Remember the days of Napster when digit music first began to circulate the web unabated until a war broke out between them and the music industry at large? There was an immediate reaction against the genesis of the digit music age by an industry that was gripped with the fear that Darwin’s natural selection hypothesis would mean the end of a previously hitherto thriving industry. But then Steve Jobs came along and performed what must have seemed to be a miracle to many people on both sides of the debate. He managed to convince the powers-that-be in the music industry that the best way for them to survive is to adapt and evolve. The iPod as born and the music industry, as they say, has never been the same since.
The music industry is thriving, but not all of it. See, there’s this little thing called brick and mortar retail that used to sell these round things that came in thin plastic cases. They called them “CD’s” which stood for “compact discs”. Archaeologists and histories tell us that a giant digital meteorite collided with the music industry resulting in the extinction of CD’s as we knew it. Well, actually, we’re not quite there. But just about.
The movie industry is on the same track, though things are not spinning quite as fast as they did with the music industry. But as the line between “computers” and “television” continues to blur it won’t be long before the digital age sends DVD’s (and Bluray’s) reeling off into oblivion. Just consider Blockbuster, perhaps the largest video rental and sales company for about a decade. I used to love going to Blockbuster to rent the latest movie, but not long ago Blockbuster has shut down all of their brick and mortar outlets and has reconstructed themselves as an online digital download company to compete (and overtake?) companies like Netflix.
The world is changing at rapid speeds spinning the populace into a dizzying stupor making it almost impossible to stay up with the latest trends in technology. Almost. But people are proving as resilient as ever. According to a recent poll by Christian Retailer, 56% “of all respondents to the survey… own an e-reader, up from 26% who did last time we asked” in January 2010. We’re also seeing a decline in people who read books printed with paper and ink. In reality people will probably read books on paper and ink for a long, long time and simply incorporated ebooks into their lives. I know I have.
There are many advantages to the ebook format. For starters when a book goes digital a whole world of possibilities opens up (many of which have not been tapped yet). You can still highlight and make notes as you could in a regular book, but now you can easily sift through your highlights and notes without having to leaf through page after page looking for the spot you marked. This becomes handy especially when doing research when you need to find something you’ve read but can’t remember exactly where you read it. Another advantage is that ebooks are more convenient. In fact, when Christian Retailer asked people what was their biggest motivation for purchasing an e-reader, “convenience of reading” was the number one reason at 56% while “convenience of buying” came in at second place at 20%. This Christmas my wife asked for her first e-reader for those two very reasons.
Yet there was another advantage to ebooks that, I think, is beginning to fade. Low costs. I still prefer the old “kill a tree so I can read” model. I like the sensation of holding a good book and flipping the pages. When I purchase ebooks, I do for two reasons. The first reason is low cost and the second is convenience to buy. When Scot McKnight promoted his first ebook recently for only $2.99, (Junia Is Not Alone) I didn’t hesitate to download it on the spot. I had it read and reviewed on my blog a few hours later. It’s the new cash-counter impulse buy. But I think the winds are beginning to change. Electronic retailers know that people own e-readers because of convenience to read and convenience to buy, but with that blend of reasons, they are happy the raise the prices of ebooks. If they want the reading convenience and the buying convenience then perhaps they are willing to pay. I don’t know and am only speculating at this point. But when recently I wanted to purchase a copy of Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson on Amazon.com I was amazing and appalled that the price of the e-version of the book costs more than the price of the hardcover. More.
At the time of the writing of this article Amazon lists the hardcover book of Steve Jobs biography at $17.49 while the kindle price for the ebook is currently going for $20.52 with the print listing price at $35.00. And recently I looked up the price for Lee Strobel’s A Case For Christ for a friend only to discover that while Amazon was selling it for $9.27, the kindle ebook version is currently going for $13.43 with the print listing price at $14.99. This represents supply and demand at its finest. The overhead for ebooks is significantly less than print books, but we’re paying more for them in many instances. (In case you’re wondering, I have the hardcover copy of Steve Jobs biography on order with the added $3.00 shipping cost.)
Where does all of this leave the brick and mortar retail (Christian) bookstore? I think I am in one of the most depressing middle-class industries. As the marketing and advertising manager I feel like a failure. “An uphill battle” is no longer a suitable metaphor to describe the kind of challenges small Christian retailers are facing today. It’s possible, probable, likely even, that one day in the not too distant future brick and mortar Christian retail stores will go the way of the dinosaur. They will always exist in some shape or other just as dinosaur’s still exist today if you count reptiles and the such, but only in connection to seminaries and churches or as extensions of large online wholesalers like Indigo. You’ll probably find small pockets of Christian retailers selling giftware for religious occasions and there will no doubt be a small book section taking up space in them. But by-and-large I’m overcome with pessimism. Not because the book industry is in danger, it’s not! Like the music and the movie industry, these are exciting times for booksellers and authors. I’m a little pessimistic, perhaps a little depressed, because as each old year ends and a new one begins when I am forced to look back on the past years revenues and crunch the numbers, I see the chart with all arrows point downward. I feel like I’ve been treading waters for seven years, I’m getting tired and beginning to swallow it in as I struggle to keep my head afloat.
So yah, I have bleak expectations for the future of the brick and mortar Christian retail store, but I am also excited for the new technologies that are changing our world. We shouldn’t fight against them. Change is inevitable and we should learn to embrace it.
But this post, in case you’ve missed it, is quite personal. It’s not really an article about cultural trends. Rather I’ve written this article to reflect on my own future. As a new year begins I’m forced to ask myself one very serious question: where will I be in twelve months from now?
I’m convinced that if I’m in the same place then I’m in the wrong place.