In the spirit of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I’m going to make a prediction: independent bookshops will survive and Barnes and Nobles will cease to be (like an ex-parrot). I walked into Joseph Fox’s Bookshop in Center City Philadelphia today, which is my favorite independent bookshop and immediately found a series of interesting books. It’s not to say that I couldn’t find these books in another store, but constraint breeds ingenuity and with the limited shelf room at Joseph Fox, more interesting books seem to float to the surface.
The NY Times is concerned about the death of Barnes & Noble. First of all, we all know that Barnes and Noble was originally created a shell company for bathrooms for the homeless. But despite that, there are two issues here: whether Barnes and Noble is going away and whether the book, in printed form, is going away.
The fear of Barnes and Noble dying is not totally unfounded, I mean, Border’s Books and Music is now dead (or near dead). Also, every time I go buy a book at B&N, I immediately search for it on Amazon and it is significantly cheaper there, so I usually walk out only with my coffee (from the B&N cafe). Where there are no good local bookstores, B&N is a godsend to spend a few hours walking through sections of books and realizing that I have a lot too read. But, B&N has not killed the independent bookstore. Some of my favorite books stores are indy-types where one can walk around unorganized or mostly unorganized stacks and find books from serendipity alone. The Strand in NYC and Joseph Fox Bookstore in Philadelphia come to mind.
B&N’s savior, might be interestingly enough, the Nook. I am an Amazon zealot, however I do not like the reading experience on the Kindle Fire (or any backlight device). The original Kindle was meant for readers, the Kindle Fire was meant to play games and music and for people to buy books.
Given that, I actually think the new Nook is better than the Fire, but I’m not here to start a vi vs emacs war (Link for the uninitiated). The point being, I believe people are buying the Nook and it is a strong competitor to Amazon.
However, the book is not dying. The written word has existed since antiquity on some sort of physical medium. The book, in a codex form, has existing from the 15th century or so. From a continuity of the medium, it has the 8-Track/record/tape/CD model beat as well as the VHS/laser disc/DVD/Blue Ray model.
So, the book has been around, so won’t the book go the way of the record? i.e. books will be for connoisseur of the printed word like records while the masses will consume the eBook? I think not. Mainly because of Digital Rights Management (DRM (Wikipedia)). When you buy a book, you own book; it can’t change, and as long as your eyes are still functioning, you can always read it. Enter the eBook. That book is totally dependent on the software which can unlock that DRM. Even if you can view it on your iPad, Kindle, computer, whatever, it still requires that software and you don’t have access to it directly. That book can change, under your nose, by the owner of the DRM, which nearly happened to me while reading, ironically, Neal Stephenson REAMDE. DRM adds a barrier layer, the fundamentally prevents the owner / reader access to the media. Of course there are great projects like Project Gutenberg, but most new books are still published for the Kindle / Nook these days.
I enjoy my Kindle. It makes traveling great when I don’t have to lug around multiple books. Also, I love the newspaper feature on it and I feel I read the newspaper much more than I would otherwise. But, I, and I believe others, have a fundamental issue with the eBook and it is bigger than a preference of printed or electronic type. See Umberto Eco’s remarks on the preference of the book.
I think we shall see some downsizing of B&N, but I don’t think it will totally go away. After all, it does offer free bathrooms.