Sunday, February 12, 2012

Books in Transition

Books are in a transitional period now, and no one is really sure what is going to come out on the far end.  In the mid-90s, you could barely drive down the street without passing a bookstore.  Now?  Now you need to hunt far and wide to find something to your tastes.  Borders Books is gone, and I find that Barnes & Noble stores are getting increasingly more difficult to locate.  The store near me, for example, is tucked away in the back corner of a very large mall on Oahu, and if I hadn't googled it, I would know it was there.

Independent bookstores are also becoming more and more niche markets.  There are several here in Hawaii, and a good 75% of the store space is devoted to Hawaiiana.  I've seen the same thing in bookstores in Seattle, Kansas City, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Nashville.  They cater more and more to not just local authors, which can be a great thing for those of us trying to break into the local market, but to regional literary fare, which is detrimental is that's not what you specialize in.  I write all kinds of things - horror, paranormal, science fiction, political thrillers - but I doubt my stuff would fit very much into the stacks where most of the titles are about country music history or how the great cattle drives led American expansion in the 1800s.

This isn't to say the places I've been in that sell books aren't loaded with people browsing.  When I go to the local Barnes & Noble on a Saturday(yes, I'm a dork), I see plenty of folks picking up titles or sitting and reading.  I'll be in an airport and the book seller always has people there thumbing through books while they wait for their next flight.  So what's the deal?

Put simply, this isn't where people are buying their books.  Booksellers, for all their pomp and circumstance about preserving the written word, exist to make money.  If people won't buy, then they can't stay in business.  And honestly, when was the last time you picked up the book you're reading at a brick and mortar bookstore?  A few big things have changed recently.

1.  Amazon

Amazon has allowed us no hassle access to books.  Further, by posting new and used titles and allowing others to set prices, they've reduced the cost for the rest of us.  I'll go browse books at a store, and, if I find one I like, I'll by it off Amazon at home.  Further, I never have to worry about Amazon being out of stock of something I'm seeking.  There is nothing more frustrating than being excited about a title you've heard about and then hearing the clerk say either, "We don't carry that" or "I'm sorry, but it's out of stock at the moment.  Don't worry - we'll get some more in four weeks."

2.  e-books

Whether it be on a Kindle, Nook, or some other device, e-books have created a convenience that brick and mortar stores can't compete with.  With regular books, unless it's something you just want to keep to read over and over again, you end up either selling your stock every so often to a used bookstore, or you throw them out so they no longer clutter your shelves.  Not anymore.

We can download the latest best seller to our device and read it at our leisure, certain it won't clog our house.  And its lack of bulk allows us to bring multiple titles with us to the park, on a trip, or to the bathroom.  A lot of people won't bring a book along because they might not be in the mood for that particular title, but with a wide selection on e-books, that's no longer a problem.  I personally prefer the visceral feel of a book with paper and all, but the immediacy of the e-book is hard to ignore, and one I've given in to myself.  Some things are just fun reads, or might be things I don't know if they're worth cluttering up my home, and e-books provide a way to avoid the "commitment" of a traditional book.

3.  A trend towards self-publishing

A lot of folks are finding that the market isn't as closed to them as it once was.  The Age of the Internet has opened the door to a lot more self publishing, and e-books will only increase that.  This is not to discuss the merits of it(I'll tackle that in the next post), but to merely observe that it's happening.

All of this has made publishers and outlets much more cautious in what they'll devote energy to, making it concurrently harder for a nobody to break in.  It's a new period in the industry, much as it was for trains when airline travel became more accessible and widely promoted, and the industry will either have to figure out how to adapt, or it'll be overtaken by what replaces it in the hearts and minds of the readers.  I don't expect things to settle for another decade or so, but it's going to be a wild ride.

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