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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Is it time to start imagining what a world without bookstores might look like?

That's a question I've only recently begun to consider seriously for various reasons. One of those reasons is the news that the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain has been put up for sale. The chain isn't bankrupt, but they're apparently losing money left and right. This, despite entering the supposedly lucrative ebook market with their ereader, the Nook. That's a clever name, far better than "Kindle" if you ask me, but how many people are prepared to drop $149 on a device that allows them to read books that they still have to buy?

Borders, the country's second largest brick-and-mortar bookstore chain, has cast their lot into the ebook waters, as well, throwing their support behind Sony's ereaders, along with plans to start selling ebooks as well. But I've heard rumors that Borders may be in even more trouble than Barnes & Noble.

Independent bookstores have already been hit hard by the big chain bookstores. They won't be able to compete at all in the ebook market without a significant online presence and dedicated customers.

In fact, I may have started my column off with the wrong question. Perhaps we should consider if it's time to imagine a world without printed books. Ebooks, after all, have a lot of advantages over traditional printed books.

Ebooks do not have to be printed and have no true physical presence. That means all the money publishers currently spend on printing, shipping, and storing books can be saved. This, in turn, will reduce the cost of books. Both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble already sell the ebook version of a new hardcover for well less than the hardcover book costs.

Booksellers will no longer need to guess how many copies of a book to stock. Nor will they have to get rid of older books to make room on the shelves for new books. A bookseller should just have to keep track of sales each month and pay the publisher at the end of the month. Once again, with no physical inventory, there is no actual limit to the number of books a bookseller can make available to customers.

Most importantly, ebook publishing makes it possible for anyone to publish their own book. There are already plenty of sites online where you can purchase ebooks that have been "published" by the author. The cost of publishing an ebook is negligible, something you cannot say about the cost of publishing a paper book. An author no longer needs to risk thousands of dollars to publish his novel. Plus, to help move his novel, an author can offer several chapters of his novel for free, allowing readers to try before they buy. Finally, the ease of publishing ebooks means that writers and the reading public will no longer have their reading options restricted by a comparatively small number of decision makers at the various publishing companies.

But all of this is really going to depend on the success of ereader devices. I know of very few people who want to sit at their computer to read a book. Nor do they, for the most part, want to curl up with their laptop in their favorite chair. Ereaders are light and portable. Ereaders are not back lit, so they won't cause eye strain the way computers can. Ereaders are designed for exactly one thing; to make reading an ebook as comfortable and seamless as reading a printed book is. And, if ebooks are competitively priced, over a span over several years the cost of buying an ereader will be saved due to the lower prices paid for ebooks.

There are downsides to ebooks, too. Some people just love the feel and the smell of paper books and may never be satisfied with ereaders. It will be much more difficult to figure out what is worth reading and what is not worth reading if every budding author can publish his or her novel as an ebook. (I think reader reviews such as you see on Amazon.com will take on even more importance if ebooks become the primary means of publishing.) "Used" ebooks will have little or no value, making it more difficult to recycle books you'll only read once into books you haven't read yet.

Then again, there may be hope for those who insist on paper books in an ebook world. The Espresso Book Machine can print and bind a book from an electronic file in about five minutes. Those who insist on having a printed book could simply buy the ebook and then have it printed for them on one of these.

While I love the feel and smell of books, I am intrigued by ereaders. They may be worth it simply by being lighter than most paperbacks, much less some of those heavy hardback monsters that always seem to put a strain on my aging fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. I'm seriously interested in trying an ereader for a while just out of curiosity. Price has definitely been an issue, but prices have been falling steadily. If prices drop far enough, one Monday you'll have the chance to read the Old Goat's review of an ereader.

I don't honestly believe the end of the printed book is nigh, but ebooks are going to change the face of publishing forever and, I believe, for the better. And that means it's an interesting time to be a writer.
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