Hue and Cry: The (De)evolution of Books

Santafe.com - July 29, 2011

"That challenge today is that more and more prose writers (publishers and authors alike) sell words on a screen..."

I never thought I’d be writing about this, but the passing of Borders Bookstores got me reminiscing. (I know this blog is Script and Screen, but with books now on screen, this fits loosely in my paradigm). A long time ago, in a world long gone and far away, my then girlfriend worked for Ingram Book Company (the largest book wholesalers in the world). She helped set up book stores across North America by working with them on their book orders and other stock for their stores. She kept telling me that the newest thing was the chain book stores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble. And she said that the hue and cry at the time was that these giant bookstore chains would run the mom and pop, neighborhood, and independent bookstores out of business.

Unfortunately, the hue and cry was mostly accurate. My favorite independent book stores in my hometown, and in other’s hometowns across the country, closed and gave way to the chain stores that book lovers went to to read their books and magazines, to listen to their music, to enjoy their scones and tea. It’s true that a few large, general interest book stores did survive. However, the challenge they face now is far greater than the rise of the big chain book stores that evolved—or some would say devolved—in the seventies.

That challenge today is that more and more prose writers (publishers and authors alike) sell words on a screen. The phone, the iPads, and the tablets are almost everywhere you look. And while it’s been reported that some readers are returning to bookstores because they simply don’t like the mechanical feel of the monitor and do like the delight of opening and holding books and reading from paper, I am reasonably sure, though, that this movement does not trickle down to those raised on microwaves and electronic pulses.

Booksellers have been around since the advent of writing. To paraphrase Cole Potter, the Greeks did it, the Romans did it, even people in the Bible did it. They sold books. And these booksellers did it from physical market places and mostly from brick and mortar bookstores. Throughout history, these brick and mortar operations were the small, independent stores or family shops—like the ones I discussed earlier—and they were aware of their customer’s wants and needs and knew their community well. The irony is that in as little as 40 years, we have gone from bemoaning the loss of the small independent bookstores that have been around since forever, to the loss of the book emporium and soon, perhaps, the loss of bookstores altogether.

So this history begs the question: how soon before we mourn the passing of the ebookstores and/or of written works on screen altogether? How soon will we change what is communicated, how it is communicated, and how the audience of this communication ultimately assimilates the product?

I don’t have the answers, and I may not even have the right questions. But what is worth pondering, and maybe even chatting up some experts for a prediction is, what the marketplace of the fiction story and the non-fiction narrative has in store for us in the near and far future.