E-books vs. physical books in ‘The New Yorker’

James Surowiecki outlines some ways that Barnes & Noble (and thus, physical bookstores) can actually survive in coming years in a recent essay in The New Yorker. It’s a refreshing break from the WE’RE ALL GOING TO CLOSE AND DIE refrain we’ve heard since B&N announced they’re separating themselves from the unprofitable Nook.

There are plenty of things B. & N. could do better, of course. Its Web site could be sportier. Its stores, publishing people gripe, are too cluttered, often with non-book merchandise, and don’t do a good enough job of showcasing its key product. (The demise of the Nook should help in this regard, since those giant Nook display booths took up a lot of floor space.) It might also be time for the firm to embrace more innovative ways of pricing and selling books.

…This suggests that, instead of succumbing to the temptation to reinvent itself, B. & N. should focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore.

Of course, I’m constantly annoyed by people’s perceptions that B&N is the only major bookstore left in the US. Um, hello? We’re Books-A-Million, the company that’s actually opening bookstores in neighborhoods left bereft by B&N and Borders? But then, if they’re not in New York (lord help the regional brands!), they don’t exist. Moving on.

I do like his optimism that physical book sales will continue to be a thing even after, I don’t know, we’re all reading from screens someday.

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest.

I like that. One of my favorite things to tell people is how awesome a piece of technology the “book” actually is: look at how it’s existed, in its current state, for thousands of years! Despite all attempts to change it and bemoan the “death of reading”! Words printed on paper: no matter how many e-books you read, that’s not going to stop being convenient. And for the large percentage of our population who can’t afford to (or won’t) drop hundreds of dollars on a device just for reading books, physical books aren’t going away as the more affordable alternative.

That being said, Surowiecki is right: the reason most serious readers choose e-books nowadays is because they’re cheaper. Because they are. If publishers want to compete with e-books, they’re going to have to take a serious look at pricing models. Why pay $20 for something from the backlist when Amazon is giving it away for free? (Ok, don’t get me started on Amazon.) It is hard to sell books these days in a brick-and-mortar store. Let’s think about changes that will actually help.

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