I bought a Kobo earlier this year. I think I’ve probably already mentioned it, and how much I like it. However, I’ve bought exactly two books for it. (It came preloaded with a lot of classics, one of which I’m in the process of reading.) I was hoping, when I bought it, that the Kobo would be the solution to my book clutter. I have so many hardbacks and paperbacks, they’re stacked sideways on top of shelves in bookcases and my nightstand groans under the weight of the three stacks that are almost high enough to hit the shade of the lamp. If I can put a thousand books on a device thinner than my cell phone, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Except it hasn’t worked out that way. I don’t have anything against reading on a screen, but I already had dozens of unread print books waiting to be read, all of which I still wanted to read. (I don’t know about you, but there have been times I’ve bought books on impulse only to get them home and wonder, “What was I thinking?”) I was more than willing to buy my books virtually and start reducing the clutter in the house.
Or so I thought.
The thing is, I haven’t stopped buying paper books. Even hardbacks. I love going to bookstores and browsing the shelves, picking up something unexpected, and maybe taking it home with me. So when I heard the news about Borders liquidating, I was saddened, even if it’s a big box store, the kind that drove out many a fine independent establishment. In my own town, in the late ’90s Borders purchased a store called The Library, Ltd., which was arguably one of the best independent bookstores in the country. They rebranded it and eventually shut that location and moved somewhere else.
Whatever the bookstore, I don’t think the closure is something to be celebrated. And it irritates me to read comments to stories online that bookstores are going to be gone in five to ten years and that no one wants to pay more for a print copy when they can get the e-book for $10 or less. Because in a lot of cases, I still do. Maybe that makes me a luddite. And maybe they will be gone, but so, I think, will be many good books if that comes to pass.
What do I mean by a good book? I mean a professionally edited and produced volume, one where the writer has had the support network of a publisher to help them through the process of editing, cover design, typesetting, production, and promotion. That collaborative process should not be discarded so easily. (And yes, I know that even with that process, some books see the light of day that make you wonder what the writer and editor were smoking.)
Something you probably already know: the sales of hardbacks and paperbacks are subsidizing the cost of the e-books that a lot of people are buying. The real cost of that e-book is likely much higher than the $9.99 list price, certainly more than $4.99 or (I shudder to say it) 99 cents. Also, the cost of printing is a mere fraction of the actual expense of putting out a book. I see this even in my own work as an editor and graphic designer. When I solicit price quotes for projects, the cost difference between an order of 5,000 and 10,000 copies of something is not a factor of two. No matter the print run, very nearly the same amount of hours have gone into the crafting and production of it.
Borders didn’t fail because of e-books, at least not directly. It failed because of a poor business model that spent too much on leases that were too long and did not capitalize on e-books when all of their rivals were. In other words, they didn’t adapt. Still, I’ll miss them.
And it’s also true that writers, editors, and publishers (and retailers) will have adapt to the changing environment, hopefully in a way that still allows them to make a decent living from their efforts. After all, I love to write. I kept writing even when I wasn’t getting paid for it. I don’t make all that much from it now, but I keep writing. And the editorial process has made more than one okay story into something I’m really proud of.
You get what you pay for, though. If brick-and-mortar stores go the way of the dinosaur, that doesn’t necessarily mean good books are going to vanish. If you’re only willing to pay $4.99 for an e-book, to say nothing of 99 cents, then what you’re going to get is likely going to be worth pretty much what you paid for it. And there’ll be a lot more 99-cent dreck to sift through in order to find the gems. How much time do you want to spend panning for narrative gold?