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.
570_Barnes_and_Noble_Bookstore_Reader_Reuters.jpg
Reuters

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.

***

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.

Presented by

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.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Business

Just In