More Doom & Gloom for Bookstores

Can ebooks grow from their current share of roughly 10% to a full 50% of the book market by 2015? As Mike Shatzkin points out in a brilliant post, everyone seems to agree that this is inevitable, yet few seem willing to consider the full ramifications of such a seismic shift. He calculates that this equals brick-and-mortar sales dropping from 72% today to just 25% of total book sales… in just five years.

It’s unlikely that more than a handful of highly specialized, niche booksellers could survive in such a brave new world. Though his post was really about big publishers, and how shrinkage of shelf space for physical books removes one of their prime advantages, the post got all its attention around the idea of bookstores disappearing. (He follows up on his original premise in a  subsequent post.)  My own earlier post on the likelihood that bookstores will disappear is one of the most trafficked pages on this site. This topic seems to cut right to the core of book lovers.

I fully agree that ebooks are likely to grow fivefold in five years, and the fate of bookstores will likely mimic that of record stores. In the meantime though, just to be contrarian, here’s a few pellets of ammunition that may slow it down a bit and help us all sleep a little better:

People will still buy paper books. It’s often quoted that once you go digital, you never go back. I think this is likely an early adopter trait, and later adopters may not take such a direct route. Anyone who reads occasionally may well flip back and forth between the paper variety and ebook variety. Gift books too, will continue to be the paper variety.

Books will get better. Paper books will adapt to the rise of the ebook long before 2015. We’ll see limited editions with full-color illustrations, super-limited pricey editions with a doodle from the author, and bundles that include paper and ebook in one nifty package. Overall, there will be a renewed focus on the production of the paper book as an art in its own right, something that goes above and beyond the words on the page.

Bookstores already know how to fight. First the chains were going to put the independents out of business, then the online stores. Yet independent bookstores still survive. They may never thrive, but they’ll find ways to continue even as ebooks clobber the market. Booksellers are in their business for love, not money, and that has a great way of rallying support.

People don’t go to bookstores to buy books. Each time I go to my neighborhood bookstore, I chant a little mantra in my head about how I’m just going to look. I won’t buy anything. Really, I won’t. I promise. And then an hour later I stumble out like the book junkie I am with a bag full of new titles. I don’t go there to buy books. I go for the experience. I love browsing books online, but it doesn’t even come close to doing it in a real, flesh and paper bookstore.

Luddites will save us all. There’s a kernel of folks out there who would rather burn down a library than pick up an ereader. No one really knows how extensive this group is, but it is composed of avid, vocal readers. Yes, some will be converted. But many will go to their grave with a paper book clutched to their breast. They’re also willing to pay a high premium. Until all these folks die off, there will be a market for good old-fashioned paper books.

Of course, the above probably won’t matter much once the price (with discounts) of an ereader drops to zero. Still, it’s a nice little fantasy…


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