Once More, With Feeling

Josie Leavitt - February 2, 2012

The battle against Amazon seems to be never-ending. The New York Times featured a long story over the weekend about Barnes & Noble’s struggle to fight the online behemoth with ebook content. I’m not even going to discuss the absolute irony of the article about B&N feeling the pressure from Amazon, when in fact, B&N is responsible for the closure of many indies in the 1990s.
The death knell for the physical book seems to be getting louder every day as the ebook threatens to subsume the publishing world as we know it. I have had it.
Books with pages and covers and that yummy book smell are not going away. To constantly say that they are is giving Amazon more power than it deserves. Yes, the ereaders are fun, and there might be something nice about having thousands of books in one little device, but real readers, the people who have kept bookstores open for years, are not all going to switch to the new technology. Maybe I’m being a Pollyanna here, but I’ve more customers tell me that they actually don’t like their Nook, Kindle or other ereader. They want real books. And our sales for January bear this out as we ended up 10% over last January.
Are we all fighting for our lives? Hell, yes. But let’s stop whining about it. Whining never made me want to support a cause. Want to make the book stays around forever? Stop letting three-year-olds play with book apps. A book doesn’t make noise at you. A book doesn’t have ten links to press per page that take you away from the story. A book doesn’t sound words out for you. A book lets you use your imagination – some anti-book folks would say, forces kids to use their imagination. I think every kid should be able to read The Cat in the Hat and feel a growing anxiety about when the parents are coming home. There shouldn’t be a hundred ways to pull you out of the story thereby diluting it. Kids have enough distractions thrown at them every day, a book should be a sanctuary. And yes, some books are going to be work, but that’s okay. I struggled with reading until I was eight and I survived quite nicely.
If children now grow up with ebooks that start to feel like video games how can a book with pages, words and pictures compete? These kids will expect books to do more with no effort on their part. I see a lack of imagination every day with kids. A child comes in with a stuffed animal and I ask what the animal’s name is and eight times out of ten the animal either has the name it came with on the price tag, or it doesn’t have a name. These kids need heaps of free time where all they have to do is think and imagine. I cannot comprehend not naming a favorite stuffed animal, or just calling it Dog.
Here’s another way to keep the book alive. Start talking to pre-teens and teens about the importance of the real book and bookstores. These kids have surprising amounts of money at their disposal. These are also the kids who latch on to a cause and fight for it and make it the law of their household. Make their cause your store and real books. Talk to them about shopping locally and supporting your town. They’re smart, they’ll get it.
Books are not sexy compared to ereaders. They don’t do anything but provide words on a page. And that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

29 thoughts on “Once More, With Feeling

  1. SuzzyPC

    Josie, you might feel a little better reading this piece. I did. I am definitely one of those people who do not feel the need for an e-reader, nor do I see myself buying one in the near future. I buy books from independent bookstores & borrow from my excellent public library, sometimes from friends. And, if I really like the book I’ve borrowed I often go out & buy it to keep.

  2. josey bozzo

    Well, to be honest, I have a Kindle and I like the convenience of it for traveling, but it will NEVER be the same as a book and I will never give up real books completely

  3. Virginia

    Josie, I hate that indies are folding and I hate Amazon’s shady business practices. But it’s truly unfair to say that only the people who want paper books are “real readers.” There is something magic about a printed, bound book – and there’s an equal, but different, magic about having unlimited books at your fingertips when your appetite for reading is voracious. I love *reading*, not just books, and I embrace any vehicle that puts content into the hands of people who want to read it.
    Ebooks are “real books” to the people who wrote them and to the people who read them. People who like their ereaders are “real readers” just like people who prefer print. Surely there is room enough in the world for all kinds of reading-crazy people.

    1. Hampton

      I agree. And I also think people who listen to books on CD or tape or mp3 player are real readers as well. As a librarian I respect both the written word (on paper or screen, although the latter is harder on the eyes) and its spoken version when read by someone who takes the time to fully appreciate the story. Audio versions have benefits for kids, too. See http://www.hamptonpubliclibrary.org/allages/listening.html

    2. Lois

      I couldn’t agree more, Virginia!
      If you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you how much books are a part of my life, and a part of who I am. I’m only in my early twenties and I’ve spent thousands of dollars – ever since I had an allowance – buying hundreds of books. When I was young I would read books for days on end in my summer holidays, hardly stopping to sleep or eat! And I haven’t changed much – one month last year, I read over twenty books, while also working and studying. All of those twenty books were ebooks.
      Yes, you lose part of the tangible experience of reading with ebooks – just like you lose part of the experience of watching a movie by renting a DVD to take home instead of seeing it in the cinema, or for that matter by watching a movie instead of going to the theatre. But there are many advantages too. I firmly believe both media (i.e. paper books and ebooks) will survive, because they fulfill different roles. I buy both. But, to be honest, the books I actually *read* are ebooks – mostly I just flick through and admire my paper books.
      Just because I mostly read ebooks now, though, doesn’t mean I’m not a “real reader”. I did a degree in literature and work in publishing, and what’s more I just *love* books – all kinds of books. You might dislike ereaders and ebooks, and that’s your prerogative. But you can’t claim to represent the whole world of “real readers” – unless your criteria for what makes a “real reader” somehow excludes people like me, whose life is pretty much built around books, in which case I have to say that the title hardly counts for much.
      (As a sidenote, I’m also an avid video gamer, and I grew up spending many hours playing them. They didn’t take over my love of books – they are different media with different purposes and effects, but they both encourage storytelling and imagination. Some people only like one or the other, and that’s fair enough, but it’s not inevitable. Video games haven’t – and won’t – kill books.)

  4. Ellie Miller

    Hearty huzzahs to everything you said here! And I’m with Suzzy (thanks for an interesting link) in my reading habits, but let me add that you canNOT ‘live’ with an e-reader! By that I mean, the wonderful feeling I get when I sit down in my living room and I’m surrounded by the physical presence of shelf after shelf of books in my home. I’m 76 and of the generation that firmly believes that when someone cares enough to give you a gift, like it or lump it, you smile and say “Thank you!” When my brother gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, I had to tell him with tears in my eyes, “Thank you, but NO thank you! I simply cannot let you spend that kind of money for something I don’t need, don’t want and can’t/WON’T use!” Yes! e-books do feel a need for some folks, but I’m not one of them. Moreover, I’m currently stockpiling used copies of books I love against the day when I can no longer find them in the indie stores I patronize and appreciate so much.

  5. Francis Hamit

    As a small publisher who has tried to serve the Indie bookstore market through the traditional system of discounts with high quality printed books, I have to ask when are you guys going to wise up and offer something unique rather than trying to beat B&N and the other chains at the “best-seller” game? You can’t match the heavy discounts they offer and make any money. Has it occurred to you that people who browse in your stores are looking for something different and out of the mainstream? We have two books designed to appeal to your customers and yet, only one bookstore in the entire nation actually has them on the shelf where they can be found. They sell well on Amazon because Amazon publishes the many excellent reviews they have gotten on the page. Amazon has them in stock. And we publish a lot of e-books with Amazon because we have lower costs and time-to-market with them. You can’t sell it if you don’t have it and you can’t sell it at full price when everyone else is discounting it. So it’s not about margin so much as it is about velocity and how many times a year you can turn that stock on your shelves. If we could avoid the 55% discount from list we have to give up to get it on your shelves and deal directly with you for a lower margin and a more honest price, we would all be better off and making more money. It is time for a new business model.

  6. Diane Guscott

    As a teacher of middle and high school students I try and try to teach them the importance of buying and borrowing and reading real books. I try to just get them to read for pleasure. I teach gifted and talented students and even those students do not read a book unless they are forced to. They tell me books just can’t compete with a video game. It makes me so very sad, but I won’t give up! I will keep trying to encourage kids to read for pleasure until the last breath in my body!

  7. deleo

    I say Amen as well. But I would love for the “us vs. them” mentality to go away. It seems clear (at least to me) that both printed and electronic books will occupy our world for the near future. Why are we arguing about who is a real reader? People read different things, and it is a good thing for those of us in this industry that they do. Is reading literary fiction “better” than reading romances? Is reading non-fiction “better” than reading fiction? Who gets to determine that?
    I don’t have an e-reader, and don’t really want one in my current job, but if I traveled I would get one in a heartbeat. I’ll never give up print books for all the reasons usually given, but if I still had a two-hour-each-way commute every day, what a joy it would be to be able to pick up where I left off in the book I was reading the night before. To never be without reading material when there was an hour train delay, or when your flight is delayed indefinitely would brighten my world considerably. I’m sure that in a very short time someone will create a different kind of reading medium that will be like Grand Theft Auto compared to today’s e-readers Pong. For now, we don’t need to choose only one medium, do we?

  8. Dave H

    An interesting take. I agree that eBooks remove certain physical ‘comforts’ of reading a book, and that there are plenty of really bad/distracting interactive learning apps out there… but your broad generalization that digital books/apps are squelching learning & creativity is a bit of a stretch. I couldn’t help but think of Apple’s recent foray into the textbook market.
    When done right, enhancing text with interactive content can speed understanding of content and drive deeper exploration/curiosity of a topic. A perfect example of this is Al Gore’s app version of his book, “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.” Regardless of your political leanings, this is a perfect example of how interactive content can bring a book to life and drive deeper exploration.

  9. Sue Jackson

    Hear, hear! Well said. Much of the future of books depends on parents. My two boys (now teens) grew up surrounded by books, and I think ever child deserves that. Books are just so magical. My sons also spent much of their free time (yes, they had lots of free time) playing pretend. It’s so exciting to read a story to your child and later see it acted out in pretend play. Not only are their stuffed animals all named, but they each have unique personality characteristics for when my sons play with them (shhh…they do still play pretend with their stuffed animals once in a while!)
    I also cringe when I see very young children playing with not only e-readers but all sorts of electronic devices instead of looking at books. My 5-year old nephew has his own Kindle Fire! Perhaps things are different today, growing up with all these devices around, but I think parents can still make sure their kids have plenty of exposure to books, stories, and their own imaginations, too.
    Great Books for Kids and Teens
    Book By Book

  10. Sue Jackson

    Oh, I forgot to add that I recently had the wonderful opportunity to talk to the 8th grade English classes at my son’s middle school about reading and writing, and we had some very lively and exciting discussions about books! There are plenty of tweens and teens who LOVE books and are excited about them, and I had so much fun telling these kids about more books they would love.
    In some ways, books have become much cooler in recent years, thanks to the super-hype surrounding Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and other popular series.
    Great Books for Kids and Teens
    Book By Book

  11. D

    I know how everyone feels. It does seem like physical books are going the way of the dinosaur. But they are not dead yet. I recently attended Wi7 and there was a lot of talk about e-books–some good, some bad. What I find most disheartening is that when there is a change in our industry, in our world, our first reaction is to gripe, complain, and blame. B&N is not responsible for any other store closing. The fact that they were bigger and offered more, is the reason. But B&N is a business. The Flying Pig is a business. Heartstrings aside, we all have to find a way to run our businesses so that we stay afloat and–dare to dream–prosper. Amazon is a behemoth bordering on monopoly. But there they are. E-books are easy to get at Amazon, but any bookseller can sell them. It’s not easy, but we won’t gain momentum by kvetching. But, yes: “Make their cause your store and real books. Talk to them about shopping locally and supporting your town.” The real numbers do your talking for you. Tell all your customers that they can buy their e-books from you. Sell e-books and physical books. (Harry Potter is as real in digital format as it is on paper). But those teens and tweens are coming up in the digital age. They will have the next thing. Like it or not.

    1. Jean Lewis

      i so agree with this comment. Amen. I work in a small town in Florida. I work for B&N. It is the only bookstore in town. I love my job. I love working with books. Any kind of books. I don’t believe people actually understand that each time they order a book from an online only source, they are helping to tear the bricks off the walls of the brick and mortar stores. I see it every day. People come into our lovely store, even being so bold as to ask me for pen and paper to write down titles that they see on our shelves. Then they go home and order from you know who. It is what it is. Is sad. We are all businesses.

  12. Ed Renehan

    The “book” = the narrative, not the container. Print, digital, whatever. A “real book” is no more paper and boards and glue than it is a computer file. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS whether printed on paper, rendered as an eBook or downloaded as an audiobook is still FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, regardless of the delivery device.

  13. cbt

    I do have an e-reader, but I don’t use it exclusively–mostly just when I’m traveling or in the middle of a massive book that I don’t particularly want to lug around with me (A Game of Thrones and its sequels just won’t fit in my purse, for example, but my nook fits just fine). Does that make me less of a “real reader”? Absolutely not. Just practical. I will point out that every single e-book I own was purchased through my local indie, not Amazon. And I also have to object to your characterization of children with unnamed stuffed animals as unimaginative. I wrote thousands of stories as a child and had more imagination than my parents knew what to do with. But still, my favorite stuffed animal, who I had with me constantly since I was born, was a bear named Bear. And my brother had a stuffed Mickey Mouse who he called Mouse, not even Mickey. There’s something to be said for identifying the essence of a thing.

  14. Freddy G

    Our three-year loves to read picture books, but he is a big user of interactive ebook apps on the iPad as well. As a parent and book lover, I feel that it is important to instill a love of reading in my son, and I think he already has the reading bug. But it is also important for him to experience new technology and understand how it works, or he potentially will risk getting left behind.

  15. oliver_optic

    ‘Real Readers’! I have worked in independent bookstore since 1975 and the only thing worse than a monopoly like Amazon is the snooty attitude of people like you. I would bet that people who made products for horses were talking the same way about the ride of those new horseless carriages could not compare to a ride on a horse. I also work at a university and have for the past 20 years and I can tell you that walking the halls 20 years ago compared to day there is a marked difference. I rarely see anyone with just a book open. Most have their computers on and perhaps a book open. I am curious how old your customers are because this new generation is not a physical book one I can tell you that. Sure you might have your niche but that’s all it is. Finally, I remember a saying years that was directed at someone like you. ‘People who read comic books read’. Reading is reading no matter what the delivery method.

  16. Nora

    I’m happy to say that my 14 year old grandson recently stated that he still prefers to hold a book to read rather than use the electronic devices. Chalk one up for civilization! I hope he’s not alone.

  17. Carol Woodson

    I could not agree more. Let’s celebrate “The Word.” Instead of the emphasis on illustration, ideally picture books would strive for compelling language, electrifying, endearing, sizzling, inspiring, alive, unforgettable, precious Words! Words to cherish. Words to comfort. Words to explain. Words to illuminate. Words of wisdom. Words to remember always. Allow the child’s imagination to fill in the colors and personalize the simple line drawings–to literally put part of himself into the book. Then the book, the words, become part of the child. Images, absorbed with little or no effort, are ubiquitous. , They may encourage a child’s developing brain to become lazy when confronted with stark white page and curious black squiggles. Babies today are no different from babies born thousands of years ago. Get them fascinated with words before they are bombarded with those irresistible images., they will be eager and ready to decode the gorgeous words in that first reader.


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