Monday, February 16, 2009

Booksellers to the Federation - Are We Selling Antiques?

In the 2 major Start Trek series, the original and Next Generation, both captains had printed books, which others often saw only as antiques. For both Kirk and Picard the books represented a refuge for reflection and a historical tie to earlier eras of exploration.

More realistically, a colleague of mine, Chris Volk, suggested recently that booksellers were becoming "antique dealers" as more and more e-books are becoming available. I don't think we're at the United Federation of Planets state of printed books yet, but I can see why some view books as outmoded.

And I can also see why they are wrong.

I think 2 groups of people see books as "antiques". The first group are not heavy readers, and their exposure to hardcover printed books consists of early 20th c. family bibles and great-grandma Murphy's weathered victorian novels. The second group are early adopters of technology and/or those who have particular needs or constraints driving them to digital books.

The first group do not incorporate or perhaps have a need to incorporate books into their daily lives. They may read a good number of books, but possibly paperbacks only, and in narrow genres - true crime, romance, religion, fantasy, western, mystery. This is not to say all readers of these genres fall into this category, but a good number do. Hardcovers are a luxury or simply unnecessary.

The second group do indeed incorporate books into their daily lives, and may also be genre focused. Science fiction, literary fiction, short fiction, reference works, scientific anthologies etc. They also are heavy users of digital information in other forms - websites, forums, newspapers, blogs, online journals, and more. They have moved the internet to a central point in their information world, and digital books fit well in that space. Hardcover books and even paperbacks are one more "device" to carry on a trip, or to and from work. Printed books are old technology, old matter, which are superseded in terms of ease of access, web integration, and portability by electronic books.

For both groups, printed books are indeed antiques. Both groups have fairly defined information spaces in which they like to exist, and printed books do not fit in those high or low information spaces. They are decorative and perhaps valuable to one, and quaint and physically burdensome to the other. Also, though both groups certainly read longer works, the majority of their reading is of text in smaller units - news or scholarly articles, reference entries, blogs, etc.

For many readers and researchers though, printed books are far from antiques. They are tools or collectible items, sometimes both. Folks in this group are more likely to read nonfiction, and book length nonfiction at that, whether a single work or an anthology of related essays or articles. They are not necessarily early adopters of technology, nor are they luddites. Electronic reference works are probably the most important electronic books they use, either websites or databases available from libraries. For collectors the book, while not an antique, is a more unique object melding information and package in one, that makes a statement about books arts, the author, the printer and the content of the book. Such a book may also be a tool for book arts researchers as well. In short, they are sophisticated users of books in their own right, demanding of books as useable object, not just a containers of content.

So will booksellers be antique dealers? Not for some time. There are many optimistic predictions for electronic books, with devices being compared to IPods. Projections are over 1.5 billion for 2010, which I think is very high, but such projections have been common in the e-book industry, yet booksellers and printed books are still here. I think a number of changes will need to occur economically, technologically and even politically before that happens. One day we may be selling books as only objects, or as unique records of historical events rather than intellectual tools. But it is not this day. Nor will it be anytime soon.


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