Here’s the thing, we can all talk until we’re blue in face about ebooks, bookstores, publishers, writers, et al (a point some would say we already reached sometime in early 2012) but none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that matters is the value proposition offered to us and how that informs the choices people make. Everything else is bluster. Worse yet, it’s meaningless bluster that far too frequently merges with wish fulfillment of the person doing the blustering. “Ebooks are dying.” “Bookstores are crucial to the future.” “Writers need publishers to be the best they can be.” And my personal favorite of wishful thinking bullshit, “Amazon is evil.” None of those things are true. They also aren’t necessarily false in all situations. It depends on the context in which those lines are parsed. And that context depends entirely on the value proposition to the individual.
Twenty five years ago, if I wanted a new book, I had a few choices. There was the library (a brick and mortar bookstore that’s basically free for readers), used bookstores (brick and mortar store that’s cheap but whose offerings are dependent on readers getting rid of their old books), rotating racks of best sellers in retail stores (having little to do with book discovery and everything to do with pushing already known entities to impulse buyers) or bookstores themselves (who offered the best selection and knowledge about books available at the time).
In that environment, the value proposition to readers was on the side of bookstores. The time, effort and extra money necessary to patronize a bookstore was a fair trade off for what we got in return; a wider selection of books to choose from. Today, however, that value has flipped on them. Bookstores, with their real world physical constraints, inherently offer a limited selection of books. Online, however, has no such trouble. Online, you can find and buy every book. All of them. So now, bookstores have gone from having the best selection of books available to having a limited subsection of books. I know it’s frustrating because they haven’t really changed. The environment they operate in has shifted beneath them. What was once their greatest strength has now become a weakness to overcome through no fault of their own. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a weakness.
With ebooks, online print book sales and rapidly approaching explosion of print on demand technology, the value proposition to readers of frequenting bookstores is a problem. When they had the best selection and a knowledgeable staff that wasn’t easily reproducible, we thought nothing of the outlay in time and effort to shop there. We didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars on the price of a book to support their infrastructure when they provided a service that we valued. Today, though, shopping at physical bookstores requires readers to sacrifice. We need to give up our time and effort to get there, then pay those extra few dollars for the privilege of shopping in a limited pool of material. We need to choose to give up value available to us in order to use bookstores. I can find any book I want online, without the premium price they need to pay the rent and employee salaries, without ever leaving my couch. Hang on a second…there, I just did some book shopping, bought a book and now it’s open to chapter one in another window on my smartphone in slightly more time than it took me to type those ellipses. But only slightly.
When the value proposition changes from one where I pay out because you bring me value to one where I pay out to bring you value, that’s not going to end well for you. You can discuss bookstores’ place in literary history and culture all day long, it doesn’t change the simple fact that the value you once earned your coin with simply ain’t what it used to be.
This applies to the publisher/writer dynamic as well. Twenty five years ago, if I wanted to be a published writer, I had to go through the slow slog of querying agents, editors or whomever, piling up rejection after rejection until I get lucky enough to be offered a contract that paid me pennies on the dollar from the revenue my work generated. Not only did writers accept this, we fetishized it to the point where there are still writers who have inexplicably fond memories of taping rejection letters to their bulletin boards. The fact was, if I wanted to be published, that’s what I had to do. The value proposition of going through that crucible was worth it because it was the only way to reach the goals we wanted. Today, though, I can write, format, and offer a book for sale to anyone with an Internet connection without so much as saying hello to an agent or publisher and be selling books tomorrow. The value proposition of the publishing industry gatekeeper-rejection logjam has been gutted. The time, effort and low pay you offered to get published seems vaguely insane now that getting published and selling books at much higher compensation rates is as simple as clicking a button. Publishers, like bookstores, didn’t change, the circumstances around them changed through no fault of their own. In fact, it’s changed and is still changing despite their concerted efforts to fight those changes. Pissing into the wind may be a popular corporate response when social behavior shifts leave them behind, but that doesn’t make it an effective response. It only makes your pants wet. And smelly.
Publishers and bookstores carefully crafted the value they brought over decades, some would say centuries. It does seem a bit unfair to people who have dedicated their lives to those ends to see that value knee-capped in less than 10 years. But that’s life. Sometimes, the things we value are life-long, sometimes they only last a matter of days or weeks. The thing is, you can never really tell when that value is going to vanish. And once that happens, you have to look toward the value you actually possess today and going forward.
When you hear people talk of the role of bookstores and their value to society, ask yourself, are they referring to the value they offer right this moment or the value they offered a quarter-century ago? Same with publishers. Is what they do today valuable or are they still treading on what they did that was valuable two or three decades ago? It doesn’t matter that Borders had a great selection of books that made people happy to shop there in 1995. They’re bankrupt and gone now, not coming back. It doesn’t matter that publishers frame themselves as great curators of the written word because of their gatekeeping of the past. Their gates have been kicked down and trampled into the dirt.
What matters is that when I want to buy a book as a reader or publish a book as a writer, what I’m willing to put up with to do so. That’s the value proposition you offer us and, increasingly, it’s one that isn’t trending in a direction that’s helpful to past paradigms or the dominant businesses that profited from them.
Take a long, hard look at what people value today and what they’re willing to do to acquire that value. That’s where the path to the future rests. Reminiscing about the value people appreciated in a different time and a different place, and doubling down on nostalgia isn’t going to fend off the bankruptcy judge for very long.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron