News & Politics

Which Would You Choose: Paper Books? Or Bookstores?

Is it better to have paper books--or to have real stores in which to buy them? Our Books Editor considers this question.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a small but strong gathering of minds from various areas of digital book production, collection, curation, and distribution. The #altbookstore conference sought to develop a working e-bookstore alternative to Amazon, that elephant in everybody’s living room bookshelves. 

I won’t attempt to report on the proceedings, because others have already done so, and much better than I could. Besides, this is a general-interest magazine’s blog, not a digipublishing geek’s ‘zine (which I would be happy to read!). But today one of the participants on the listserve that generated attendance at the conference said something that truly struck me as Your Books Editor.  He said “I am happy to give up print, but I don’t like giving up bookstores.” (A small caveat: I prefer to use the term “paper books” rather than “print books,” because text on a screen, IMO, is still “print.”)

As it happens, I agree with him. While this year the books I read are equally divided between paper and screen, as more and more publishers provide critics like me with electronic galleys, I know I will find myself reading online more frequently. As the #altbookstore crowd discussed, this probably means that excellent online book-buying experiences are necessary. However, much as I love being able to download a novel and read it instantly, I shudder to think of no longer being able to visit a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in which I can look at lots of novels (and biographies, and cookbooks, and…) in juxtaposition and talk directly with lively, engaged booksellers. 

Here’s why: Although recent research tells us that information may be retained differently when read on a screen instead of a page, that may change as humans evolve. What doesn’t seem to be changing is the way we discover new books in any form. Word of mouth remains the most effective way to hear about (and sell) books. 

My choice: No paper books, lots of real bookstores. But you might disagree. In fact, please! Do so! Tell me what you think in the comments.