Barnes and Noble will save us all? A rant.

Last weekend the New York Times ran a long article by Julie Bowman (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/business/barnes-noble-taking-on-amazon-in-the-fight-of-its-life.html?pagewanted=all) about the future of Barnes and Noble, an article that argued the future of publishing depended on Barnes and Noble staying afloat. The author noted the irony of rooting for B & N, as just a few years ago it was seen main reason that many small, independent chains were driven out of business (which probably hurt the publishers as well). Now publishers need the giant, as many in the industry believe that without B & N, publishers will not be able to reach the audience’s they need to survive. There seems to be a great fear that this is already happening; anyone who’s been inside one of the stores over the last year would have noticed the steady increase in “non-book items” (i.e. toys, games, and Nooks). Fewer space for books means fewer dollars for publishers, possibly crippling an already struggling industry. As Ms. Bowman points out, no one is worried that the store will fold up over night, rather that they will slowly “wither” away, with books losing more and more ground  After all, one reason they’ve been able to stay in the game this long is due to the popularity of the Nook, but even there they face stiff competition.

What book publishers seem to fear most is the loss of the”browsing factor:” that is customers entering the bookstore for one book leave with three others. There is simply no better way (apparently) than browsing in a bookstore for encouraging customers to buy. Of course the main drive of the article is to point out how Amazon is now the Goliath in this war. They’ve recently begun a highly publicized publishing venture, luring some big name authors into their fold, while encouraging new ones to apply. This does not sit well with the big publishing houses.

How can Barnes and Noble, the behemoth that represents the “best-seller” be the great savior of all readers (as one executive claimed?)  Why is it so bad for authors to explore new ways of distributing their content? Say what you want against Amazon (seriously, go on), but there’s little doubt that if it’s the quick, efficient distribution of content, than Amazon simply does it much better. Would it be terrible if traditional publishing houses went away? People wouldn’t stop writing books, new ways could be found to distribute them. Would all this be such a bad thing?

Yes. And no. While there is no doubt B & N has their own incentives for combatting Amazon, the fact remains any institution that supports a wide variety of voices to be heard is essential for the creation of community. Yes, there are other places for alternative voices to be heard (independent stores, libraries, etc.), but not enough. Say what you want against the publishers (again: seriously, go ahead), but the domino effect that  “could” happen would almost certainly ensure that the entire industry would crumble. Fewer publishing houses will in the end mean one thing, fewer choices in what we get to read. And those choices that do remain would be controlled by one company, Amazon.

I don’t like to be told what to do. I don’t like to be told what I can read. Or see. Or think. Thank you very much Amazon,but no.

Am I overstating the case? I don’t think so. The future may be impossible to predict, but it’s pretty clear even without a crystal ball that Amazon wants to own everything (including as much information about you as they possible can). I don’t think we need or should shop Barnes and Noble every day. But we do need to start thinking about what we want our future reading life to be like. Customizable content, delivered to the door at our convenience is without a doubt an incredible thing (even if that “door” is metaphorical; today it’s more than likely our computer, perhaps tomorrow it will be directly into our brain). Except. . .discovering what I want to read is at least half the fun. There’s nothing like browsing in a bookstore. Or a library.

The Bookstore’s Last Stand? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether you support Barnes and Noble is your call. But if not Barnes & Noble, than what? Amazon? Both? Neither? Something new? If so, than what? What do you want the future of your reading life to look like?

Next week we’ll be back with a new author and post. Who it will be? As of midnight tonight I have no idea, but I do know this great place to go browsing for books. . .

PS: And if you want a tour of perhaps the world’s most Beautiful Bookstore…

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