04 August 2010

Battle of the BookWorld

Hot news in the business press this morning - Barnes & Noble is for sale. Stockholders are disenchanted with the giant retailer's performance. Over the past three years, B&N's annual profits have slid from $135.8 million to $75.9 million to $36.7 million. They blame the e-book, even though their own Nook sold 600,000 last year. Still, Amazon is cleaning their clock. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2001, Barnes & Noble was worth $2.2 billion and Amazon $3.6 billion. Now Amazon has a market capitalization of $55 billion and B&N barely $950 million. The times they are a changin.

Here's the good news. In the battle between the behemoths - And one must include apple in this mix, versus Barnes & Noble - new bookselling independents are opening their doors and many [of those left after the last decade's bloodbath] are holding their own, providing what the giants cannot: a truly personal experience, which is what readers crave and thrive on. What is more personal than reading? One of the last truly intimate experiences besides sex, and sometimes, almost as good.

Those of us who love the printed word are happiest when we are reading, talking about books, recommending books, surrounded by books, but in a way that feels like the good old fashioned cozy bookstore, not the giant bookseller. Even Costco, with its vast distribution channel and insane prices, cannot capture a serious reader. And even Kindle, which I confess has many wonderful qualities and will surely become more integral to the reading experience as time goes by, will never capture the minds and hearts of those of us who love to feel the page between our fingers and the indescribable pleasure of holding that bound package in our hands.

My prediction: In a very short time, we will all move from our desktop or laptop computers to some sort of Ipad experience, which will include reading books and magazines and newspapers, and possibly obviate Kindle [I always put my money on Apple] and perhaps move us beyond reading emails and other stuff on tiny phone screens. Giant bookstores will have no place - like libraries, they will become repositories of many forms of media, including opportunities to perhaps sample a book in printed form before downloading to the appliance of choice - but they won't be selling music much bc iTunes has already captured that market quite nicely. The worst news is for malls who may potentially lose that important anchor retailer, but good news for independents on Main Streets throughout the country who will continue to be an important gatekeeper for the literary world, but only if they provide true added value even beyond being the "great good place" we all need to meet and greet when we lift our eyes from the internet or get out of our cars to stretch both legs and intellect.

Someone will buy B&N, of course, believing they will create the new paradigm, and that may be so, but in the interim, perhaps, dare I hope, that as a country we might just be coming closer to the truth that bigger is not better.

Photo compliments of Laguna Beach Books, a thriving community bookstore!

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