In Defense of Digital Book Buying

220px-Stephen_King,_ComiconStephen King recently stirred up a bit of controversy with his announcement that his next book, Joyland, from Hard Case Crime, will not have an electronic edition. I’m glad he retained his electronic rights and is using them as he sees fit. One of his comments which generated some controversy was “let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.” I took Mr. King to task for that statement on my blog (not that he noticed or anything). Here I want to make a more general defense of electronic bookbuying. And by electronic bookbuying, I mean both ordering physical books online as well as downloading ebooks.

There are several reasons why being able to buy books electronically are a good thing. First, not everyone lives near a bookstore, whether one of the big box stores or an independent book store. And most small town bookstores, at least the ones that aren’t second hand stores that carry mostly romance, tend to have limited stock. (Limited selection is a problem I’ll address in relation to chain stores in a later paragraph.) My family moved during my sophomore year of high school, and the town we moved to was small and at least an hour from the nearest retail bookstore.

I would have killed to have had Amazon then or an ereader. However, desktop computers were still new; few people had them. I certainly didn’t, and even if I had, online bookselling didn’t yet exist. My point is that the ability to purchase books has been a boon to the segment of our population who don’t have easy access to a physical bookstore. The precise mechanism is immaterial. Whether books are purchased in hard copy form through Amazon, B&N, or independent book dealers and mailed to the buyer, or downloaded onto an ereader or tablet, books are reaching a wider audience than they ever have before.

I know some of you are saying, but what about libraries. I’m all for them, but have you been in some of the rural libraries recently? They’re aren’t exactly experiencing a boom time. The selection is often thin, and fiction tends towards the top bestsellers. Depending on the tastes of the community, or perhaps the librarian’s perception of the community’s tastes, genre fiction may or may not be a priority. Buying books in any formant solves this problem.

Another reason buying electronic books is a good thing is that many older readers find holding a large hardcover to be uncomfortable. Mass market paperbacks are disappearing. Ereaders and tablets have been decreasing in mass, meaning they’re easier to hold. It’s also a lot easier to enlarge the type on an electronic book than it is a print book, meaning you can on the former but not on the latter. As a consequence, more older people, people with physical disabilities, or people with vision problems are able to read comfortably now whereas before the advent of electronic books they couldn’t.

Selection is another reason buying books through online booksellers in any format is a good thing. I’m fortunate in that the city in which I currently reside has three stores that sell books as one of their main products. (No, I don’t mean Wal-Mart.) At least you would think I’m fortunate. And I am, although not as much as it would appear at a casual glance. Two of these bookstores are part of a regional chain known as Hastings. The other is Barnes and Noble.

Hastings isn’t primarily a bookstore and hasn’t been for years. Most of the floor space is devoted to games, video, and music. Only about 1/3 to ¼ of the store is devoted to books, depending on the particular location you’re at. Many of the lower shelves are empty. Depending on which section you’re in, up to half of the titles are turned face out to give the impression of a full shelf. And the kicker is that a few years ago Hastings began selling used books. While they’re marked as such (by a large sticker that sometimes takes the cover art with it when removed), the used books are mixed in with the new books and make up ¼ to ½ of the titles. The customer service is some of the worst I’ve ever encountered, to the point that I rarely darken the door of the place.

Barnes and Noble is better, but not by a great deal and getting worse. In the three and a half years I’ve lived here, the space devoted to books has continued to diminish to make room for toys, games, puzzles, Nook accessories, and assorted doodads. The number of titles has decreased while the volume of the music played over the PA system has gotten louder. Over half of the chairs have been removed, making it hard to find a place to read comfortably. Barnes and Noble moved to the mall shortly before I moved here. On weekends, when B&N stays open later than the mall, all the teenagers below the legal driving age whose parents have dropped them at the mall for the evening come in and hang out, often chasing each other up and down the elevators, talking loudly, and engaging in activity that’s generally disruptive. While the management stops the worst of this behavior, enough of it goes on to make the experience there less than pleasant. I like hanging out at B&N on Friday evenings after my son has gone to bed and my wife watches TV, but the appeal lessens on a regular basis.

When I buy a book online (hard copy or electronic), I don’t have to get out in the heat, deal with traffic, or any of the other aggravations. I have a much broader selection from which to choose. All of which is appealing.

I want bookstores to stay. A world without them is not an appealing place to me. But I also want to be able to order books online in whatever format I choose, be it print or electronic. I also recognize that not everyone can visit a bookstore. And for those reasons I support digital bookstores.

End of rant.

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  1. I love books; I have bookshelves stuffed full of fiction and nonfiction hardcovers and softcovers all over the house; in fact, I’m going to have to weed out some of the nonessential paperbacks (meaning those that have no personal meaning to us) soon. That being said, I love being able to carry a bunch of books around with me on my Pocket PC and/or tablets–I can read a book (and I’m always in the middle of several) no matter where I am if I have a few minutes free. That would not be as easy without ebooks.
    For me, ebooks are an expansion, not a replacement.

  2. If you had that magic wand, it would be a bad thing for the planet. I’ve noticed that nobody seems to care anymore, but books are unbelievably wasteful and expensive. Originally one of the reasons people thought epublishing was a good thing was precisely because it meant that we’d cut down fewer trees, and burn less gas driving them around in trucks.

    We are still at the stage where people used to buying paper books can just ignore that, but it’s only going to get more expensive. I personally really wish that people would get out of the dark age and buy a tablet. You only need to buy the one tablet, and you can read a thousand books on it. That’s a lot of carbon that didn’t go into the atmosphere.

  3. I agree heartily Mr. Davidson. But we may be the dinosaurs in the equation. My own grandchildren see books (and I own many) as quaint relics of dubious value. It is very sad as my wife and I certainly did not raise our children (their parents) this way. At least they all “still read” the old-fashioned way like us.

  4. Not everyone lives near a book store, indeed! I’m over 50 miles from the nearest. Still, I have my computer and there are plenty of sites where i can buy any number of books still, but for how long? Kudos to Mr. King. May the written word live forever.

    ps: Am I the only one who has difficulty reading more than just short clips on a computer screen? I’d rather listen to an audio book, a poor second choice, to curling up with a real book, not a Nook or facimile thereof. Forgive my poor spelling.

  5. Good stuff Keith. Publishing is in an evolutionary stage. Music went through it, software battles it, and the publishing industry is being drug in kicking and screaming.

    When I was younger, I’d spend hours scanning the spines at every book store. Later I found that there were so many more books that never appeared on any shelf at any bookstore. Our society has become homogenized. Go to any store for any product and you find the exact same things. Wal-Mart battles Target on pricing, while your local store fades away. Same brands, different shelf in a different store.

    The same goes for books. Every brick and mortar store sells 90% of the same books. Why? Because they are in it to make money. It is a business. The most popular books move, and they don’t like their inventory to collect dust. What’s this mean? That the Stephen King’s of the world crowd the shelves while pushing out new voices.

    The ebook revolution has been the best thing for writers who don’t make up that 90%. It has been bad for the big publishers and bad for brick and mortar, but technology marches forward whether we like it or not.

    I still buy my favorite authors in hardback as soon as they come out, but I purchase them online and have them mailed to my house. In fact if I can avoid entering a retail store of any kind I have achieved my goal.

    I can go to a brick and mortar store and look at the 90% again and again, wondering why it never changes, or I can get online and enjoy the infinite bookshelf from which to choose.

    My father owns a computer. He just doesn’t know how to use it. He’s more comfortable with the things of the past. Ebooks are a generational thing. In time society will quit gorging landfills with last year’s bestseller. Instead the reader will be able to just hit the delete button.


    1. I think you’re right about ereaders being a generational thing, R. K. I prefer the no frills ereader, and those are already being phased out in favor of tablets with ereader apps. I don’t want the distractions that come with tablets, nor do I want the backlit screen. And I’m not in favor of the enhanced ebook that comes with links, music, etc. In a few years I may not have a choice.

      Like you, I also buy my favorite authors in hardcover. I don’t think the hardcover will ever go away. Nor do I expect bookstores to vanish completely. The number of independent bookstores has increased over the last few years. What I expect to happen is that independent bookstores will cater to select audiences or local communities while the big box stores will become more scarce. I’ve always gotten better service and recommendations from small genre stores that don’t have a lot of floor space but do have a wider selection than B&N and more knowledgeable staff. That’s the model I see surviving in the future. Admittedly, these stores will probably be restricted to more heavily populated areas but can still sell online to customers who don’t live within easy driving distance.

    2. Your first couple of paragraphs intrigue me as I distinctly remember a time (70s?) when a bunch of Soviet tourists were followed through their visit to the US and the one thing that boggled them (and that western reporters apparently delighted in covering) was their confusion upon visiting a fairly typical supermarket of the era: they were entirely put-off, mystified and paralyzed by the choices they were presented with: there was no ‘Acme Dishwashing Detergent’ in a brown paper wrapper printed with “Dishwashing Detergent”. Instead there were twenty or thirty different brands, in different sizes, each proclaiming their individuality and their capabilities (in typical consumer english – ‘best’, best-smelling, whiter than white, etc. Of course back then none of them could handle ketchup stains…)

      But back to the (for me) negative aspects of ebooks, though not so much ebooks as the distribution model. I wish someone would do a TED talk or something similar on the inevitable decline that is coming to literature – across the board – under pressure from a distribution model (one primary distributor) that allows that distributor to become essentially the sole gatekeeper for what will be sold and what will not be sold. The internal pressure for that distributor to continuously drive their cost of goods downwards will, I am sure, eventually lead to books being written on a commodity basis: an hourly wage for the writer, churning out content responsive to the latest forecasted reading demographics.

      They use tricks (ease of acquisition, prices lower than the competition, control of the supply chain) that makes them an important, necessary component in virtually every step of the author-to-consumer chain. Self-publishing is a tool for them, divorcing authors from the publishing industry so that when they make their next moves (by way of recent example the fanfic announcement: go look at the ownership and royalty structure of the contract if you don’t really think that authorship as work-for-hire isn’t right around the bend) the individual author will have no real basis for evaluating its worth and will certainly not speaking for a group (divide and conquer fits here). It represents a massive shell game, masquerading as “enabling” the individual. In reality, it is essentially the same as Union busting, but with carrots (short-lived carrots) instead of ax handles.

      When you acquire a de facto monopoly within any industry, you do so specifically to acquire a market position that allows you to manipulate that entire industry without raising the ire of the DOJ; the moves you make can appear to be altruisitic (and are played as such through PR), but in reality they are designed to maintain your ‘just shy of 70% market share’, while at the same time supporting those so-called competitors that are weak sisters, easily capable of overthrow or absorbtion – certainly (especially following the support) influenced positively in your direction.

      Anyone can study Wal*Mart and tell you exactly where the book business is going – just substitute writers on the payroll (writers grateful for the opportunity to make something resembling a living from their work) for Pakistani children sewing T-shirts and you’ll see the kind of future we’re heading for: T-shirts books priced at ‘everyday low prices!’, packaged to appeal to a wide (read largely uneducated) audience, each one as interchangeable as the last, each one churned out as rapidly and as cheaply as possible.

      What do we do about it? Nothing. There is nothing we can do about it, short of a cultural sea-change that will probably never happen, one in which just accumulating wealth is no longer the highest ideal one can aspire to, one where quality is valued over volume, one where appealing to the least-common-denominator is seen as a cheap sham – not the goal. And I don’t think any of those things are going to happen any time soon.

      1. I have to disagree, Steve. Ebooks are leading to an expansion–nay, a boom!–in publishing. People are going to write, whether they can get paid for publishing or not; the ebook makes it possible for thousands of new voices to be heard. (Granted, some of those voices won’t be worth reading, but good writing will always be out there somewhere and will find its audience.) I am a bit confused about your dislike of ebooks, because you’re doing Amazing as an emagazine instead of a print magazine. How is there a difference?

  6. Good arguments, Steve. I stopped going to bookstores because they never had what I was looking for (genre fiction). It was a waste of gas and time. I love bookstores and I want them to thrive, but they need to serve all the readers, not just the ones the publishers have deemed marketable.

      1. If being called Steve is the worst thing that happens to me today, then I’ve had a good day. I love going to bookstores, and I often joke that I’m not allowed in one without adult supervision, although that’s not entirely a joke. I just wish the big box stores were more customer centered in their approaches.

    1. I can’t walk past a bookstore; I spend more than enough time reading text on a screen all day, I want nothing to do with e-readers. I have no problem holding a heavy hardback (it offers it’s own one-armed lift strengthening exercises) and Amazon’s consolidation of distribution of physical books will end in nothing but financial negatives for the entire industry. I greatly appreciate the positives that have been engendered by e-books, but it’s one of those Devil’s deals and all of us would be far better off if the whole thing could just be made to disappear; I’d go back to hand-cranked presses with quality paper and (faux) leather bindings with woodcut illustrations if I had that magic wand….

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