In the early 90s, Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores were popping up everywhere. I was young, so I don’t really know what it was like to see that happening. But there must have been a lot of people who said to their friends at dinner parties and such, There’s no way you’ll ever catch me step foot in one of those stores. And they stayed loyal to the owner of the bookstore down the street who had character and a unique business model. Occasionally they would travel away from home and, for lack of other options, they’d go into a chain store and perhaps purchase a book to read on the flight back home, promising over and over to themselves that for every book purchased at a chain store, they’d purchase ten at their local indie. And they would follow through on that. Not a mile away from where they lived there would be a Barnes & Noble or a Borders, where the selection was bigger and the prices a little cheaper, but they would not stray. It became second nature, and they passed it on.
Readers like the ones I’m describing understand this one simple concept: no matter where you buy the book from, the content within the book will not change; your purchase, however, will have an impact on the business that you’re buying it from and the people who run the business.
Google and Amazon are picking up where Barnes & Noble and Borders have left off. Monday and Tuesday of last week saw some of the biggest headlines in years concerning publishing: the introduction of Google’s eBookstore, and an announcement about the launch of Kindle for the Web. To sum each of these up briefly, the eBookstore will allow you to read ebooks purchased through Google using your Google account anywhere you have Internet access; Kindle for the Web will pretty much offer the same features, except you won’t have to download or install the books, you can just read them right through your web browser. There also came an announcement on Tuesday from OR Books, an indie publishing company that offers their titles in ebook form and POD, that they will now be teaming up with bookstores to offer their ebooks through the bookstores’ websites, starting with St. Mark’s Bookshop on the Lower East Side.
After reading about all of these updates, I took some time to consider how all of this would affect books, booksellers, publishers, printers, libraries, readers. I was thinking how great it was that Google arranged for indie bookstores to sell ebooks through the eBookstore; how crowded the book selling stage will be now that Kindle for the Web’s prized centerpiece is the concept that “Every Website can Now be a Bookstore”; how much I’m pulling for OR Books, the little guy in this very big fight. In my head I was getting pretty worked up about what this was all going to mean to all of us in a year, two years, a decade — who was going to still be here, who was going to step up and take the reigns, and who would be phased out. I think it’s important to think about.
But getting down to it, what I wanted to understand was how this would affect us as book buyers. Not surprisingly, this didn’t take very much deep contemplation at all because the conclusion was an obvious one. I concluded that, much like those loyal indie consumers in the early 90s who chose not to support the mega chains, conscious buyers today will continue to purchase their books from the people and entities that most resemble a model that buyers can find common ground with. Today, the guy who owns the bookstore down the street from you also shops at the same grocery store as you; next year, we’ll want to support the same guy, or same type of guy, even if he’s only selling his books online or only selling books POD. Like our counterparts from the 90s, this should, and has, become second nature to us.
The main difference between how readers used to buy books, how they buy books now, and how they will buy books tomorrow and onward, is the method through which they make their purchases. Bookstores, online stores, websites, apps, and whatever else comes along in the approaching years will constantly be jockeying for sales, and as conscious consumers of literature, we’ll need to pay attention to which options are most aligned with the way we buy books today if we want to continue to support the same and comparable institutions tomorrow. If Google is looking out for the brick-and-mortar indies now and allowing them to make a profit by selling ebooks through the eBookstore on their websites, then that’s probably something I’m going to invest in whenever I have an urge to read an ebook. But as soon as I see the negatives of purchasing through this method outweighing the positives, I won’t even think twice about making a change. If I find that I can support a friend’s dire financial situation by purchasing ebooks through the Kindle widget on his blog, I’ll be happy to help out. But if I find a way in which Amazon is taking advantage of his services, I’ll explain to him why he needs to rid of the Kindle widget, even if it’ll mean that he won’t have that real soft toilet paper or hot water for a month.
What’s important here is integrity. Up until this point, we’ve found ways to help the little guy out, and there’s no reason why that should change. As OR Books has proven, even when Google and Amazon are throwing their weight and money around, there will always be the alternatives, people and entities we can be proud to support. They won’t be ubiquitous like Google or Amazon, which means we’ll often have to seek them out, but our community is tight, and surely we’ll all keep each other in the loop. The indies are counting on us to do so.