Monday, August 29, 2011

The Book Is Dead

Picture this: The year is 1439. Gryffen Bredhers, the largest scroll dealer in Mainz, Germany, is having a chat with one of his regular clients at "Bredhers and Sons Scrolls-A-Million" (our motto, "Let's Roll!") one of their satellite shops in one of the outer villages surrounding Mainz.

The regular has brought up a touchy subject, a new contraption Johannes Gutenberg, the eccentric and whacky local guy who was always up to some crazy scheme, was working on...the printing press.

Regular: What do you think of Goofy Gutenberg's new idea, Gryf?

Bredhers: I'm not worried. People will never buy those "books". They're for kids and geeks.

Regular: I hear they can make them faster and cheaper than scrolls.

Bredhers: That's what they say but, listen to me, people are never going to give up their scrolls. Their homes all have beautiful scroll shelves in their dens. What will they put on them? Gruel cups? Look at all the scroll dealers around! Do you think they're just going to go away? Besides, no one is going to sit by a candle a night and hold a stupid book! Have you seen how heavy and hard to use they are? Pages and pages, always turning the pages! Who wants to do that? People like the smell and feel of a scroll. We've had scrolls for hundreds of years and I can guarantee you, they are not going away. I'm putting all my money on scrolls. Besides, I hear the church has labeled the new technology evil! It's not natural for someone to be able to make that many things in so short a time. They say the Devil is behind it!

By now, poor Bredhers is so animated his chain mail doublet is starting to unravel.

Regular: Easy, Gryf! It's not like it's the end of the Dark Ages!

It must have been hard for the people of the 15th and 16th Centuries to adapt to the new technological advances of the printing press. I'm pretty sure that books did not become an overnight sensation, replacing all the standard reading mediums available at the time. There were early adapters and there were those who were resistant to change. It must have been fascinating to watch it all roll out. Too bad we weren't there to appreciate all the nuance and ramifications of such a radical shift in culture.
Or are we?

Folks, the book is dead. We may not be fully aware of it yet, but we are watching it fade away, ever so slowly, but fading away it is. In another generation from now, books will be quaint artifacts their grandparents kept around until someone just tossed them.

I was walking through our local Borders a few days ago when this occu
rred to me. I like bookstores. I like to linger in them, browse the books and magazines. I like the aroma of the books and their appearance. I really enjoy seeing so many in one place at one time. It always gives me a sense of possibilities, adventure and expanding horizons. I was strolling up and down the aisles and feeling a little melancholy.

Of course, like most other people, I hadn't actually bought anything there in quite some time. Most of my book purchases have been online. It's just too convenient and less expensive to boot.

See? The problem is...Borders is closing. I was attending their Going-Out-Of-Business Sale, hence the melancholy feeling. You can blame it on anything you like, the fact of the matter is this, Borders is a victim of the 21st Century. It is rapidly becoming far too expensive to maintain a brick and mortar facility that competes against Amazon and other online book sellers.

That level of competition was hard enough but, to add additional pressure and perhaps put the final nail in the coffin, the digital revolution has come to the book market. This has all but sealed the fate of Borders and its competitors. Late last year, e-books began to outpace books in sales. Now, the market is rapidly swinging toward e-books and away from physical books.

If you stop to think about it, it's a no-brainer for the retailers. Amazon's Kindle online bookstore doesn't need a huge warehouse populated by big shelves, inventory tags, fork-lifts, loading docks, boxes, label making machines, postage meters and inventory. All they need is a list of files, a server and some software to manage it all. The work force will adapt to the developing needs of the new software industry. Writes will still write. Publisher will still promote (that's changing too but that's a subject for another posting). Readers will still buy.

The primary change will be that the medium in which we interact with our books will be drastically altered. Book shelves will go away. 45 lb book bags for students will become 1 lb electronic readers. Updates and editing will be universal and readily available. More books will become available because they will be easier to publish (this will be a two edged sword). Books will get, in the long run, less expensive as physical handling in the retail chain diminishes. Purchases will be instantaneous.

That day is upon us. There are far too many advantages to the e-book and too many drawbacks to the traditional form of the book. It's just a matter of time before we hear someone, very soon, say, "Is that a book? I remember those! My folks had a few along with some record albums. Boy! If I had known what they were going to be worth as antiques, I would have held on to them."

Get yourself a Kindle or an iPad, leave something your grandkids can use and appreciate, and...remember Gryf.


  1. What ya gonna do when the Ruskies launch the big ones and every thing digital doesn't work? That be EMP... We'll all need to go back to riding our bikes and reading books, if we've not been blinded by the light... Happy thoughts for environmentalists, accept we can't print the books on paper... We'll have to find something else...

  2. Also there are some great used book stores out there like the one I wrote about in the link below. They keep the printed word in going. http://www.myselfbetter.com/2011/08/spotlight-on-local-business-2/