I think this is sad news, as I’m always sad when bookstores close, and I’m particularly sad that the Waldenbooks at my local Lincolnwood Town Mall–where my family has spent countless hours, especially at its magazine and comics racks–is on the to-close list. But in a way I’m glad, as this means that yet another supposed agent of publishing’s ever-imminent death is now biting the dust itself. I’m old enough to remember when publishing’s perennial chicken-littleism was focused on mall stores as that era’s (the 80s, pretty much) number-one threat. The argument went that because small, efficient chain outlets focused on turning over high volumes of popular titles and devoted less space to backlist, we the public were inexorably going to see a diminution of available means to buy and enjoy a wider breadth of books. Publishing, literacy, and life as we knew it would be dealt an incalculable blow.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. The chains themselves swiftly figured out they could make even more money by aping the qualities of the best independent stores–in terms of design, amenities, and a bigger and broader selection of available titles. Then the internet came along, and the first real business to emerge on it turned out to be the so-called “biggest bookstore in the world.” And thus were born a new breed of publishing-killers. Of course, publishing is still dying–just ask anybody. This despite the fact that more books are published every year, and it’s far easier than it’s ever been for readers to buy any book they want, used or new, from a wide variety of sellers in an ever-increasing variety of formats and at an ever widening spectrum of price points.
As many in publishing stick their heads back in the ground, fearful of being beaned to death (this year) by a hailstorm of e-readers, it’s probably worth noting that for all its considerable flaws, our industry has over the past two decades done a remarkable job of doing what healthy industries should do: figure out how to evolve in ways that better serve its customers, in particular by responding to changes in technology and consumer behavior. Business history is littered with dead or diminished industries that failed to do this. Take a look around at other media businesses, specifically the newspaper, magazine, recording, movie, and television industries; none of these have been nearly as flexible and adaptive in the face of these changes as book publishing, and they are all experiencing what I believe is far more fear and pain as a result. Don’t be surprised if their survival strategies end up making them look more like the book publishing industry.