near former Borders locations were seeing a dramatic increase in sales. If people stopped going to Borders because they wanted to buy books online, why did business go up at neighborhood bookstores after Borders left?)

This story syncs up very well with an op-ed that Richard Nash wrote for CNN, of all places.

Bookstores can and should be sites for this conversation. Increasingly, the good ones are places where people seeking deeper engagement with their culture and society choose to congregate. They are offering language classes, reading groups, singles nights, writing workshops, self-publishing solutions.

Not all bookstores have gotten on board with the transition from being a place where books await customers to being a locale of social and cultural exchange, which happens to support itself in part by selling books. The brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has noted that the less a retail experience is focused on selling stuff and the more it is about something else — an event, an occasion, a vision — the more a store will sell.

We may think of bookstore clerks as just underpaid drones, but the reality is that most people who work in bookstores do so because they love reading and writing. I believe that Borders employees past and present can become part of an emerging system of supporting writing and reading, whether in new bookstores or new online ventures, operating as the matchmakers of the book ecosystem.

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“If people stopped going to Borders because they wanted to buy books online, why did business go up at neighborhood bookstores after Borders left?)”

I generally agree with the larger point, but this is a false dichotomy. Obviously some people were still going to Borders – there’s a wide spectrum between unprofitable and zero customers – and these people switched to the independent stores after the closure. It’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which ebooks significantly cut into Borders profits AND there exist plenty of people who want books who boosted independent sales.


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