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The evolving book biz

Wow! Everything I have read recently on the woes of book publishers has stressed declining readership as a reason for falling sales, and yet, the last few days, two major newspapers ran articles on how the used book business is thriving. The New York Times piece stressed the behavior of the "voracious reader" as a problem for publishers. Journalist David Streitfeld numbers himself among the voracious and recounts his experiences looking for bargains on the web and in used bookstores. He discusses how this affects publishers, regular (as opposed to used) bookstores, and authors.

The Washington Post story dealt more with the web as a facilitator of used book sales. The article features Wonder Books, which started as a brick-and-mortar used book store in Frederick, Maryland, and evolved into a huge web-based business. The article details their customer base of readers, collectors, and even interior decorators looking for books for their covers!

So, think about it. Books are a unique type of merchandise. They are long-lasting and yet, for the overwhelming majority of consumers, they are a use-once product. People will watch movies over and over, but they rarely re-read books. This is not universal behavior. I certainly re-read books I love. But I do have to love the book to want to read it again. So what happens to print books after they have been read? Apparently, Wonder Books happen. Used bookstores have been around forever, but the web has changed the dynamic because now you can almost always find the book you want.

I don't see this as a bad thing, although I can see how publishers and authors might. To her credit, Wendy Lesser, the author cited in NYT article, was philosophical, figuring wisely that she could still gain a reader even without immediate revenue. But what this situation does is to put evolutionary pressure on publishers to adapt or die. They need to keep new book prices competitive with used book prices, and e-books may help them do that.

In the next several years, some publishers will prove to be dinosaurs, and some will become birds and take flight.





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