From Gutenberg to Zoobert

The final chapters in the history of the printed book have yet to be written.

In the hit 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s independent bookstore couldn’t compete with the big chain-store competitor. Underdog-rooting moviegoers couldn’t have known how lucky the independent stores were, having enjoyed so many decades of being the only booksellers. The megastores, which became dominant in the 1980s, have been undermined by technology in less than a generation.

Last week, Barnes & Noble, whose more than 700 stores make it the largest bricks-and-mortar book chain, put itself up for sale. Its market capitalization is less than $1 billion, compared with Amazon’s $55 billion. This reflects both the better economics of Web sales of print books and the increasingly uncertain future of print books in an e-book world.

The creative destruction in the book business has led even Andy Ross to have some sympathy for Barnes & Noble. Mr. Ross was the owner of Cody’s Books, a well-known independent bookstore located near the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Starting in the 1980s, Mr. Ross instigated numerous antitrust and other lawsuits against Barnes & Noble. He owned Cody’s Books for some 30 years before competition from the big stores closed it down in 2008.


“The only thing anyone is talking about in the book business is e-books,” Mr. Ross told me last week. “I see it as being similar to the music industry. There is going to be a tipping point where e-books become the dominant medium, thus ending 500 years of the Gutenberg Age.” Mr. Ross points out that “the future of physical bookstores is pretty bleak, both for chains and independents.”

Technology has made the physical scale of Barnes & Noble a liability. Amazon, now the world’s largest bookseller, launched the Kindle e-reader less than three years ago and already sells more Kindle editions than hardbacks. Amazon projects it will sell more Kindle books than paperbacks within a year. Apple’s iPad, launched just a few months ago, is already a big seller. Google plans its own eBook store.

As in other industries, consumers benefit from technological tumult. They get lower prices, greater choice and one-click buying. Amazon can charge less for printed books because it doesn’t have retail outlets, inventory, returns, printing or shipping costs.

Now, the iPad is pointing the way to a new kind of book. With color and Web access, e-books on the iPad are a new genre. These are called enhanced, multimedia or “transmedia” versions of books, with video, audio and interactivity.

In my family, which includes two young boys, the most popular iPad application is Zoobert, a narrated, interactive cartoon about a happy monster who lives in a sock drawer. Kids are instructed to “shake shake shake” the iPad to help Zoobert decide what to do next. The iPad version of the Dr. Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham” includes clever tools for spelling and reading.

Textbook publishers offer e-books with video, interactive testing and built-in research links. Travel publishers such as Lonely Planet have created e-editions that are more convenient and have more information than printed versions.

To those of us who see the technology glass as half full, it’s important to note the costs. Lower sales of print books pressure publishers, which usually get lower profits on e-books. This could mean fewer opportunities for aspiring authors until new business models emerge. Just as technology undermined the economics of local newspapers with online alternatives to classified advertising and upended the music industry by de-bundling physical albums into digital songs, it will take time for book publishers and authors to find new revenues.

It’s also worth noting the role independent bookstores played in the free flow of information. Cody’s Books was the scene in 1989 of an early act of Islamist terrorism in the U.S. A firebomb was thrown through its store window, in which Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was displayed. This happened a month after Iran issued a fatwa calling for Mr. Rushdie’s murder. Mr. Ross and his staff unanimously voted to keep the book on display even as many chains, including Barnes & Noble, withdrew it from their shelves.

Still, Mr. Ross, now a literary agent, is optimistic. He points to “new competitive pressure among e-book companies to get better deals for authors.” The multimedia e-book, he says, “means a lot of potential for creativity,” changing what it means to be a book.

At a time when distracting digital technologies threaten to reduce people’s attention span, it may take an evolution in the art form of a book to retain our interest in long-form story telling. Books that combine text with other media could be more informative and perhaps lead to a new kind of literature.

It’s ideas that count, not how they’re transmitted. Independent bookstores gave way to chains, which are fast giving way to Web-based retailers. At least for now, the printed book will live alongside the e-book. These are new pages in the history of the book, whose final chapters are yet to be written.


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