Amazon, a company that has spent years slowly devouring the market share of physical books in favor of the e-book has, as of Tuesday last week, opened a bookstore in Seattle. Bookseller Waterstones is quoted as saying it hopes the venture will “fall flat on its face.”
Because of the popularity of e-reader devices, principally the Amazon Kindle, the market for physical books has not exactly shrunk to a wrinkled nub of its former ebullient self, but over the past few years it has certainly diminished. Scores of bookstores have been forced to close because they cannot compete with the aggressive tactics of the marketing giant. In fact sales at bookstores are expected to finish up this year lower than they were during the slump twenty years ago.
The five thousand books in the new bookstore are to be displayed with the face-forward (as opposed to spineward) and will be shelved according to their star rating. Moreover, snippets from online reviews will be quoted verbatim on plaques above the books, in order to encourage sales, and the prices will exactly match what they sell for on the Amazon website.
Why would Amazon take what looks like a retrograde step in its marketing plan, which so far has seemed hell-bent on eradicating the physical book from the face of the earth? One reason might be that, despite its best effort at evangelizing people into the e-book gospel, there are still millions of people who prefer holding a physical book, or who simply can’t afford to by a Kindle e-reader. Nearly a billion paperbacks were sold last year, half a billion hardbacks were also sold, as were half a billion e-books. So despite the hype about e-books tolling the death knell for physical books, e-books still have a long way to go before they can match the compelling allure of paper.
Seattle is the home of Amazon headquarters, so it can be inferred that the bosses of the company will keep a close eye on the development of this foray down from hyperspace to the nitty-gritty of the physical world. And there are a number of other reasons why Seattle may have been chosen as the homecoming queen of the ball (see this interesting report
It is interesting how technology that is centuries old, i.e. the codex of the physical book, can still command such respect when ostensibly the e-book seems more convenient. But then, books are so easy to navigate through, especially if they have a decent table of contents and an index. By comparison the e-book seems clumsy. Where you might flick to the back of a book, consult the index, then flick back to the exact page you are looking for, with an e-book the quickest you can achieve the same thing is by searching on a word or phrase and then paging through potentially scores of entries to try to find what you are looking for.
On the other hand, I can see the value of the e-book if you are going on a long journey or an extended vacation, since it means you don’t have the inconvenience of lugging around half a dozen novels with you wherever you go. But that doesn’t happen that often, does it? And besides, with e-books you will never have the chance of showing somebody into your spacious eighteenth century library and dragging them round the place with a smug, self-satisfied smirk on your face.
Over the years I have collected quite a number of large-format art books, covering painting and sculpture from the Renaissance onwards. Clicking on an e-book certainly can’t match the pleasure of opening out a double-page spread of some ancient masterpiece and studying the detail minutely. Even though e-book readers may have color and even zoomability, that still doesn’t come close to the feel, maneuverability and wide aspect ratios of the physical book.
Frankly, I think Amazon, ravening beast that it is, has made a very shrewd move pushing out into the relatively unknown waters of bookstore sales. Now if only they would open a branch in my neighborhood…