Should We Feel Guilty for Not Buying Books in Bookstores?

I’m a guy who hates to shop, but for my whole life I’ve loved shopping in bookstores and record stores.  I gave up on record stores years ago, but I still shop at bookstores, but not as much as I used to.  Yesterday I visited my local indie bookstore and bought a hardback The Man Who Invented the Computer  by Jane Smiley just to support them.  I could have bought it at Amazon and saved $12 in discounts and taxes, but I thought I’d help my store and state.

Well, no good deed goes unpunished as my mother-in-law used to say.  I get home and read the reviews on Amazon and they aren’t good at all, including many claims of poor research, inaccuracies and even fraud and scandal.  Of 24 customer reviews 12 gave it 1 star, 5 people gave it 3 stars.  If I had been shopping at Amazon those reviews would have stopped me from buying the book.  Now this isn’t the fault of my bookstore, but it does point out a major advantage of shopping online.

The main reason to shop at a bookstore is to see books before you buy and allow yourself the pleasure of discovering something new and exciting.  But shopping at a store literally means judging a book by its cover.

I’m in three online book clubs and a hot topic in all of them are ebooks.  Some folks are pro, and others are definitely con.  But we all lament the disappearance of bookstores, and feel guilty that we buy books online or via those new fangled contraptions like Kindles, iPads and Nooks.  But I’m wondering if we really should feel guilty?

Quite a few club members, especially those living in small towns, say going to a bookstore is expensive and time consuming.  Others are housebound and feel online shopping and ebooks are a godsend.  Me, I like to study reviews before I buy.  And despite what everyone says about personal customer service, I’ve never met a sales clerk as knowledgeable as good reviewers.

Another thing to consider, among my bookworm friends who love shopping for books locally, many of them actually treasure the used bookstores and looking for good deals.

But I hate the idea of just letting bookstores disappear like record stores.  I’ve read that Germany protects bookstores from online sales and ebooks by outlawing discounting.  This makes books more expensive, but protects bookstores, publishers and authors.  I’ve also read that other countries have various ways of mandating price controls.  This is great for saving jobs and keeping businesses afloat, but it’s not very free market.  Should we reevaluate our ideas about free markets?  I don’t know.

What if online sellers had to sell books for the same price as local bookstores and charge the same sales tax, so books were equally priced no matter where you bought them.  I’d still say Amazon was a better place to shop because it’s so much more informative.

I’d also prefer buying used books online.  I bought three used books this week, The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd and I, robot – the illustrated screenplay by Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov.  I would have to shop for years before I would have even seen copies of any of those books in local used bookstores, but they were a few keystrokes away with ABE Books.  I also bought an ebook, Aegean Dreams by Dario Ciriello because it was only $5.99 on the Kindle, versus $14.44 for the trade paper at Amazon.

At the Classic Science Fiction Online Book Club, we’re voting on the books we’re going to read for the next six months, and one of the major considerations is availability and price.  Members are scattered all over the world, and few want to buy new copies.  Most of the books we’re nominating can be found at ABE Books for $4-5 used, including shipping, and some can be had as ebooks for $5-10, or new for $8-20.  Some of the members with ebook readers say they will buy the ebook edition if it’s priced closed to the used edition.  Others with good used bookstore nearby are finding copies for less than a dollar.  But see the trend?  New hardbacks and trade paper editions have to compete with online discounted books and used books, so it’s not just ebooks hurting new book sales.

One member found this list of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bookstores that include online and local bookstores.  There’s a huge variety of options for shopping online.  Some stores on the list do have a physical buildings to visit, but they also do business online.  How does an old fashion bookstore compete?

And maybe that’s the clue.  Maybe online is just a new kind of bookstore.

The times are changing and more and more people are seeing the wind is blowing in a new direction.  There’s a new documentary, Press Pause Play about how technology is impacting artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and other creative folk.  It’s scary to them because they don’t know how they can earn a living when the traditional methods of marketing their work are disappearing.

We are living in evolutionary times.  I’m turning 60 this year, and many of the people that I know lamenting the loss of bookstores are my age or older.  Have the young already forgotten bookstores?  Our nephew while giving directions to his apartment today said to turn past that building where you mail stuff.  Will concepts like the post office, book store, record store, phone booth, and video rental store even be known to the young in a few years?

It’s weird to be an anachronism in your own time.

JWH – 10/2/11

32 Responses

  1. There are advantages to buying in a bookstore, especially one with knowledgeable help, but there are advantages to buying online, too. I used to use both, and I’d buy the book wherever I first discovered it.

    But online buying won out. It was easier, it was cheaper, and – most importantly – online booksellers were better at communication, telling me what was new that matched my tastes. In many cases, I could even read the first few pages of a book before buying it.

    I like the reviews, too, though I don’t rely on them. (In general, I find the negative reviews FAR more useful than the positive reviews.) And if I want to hold the book in my hand first, or even read the whole thing before buying it, I just go to the library.

    I love bookstores, but times change. I used to think that a local bookstore could still compete, especially if it took full advantage of email, but not anymore. Well, adapt or die. We may lose some things, but we gain others.

  2. Despite the fact Free Markets are rarely free, I am a believer in them. Individuals meeting the needs of other individuals however they agree to sounds like a basic human freedom to me. Unfortunately free markets are like everything else humans have created, flawed. They simply don’t work to efficiently serve all needs. Like the police, the army or health insurance. Even in areas they serve well free markets can lead to unacceptable levels of exploitation and should be regulated. As desperately as we need people to read and learn, there is nothing so special about the selling of books to justify a bureaucracy enforcing arcane rules or price controls. The deeply corrupt nature of our politics have lead to the sorry state we currently suffer under where corporations can buy whatever rules they want. They can stifle competition and keep wages low. Occupy Wall Street!

    • So Greg, you wouldn’t use price supports to protect bookstores and paper based books I take it?

      I’m a supporter of the protesters too. Business and government have gotten too cozy and we need more protection from corruption. I am not a fan of small government because it’s all too obvious the many need to be protected from the few.

      • Not for a bookstore. It doesn’t make any sense. The problem with bookstores is a technological one. A long time ago a bookstore was run by an expert in books. It had little competition. Just newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. Books were expensive, few people bought them, there wasn’t that many of them either. Which meant sellers could make a living by curating: knowing their customers likes and dislikes and knowing what is available. But that was already a long lost art before the internet, as the volume of books went up, book sellers were replaced with clerks who don’t read. The last actual book seller I dealt with, had closed his shop years ago. He continued selling books from his house, but it was more of a hobby for a retired guy.

        Perhaps they could tax blogs and websites……sounds wacky to me though. Do we grandfather booksellers in, do we aware booksellerhips via lottery? Its like trying to hold onto the people in germany who made cuckoo clocks by restricting sale of wrist-watches or passing a law saying computers can’t display time to their users.

        I’d support a law designed to keep the publishing companies from being bought out so 4 or 5 companies couldn’t control 90% of published books though.

  3. At 42 I’m probably too far out to be considered “the young” anymore, but I certainly haven’t forgotten about bookstores and it is rare that I go into my local Barnes and Noble and don’t see teenagers and twentysomethings in there roaming around. Whether they are buying is anyone’s guess.

    I don’t think we should feel “guilty” about not shopping in bookstores, but I do think we ought to evaluate our shopping/reading habits and at least consider doing something that is a benefit to our local economy.

    I like the option of being able to buy online. The majority of what I do buy online are things I cannot find in local chain bookstores, or indies, or used bookstores. Granted I could have my local BN order some of those books for me, but my feeling on that front is that they need to do the work to get books readers want on their shelves if they want readers to buy there. But even with my online purchases I still buy far more books at my local bookstores, used and new, than I buy online. And a big reason for that is that nothing I do in front of a computer replicates that experience of handling the books, wandering the store, etc. It is that “tangible” experiences that brick and mortar stores need to find a way to capitalize on in order to remain viable. And if they don’t, I for one am going to terribly miss that tangible experience.

    And that is where my comment on “evaluating our shopping/reading habits” comes in.

    I am chief among sinners when it comes to buying books and never reading them. My house is full (though not as full as others’) of books I just “had” to have but have not read. Most I have good intentions of reading some day, but others I’ve ended up selling online because I finally admitted that I just am no longer interested.

    If instead of regularly indulging the book-shopping whims (which do include several online book buys) I saved my money and did most of my book shopping in the store, the difference in the money spent in person vs. online would make no negligible difference to my overall budget. In fact I might even save more money while still giving more money to my local new and used stores. And if I did so more for the purpose of buying things to “read” rather than just to “have” it would be worth spending a little extra to shop in the store.

    • If I only bought books I actually read I’d have a lot more money in the bank and bookstores would’ve been out of business sooner. I have several hundred hardback books I haven’t read yet. I keep thinking I’ll get to them before I die, but my time is running out and my pile of unread books is only growing.

  4. I think a lot of bookstores and record stores have gotten into the online business. The record store I go to always has a huge stack of mail ready to go out.

    The businesses that will survive are the ones that adapt.

    As we’ve discussed many times, I love the thrill of the hunt. And shopping online isn’t much of a hunt, so I hope used bookstores and record stores find a way to survive.

  5. Whilst I also like bookstores and would be sad at their passing, I can’t help but recall the lament of the scribes when the printing press was invented. Sure, the printing press has pretty much killed off the viability of becoming a scribe, but all things pass. It doesn’t mean you can’t still get handwritten books if you really want, and physical bookstores will remain in some form, but online purchasing, if not pure electronic storage, is clearly where things are headed.
    If you have to artificially prop something up or put obstacles in the way of the competition, then it’s just not that viable.

    • Ninja, you must be very old to remember that. I would put a smiley face here but I don’t know how.

      But that’s true, we can’t just artificially support books.

      • One of those things that, in the future, makes you chuckle when you read sci-fi set in the future that’s totally missed it.
        Like Fahrenheit 451 – imagine someone in twenty years reflecting on them setting fire to physical books.
        Gibson’s quote about the sky above the port being the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel starts to lose meaning in the age of digital transmission, and the next generation won’t even chuckle because they’re too busy being confused.
        Sometimes it’s all the smaller changes that permeate our life that go missed that can really start denting otherwise quite believable stories.

      • I love that image, of the sky the color of a television screen tuned to a dead channel. I think that’s what I remember most about Neuromancer. The other day I was talking with a woman who couldn’t sleep and wanted a random noise machine. I told her to tune to a dead channel before I remembered there’s no white noise with TV anymore.

        I was talking with a professor today who is studying children and their acquisition of pop culture and I realized I can’t comprehend how young people are growing up now. I’m not really old at 59, but I feel I’ve seen so much more than someone 29 or 9, but then they see so much more than I notice. Their pop culture is invisible to me. I can’t understand the Star Wars stuff, and that was decades ago.

  6. In regards to Fahrenheit 451, that’s how you can tell the best science fiction from the dreck. The story is not really about the blasters and jetpacks. The story of 451 is about repressive governments controlling people by restricting knowledge. In 451 they fight back by memorizing books. We know the technology that could produce interactive 3D-TV rooms would also produce a way to store a zillion books on a chip smaller than a nail-clipper. A decade or so ago, some modern science fiction writers wrote a series of books set in Asimov’s Foundation universe, but added nano-technology and genetic engineering to the mix. They were, at the time, far more realistic than Asimov’s which showed life in a FTL travel galaxy wide, terra-forming future that wasn’t much different than day to day life in the 1940’s. The only real difference was Instead of taking a train to Baltimore, you could ride in a space ship to Trantor. I don’t even remember who these more recent authors were, nor do I remember their stories, but I still remember Asimov’s.

    • Fahrenheit 451 is one of my all-time favorite books. They also memorized books in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

      But do we remember those old books because we read them when we were young and they imprinted on us.

    • I don’t know if it’s because of newer authors throwing in modern science. It’s probably just more the fact that stories get mined out.
      Ender’s Game? A classic. Who really remembers Children of the Mind, book 4 in the series?
      Rama? Brilliant. Who ranks the final book of the series up there with the first?
      Hell, even with Foundation, does Robots and Empire really capture the magic of the first couple of Foundation books?

  7. Bookstores vs. the Internet. It’s an interesting question. I am part of that interesting generation still of working age but with memories of black and white televisions that competed poorly with a good book. Fast forward to my smartphone/IPAD, mulitcomputer home of today with kids who think typing ‘lol’ is the same as a good guffaw.

    I read scifi voraciously as a kid and find my Kindle compares favorably with printed books. It’s even better because I can magnify the print by pushing a little button. You younger folk don’t understand what a wonderful thing a zoom button is to those of us forced to scrabble for reading glasses. So I’ve adapted to e-books, but only when they make me feel like I’m reading a printed book – ie. I’m curled up in an easy chair in front of a fireplace with a small lightweight device that lets me turn pages. Also, I have a mega-busy schedule so it’s a lot easier for me to buy online than schlep around a bookstore hoping I find something that tweaks my interest.

    Regarding whether any books written today will survive into tomorrow, it’s nearly impossible to know, although there are certainly some good ones out there. Even so, I get pretty tired of ‘me too’ books, so tired that a number of years ago I began writing my own sci-fi. Call it an overreaction if you will. I quickly discovered that writing is not so easy but kept at it anyway. My next discovery was that book publishers are reluctant to waste investment capital on a sci-fi novel, particularly one written by a shy, retiring unknown who hates the spotlight. So I eventually self-published, mainly because I lacked the bandwidth to deal with the hassle of doing otherwise.

    Now it is possible that I am a really bad writer who should never have bothered with getting her work into print. But strangely enough, even though I have sold less than 100 books in total (I really do stink at marketing), one of my books keeps getting five star reviews on Amazon. I swear I would never have asked anyone to give me reviews like these – it would be too embarassingly stupid: http://www.amazon.com/product-reviews/B0039PU81E/ I also have a pretty good review on the SF site.

    I’ve sold less that 20 copies of Scuzzoworms in total despite the reviews, but I have been given a gift – a glimmer of hope that maybe I have a little talent after all, despite the mediocre interest on the part of the publishers I originally contacted. So here is a real conundrum to consider. Could it be that Sci-Fi publishers are so leery of unestablished writers that they have become the block between good writing and a willing audience? is it the publishing houses who stifle creativity by fleeing to the comfort of sameness when deciding whose works they will print?

    Frankly, I have no idea. Don’t care much either. I just get a grin out of my reviews and it makes me feel a little less like an egotistical megalomaniac for having published in the first place. Maybe there is a little merit to my foolishness after all.

    Getting back to the question on where the new classics are coming from, I don’t pretend to be an example of what is happening in the industry, but I suspect that the true classics will emerge along increasingly more serendipidous lines going forward. The availability of publishing without a publisher and increasingly sophisticated technology sitting on a schoolkid’s desk means that we truly live in a brave new world.

    Could an ebook go viral some day without ever being formally published at all? Why not? Copyrights might be an issue, but then, who knows what such laws could morph into with our increasing ability to track data transfer.

    • Hang in there. I keep reading story after story about writers hitting it big time with original Kindle books. You just need to find ways to promote your books. Having a good blog helps. Reading Sam Harris‘ blog.

    • Two pre-print books that come to mind, though not anywhere near massive hits, are The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect and 253. The former was available only online for quite some years (and was where I originally read it) before finally hitting print, and 253 was by Ryman who’d already had a couple of books out in his name before he did 253 as an online ‘novel’, which went to print a couple of years later and won a philip k dick award.
      I love Metamorphosis (and have a print copy now too), though I must admit that 253 is still sitting in my short list …

      • I went and researched both of those books. 253 is more of a gimmick than I like, but The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is about my favorite topic, intelligent machines, so I’m going to get and read it. Thanks for the recommendations. I also red about The Metamorphosis at Wikipedia – it has a fascinating history. It’s free, but I’m going to get the Kindle version for $2.99. Help support the author.

      • Good to hear. It’s a bit of a crapshoot when you get right down to it. Writers have no way of knowing whether their works are any good because they are essentially stream of consciousness. Some streams are a little clearer than others, and some are downright muddy. The traditional publishing process does put a few legitimate hurdles in place. After all, unreadable books will lose publishers money. Ebooks open the door to inexpensive publishing, and print-on-demand has also dropped publishing costs.
        In order to get my books into a bookstore, I’d have to print in volume, with the risk of a warehouse full of wasted paper. So, it’s self-publishing on the Internet for me and for a lot of other writers. My wishful thinking has been that the books would sell themselves, probably a bit of a stretch for inanimate/virtual objects.:) So buying books on the Internet gives you access to more books, but the quality is more variable. Amazon tackles the issue with their rating system, which is why I believe an e-book could go viral if good enough. However, most of us chumps aint a gonna see that happen.

      • Ella, ave you tried publishing for the Kindle? I’ve been reading several articles about writers succeeding with 99 cent books for the Kindle. Evidently Kindle owners constantly search for bargain priced books to try, willing to experiment on a $1 book, but not ones that cost more. But few writers have made big money selling at this price.

  8. I do publish on Kindle, but I haven’t tried the 99 cent trick.. I worked with a scifi author named Mike McCollum to get my books on line – he does the printing for me. He tells me that most buyers are price insensitive, and I suspect he’s right. However, my sales have completely bottomed out since a reader posted the last review for Scuzzworms. I’m convinced that good reviews scare people – they believe the author must have written them or paid someone else to. Mine have been way too good – I don’t even believe them myself, so I don’t much blame readers.

    So, I’m happy to experiment. I’ll change the price to 99 cents for a month or two and see if sales pick up. After all, Christmas is coming and the economy is on life support. Maybe I can share some fun..

    • Oops, Kindle has a minimum price of 2.99, so I can’t go to 99 cents. I’ll try it at the 2.99 price instead. Maybe Kindle changed its policies since the other writers did it.

    • I’ll see if I can find the articles I was reading. Here is one at The Daily Mail. Here’s another from CNET.

      I can’t find the story I remember best, but here’s another one at blog that is talking about the kind of stuff I was reading.

      If you search on “pricing books for Kindle at 99 cents” at Google you’ll see a lot of pros and cons. Most authors fear the low prices, while some are claiming to make millions. I’m not in the business so I don’t know, but I have talked with friends about their Kindle buying and I know several who prowl the Amazon page for 99-2.99 bargains.

      Let me know what happens. There’s probably no easy way to sell books with so many authors, because one article said there were 700,000 authors selling ebooks.

      • You’re right, I’m just one of many. Is why I do this only for fun – is a pain to write a book, but it feels really good when you finish. . Marketing? Bah, humbug.

        There are indeed a couple of royalty options. I’ll leave it at 2.99 for a bit, then drop to .99 if I can figure out how to do it. I’m treating this like a research study and will be happy to share results. I might even post the graphs on my website. My foray into writerdom has been pretty funny, actually. Good thing I don’t do this for a living.

      • Figured out which button to push. Both of my Kindle books are now at 99 cents. Let the research study begin!

        Which raises another issue. There is no way that I, as a writer, would have this much control over pricing if I had not self-published. It would take months of negotiation with a publisher to budge the price a dime.

        So the tea leaves still point to Internet publishing as the new highway for emerging writers. Interesting to watch, and interesting to ride.

      • Well, here’s the results so far. Sold two Kindle books at 99 cents in October and one thus far in November. While this isn’t much, it represents an improvement for Scuzzworms.

        If nothing else, maybe some of these readers will add more reviews and help ‘right size’ my ego around writing. I’m almost finished with my next scifi book, and if good reviews keep coming I may try again with a regular publisher. I dread it because there are far more scam artists than legitimate book agents and most publishers prefer to deal with agents. (I will continue to hang on to my day job.)

        Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll keep the price low for a while and see how things evolve. I’ve seen hints of secondary sales, which is encouraging.

      • See if you can get your books reviewed at places like these:

        http://kindlenationdaily.com/

        http://ebooksuccess4free.wordpress.com/

        http://www.weekinrewind.com/

        http://www.jennascribbles.com/

        Look around there might be lots more.

        Jim

  9. Have you read Old Man’s War Trilogy? What do you think about it?

    • Yes, I read the first book, Old Man’s War, and liked it. It was a fun read and reminded me of Heinlein. I did have two disappointments with the book. I loved the idea it was about an old man, so when he got rejuvenated my interest in the story fell off some. Then, their mode of travel, was something I distinctly didn’t like. The multiverse is a neat concept but universe hopping seems very unrealistic to me. The storytelling was entertaining though.

  10. It will be a sad day when book stores disappear completely. Fortunately, I live around the corner from a library so I get my fill of books there…it may be the only institution that offers books in the future.

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