Not too long ago, on the outdoor-shopping-mall-like 86th street in New York City—chain stores everywhere—Barnes and Noble opened a new store. Enormous, wide aisled (a rarity for stores in the city), plenty of space for videos, music, games, stationary, seating, author speaking room, kids play area, coffee, biscuits, and on and on.
There’s books, too. But not too many because people aren’t buying a lot of them.
So if you’re thinking about buying B&N just for the real estate, you won’t need that big a truck to haul off the merchandise.
If you can afford the mortgage, you won’t just get the store on 86th, but the stores in the giant strip malls in various rural neighborhoods, like Los Angeles and Dallas.
But before you put in a bid, it might help to know that last month was the first time that more e-books were sold than real ones. At Amazon, of course. B&N sells books for their rival Nook reader, but only a trivial amount.
Thus, you’ll be buying a store that is selling a product—real books—that fewer and fewer people want.
B&N recognized this years ago when they began swapping out space used for books for expensive biscotti, lattes, and discounted Sports Illustrated calendars.
We can bet that whoever buys the stores, a good many of them will be closed. The people in the area of those closed shops who still want books will be forced to drive a long way to rival stores, or, more likely, they’ll just log on to Amazon.
Which will put the pressure on the remaining physical stores, and a lot of them will go bust. Forcing more people to go on line. And so on.
Books, of course, will survive, but in greatly diminished number. Ten years from now it will be a rarity to find a store devoted to selling new real books.
Now, once a person has bought a real book and read it, or bought it and acknowledged that they’re not going to read it, they can haul it down to a used bookstore and sell it.
Other people will wander into that store to discover new authors, or just to buy cheap books.
But if fewer are buying new real books, then it follows that there will be fewer used books to sell. Ten years from now, used bookstores will still exist, but the survivors will call themselves variants of “Antiquarian” or “Rare” book dealers. These people will be selling antiques, not books to be read.
The shift towards buying e-books will increase—this does not mean that reading will increase. I predict fewer people will read complete books in electronic form.
Novels will be read completely at rates greater than non-fiction. This is true for real books, but the proportional difference in rates will increase, while both rates decrease absolutely.
Worse, if everybody buys e-books, then there will be no used books. Strike that: you don’t buy an e-book, you license it. You do not own the e-book, you are granted permission to use it for as long as the owner decides. There is nothing that you own that you can sell.
Specialty markets will continue, such as kids book-toys (which are meant to be played with, not read), gift books (which are designed not to be read), and college textbooks (which are rarely read).
Since people’s patience for reading hundreds of pages of uninterrupted text is rapidly waning, e-books will usher in the new golden age of the short story. These fiction pieces will be just long enough to sustain a commute, say, between two- and four-thousand words.
Books and long-form reading will survive, but will be seen as a curious but interesting hobby, much like wood carving or choral signing.
Those found perusing thick tomes will be assumed to be scholars, big-brained folks who possess secret powers. This is already true.
There is a stock scene in movies where the protagonist is shown reading a battered copy of Plutarch, Herodotus, or perhaps William James. The intent of the scene is two-fold: to demonstrate that we’re dealing with an obviously intelligent person. But it also instills envy. The viewer thinks, “Boy, I wish I could read like that.”
The idea of reading a book is so strange that the viewer doesn’t discern that he can if wants to. All he must needs do is to enter the library and borrow these books—at no cost.
At least, that’s what he can do until libraries stop stocking real books.