Joseph Esposito recent article “An Industry Pining for Bookstores” makes a strong argument for the value which bookstores have in the current book industry and the effect that ebooks will have on the ecosystem of that industry. Bookstores, he argues, are where we find physical books; and “with bookstores collapsing everywhere, the print business collapses along with it.”
Esposito argues that the decline of the bookstore, however it may have happened, is disrupting the print book business in a vicious cycle: fewer stores means fewer print books, leading to fewer stores. It is this ecosystem way of thinking that I find most attractive in the argument. It allows him to move away from the more typical argument about ebooks versus print books (“the print vs. digital battle is overblown“) and look at the larger issues. In the book industry debate of today, that’s a terrible difficult conversation to avoid. When I raise the issue with my students or at conference presentations, the debate quickly moves to whether print books are doomed, or which format is to be preferred.
Publishers large and small are likely to move increasingly toward ebooks for economic reasons rather than customer preference. The history of the publishing industry in the 20th Century was one of rationalization, finding ways to improve distribution and discovery of books and reduce the costs involved. Amazon and the Internet seem to have provided the final step on that journey, and ebooks the perfect medium for distribution.
It has already been shown that the reading public are accepting of ebooks, although they also appear to appreciate and want physical copies of books. If those physical copies ceased to be an option, they might be disappointed but there is no reason to think they would not continue to read ebooks, the only option in town. Arguments that books will disapear seem unlikely. People want to read (or why are not all books audio books now that the technology is there).
Of course, other publishers will see that as an opportunity to provide print books, possibly as reprints of successful ebooks—a way to get added value from the backlist; or some publisher may develop a business printing quality editions of other publisher’s books. These would be secondary to the ebooks, which under this scenario would need to sell well enough to recoup all development, marketing, advertising and production costs.
This may be one place where the divide between digital and physical works for quality. In recent years the number of books published annually has risen from around 300,000 to 3 million. The vast majority of that increase is due to self-publishing and print-on-demand. If both of those latter are primarily digitally produced and distributed (I don’t know but I suspect this is true), theyare also the ones that have gone through less gate-keeping or quality assurance. These won’t normally make it onto bookstore shelves (so long as bookstores have shelves), if for no other reason than they are born digital. A bookstore is curated; it has a gate-keeper and a quality assurance process. And it works with a different part of the ecosystem. This may mean that they will become an alternative source of books.
One problem with Esposito’s argument (which I find otherwise convincing) is that it assumes that books are a big, (inter)national business. It was not always that way and much of it is still not. If physical books continue to be a desired commodity, they will continue to be produced. Not all the PODs and self-published work is low quality; some of the best writing today is coming from these production modes, and publishing systems are also rising up to support them. Organisations like the Main Author’s Publishing group are appearing to support a publishing model with less industry between authors and writers. While many of these will benefit from ebook distribution, the local interest and knowledge embedded in many of those titles may call out for local, print publication. It is not just a new ecosystem for books; it may be a new set of ecosystems meeting the different needs of a variety of consumers and producers.