Thursday, March 10, 2011

We're Pretty Close to Being the Jetsons -- Media Wise, At Least

The other day I drove to our local Borders bookstore because I had heard that there was a liquidation sale going on and everything in the store was at least 25% off. Borders is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and needs to close a bunch of shops and sell off as much product as they possibly can—incidentally, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Best Buy might be next. My family and I walked around the store, I got something and my oldest daughter got a few books and we left.

I’ve always been a big fan of going to book stores, browsing the aisles and picking up a tome or two but this exercise is something that might be going away in the near future. While I don’t think that all book stores are closing tomorrow (people will always want to buy books and thus there will always be a spot for the mom-and-pop store), but it is beginning to look like the large brick and mortar book stores are becoming extinct.

And people like me might be part of the blame.

There are a few reasons for this, with main reason one having nothing to do with me. The Borders in my store is two stories and is pretty large. More than half of the first floor is devoted entirely to DVDs and CDs. And they’re not cheap, a CD is about $17 and a new DVD is more than $30. Even with the 25% off, it was be cheaper to go to Newbury Comics or Best Buy to get what you want. And who pays full price for DVDs and CDs any more?

Borders not recognizing a shift in paradigms when it came to music buying is simply ignorance. What the store is selling isn’t hard-to-find CDs, you can find the new Coldplay album anywhere. The same goes for a new movie. Why would I want to spend $35 at Borders for “Iron Man 2” when I can go to Best Buy and get the same flick for $20?

The other two things that are murdering places like Borders is, which sells books at cheaper prices—not to mention cheaper music and movies and people switching to eBooks. There’s nothing that Borders could do about, the web site just doesn’t have the overhead that Borders has and can slash prices to a bare minimum and still make money.It looks as if Borders tried to combat them by selling books on line too, but why buy from Borders online when you can get it cheaper at Amazon? Much like being unable to recognizing the death of CDs and online ordering, Borders was even slower to react to eBooks and didn’t come out with their own Kindle-type reader (the Kobo) until it was too late. By then it was another product in an over-saturated market. It may be the cheapest eReader on the market, but who cares? I’ll spend the extra $40 for a Kindle.

And that last sentence is something that I never thought that I’d say. Not so much that I’d spend extra amount of cash for a brand name, but that I’d even consider buying an eReader. At home I have three book cases chock full of books. It’s my one indulgence and for every Christmas and birthday I get at least one $50 gift card to Barnes and Noble. I've always surrounded myself with books and ever since I was a kid I wanted three things in my house: a bubble hockey game, a bar (my uncle had one in his house and it was awesome) and a library with shelves built into the wall stacked with books and a few comfortable, high backed, leather chairs in which to read.

But the reality is that I’m not going to own a home that I’ll be able to have my own library. I guess when my daughters move out of the house in 20-25 years, I can take over one of their rooms as a library but that’s a long time to wait. And in the mean time where am I going to store all of my books? And there in lies the rub, to quote Shakespeare. My wife and I don’t fight much, but the one thing that we have always butted heads on are my books. Her argument: they take up too much space, you’ve already read them and books aren’t decorations. My argument: but they’re my books.

Jerry Seinfeld once said this about books, “"What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?” And to be honest, he and my wife have a point. I have no idea why I keep half the books I own*. It’s not like I need them for research or anything like that.

It's like the 20 years of Sports Illustrateds that I have in my basement. I have no idea why I keep them, especially now that Sports Illustrated has all of their magazines archived online, but I know that one day I'm going to need them.I just don't know for what.

I guess I have this secret wish that someone will come into our house and just stand in front of my shelves, mouth agape and just gasp at the collection I amassed. “Have you read all of these books? You must be a genius! And what a collection! So diverse, so eclectic! You are easily the most interesting person ever.” This has not happened. Yet.

So with the ever-growing book collection that is now taking up space in our guest bedroom, I’ve come to a conclusion that I have one of two choices: stop buying books or find a way to store books cheaply and without taking up a lot of space.

Enter's Kindle. Apparently this eReader has enough memory for over 3,000 books. And it doesn't take up much room, the reader itself is very thin. No larger than a hardcover, and slimmer than a pamphlet. Anyone who I have talked to about these things universally sings its praises: My life will be forever changed. It’s easier. It’s actually made reading more enjoyable. Reading in bed is a breeze. You can purchase a new book instantly as long as there is a WiFi connection and some Kindles don’t even need that. The only negative that I’ve heard is that airline stewardesses make you shut it off ten minutes before take off and landings.

And the price on the hardware is coming down too. I read an article in the New York Times last week where’s CEO has pretty much said that soon they’re going to give the hardware away (I think that he was being factious about the $0 price tag, but not the price coming down to virtually nothing) because the money isn’t in the Kindle itself, it’s in the books. It’s a brilliant strategy. Amazon still charges “normal” physical book prices (up to $15) for something that isn’t physical at all. So if you can get the hardware into people’s hands for a limited price, you’re going to make 10 times that amount when you sell them products that you don’t have to store, don’t need someone to sell and won’t ever go bad.

It’s literally the perfect item. It’s almost as if you’re selling air.

And that’s what I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around. When I purchase something, for the most part I like to be able to tangibly hold that object. When I buy an eBook, I’m really just buying the rights to the book. Yes, the book is mine, but at the same time, it doesn't really feel like it is. It’s hard to explain, but it almost feels like I’m just borrowing it. Even though I realize that's not the case, it's what I'm having trouble with.

It’s also why I haven’t completely dropped the CD habit either. I don’t buy a lot of CDs any more, maybe five or six a year at most. But when I do buy a new CD, I want the CD. I’ve purchased a bunch of singles from iTunes and have downloaded a bunch back in the day*, but I’ve never downloaded an entirely new album. Again, I think it’s the whole tangible thing.

* I was on the cusp of downloading music 10 or 12 years ago. My friend showed me how to set up an FTP connection through my dial-up and while it was fun, it was slow as hell (15 minutes for a song that could break up if you get a phone call). Then when Napster and Limewire and Kaaza came out, it was like Christmas. I got booted off of Napster thanks to Metallica or Dr. Dre, but a friend supplied me a patch and I was back online within a week. As sad as this sound, I don’t download any music because there’s nothing I really want. I suppose if I sat back and thought about it, I can think of a few tunes, but even though it’s easy and would take a few minutes to get comfortable with the software, it’s a hassle and not something that I miss too much.

Put it this way, we have a new TV that can go on-line and we have streaming Netflix. Aside from the myriad movies, there are a ton of seasons of different TV shows. For the last two weeks, I’ve been watching a few episodes of MTV’s “The State” every night. I was thinking of purchasing the DVD set, but what’s the point? As long as I have my Netflix membership, for all intents and purposes I own the set. I can watch it any time I want. But I always have a nagging feeling that the service is going to go away and one day I’m going to watch an episode of “The State” and won’t be able to.

I know that this isn’t the same as actually purchasing an eBook or a song off iTunes, because I actually own it. But I don’t physically own it and while today the Kindle is a pretty cool piece of machinery, in 15 years is it going to be this decade’s 8-track player? And if so, what happens to my books then? Will they be nothing but binary code that I can’t crack? At least with physical books, unless I get bumped on the head and lose my ability to read or a flood or fire destroys my house, I am guaranteed to enjoy them for the rest of my life.

And another thing is the social aspect of trading books and CDs. Some of the best times I had was going over my friend Shawn’s house in the late 90s to burn discs. He literally had an entire wall full of CDs (he bought his first disc at the dawn of the technology in 1989) and had thousands of CDs. It was cool to go over his place and spend an afternoon drinking beer, going through his catalog, finding something and making a CD* of it. Shawn has great taste in music and I’d walk out of his house with an armload of new mix CDs or tapes.

* Usually these CDs were called “Good Songs” because they were good songs that I liked—I’m very literally. But there were sub genres too such as “Hairy Velveeta”. These hair metal bands ironically chosen in the late 90s, but unironically enjoyed. And there were a few Good Songs CDs that I would play while on dates. Don’t laugh, my wife was impressed with the CD mix that I had playing during our first date. She especially liked that I included a Jeff Buckley track—his death was for naught, as I seemed deep (like the Mississippi).

It’s hard to do that now with iPods and MP3 players. Sure you can flick through a screen of CD covers, but it isn’t the same. It seems very sterile and uncluttered, sort of like the glimpses of the future that we get in movies and TV shows.*

* Quick tangent: did you ever notice that in the future there is no more clutter or mess? Everything is very neat, very orderly, very clean. All of the surfaces are a polished, immaculate metal. There are no extraneous things and everything is given to a person with a touch of a button. It seems to me that with the reduction of clutter (like books, DVDs, CDs, etc) and the housing of our media on clouds, we are moving toward this view of the future. BTW, ever since I started watching “Hoarders” I think that this is a very, very good thing.

In the end, I’m not bemoaning technology—I work in the technology field—and these new innovations really excite me, but I guess I’m just a bit hesitant about making the change because it seems we're trading in something.Books haven't really changed in a thousand years and it's good to have that connection to the past. But just because it's old, doesn't mean it's good. And it's not the vessel that's important, it's the message inside that vessel whether it be book, DVD or CD.

Progress must move on and like anything else, once the change is made I’m going to wonder how on Earth I lived with books, music and movies that took up so much real estate. So while my library dream might over, I hope that nothing ever takes the place of a home bar or bubble hockey.

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