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 The bookstore has been replaced by the Web as the place of wonder, and there’s no turning back.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).

  • 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!

  • 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.


  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

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