Stephen 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.