Can Digital Books Furnish a Room?

Manchester Last Lion with ReidIf I were to make a New Year’s resolution for 2013, it would be to read William Manchester’s Churchill biography, the last volume of which was completed by Paul Reid in 2012, nearly eight years after Manchester’s death. Of course, I don’t make resolutions since there are more than enough failures to tolerate in life without me adding to the list. But Reid’s story is almost as interesting as Churchill’s. Reid was a college dropout who went back to school in his 40s, and at 46 became an intern at the Palm Beach Post. It was through his newspaper work that he met Manchester, who was ill and dying and unable to finish the last volume. Manchester unexpectedly chose Reid to finish the third volume, even though Reid had never written a book before, let alone a biography. He wasn’t even a historian. Yet Manchester saw something appealing in Reid’s background and approach, something a more conventional thinker would have missed. For me, the subject of middle-aged career metamorphosis has a new relevance; I am often asked why, as old as I am, would I want to recreate myself as a bookseller. The answer, which is hard to explain, is that I just didn’t see it as a big deal. I never thought of changing careers as being that strange. And neither did Reid. He seems to have moved from one thing that interested him to the next, taking opportunities that presented themselves and not spending too much time doubting himself. So, that’s one book I hope to read this year.

On the subject of doubts, one that I felt gently tugging at my sleeve as I prepared to invest myself into this new business was my awareness of the steady migration of book buyers from paper reading to digital reading. It was hard not to take seriously the threat to hard-copy booksellers implicit in headlines like this from the New York Times from January 22, 2012: “Tablet and E-Reader Sales Soar.” The article reported that the number of adults in the United States who own tablets and e-readers nearly doubled from mid-December to early January last year.

But that was last year. This year the Times reported a dramatic reversal in the growth of sales of e-readers. In 2012, worldwide shipments of e-book readers fell to 14.9 million units from 23.2 million units in 2011 — a 36 percent drop. In the United States, a similar decline was seen, from 15.5 million readers in 2011 to just nine million in 2012. And this in the year when the fall in e-book prices was supposed to ignite new growth in the market for e-readers. What happened? First, despite the settlement of the Justice Department’s price-fixing suit against five major publishers that was supposed to free Amazon to drop digital book prices, those prices haven’t come down. Today the price to download Hilary Mantel’s popular “Bring up the Bodies” is $13.99, and $9.99 is still standard for older titles. Is the failure of prices to fall due to an insufficient volume of sales? Perhaps, but digital book prices still have a long way fall before they reach used book price levels.

I think I misjudged several advantages that books held over digital files, which I now see as auguring well for their survival. It turns out that unlike real books, digital book files provide their owners no satisfaction when they are lying around unused. Buyers of digital files are showing no interest in storing multiple book files for reading sometime in the future. They see no reason to pay for a file until they are ready to read it, meaning that impulse buys for a book to read sometime in the future are not occurring with e-readers. As a buying habit, that is a huge difference. Book buyers typically enjoy having a pile of books on their bedside, or coffee table or bookshelf (despite complaining that they’ll never get around to reading them all.) People enjoy seeing the books, occasionally picking them up and leafing through them. And they especially enjoy having other people see them. I am not just talking vainly showing them off (though there is some of that). But books on display invite discussion; they spark people to think and talk about books in a way a bookless room can’t. When I am invited into a new house, I always examine the bookshelf. I’m not snooping, any more than I would be were I to ask someone what they do for a living or what restaurants they enjoy. I am learning what interests and passions they hold so I can share them in conversation. And, of course, there is the lending of books; how often do I rave about a book on my shelf and end up talking a visitor into borrowing it? That is an experience unavailable to a digital file owner, even if he paid $14 for it.

I know people argue that e-readers can’t replace the feel and smell of a book, or that you can’t curl up with a Kindle; I find all that unconvincing. If the physical experience of an e-book isn’t perfect now, in time it will and can be. But, books do furnish a room, as Anthony Powell ironically put it, and without them, how barren and dull our rooms would be. So, my New Year’s resolutions, were I to make them, would be to stop worrying about e-readers, and to get started on Churchill.