Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Revolutionizing or Just Revolting?

I’m not sure if the UK is just catching up to the US or if journalist/blogger Bryan Appleyard is slow. His article in the Times Online this past Sunday touted “a novel use of technology,” which here in the states is neither novel nor revolutionary. He was writing about POD.

Here in the states, we tend to use the terms “POD” and “self-published” interchangeably. They’re not. POD stands for Print On Demand, a technology for printing books. Authors who publish their own books use this technology, but so do some small presses and even larger presses.

Mr. Appleyard was actually using the term POD correctly, because he was talking about all publishing houses turning to POD for producing books. But … he was talking about it as if it were some new, amazing thing that would revolutionize the book buying world. In reality, it’s been around for years.

His “news” is that he believes this new technology will do away with bookstores all together. And he is very happy about this idea. “High-street bookshops could soon be killed off by the greatest revolution in publishing since Gutenberg. They had it coming.” In talking about books being more readily available over the Internet, he says, “Infuriatingly, however, this did not destroy the bookshops.”

The man definitely has it in for bookstores.

And he may be right in that it will revolutionize bookstores. But this idea is nothing new, either. I’ve been hearing that since POD first began. But just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Look at how the music industry has changed. When I was younger (which wasn’t all that many years ago, mind you), you went to a music store, browsed the records, CDs, tapes, and picked out what you wanted. Then it changed to where you could actually listen to the music before you bought. Now, look at how much that industry has moved online. My son still buys CDs, but a lot of his music is downloaded from the Internet and loaded onto his computer or his phone. I download music onto my teeny little music player that I can carry onto planes or use when I’m on the treadmill. The music industry has adjusted.

Bookstores may have to adjust to the new world. Certainly, authors will. But will it mean the end of bookstores as we know them? Mr. Appleyard says, “You will go into Starbucks, slip your credit card into a machine, order a book and grab a latte, which you will finish just as your book completes its printing and binding process.” He says bookstores will basically be little stores where you order a book and it’s printed for you, no browsing or leafing through pages. No books on shelves, taking up room, costing overhead. No returns and every book ever printed will be available within minutes.

He may be right. That’s certainly been predicted for years. But, am I as excited and gleeful over the idea as he is? Not really. I can adjust. I certainly have when it comes to working on my computer, researching over the Internet and downloading music. And I admit I buy books over the Internet. I haven’t actually downloaded a book, yet, but I have bought them from online stores when I can’t get into town to visit a physical bookstore or when my favorite store doesn’t have something in stock.

But I would miss going into a bookstore, gazing out over a field of shelves, browsing for a particular title and discovering a new author or series, turning the pages, reading the opening paragraph then scanning through the book at other passages. I would miss sitting in a comfy chair to look through several similar books to choose the one I wanted. Gone would be the chance to go hear an author speak and sign (we certainly couldn’t all fit into a hole-in-the-wall printing booth).

Our grandparents had milk delivered to their door by a horse drawn delivery truck. Most of us today have only seen pictures of such a thing in a history book. Sure, if the bookstore as we know it today disappeared, we could all adjust.

But change and revolutionary are not necessarily synonymous with good. Unlike Mr. Appleyard, I would not dance around the fire in celebration.

1 comment:

  1. With a tip of the hat to Mark Twain, the rumor of the demise of bookstores is greatly exaggerated--in my humble opinion. Radio and TV were supposed to kill off newspapers. Didn't happen. It's been a long time since the Brits have been on the cutting edge of anything that's superior to the U.S.


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