Monday, July 26, 2010

Moomsday Is Coming, or Kindle, Hardcovers, and Deep Blue

For some years in New York I was inexplicably amused by the broadcast ads for Einstein Moomjy, a local carpet retailer, who called their annual sale “Moomsday.” In portentous tones over rolling drums, the spot told us, for days before the event, “Moomsday is coming… Moomsday is coming,” and finally (thunderous drums), “Moomsday is HERE!!!”

I couldn’t help thinking of Moomsday when I read this week the equally portentous announcement from Amazon that Kindle books have outsold hardcovers over the last three months, apparently at a growing pace. The statement got a lot of press attention and inevitably spurred talk of a “tipping point” where e-books start to displace hardcovers as the dominant format. Equally inevitably, this breathless attention provoked a “not so fast” backlash, with commentators hastening to point out that a) not withstanding all these sales, e-books are still a tiny fraction of the overall market b) by some measures the growth of e-book sales has actually slowed since last year, c) Amazon’s figures are notoriously vague and uncheckable –and so on.
Some of this hard-nosed commentary reflects a healthy skepticism toward Amazon’s obviously self-serving publicity and credulous, tech-dazed media. Unfortunately, I suspect a lot of it, especially within the book business, reflects a less creditable willingness to ignore the reality that our business is about to be massively destabilized as print sales fall off, e-books soar, and bricks-and-mortar stores will be culled like baby harp seals. That’s a brutal way of putting it but I suspect the process will be about as shocking to our delicate sensibilities.
Like Moomsday, the day when e-books displace hardcovers , is coming…it’s coming… and one day it will be HERE, whether or not the moment is marked by Amazon’s arbitrary announcement. (Should we call it, e-oomsday?)

For the foreseeable future, e-book sales are only going to grow. And as Mike Shatzkin has been hollering from the rooftops, e-book sales don’t have to get even close to parity with hardcover sales to make the numbers of a lot of retail bookshops unsustainable. It’s a bleak fact that the margins of retail booksellers are not that large. If print book sales drop significantly, as they must, we will lose some indie stores and almost certainly see chains closing many locations—thereby decreasing retail exposure for printed books, depressing their sales and driving e-book adoption even faster.

Please note, I am not celebrating this trend. I love printed books and real bookstores. I’m simply trying to look dispassionately at what’s happening. The e-book vs. print contest reminds me also of the famous chess matches between world champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer. When Kasparov first played Deep Blue in 1996, he won, to cheers from those all over the world who wanted to believe in the superiority of man over machine. But a year later, an improved Deep Blue beat Kasparov. I would have loved to believe that human genius could go on outwitting ever brainier computers forever. Sentiment aside, though, I had to accept it was inevitable that massive computing power would at some point simply be able to flash through potential moves quickly enough to outmatch even a Kasparov, however inelegantly.

However much we love printed books, we have to accept that within a short time, they will no longer be the dominant format. I’m not prepared to guess what percentage of sales they’ll represent a few years from now, but I’m sure that the pie chart will look drastically different from how it does today—and that the follow-on consequences from that will be much greater than many of my colleagues are yet imagining. E-oomsday is right around the corner.

image of Garry Kasparov from