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Summary:

Did you hear that Barnes & Noble is up for sale? The sale is a watershed event in the history of modern publishing. It foretells a future where the book of yesterday and today will look very different from book of tomorrow. And I love it.

Did you hear that Barnes & Noble is up for sale? The sale, which will likely be accompanied by belt tightening and shuttering of many Barnes & Noble stores, is a watershed event. It foretells a future where the book of yesterday and today will look very different from the book of tomorrow. And I love it.

My love affair with words started when I was still in junior high school. My parents would get extremely frustrated with me because I would rather read books than talk to them or anyone. I’d read everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Hadley Chase to Lawrence Sanders to Ayn Rand. I would go to lending libraries that would rent books to me — a penny a day — and devoured them. A book every three days was my average!

Books were my ships: my portals into new vistas. They took me away to distant lands. They showed me how to dream about different things. They fueled my imagination. More importantly, from books I learned the fine craft of writing. As a kid, I dreamed of being so successful that one day I could buy any book, anytime, without so much as looking at the price tag.

While that day came a long time ago, that definition now includes buying any book anytime and anywhere. That’s thanks in large part to the emergence of first the Kindle device, and later the Kindle store. Today, I don’t read many of the books I read in my younger days, skewing instead towards more esoteric stuff including books about baseball, business strategy and history.

Considering how much time I spend on the go, I’m not surprised that I’ve started to buy more electronic versions of books. I haven’t lost my ardor for paper; it’s just that they are becoming a tad impractical to carry around. The curse (or blessing) of the post-Internet, neo-modern lifestyle is that we as a species are becoming increasingly mobile, whether it’s walking to work, grabbing trains or simply flying to get business done. We’re becoming more nomadic, regardless of income and social strata. A friend once reminded me of the Latin proverb — Omnia mea mecum porto — “All that’s mine I carry with me.”

Books aren’t the first media undergoing a digital shift. The music industry has seen the death of the record store, thanks in large part to societal acceptance of digital music (even if it is of lower quality) and the rise of digital music players. The information business — newspapers, magazines and television — is going through a similar shift. Perhaps that’s why I am not surprised that a store chain like Barnes & Noble is finding the going tough, especially against digital-focused retailers like Amazon.

The New York Times has been chronicling the trials and tribulations of Barnes & Noble, and in one of the pieces, the paper (which itself is on the receiving end of the digital whip) laments the loss of the traditional book-buying experience. Industry insiders are worried that as the stores die, books and the discovery of books are going to suffer, and as a result, book sales are going to take a nosedive. These arguments are no different from some of the hand-wringing over the shuttering of record stores.

Every time I walk down Broadway in New York, I see the shuttered space that once housed Tower Records, which was chock-full of musical goodness. I look at it wistfully, shake my head, walk on, and a few minutes later, when fancy strikes, I download the latest remix of Bad Boy Bass by Gaudi. I guess I’m one of those who believe that the message is more important than the medium.

I readjusted to the new digital reality of music, and just like that, I’m adjusting to the new reality of books and other media. The problem is that many of the incumbents in this business don’t know how to re-engineer their business models for this new reality. In contrast, you have a company like Amazon, which wants the book and other media to transition to the digital realm. And that is precisely why I think in the end, they and their Kindle (store) will be a winner, a point I made on an NPR show broadcast earlier this morning.

While this digital shift is going to be gut-wrenching for some, it’s going to ultimately help reinvent books. Books haven’t ever really changed, mostly because they were confined to the medium of paper. The book of tomorrow should look nothing like the book of today or our past. Internet connectivity and multimedia capabilities give us an opportunity to rethink what a book is, and even re-imagine the art of storytelling.

So what does a new-generation book look like? I don’t know for sure, but I have a vague idea. A few weeks ago, I met Frenchman Jean-Marie Hullot, founder and CEO of Fotopedia, which wants to be the Wikipedia of photos. The Paris-based company — which has received backing from the likes of Ron Conway, Reid Hoffman, Jeff Clavier and Ignition Partners — has managed to attract some stunning and high-quality photos from around the planet.

Hullot came to show off his new iPad application, which showcases world heritage sites. Marrying his service’s database of photos to content from Wikipedia and layering it on top of maps and vital services such as travel information, the application is a fun and unending version of a travel-based coffee table books. (See slideshow down below)

It’s truly an immersive experience, one that portends good things for the book industry, but only if it manages to think about the future, unshackled by the past.

Imagine the thrill (and chills) of Dan Brown’s best sellers if coupled with abilities to learn more about real locations; it would reinvent the meaning of atmosphere. I’m spit-balling here — my ideas are merely thoughts jumping off my mind — but hopefully you’re able to see the big picture.

If books let my imagination take me to different places in the past, tomorrow they might actually take me to these places, making fiction more real, and non-fiction almost magical.

 
  1. Great article, Om. So much in it that I’ll just comment on the Kindle aspect.

    I have a Kindle and love it. And you know what I love even more than the Kindle? The idea of the Kindle. In mid-2010, you can get a Kindle WiFi for $139. Buy it for your child. They can instantly download 300 classic books, all available for free. Amazing. Magical and revolutionary, in fact.

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  2. You had me on this one…right up until the end.

    I am unclear why discussions around the evolution of media consumption have to tackle the evolution of the media itself. Although as a digital publisher trying to bring the dime novel back for the e-book generation, I believe that the format of books will change. In fact, I’m counting on it (at least for the young-adult market on which we primarily focus). What I don’t believe is that the nature of reading nor the connection between reader and written word will ever change (we could have a long discussion here about the linguistics and cognitive science that create that connection). In fact, I consider all of the multimedia extras that digital publications are starting to include (look at the Wired magazine app on the iPad) to be distractions (less so for magazines than for fiction which are two entirely different reading experiences) because they don’t offer anything related to the reading experience. Just because books are going digital does not mean that they will take on the characteristics of other digitized information (i.e., the fotopedia app which is really cool, btw). There has been so much written and explored around this in the ivory towers (i.e., hyperlinks, transformative multimedia, blah blah blah) with little impact on the fundamental experience of reading and our imaginative connection to the story.

    To make my point, look at what you said about the death of the record store because of the digitization of music and the evolution of music consumption. But ask yourself this: did the way we listen to music change? If I am listening to my iPod, is there a break in the song with some information about the lead signer’s life?

    The reports of the death of the book, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

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    1. Good point. I’m quite skeptical on all the hype about how a new media format is coming to revolutionize everything. Or that video is a natural next step of everything, like email to MMS, search to video search, etc.

      Not that I deny a sea of change is coming. But I think the old basic format is seriously under appreciated. No doubt multimedia will greatly enrich the content for many things, but plain old written words is also good in other areas without the need of extra distraction. I’ll be interested to hear what you’ve found about the linguistic and cognitive connection. For me I will offer a counter perspective to the idea that video is more advance than plain text. I’d content that text is a triumph of human intelligence and civilization that allows us to express and communicate complex concept in abstract symbols. It is the ultimate information technology. Video is more a sensory experience that’s far less important in this regard.

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  3. There is another shoe waiting to drop with the sale of B&N that has the publishing industry very, very anxious, and for very good reason. The way that payment works in the publishing industry is that stores pay up front for books, but then if they don’t sell, they send them back to the publisher and get reimbursed. For every B&N store that gets shuttered, its entire inventory will get returned to publishers who will have cough up massive payments for books they won’t be able to resell. Same thing happened a few years ago when borders retrenched.

    With book advances contracting, no abatement or merit to marketing expenses, and the absurd time to market of traditional printing, new authors will turn to Amazon and epublishing and drive publishers further out of business. They were the worst luddites in all of media, so I suppose they sort of had it coming.

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  4. One big item we’re losing in the DRM era: used books. How do you sell a used e-book?

    One example of why used is great: go look at any of the paperback cover blogs (e.g. Pop Sensation) to see what’s available used, and isn’t available at the new bookstore (physical or electronic).

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  5. Mark Hernandez Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    Your article is very confused, so you’ve drawn the wrong conclusion…

    As someone who worked at a bookstore for a decade and saw tons of bookstores fail, and record stores, and had endless conversations on the topic, what’s happening is very clear to me.

    The times are a changin’ for many reasons, of course, but here is the biggest one…

    The number of choices for books and music as increased exponentially, and the physical brick and mortar locations which try to offer all that choice inevitably collapse from all that weight.

    Trying to provide a sea of all music/books that’s current to the customers is just physically impossible anymore. It is just as indiscoverable in a bookstore/music store as it is online. There is too much inventory vs. the number of sales possible.

    That’s what you should have talked about here. The book is not dead. The physical book STORE is dead And the use of trees to move the exponentially growing content is able to change as well, thanks to technology.

    There will be new ways to discover that content just like before.

    Do you see the difference?

    Mark Hernandez
    The Information Workshop

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    1. Mark Hernandez Tuesday, August 17, 2010

      But don’t get me wrong, Om, I think you are one of the most insightful people writing in the blogosphere. You are number one in my book, no pun intended. :-) I just had to add that I didn’t mean any disrespect, and I realize your article touches on many facets.

      I’ve just heard too many people offer up the wrong analysis as to why bookstores and music stores are closing, and I react. Books, music, and video are all experiencing the same transition because of the same expansion effect. New ways to discover content need to catch up, but we’ll always have the tried and true method for the rest of time — word of mouth, and randomly bumping into stuff on the car radio, channel surfing, etc.

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    2. Never actually looked at it from that point of view, but you’re absolutely right!

      The Book Store is Dead, Long Live Books!

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  6. World Heritage sites lovingly recorded? Sounds nice. In a generation, when the pictures and audiovisual interactive dioramas are lifelike enough, no one will see any problem with bulldozing the boring old analog sites. “We need more refugee housing,” they’ll say. “We’ve recorded this place for posterity anyway.”

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  7. Different book formats for different needs. Just like the pen or pencil did not disappear with the coming of the typewriter (whether mechanical or electronic) nor with the advent of the personal computer, paper books will still exist years into the future and coexist with their digital equivalent.

    Though digital books make a lot of sense if one needs to reference them often (say in school), paper books require no battery, no charge, and can get pretty damaged before no longer serving their purpose. I’d like to see a kindle take that kind of a beating. And then there’s the whole “used books” argumentative.

    As Jason mentions, the death of books has been greatly exaggerated!

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  8. it’s a sad day when a bookstore closed down. I use an iPad and an eink reader for reading but I STILL love going to a physical store and browse the magazines and books, get a hot chocolate and cake inside B&N and enjoy reading. Why is it a good thing for all this to go away? Do you think browsing a magazine is as iPad is as enjoyable as reading an actual magazine? Reading will become an individual activity where you do it only at home. No socializing. No meeting people. That’s NOT a good sign

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  9. You may have noticed Roger Ebert tweeting all week about his preference for atoms over bytes where books are concerned. I think your statement here, ” the message is more important than the medium,” very neatly encapsulates where I stand on this. History shows that anyone whose efforts consisted of attempting to block new technology to protect old technology is doomed to failure. Hello Rupert?

    And just want to add that the Fotopedia Heritage iPad app is AMAZING – it has quickly become one of the apps that I use to show off the iPad to friends. The photos are gorgeous and the flow and interface are really well thought out.

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  10. [...] “The Web is Dead.”  Yeah, I read it.  My reaction to it was “whatever.” Are books dead?  Is email dead?   Are memes [...]

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