Local bookstores and the missed opportunity

As I watch small, independently owned bookstores continue to desperately cling onto their customers for survival, I can’t help but feel really angry that Amazon cornered the market on e-books for no better reason than these bookstores decided they didn’t want to be a part of it.

Now, e-books haven’t taken over the market in quite the same way digital music supplanted physical media (for reasons I’ll actually get into in a minute), so bookstores are still hanging on by a thread and telling you that it’s your duty to shop at local bookstores because otherwise they’ll fall prey to behemoths like Amazon. When you give these nominally for-profit bookstores your money for some dead trees, you’re made to think that you’re practically giving to charity.

Let’s indulge ourselves in a fantasy about an alternate reality where things went a little differently:

When iPods started flying off of shelves in the early 2000s and music lovers started buying music from iTunes instead of record stores, a group of small bookstore owners got together and asked themselves: what if this happened to books?

Bookstores needed a way to adapt to the modern world of e-books. Even though the simple transaction of buying and distributing the e-book itself can be performed without having to interact with a human, the bookstore is still a great place for community. It’s a place for book enthusiasts to gather and interact. Bookstores are small businesses with well-educated and thoughtful employees and clientele. They are small, local businesses worth supporting.

E-books were also an opportunity to democratize publishing of books. Without the large fixed costs and complexity of printing books, e-books could be a viable way for smaller, niche authors to distribute their work. Instead of just a handful of big publishers controlling everything, perhaps we would see a new world where lots of smaller publishers would spring up. By having retail space and direct relationships with local customers, local bookshops could provide the critical connection to these customers.

But for this to work there would have to be some standards set. There would need to be a standardized file format for the e-books, otherwise customers would grow frustrated with having to use different software for every book they want to read. Companies would need to develop e-book readers that people could read their books on, and software to run on those e-book readers and support standard formats.

Partners got on board, and before they knew it, a thriving industry was born. Hundreds of local bookstores started offering e-books from a plethora of publishers. You could sample and purchase e-books right at the book shop, as well as on the bookshop’s web site. The e-reader makers soon developed e-readers that could connect to the web, and it became possible to buy books right from the device you read them on.

Because the e-books were all in a standard format, you could buy books from any bookstore and use them on any reader you want. E-readers were available from several companies. Because e-books were all interoperable, you could pick your e-reader of choice based on its merit alone, not the library of content it came with. Before long these companies were developing all sorts of useful features, like letting you scribble virtual notes in your books and easily sharing passages with friends to discuss.

Before too long the major publishers followed suit. They initially tried selling copy-protected books on proprietary platforms of their own making, but customers found it all too confusing and inconvenient, and they got on board with the standards everyone else was using. Bigger bookstores like Amazon also started offering e-books. Amazon grew to become the biggest seller of e-books by market share, but because there were so many bookstores selling e-books, their market share was still well under 10% of the market. And although customers would sometimes buy a book or two from Amazon, local bookstore patrons still loved buying from their local bookstore.

E-books, being digital rather than physical goods, could be sold a bit more cheaply than paperbacks, and customers took advantage of this and bought more books than ever before.

Because people were now accustomed to the practice of buying electronic reading material, print periodicals followed suit. Newspapers started being delivered to people’s devices directly, and the practice of literally printing new newspapers every single day on paper, putting them on trucks, then bikes, then delivering them door to door became a quaint memory. And although local newspapers no longer brought in revenue from classified ads, the operational savings of electronic delivery combined with a healthy subscriber base allowed them to thrive, alleviating fears of dozens of struggling local papers getting acquired and consolidated into bigger companies.

Bookstores didn’t get on board with this, though. At some level I understand; distributing digital media wasn’t their core competency; moving physical books was. But before computers and the internet existed, this was nobody’s core competency; it had to be invented by someone. Of course, this was a job far too big for any single bookstore to take on, but it’s disappointing that a group didn’t band together to try to build a solution, especially after seeing the writing on the wall when iPods became ubiquitous in the early 2000s.

Instead, we live with the hegemony that is Amazon. They largely rule the world of selling e-books. The Kindle is nice and their store has a great selection at low prices, but you can only read the books on Amazon-made apps and devices, most of which aren’t that great (seriously, have you tried using the Kindle app for desktop Mac?). Apple has an offering of their own in the iBookstore, but you only get to read the books on their backlit screens which isn’t that easy on the eyes. Barnes and Noble has the Nook, and there are a couple of other e-readers on the market, but each one can only be used to view books purchased in their own ecosystem. Now that I’ve bought a Kindle, the idea of buying a Kobo and having to start a new collection of books from scratch is a nonstarter.

There are some other e-book sellers. A few e-book stores are actually foolhardy enough to try to sell copy-protected books, and I’ve even been to a couple local bookstores with ways to buy e-books that you read read using software that’s exactly as shitty as you imagine it would be.

I do luckily get most of my technology reference books from sites that sell the books DRM-free, where I can usually download in a variety of book formats (I often choose PDFs because they are laid out exactly like the printed book, but if I want I can also choose EPUBs or MOBI files to read on my phone or Kindle, respectively). And there are some smaller publishers that sell self-published books in a non-copy protected format. A handful of authors care about this enough to sell DRM-free materials too, like Cory Doctorow.

But these are far from the mainstream, and if I want to read mainstream e-books, I am relegated to reading them on Amazon. Meanwhile, I love visiting Powell’s in downtown Portland; it’s an incredible bookstore in its own right, but overall when I’m shopping in most bookstores I feel more like I’m doing them a favor by helping them keep the dream afloat.

I’ll keep hoping for a better e-book future, and in the meantime I’ll keep hounding book authors to offer DRM-free e-books if they don’t already, and I hope enough people are doing that that in a few years, you’ll be able to get a good chunk of e-books (and audiobooks) this way. 🤞


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