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.