I’m in State College for the next few weeks, and this afternoon stopped by the Paterno Library at Penn State for a talk that looked intriguing. Pamela Spitzmueller, a rare books conservator, gave The Charles W. Mann Jr. Lecture in the Book Arts. Her talk was on “Books as Physical Objects or How Conserving Damaged Rare Books Inspired Me to Create New Book Objects.” It was a fascinating talk and certainly something outside my wheelhouse.
Since getting into publishing last March with The Nittany Valley Society, I’ve come to learn a lot about what’s possible in publishing both technologically and financially. If done right, you can publish a very high quality book with little or no initial capital costs. It’s a brave new world for publishing and it’s fun to be at what looks like just the start of it.
There’s a great little bookstore in downtown State College called Webster’s. It’s been through tough times but is doing better than ever now, it seems. It’s the type of place that was home to hipsters before they ever descended on Brooklyn—the sort of place where you can buy some great used books for a few bucks and where just plain quickly people hang out.
The future for stores like this is bleak, and from a pure market perspective rightly so. But there’s also no doubt towns suffer when places like Webster’s disappear. Because a vibrant and special gathering place disappears. Webster’s is more than just a bookstore, and they’ve learned to capitalize on this—selling memberships that offer specific benefits. So even heretics like me who prefer the ease and simplicity of Amazon for books can support what Webster’s represents by buying a membership. This is a great model for local bookstores to survive—a great way for stores with physical books to continue to be a fixture in strong little communities.
And then on the other end of the spectrum are the few remaining big box purveyors like Barnes and Noble, which isn’t having much luck with its Nook platform or its physical stores. So what happens when Barnes and Noble disappears? How will physical book lovers be able to get real copies of their favorite books? For that matter, what if you just want a paperback of your favorite novel for a weekend trip?
The Redbox model, I think. In other words, if Barnes and Noble survives I think it’s likely to do so as a brand name with print-on-demand kiosks in other places, just like Redbox has kept DVD rentals alive through their kiosks in Walmarts across America.
Imagine walking up to a book kiosk and punching in “Catcher in the Rye” or “Fifty Shades of Grey” on the screen, choosing “hardcover” or “paperback”, selecting color or black/white interior, ad paper quality, and swiping your credit card. The machine goes to work printing and binding your book, and within five minutes you walk out with your literally hot-off-the-press copy.
Hooked up to the Internet the machines can access a database for the latest books, meaning publishers can get books out faster than ever before. An entire store exists in one machine. Rare books can be ordered online, and for everything else the kiosk does the work.
I don’t think we’re quite there in terms of the physical size of print-on-demand technology, but having worked with Amazon’s CreateSpace publishing service I know we’re there in terms of speed and quality.
And just imagine: the little bookstore-survivors suddenly making some money off the big box brand, with a whole Barnes and Noble in their little lobby.