Goodbye physical bookstore, we loved you

Everyone already knows that certain big-name bookstores are closing down. What a sad state of affairs. This post was originally in response to the beautiful Julia Munroe Martin of wordsxo, but the reply got so long, I figured I’d just turn it into tonight’s rant! You can see her entry, then read on. Borders: It’s Personal

Part of the problem is, big chain bookstores have so much extra to factor into costs at the get-go. Rent/property tax, utilities for the big store front, employees both on the floor and out of sight. But the nasty part is the profit margin they are expected to turn, because that becomes mark-up for the consumer to bear.

In this day and age, we know what kind of money is going back to the writer, and their agent, and the editor at the publishing house. The publishing execs make their profit (for themselves and the stockholders). Then there’s the workers at the print factory, the binders, the general production costs. We know that half the work at a publishing house is done by unpaid interns. We know that the bosses are looking at that profit margin, no matter which company it’s going through. At every stop, someone is adding that little extra, but once you reach an actual store, their “little extra” heads upwards in ways that are no longer fair to the average consumer.

Who can afford new books from big chains anymore? I’m not going to buy e-books exclusively when I finally get an e-reader (I will always want a physical copy), but the cost is a very real factor. If the writer, the person whose creation you’re reading, is finally able to get a better cut of the cake, that’s a good direction for us to be stepping.

But electronic media is by nature very non-capitalist; a computer file is infinitely reproducible at negligible cost, so what are we really paying for? There is the stipend to the writer, as a thanks for their creative work, and to cover the costs they incurred while writing and editing and hiring an artist to make some very nice cover art. Then even by buying through online stores, we pay to keep that store online (staff, bandwidth, their office overheads). But they don’t need a big, expensive store front, with high-exposure to a main road. They don’t need nice carpets or a flashy sign out front. They can sit in their respectably comfortable offices and still provide us with the same end product, for less cost to us.

If we were able to drag our society away from the superficial appearance-driven stores that cost so much to run, would they remain viable businesses? Or would the top-tiers of each company still drive the cost outside of a profitable range at all? An e-book ultimately isn’t a superior product to an actual paper print, though it has considerable advantages (and don’t get me started on the paper industry, we will be here all night). I think the physical book, and indeed the physical bookstore will persist beyond this electronic age, but they need to grow and adapt.