On Thursday, Amazon reported 4th quarter profits of $400,000,000, which disappointed investors and caused the share price to drop. Perhaps of greater interest to literary folk, the company reported that sales of ebooks had eclipsed paperbacks for the first time (they exceeded hardbacks last summer).
The report featured comments by Nancy Pearl, an author and librarian, who noted that convenience often comes at a price; she mourned the loss of interaction with librarians and booksellers.
I’m not so sure. I had two thoughts right off the bat:
1) I have never had a “relationship” with a large bookseller since Tower went under. I used to wander the aisles of the local Tower and make interesting discoveries on a regular basis. Quirky titles on all kinds of subjects offered plenty of room for surprise. I frankly do not like the shopping experience at Borders or Barnes&Noble. Too slick. Market and demographic research has smoothed out the quirks. I shop at Amazon by preference, since I find the homogenized selections at the mega-stores depressing; online search and “my recommendations,” are more likely to yield exciting new finds.
2) I do have a great relationship with the local used bookstore, one of the Bookworm stores. Ebooks won’t change that. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone in to ask for a good book by a specific local author, or a good action-adventure title for a rainy weekend, and gotten spot-on advice. I’ve had the same relationship with other used bookstores, and with a late-lamented fantasy and sci-fi specialty shop.
I am not going to offer predictions because I think ten years from now they will all sound foolish, but I am going to offer some reflections on ebooks and the changes in publishing, just because I find it fascinating. These thoughts are just random and not in order of importance.
3) Certain titles I will always want as printed books: books I read again and again, like some of the favorites I write about here. Like certain non-fiction titles from cookbooks to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that are highlighted and have notes in the margins. Illustrated books. Books that are good friends; it wouldn’t be home without Lord of the Rings on the shelf.
4) I’ve had my Kindle for a month now, and love it. It’s perfect for books I may not read more than once. I would not have so many books in boxes in the garage if I’d had the option at the time I purchased them. You never know in advance of course, but there are even must-read best sellers I won’t read twice – The DaVinci Code now that I know what happens. Cold Mountain because I was so pissed when Inman died.
5) In 2010 I came to love audio books so much that at my request, I got a year-long membership in audible.com for my recent birthday. I got seriously into audio books last year as I was making regular trips to the bay area. I think almost any kind of story is feasible on an audio books, but I really enjoy action-adventure titles while traveling or commuting. More than once I’ve been so engrossed in a James Patterson book that I was disappointed to reach my destination early, and sat in the car listening until the last moment.
6) I was recently discussing publishing upheavals with several other writers, specifically eBooks and Borders’ financial troubles (that seem to derive from coming late to the party). No one seemed to think brick-and-mortar bookstores would go away any time soon. Someone made a plausible case that indie and specialty stores could experience a revival. I am all in favor of that!
7) In parallel with Amazon’s financial report, a Wall Street Journal article posted on Yahoo suggested they aren’t yet doing that well with Kindle. The piece claimed they are loosing money ($20 or so) on the latest hardware. That is acceptable as they are working on the “razor blade” business model – sell the razors cheap and make your money on blades. But Amazon will not reveal their actual profits from eBooks, and if profits are disappointing and that is their biggest driver… Clearly the revolution won’t happen unless the manufacturer/publisher is making sufficient money.
The only things one can be sure of are trueisms, along the lines of, “Change is the only constant.” The only thing I am certain of in this arena are that the landscape of book publishing and distribution will be very different in five years, let alone ten.
I would be curious to hear other people’s opinions. Leave a comment or drop an email. Do you like ebooks? Hate them? Are they a boon or bane for new writers trying to launch their work? Are books on paper going the way of manuscripts on parchement? Or none of the above but something else?