Seven Unforseen Consequences on the Digitization of Books

Seven Unforeseen Consequences of the Digitization of Books

Posted on February 4, 2011
Filed Under Deep Thoughts | 1 Comment

When President Dwight David Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, he had no idea what the consequences to this country would be.  President Eisenhower’s main concern was, of course national defense.  He had seen the Autobahns in Germany.  And he strongly believed that in the event of an attack, a well-constructed, fully coordinated highway system would be essential.  Perhaps he could have envisioned the increase in city to city car travel.  He might even have imagined the explosion of construction of Howard Johnson’s in the nineteen-sixties.  But there is no way he could have ever envisioned how that bill would change America forever.  No one did.  No one foresaw how it would effectively suburbanize The United States–creating the massive sprawls that now define it.

In today’s book publishing world, there is no general-turned-president flicking the switch.  But the transformation it is about to go through is momentous.  By now, you’ve probably read the news that e-editions have overtaken paperbacks at Amazon. The process of digitizing books is still fairly new.  But books–old fashioned books, the kind you put on your bookshelf, the kind that are made of paper–have already lost the war. We will never know what the old General would have made of that.  And no one can see into the future.  Nevertheless, here are my predictions:

Seven Unforeseen Consequences of the Digitization of Books:

  1. No more shopping mall bookstores.  Okay, I’m starting with the easy one.  The chains have already pretty much telegraphed their intentions on this. Leases are coming up and they are not getting renewed. Surprise. My only comment:  these hideous malls will be just a little bit less interesting. But at least we’ll still have Spencer’s Gifts.

  2. No more superstores. You’ve already seen this happen at your local superstore.  Books are being moved out and replaced by games, toys, etc. It’s not that these items move quickly, it’s just that it’s possible a few of them might move at all.  If they could, their owners would love to shrink these superstores down to a realistic size.  When they were built they were a revelation:  huge, with special sections for Gay and Lesbian Lit among others.  Now they are an anachronism.

  3. No more college bookstores.  Remember your bookstore at college?  If you’re like me, you didn’t just use it for books and stationary.  I blew into there with some serious munchies.  My college bookstore was where I first discovered Caramellos–those huge chocolate bars with the liquid caramel in the center.  But college bookstores will soon become an anachronism.  The kids will have everything  on their devices.  Everything but the chocolate.

  4. Superbestsellers.  Yes, you read that word right.  I am officially coining it like Andy did with ‘Superstar’.  The instant availability of books–in multiple formats–will benefit the top best-selling authors hugely.  Remember the stores that stayed open late for the Harry Potter books and more recently the Stephanie Meyers books?  Now it will be instant, world-wide.  Can you say, “Ka ching”?

  5. No more out-of-print books.  I would love to report that all the quality out-of-print titles–queer and otherwise–will instantly become available in e-editions.  Nope.  It will still require some resources to publish them–even digitally.  But the possibilities are seemingly endless.  Plus, upcoming titles will find it much easier to stay “in print”–if only digitally.

  6. The end of the hardcover book–as we know it.  Some of my friends were surprised to see George W. Bush’s Decision Points top the bestseller lists.  I wasn’t.  Presidential memoirs almost always sell well. What was much more interesting to me was the fact that Mr. Bush’s Deluxe Limited Edition signed Decision Points also made the bestseller lists.  This is particularly interesting because the retail price for it is $249.00.  No the hardcover book is not dead.  But the hardcover book that we used to know is finally dying its long slow death.  That was the hardcover book that no one really wanted to buy because it was expensive and over-sized and had hard corners.  No one seemed to buy that hardcover book because of its format.  We bought it because it came first.  It was what was available for maybe a year before that lighter and less expensive edition finally came out.  The e-editions will be available instantly.  And priced at a level close to the trade paperback.

  7. The surprising survival of the independent bookstore.  They’ve been written off a few times before, but the small, independent bookstore is probably the most likely to survive the major upheaval that is only now beginning.  They are flexible and have the potential to be the most imaginative.  A recent cartoon in the Christian Science Monitor pictured a store front with a sign on it that read:  ”E-Book Boutique…Formerly an Independent Bookstore.” I’m not sure I got the joke.  But it does strike me that the bookstores of the future will be hybrids–perhaps selling as many accessories as books.  And of course there is always coffee.  Finally, I would like to mention one of my favorite bookstores, Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia.  This landmark queer bookstore has seen its share of bad times lately.  One of its walls had deteriorated so badly, that it had to be replaced.  That was the really bad news.  But the good news is that the bookstore’s owner has been able to raise a lot of money to save this beloved bookstore.  More funds are needed of course.  But the headline is that the community is working to keep this bookstore alive.  Which brings me to an open question:  Might there come a time when bookstores become non-profit institutions?  A time when donations to them would be tax exempt? More on that later.

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