July 24, 2011

The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book. (the identity crisis in American Bookselling)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 10:28 pm

I have a confession to make.  I know I’m not supposed to say it out loud, but who am I kidding?  Everyone knows the world as we know it ends and is reborn weekly.  Daily sometimes.  I have to admit I’m scared for my industry’s future.  Scratch that.  If I’m really honest, I’m scared of my place in my industry’s future.

When my dad died I was 23 years old.  I left the intensive care unit that night and went straight to the bar.  I wanted to slow down the minutes that he didn’t live to see, as if slowing it down would let him jump back on and not miss something.  But time ground its boots into my plans.  I woke up the next day aware that it wasn’t a morning he would see.  There was the breakfast he wouldn’t eat.  The walk he wouldn’t take.  I kept living in spite of myself.

I won’t pretend that the demise of Borders this past week was like losing my father, except for to say that my bookstore’s relationship to it was as complicated as my relationship with my dad, and its death looms as large in my bookstore’s life as dad’s death loomed in mine.  It foreshadows an uncertain and wildly different future in which the holes left will not be apparent until I stumble into them as we keep living.

But we do keep living.

We take our uncertain steps into our next day and next week deeply aware that it’s not a day that is shared with 11,000 booksellers who lost their jobs.

Another struggle here is the fear that we other booksellers have of dying of the same disease Borders did – the combination of the Amazon parasite, a changing industry and mismanagement.  While management is controllable, Amazon’s tax evasion and the hype about e-books are not in our control.  Independent stores must learn to reinvent ourselves as the world around us reinvents itself, and we must be fierce in our advocacy for our lives and our tradition.

The publishing industry has been taken over by people who don’t understand its nature.  Books cannot be expected to produce blockbuster sales the way movies and music can, yet the major publishing houses hack away at Harry Potter and Twilight knock-offs in hopes that they can cash in, wasting money and time that could be used to cultivate and grow new talent.  Writing careers take years to grow.  It’s not the lottery.   It’s a long, slow burn.  There are few superstar writers, and the thrill of discovering new writers has diminished with the glut of mediocrity that came with pay to play publishing.

The challenge for bookstores like mine – and for publishing in general-  is to re-imagine who we are and what our role is.  The bloated business model of Borders and massive media giant publishing led by millionaires like Rupert Murdoch is past its time.  For those who care about the health of the reading and writing community we must evolve into focused, realistic curators of literature, whether that literature is displayed on a page or an e-reader.

Humans will always need stories and people to tell them.  We will always need some quiet time to read and be alone with our thoughts.  We will always need someone and somewhere to talk about those stories after we’ve read them.  We will always need bookstores.

The way forward is quiet, unsexy and difficult.  It will involve some failure.  It will involve fear.  It will be uncertain and terrifying.  And it will be ours.



  1. I look forward to traveling the way forward with you. It is less scary with company.
    And in California we are trying to force payment of sales tax by the Evil Empire that is Amazon.

    Comment by terrykoch — July 26, 2011 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  2. Well-said. Amen to that!

    Comment by Joanne — July 29, 2011 @ 9:20 am | Reply

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