Everyone seems to be thinking about the future. Newspaper publishers, book publishers, booksellers, journals publishers, and of course librarians too are all looking anxiously at what the future may bring. We fear, no doubt with good reason, that as the music business went so may we.

The digital world offers some amazing possibilities: Amazon promotions of ebooks can result in huge sales. Discount the price of your book to $1.99 for a day or two, and sales can reach staggeringly high number.  Not of course staggeringly high dollar receipts, but thousands of copies sold of a book which had been ticking over at a few copies a week. Given our rhetorical commitment to getting maximum exposure for our books (rather than making maximal profits) this should be a no-brainer. Never before have we been able to employ pricing that was so easily variable.

Of course we all also know that the digital world offers some potent threats too. The most fundamental perhaps is pointed up by a recent post, “How to write in the digital age”,  in the TLS blog wherein submitting a manuscript to a publisher is described (quoting Robert Kroese) as “turning up to a club to find a group of people waiting outside. Some have been there for a few minutes; others for hours. Nobody seems to know when they will be let in, if they are to be let in at all, or even what the criteria for entry are. You eventually resort to sneaking in by the back door – the back door being self-publishing, of course. Digital self-publishing.”

But let’s just assume (and hope) that book publishing does survive in a digital world, opening the front door more quickly, and also that that world continues to contain a significant quantity of physical books. How will the physical books we print be sold to the public? Booksellers, our traditional interface with the public, are stressed. Tony Sanfilippo, of Penn State UP, is doing his bit by setting up a consignment program with one bookstore, turning the bookstore into a sort of showroom. His post in The AAUP The Digital Digest blog describes the arrangement. Let’s hope it works and that his blog post inspires others to do the same. His post was referenced in the Inside Higher Ed blog in May.

Let’s just imagine that this and other measures to save our bookstores do not in fact succeed. Bookselling has always been a narrow-margin business,  and losing a significant slice of your business to on-line (whether ebook or print book) could be fatal. In Britain we used to “support” bookstores by the net book agreement, whereby society in effect agreed that guaranteeing a bookshop a certain margin was a culturally important thing to do. I think what went wrong in the book trade was when we saw that books could be merchandized in mass quantities to consumers. The big chain booksellers accentuated that trend which then found its logical extreme in the on-line market. The trouble is that there are two kinds of book trade — Your Big Book of Garden Flowers is never going to have much in common beyond the paper it prints on with The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline, but because the money follows the former, the latter has to try to survive in the same environment. And it can’t. There are really two different businesses here — and the second is in trouble. You can shift Your Big Book of Garden Flowers through those big box stores, but when the independent bookstores of this country have given up the sales of the most popular items, and can no longer afford to stock obscure stuff, where is the consumer going to go but to Amazon? At the critical point, whenever that was, we publishers said to ourselves, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Costco, and the corner bookshop are all basically the same thing — places where you can buy books. We debated, and ruled-out, setting up e-retailing sites of our own which could have competed with Amazon in its early days. Now we have to admit that they are not the same thing at all, and face the consequences.

Without independent bookstores (in my hypothetical scenario) how is the customer going to see what a book looks like so that he/she can evaluate whether or not to purchase. I dare say The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline doesn’t need to be hefted in your hand before you decide to buy — you either need it or you don’t. But having a look at a belles lettres book or a historical study might well be something you’d want to do before laying down your money. So where are publishers going to find their showroom? This is where I propose that the library comes in. If we accept that books are a cultural good, and we need to maintain their distribution for the general good, that kind of support through taxation is most easily achieved by calling the already existing library system into play. Libraries are already selling things, and a few already have Espresso Book machines. They don’t have to sell books — just provide a place where people could look at them before ordering them on-line (i.e. pretty much the way lots of people regard bookstores today). Because their central raison d’être is different, the fact that they don’t make the sale might be less of a concern. Open access is a threat which libraries and publishers both face. One response could be showrooming — settlements are going to be made by governments and this could be part of them. Of course publishers have also managed to pick a fight with libraries over the lending of digital books, but this sort of tussle is only a symptom of the troubled times we are living through. Make common interest and these issues will be sorted out.