The Little Shop's Revenge

When Nora Ephron was writing the script for "You've Got Mail," I'll bet she never considered the following dialog:

[Owner of Little Shop Around the Corner talks to her employees about whether to go out of business:]

Kathleen: What am I going to do?
Employee 1: Looks bleak. I say close and do something else.
Employee 2: Not so fast. Give it time. Eventually, Fox Books will go out of business. It's too big. Just wait them out. Remember the dinosaurs. You'll be fine.
Kathleen: Fox Books go out of business? Gimme a break!

The reality of Ephron's tale was based on giant Barnes & Noble putting the squeeze on the independent bookstore Shakespeare & Company by putting two big box stores at Lincoln Center and 82nd and Broadway. Shakespeare had to close, ending a long and valuable tenure on New York's Upper West Side, where reading actual books still flourishes.

Now, it has been announced that Barnes & Noble may be up for sale and that it may well close many of its 700-plus outlets. Sales of eBooks rose from 3% to 8.5% last year and even Barnes & Noble is pushing its eReader Nook to compete with Kindle and the iPad.

As an author who is giving a reading at the Broadway Barnes & Noble on Sept 2, I am not anxious to see printed books disappear anytime soon, but the digital print is on the screen (as opposed to the handwriting on the wall) and we who are in the of business publishing books have to worry.

The irony is that when my latest book was in production, the folks at Barnes & Noble actually had useful input when it came to choosing a title and designing a cover. Their buyer gave the publisher plain-spoken advice like, "That title won't sell," and "That cover design won't jump off the shelf." We paid attention and made changes.

The bleak truth is that profit margins shrink when a book goes digital. Authors and publishers get much less and since a digital book lives somewhere out there in the quantum soup, the book is essentially unavailable for attention like serious reviews and research. And eventually, of course, copyright protections will erode, and one supposes that like the music business, material will start to migrate from eReader to eReader much faster than paper moves from hand to hand.

Will we go back to the Little Shop Around the Corner? Probably not. The present trend, however, is something quite similar. Nowadays, readers gather in coffee shops and pull out their eReaders. It's like having tens of thousands of invisible books available in a small space, with the difference being that the words and images are in the quantum soup where quarks and leptons leap about from iPhone to Kindle to iPad scrambling pixels into meaningless blips of information. Perhaps Kathleen's employee is right. Just close up shop and go do something else, like serving coffee, which as yet does not come in digital form.