Blahs in Bookville

It’s a tough time to be bookish.

That’s especially true in library land, where daily we get news of another large system facing major cuts, closed branches, reduced hours, or chopped collection budgets. Now, this isn’t because libraries are unsuccessful: most of the systems I know still put up record numbers. Still, government budgets are in rotten shape and online and magazine trend pieces sound the death knell, claiming that libraries are being made passé by electronic books and the Internet.

And, oh, those electronic books. Earlier this week on our sister blog, Likely Stories, Keir Graff put up a summary of all the depressing recent pieces that claim the death of print and the triumph of the e-book. While most of us in the book world find these pieces overclaimed, it’s hard to deny that electronic readers are making headway and damaging the sales of print books. There’s something missing in most of these claims of progress and the great paperless future: proof that most of the people who write, publish, edit, sell, archive, review, or promote books can get paid in a future dominated by e-books. It’s frightening when one format starts to eradicate another before anyone can prove that the new format has a sustainable business model. 

The impact is certainly felt in the world of book journalism. Sites like GoodReads, which I love, seem to be thriving, but magazines and blogs, especially independent blogs, seem to be declining as the conglomeration of the Internet progresses. More disturbingly, instead of writing about the actual books, we’re all writing pieces (much like this one!) that either gloat about the success of e-books or wring hands over the fallout. My first online stop each Monday is the weekly RA Rundown at Reader’s Advisor Online Blog, but I can’t help but notice how its summary of book news is increasingly dominated by news of the book business instead of the books themselves.

The news isn’t any better for book retailers. Only a few years ago, we bemoaned the death of many independent bookstores. The great evil was Barnes and Noble and other big box bookstores. It turns out their reign was short. Now everyone’s tolling the bell for B & N as it looks for a buyer (who doesn’t appear to be coming). Apparently only online sellers can thrive anymore, but Amazon has shoved print aside in its attempt to corner the market with Kindle. Ask yourself, is it any wonder that a product featured front and center on the home page of the largest Internet retailer for several years now is selling well? I can’t help but wonder how other products would do on Amazon if they received the same relentless focus. What’s conspicuously missing from the barrage of sales claims about  Kindle is any proof of profitability. Is Amazon making more money since they switched to e-book emphasis? Or do they dream of the pot of gold at the end of a monopolistic rainbow? And what will happen to their long-term book sales if they squeeze out brick and mortar stores, libraries, publishers, reviewers, and collectors who have always co-existed symbiotically (if with great clamor) in the past?

Are the blahs in bookland filtering down to your book groups? So far, mine remain happy. Real people get together and have a good time talking about the books they read (and only one of them is using an electronic reader). We pass around our antiquated print copies with gusto. But as someone who not only makes a living from, but also finds a way of life with print books, I can’t help but quiver a bit before the trends. Change is coming fast and furious, and it’s not clear if book culture can keep up.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Blahs in Bookville"

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  1. namiller5@gmail.com' nancy says:

    I left a job last year selling books for K-12 students to school libraries and some public libraries. Funding has dropped to practically nothing for school libraries in Michigan. A strange thing given the amount of talk about the importance of educating our children as well as other countries, and it’s well known that reading is critical.

    When I was visiting school libraries, I found that more and more were turning to online sources for their reference materials and non-fiction books. The benefit being that the information can be kept current, while a printed page can become obsolete in a year or two. A valid point. Printed books also wear out with repeated use, forcing multiple purchases for libraries.

    I don’t think we can deny it. Online and electronic books are here to stay. Buy I will miss the joy of holding a new book, and passing it on to a friend.

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