Lost in the Pixels of a Good Book: The E-book Problem

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 9th, 2009

Like all brand-new iPhone users, I went a little crazy at the iTunes App Store (a magical land where you can find everything from tiny handheld games—Air Hockey! Flight Control!—to downloadable art collections, playable musical instruments, song identifiers, "productivity" tools, travel apps, and more). I subscribed to something called AppSniper, a program that tracks brand-new applications and notifies you when something on your wish list goes on sale.

And that’s when I discovered e-books – loads of them, libraries of them – being added by the 01010101-load to the appiverse. Fully two-thirds of the new apps on the market seemed to be books – from the Koran to Shakespeare — most costing around 99¢ per download, though in truth most of those titles can be had for nothing. (More on that later.) 

Suddenly I had instant access to pretty much anything in the public domain – for a small fee or for free. This felt like riches, largesse, Alexandria. Never read the Upanishads? Well, here ya go! Want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in 30 seconds? No problem! And look – plenty of shelf space.

I’d always dismissed e-books as handy tools for business travelers. No one would really want to read fiction in pixels, would they? Book lovers love the artifact. I even said as much, all calm and confident, to a customer last month. No way, José. Not for me. Not for anyone who loves the feel and smell of paper and ink, the textures of matte covers and deckled edges, the heft of a heavy tome or the personal goodness of a little smooth square hardcover.

But then something happened, something unexpected, embarrassing, and a little worrisome: I read Peter Pan on a cell-phone screen the size of a playing card, and I loved it. I read it because I’d wanted to revisit the original story but couldn’t justify the time in the face of all the new ARCs staring at me from every tabletop and bookshelf of my house. And because I couldn’t sleep one night and didn’t want to disturb my sweetie by turning on a light, I found myself switching on this bright little beacon of an iPhone and beginning to read. All of those circumstances had to combine for me to try pixie dust in pixels, but once I did, it was, quite frankly, a micro-revelation. It didn’t matter what format the book came in; once I was reeled in by a skillful writer, I was lost in Neverland.

Fellow readers, if a fierce book purist like me—someone who actually ate the page corners of my books as a child—can be lured into liking e-books, well, then, I suspect pretty much anybody can.

I had started tinkering around with this topic when the Association of American Publishers reported its 2008 statistics: amid an overall drop in book sales for 2008, with some modest growth (children’s and adult paperbacks), and downward dives (hardcovers, audiobooks, mass market and religion, among others), e-book sales grew by 68.4%. And it looks as though e-book sales in January 2009 trumped January 2008 sales by 173.6%. Let me repeat that number: 173.6%. It’s clear that the time has come for me to face the digital revolution.

E-books are a hot topic in the industry right now, and there are many actual experts out there writing thoughtful articles on the topic who know a lot more than I do. Like all of us booksellers, I want to know how this tiny revolution will affect my store. For one thing, it will add yet another lasagna layer to the deep dish of competition for book sales. From my humble perch on the Flying Pig stool, it seems to me that apocalyptic prophecies are premature, but there will be some fallout. People will always want and need real books, and as long as there are trees, books will continue to be made and sold and read and loved.

I also think we’ll ultimately be stocking our shelves a little differently, emphasizing the kinds of things no e-book can touch: in the children’s department, that means beautiful editions of classic and illustrated titles, poetry, and art. But for many bread-and-butter staples on our shelves, the in-store demand for those "real" books may be quite diluted; e-books are cheap, instant-gratification additions (or substitutes, depending on how you see it) for eager readers.

And herein lies the problem. Mobile phone e-readers are free, and easy [update: as of April 27, the e-reader Stanza has now been acquired by Amazon, so the top two iTunes apps are now owned by the online mega-store] . You just download them onto your cell and presto – you have access to hundreds of thousands of books – 50,000 alone in the public domain and available free of charge, as well as new and bestselling titles. The money, of course, is in the selling of the book content. So what’s in it for indies? Publishers offer options; on one site I visited, a bestselling title offered in e-book format leads to a long list of possible vendors—but guess how many of them are independent bookstores? Right. Everyone is getting into the act, it seems, but us. There are moves afoot to allow us to sell e-books to customers (most likely online), as in the program here, but if readers are tech-savvy enough to use e-readers, are they really likely to use an intermediary?

As one of those tech-savvy-ish types myself, I’m torn. I love the instant access to obscure books I’ve always wanted to read, the security blanket of having the complete plays and sonnets of Shakespeare with me everywhere I go, the unexpected delight of reading < a href="http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=294773236&mt=8">Alice in Wonderland on teensy pages. But as an independent bookseller, I’m concerned that, with more and more competition, a difficult economy, and less and less market to share, we are looking at a very steep mountain. Yet none of these other layers in the lasagna do quite what we do: notice and champion the treasures, both small and large; build blockbusters not by hype and hope, but by word-of-mouth; write thoughtful reviews to share with colleagues and customers; and put books directly in the hands of children and adults, teachers and librarians, saying, "You’ve got to read this!"

How can booksellers convert our handselling expertise to have a role in recommending and distributing e-books, too, so that instead of losing sales to publishers and online vendors, we might earn a small piece of this ever-growing pie?

What do you think? I really want to know. Especially if you have solutions, or any e-book confessions of your own. And bonus points if you can identify the 1974 first edition I chewed on as a kid — but don’t post the title! Just the endearment the character at the end of the book exchanges with her sweetheart upon first meeting.

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