Today’s announcement by Perseus Book Group that it is increasing its commitment to print-on-demand expands the number of publishers with access to the technology, particularly among independent presses, which Perseus distributes. Jason Epstein, he of the paperback revolution of the early 1950s and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, has been pushing this technology for years. It will expand the book market because of ease of use and limited need for space (one machine the size of a desk or dozens of bookshelves). It also acknowledges that the book continues to be a useful technology. Imagine book vending machines in every airport, with tens of thousands of available titles. Which would you prefer, digital download to your Apple iReader or a printed book from the Espresso Book Machine? Put in your credit card and out comes a printed copy of Lonely Planet Paris, just before you board your Air France flight.
Print-on-demand and digital downloads may, however, diminish the informational need to browse, which browsers in particular claim is an important element of book culture. Bookstores with wide aisles and coffee shops (and sometimes chairs) recreate the public space in which browsers could be alone with other like-minded people.
As shifts occur in the marketing of books and the number of dedicated bookstores decreases, browsing will change, as well. Bookstore browsing has always been fraught. In small, literary stores, one waited for the frosty clerk to look askance, turn up his or her nose, and sniff mightily. Superstore browsing includes the smell of Starbucks' coffee, one retail chain memorializing another, and the visuals of browsing are often dictated by coop fees. Supermarket, drugstore and big box browsing is limited to bestsellers, in most cases, thereby defeating the possible goal of discovery.
So ubi sunt bookstore browsers? The next generation browses on social networks such as Facebook, while dedicated book sites such as Shelfari vie for the social book network eye. Will they satisfy the traditional definition of browsing: 1) shifting one’s body and eyes along a myriad of selections, 2) choosing an individual item based on a variety of criteria, including graphics and words, 3) examining the item, based somewhat on the criteria of attraction, and 4) replacing the item in its place or purchasing it. This is, indeed, an active approach. Will social networks re-create the input of such an active approach? And does that matter to the selection and enjoyment of reading?
What is the purpose of bookstore browsing? Discovery? Information-gathering? Will print-on-demand, digital downloads, and social book networks serve those purposes? And, if not, what new-found results will they achieve in furthering a literary culture?