When I was in my late teens and twenties, the record stores I shopped in were packed with people just like me. We’d all be shoulder to shoulder at the record bins, flipping through vinyl, occasionally plucking out a potential purchase while smirking at the hopelessly uncool selections of those around us. Later, in the ’90s, as I entered my thirties, I never really stopped buying records (though they were CDs by then) and I would often notice that I was the oldest shopper in whatever store I was in. I was a man among kids.
Skip forward again, as I closed in on my forties, and a funny thing happened. The kids disappeared. It didn’t happen gradually. One day they were clogging the music store aisles, clutching their Smashmouth and Offspring CDs, and the next day they were gone. Today, there are three record stores within a day’s drive of my house (Princeton, Red Bank, and Fords, NJ) and when I go to any of them, I know who I’ll find there before I enter the door. People just like me. Fortyish guys, fiftyish guys. Record collectors. Old music geeks who never gave up the habit. Once again, some thirty years later, I have only my own contemporaries for company.
Where did the kids go? They went home to their computers, where all the music is free.
A few years ago, my wife and I were trying to come up with Christmas gift ideas for the younger cousins on her side of the family. I can’t remember what we’d given them before, but they were in their late teens, and we needed some new idea. I suggested iTunes gift cards. Hey, they must listen to music, right? My wife took this idea to the kids’ mother and then reported back to me. No good, she said. They don’t want to go to iTunes. “Not even to get free songs?” I said. They get their songs from something called LimeWire, my wife said.
Compared to downloading free songs on LimeWire, even using an iTunes gift card was too much of a needless hassle for them. I don’t follow the whole file-sharing P2P thing very closely, so for all I know, LimeWire has gone legit now, the way Napster once tried to go. If it has, then surely there are another dozen grey-market P2P file sharers out there, an MP3 Rocket or some such, taking its place. There are people in their late twenties today, people who love music and own untold thousands of songs, who have never purchased a song in their lives. Purchasing a song for their listening pleasure would be like purchasing a newspaper to read the news. It’s an inconceivable notion.
All of which brings us to the literary marketplace. Compared to the megastore major-label music biz of twenty years ago, today’s literary marketplace is a mom-and-pop store with licorice whips in glass jars and three-for-a-penny taffies in a wooden barrel next to the cigar counter. It’s so small that most high-finance wheeler-dealer types don’t regard it as a business at all. Asked recently about Amazon’s Kindle, Apple CEO Steve Jobs dismissed all of publishing in a sentence. “People don’t read anymore,” he said.
However, unlike yesterday’s major-label music empires, the big-time publishing houses still exist (though exclusively as subsidiaries of behemoth corporations).Why? Because the bookstore’s core customer—a late-fortyish or fiftyish woman fond of cats, book clubs, and the Lifetime Channel—is resistant to new technologies. Prognosticators in the halls of high-tech keep proclaiming the advent of the e-book, but it keeps not happening. All those middle-aged women are still browsing the Oprah’s Book Club table at Barnes & Noble and taking their kids to the library on Saturday afternoon. But now, finally, that’s changing.
This year for Christmas, my father-in-law gave his daughter a Kindle. They both, giver and receiver, seemed a little perplexed by the Kindle. Neither is what you’d call a technology “first adopter.” They aren’t book collectors, either. My wife simply likes to read books and then she has to put them somewhere. My father-in-law reads books and then gives them away to anyone who’ll take them.
My wife is an acquisition editor’s dream. She’s the kind of reader who picks up one Jacquelyn Mitchard book, likes it, and then goes out and reads every other Jacquelyn Mitchard book. When we moved into our house, we put most of her paperbacks in boxes in the attic and put hundreds more in bookcases in the guest room. In a short time, maybe a couple of years, the shelves of those bookcases were jammed two-high and two-wide with more paperbacks, and books were all over the floor in boxes. I had to take all those books and throw them out. Libraries won’t take them, not even for charity book sales. You can’t give them away on eBay. No one will take them. These days, my wife gets all her books from the library.
I still buy books, but I don’t read like my wife reads. I’ll sit and mull over Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” or Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” for two months. And I’m a geek about books the same way I am about records. I only buy hardcovers, new or used. I like a good, tight binding. A few years from now, who will still buy books in their bulky physical form? The same people who buy records today. Collectors. Hobbyists. Geeks. The changeover will occur as swiftly as it did in that autumn of 1999 when all the kids disappeared from the record stores. Indeed, given the fact that today’s publishing industry stands in relation to the 80s-era music biz as a guppy stands to a whale, the changeover should be even quicker.
The day after that format changeover, the first grey-market P2P Book Napster or BookWire or MP4 Book Rocket will open its cyber doors and hang out its cyber shingle. All the middle-aged people who have just grown accustomed to reading their books on a handheld monitor will very swiftly grow to like the idea of getting all their books for free. They’ll happily trade books with people in Paris or Indianapolis the way people in my wife’s family easily trade books among themselves.
And the publishing marketplace—the entire notion of money attaching to literary content—will vanish except, perhaps, for a small handful of Costco-approved, WalMart-validated authors at the very top of the food chain who can count on pre-publication movie deals and McDonalds Happy Meal tie-ins.