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The closing of Borders is not the closing of minds

© July 2011 Anthony Lawrence

Yesterday's news included laments about the closing of the Borders book store chain. Headlines proclaimed "A blow to book lovers!" and similar sentiments. How silly.

Can we please not confuse the container for the thing contained? Thanks to James Thurber, I know that's metonymy, but I also know that books are really the words within, not the physical paper, cardboard and ink that has been their form for the past half millennia or so.

More to come

If you think closing Borders was awful, hang on to your seat: they'll all be closing soon enough. Borders didn't fail because people don't read. Borders failed because on-line stores can deliver books more efficiently and because a fast growing share of that delivery is electronic.

Metonymy aside, the world of books is changing.

Electronic books aren't a fad: they'll be replacing physical books more and more. In twenty years or so, "real" books may not even be produced and if they are, they will be rare and expensive.

Publishers are next

This involves the end of publishing houses, too. The demise of the physical printing side is obvious, but self publishing - without the assistance of publishers - is starting to become important. An author named John Locke has proven that rather convincingly and has published a book that tells you how he became a million copy author WITHOUT a publisher, publicist, press agent or anything like that.

I gave you the link to the Kindle version, by the way.. there is a hard cover version if you foolishly insist. You do know that you can get a free Kindle reader for almost anything you might be using to read this page, right? Forget PDF's and all the rest: Kindle is becoming the standard for publishing.

The world isn't ending

It's silly to moan about this. Would you have any sympathy for some 15th century bibliophile who lamented the passing of illuminated scrolls? Oh, that Gutenberg is going to destroy reading!

E-books and on-line stores aren't going to destroy reading either. Brick and mortar book stores, sure. Publishing houses, yes. Even libraries, eventually, although misplaced sentimentality will keep those around longer than they have any reason to survive,

I know this makes some people angry. The demise of libraries is particularly apt to infuriate people. I'm sorry: it's inevitable. Closing Borders is just the beginning.

This doesn't mean the end of reading and certainly not the end of knowledge. It doesn't mean idiocracy. It's just technological change, just like Gutenberg. A different container for the thing that really is important. Nothing to get upset about.

The library catalog card? Time to pull it from the files


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-> If you think closing Borders was awful, hang on to your seat, there's much more to come


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Tue Jul 19 11:18:52 2011: 9636   TonyLawrence


Amazon's new text book rental is also related to this.


Though my suspicion is that prices will drop so low that renting will disappear. The rentals will actually help the price drops, strangely enough.

Tue Jul 19 16:10:01 2011: 9637   NickBarron



It does seem that this is the way the market is going. It is not particularly surprising and I have myself been profesising this for a long time. Though I do think sentimentality will be the main defence of 'the old ways'

What I find interesting is how this will develop, with Amazon having its Kindle market, Apple having its iBooks store. Is one company going to win and rule the lions share of the market? Or will it be fragmented between multiple companies.

Once something become digital, it is no longer bound the to the same benefits of a physical item. Prices will be driven down sharply and buyers more actively comparing prices.

Interesting times ahead, another progression. Music was hit first, movies are currently being hit. With books becoming an encroached upon market.

Tue Jul 19 16:14:33 2011: 9638   TonyLawrence


Amazon is smart to make their Kindle readers so easily available, but a truly open format might still win the day. We will see..

Tue Jul 19 16:56:15 2011: 9639   BigDumbDinosaur


Even libraries, eventually, although misplaced sentimentality will keep those around longer than they have any reason to survive,

I agree.

In our area, we have an ongoing idealogical battle over the public library. The library is in nearby Manhattan but we Elwood residents have to pay taxes to support it because we are in the same library district. Not surprisingly, more than a few of our citizens are opposed to this arrangement and have been so for many years.

One often-cited reason is that of having to drive to another town to use the library, which has taken on added importance in recent years due to escalating fuel prices. Another is that much of what any library has in non-fiction materials quickly becomes dated -- the average library can't afford to constantly replace books whose content is no longer relevant. This takes on added importance when the Internet is factored into the discussion. Even the value of historical material becomes suspect. You can read about virtually any historical event on-line in the comfort of your home or office -- at your convenience.

In the most recent election, a referendum to increase our library district's tax rate so a new building could be acquired was soundly defeated (again), which has caused the pro-library idealogues to accuse the rest of the voters of being cruel to the children who would supposedly flock to the library each day in search of erudition. Where that argument collapses is in the library's own stats, which show that use of the facility has steadily declined over the last decade. Not coincidentally, it was during that same period of time that our local cable provider started offering high speed Internet service at a reasonable price.

The patent conclusion is the public library is rapidly becoming a liability to the taxpayers, not an asset (the same argument could also be applied to public education, but that's a much larger can of worms). The library honchos are demanding ever more money to provide a service to fewer and fewer people. Almost all households in this area have Internet access, and hence have rapid access to far more information than any library could ever possibly offer. Although the annual per household cost for Internet service probably exceeds the annual tax bite for the library district, the convenience of Internet access far exceeds the liability of paying for it. Compare that to the "convenience" of library access: limited hours and an 18 mile round-trip that may prove to be a wild goose chase if what you want isn't in the library's inventory.

I personally haven't set foot into a library since the late 1990s, as I have access to far more extensive resources available right here at my console. From my perspective, the business case for a taxpayer-supported library has disintegrated and I'm sure any future referenda for a tax increase will continue to be voted down until politicians finally accept the fact that libraries as we know them are rapidly becoming as obsolete as running boards on automobiles.

Tue Jul 19 18:11:44 2011: 9640   TonyLawrence


As long as books are priced ridiculously, we'll still need libraries. When they reflect the true cost of digital production, we won't.

Tue Jul 19 18:22:12 2011: 9641   TonyLawrence


K=Just as an example, suppose you spent a year writing a book. Suppose you hire someone to proofread and fact check it and that they work for a year. Say you pay them $100,000 (unlikely, of course).

How much do you expect to make for one year of work? Let's say you only expected to sell 100,000 copies - isn't $14.95 a bit over the top?

Remember, no publisher needed, no real distribution costs.. books are way, way overpriced.

Wed Jul 20 01:04:58 2011: 9642   AndrewSmallshaw


It's tempting to look at this and put it down to the likes of Amazon. At the same time, yes its inevitable the e-books will grow market share but I don't see the publishers disappearing. (link) goes through what the publisher actually does and many steps are either difficult for the author to do or more likely are not going to be done. You only need to look at so many personal web pages for evidence of what a publisher-free world would degenerate in to: poor lay outs coupled with incomprehensible prose. There needs to be some filtering mechanism in place to weed out the rubbish. Without that people will lose faith in the platform altogether.

That page also highlights some interesting specifics in respect of the long tail that is often cited as a strength of Amazon et al. The top three bestsellers sell more than bestsellers #4-#30 combined. #4-#30 sell more than the next three million. What is killing the high street bookshop is not the Internet - another source I consulted, admittedly from 2009, puts online sales at 5% of the market - but the supermarkets. They may only stock a few dozen titles but buy them by the hundreds of thousands and sell them at minimal mark up: when the last Harry Potter came out there were stories of bookshops here in the UK buying it at Tesco and reselling them, since Tesco could sell it cheaper than they could buy it from the distributor.

It's always tempting to assume that you yourself are typical but it isn't always the case. The lion's share of the book market is not you and me picking up the latest O'Reilly book, or nonfiction in general. It isn't even the fiction reader going out and purposefully selecting that particular but relatively obscure author they are so fond of. It's the person picking up the latest Dan Brown or whatever other rubbish everyone else happens to be reading at that particular moment.

Wed Jul 20 10:45:32 2011: 9645   TonyLawrence


Certainly physical books still dominate, but that is changing and changing quickly.

Read Locke's book. It's a peek at the future.

Wed Jul 20 15:08:07 2011: 9646   BigDumbDInosaur


It's the person picking up the latest Dan Brown or whatever other rubbish everyone else happens to be reading at that particular moment.

Andrew's got a point there. The average supermarket will continue to selling crap novels and such, not literary works of value. There will always be a market for lowbrow literary products -- Hollywood Wives comes to mind, which is truly right up there with the Bard. :) Junk of that type will be published in novels because that format is inexpensive to produce in quantity. I doubt space on a server is going to be committed to storing such drivel, as its worth is transitory at best.

You only need to look at so many personal web pages for evidence of what a publisher-free world would degenerate in to: poor lay outs coupled with incomprehensible prose.

How true. It's the "monkeys on typewriters" effect, brought about because everyone thinks they can write quality prose. A cursory look at Wikipedia will highlight the problem.


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