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What about the Internet?

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Will the Internet radically change the book business, not to speak of civilization as we know it? Not quite yet, in my opinion.

The Growing Internet Marketplace

Here are some reasons why I may be dead wrong in my previous statement. Amazon (the cyberspace bookstore) continues to grow at the rate of 25% a month, according to their press releases. Barnes & Noble has rolled out a huge website and is planning to stock several hundred thousand new titles in their distribution center. Borders will not be far behind. The national wholesalers are also talking about adding hundreds of thousands of titles to their databases to prepare for the expected onslaught of Internet-generated business. And of course every self-respecting publisher and distributor now has a web page of its own where books can be ordered.

Much greater choice for the consumer is the idea driving all of this activity. Who could possibly object to having more choices? Internet bookselling will certainly make many more titles easily available to just about everybody.

Our Shopping Alternatives

When I take a step back from all of the hoopla and think about how I actually operate as a consumer, I find I am not very interested in having practically infinite choices. Usually the problem is to narrow down the options to the point where a good choice can be made. If, for instance, I need a book about how to take care of my cat, I would like to chose from perhaps six or eight books, all of them of high quality.

But the search “cats health book” on the Web produces 289,240 possibilities. A more sophisticated search, ((cat or cats) and health) near (book or books) turns up 2000 matches. A cat-health search on the Amazon website brings up only thirty-seven items, but the available information about these titles is supplied by their publishers and therefore hardly objective. Anyone who wishes to can post a “review” of any book, but what is the value of such opinions?

On the other hand, a trip to my local bookstore is much more likely to give me what I want: that is, the ability to select a book from a reasonable number of books, all of which are on the shelf because they have passed through some sort of screening.

The Screening Process that Leads to the Bookstore Purchases

Consider how this screening process works. Publishers publish only a tiny fraction of the manuscripts submitted to them. Distributors and wholesalers agree to handle only a fraction of the titles on offer. The bookstore buyers order only a fraction of the books presented to them by book reps, who themselves only strongly push the books they believe have the best chance to sell through. Since every season there are far too many new titles published to fit into the available shelf space, an army of book professionals spends much of its time trying to chose the most salable books from among a multitude of titles.

A second sort of screening, conducted this time by consumers, sets in once a title has found its way into the bookstore. Space is reserved for a book on the shelf only if the title continues to sell — previous buyers have liked the book and told their friends. Often these books got off to a good start because of favorable reviews, another sort of screen.

In the opinion of many authors and publishers, this screening process simply amounts to a conspiracy, and there is no denying that a great deal of trash is stocked by the stores and many good books ignored. It is also a little disconcerting that almost no one involved in this screening process actually reads the books, with the possible exception of the reviewers.

And yet, for all its imperfections, the system does produce a sort of rough justice. For the most part, the books most wanted by consumers do find their way into the stores and remain on the shelves until they are supplanted by better-selling titles. And now that the stores are much larger than they were, many of these books come from independent presses.

Internet Buying vs. in the Bookstore

The Internet does not so far offer much in the way of a screening process. What it offers is just raw information. It seems to me that raw information only becomes true information when it has a pedigree: who, we need to know, gathered the information, and why. If the information was gathered simply in order to sell us something, it is just advertising.

Lacking true information, the consumer may fall back on the strategy that dominates so much of our commercial culture — going by the brand name. I am afraid that as an Internet shopper, I might choose the cat health book from a large publisher just because the publisher’s name was known to me and would insure a certain level of competence in the book.

Bookstore shoppers, on the other hand, pay almost no attention at all to publishers’ imprints; they hold the books in their hands and judge the quality for themselves. Brand-name shopping would be a disaster for independent presses. It may be that for general interest titles, bookstores provide a more level playing field for us than the Internet can.

I say “general interest titles” because clearly the Internet is going to be a great help in marketing very niche titles; that is, titles that are too specialized to be carried in bookstores. For esoteric subjects, the consumer will be delighted to find that any book at all is available. But for broader interest titles, many consumers will continue to rely on the bookstores to offer a competent selection, a manageable selection, of titles in the various subject categories.

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