Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University. It’s been a blast so far. My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture. More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.
Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers. I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.” In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.
One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading. Really, it’s an oligarchy. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States. And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies. Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.
Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away. But these booksellers have it backward. The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are. How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?
The first thing they need to do is, Terrarium paradoxically, to cease acting independently. Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online. I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding. Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete. Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.
Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly. So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats. Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library. Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! — one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.
What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic. Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism. The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller. In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures. That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them. The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.
How do you make it work, financially? The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect. Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books. It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway. So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē. Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.
There you have it. Will the Indies run with it? Or will all of the students enrolled in my next “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?