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November 26, 2014

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Can Barnes & Noble hold off Amazon much longer?

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Will this soon be a thing of the past?

Last month, I looked at how e-readers, aligned with social media, might change books as we know them and concluded it might not be a bad thing.

I’m tempted to say the same about the battle of e-readers, shaping up as an epic struggle for the soul of publishing. As The New York Times recently reported, “Inside the great publishing houses … there is a sense of unease about the long-term fate of Barnes & Noble, the last major bookstore chain standing.” The enemy is Amazon, armed with Kindle and threatening to render irrelevant both bookstores and established publishing practices. Nobody appreciates absurdity like book-lovers, who find siding with the slayer of so many bookstores a rich turn of events.

Barnes & Noble, the Times’ Julie Bosman noted, is a $719 million company. Amazon is valued at $88 billion. B&N’s last-hope weapon is Nook, the rival e-reader that controls about 27 percent of the market despite arriving late to the fight. The man who oversaw its production, CEO William J. Lynch Jr., asserts that bookstores will endure—and they will. But that’s not the publishing world’s worry. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, publishers fear that “in a world dominated by a single seller of e-books it makes sense for Amazon to squeeze out the middleman—i.e., the publishers.”

Amazon publishes some, but the idea of it overrunning the book industry and assembling a new one amid the rubble seems a little extreme. For the publishers, and many others in the world of culture, though, this is a proxy battle in the larger strategic grapple between There Must Be Standards and So What? The gatekeepers gamely bar the door to the do-it-yourselfers, but they sense they are doomed.

The fixity of a physical book shaped publishing’s business model and culture. The need to issue crafted and scrutinized final objects built what is, in essence, a gatekeeping industry, long before anyone saw Jeffrey Bezos coming. As someone who cherishes culture, and books, I find some gates worth defending, so it’s hard to take up arms with the barbarians. But a shake-up of the publishing industry would not be the Sack of Rome.

Culture and standards continually absorb and morph, and so do the walls of the citadel. Graphic novels and creative nonfiction have established camps within. If e-readers promise new genres of ingenuity, those writers can train their own sentries.

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