Discount retailers and electronic readers worry some in the book world

[9 December 2009]

By Zac Gall

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In an effort dubbed internally as “Project Impact,” Wal-Mart has redesigned its store layouts in order to make all departments visible from most perspectives.

Still, the books section at the Wal-Mart store in Roeland Park, Mo., is tucked away in a corner, next to the public restrooms, and it’s possible to wonder whether there’s some subtextual meaning in that location.

When you get there you’ll find several tiered shelves stuffed with hardcover novels, their companion audio books, mass-market Westerns and romances, and movie tie-ins to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Sapphire’s “Push” (“Precious” on screen).

In store, Wal-Mart offers discounts of 30 percent on newly released hardcover titles like Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” or John Grisham’s “Ford County.” Online, however, Wal-Mart has slashed prices on select releases by up to 69 percent, part of a pricing war among large retailers that heated up earlier this year and raised a pertinent question: What is the value of a book?

In addition to the retail battle of the books, as the printed word moves inevitably toward an electronic future, accessibility increases while costs decrease. can deliver Hilary Mantel’s huge Booker Prize-winning novel, “Wolf Hall” — $27 retail — in 60 seconds to your Kindle for $9.99. The device boasts more than 360,000 titles and 101 of the 112 current New York Times Best-Sellers.

Meanwhile, readership has declined despite the increase in convenience. In 2007, the New York Times reported that 27 percent of American adults had not read a book the previous year. People still seek stories as entertainment in their daily lives, but the predominance of movies, viral videos and television indicate a shift in our cultural focus. As evidenced by the incessant stream of movie quotes in our students’ vocabulary, books seem to hold far less cultural currency than ever before. Given the vast canon of classic literature, you’re more likely to have seen the same film (say, “Cold Mountain” in 2001) than you are to have read the same book as someone else (say, the 1997 National Book Award winner, “Cold Mountain”).

“Good writers had a following that was more substantial than it is today,” the novelist Philip Roth lamented recently in an interview with the BBC. “The attention of readers has shifted away. They’ve been overcome by so many other distractions; and the habit of concentration I think has been badly damaged by the nature of the cultural stimuli. So it feels to me very much like a dying moment for literary culture in my own country — you can’t have computers and iPods and BlackBerries and blueberries and raspberries, and have time left to sit for two or three hours with a book.”

Not everyone in the literary community, though, sees the digital age of the novel as detrimental to its value.

“Perhaps with the market,” the writer Paul Auster said in a recent online rebuttal to Roth, “fewer people are reading novels than previously. Still, if you walk into a bookstore there are thousands upon thousands of them there. ... Libraries are crammed with novels as well, and people are reading them. I don’t think it’s ever going to dry up.”

Nonetheless, independent booksellers aren’t pleased. They have described the competitive pressure from Wal-Mart, Target and other sellers as “illegal predatory pricing.” In a letter to the Department of Justice on Oct. 22, the American Booksellers Association contends that “these pricing schemes ... are devaluing the very concept of the book. Authors and publishers, and ultimately consumers, stand to lose a great deal if this practice continues and/or grows.”

Wal-Mart and similar stores can’t offer all books at such deeply discounted rates. The books available at $8.98 are limited to preorders on a select 10 titles.

Whether or not they read them, people continue to buy books. Barnes & Noble recently reported a four-percent increase in sales for the just-finished quarter.

The need for booksellers and libraries has never left. allows book buyers to scan pages of many books, but even there you can’t appreciate the quality of Chip Kidd’s design for Vladmir Nabakov’s newly published posthumous novel, “The Original of Laura.” You can’t feel the book’s thick pages. You can’t trace your fingers across the perforated facsimiles of Nabokov’s handwritten note cards, which comprise the 304-page novel-in-progress. While appraising its image on a screen, you can’t feel its heft in your hands.

And while a Nook or a Kindle might hold 1,500 of your favorite books, it can never hold the same significance as the stuffed shelves of a personal library. Only a finished, tangible book transcends that initial consumerist exchange. And only in a library or a store dedicated to books — where employees know their trade and can lead you to a themed display filled with literary magazines and novels an online market cannot sustain — can you feel the value of a book. There remains an undeniable pleasure in the physical act of browsing in bookstores and libraries completely absent in the virtual marketplace. . Independent booksellers survive because of their ability to cater to local clientele, to specialize in one way or another, and to maintain a rich selection of both large and small press offerings.

“The novel is such a flexible form,” said Auster. “It’s not like a sonnet — it’s not fixed. You can do anything you want with it. All bets are off. There are no rules, and that’s why I think the novel is constantly reinventing itself.”

A novel can offer an experience that movies and television never can — an experience of the mind, the imagination and the heart that’s triggered merely by words on a page. That’s why people will continue to buy them and read them, and why stories borne by books will always be more satisfying.

Published at: