Other Gadgets

Should we save the bookstore?

Anuj Srivas | Updated on August 13, 2014

The question goes deeper than just the tradition vs progress debate



The technology of the future often arrives looking much like the past. The first book that was ever printed, for instance, came with a typeface that closely resembled the handwriting of a scribe.

When Silicon Valley built the personal computer, it was called the desktop; named after office desks that had typewriters and other systems of organising and accessing information.

End of an era

It was not surprising, therefore, that when Jeff Bezos got up on stage in 2007 to introduce to the world the Kindle, he stressed how it wasn’t too different from the physical book. “If you’re going to do something like this,” the Amazon CEO said, “you have to be as good as the book in a lot of respects.” “It must project an aura of bookishness; it should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture.”

But the trouble in cloaking new technology with the clothes of the past is that it often ends up being a marketing tactic; designed to reassure and deceive customers.

The printing press did, more or less, eliminate the job of the scribe. The desktop PC obviated the need for typewriters, just as e-books and the practice of buying and selling books online are granting the standalone bookstore a slow death.

The city of Chennai, for instance, was dealt a rude shock two months ago, when bookstore chain Landmark closed its iconic Nungambakkam branch. Other bookstores are faced with a similar fate.

The fate of the humble bookshop, which seemed as if it was destined to go the way the video rental store did, has been raked up yet again due to two recent events.



In France, home and champion of the traditional and independent bookstore, the country’s Senate very recently passed what is being referred to in certain quarters as an ‘Anti-Amazon’ law. This legislation seeks to promote brick-and-mortar bookstores by restricting online merchants such as Amazon from offering free shipping of discounted books. France has a history of propping up small bookshops and also has rules that fix the prices of most books, thus ruling out online discounts.

These laws mirror how the French view technology and its associated convenience: though Amazon handles a lion’s share of the country’s online book sales, just 18 per cent of all books are sold online.

Across the ocean, in America, is an example of what the French fear the most: that technology will eliminate all other alternatives and in the end, hurt the customer and reader.

Amazon and publishing giant Hachette are currently locked in a corporate boxing match over the pricing of e-books and are haggling over the contract details for distributing the latter’s books.

The spat was made public—leaving readers with black eyes—after Amazon decided to stop selling certain Hachette titles, making others ‘unavailable’ to purchase and advertising a few books alongside a banner of ‘similar items at lower price’ as part of its negotiation strategy.

The tussle reached a crescendo last week, when over 900 authors signed a full-page letter that ran in the New York Times and criticized Amazon for “harming the livelihood of authors on whom it has built its business.”

Fighting redundancy?

There is a tendency, when it comes to dealing with the consequences of technological advancement, to frame the debate as one between decrepit dinosaurs (bookstores and the publishing industry) and agents of progress (Amazon). One of the most common arguments for allowing bookstores to die out is that it is impossible to save everything that technology renders redundant. It is also, in most cases, not necessary. After all, nobody is launching campaigns or passing legislation to save DVD and video rental stores from closing down or to preserve MP3 players from becoming extinct.

The quickest and most obvious counter argument to this is the very visible side-effects of the Hachette- Amazon controversy. The reader and the consumer were the ones who suffered. It is not too difficult to imagine a futuristic scenario where a large, monopolistic seller will be the one who decides what gets published or what won’t be published.

But there is also something deeper going on here. France and few other countries have decided that while online retailing of books may be better for the immediate desires of the consumer (lower prices), it is devastating for a country’s literary culture and general tradition.

The obvious parallel here is how there are companies and farmers that jump onto certain types of technology, which provide excellent monetary returns, but end up ruining the overall soil ecosystem.

It is this concept of sustainable technology, or integrating technology into our world to the benefit of both the customer and the corporate, that is missing from our current crop of technology companies.

It doesn’t matter whether it is ridesharing firm Uber—which has been accused of allegedly ordering and cancelling rides from rival Lyft—or online lodging service Airbnb, which has a propensity for avoiding local regulation to the detriment of its users.

Technology often allows us to make the easiest choice, not the best one. It is in this type of world, perhaps, that bookstores must be saved in order to prevent consequences we are only starting to feel now.

Published on August 13, 2014

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