Two items that at first glance seem unrelated, but upon further review, go hand-in-hand, really grabbed my attention this past week.
1) Amazon announced that ebook sales outpaced sales of physical books on Christmas day, and,
2) Publishers' Lunch announced that "Much-admired Canadian indie McNally Robinson Booksellers has entered bankruptcy and will close two of its four stores immediately.
It's not like the closing of two bookstores should really come as much of a surprise to anyone, at least not anyone who has been paying attention. Bookstores all around the world have been closing faster than it seems possible for a couple of years now. The combination of a poor economy and the abundance of competition from the internet, television, movies and music for people's free time has seen book sales take a slow decline for years.
People who love to read will always make/find the time to indulge their hobby, and those are the people who have been served by the bookstores which have remained profitable enough to stay open.
Now, however, many of those hard-core readers, the ones bookstores have always catered to, have begun to make the journey into the brave new world of digital reading. The advantages are many: you can shop for your latest read without ever leaving the comfort of your home, you can carry your entire library with you wherever you go, you can adjust font size instantly to suit your particular needs, just to name a few.
The problem, of course, for bookstores is obvious. If I'm a hard-core reader, and I don't have to come into your store to support my habit, where the hell are your sales going to come from? And how will it be possible to make enough sales to maintain economic viability?
No less a writing giant than Stephen King estimates that by the end of the upcoming decade, electronic books will account for forty percent of fiction sales and twenty-five percent of non-fiction sales. Quibble with his numbers if you wish, but in only a matter of a couple of years the debate has changed from "Will e-books ever be a viable option for readers?" to "Just how much of the market share will e-books gobble up?"
Another question, maybe the most important question, to consider is this: At what point will it become un-feasable for brick-and-mortar bookstores to survive, economically speaking? Will it be when e-book sales are five percent of the total? Ten? Twenty-five?
I wonder if the dinosaurs saw the end coming, and if so, what did they think?