I called it an expedition to motivate myself. “Bookstore” these days means Barnes & Noble, and I don’t like to go there very much. I think you’ll see why in the course of this post.
I went to look at their middle-grade fantasy books. It’s time for summer reading, and some of the classics in this genre weave just the right spell of imaginative escapism: books like Inkspell, Spiderwick, and The Emerald Atlas. Imagine my dismay when I got there and found the middle-grade section gone! For years these books lived in the right-rear corner of the children’s section, but now all the signs said, “Young readers, grades 3-6.” I looked through the children’s section and found a few familiar titles, but the group as a whole was no longer on display.
The rationale became clear when I left the children’s section. Right at the entrance were two large racks of “Teen Paranormal Romance,” sporting the best display of any genre in the store – trade paperbacks with covers, not spines, showing. Marketing must have decided that closing the middle-grade commons would motivate younger girls to move up to a more lucrative market. Apparently books like Garth Nix’s Arthurian stories for boys, or Newberry winners like Lois Lowry and Madeline L’Engle, no longer warrant shelf space. A book or two might have been stuck in between the 3d grade readers, but if so, I missed them.
I don’t begrudge Barnes & Noble its marketing efforts, but it’s been many years since I discovered anything new in their stores. Discovery used to be part of going to bookstores. “Browsing” once was the order of the day, and some of those discoveries changed my life. Like the time when I was 18, and on pure impulse, bought a copy of Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads. The spark that title ignited still burns.
Now I make most of my book discoveries online. This morning, Amazon sent me an email, based on my search and reading preferences: “Best Middle-grade books in May.” Where am I likely to go to read sample pages and shop?
I went on my expedition a week ago, two days before Barnes & Noble and Microsoft announced their partnership to champion the Nook. As I sat down to write this post, their merger seemed huge. It’s not about the big six publishers anymore, is it? The future belongs to the big three – Amazon, Apple, and B&N / Microsoft.
The big six had their chance to open ebook divisions, or even join ranks in a partnership, but sticking to rear-view vision, that boat has sailed. Now its hard to imagine any business model that can save them. Their mantra has been, “People will always want paper,” but will they? I don’t know. What follows is speculation as I look at the books on our shelves.
Books that are read only once – meaning the vast majority of paperbacks, will do fine as ebooks. Most textbooks for most grades of school should do well as ebooks too, and lighten the load of student backpacks.
Coffee table books might warrant larger readers, which will probably soon be embedded in coffee tables. You see desk mounted touch-screen computers on shows like Hawaii Five-O. I bet it won’t be long until they appear in furniture stores. Same with fine art prints for the walls – think of a blend of existing digital picture frames with wall mounted HDTV’s.
So what books do I really value in paper? Books like Lord of the Rings and Wind in the Willows, books I treasure and read again and again, yet those are pretty rare purchases and won’t keep printers in business.
Spiritual books of all sorts, for I underline those and fill them with post-it notes. How-to books, on subjects from gardening to computer programming texts. I used the latter until they fell apart at work. Any book where I write notes in the margin. Right now, ereader bookmarks and margin notes are inadequate, but this should be an easy fix in the future. Software that lets me use my laptop keyboard when I plug in on USB will fix much of the problem.
I don’t want print to go away. I don’t want to see used bookstores close or raise their prices to “antique” levels. There’s magic in turning pages, in the smell of ink and paper. I’ve read so many stories that begin when someone finds a mysterious, yellowing book of lore, that I can’t go into an old bookstore without wondering if “today will be the day.” It’s hard to imagine those stories with mysterious, yellowing, kindles!
No, I don’t want print to go away, but it’s hard to imagine any other future for the printed word. Can you?