We Buy Books: Immediate Gratification

Like me, you may have lamented the way the leaving behind of actual trips to video stores and bookstores for snail mail deliveries of Amazon and Netflix has led to the demise of independent bookstores and local independent video stores, both full of well informed humans who would help you find things, including things you didn’t even know to look for. And right when I was still feeling self righteous and holier than thou for not using those mail order venues, suddenly, everything became readily available and downloadable for the common person: tv, films, and now, as I lamented in my last post, books. What would happen to those of us who wanted to read actual books?

This past fall one of my favorite bookstores, the Harvard Bookstore, welcomed a new member of their staff, Paige M. Gutenborg, a books-on-demand Espresso Book Machine? (Yes, the question mark is part of the name of the machine, and yes, it comes from Google and On Demand Books, LLC.) Paige was named through a contest held by Harvard Bookstore, and she’s been holding her own printing out books from a database of millions of titles.

Reaction among my reader friends has been mixed. Yes, there is a fear that if we move to print on demand, there will be continued loss of fully stocked bookstores in which to practice the dying art of browsing.  In a recent trip to Porter Square Books in Cambridge, I walked in with the intent to find two first books by poets whose work I wasn’t familiar with, and I walked away with L.S. Klatt’s Interloper (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) and Jesse Ball’s March Book (Grove Press 2004). If we can’t discover writers by browsing, will new writers be even more dependent on reviews or blog mentions, on making connections and promoting their own books? In other words, will there always have to be some sort of mediation between the book and the reader?

Maybe. But even at my favorite independent bookstores, I usually cannot find the poetry titles I’m looking for, whether it’s famous poets from the area, or first or second books by emerging poets.  A print on demand system allows access to out of print books and books that bookstores might not carry, which, let’s face it, includes most poetry.

I’ll admit it,  I’m skeptical of books-on-demand for several reasons. And when I tried to find those two recent poetry titles, or a handful of other poetry titles, in the rather clunky online database for Paige, I couldn’t find them. (Which may be due to the limitations of the database or to Google’s offerings, which we know are tied up with other concerns such as authors’ rights.) But as old-fashioned as I am in my love for hours in bookstores, I can see the way online magazines such as Memorious and hard workers like Paige M. Gutenborg might work together. We introduce you to writers, and you go to Paige with the list of books you’d like to read in full. No more waiting for the mail. Find a poet whose work you love and race to your nearest bookstore to print out his or her work in full. That sounds like something that might work for those of us who love books.

-Rebecca Morgan Frank, Editor-in-Chief

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