Thursday, December 30, 2010

E-books: Lining my pockets with the death of a friend

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into a local Barnes and Noble and froze. I looked around, took a few steps back, and looked around again. Was I in the wrong store? Maybe I strolled into the AT&T store by mistake. In front of me was a huge aisle full of kiosks. They could have been cell phones. But no. They were Nooks. To the right of the Nook kiosks, where the computer, travel, and business books used to be, were aisles and aisles of electronics – adapters, battery chargers, headphones, electronic accessories. I stood staring for longer than natural, blood draining from my face. They killed my bookstore.
“What happened?” I managed to squeak out to the nearest B&N employee. He pursed his lips, looking just as unpleased with the new arrangement.
“This is how we stay in business, to keep up with the online bookstores.”
Online bookstores. I spend an average of a hundred dollars a month at online bookstores. They’re convenient, that’s true. But nothing can replace a real brick and mortar building full of books. Books made of paper. There’s a smell, a feel, a sense of homage. I make a point to visit them often, usually walking away with a handful of best sellers or informative nonfiction.
This particular Barnes and Noble, which I’ve been visiting for the past six years despite their complicated parking lot, does not smell like books. It smells like plastic. Regaining my composure, I remembered that I was there for a specific reason. I needed a best selling book that my son asked for, for Christmas. There were five books in the series and I already bought 1, 2, 3, and 5. I needed book 4. I made my way to the young adult section and located the author’s shelf. There was one each of all the books I already had. Naturally book 4 was missing. I march over to the customer service desk and ask them to look it up.
“Looks like that one is still in hard cover,” the store clerk says, empathetically. “We won’t restock until it comes out in paperback.”
“But it’s a best seller,” I argue. “Why wouldn’t you restock a best seller if it’s selling so well?”
“We don’t have enough room on our shelves to keep them stocked.”
I look incredulously from the clerk to the electronics ensemble behind me. He nods gravely and tells me that he can’t order the book for the store, but I can order it online and would probably have to pay for express shipping since it was so close to Christmas. I think about the logic in this. I already got into my car and drove out to the store so I wouldn’t have to wait or pay for shipping. The store is too busy building a Nook empire to keep a best selling real live paper book and suggests that I go all the way home, get online (which is what is killing the store to begin with), and pay extra to have the book shipped in two days. I ended up buying the book at Borders.
I am conflicted about electronic reading. As a reader, the idea of plastic devices replacing the warm papery comfort of a real book is devastating. I want to rebel, start a Kindle burning (ha ha), stand in front of Nook/Kindle manufacturers with a picket sign. As an author, however, I must embrace it. Kindle and e-books are lining my pockets. Physical book sales are pretty low compared to the consumption of e-books. I am just as guilty for contributing to the death of the paperback. If you think about it sensibly, storing hundreds of books in one small device is great idea. And I think that Barnes and Noble is smart to keep up with the modern electronic age. They made the decision to sacrifice printed stock for profit. How am I any different?
But my inner bibliophile is wounded. I fear that one day when I am old and can’t defend myself, my home library will be converted back into a dining room and my descendents will build a book mausoleum in the backyard. I shall mourn in advance.