The war between independent book stores and the big chains rival any epic battle that David and Goliath fought. It’s a struggle between Main Street and corporate America that many continue to fight and was even depicted on the big screen in Nora Ephron’s romcom, “You’ve Got Mail.”
Today, www.techcrunch.com believes this 1998 film is in need of a serious sequel, and I couldn‘t agree more. Only Kathleen’s character need not be the focus. Instead, the center of the film should be on Fox and his battle with that which is currently intangible: the Internet.
Borders, which began in 1971 as a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has declared bankruptcy, and will close 200 of its 650-plus stores. In a filing in United States Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, the once book giant has listed $1.29 billion in debt and $1.27 billion in assets. I can’t help but thinking: Despite the many reports of greed and overexpansion, did e-readers contribute to its ultimate demise? If so what does this mean for the future of the tangible book? Before we ponder a potential forecast to this increasingly viable threat, first we must ask ourselves: How and why did we arrive here?
Since this is a topic that can be expounded upon for pages, here’s a brief synopsis. The least-expensive products will thrive and businesses offering efficiency possess the key to the consumer heart. With this in mind, Jeffrey P. Bezos gave birth to Amazon.com in 1994 and delivered more than great deals; he created competition for Borders and Barnes & Noble.
According to “Bloomberg News,” in November of 2007 Amazon made the leap from selling other’s products to selling its own, and by doing so the infamous Kindle was born. By May of 2009 the Kindle become Amazon’s biggest selling product. However, out of the market Amazon practically created, it also conceived a slew of competitors all anxious to gain the edge—most notably, the Nook by Barnes & Noble, which led to the tablet craze produced from companies like Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard and others.
Amazon responded by waging a virtual publisher-to-publisher war, and they aimed to keep as many books as possible exclusive only to Amazon, all while preserving their ability to set their own prices. It was a tactic that paid off in full. In July of 2010, Amazon announced for the first time their sales for Kindle books had outnumbered sales of all their hard covers. A staggering 143 Kindle books sold for every 100 hardcover books, including hard covers for which there was no Kindle edition. Today, Amazon is more than the world’s largest online retailer and our nation’s biggest book seller. It is the icon of our Internet empire.
In my quest to decipher what’s best for our literary future within this insatiable empire, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (www.HumaneEducation.org), Zoe Weil, and author of “Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life,” shared her perspective about e-readers. It all comes down to paper versus plastic.
“To make paper, we cut down forests, destroy habitats, pollute water, release dioxins in the paper-bleaching process, and use tremendous amounts of fossil fuels because it’s highly energy-intensive to transport something as heavy as trees and books,” Weil explains. “On the other hand, to make e-readers, we mine for rare ores, create toxic waste, expose workers to these toxins, employ overseas labor in what may be sweatshops, and so on. I think for certain purposes (photography, art, and illustrated children’s books for example), there will always be those who love books (I’m one of them) and who buy them. In the meantime, in our imperfect world, I am grateful for the option of using an e-reader and reducing deforestation, paper bleaching, and paper waste.”
Contrarily to her opinion, electronic waste is a huge problem that can outweigh paper waste, especially when recycling is introduced. As Wired magazine highlights, e-waste (lead, cadmium and mercury) are all-too-often dumped into landfills, not recycled and later become contaminates within our land, water and air. And this is a serious issue, considering Kindle takes a recyclable product and replaces it with a fragile piece of technology. Drop a book and the worst outcome consists of a few bent pages. Drop a Kindle? Drop more money for a replacement.
Books are not perfect and by no means am I a techno-phobe. I enjoy my iPod, just as e-readers take pride in reading “greener.” However, the negative impact Kindle and Nook have on American society could surpass the bonuses of being organic. Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with Melissa, a local Barnes & Noble employee. When I asked her where the Nook was made, her response mirrored an episode of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”
“Um. Um—that’s a good question,” she said. As gerbils turned the gears of her mind I longed for my encounter with Patrick, Boston’s too perky sales rep. Sure, he suggested I read, “Dear John,” but, damn it, he did suggest the hardcover version!
The answer Melissa was looking for was China. Both e-readers for Amazon and Barnes & Noble have an OEM in China. Because they are manufactured overseas, they do not have to follow American standards of engineering. This fact not only debunks any organic dreams many have about e-readers solving the world‘s environmental problems, it also contributes in making American workers obsolete. Horrifically, this economic loss encircles not just domestic workers, but the very individuals that make the story possible—the writers.
“I’m excited to see how the e-book market evolves,” Mollie Glick, from one of New York City’s leading literary agencies, Foundry Literary and Media, says. “So far I haven’t seen much change in how it affects my sales, but I think that time is coming soon, when publishers start giving more credit to e-book sales in their profit and loss reports. Right now our clients get less royalty money for an e-book sale. That’s something we’re hoping to change in the coming months.”
While literary agents are trying to address the aforementioned stressful issue, Gwenyfar Rohler, author and owner of Old Books on Front St., offers a different perspective, one that presents a threat to e-readers instead: nostalgia.
“Recently, my father was hospitalized for several months,” she says, also noting her parents’ teaching professions. “I read to him everyday, primarily the classics. [He and my mother’s] books were underlined and filled with notes in the margins in both their handwritings, as they traded the books back and forth depending on which one was using it for class that semester. Sitting in the hospital reading to him not only the stories but the notes in the margins in my [now-deceased] mother’s handwriting presented an opportunity to bring her into the room with us and to evoke for Daddy one of the happiest times in his life: when he was young and in love, and the world of ideas was unfolding between them. That, quite simply is not going to happen with an e-reader.”
Yes—the book is truly an original work of art that offers so much an e-reader cannot. It’s design, type-face and binding is a package deal. To hand someone a novel rather than to instruct them to download a file is a personal, heartfelt thing. In all its 3G Wi-Fi might, the e-reader convenience has yet to evoke the same sensory and memory overload that a tangible novel can possess. Delivering the final sigh of relief for our paperback’s future is Kathleen Jewell, owner of Pomegranate Books. In her opinion, independent book store sales (including her own) shouldn’t be hit too hard by the digital trend. So long as there are readers, the hard cover novel will always be culturally relevant.