As tech giants Apple and Amazon apply the squeeze, there has never been a worse time to be in the publishing business. Apple has turned its disruptive death ray on the publishers with an update of its free “iBooks” app, which allows anybody with a Mac to build an ebook and publish for sale in the company’s iBookstore. The rapacious bastards at Amazon are attacking on the same front with their KF8 Kindle software, plus they’re signing book authors (Deepak Chopra, Timothy Ferriss, James Franco, Penny Marshall and more to come) to their publishing imprint. An email, purportedly written by an anonymous book industry “insider” and published at PandoDaily today, got a lot of attention on the Web with its claim that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to destroy conventional publishing.
If it’s murder for publishers and booksellers, though, it’s heaven for book readers. I’ve been buying, reading and collecting books since the late 1960s, and with the exception of the times I’ve found rare first editions for sale for a buck at thrift stores or made similar discoveries at library-discard sales, books have never been more available or more affordable in my lifetime.
Until the late 1990s, I always kept in my wallet a neatly folded short list of books I was looking for. Theoretically, any of these books could have been mine by paying list price at a bookstore or by paying a book finder to run them down for me. But because I was so poor in my early years and so cheap in my later ones, I always resisted paying full ticket for a book. Any book I purchased would remain on my bookshelves — even after I had read it — because I might need it again for work or pleasure. The only time I got rid of books was when I visited used shops, where I would exchange books in a trade.
Then came the Internet. The pain and pleasure of chasing down new books was erased by my Amazon account, where they were always cheaper. The never-ending stacks of used books at AbeBooks and Powell’s (and later at Amazon) made my neatly folded short list obsolete and, to my delight, put a smaller dent in my wallet. One of the great joys of buying used books online is that the sources are now international. Just last week I picked up Michael Frayn’s “Towards the End of the Morning” for $10 delivered from the UK.
Oh, every now and then I’ll strike out. A book will be so rare that not even the AbeBooks consortium has it, or if they do the price is prohibitive. Sometimes the title is so obscure that Google Books or Archive.org hasn’t gotten around to preserving it and I will have to go to my public library or a university library. But that’s really rare. Even if a book is out of print, it’s usually within reach, which is the whole point anyway.