Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Our Changing World

I can almost breathe this morning. It's very exciting. I'm so very sick of being sick. Back-to-back colds with just a few healthy days in between is no fun. The worst thing was that Television Without Pity was down for the past couple of days -- on days when I didn't have any serious work to do and didn't feel like doing much of anything. They need to go down again on some day when I need to be productive.

The other morning as I was lying in bed, sort of awake but still coming out from under the effects of cold medicine, I found myself thinking. We used to talk about how much the world changed during my grandfather's lifetime -- he was born in the late 1800s and died in the early 1990s, so in his childhood, horse and buggy was still the primary means of transportation, but before he died, men had walked on the moon and voyages into space had become routine. And then it struck me how much the world has changed just during my adulthood. During my office clean-out project, I was purging old files, which included things I'd clipped and saved from my first job out of college. Most of that got trashed because it's all information that's readily available online, but I'd saved it at the time because that was how you saved information then.

Just during my adulthood, communication has changed entirely. Then, only the very rich might have a car phone. The day I moved into this house, I had to run to the fast food place on the corner to use a pay phone when the movers didn't show up and I'd already transferred the phone service to the new place. Now even children have smart phones that are essentially pocket computers. We have access to any information we need, at any time, from a device that fits in our pockets. When I left college, the Internet was something only the serious geeks at academic or government institutions were into. Now it's just part of the fabric of daily life. It's how we communicate with our friends, look up information, do business, pay bills and buy stuff.

And then I started thinking of how buying books has changed. When I was in college and for a few years afterward, just about every mall had a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton. They were small stores without a great selection -- the science fiction section was probably about the size of my science fiction section at home -- but they did get in most of the new releases, and they might have a copy of each earlier book in a series when the new one came out. For more depth, there were a few Bookstops in the area -- a no-frills forerunner of the superstore. We also had a local independent chain, but I seldom shopped there because they weren't big on genre fiction and were openly snooty if you bought something they didn't approve of. If there was a book I was suddenly possessed of an urgent desire for, it could require a journey around town to search for it. I'd hit the Bookstops first because they usually had a bigger selection, they were 10 percent off the cover price, and if you had their card you got an even bigger discount. Then I'd hit the mall stores and finally the local chain, steeling myself for the insults at the checkout. There were a few other mom-and-pop bookstores that sold mostly used books but that would have new releases of mostly romances at the front of the store.

They opened the first Barnes & Noble in our area in the early 90s. I remember being in awe when I went to an event at one with some writer friends. They had a restaurant in a bookstore! It was amazing. I felt so very sophisticated having writerly discussions with my writer friends as we sipped cappuccino in a bookstore (it was my first cappuccino, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that I didn't like it, but that shouldn't have been a surprise because I don't like coffee). There were writers who had all kinds of doom-and-gloom predictions about superstores, though I never entirely understood them because they had much more depth than the mall stores. As more of those stores opened and as the Borders also moved into town, the Bookstops were closed, as were all the mall stores. The local chain went under. But it did become easier to find any particular book I was dying to get my hands on, especially when they opened a B&N just down the street. For a while, the bookstore was the center of my social life. I was in book groups there, and that was where I'd meet up with friends.

Somewhere along the way, Amazon showed up, and suddenly it was easy to get any book. It took me a long time to get on board because I liked the process of going to a store and buying the book right then instead of waiting for it to be delivered. But then the chains started getting weird about what they ordered, so they were less likely to have the books I wanted, and then they started closing the chain stores. They closed my nearest Borders, then the whole chain went under, and now they've closed my neighborhood B&N. Meanwhile, e-readers and e-books have taken off like crazy. I haven't jumped on board as a reader yet, but it's definitely changed the way books are sold. With a reader, you can get that instant gratification without driving all over town to find that one particular book.

And that's how the world's changed in the past 20 years -- from lots of places to buy books to just a few, but with the ability to get any book delivered to your home in just a few days or delivered instantly to a device. That also means that there are more options for authors -- for good or for bad. There are ways to get your book in the hands of readers without going through a publisher, but that also means the supply of books is less curated. That means a lot more choices that aren't so strictly defined by mass tastes, but it also means quality control can be iffy.

I trashed a lot of publishing industry and writing advice stuff I'd filed because it's no longer relevant.

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