Tomorrow's E-Utopia? [Part 4 of 4]

Here’s the final part of the paper I’m preparing for the Iceland Literary Festival. Click here for part one and here for part two and here for part three. Again, please pass along any comments/suggestions you might have—in no way is this essay fixed in stone. (I’m sure there are a million minor typos below.) I have a whole week to tweak and revise it . . .

This is all pure speculation, but I see three interrelated outcomes from such an e-book revolution that would wreck havoc (well, havoc from my point of view) on book culture as a whole.

If e-books become popular—and all indications are that sales will continue to increase for years to come—bookstores will be decimated. As usual, the indie stores will go first. Their profit margins are so tiny that the slightest change is potentially devastating. I have no idea what the correct number might be, but it seems to me that if 20% or more of book sales are of e-books purchased directly from an online provider (such as Amazon.com) or from the publisher directly, then it’ll be next to impossible for smaller indie stores to survive. (I do think that “institutions” like St. Mark’s or Elliott Bay or City Lights will continue to make it, but who knows? A couple of years ago I would’ve said the same thing about Cody’s and Shaman Drum.)

The biggest challenge that these bookstores face is trying to integrate e-books into their business model. And although there are some young, hip, smart booksellers trying to figure this out, I have a hard time imagining how this would work. There’s no incentive (aside from a moral one) to purchase an e-book at your local bookstore if it’s just as cheap, easy, and convenient to do it directly through the device’s wireless link to an online retailer. Sure, it’s possible that the model of paying $20 for a hardcover and $25 for the hardcover and e-book versions might work for some books, or in some limited way, but as a universal model that keeps indie bookstores afloat? Doubtful . . .

Digressing for a minute here, but one thing I’d miss if e-books took over the world is repurchasing my favorite titles. Just last week I bought new versions of Crying of Lot 49 and JR. Why? Just because they looked cool in comparison to the beat down versions I have at home. Then again, I’m a sucker for matching series, or a matching look for an author. And when a certain author/line is overhauled, I want to buy them all again . . . Another good example is the Penguin Great Ideas series. I would own none of these if it wasn’t for the simple and cool format and look. And I’ll rebuy books I already have to make sure I get the whole damn series. How will that be conveyed in e-form? With cool jpgs? Wow—there’s a new jpg cover of Hopscotch! I definitely have to download the unadorned text again . . . er, well, no. Nevermind.

And if you think indie stores will be the only ones effected by an e-revolution, you’re much more optimistic than I am. Barnes & Noble is already looking down the barrel, which is why they launched their e-book store last month (the “largest in the world!”) and inked a deal with PlasticLogic to start selling their own e-device. Sony and Borders have had a partnership for some time now, but Borders is still on the verge of bankruptcy, so I’m guessing this hasn’t had quite the impact they had hoped for.

The will be other competitors—especially once e-books are freed from the stupidity of DRM—but for the time being, Amazon.com is way ahead of the curve. The Kindle may not be the coolest device in the world, but the integration with the site, and the ease of ordering has given them a huge advantage.

This is about more than the simple loss of physical spaces where you can buy books. For ages, booksellers have served as key recommenders within the book world. Getting a lot of booksellers behind a particular book is arguably as advantageous as good review coverage. (Although to really have an impact, you need both.)

Thanks to the chain stores, to rising costs of everything, to the erosion of America’s appreciation of the bookstore culture, most booksellers are now more clerk than recommender. And that’s only going to get worse as e-books become more popular. Even putting aside the possibility that a huge portion of bookstores will simply go out of business, how likely is it that you’ll go into a bookstore and talk with someone about books that you should check out when you can get automated recommendations on your cell phone that aggregate buying and reviewing habits of thousands of readers?

One of my overriding fears about the possibility of an e-book dominated world is that we’ll lose both the locations and the interest in getting together to talk about literature. Maybe we’ll be able to do that through an improved feedback loop via our digital devices, or maybe online reading groups will evolve into something that satisfies the desire to communicate about what you read, but I have my doubts. I think physical bookstores are a key to bringing people together and fostering communication. Which is why I think the mission of indie stores might shift over the next few years from a content provider to a community enhancer.

Getting back on track: the long tail model is very dependent on good recommending mechanisms. It’s one thing to have everything in the world available at your fingertips; it’s another to figure out which part of that jungle you want to inhabit. Savvy search engines are one obvious way of pushing people down the tail from blockbuster hit to more obscure masterpiece. But we need more than that. Book reviews serve this purpose, but relying upon traditional book reviews sources—magazines, newspapers, radio and TV—would result in recommendations of a very, very small number of titles in comparison to what’s out there.

That’s one of the motives for the litblog explosion. There are quite literally tens of thousands of books a year that fall through the proverbial cracks. Say what you will about the quality of online reviewing—at least there’s the potential to highlight a large number of titles within a particular niche that receive no mainstream book coverage. Those sorts of recommenders are necessary to give visibility to a lot of the titles that are published each year—especially if browsing through a store (where these titles probably wouldn’t be anyway) isn’t part of our cultural habits anymore.

It’s refreshing to see how many booksellers have started blogs over the past few years, and the ease of doing so, or of connecting on Facebook, is very encouraging. And this information decentralization is often heralded as one of the reasons why the e-future is so bright. In theory, the gatekeepers have been overthrown and there’s basically an unlimited number of recommenders recommending books from an unlimited number of authors to an unlimited number of readers. To some, this is a much more appealing model than the current one in which there are only so many books published, so many places where they are available, and so many people capable of reviewing them.

I’m going to get all Orwellian and paranoid for a moment here though: Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. discusses how in our contemporary society—which is dominated by corporate thought and ever growing multinationals interested only in profit and not in life—people have become more and more disconnected from things. From neighborhoods, from their homes, from each other. All of this is much better said in Rushkoff’s book, but basically, by separating us from the things that would make up a healthy, humanistic life, we’ve become isolated, individual consumers that are easily tagged and targeted. Corporations would love to know exactly what you do with your time, what you buy, how you buy it, etc., to make the marketing process that much more specific and exacting. And in terms of books, e-readers help create the ultimate solitary book consumer.

From the slimy perspective of a marketing MBA, now that they’ve got you alone and can track your buying and browsing habits (which Amazon.com already does, and which leads to all of the personalized recommendations), you can be marketed to in a much more efficient and simplified manner. Right now, I get e-mails on occasion about books I might be interested in. And to be completely honest, I actually am interested in a good portion of these titles. And I do occasionally buy these books—but that requires either a visit to the store or a few mouseclicks and a five-day shipping wait. How much more spectacular would it be if I could read an ad that was pushed to my phone and then simply click one link and download the book instantaneously?

It’s possible that e-books can transform us from readers to book consumers. And in my opinion, that conversion will expedite the current chipping away at the literary book culture. The big publishers have deep pockets, and it’s very easy to imagine them finding a way to take advantage of this new distribution chain to be able to promote the most profitable titles directly into your pocket. Unless there’s massive differentiation and the entry costs for advertising/promoting are very low, the books being promoted through the system will be the massive best-sellers, and it’ll only be a matter of time before e-devices are just a handheld version of the front table at Barnes & Noble, where books are displayed not because of their editorial quality, but because of the marketing dollars behind them.

So I’m totally torn about the impact e-books might have on the publication and promotion of literature in translation. I’m all for anything (recommender, device, format) that gets more good books into the hands (and minds) of more readers, but I’m also very wary of this new direct distribution chain. If we lived in a world that operated on different values—diversity being more important than profit, intellectual stimulation as appreciated as efficient consumption—I wouldn’t be so worried. But a radical change like this could easy be manipulated by the corporations already in charge. Either way, then next few years will be very interesting . . .

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