As Borders succumbs to bankruptcy, I find myself conflicted. Yes, the failure of corporate behemoths tends to warm my heart — I’m looking at you Wal-Bucks — and I am especially glad the locally-owned bookstores in downtown Lawrence — The Raven and Dusty Bookshelf — have outlasted the monster that supposedly had come to eat them. However, Borders failure is not the failure of the American auto industry, but rather, I look back to the horse-drawn carriage industry that was destroyed by Henry Ford and his Model T’s.
I worked in a corporate bookstore for 6 months while unattached to a real job and I witnessed firsthand the waste occurring in the book industry. Every week, hundreds of new units would arrive at the store, only to be sent back weeks later and ultimately destroyed — an undeniable waste of paper that I will gladly see ended. It is disappointing that some of my old friends will lose their minimum wage jobs, but I doubt a bookstore bailout is in the cards.
Like the music industry, the digitization — or kindle-ization — of the book industry will mean more publications by more artists at the expense of the larger industry. Every wannabe Rowling will post their work in the cloud, hoping that someone will look beyond their grammatical wanderings and see the true beauty of their work. Certainly, some publishing houses will collapse, but others will persevere, leaving the broken husk equivalents of Plymouth, Mercury and Pontiac in their wake. When I eventually finish my first novel — edited by friends plied with pizza and beer — it will be available first as an ebook or by one of the print-on-demand services that currently exist. Meanwhile Harper Collins and Random House will have to bid for my services while I reap the rewards of self-publication. In this futurescape, novel dreams will be just another gold rush of our age.
Others have spoken their prognostications more eloquently than I can, but I will shout loudly into the void anyway. In the future, Deadwood editions will be only for collectors, fan-boys, olfactorists — those who like the smell of real books — and hipsters who need a counterbalance to their vinyl music collection. I find myself in all these categories though I own only two milk crates of records on the shelf. Buying digital will be unavoidable and accepted. Do I really need a physical edition of Dan Brown’s new pulp taco? Of course not, but a signed, high-quality hardback edition of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons would sit proudly on my shelf for years to come. Love ya, George.
My greater concern is for libraries, not book boxes like Borders and Barns & Nobles. The free offering of knowledge is truly one of our greatest accomplishments as a species, and anything that jeopardizes my local branch truly turns my insides to water. During this economic downturn, Great Recession or whatever we want to call it, I have forced myself to stop buying books with the frequency I once did. Instead of a couple-three new titles a month during the Times of Bubbles, I have acquired two in the last half a year, and both of them were fairly unique items: a signed hardback edition and an English translation of an obscure foreign anthology that might never make it to the Lawrence Public Library.
So while I walk through the carpeted aisles of my sad, local Borders store, listening to the echoes of broken corporate dreams and frenzied purchases with soon-to-be worthless gift cards, I will not shed a tear as I ponder the 50% off fire sale. Instead, I will dream of the day when I can walk the aisles of a future Trader Joe’s location while wondering which new novel I want to download. Cory Doctorow? Zombie J. D. Salinger? Or maybe the new release by my friend, Elise. The world is waiting, girl.