The longer this goes on the harder it will become to get back to exactly where we were before the shutdown. It could already be too late. The New Republic speculates on whether independent bookstores can survive as book fulfillment centers. Many booksellers are just packing and shipping books to customers, but that’s clearly not what any of them went into business to do. Running a bookshop and buying a book there is a very social experience, even if many customers don’t actually talk to an employee. You know that being there you can ask questions and interact in other ways, but just silently browsing the shelves represents a social interaction as you build up an idea of what the curatorial principles of the book buyer really are. Obviously browsing in one bookstore is different from browsing in another.

Nevertheless we may have to admit in the next few weeks that many bookshops are never coming back, at least in anything like their previous form. They may end up surviving here and there as a sort of showroom for a severely reduced book industry. Books will, of course, still be published, so there will be businesses called “publisher”, but publishers may mostly just be independent contractors struggling to get freelance gigs with Big Brother Ingram, who looks like he may end up orchestrating the entire book business, Amazon having taken off into space, household goods or wherever.  For instance just why would Ingram, who we like to think of as a book wholesaler, introduce this week a site called Bookfinity (what a name!) designed to provide recommendations to individual readers about which book they might like to buy next. Publishers Weekly doesn’t go there, but I’m more and more inclined to suspect that Amazon’s thinking about abandoning the low-margin book business, leaving the whole enchilada to Ingram. It is true that the PW article claims that, after generating the recommendation, “Readers can then click through to buy the books they like online via a variety of bookselling options that include, Bookshop.org, Amazon, B&N, Google Play, and Target in print and digital formats. The Ingram spokespeople also noted that readers can use the site to identify titles to be purchased at their local physical bookstores if they choose.” OK; am I falling victim to conspiracy theory, increasingly the preferred mode of thought in our modern world?

Of course even a reduced role for bookstores as showrooms may turn out to be unnecessary if we can’t get books printed because the printers have had to shut down. If everybody has to buy the ebook, why would they need a non-virtual storefront to look at the options? Although recent sales data suggest a reversion to the norm in the p-book/ebook sales ratio, we might be undergoing enough turmoil that norms are out the window. Unless we are willing to pay a premium, deluxe price for our books, we may all only be able to get ebooks once the world of business opens up again. There The New Publishing Standard dared bravely to go on 10 April, reporting among other things that 50,000 readers in Spain have moved from print to ebook during the Covid crisis. Ebooks are all you can borrow from New York Public Library right now.

Still, I can’t really bring myself to believe this sort of apocalyptic stuff. Sure some like ebooks, but more still want printed books, and whatever the troubles of the big book manufacturers may turn out to be there’s still a large installed base of print-on-demand technology. Ingram’s Lightning Source is huge, and Amazon has a large POD capability of their own, to name just the big ones. Printed books will still be able to be produced, whatever happens. People are, despite the barriers imposed by the shutdown, still eager to buy printed books, and are finding more and more cunning ways to do so. Printed books are being published. Work-arounds through the mess we are faced with are being figured out, and as we get better at fixes, things will become easier.

On the bright side, The Bookseller informs us that Germany’s bookshops are opening this week. Let’s hope the side this move ends up on really is the bright one. Italy’s bookshops are displaying a bit of reluctance to follow suit. (Both links via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) The New Publishing Standard says they are also opening up in Iran, as well as in Denmark and China. Witness of people’s belief in the value of bookstores is provided by the funding campaigns mounted by several bookshops, for example City Lights in San Francisco, who, as reported by AP News, raised $400,000 via GoFundMe in a just a few days.