In defence of books, and bookshops

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With parents who are voracious readers and a grandmother who taught kindergarten teachers, and loved to use her eldest grandchild as a guinea-pig for roadtesting children’s books, reading has always been a big part of my life. So the suggestion by Nick Sherry that bookshops would disappear within five years came as something of a shock, especially since he’s the Small Business Minister. Way to make businesses smaller, Senator.

There are two separate transitions occurring in publishing, both thanks to the internet. The physical book is being replaced, or perhaps supplemented, by the eBook, and physical books (pBooks?) are increasingly being purchased from cut-price online stores like Amazon and the Book Depository instead of through high-street retailers.

Several large chains have gone broke lately, and while this is sad, nearly all of the customers of Borders and Angus & Robertson won’t lose the ability to enjoy the books they’ve purchased from those stores. But what of the people who bought Borders’ proprietary eBook reader, the Kobo? Well, apparently their purchases are okay for now – it was a separate company. Let’s hope it doesn’t go broke too, now that its retail partner has gone.

And what if, as implausible as it may seem today, Amazon were to go broke? Or their main eBook competitor in the US, Barnes & Noble, which also has a large network of stores like Borders? Both use proprietary eBook formats, with copy protection. So, what guarantee is there that having bought a book from them now, it’ll work in the future? How can customers know that they won’t be stranded like Borders’ gift card holders, with entire libraries they can no longer access?

Many of the computer file formats of yesteryear ago are useless nowadays. The WordPerfect files I created in high school can no longer be opened by Microsoft Word for Mac. I have no confidence, therefore, that the novels I’ve bought from Amazon will be readable in thirty years’ time. And it’s already quite difficult to pass an eBook on to a partner or a child to read – you would need to share your account. If I were to die, it would be hard for my heirs to access my purchased eBooks. In short, there’s no guarantee that any of this fiddly technology will work for the rest of our lives, or beyond them..

Whereas books, of course, are multigenerational. I know this because many of my books come from my parents’ and grandparents’ shelves. Thanks to the abundance of their purchasing, I read novels like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher In The Rye several years before I had to read them for high school English and even though I was probably too young to understand them, I remember enjoying them. Without books like that simply being handed to me by encouraging relatives, this could not have happened. I wouldn’t have purchased them for my eBook reader – I wouldn’t have even had the money to do so.

As a result, I love old, yellowing paperbacks. When my parents said they were getting rid of hundreds of their books, I souvenired as many of them as I could viably fit in my house. As a result, whenever I move, I have to lug twenty-odd boxes of books with me. But I wouldn’t get rid of them for the world. Not when they’ve been written in, and dog-eared, and had their spines almost broken. Not when my parents have stuck charming hand-drawn “Ex Libris” bookplates in some of them. They’re my family history, and what’s more, there’s no way I could afford to spend the money to buy them all over again from Amazon.

I suspect that people who love books will split their reading into two categories. Titles at the more disposable end of the market will move into eBook format, which is fantastic for portability and convenience. I love being able to travel with a Kindle instead of half a dozen bulky paperbacks. But books I care about, and want to savour and have access to for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t dream of buying electronically.

This is partly because the experience of reading is different when it’s a physical book. With records and video, digitisation makes no real difference because the end experience – sounds coming out of your speakers, or images displayed on your screen – is essentially identical. Whether it’s a digital file or disc that’s responsible for the sound or vision is largely immaterial. But as good as eBook readers are, they offer a fundamentally different tactile and visual experience from reading a book. Sometimes that difference doesn’t matter enormously, and it’s certainly still possible to get immersed in an eBook, but I still find the heft of a good, solid trade paperback a more pleasant way to enjoy a really great novel. The pleasure of good cover and font design, and page layout, is also largely lost using an e-reader.

Similarly, visiting a good bookshop is a pleasure that can’t be replicated online. The fun of flipping through new releases, or delving into a topic that particularly interests you, isn’t the same when you do it on The chat with a passionate bookseller who wants you to buy a book they’ve loved is also lost, and so are the live events that are now an important part of great bookstores like Readings and Gleebooks.

The ongoing success of these two chains, which have both opened new branches in recent years even as many have been foretelling doom and gloom, give me hope. Sure, the days of mega-bookstores like Borders may have gone forever – they relied on high-volume trade, much of which was being undercut by the likes of Kmart anyway – but well-curated smaller bookstores with dedicated staff still have legions of loyal fans. Long may this continue.

I’m not sure I’ll miss Borders much anyway, to be honest. When their megastores first opened, I loved nothing more than visiting for hours on end, sitting in the café and trying before I bought. But in recent years, my experience with the chain has been more unpleasant. Since REDgroup took the chain over, they insisted that publishers stop printing recommended retail prices on the books’ back covers, so they could charge more. Several of my friends paid $36.95 for my novels at Borders instead of the $32.95 RRP – which is already a fairly substantial hit. On discovering from my website that it was supposed to cost $32.95, they vowed never to darken the doors of Borders again. Seems like an excellent formula for alienating customers.

Plus, much of Borders’ business was in DVDs, and they’re on the way out, and won’t be much missed thanks to cable (Foxtel offers so many good movies during any given month that I can’t get through them as it is), timeshifting and instant-delivery online video stores like iTunes.

While eBooks will inevitably reduce sales because of convenience – and I’m happy to move some of my own purchasing to eBooks – I don’t think the digital reading experience is rich enough to entirely replace physical books. Similarly, I believe the bookselling industry that is most worth preserving is in good hands, and the unhelpful prognostication of the Minister for Small Business, fortunately, can’t change that. And this Christmas, I’ll be giving physical books to my loved ones, not digital downloads.

6 thoughts on “In defence of books, and bookshops”

  1. Aren’t the “well-curated smaller bookstores with dedicated staff” what the minister was saying would survive?

  2. Exactly what Ben said. Dom, you are raving on about the survival of the physical book. Sen Sherry was relating to physical bookstores. Plus retweeting your link for a second time is a bit desperate.

  3. I think it’s refreshing for a Minister to not be such a total ass kisser about their portfolio.

    Bookshops will get rarer – it’s a pretty likely prediction of the future. It doesn’t mean every last one will be burnt to the ground in a frenzy of ebook lust. You can still buy vinyl, you can even ride a horse even though that hasn’t been a common mode of transport for quite a while.

    With regards to the DRM issue, I only bought a Kindle after I determined that it was trivial to remove DRM from purchased Amazon titles and it could read un-DRM’d content.

    eBooks have the potential to be much lower cost which gladdens my book loving heart. It allows authors & publishers to be much more experimental because the cost of failure is lower (very low distribution costs, no dead books to pulp if it doesn’t sell, etc)

    Australian bookshops did themselves no favours.. They rarely stocked stuff I wanted to read, and when they did it was laughably more expensive that getting it freighted from the UK.

    I agree the experience of a physical book can be nicer – it’s impossible to flick through an ebook (for now anyway I can see it being possible in the future) but it’s not better in every way. An ebook reader is lighter & thinner than virtually all of my books, and it holds many many books.

  4. While I agree that reading matter will be split between electronic and hardcopy, I don’t agree that a physical bookshop is the only place to engage with other passionate readers.

    I think Amazon have done a pretty good job with the recommendation system – I discover lots of other titles in an area similar to my interests (Roman history, Antarctic exploration) and then every now and then something completely different pops up. Lots of passionate reviews from others. And then Twitter sends me a constant stream of what is exciting others.

  5. I think Amazon have done a pretty good job with the recommendation system – I discover lots of other titles in an area similar to my interests (Roman history, Antarctic exploration) and then every now and then something completely different pops up. Lots of passionate reviews from others. And then Twitter sends me a constant stream of what is exciting others.

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