There Will Always Be a Place for Great Bookstores

The business of publishing and selling books will continue its radical change. But some things are eternal.
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The University of Denver's Publishing Institute, founded in 1976, is a leading program for recent graduates and some "career changers" intending to join the book industry. For four summer weeks, the students (this session there are 96) get an intensive overview of how books come together, including editing, sales, marketing, publicity, agenting, and design. The institute's director is Joyce Meskis, the owner of Tattered Cover, three superb bookstores in Denver, and one of publishing's most admired figures. Drawing talent into the industry has clearly become a major goal for Meskis and, busy as she certainly is, you can sense how vital she and her colleagues feel it is to invigorate the venerable world of books with a flow of inspired newcomers. I was flattered to be asked to present this year's keynote speech on the opening morning which meant reflecting broadly on our industry. Here is some of what I felt the students would find helpful.

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There have been many changes over the decades in the way books are sold. Today, we are clearly in the midst of a profound upheaval as the digital age shapes habits that will be an increasing part of the world of books for the foreseeable future. But whatever happens in the coming years, there will always be a place for incomparable booksellers of which Tattered Cover is the unquestioned model.

In the most basic sense, the purpose of our industry has remained the same for centuries: the telling of stories and the chronicling of events. Whether the medium was the symbols and images scrawled on the walls of caves, scrolls painstakingly drawn by hand, or the Gutenberg press which made books available to audiences of ever-increasing sizes, the function has never really changed. Reading, in whatever format is the standard for its time, provides eternal pleasures and insights -- and the bookseller plays a crucial role in making the written word widely available.

Here is a basic fact: books are not disappearing, no matter what naysayers may assert from time to time. Publishing is under pressure, but that has always been the case. It is often said that after Gutenberg printed his famous edition of the Bible, the second book he published was "The Book Is Dead." But it wasn't true in 1454 and it isn't true today. Yes, the economics of the media industries are evolving rapidly. Within your lifetime, the music, film, broadcasting, newspaper and magazine businesses have all been transformed by the digital revolution. It would be foolish to think that publishing is immune. But the book industry has some unique attributes that will help shape our future. Unlike other information and entertainment products, books don't carry advertising, so we don't have to worry about losing that revenue. We also don't have subscribers for the most part, so we're not losing them either.

The issue for books has always been inventory management: that is getting the right books to the right place at the right time. In 2005, with support from the MacArthur and Carnegie foundations, I started a project called Caravan to help nonprofit and university presses do books in all the ways possible: in print, as e-books, as audio books, in large print, and from print-on-demand machines in local bookstores. The motto we adopted for our project and the mantra I want to leave with you is this: Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now.

In capsule form, that is what the future of the publishing industry needs to be. Yes, there are lots of details to be worked out to turn that vision into a reality -- a new distribution system, or set of systems that will be convenient and satisfying for readers and profitable/ for authors, publishers and booksellers.

But whatever the details, this must be our future: Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now.

In the digital era of screens, content is delivered in many ways aside from print. But the process of producing a coherent well-argued nonfiction book or an engaging compelling novel is still fundamentally the same as it ever was: Experienced editors are still needed to help even the most gifted authors articulate their messages and hone their stories. So publishing today is about change, but also about continuity. We live in what is the most competitive period ever for public attention, with an unprecedented array of information and choices available. Yet books are holding their own.

As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, the nature of the book business was very different from what it has now become. Traditionally, when people contemplated finding a book that was not a huge bestseller, their thoughts tended to be, "I'll see if I can get it. I'll go look for it." Technology has made that notion obsolete. Now, readers assume that virtually any book they want, even the most obscure, can be available at the click of a mouse for home delivery within a day or two. Once the urge to own a book takes hold, there should be no obstacle to actually getting it. As I said at the outset, there is for many of us a close affinity to local booksellers. And we can respect the role of a big (and now troubled) chain like Barnes & Noble. But every brick and mortar retailer has to compete with the efficiency and aggressive pricing of Amazon and the ease of online retailing.

Bookstores are for browsing, but they should also be showrooms in which the selection on hand is backed up by the vast catalog and data bases of books that can be ordered. No customer should ever leave a store having asked for a book that can be located somewhere without closing the sale. I once saw a relevant sign in a hotel in Egypt of all places that today's booksellers should adopt: "The answer is yes; there is no other answer." The best bookstores -- as Joyce Meskis has helped to teach us -- become community destinations featuring an array of additional attraction such as reading groups and writing classes. The appeal of spending time with other readers is considerable. Bookstores are clubs, open to all with common ideals and interests. (It helps, of course, to have a coffee shop or cozy lounging areas.)

So, the roles of the publisher and the booksellers remain essential to the process. We are there to serve, bearing in mind that consumers have much more choice in the way of format and the means of distribution than they did a generation ago. But if past is prologue, reading is eternal. What is harder to describe is what will happen next. If there is as much change in the next ten years as there has been in the past decade, then iconic brands of the moment may be replaced by gadgets and networks being devised right now by some dropout in a garage.

I cannot say what the dominant influences will be, except that there will still be books and readers -- and I am looking forward to the exciting new vistas you'll be helping tomorrow's readers explore.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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