Like any independent bookseller worth her salt, I’m loyal to the book itself. Why? First because, my own personal passion for books aside, most of the readers who shop at The King’s English really do love books, physically love to look at them, touch them, even smell them; love to page through them while deciding whether to take them home; love the physical act of reading—the turning of pages, marking of passages, flipping back and forth to check half-remembered references, falling asleep with the book there on the pillow in case the reader wakes up.
Secondly, bookstores are a way of life for readers, and many TKE customers are fiercely loyal to our store as well as to books. The King’s English is a community center and also a local business that bolsters the economy (unlike e-tailers), not only contributing to the tax base in several ways, but also recirculating dollars, as we employ locals—not just in the store but from outside to do our accounting, advertising, legal work, plumbing, snow removal. We, like most independent businesses, contribute to charities, sit on boards, volunteer in schools and not-for-profits…you get the idea. And we all add immeasurably to the community, not only by supporting it, but also by lending it texture and uniqueness, and by providing people with a place to congregate, to belong. At TKE we are also at the center of the literary community, help to create the literary community, bringing in authors from all over the world, providing a place for local authors to read, for authors and readers to meet, for readers to meet each other, for readers to encounter booksellers whose profession it is to pass on the knowledge culled from a lifetime of reading. This is true of most independent bookstores; indeed, the cycle of books from authors to publishers to bookstores seems ideal—a wonderful way of producing the best books possible and getting each one of them into the right hands, the hands of the readers most likely to appreciate each particular one. That’s called matching books to people and, aside from discovering new books, new authors, it’s what independent booksellers do best.
Independent bookstores are magical places and the book itself is a magical object—even in neurological terms. Studies show that when reading print—reading a book—deep-immersion learning occurs and that the neurological effect of such reading is profoundly different from that of reading pixels, reading hypertext—that different parts of the brain are engaged and different forms of memory retention occur (see The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, reviewed in the Inkslinger September edition, a disquieting look at the entire subject of the brain and the Internet). To put the two forms of reading in a literary perspective, the act of reading a book is, becomes, T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world.” Perhaps by comparison, reading pixels, reading hypertext, might be described as akin to Yeats’ “widening gyre…[where] things fall apart”—literally, as pixels themselves, hypertext links break apart the attention span, and the reader’s focus falls apart. According to Carr, as people read more hypertext their ability to focus or to take in the entire text wanes. They report impatience, irritability, the need to rush and to scan…sound familiar?
On the flip side (or maybe, since we’re talking e-books, I should say the “page-down” side), there is the instant availability of mountains of text, millions of facts, whether in the form of books, articles, or blog-postings. And, there is the unavoidable fact that the e-book is gaining currency and market share as readers begin to read them in more significant numbers. Sure, Amazon’s outsized claims are skewed by the fact that their customers, who already shop on-line, are far more likely to read e-books, but nonetheless e-books now count for 8% of the market. Not the 98% the media would have us believe—but still, 8% is a meaningful market share. Since, in these lean times, any loss of market share is life-threatening to retailers, independent booksellers will either participate in the sale of e-books or be hurt.
But is participation possible? When Amazon was in control, it wasn’t. We couldn’t sell the Kindle, couldn’t sell the content to load on the Kindle and, due to the massive confusion inside the publishing industry, we were helpless. As Amazon forced prices to fall ever further, ever faster, we feared for the fate of the book. Falling prices threatened publishing itself. And any one retailer having control of anything—especially books, ideas—is terrifying. But everyone knew that the physical device called the Kindle wouldn’t hold sway in the marketplace for long. No one electronic device can. Rapid change is the single certainty in that world.
At present, the market is fragmenting rapidly, as we knew it would. Apple and B&N have jumped into the fray with the I-Pad and the Nook, while Google’s about to take a giant leap into “The Cloud” with e-books as well. Publishers have begun to realize that if they let Amazon bully them into ever-lower prices they won’t be able to pay the editors who not only acquire but improve upon good books or the publicists who place authors in the media, send them on book tours around the country, and create a stir that brings public notice to their books. Without enough money to make all this happen, the publishing industry will grind to a halt. And without income, authors will cease to write books. Oh, maybe first-time novelists will publish on line for not-very-much money, but people who write as a profession will no longer be able to do so.
Publishers are beginning to organize. And publishers have long known that independent booksellers are vital to the fate of the book—whether that book is in print on the page or on-line. Why? Because we independent booksellers find great books by new authors—books that say something new, say important things in new ways, capture the public imagination. Once these books are discovered, the chains and e-retailers jump on the bandwagon, hyping and discounting. But knowledgeable independent booksellers unfailingly recognize quality and pass it on. Independent booksellers are the curators in the publishing industry, are recognized as such by publishers. We will continue to have a place in the industry because we are needed—by publishers, by authors, and by readers.
We don’t yet know what that place will look like. Everything in the world of books is up in the air right now—a frightening state of affairs, but an exhilarating one. Because as publishers develop their so-called agency plans to stabilize the price of e-books, they’re also stabilizing the discounts so that mass retailers won’t be able to undercut prices—which means that for the first time in remembered history, independent bookstores may actually compete on a level playing field in at least one part of the marketplace. And despite our preference for the physical book, we understand that some readers will want to access content digitally. We have always understood that our customers make different decisions at different times; if they choose to read a book digitally, it’s our clear intent to serve those customers in the same caring and thoughtful way we do when they shop in our store or buy a physical book from our website. In the end, we want to be sure we are serving our customers in the very best way we know how—by putting the right book, no matter the format, into the reader’s hands. So, although we don’t as yet know exactly when, in the very near future, TKE, along with other independent bookstores, will be making e-books available through our website.
Which isn’t to say TKE will change in any real way. We’ll always have books on the shelves, booksellers on the floor to talk to about books, visiting authors, and a community of lively locals with whom to mingle and exchange ideas. But we’ll also have e-books available on our website so that late at night or on a day you can’t get out, you can order from us as easily as from Amazon—thus supporting one of the things you value about your community—its independent businesses.
Whatever the coming changes, finding good books, passing them on, is and always will be our primary preoccupation at The King’s English, just as it has been since we opened our doors 33 years ago. Because who can imagine homes without books, cities without bookstores? Who wants to?
by Betsy Burton
The King’s English Bookshop