Where are the flying cars? Okay, the future hasn't turned out quite the way we imagined it might during the middle of the 20th century. In the book trade, it is the present that sometimes feels like it is "beyond our wildest dreams" (the false promise of any future).
But we bookish folk have always toiled in the future, reading ARCs of books that won't be published for months and trying to keep pace with news of the feverish daily changes that engulf us in the form of the latest e-reading devices (no, wait, there's an even better version just out now! And another! And another!) or the biblio-flying car wonders of an Espresso Book Machine soaring through Google's tome cloud. Future. Present. What's the difference?
This week I'm in Denver, Colo., for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Trade Show. It's the third MPIBA show I've covered during my four-plus years as an editor at Shelf Awareness. In preparation, I glanced through my notes from the prior two shows and found that certain themes emerged, the most intriguing one being the gradual shift from a future-focus in 2006 to a present-focus in 2010.
In 2006, what might happen next was on everyone's agenda.
"I don't know what's going to happen. The changes in the next 15 years will make the changes in the last 10 look like nothing," said Dave Weich, who was then at Powell's Books, Portland Ore. At the time, I called it the wisest statement of the weekend. He also noted that Powell's had "sold e-books for six years or so for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader. They account for about 1% of our sales." He projected notable gains in those numbers when the long-anticipated--but then still unrealized--development of a first-rate reading device occurred. "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer. Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."
Technology was the prevailing theme of MPIBA's 2006 panels, which featured titles like "Essential Technologies: An Overview," "Digital Media Formats and the Independent Bookstore" and "Capturing the I and My Generation (iPods, IMs and MySpace)." During the Digital Media Formats seminar, a panelist used the term "fiber-based books" to describe print editions and the audience laughed... uneasily.
The ever-prescient Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins stressed the need for every bookstore to have a high-speed Internet connection in order to acquire information from and communicate with publishers. "Catalogues may go online in the next five years," he said, adding that publishers were already offering an array of digital POP materials. He stressed the importance of ongoing communication with customers, citing Constant Contact as "the best invention since Above the Treeline."
"Interactivity" was mentioned a lot in 2006, along with MySpace and Constant Contact. Our vocabulary wasn't ready for words like Facebook, Twitter, Kindle or iPad. Four years ago, the challenge for panelists was to convince 75% of the people in the room that it mattered to be technologically aware and proficient. Now, such a brief time later, good indie booksellers have adapted to technology and the percentages have changed dramatically in those seminar rooms.
At this week's MPIBA trade show, the panels seem to reflect something of a time and attitude shift. Sharing--well, "stealing," to be precise--ideas is an often heard phrase. The future we envisioned four years ago is now; any future envisioned today may just be a car that never flies, so we're concentrating on doing business in the present and sharing ideas.
We're going to work.
Many of this year's MPIBA panel titles reflect this practical approach:
Using Telereps Effectively
Independent Publishers and Booksellers, Can We Talk?
Linked By Passion: Growing Sales Through Local Retail Partnerships
Beyond a Love of Books: How to Transform Booksellers into Industry Advocates
The future is not being ignored by indie booksellers here. It is thoroughly embedded in how they do business and the conversation has branched out. The future, quite literally, is now. The present is prologue. Maybe what we need is a new concept of time. And sorry, still no flying cars. More on MPIBA next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1289.