Publishers Corner: Part of a Painfully Dying Breed?

Guest post by Kathryn Jenkins, Managing Editor, Covenant Communications

In the six years I’ve been managing editor at Covenant, there have been seismic changes in the publishing industry. According to a survey from Pew, in just the six months ending in May 2011, dedicated e-reader ownership doubled. You read that right: it doubled.

You should know this about me: I don’t own a dedicated e-reader. And I don’t think I ever will. For me, an undeniable part of the joy of reading is feeling the heft of the book in my hands. Fanning the pages with my thumb. Nimbly wedging the bookmark—be it the sterling silver beauty I brought back from England or a subscription card that fell out of an old issue of People—at the precise spot where I’ll begin reading again tomorrow.

I love seeing the stack of books on the table next to my comfy reading chair. It reminds me anew of all the adventures awaiting me. It’s a delicious repast where I can browse to my hearts’ content. For me, the brilliant covers and deckled edges and the very slightest scent of ink contribute to the true sensuality of a good book.

I don’t know. To me, there’s just something sick and wrong about curling up in front of the fireplace with a good . . . Nook.

But the elation attached to my burgeoning bookshelves is accompanied by the brooding realization that I may be part of a painfully dying breed. Because while I get my new reads in the brick-and-mortar bookstore down the street, all those e-reader owners simply click a few links online and download the latest bestseller in a few seconds flat.

Not even the thrill of searching for a parking spot.

In case that sounds too fantastic to be true, consider Amazon’s avowed corporate goal: to have “every book, ever published, in any language, in print or out of print, available to be downloaded to one of its Kindle e-readers in less than 60 seconds anywhere in the world.”

See? What did I tell you? A few seconds flat.

And that’s a lot of what’s behind the seismic shift in the publishing industry. Because all those new e-reader owners have gone on a buying spree to load their devices with everything they’ve ever wanted to read—all at a price that staggers the mind. The result? E-books became the number-one selling format in February for the first time in history. And there’s no sign it will slow down any time soon.

The same trend that has escalated e-books to their new spot in the record books has totally hammered print books. While print books in all categories other than religious books have suffered abysmal declines in the last year, e-book growth has exploded by a stunning 160 percent in the same period.

That’s not all. There’s a ripple effect that directly impacts the brick-and-mortar down the street. Both chains and independent bookstores are struggling to keep their heads above water, and many are simply giving up, while online sites offering e-books are enjoying phenomenal growth. But wait—folks aren’t just buying e-books online. They’ve started buying the majority of print books online, too. Which sounds the death knell for the brick-and-mortar.

It hurts my heart. That’s all.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we at Covenant are working hard to convert our sizable library—past and present—to e-book format. We’ve hired a team of technologically adept whiz kids who spend all day inserting the appropriate codes. Our marketing team is hustling with the best of them to get those e-books on the best sites. I support that effort. I truly do. And I rejoice that Covenant is making a keen effort to be on the cutting edge. We owe that to our incredibly talented pool of authors.

That’s my corporate face.

Privately, though, I admit it: I am a dying breed. There’s something so rich about walking through the doors of the bookstore—seeing the racks of the latest magazines, being wrapped in the aroma of baked goods and coffee, checking out the display of this week’s bestsellers, and browsing the shelves while the world rushes by outside. Though I doubt it, I may someday be dragged kicking and screaming to the dark side, turning the pages of my favorite novel with a tap of my finger on a cold screen—but in my mind’s eye I imagine the slack-jawed amazement of my grandchildren as they survey the goods on the shelves lining my walls. My library may become almost a museum of sorts.

Even more, I relish the vision of settling into my comfy reading chair with a thrilling book in my hands and a dark-eyed grandbaby in my lap—letting him experience the glee of turning the pages while I read to him the words that dance so merrily across them.

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16 Responses to Publishers Corner: Part of a Painfully Dying Breed?

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’ve got a Kindle and I once swore I wouldn’t. Love it. But this week I wanted to browse titles and went to Amazon’s Kindle bookstore and couldn’t find a way to tap into a specific kind of book. You know, where do I “go” to search lit fic titles? or whatever. I found the experience unbelievably frustrating and “left” empty-handed. Or empty-kindled. Here I’d haled how quickly I could access a book I wanted, only to discover if I didn’t know what book I wanted, well, I’d likely never find a book to satisfy me. Oh bother.

  2. Chris Bigelow says:

    Yeah, I buy all my books online now, both print and e-book (and at a much faster rate than I could ever actually READ them). I go totally by online news and opinions about books, from the NY Times Book Review on down to blogs and AML-List. The days of physical browsing are long gone for me. I sorta miss it, but not really, since I don’t like to shop in person for much of anything…

  3. James Goldberg says:

    Kathryn,

    My seven-year-old daughter cried and cried about Borders closing. That may be atypical, but she probably is typical of children in loving the physicality of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store, and in loving the community of seeing other physical people at storytime and then, maybe, getting to see the same people again. To a certain extent, libraries will continue to feel the physical, social niche for children and some adults. But the stores are already missed.

    Then again: I’m planning to self-publish my Mormon plays as E-books because, let’s be honest–no Mormon publisher will touch plays, especially plays by an unknown writer in his 20s. So I’m glad when people get E-readers in the hopes that it makes it easier for me, as a writer, to connect niche work with a niche audience.

    • Kathy Jenkins says:

      James, you’re absolutely right about plays . . . and dinosaur that I am, I absolutely realize the need for digital works and the readers that display them. I simply wanted to mourn, as one of my friends calls it, “the romance of a good book.” Your daughter is very astute . . . the stores WILL be missed. Good luck with your play!

  4. Heather Marx says:

    I’m with you about the pleasure and utility of paper books. But I’ve had a Kindle for a couple years now, and it also boasts some lovely features. One thing I like is that many books, and certainly many scholarly or other books whose obscurity would not usually merit a commercial voice recording, can be turned into instant audiobooks. Yes, the voice synthesizer drones and gets words wrong, but it’s marvelous to have the choice to read the book or hear it at any given time. (I remember doing a craft project one weekend to the audiobooked Madame Bovary. Productive, yet gorgeously depressing.) For me, it was an audio version of your comfy reading chair.

    • Kathy Jenkins says:

      I think the best part of all this is that everyone has options! A dear friend contacted me after reading my guest blog and pointed out that due to some very serious physical problems, she can no longer get to the bookstore–and not only that, but it physically hurts her to hold books (especially big ones). E-readers have enabled her to keep reading, even the “big books,” which is so important to her. My chosen option is still the printed book . . . and I’m glad I still have that option, while my friend–and lots and lots of others–have the option they want!

  5. C. M. Malm says:

    I went on at length a couple of weeks ago about how I feel about e-books, so I won’t bore everyone again. But I’m not sure that reading bound paper books is dying quite as quickly as Kathryn fears.

    There are an awful lot of existing bound books, for one thing, and bound books don’t degrade all that rapidly unless they’re badly mistreated. Then there’s the fact that e-readers/e-books are not priced remotely low enough to compete with the used book market. Even assuming that all readers would like to convert their existing libraries to digital archives, many readers won’t be able to afford to make that conversion, and there are countless beloved old books on people’s shelves for which no electronic copy exists (nor is ever likely to).

    Perhaps when e-readers have become so ubiquitous that most children have never actually held a bound book in their hands, and the contents of books that haven’t been converted to digital format have been as thoroughly relegated to the past as most of the contents of medieval manuscripts, we’ll have reached the day that Kathryn dreads. I don’t expect that to occur at any point in my lifetime or my children’s lifetimes.

  6. Luone says:

    Kathy,

    Wonderful post and very well said. I guess I’m the oddball who lives somewhere in between – I have a Nook, and I love that for travel and vacations for a variety of reasons. One, with the cost of bags and the weight limits, I can carry a variety of books with me without losing space in my suitcase. I can also see a book I like in a bookstore at the airport and add it without adding to my physical load, get a book I may have forgotten to bring with me, or even borrow one from a friend, with very little effort – all downloaded in a few seconds flat. Should I not know the meaning of a word, all I have to do is highlight it and with a couple of taps it is provided. I also use the e-reader format on my smart phone, allowing me to have read (since utilizing that application) numerous books – classics and current best sellers, old favorites and new discoveries – that I would have been unable to read “on the go” as I can now.

    I also enjoy audio books that I can listen to as I drive, work around the house and garden, or work out, playing on my CD player or my iPod.

    That said, I probably have more books in my home than a small library. I grew up in a house with so many books my mother once wanted us to organize and label them with the Dewey Decimal System! I still have some of those well read and well loved books: The Oz books, lovingly carried in a large stack up to my room when I was sick so I could read through them while lying in my bed; the Nancy Drew series; the Chronicles of Narnia. And I have added to those: The Series of Unfortunate Events; the Harry Potter books; Dr. Seuss; multitudes of children’s books which I truly loved reading to my children, and will save to read to their children someday. I honestly can’t even imagine sitting down with a grandchild on my lap and holding my Nook or a smartphone in front of me and reading that to them. I love the pictures! The Pages! The Colors! The heft of the book and the feel of the paper while turning the large illustrated pages as a little one discovers the wonders of a new story, or listens to their favorite for the 100th time. Pointing to the words, touching the pages, and discussing the pictures. I pray that experience won’t be lost for future generations. (Your closing paragraph says it brilliantly!)

    I, too, mourn the demise of Borders. It has been my favorite place to go and search and get lost in the aisles of books, finding anything from something funny to something profound to something in which I can just escape. I am grateful that there are still other brick and mortar stores around, and truly hope they never go away. As Lisa said, above, if you don’t know what you want, you could spend a lot of time on a website searching and you’d likely never find a choice that makes you happy. Whereas I rarely go into a bookstore and come out with only what I went in for!

    In the end, there’s nothing like my comfy chair, my feet up, a cuppa something to sip on, perhaps a dog snuggled up beside me, and good book to read. It could be an audio book on the player close by, it could be my Nook or phone, but it will more often be a lovely book in my hands with a beautifully illustrated book jacket and many deckled edges to flip through. Ah, joy!

    • Kathy Jenkins says:

      Well said, all around, Luone! With this, as with so much else, Joni Mitchell had it right: “something’s lost, but something’s gained. . . .”

  7. Trent Bowen says:

    Books will never go completely away but they will not be as big as they once were. I actually get a lot of books for free by going to http://www.gutenberg.org and downloading free out of print books that have lost their copyrights. But for the most part anything new I still prefer the touch and feel of a real book.

    Jorge Luis Borges once said that “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

    Good luck!

  8. What I wonder is, are e books mainly taking away from the already-book-buying audience, or is there a new contingency of consumers buying books now, who are attracted by the ease and format and other factors(like avoiding the shame of having a certain cover displayed?) I am a book addict. Like any addict, the sensory experiences surrounding the object of my obsession (print smell, paper, turning pages) is an important part of my experience. And as a writer…well, there is something inarguably great about the idea of having my story on the shelf of a bookstore,.shoved in against other authors I admire. But if it is actually getting more people reading, maybe there is something in that, too.

    • Kathy Jenkins says:

      Good point, Sarah. In my blubbering sadness over the potential demise of the printed book in so many people’s lives, I hadn’t even stopped to consider that a whole new group of people might be turned on to reading because they can get it in a different format. To repeat what I said in response to Luone, “something’s lost but something’s gained” (with credits to Joni Mitchell).

  9. What a great post! Yes, I’m one of those book addicts too. I literally grew up in a printing plant and have devoted my life to the writing, production and selling of books, so I too have mourned what seems to be a loss to technology. However, as I’ve watched my own children embrace the new gadgets, I’ve been pleased to see that they have not forsaken the printed page, merely added to it. One son-in-law reads the old classics from his Kindle while running (training for a marathon), yet their home is filled with printed books as well. One thing I really do mourn, however, is the demise of the independent bookstore. You know, the place where the owner works at the cash register and the staff members know you by name and by what you like to read, often ordering books they think you might like before you’ve even asked. There are still a few of these small stores in out-of-the-way places. I love to seek them out in my travels and get lost in their narrow aisles and eclectic collections. But they are becoming harder and harder to find, though used bookstores (and used book sections in thrift stores) still seem to be extant.

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