How often does someone ask, “What do you want first, the good news or bad?” What do you want to discuss first about how publishing gets a book to you? Good short-term receipts – or long-term angst?
Recently, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) announced that trade book sales in 2012 rose 7 percent to $15 billion. E-book sales increased by 45 per cent to total 20 percent of the trade book market. Since self-published and micropublished books are excluded, each figure may actually understate the growth.
An elementary schooler learns that “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” You can’t tell publishing health by E-book success. Its strongest growth is adult fiction, especially romance novels, a dubious foundation on which to build. Moreover, said BISG, “the growth in trade book sales occurred despite the loss of numerous brick-and-mortar stores in 2012.”
Historically, book stores have been publishing’s window on the world. Last year on-line revenue surged 21 percent to $6.9 billion v. physical retailers’ 7 percent fall to $7.5 billion. “It’s always dangerous to make predictions,” said Yogi Berra, “especially about the future.” It seems safe to say that on-line is not about to get out of Dodge.
From E-books, we get mobility – also, surveys show, less material retained by the reader’s mind than that read on the printed page. From on-line, we get mobility and convenience of selection. What we lose is tangible yet incalculable – a Main Street for browsers and buyers to sample and evaluate – pilgrims, drawn to the local Lourdes.
A decade ago, they bemoaned the loss of independent stores sans resources to rival corporate big-wigs. Now the biggies themselves are going or gone. Waldenbooks was liquidated in 2011. Peaking at 798 stores, B. Dalton’s died in 2010. In 2003, the Borders chain had 1,249 stores. Eight years later, going bankrupt, it closed the last 399 locations.
Barnes & Noble had 726 stores in 2008. It plans to keep closing about 20 locations a year till – when? We – the reader – will decide. A recent letter to the The Wall Street Journal editor from Elk Grove, Illinois, said: “I love book stores. The loss of Barnes & Noble would be catastrophic to bibliophiles.” Below, villains who should be read the riot act:
Culture’s toxic waste lies all around, deviancing- and dumbing-down. A National Endowment for the Arts study says the typical 15-to-24 year old averages seven weekday minutes on voluntary reading. Reading is felt uncool: too thoughtful, too untrashy. “As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well,” says the report. They also buy fewer books.
Another villain is you and me, for letting our children think that high-tech means deep-thought. A cell phone can’t replace Cooper. An iPod can’t re-create Lewis and Clark. A Nation not reading has no reason to buy books. Segue, say, to 2033. Picture mind-numbed adults who can text message but not think. Why will they not regard the book store as disposable as a diaper?
Our public school system has tanked since character and discipline yielded to caprice and trend. Many educators obsess on ephemera like multicultural training and rainbow studies — as shallow as a spoon. Instead, they should teach scholarship, citizenship, and above all, history, our goal, as Lewis Mumford said of John F. Kennedy, to give “literature … a place of dignity and honor in our national life.”
Nothing is said to be irreplaceable. With book stores an endangered species, Barnes & Noble comes close. It helps create a climate of curiosity, self-improvement, knowledge, and self-knowledge – a meeting place for the written word.
The American book store is older than the Republic. Like a mind, it would be a terrible thing to waste.
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