You Can’t Judge a Book…

Crown Books is dead. B. Dalton Bookseller is dead. Borders is dead. And Barnes & Noble is breathing with difficulty.

“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 New York Times reported over the weekend. “No one expects Barnes & Noble to disappear overnight. The worry is that it might slowly wither as more readers embrace e-books.”

It’s a fair worry. Barnes & Noble may indeed wither. But books, Peter Drucker pointed out, are a funny business.

“When TV appeared in the early ’50s and more and more Americans began to spend more and more their time in front the tube . . . ‘everyone knew’ that book sales would drop drastically,” Drucker wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “But instead of collapsing, book sales in the United States have soared since TV first came in. They have grown several times as fast as every indicator had predicted.”

Photo credit: National Library of NZ

Why?  “No one quite knows what really happened,” Drucker said. “Books are still as rare in the typical American home as before. Where, then, do all these books go? That we have no answer to this question does not alter the fact that books are being bought and paid for in increasing numbers.”

A subsequent bizarre twist was the success of retailers like (a subject we’ve explored previously). [EXPAND More]

“Twenty-five years ago it was generally believed that within a few decades the printed word would be dispatched electronically to individual subscribers’ computer screens,” Drucker recalled in Managing in the Next Society. “But anyone who 20 years ago predicted the business of and—that is, that books would be sold on their Internet but delivered in their heavy, printed form—would have been laughed off the podium.”

The bottom line: “One never knows how a new distribution channel will change what is being distributed and how customer values will change.”

So, as fast as the market for e-books is growing and as imperiled as physical books may appear to be, perhaps the old dead-tree editions will prove more durable than “everyone” is inclined to think.

What’s your take? Is the market for physical copies of books destined to wither away—or will the business continue to defy conventional wisdom? [/EXPAND]