The Death of the Printed Word

I suppose it has a little to do with the times we live in, but nonetheless doomsday talk like this is more than a little ridiculous.

So, in this flourishing area of the city — a span of more than three miles — there is no longer a general interest bookstore. There are still many good places to browse the aisles for books elsewhere on the island — The Strand, Posman’s in Grand Central Station, and Book Culture in the Columbia University neighborhood, among others. Barnes & Noble is still going strong — its superstores in strategic locations are bustling, B& has been gaining traction, and the Nook is clearly the runner-up to Amazon’s Kindle as an e-reader favorite. Nonetheless, the demise of Borders signifies a major change in the marketplace for books. The unraveling of the country’s second largest book chain means a tremendous boost for digital retailers such as Amazon and the potential for a self-confident Barnes & Noble and the stronger independent stores to benefit by adding customers.

But there is no doubt — as I have written many times in recent months — that the book business is in a period of change so dynamic that any outcome is possible, from an era of exciting expansion to a precipitous decline in sales at brick-and-mortar stores that undermines the revenue base of publishing. A year ago it would have seemed inconceivable that Broadway’s biggest bookstores would be shuttered.

Seriously, the best The Atlantic can come up with to prove that “any outcome is possible” with regard to the future of the book business is that a three-mile stretch of New York City lacks a “general interest bookstore”? And, no, a year ago this would not have seemed inconceivable. More than a year ago lots of people in the industry that I know were surprised that Borders hadn’t already declared bankruptcy.

As many people have pointed out, the fact is that Borders way overspent on real estate. And then they filled up their stores with a bunch of merchandise that can not be read. Sad as the loss of any bookstore is, there’s a lot of evidence that many Borders locations were redundant and didn’t care to cater to a public that was primarily interested in buying books. So yeah, sure, the demise of Borders is an important story worthy of being discussed, but it shouldn’t feed anyone’s fantasies of a grand transition in the world of books.

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There will always be some sort of bookstore as there will always be ballet, or “classical” music or other “fine” arts. It will, as it does now, cater to a minority interest. My local Diesel bookstore is still around and, I assume, doing fine. Once again it’s because they are more than just a bookstore, they have events and are involved with the neighborhood. I think The Atlantic and other mags know gloom and doom sells and gets people to write letters. I, for one, will not miss the chains. They never carried what I wanted anyway. Good riddance. Now can we get back to selling good books and no more Glenn Beck-like crap?

Yeah, I’m getting a little sick myself of hearing the doomsayers go on and on about the demise of the printed word. Publishing is changing, for sure. Printed book sales will decline, absolutely. But from my standpoint the key thing is reading, regardless of format. No one loves the printed book more than me, but the content, the writing, is what really matters.

Hard statistics are hard to come by, but Harris Interactive has done the same study 10 times since 1995 where they ask people “What is your number one hobby or personal interest?” On an unaided basis (multiple choice), the number one response has been “reading”. #2 during most studies was “watching television” and #3, interestingly, was “spending time with my kids/family”. Not sure reading should be ahead of kids and family, but there it is.

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