Slate today has a great article called “Don’t Support Your Local Bookstore” on the emerging trends that make e-publishing vastly superior to authors and literary culture than traditional publishers.
Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
But the real way that supporting local bookshops is detrimental to both literary culture and books themselves is counter-intuitive.
What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture. There is little that’s “local” about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon—it’s the same book everywhere.
Wait, but what about the bookstores’ owners and employees—aren’t theybenefitting from your decision to buy local? Sure, but insofar as they’re doing it inefficiently (and their prices suggest they are), you could argue that they’re benefiting at the expense of someone else in the economy. After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. BuyingSteve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.
The fact is that with e-publishing and e-readers, more people are spending and reading more than ever before, and ultimately that is the juggernaut that will flatten the physical bookstore culture. But there would seem to be ways of solving the problem while also preserving the bookstore experience desired by bibliophiles. If you keep a shop open equipped with POD machinery, anyone can go in, purchase and print a paper version of their books, and all in a similar environment to what we have now. Some books could be pre-printed and on shelves for those interested, yet the infinite shelfspace of the digital bookstore could also be instantly at their fingertips.