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Steve Wasserman on the Fate of Books After the Age of Print
Posted on Mar 5, 2010
As a teenager, Sontag would visit Thomas Mann in his home in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. She would later recall the visit vividly as an encounter between “an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in exile.” Over cookies and tea, while smoking one cigarette after another, Mann spoke of Wagner and Hitler, of Goethe and “Doctor Faustus,” his newest book. But what struck Sontag were the “books, books, books in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered two of the walls” of his study. Neither of them knew that only a few years before, in 1945, the first faltering steps had been taken to create a Frankenstein called Memex, the first e-book.
Sixty-five years later, there seems little doubt that a critical mass, or tipping point, is being reached. Ever more dedicated e-readers are being invented and marketed, with ever-larger screens. So, too, are computer tablets that can serve as giant e-readers, and hardware will not be very hard: A thin display flexible enough to roll up into a tube is soon to be on offer to consumers. Randall Stross of The New York Times asks the right question: “With the new devices in hand, will book buyers avert their eyes from the free copies only a few clicks away that have been uploaded without copyright holder’s permission? Mindful of what happened to the music industry at a similar transitional juncture, book publishers are about to discover whether their industry is different enough to be spared a similar fate.”
Certainly, in the United States there is a growing anxiety among publishers. The New York Times reports that hardcover book sales, the foundation of the business, declined 13 percent in 2008, versus the previous year. Last year, sales were down 15 percent through July, versus the same period of 2008. Total e-book sales, though up considerably, remain small, at slightly less than $82 million, or less than 2 percent of total book sales through July 2009. “What happens,” asks an executive of the Association of American Publishers, “when 20 to 30 percent of book readers use digital as the primary mode of reading books? Piracy’s a big concern.”
U.S. sales of e-readers are growing. An estimated 3 million e-readers were sold in 2009 and it is expected that 6 million will be bought this year. Sales in 2009 for print books in Europe’s major markets of France, Germany and the U.K. held flat from 2008. E-readers haven’t taken off in Europe due to the lack of wireless connectivity, but all that will change soon with Amazon’s move to make the Kindle available outside the United States. In the fall of 2009, the Kindle 2 became the first e-reader available globally. Stephen Marche, the pop culture columnist for Esquire magazine, writing in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, considers this fact “as important to the history of the book [as were] the birth of print and the shift from the scroll to bound pages.” He insists that the “e-reader … will likely change our thinking and our being as profoundly as the previous pre-digital manifestation of text. The question is how.”
As vessels of knowledge and entertainment, books were unrivaled. It was unthinkable that they could one day disappear. Nor was it contemplated that bookstores too might vanish. Nearly 10 years ago, Jason Epstein, peerless editor at Random House, founder of Anchor paperback books and a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, ended his incisive 2001 book on publishing and its discontents by hailing the indispensable function of bookstores: “A civilization without retail booksellers is,” he wrote, “unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.” Boy, was he wrong. Tell it to the millions who are buying the modern Aladdin Lamps called e-readers, those magical devices, ever more beautiful and nimble in their design, which only have to be lightly rubbed, or have a hand passed over them like a wand, for the genie of literature to be summoned. And tell it to the thousands of independent bookstores whose owners have gone out of business.
In the United States, brick-and-mortar bookstores continue to disappear at a rate rivaled only by the relentless destruction of the Amazonian rain forest. Twenty years ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores. Today, only about 1,500 remain. Even the two largest U.S. chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—are in a precarious state: Borders is said to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble is trying desperately to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the vast real estate it occupies across the nation.
The contrast with Europe is stark. There are important structural differences in bookselling in America and in Europe. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal notes that many of Europe’s major publishing markets, with the exception of the U.K., are bolstered by laws requiring all bookstores, online retailers included, to sell books at prices set by publishers. Nowhere is the fixed-price tradition, now 120 years old, as deeply rooted as in Germany. The system protects independent booksellers and smaller publishers from giant rivals that could discount their way to more market share. Thus, Germany with a population of slightly more than 82 million, less than a third the size of the United States with its 300 million citizens, boasts 7,000 bookshops and nearly 14,000 publishers. The Wall Street Journal quotes Gerd Gerlach, owner of a small Berlin bookshop named after the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine, as saying: “The smaller publishers get to publish quality works they never could afford to do without the fixed book price. Everyone benefits, not least the reader.” Together, German companies published in 2008 more than 96,000 new titles.
Marshall McLuhan, that manic exaggerator and media seer, noted long ago in his “Gutenberg Galaxy” that something is always gained and something is always lost when a new technology vanquishes an old one. In the transition from scrolls to the codex, from quills dipped into inkwells, their marks inscribed upon parchment, to the invention of movable type to the typewriter and then onto the computer, something is gained and something is lost. What is most vulnerable is an entire worldview, a mentality, a way of thinking.
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