Seven Million Books Later, the Dust Begins To Settle
However, these examples never involved physical objects. Perhaps the better comparison is records, and their later incarnations, tapes and compact disks. Sales of CDs, the currently most popular hard format, have been declining for the past few years. The easy accessibility of music through the internet was the first step, and now the easy portability through mp3 players makes this format superior to others in terms of convenience. Portable readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, will likely play the role of mp3 players, while Google takes the place of internet sources for music, such as iTunes and Napster. The situation for books is not quite comparable, since there has always been a greater love for the physical format - books - than there has been for records, tapes, or CDs. Still, those who see books as essential for learning, and a part of our common culture, may mistake physical objects for text. Books are not essential for learning, only information is. Those of us of earlier generations may equate the two, but young people do not. Perhaps the better comparison is newspapers, whose circulation continues to decline, though people, even younger ones, continue to keep up with events online. They still read and gather information, only from a screen, not a sheet of paper.
Presumably, as downloadable books at least partially replace printed ones, the number of printed copies will decrease. How about older books, printed before the digital revolution? Here is where reality sets in. Those that are rare and collectible will retain their value as collectible objects. Those whose primary value is the information within will be much less necessary. This is most of what you find on the listing sites - millions of books, available in many copies, selling for a buck or two. Now there is less need for these. Even books selling for more, but of interest primarily for their content, not collectibility, will be of much diminished value. James Pepper, of James Pepper Rare Books, in a letter we received, notes that items such as bibliographies, valued for their content, and made monetarily valuable by their rarity, are likely to plummet in value when their text is rare no more. He foresees millions of books, ones which make up the inventory of many a used book seller, becoming virtually worthless. It is a point hard to argue.
About a year ago, I wrote about a Kansas City bookseller who was conducting burnings of books he was unable to sell, or even give away. Many observers, myself included, were horrified by the idea. We aren't bothered by trashing old records, videotapes, DVDs and the like, but burning a book was sacrilegious. It reminded us of Nazi and other book burnings, ignorant if not evil people destroying knowledge they believed threatened their comfort zone. Despite these grim associations, that was confusing content with the vehicle. The hard copy book is just a vehicle, like a tape or CD. It is the content which is valuable, not the vehicle. With the content now preserved, and readily available elsewhere, there is no need to preserve the vehicle, let alone worship it. Many booksellers are looking at shelves full of the equivalents of scratchy old records, outdated tapes and videocassettes. There will be tough decisions to be made in the years ahead.