Bill Petrocelli on the vitality of physical books

A Bay Area bookseller challenges conventional thinking about books & business models

Commentators outside the book business often compare books to LPs and CDs in the music business. Since information in a book can be downloaded into an e-book in the same way that music can be loaded onto an iPod, they argue, books and records will share the same fate.

Although e-books are now probably no more than about 15 percent of all books published, these commentators would have you believe that the printed book is in dire straits. And some within the digerati have even written off the printed book entirely. John Biggs, who writes a blog called TechnoCrunch.com, is absolutely certain that by 2025 books will be “at best, an artifact and at worst a nuisance.” We need a generic name for people who espouse this viewpoint. I suggest “techno-twit.”

What if a book isn’t like a record?

Books printed on movable type have been around for 573 years, since Gutenberg printed his famous bible and upended history. Anyone who claims that the demise of records foreshadows the end of books needs to consider the many ways that books are integral to our culture. When technological newcomers—like vinyl records, tapes, and CDs—were forced to give way to succeeding technologies, it was usually because the new technology was able to recreate the exact same experience as the one it replaced (Of course, some, including my son, claim that they can hear the difference in vinyl records).

But not all new technologies moot their forbears. Radio’s death knell has been sounded many times, but radio fills a role that other technologies, like television, cannot. The book, too, will not be replaced.

What if a book is more like a movie?

The death of movies has been routinely predicted with the advent of television, VCRs, DVDs, and streaming video. But watching a film in a movie theater is physically different that watching it at home. The screen is larger, the sound more enveloping, and the experience more engaging. E-books and printed books may both deliver the same words, but beyond that the mediums diverge. This is most obvious in large art, travel, or photography books, where the visual aspect of the book predominates. It’s true also in children’s books, with their flip-up illustrations, over-thick pages, and enticing shapes and sizes. People often love a particular book for reasons that transcend the collection of words it might contain.

But books are like movies in another sense as well. “Going to the movies” allows you to immerse yourself in a shared cultural experience. Going to the bookstore—or a modern library—is a similar social tradition: staff members recommend books, customers compare notes, book clubs allow us to share the literary experience. What truly sets a printed book apart is a modern-day author event. Having sat through hundreds of them, I can attest that nothing compares with the moment when writers meet their fans for the first time. And what is the medium of exchange? A printed book—one that is lovingly handed over, inscribed, and then carefully handed back.

What if a book is more like a Rembrandt etching?

Rembrandt’s 1632 etching “The Raising of Lazarus” has a going price of about $60,000. So does a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” (or at least that’s what one sold for in London in 2009.) Other books sell for gallery-like prices, too. A signed first edition of John Grisham’s 1989 novel “A Time to Kill” was selling two years ago for $1,500. Can you imagine a similar price on the open market for a non-transferable, cloud-based e-book?

What if a book is more like a love letter?

The British writer Malcolm Bradbury, in a New York Times essay, called the giving and getting of books “The Courtship Dance.” “It was some time ago, when I was still a young student in college, that I learned that books make subtle and indeed erotic presents,” Bradbury writes. “Today I realize that I have to thank my female friend in college for a good deal more than a happy half-year and a fine copy of [D.H.] Lawrence.”

“The means of seduction is the book itself, that intricate object, with its great fan of pages far more complex in its messages than the most advanced word processor. Designers design it – the right cover, the right typeface, the right style. Then the booksellers take over. I am not sure what your bookstores in the States are like these days, but here in Europe they grow more exotic by the week. The lighting is low, coffee is served, evening readings and lunchtime signings tempt you to some literary assignation. You taste, you sniff, at last you buy.”

Love letters come in many forms. A book doesn’t need to have a flower pressed between its pages to be a billets doux. A note written by a grandmother and inscribed on the fly-leaf of a child’s book will unleash a life-time of memories when that same book is picked up and looked at years later.

What if a book is more like….

I could go on, but I’ll give the last word to San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. He was commenting in the San Francisco Chronicle  about the upsurge in daylight robberies from people who sit on buses and benches, mindlessly reading their smart phones. The robber approaches, and within seconds the electronic device is gone.

“If you’re on the bus, read a book,” Suhr advised. “We do not have an upward trend of the theft of books.”

 

{Bill Petrocelli is an author, bookseller, and former attorney. For the past three decades he has been the co-owner, with his wife Elaine, of Book Passage, a retail bookstore in San Francisco and Corte Madera.}

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3 Responses to Bill Petrocelli on the vitality of physical books

  1. Audrey Joseph June 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Thank you Bill Petrocelli for the May 3 piece on the vitality of physical books. It warms my
    83-year-old heart and I can’t agree more. I’m dreading the day not too long off when I will
    have to find persons or groups to whom I can donate my some 60,000 volumes. I have very few fiction and no children’s books but mostly non-fiction in every every category of humanities. And would you believe? I’m still buying them—I must have OCD! Also, any ideas about who might want them without my cata-loging and/or shipping them?

  2. Audrey Joseph June 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    No, I only said it once!

  3. Mackenzie Kelly October 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Printed books have been cheapened by the printers who have dropped sewn in the fold for glued up backs. Built in obsolescence. To rebind you have to cut off the back and whipstitch before attaching new covers. The kiss of death when the repaired book is read.
    In addition, the new back does not round nicely – but, of course most new books are ephemeral and are not worth preserving.

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