Too Many Books

A few days ago I commented there was too much media in the world to begin with.

Though one could argue there are NEVER too many books, I have to state my belief: there have long been far too many new books coming out (none of mine, however). Most bookstores, even the independents, are crammed with titles no one is ever going to buy. I believe most of it is shelf-dressing, and a peek at the publishing trades will likely confirm this suspicion.

Is that bad?

Not unless you’re a tree, I guess, or an aesthete of economic purity.

This is where two completely different entrants in the book retailing game come in from opposite sides of the stage: e-books and used book stores.

For my taste, there is little reason for a new bookstore to earn my visit except to peruse the bargain bin. Very occasionally a new book seems a must-have, but almost never unless steeply discounted. I own a lot of books, so I know whereof I speak.

For nearly all of my reading pleasure, I supply myself from the stunningly various arrays of wonderful volumes available at low cost from used books stores and charities. Can there be any doubt the world has so many wonderful used books that, were a moratorium on publishing be declared for ten years, the reader’s market would not remain well-supplied? I think it would.

Sometimes I buy a “first edition”–for real money. This is because the book, and especially its dust-cover, have intrinsic value. Again, these books are nearly always “used”, though they are in nearly every case quite a bit more expensive than a typical brand new book. There is a reason for this–they’re collector’s items.

With the advent of e-books, there is little reason for me to ever buy an actual new book at anything like list price. About a trillion (it seems) great books are available either for free or low cost as e-books. All of the classics are available as e-books and I have found them quite enjoyable to read in their new electronic get-up. Unless you’re literally collecting the volume for posterity (sometimes I do), and if you believe the content is what you are after and not the paper and cardboard of a volume, e-books can provide the reader with about ninety-five percent of his or her reading pleasure.

So I think publishing (and more specifically the “new book” store), like the music industry, is headed for a fall. The fact is, we really don’t need that many new books. And those we need, we can–again, except for special editions or signed first editions–purchase as e-books and enjoy quite utterly as such. For the rest, I think we shall see a rise in the status of the used book store for those who want “books”. The volumes are as richly varied and as relevant as ninety percent of new books in print, and radically cheaper; and of course have all of the best qualities of print as well (look, feel, smell, weight, cover art). Moreover, you can buy these on-line as easily as you can buy e-books or new books at Amazon.

One model that may prove to work is that exemplified by that exemplar of great book stores, the Powell’s mini-chain out of Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the world’s best bookstore, Powell’s hardly distinguishes between new books, old books, and rare books. They are all on the shelves together. And if you want a really rare book, they have those in a glass case. There is something quite wonderful about finding several editions of certain books, from a much-read paperback to a new hardcover edition, all on the shelf together like dissimilar siblings at a family gathering. Hats off to the Powell’s model, may it long endure.

The new world of books will probably be crowded with small, specialty book stores and less so with megastores per se. The B&N model is already morphing into less a bookstore than a brick and mortar entertainment store–and good luck to them with that (and their cappuccino stands). A heavy percentage of buying will be weighted towards either cheap e-books (hooray for the iPad) and used books.

There will always be new books at book stores. But not nearly as many. And not nearly as big a market for new books in general, as it becomes obvious that, no longer needed quite literally as window dressing, most in-print book projects become totally irrelevant.

Next up is electronic self-publishing (see: blogging), which will end up putting further dents in the mighty ships of traditional publishing. We shall see much junk published this way. But we see much junk published “traditionally”. I fail to see the problem, except that underpaid editors and entirely unpaid and unqualified interns (“readers”) will no longer hold arbitrary sway over the fate of any particular author’s chance at publication of a manuscript. Bye-bye!

As a final note, let me say that I have read Moby Dick on a tiny screen and found it quite as absorbing as holding that enormous tome in my hand and maybe more so. In the book world, content perhaps at last will in fact be king.