Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bookstore vs. The Library in the Cloud

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, we must now always be on the look out for tipping points.

I believe I just experienced one.

Like many of you, I've long had a weakness for book stores. So when we went to see how we could take advantage of the going-out-of-business sale at our local Borders, I expected to come home with an armful of books.

We didn't. In fact, we didn't buy anything.

We made a fairly thorough examination of the store and its inventory, but nothing was quite compelling enough to take home as a stack of paper. Time and again, enticed by the cover, I  picked up a new book, looked at the back, flipped through the text, and put it back because I wanted to read the electronic version first in order to decide if it was something I wanted to add to my library.

I stopped going to first-run movies a long time ago. In retrospect, I made that decision during the pre-Blockbuster era of local video-rental stores. The fact that I would eventually be able to see the movie, at a cost that was easier to bear on my starving-student budget, took the wind of urgency right out of my movie consumption sails.

Now, the same thing has happened for me where books are concerned.

And I think there's more to the analogy: bookstores, at least the ones belonging to national chains, now feel more like mega-plex theaters than cultural institutions.Theaters and bookstores are similar at a structural level: theirs is a business model focused entirely on the present because they provide access to a commodity that is scarce because it is new.

Libraries are fundamentally about lasting value--not in the sense of absolute worth but in the much simpler (and measurable sense) of something in which people continue to find value over time.

The Internet seems well on its way to becoming a meta-library in which anything is instantly available. One of the consequences of instant availability is that being first in line to get something the moment it's released will matter a great deal less. As Elizabeth Gumport's observed, "'Recent' is not a synonym for 'relevant.'"

There was a time when part of the reason you watched TV each night was so that you could participate in the water cooler conversation when the inevitable, "did you see what was on TV last night?" question came up. Now, with hundreds of channels from a variety of providers, DVRs, and video on-demand services, there's so little chance two people shared the same viewing experience that the question rarely comes up.

My point is not that publishing is doomed--demand for new movies and books remains strong. But where movie releases and opening week box-office receipts still mean something, book releases will cease to be significant events. The challenge for authors and publishers in the brave new electronic world will be to create lasting value that attracts an ever growing audience instead of relying on scarcity to create a bubble of demand around the release.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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