Landmarks on the Journey into the Future

I was going to call this post ‘signposts’ on the journey into the future, but honestly: nobody needs signposts any more, right?  We all know roughly where this is heading, even if nobody knows the precise destination.  Now, it’s really just a question of ticking off the landmarks along the journey.

Borders finally bites the dust in the US (Borders UK, a separate company, expired a year or two ago).  No one was sufficiently insensitive to the way the wind is blowing to make a plausible offer for the company and its business.  Dedicated, generalist, large scale physical bookstores on the high street are going the way of the dinosaurs.  I guess the only question of any substance remaining is whether strategies of diversification (into fields other than hard copy books) or, conversely, specialization (as niche sellers of obscure, hardback and/or genre-specific books) will produce a viable future for some portion of the herd.  We’ll know in a few years, no doubt.

Amazon gobbles up The Book Depository.  This makes me downright despondent.  There goes by far the most credible competitor to Amazon in the field of online bookselling in the UK (and arguably anywhere, since one of The Book Depository’s most appealing offers was that of free shipping to almost anywhere in the world, and evidently three-quarters of its sales were outside the UK).  I suppose it’s possible regulators may still intervene to try to stifle this latest stage of Amazon’s incremental conquest of the entire world, but I won’t be holding my breath.

In the long run, it’s rarely healthy for any industry to see power and control consolidated into too few corporate hands, and Amazon’s position astride the entire business of publishing and selling books – in both e- and hard copy form – just makes me instinctively glum, even as I greatly admire the effectiveness and ambition with which they’ve constructed their behemoth.  There may not be much money left in selling physical books on the high street, but there’s undoubtedly a bit more in selling them online (for now, at least).

So there’s a possible outline of our future: radically fewer bricks and mortar bookstores, and Amazon dominating the sale (maybe the publishing, too) of both paper and e-books.  We can hope for stronger competition to emerge in the e-book field as time goes on, since the ecology of that area is still in flux, but Amazon’s proved itself an incredibly resourceful and assertive operator so far, so I don’t suppose they’ll concede any ground too easily.

Many folk celebrate the e-book revolution as a cathartic destruction of old-fashioned, restrictive practices and businesses, which is freeing up established and aspiring writers, small-scale publishers and even readers, and opening up huge new vistas of choice.  Which is at least partly true, and worth celebrating.  Choice is a fragile and sometimes illusory thing, though.  At the moment, we’re seeing the destruction pretty clearly, but the compensatory creation of diverse, viable and sustainable mechanisms for the production, distribution and sale of a healthy variety of high quality writing doesn’t seem to be proceeding with quite the same vigour (unless you’re Amazon, and in their case diversity – by which in this context I specifically mean competition – is very much not something they’re looking to foster).

That’s inevitable, and hopefully we’ll end up somewhere positive in the end, but there does seem to be a risk that here, in the middle of the messy process, good stuff might get torn down along with the bad and some new bad stuff might get built on the wreckage.  Such is life, and watching it all certainly makes for an interesting spectator sport.

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  1. Wilfred’s avatar

    “Amazon gobbles up The Book Depository.”

    Now that’s really bad news. I hope to see the Book Depository continue as a separate store, but most likely Amazon will over time close it down.

    The Book Depository is great, their free shipping makes books more available all around the world. And their free bookmarks are simply awesome!

  2. Brian’s avatar

    Yes, it’s difficult to see anything particularly positive for readers, writers, publishers, anyone really, in that bit of news. Can’t blame Amazon for doing it – from their point of view it makes obvious sense – but an independent Book Depository was one of my favourite bits of the online bookselling world.

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