Continuing the increasingly ubiquitous discussion of the future of bookstores (in the wake of Borders in the UK going into receivership), two heavyweight thinkers have thrown their opinions out into the ring in the last few days. First of all, Clay Shirky, who notes that there are three basic groups of people arguing for bookstores to be rescued from what seems to be an unstoppable decline, and that it’s the one that treats bookstores as having in intrinsic community value that has the most hope of coming up with a workable model for the future:
[This] third group, though, is making the ‘access to literature’ argument without much real commitment to its truth or falsehood, because they aren’t actually worried about access to literature, they are worried about bookstores in and of themselves. This is a form of Burkean conservatism, in which the value built up over centuries in the existence of bookstores should be preserved, even though their previous function as the principal link between writers and readers is being displaced.
This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.
Then we get a response from Cory Doctorow, who can come at the question from multiple angles – as someone who has both frequented bookstores and been employed by them, and as someone whose creative output is sold through them. As always with Doctorow, out-of-the-box thinking comes as standard; for example, instead of seeing print-on-demand technology as a business-killer, why not look at how you can use it to add value to the bookstore experience?
At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.
Plenty of room for one-person middle-man businesses in there, as well… maybe the publishing houses should start thinking in this direction, too. What if they outsourced the physical side of book publishing – design, layout, so on and so forth – entirely to custom designers? You’d quickly get a range of services from the utilitarian to the luxurious, and add an element of individuality to a medium that has become increasingly homogenised… [image by jayniebell]
Blue-sky thinking aside, Doctorow and Shirkey make it plain that there’s no reason bookstores have to die off… but it’s up to the people that run them (and, to some extent, those who use them, too) to make some changes in the direction of sustainability.