Fred Bass is responsible for buying thousands of used books and has sold about 8 miles of them each day since 1956. He has turned his Strand bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan into a cult of personality, with its ubiquitous bags showing up in every major U.S. city and its shirts making cameos on "Gossip Girl."
That said, he bears no ill will toward electronic readers like
"It's a magnificent piece of equipment," Bass says. "It's going to do wonders for the publishing world, so I'm looking at the positives."
The question is why isn't the rest of the literate world more interested in carrying the equivalent of the Strand in its back pocket? Sure, all those books look really nice up there on the shelves and give their owners hours worth of talking points at dinner parties, but last month
indexed its trillionth Web page, compared with the 10 billion equivalent pages of information Internet Archive says are stored at the Library of Congress. Still think that bookshelf's impressive?
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"I know that my bookshelf is a really inefficient way of storing information," says Andrew Savikas, who heads the digital publishing and eBook program for
and is an adviser to
Online. "There's a greater concentration of information on the Web than in every book ever printed."
While there may be some question about the quality of online information that includes
and a repeating clip of Sean Connery saying "you're the man now, dog," the generation now headed to college has spent its whole life reading digitally as their parents' bookshelves gathered dust and their subscriptions to the New Yorker pile up near recycling bins. Though the Association of American Publishers says only 113,220 of the more than 8 million books sold last year were eBooks, that market has grown nearly 60% since 2002 compared with 2% for all publishers. It's the cost of accessing that booming market, however, that's kept many readers buried in the bargain racks.
The Kindle DX may have a huge 9.7-inch display, a 3,500-book capacity, rotating screen, wireless capability and access to newspaper and magazine subscriptions, but at $489, five Benjamins seem like a lot to spend for a new way to read "Poor Richard's Almanack." The same goes for iRex's IlIad reader, which puts a $699 price tag on letting users write notes in the margins and do crossword and Sudoku puzzles on a 6-inch screen. Kindle's 6-inch cousin is marginally cheaper, at $359, but Kindle, Stanza and other reader apps come "free" once you plunk down $200 or more for an
iPhone and pay
monthly service fee -- and the $9.99 per-book download fee.
The folks at
have targeted the cheapskates who love Apple's look and Kindle's readability with their new reader, the Cool-er. Priced at $250 and packaged like a first-gen Kindle that mated with an iPod Mini, the Cool-er's Mp3 player and eight color variations camouflage a lack of wireless access and a library that, while robust at more than 300,000 volumes, can cost double the price of the average Amazon download.
For just $30 more, however,
offers an uglier reader with expandable storage space and a few more bells and whistles (like text zoom and RSS newsfeeds). The biggest bang for the same buck comes from
$279 Reader PR505 series that, while lacking the memory or the features of a Kindle or its $349 touch-screen upgrade, the PR700, allows easy access to nearly 600,000 free titles Sony acquired in a deal with Google earlier this year. That's nowhere close to the Library of Congress' 32 million tomes, but it makes the nearly 313,000 books in Amazon's Kindle library look like a summer reading list.
Those swelling online libraries seem like the worst things to happen to bibliophiles since the post-apocalyptic scholar in "The Twilight Zone" accidentally crushed his glasses amid stacks of every book he'd ever wanted to read. Yet the Strand's Bass says sales are up, and demand for used and antique books hasn't waned. O'Reilly Media's Savikas says hard copies of new books can still exist as long as their authors follow the lead of post-Napster musicians. Instead of looking to Dan Brown or Danielle Steele to save the printed word, Savikas says readers should look to Nine Inch Nails frontman and singer Trent Reznor, who offered one version of the band's new album for free, but profited from the sales of DVD- and merchandise-laden upgrades.
"A lot of it has to do with packaging and convenience," Savikas says. "Trent Reznor realizes that people will pay for something special and that the best way to get interest in the thing you are selling is to offer something for free."
He also realizes it's been almost a solid decade since anyone's been able to judge their new boyfriend or girlfriend based on their CD collection. As long as authors are unable to sign digital files, pseudo-intellectuals will make sure books are never ascribed such insignificance. If those same authors are still getting paid for those digital files, however, a real reader's library will house the biggest collection of books no one's ever seen.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.