August 26th, 2007

Bookstores Begin Slow Descent Into Obsolescence


I was in Borders Books today looking for a copy of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous, and it suddenly struck me how ironic it was to be looking for a book about dynamic connectedness in this place of static, disconnected objects and finite shelf space.

I used to love bookstores — they were magical places where the whole world of information and stories was at your fingertips. But I realized today that the bookstore has begun its slow decent into obsolescence, just like every analogue media institution. The bookstore has been replaced by the Web as the place of wonder, and there’s no turning back.

I should add a strong caveat here — there are a few places where the book format will continue to thrive — fiction and children’s books principal among them (for years I maintained the delusion that I could be a fiction writer — wrong kind of writing for me). For my four-year-old daughter, the children’s book section is still a magical place — she knew how to navigate the Noggin website at 2, but physical books are still objects of wonder — and that’s still a very good thing. I don’t know if the same will be true for her children, but for now the children’s book section is still vibrant — same for the fiction section.

But there’s a reason why these types of books still work — they are works of art that stand on their own. But the business book section is another matter entirely. I think we will see the death of the business book in the same time frame as the death of the newspaper. Not this year. Not next year. Maybe not for ten years. But it will happen. The Web is a far more efficient medium for this type of information, and that it will kill off this static, packaged format is only a matter of time. (How many business books have you read that seemed to be exercise in repetition and restatement to achieve the requisite physical thickness?)

Instead of writing this blog over the past year, I could have written a business book — but how much less interesting that would have been. The debates that erupted in the comments sections — so much of the value here — would not exist. The trackbacks to other blogs that had a much more interesting perspective than mine would not exist. I would have learned very little and would have had little of value to say.

So will fiction and children’s books be enough to keep bookstores alive? Yes, but the already large cafe space in most big box bookstores, where people read and sip coffee (there were as many people using laptops as there were reading physical books) will continue to grow as the shelf space shrinks. That will continue until print-on-demand technology eventually makes shelf space itself obsolete.

I didn’t find a copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous — the inventory system suggested I try another store, where the book “might” be in stock (the system is not real time). Traveling across town for information seemed about as reasonable as using a horse and buggy to do so.

I ordered a copy of David’s book from Amazon (disclosure: this is an Amazon affiliate link, as is the one above, but nobody, least of all David, paid me to write this post), and will tolerate its long slow, analogue journey to my door — business books by truly interesting minds presenting paradigm shifting ideas have the artwork quality of fiction — they still have the power to stand on their own. Such books are rare but will probably endure longer than most business books, which are already being killed off by business blogs.

For now, I’m more than happy to visit David’s Everything Is Miscellaneous blog, where he does the one powerful thing he isn’t able to do in a book: dynamically link. Just reading several posts, I’ve already discovered other interesting blogs and interesting sites. I was able to browse topics I’m interested in, like journalism, and discover other topics of interest by browsing the tags.

The irony, which I’m sure David is quite well aware of, is that his blog, unlike a book, is a shining example of the power of the miscellaneous, to use his phrase. Browsing bookstore shelves used to be one of the best ways to experience the power of the miscellaneous — now it is only a pale shadow of what the Web and digital information makes possible.

I only went to the bookstore because my wife was looking for a book, and we needed something do do indoors with the 150% humidity here in Northern Virginia — I spent the whole time reading to my daughter in the children’s section. I’ll be back again for her, but not for me — I’m done with bookstores (unless someday I have time to read fiction again).

Comments (31 Responses so far)

  1. Well written article with a personal view and a wonderful sounding headline that’s almost like a boot title itself…

  2. Scott, I think you missed a crucial reason for the imminent decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores.
    When the day comes that you have time to read fiction again, I suggest that you buy yourself the sony book reader (or some competitor).
    This way you get to enjoy the comfort of reading away from the computer screen, but have the added joy of browsing the endless content that’s online and getting it instantly delivered.

  3. Scott, and the irony began with the conversation I had with my publisher about how to categorize “Everything is Misc.” The publisher wanted it to be categorized as a business book. I don’t think it’s quite that, but it has to have a single category because it’s only going to be shelved on a single shelf. My publisher won the argument (a friendly one – Times Books has been very easy to deal with) by saying that the business category “is the most miscellaneous one” these days.

    Thus did “EiM” became a business book.

  4. [...] searching for a copy of EiM at Border’s, Scott Karp was struck by the irony of searching for a book about the problems with traditional organization in [...]

  5. Scott, now let me get this straight….Are you saying that physical books become obsolete, or just brick and mortar bookstores, or just certain genres of books? There’s a big difference..

  6. Scott,

    A great post, if a depressing one for a book editor on a Monday morning!

  7. Interesting, very interesting. Yes, there is a certain tendency towards obsolescence on the part of bookshops. Nevertheless, for many, many things the Internet is just not a substitute – it may function as such one day, but that day is not yet here. I think of my discipline (linguistics) and I can only say that I am very glad we still have books. The electronic version is not quite the same – particularly in the case of reprints of old classics and the like. ‘Business’ books, for the most part, have always been short-lived affairs. There is much to be said for good-quality printing (especially of maps), as opposed to more-or-less good-quality images on the Internet. That said, I must also add that I do not regard the written matters on the Internet as anything revolutionary at all; it is the delivery that makes the difference, and, in some ways, the paper book is still superior – you don’t need machinery and electricity to read a paper book. Let us hope that the bookshop will remain, although doubtless reduced in number, scope, and importance.

  8. I can’t speak for anything beyond the two local shops in Lexington, one being Joseph-Beth, a major independent bookseller, the other being a Barnes & Noble outpost with a really great staff, but I see plenty of customers in each when I stop by.

    Both offer cafe services and non-book items. J-B carries Rhodia notepads, and both have my preferred Moleskines in stock (yes I am a sucker for expensive notebooks, thank you).

    The book selling aspect may be in decline, but there seems to be enough people visiting and buying books that the descent may take a long time.

    As for electronic reader advocates, sorry, but reading text on something that isn’t paper wears on the eyes. It’s hard to pull up Three Musketeers in Gutenberg and get a long way into it without needing some Visine.

  9. @David W
    Indeed that adds to the already rich irony — that a bookstore doesn’t have a tagging system to deal with a book about the power of tagging.

    I’m with David U on this — I have yet to see an electronic reader that duplicates the ease on the eyes of paper for long stretches of reading, e.g. novels.

    @D Fear
    I agree that because books are still superior for some purposes, the bookstore will endure for some time, albeit “reduced in number, scope, and importance.” That is, until you can “print out” a bound 500-page pocket size novel (complete with durable cover) at your desk.

    I think bookstores are slowly becoming obsolete because certain classes of books are rapidly becoming obsolete.

  10. First, I was lucky enough to buy a copy from David himself at SuperNova, but I will say that I’d have looked in the Business section, only because there’s not a section called “really great thoughts.” So you’re right, as apropos to the subject matter of the book: the minute you get realspace, you get fixed location.

    Second, as I’m on the cusp of considering writing a book myself, you’ve hit it on the head as far as whether it’s even relevant to write a hard book any longer. The truth is, I still keep paper books at my bedside. I still read them on flights. They still carry a certain mystique. And they are still currently one model of deriving revenue from producing something to add to the collective mindshare.

    Now, advertising certainly could be a replacement model, but Jakob Nielsen says we’re not looking. Affiliate sales could help, but of what? The relationship between creating virtual books (and maybe selling ebooks is the way, but do you give those the same weight in your mind as you do “real” paper books?) and producing paper books is still at stake here.

    I think this is a conversation still very much in active play. I wonder what David’s thoughts were. Why did he write a book in an age of digital mindshare?

  11. @Chris

    You’ve already written — and continue to write — a very successful “business book.” It’s called — don’t let the ego thing around paper get in the way.

  12. @Scott – but are authors still using books the way they used to? Won’t David get speaking gigs from that book that a blog author might not? I’m not sure, but that’s why I’m asking the question. As a conference organizer, I don’t care if someone’s published. I care if they’ve got exciting things to consider and if they’ll excite a crowd.

    But as me, thinking about speaking and maybe finding gigs from the things I write about, don’t you think that books are still magical? And if not, maybe you’re right. Maybe I’ve gotta pop the magic bubble.

  13. Yes, but if you’d written a book, it would have taken only one long-suffering editor to tell you that you had nothing original to say, instead of ten thousand sycophantic monkeys….

    Of course, I’m biased. I can’t use Amazon. Not after they flatly rejected any and all of my emails (even sent, in desperation, to their nominated domain administrator – who sent me a very discourteous reply) trying to warn them that the person buying stuff with my email address was using somebody else’s stolen credit card. I dare not use any company which is that laid back about fraudsters.

  14. I disagree with this post. Business books may be on the way out, but it is not only fiction and children’s sections that will continue to thrive. My local B&N and Borders stores seem to be as busy as ever – and here in NYC, there’s practically a B&N on every other block.

    Bookstores will fade away when readers fade away. That may happen. But real readers like to read books. Short articles, blogs, newspapers, those are great to read online, but books just aren’t.

  15. Business books are an easy target, as you know, Scott. They’re generally not written by talented writers, and the vast majority of them suck and have always sucked. So if they can be replaced by blogs and the like, that probably tells us more about business books than about books in general. And yet, in a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand, you seem to use business books as representative of all nonfiction books. Thus you go from dismissing the business book to asking the question: “So will fiction and children’s books be enough to keep bookstores alive?” Whoa, there. Business books represent only a tiny and fairly trivial slice of the nonfiction book world. Are you really arguing that history books, science books, current affairs books, and biographies can all be easily replaced by blogs and online conversations? Having just read a challenging, enlightening, expansive book on contemporary physics, Paul Davies’s Cosmic Jackpot, I can report that the nonfiction book continues to provide an exceedingly valuable form of human discourse, one for which no online substitute has emerged or is likely to.

    Next time you duck into a bookstore, steer clear of the business books section.

  16. @Nick

    Great to have you back! As you can see, I’ve gotten sloppy in your absence. But let me try another “rhetorical slight of hand” — if I had written this post as part of a book — categorize it however you choose — the shortcomings would have been etched in stone. You would not have been able to insert your observation, which can now expand my thinking and that of other readers.

    That said, Paul Davies undoubtedly fits into the category of book I already paid homage — albeit unnecessarily limited to business books (which you bypassed in your own rhetorical slight of hand):

    “books by truly interesting minds presenting paradigm shifting ideas have the artwork quality of fiction — they still have the power to stand on their own. Such books are rare but will probably endure longer than most [business] books”

    Just as with business books, there are mountains of crappy science books, history books, and biographies, whose topics are better addressed dynamically, collaboratively, and in interconnected fashion on the Web.

    Paul Davies is an exception that proves the rule. You yourself as a nonfiction author also represent the exception. I’d probably read Nick Carr for 200 pages on almost any topic — but most nonfiction “authors” can’t captivate the imagination for more than about 2 pages, and are probably better off doing it online where other (smarter) people can help them.

    So I agree that the “nonfiction book continues to provide an exceedingly valuable form of human discourse” — but that is only true for a relatively small number, not enough I’m afraid to prop up the book store business, anymore than childrens books.

  17. @Scott- Now, I’m just a lowly college student here at Columbia University, but Scott, dude, you’re missing something pretty important: You can’t underline an ebook, you can’t make notes on it, and I for one definitely cannot read and use an ebook at the beach, on the subway, or a work with any degree of ease. In fact, whenever my professors assign us excerpts from ebooks, I cringe. Of course, this is partially due to the infantile state of ebook technology and copyright restrictions. I am a student of political science and the amount of assigned reading is quite onerous, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to read a 50 page journal article on my laptop. I simply refuse to do it. I much prefer to print it out and then read it.

    In the words of one of my professors:
    “The total number of pages of reading required for the course is 2,943. Required readings are on reserve in Lehman Library. Books ordered in the College Bookstore and Labyrinth Books should be purchased so that you can mark them up. Students may choose instead to do all the reading in the library, but will then have a harder time taking proper notes. Students who do the reading without marking or taking notes are fools, unless they have photographic memories and superhuman capabilities for mentally organizing a complex array of concepts and historical examples.

    If readers (especially academic readers) were allowed to easily “unbundle” an ebook and print specific sections, well, I’d be enthused but I’d still need paper. But isn’t the trend in online readership toward brevity? People like reading short stuff online, and longer stuff in print, right? As far as I’m concerned, books still have a huge readability advantage over the web and will continue to for the forseeable future.

    Independent bookstores that offer no other amenities, on the other hand, well, obviously they’re gonna fare poorly in this online world. Except for used bookstores. I think the web opens up a huge market for them that was previously non-existent.

  18. Scott:

    Interesting post . . . I came across “Everything is Misc” in a Barnes and Noble bookstore a few weeks ago. This is a book that should have been rec’d to me by Amazon per my history, but wasn’t.

    Read Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things” when you have a chance — it’s a very quick read. You might rethink your future of brick and mortar as there is no reason Barnes and Noble customer “tags” won’t be available to you at point of sale via the mobile phone. Tying RFID tags to a stores inventory is the key to making this a reality.

  19. Required reading:

    For extra credit:

  20. Scott:

    Lay off the Koolaid. You’re a bit too intoxicated. You’ve totally discounted the shopping experience. Having a cup of coffee and browsing thru Amazon ain’t the same as visiting Borders.

    Have you never experienced shopping at a used book store?

    The only thing obsolescent is the worn out notion that we live in and either-or world. That is, either we shop online or we shop in a book store. A person can do both, can’t they?

    I do a lot of online shopping. But, I also know that retail (for books, clothes and more) is alive and well.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your postings.


  21. @Howard,

    Powers is indeed an exceptional media mind who addresses the issue with an extraordinary level of nuance. But I find passages like this ultimately detract from his credibility:

    “’In a time of distractibility, a paper also keeps you focused. When we go online, we may start with a news story, but then go chaotically from e-mail to stocks to Google to shopping, and then back to news. But sit with a newspaper, and you no longer are sidetracked. You’re focused on just the day’s events. There’s no ‘you have mail’ chime to interrupt you. It’s a rare sane moment in the day.’

    “Not an original thought but nicely put, and it gets at one of paper’s integral assets: By virtue of being unconnected to other media, paper sometimes
    makes it easier to concentrate on the subject at hand.

    You know the old saying that there are no dumb ideas, just dumb people? I would submit there is no such thing as a “distractable” medium, just distractable people? If I can’t focus on reviewing the days events, is that the webs fault? I can jump just as distractedly through different sections of a newspaper or book. Focus is a state of mind, not a function of the medium.

    I’ll concede that it does require focus to leverage the Web as an information medium. On paper you have one voice on a news item, issue, or topic. On the web, you have instant access to many. If the one voice you want to take that one voice as gospel, then I suppose there is an advantage to having nothing else to do by listening. But if your mind is better expanded by a range of voices, you just can’t have that in print. When I’m reviewing a news event, I value far more hearing many perspectives — focusing on each and giving it its due — than only hearing one.

    Powers’ argument is highly romantic, and appealing at that level — newspapers, magazines, and books as quasi works of art, as I stated above, do have great value. And I hope there is an economic way to support the continued creation of the value. But it’s undeniable that digital media has sucked a great deal of the pure utility value out of print media, leaving it to justify itself on more narrow grounds.

    I should also point out that after reading through Powers’ essay, I wanted to go back and quote the passage above, which had stood out in my mind. In digital form, I found it in a second. If I had been using paper, if I had failed to flag it, I would have wasted a good deal of time searching for it.

  22. Great blog, as normal!

    Gas stations used to be tied to a service garage. They found more money and less hassle in a convenience store attached instead.

    Book stores may also transform (and likely will, for there are far too many of them around today), although the need will be out of necessity, unlike the gas station which was more a luxury or a choice.

    The browsing aspect of the bookstore is indeed it’s value.
    Selling coffee is a great idea-
    Offering internet services is perhaps another (get the computers sponsored by Amazon and become one of their Affiliates!)

    But perhaps digital print services could be more in line with where this transformation could head en masse…
    Printing books on demand.

    “Book store chain and fast print, copy-shop chain merge”

    They could also specialize in selling, maintaining and loading “eDevices” and for that matter “ePaper” for POS/POP applications.

    Just a few ideas- but I do think bookstores will be around for a while to come.

  23. [...] Bookstores Begin Slow Descent Into Obsolescence – Publishing 2.0 Scott Karp suggests that business books will eventually die out because of the web (tags: SMT10 publishing) [...]

  24. No one here has mentioned the other very important service that bricks and mortar stores provide: a bookseller. I don’t mean the majority of chain store employees who could be working at any retail location for all they care, but the employees at independents, who have a greater stake in the store’s profitability and who take the time to learn about the stock (and often have done the buying) so they can guide to you to just the place you want to go.

    I think that you’re right, some genres of books will go the way of newspapers, but not all newspapers will go away, and not all genres will go away. Bookstores will change if they can afford it, although many will not be able to. Hopefully, those chain stores that sunk millions of dollars into choking out the competition won’t sink into an abyss and leave us with no stores at all.

  25. As an acquisitions editor for technology books, I disagree with you.

    We will live in a world where both online and physical bookstores both hold a place. The fun in visiting a bookstore is browsing and the discovery factor. The great thing about online bookstores is search capabilities and the ability to locate those hard to categorize titles–of which Everything is Miscellaneous belongs too.

    I acquire books that sell better in physical bookstores (impulse–oh, I’ve been meaning to learn about that)–and those that only sell on places like Amazon (someone said I needed this book, I know the title and I’m here to buy it).

  26. [...] to Comments I’m a big fan of Scott Karp’s journalism blog, Publishing 2.0, but I think his post about bookstores earlier this week missed the [...]

  27. [...] Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 seems to think so: I think we will see the death of the business book in the same time frame as the death of the newspaper. Not this year. Not next year. Maybe not for ten years. But it will happen. The Web is a far more efficient medium for this type of information, and that it will kill off this static, packaged format is only a matter of time. (How many business books have you read that seemed to be exercise in repetition and restatement to achieve the requisite physical thickness?) [...]

  28. Bookstores will always be useful because although you can get a lot of information on the web, if you really want to get some AUTHORITATIVE info, you have to get it out of a book. Try using some info in a debate on a political forum and you’ll see it won’t get very far. A quote from Wikipedia has little credibility, since anyone can put the information into there. The web is useful to help give you a picture of whatever information you are looking up, however if you want to truly gain knowledge that is likely true (and not just put on the web by a random person, you ultimately have to turn to a bookstore.


  29. Scott, your prediction about the demise of the business book is unsettling for an author who’s debut book, a business book, is coming out next April.

    And yet, I’m afraid, you may be right. From the time that I began my 7 chapter book, I had to rewrite chapter 5 countless times to keep it up to date. I finally scrapped most of that chapter and focused on things that will always be true, and are still, at least for the time being, original.
    My favourite bookstores are used bookstores, ones with pine bookshelves and little nooks, and where many books costs less than a cup of coffee at the new bookstores.
    Great article.
    Author, Step Into The Spotlight!–‘Cause ALL Business is Show Business!

  30. [...] Bookstores Losing Their Purpose? (tags: books media internet retail research reading catalog) [...]

  31. [...] physical bookstores, and hard copy books will be a thing of the past.  Don’t believe me?  Read this. Or this. Or even [...]

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