What’s So Funny About Tablets, Love, And A Bookless World?

As we crawl out of the first decade of the 21st century, it seems that big changes in publishing are afoot. Ten years ago the most ereading I did was loading “In The Beginning There Was The Command Line” onto my Palm Pilot. Now I’m reading – and sharing fromSteven Pinker’s excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature on a slab of electronics and e-ink that costs as much as my Palm fold out keyboard cost in 2000.

But what does this move mean? It means the last big book store chain, Barnes & Noble, is toast, at least as a physical presence in our cities and towns. The WSJ writes:

The bookstore chain’s stock sank 16%, to $14.59, after the company reported a worse-than-expected loss of $6.6 million, or 17 cents a share, for the quarter ended Oct. 29, compared with a loss of $12.6 million, or 22 cents a share, a year earlier.

Sales declined 0.6% to $1.89 billion from $1.90 billion in the year-earlier quarter, with the biggest drop occurring at B&N’s college stores.

You’ll notice a few things there. First, it’s not that big a drop, but it’s still a big drop. Second, B&N is losing at the college stores, a fairly interesting indicator that the old college book-selling racket is almost over. It’s kind of ironical

So is B&N done for? Can the physical book store of any stripe survive the coming book-pocalypse?

As Gawker notes in their story about the fall, “Let’s hope not! New Yorkers still need somewhere to piss.” While true, it’s also a place where kids can learn about reading and adults and discover new titles. But that utility is being quickly supplanted by the bestseller or bust mentality of a publishing industry that sends $600K to Pippa Middleton for collating some drink recipes (read that article, by the way, it’s precious).

There are three things that will kill the bookstore – ereaders, the love of paper books, and being able to survive the paperless tipping point that will come when books just aren’t available in paper form. You need to be great at all three of those things to make it to the next stage in the evolution of text. I would posit that B&N is good at only two of those things.

First, B&N has the Nook, and, arguably, it is selling well. They also control an online bookstore that rivals Amazon’s. Therefore, both of these players will survive that first test. There’s no reason the Nook and Kindle can’t exist side by side, even with the minor differentiation offered by both platforms.

The next is the love of books. B&N stores are machines designed to make people think they love books. There are books everywhere. There are coffeeshops where you can read those books. Nobody cares kids litter the play area with board books. But, as I noted before, are those books the books people want to read? And how much longer can the board book survive in a digital world? When the e-generation grows out of Goodnight, Moon, gone will be the chintzy paperback copies of Lord of the Rings I had as a child. Instead those same documents will be available on their own, cheap Kindle. It’s inevitable. Sure, our generation loves books, but will the next one? And won’t the one after that find them a nuisance, much as I find my own collection of my Dad’s records a nuisance? As each media supplants the next, the old media is treated with scorn.

Booklovers will rail at me on this point, but face it: nobody wants an old, basement-stinking copy of Moby-Dick, except maybe Devin. Especially when it’s right here.

Finally, B&N has to weather the coming tipping point. This will come about when the mass of writers has decided they want nothing to do with the status quo and will self-publish like the savages they are. This will create plenty of bad writing, but can you really tell me that Pippa’s book will be on your best of the year list in 2012?

Most important, the fall in college revenue points to a worrying trend – the refusal to pay $100+ for a huge textbook or reading list. Arguably, these textbooks are worth that much or more if you consider the R&D costs, but new resources are available to nearly everyone and it is so easy for a professor to write his or her own book, made up of class notes, excerpts, and essays, that there is little reason to depend on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or whatever they call themselves now.

In the end, B&N stores will close. It is an inevitability. When they will close is still unknown. Does this economic data point to the end of B&N stores in the next half decade or in the next year? That, booklovers, is the real question.

[Image: WavebreakMedia/Shutterstock]