Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

How bookstores have changed (for me).

I spent an hour in Barnes and Noble today, and it felt…different. Almost like my first time. To see so many books — each with their striking covers and unique stories or genres — I felt, well not overwhelmed for myself, but for the system.

For all those authors, publishers, agents, and editors. For the grueling chore of matching those books up with willing readers. In the lobby there were stacks of books that B&N put right by the door, on the OTHER side of the security mechanism, practically begging people to just cart them off in wheelbarrows (saving them the hassle of returning and recycling them).

The biggest sale table in the store is reserved for “Publisher Overstock” or some-such label. Tons of hardcovers, bound for the returns cycle, marked down to a pittance (minus your membership discount, of course).

Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster was adorned with a huge 40% off sticker. They were bricked up in the display window like a monument to excess. Thousands of copies and a half-dozen browsers in the entire store on a Sunday.

I saw two books that I really, really wanted to read. Both were small hardbacks that I would’ve polished off in a few hours. One was $28, the other was $26. I put both back where I found them.

I stood in front of the New History rack and marveled at the successful query letters before me. Years of research, writing, and editing. They waited another year to get the thing on the shelf. I wondered if ten thousand people would read most of them and how much the publisher had invested. I tried to pick out the one or two that would pay for the rest, but if such were that easy, the rack would have one or two books on it.

The entire endeavor used to be less mysterious when it was a stranger. The more intimate we get, the more bizarre it seems to me. It should just boil down to one of two motivations: entertain with storytelling or enlighten with research and distillation. These are the two point “A’s.” I was standing in point “B.” Having staggered along the precarious and twisting ridge between the two, I wonder why it can’t be simpler.

With advances in technology, is a book still the best way to educate someone on any given subject? Wouldn’t the author be better off with a Wiki that he could edit freely at any given moment as new findings surface? Wouldn’t the storyteller be better off if the tale had immediacy combined with a broader reach? What about interactivity? Animation? Color?

What books seem to provide, that publication on the Internet doesn’t, is monetization. There’s no copy and paste from a book. No downloading for free. It’s an object, and it should cost something. Hey, you can hold it.

If you’re familiar with my blog, you’re waiting for my massive insight or pithy comment, that “zinger” that ends each ramble, rewarding you for slogging through it all. Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have any. I don’t even know what to think. This industry of taking thoughts and ideas, communicating them to the masses, and trying to make a living at it…completely baffles me. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion, hoping to arrive at its deeper mysteries, and getting nothing but blurry vision and irritation.

Eh…mildly pithy, I suppose.

2 replies to “How bookstores have changed (for me).”

A couple of interesting observations there Hugh especially about whether books are still the best way to go. I have to say that to me there are, as cool as the Kindle looks there is something magical about holding a book in your hands. I love the way they feel, there are so many different paper stocks in use today, and the way they smell both the paper and the ink. There is something both exciting and frightening about watching your bookmark march its way to the back of the book and something comforting about holding a book in your hands. For me digital readers are wonderful ideas for newspapers and magazines but I want books on my shelf not in my computer.

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