My Books and the End of My Printed Books

An important event in my household is the spring planting of everything that is going into our garden on the balcony of our condo. They are grown inside under a grow light (mostly, except for items like lettuce and carrots) and then they get put outside.

The tomato plants grow by leaps and bounds! So what is used every day to keep up with their vigor? Why my old books, of course.

There you can see the usual suspects on my nightstand… some WW2 (Van Der Vat is a great author), of course America 3.0 by our good friend Michael Lotus, and “Africa’s World War” on the Congo. Then you have a couple of architecture books and finance books like the classsic “The Myth of the Rational Market”.

I’ve switched over (mostly) to the kindle now and haven’t been buying new books in hardcover. I bought a book on New Yorker cartoons in hardcover since I figured that would be the type of coffee table book that people might actually pick up and look at. I also might buy an occasional architecture or infographic book in softcover or used, as well. But that’s about it.

I really miss bookstores. I used to spend hours in bookstores, looking at various random and obscure books. Those are almost all dead, now. The bookstores that remain in malls and airports are often full of just bestsellers and random junk, with the back catalog gone. Since the back catalog was what I cared about, these “shell” bookstores are worse than useless.

Lately I have been trying to read more books and less junk on the internet. It is easy to buy a new book when it comes out right away and start reading. I read “Flash Boys” the day it came out and some of Thomas Piketty (I’m trying) and then a few other ones as well. I need to learn to focus on something that is longer than 15 minutes, which seems to be my remaining time span, with the distractions of work, email, and the Internet.

I grew up working in a bookstore, a Kroch’s and Brentanos in the Chicago suburbs. It was a good bookstore, and the other workers were aspiring writers and generally interesting people. I remember unpacking the books every day and putting them on shelves, and re-arranging them at the end of the day. We also “stripped” the covers off paperbacks and sent the covers back for paperbacks that didn’t sell rather than waste money on shipping.

When I went into the bookstore I wanted to be a writer, but soon gave up when I realized what people actually spent money to read. All of my favorite books had dusty book jackets while the diet books, horoscope books, and other junk flew off the shelves. Anything I viewed as interesting or literature just sat there, by contrast. It was a window into the harsh reality of the book business.

While I will keep these books to hold up the plants, I won’t be adding any more. And over time even this collection will whittle away to nothing, while I accumulate them in Amazon (when I say Kindle I usually read them all on my iPad, sometimes my Mac). Just like my CD’s and DVD’s, they will be gone, an inefficient medium when the cloud is absolutely infinite.

What this means for authors – I don’t know. I think that they still need to go around to promote their books, perhaps in coffeehouses and bars or theaters if they are big enough. I’ve seen David Sedaris a couple of times, and he puts on a great show, but he would be a high bar for most authors to reach. Like musicians, the authors are going to need to find new avenues of money to survive, because printed books are on a rapidly accelerating death spiral.

When books begin to get pirated (frankly I can’t believe it hasn’t happened already) then I don’t know what authors will do, at all. It probably won’t be a sustainable profession. Maybe it will become a profession of hobbyists and people jockeying to write the next script that will be turned into a movie or TV show.

To some extent, serious blogging can pick up some of the slack, and bloggers can organize long pieces into an ebook. The blogging service “medium” is also looking to support longer pieces, as well. Whether this really matters or not, I don’t know.

One thing for certain is that the big publishing houses, with their PR machines and large buildings and cash advances will at some point die out or be diminished shells, unless somehow they can get a cut of the next big franchise or script writing earnings. The one piece of this entire puzzle that will be missed most by the end user is the editor, since pretty much everything that is written down (such as this meandering blog piece) could use a good editor. Frankly, if I was ambitious enough I’d re-write this entire post into a coherent message, but I won’t. Because I’ve got to go…

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

18 thoughts on “My Books and the End of My Printed Books”

  1. I still buy paper books when they have maps and photos. Some books, like “An Innovator’s Prescription,” is easier to read in paper because I leaf back and forth. I read novels on Kindle.

    I haven'[t gone to an ebook version of my medical history book but I may. It still sells about 30 to 50 copies a month on Amazon after 10 years. I’ve written another book of medical memoirs but have no idea how to promote it as an ebook. It still sits on my laptop.

  2. Yep – authors still have to get out there and hustle, one small event at a time. Unless you are one of the huge names, of course. I saw the figure of 200 bandied about a couple of years ago; American authors who make an excellent living full-time from writing and writing only. Every other author has a day job – in academia, or at a newspaper or magazine, perhaps. I have the Tiny Publishing Bidness … and tomorrow, I have a table at a historical event up in the Hill Country. I have talks at book clubs scattered through the year, I’ll be at the Texas Book Festival in October, too – as part of a big booth organized by the Texas Association of Authors. This is a new organization set up by a guy in Austin who seems to be pretty ambitious and have connections in the local literary scene; basically, makes members books available, and has a booth at all the big events in-state. I rather think a professional organization like this is essential for the less-than-big-name authors – a way of routing around resistance from the established literary-industrial complex.

  3. I went Kindle for a while and decided I didn’t like it. Went back to books with the caveat that if it is not collectible or old, etc. that I would get rid of the book the second I was done with it. Speaking of, you shall have a shipment to your place in a few weeks haha.

  4. I am mystified by intelligent people who declare the end of their association with printed books. Given the number of old and new books that are not available in digital are readers who make such claims voluntarily cutting themselves off from knowledge and entertainment that is readily available in a printed format?

    I read digital and printed works. I find digital handy and annoying. Despite good search functions it is still easier to find information read in a printed book. I am also a victim of inadvertently losing my place and spending a lot time trying to find it again on my digital device.

    For these and a whole lot of other reasons, the printed word and printed books will continue to be produced(probably costing a more to purchase.)

  5. I recently leafed through a book written in the 900s at the British Museum. It was hand written on parchment. I suspect that a 1000 years from now that book will still be available to read. Deus lo volt.

    Several years ago I read that Kindle users suddenly lost all their book due to some malfunction in some computer system. Kindle owners got lucky, I read somewhere, and got their books back.

    If there is a nuclear war, or even just an EMP strike, all those Kindle books will vanish – perhaps forever. But that old handwritten parchment book may survive as it has survived countless famines, epidemics, wars and fanatics since the 900s.

    When I graduate my degree was on paper. I feel cheated. At today’s prices it should be hand written and illustrated on parchment.

  6. Given the number of old and new books that are not available in digital are readers who make such claims voluntarily cutting themselves off from knowledge and entertainment that is readily available in a printed format?

    Since getting an ereader about 4 years ago I’ve been surprised by how many books I want are not available for it. I’d say just over half my purchases since have still been in printed format.

    Albion’s Seed, second from the bottom, is fantastic. It should be in every American school library.

  7. I use my ipad not a kindle. I also read a lot of books on my mac since Kindle for mac is pretty good, too.

    A weird correlation for me is that I used to go to bookstores, see books I liked, and buy them. Thus the conversion process from browsing to buying makes sense.

    But now there are few to no “real” bookstores left that collect the types of books I like read. Thus to find books, I’m seeing them online or hearing about them online first. Thus buying it electronically seems to make more sense to me (so I can start it right away, since I usually read through the reviews on Amazon and in other sites, first) than ordering it to be delivered a few days later.

    A lot of used books are available for the price of the electronic book; in those cases I tend to buy the softcover if price plus shipping is much cheaper.

    But in the end electronic delivery of books seems to make more sense because the process of reading online (in my opinion) is not significantly degraded relative to the cost of purchase, shipping and storage related to books. I am not exactly an early adopter. Hell we still have a version of a land line, of sorts. But once I cross over it makes conceptual sense for me, at least, to stay on the other side.

    And thanks for the books, Dan!

  8. I’m perfectly happy to read books on Kindle; on non-e-ink tablets or computers, not so much. (I have an Android rather than an iPad.) I think there is significantly more eyestrain, hard to read in bright sunlight, and subliminal temptation to skim rather than read when using non-e-ink device rather than paper or e-ink-based.

    Also, there are a lot of books not available in electronic format, and a substantial number of them may not be for year, if ever.

    Used book stores are still fun and a good place to discover books you didn’t know about. New book stores, it’s hard to imagine what a successful strategy for them might be.

  9. The current strategy with new book stores is to just have bestsellers – so it is the worst possible model.

    I guess if some how bookstores could differentiate books by author, or have “special editions” (kind of like record store day), or something else like that, it could make more sense. Maybe make them into a performance space. But if it was this easy to figure out the business model, someone would have done it by now. Or maybe not – a lot of the booksellers that made it big were just giant warehouses that stocked everything and when that strategy died, they died, too.

    Now we are back to (a few) local book stores. Do authors care about little book stores? it isn’t just a rhetorical question. What do little bookstores do for them? Do they champion obscure works? Do they convert readers? Or are the authors so dispersed that they are all online and just reaching readers that way. There are a bunch of social networks for reading (I haven’t checked them out) – I guess if you were an author and you interacted with them, that might be more effective than going on a physical book tour. I don’t know.

  10. I did a book-club meeting talk (about the Adelsverein Trilogy) in Beeville a couple of years ago – and Beeville is a lovely little South Texas town, with all the amenities … but that of a bookstore of any size, save little stores which serve up Christian trinkets and books as an afterthought. About half the members had Kindles or Nooks, and did their shopping on-line … and then stepped outside to download their book purchase on their e-reader. There must be thousands of little towns like Beeville, and hundreds of thousands of readers who do not live any closer than a 2-hour long drive (or longer) to a big city with a Big Box Bookstore, or any sort of bookstore at all. I think that this market is being served much as the Sears Roebuck catalog did in the century before last. Only faster. And without the chore and expense of being in print and delivered by the post office.

  11. I have two six foot tall bookshelves with dead tree books on them, that I have not yet read. If there is an EMP attack. I have a deep fall back.

    BTW, I love my Kindle Paperwhite, but, after playing with my wife’s new Kindle Fire HDX, I bought one of those too. I now use it for most of my reading. The screen is fantastic.

  12. “I wonder how the rare/old book business is going. I imagine ok but not gangbusters.”

    My daughter is into this a bit. They are all online and when I was researching my book ten years ago I ordered a lot of primary sources from them. Amazon has a lot of them as affiliates.

  13. I scarcely use my kindle. I keep finding myself re-reading my current book stock – I find new stuff every time, and get the chance to annotate my annotations, and to redistribute my dog ears.

  14. I have a Kindle Fire HD…when I can get it away from my children, that is!

    It is good enough for illustrations, maps and pictures, but inferior to a good book.

    Many of the book titles I use for my column are not available via Amazon or other provider e-books. I find Amazon useful for buying those books 2nd hand because public libraries around the country are “remaindering” them.

    Increasingly it is only in universities that you can find old books and that seems set to change for reasons that Glen Reynolds has made clear over on Instapundit.

  15. “I keep finding myself re-reading my current book stock ”

    I have Kindle versions of many of my favorite novels. It’s easier to read in bed. I reread “Count of Monte Cristo” every few months. Also I reread novels by Neville Shute which are all out on Kindle form now. The same for Helen MacInnes.

    My younger son has Kindles of various types for his kids. I just hope they are reading books.

  16. Sgt, Mom.
    About half the members had Kindles or Nooks, and did their shopping on-line … and then stepped outside to download their book purchase on their e-reader.There must be thousands of little towns like Beeville, and hundreds of thousands of readers who do not live any closer than a 2-hour long drive (or longer) to a big city with a Big Box Bookstore, or any sort of bookstore at all. I think that this market is being served much as the Sears Roebuck catalog did in the century before last. Only faster. And without the chore and expense of being in print and delivered by the post office.

    Exactly. A cousin lives in a small town which is located two hours of fast driving from a city of 50,000 and 700 miles from a city of 500,000. She has ~500 books on her Kindle. Because she broke a bone in her wrist some years ago, she much prefers the lighter Kindle to heavier books.

    And she uses Amazon for a great variety of purchases, just her parents and grandparents would have used Sears in previous years. Sears really dropped the ball.

    I have 5 bookshelves of books, a substantial proportion of which were purchased at $1 from a used book store. I am doing most of my reading these days from my Nook, with periodic readings from my bookshelves or from the local library. The local library is very good at acquiring books which several weeks previously I ran across in Internet blogs. I suspect that I will die without having read a substantial proportion of the books on my shelves.

    Like my cousin, I find that I am reading more with an e-reader than when I only had hard cover books. I have also found an e-reader good for reading longer articles from the Internet. Much easier to read on an e-reader than on a computer screen,so I download into DOC,PDF, or TXT, and read on my e-reader.

    While I have a Kindle, I much prefer the Nook for its better treatment of PDFs, the page numbers on EPUB versus MOBIs non-page number numbering, and the ability to organize Nook books and documents into shelves.

    I occasionally use Amazon for used books which I want to possess RIGHT NOW but are not at the local used book store.

  17. After three Kindles in as many years I’m now going without one. One was replaced during the warranty period. It may not be entirely the Kindle’s fault since I spend a lot of time outdoors and, perhaps, didn’t generally treat the devices as delicate instruments should be treated.

    That said, I feel the Kindle reading experience is not as complete, efficient, and pleasant overall. It was convenient enough, though, to overcome those drawbacks. However the two hundred or so greenbacks spent on the devices would have bought quite a few books. Too bad there are three or four “keepers” in the e-books on my Kindle. Maybe in a few years improvements will have been made and I’ll buy one again.

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