The tomes, they are a-changing

trends

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For US booksellers and their customers, that may well sum up the 1990s - a decade when the forces of change made a hard-bound industry to develop a much more flexible spine.

Indeed, some see in the book world a revolution in the making - one that will change not only where people buy their books (bookstore versus Web site), but also the very quality of literature.

The next two decades are likely to transform the book industry, says Sushil Vachani at Boston University's School of Management, who sees the possibility of "radical change." "By the time this plays out, it could be as revolutionary as the printed word."

In some ways, it seems like an unlikely time for a revolution. Book sales are flat, independent booksellers are failing left and right, and corporate mergers put control over marketing new titles into ever fewer hands.

Enter the Internet and other technology, such as on-demand printing. These forces, analysts say, offer today's book buyers unprecedented choice - both in terms of the huge number of titles available and ways to purchase them.

So, even as bibliophiles bemoan corporate mergers and sneer at the superstore, others see reason for optimism.

"There are all kinds of changes going on, and they're all better for the reader," says Lawrence Crutcher, a book industry analyst and managing director of Veronis, Suhler & Associates in New York. "The variety is better, the pricing is better, the shopping experience is more fun."

The effort to keep up with all the change - and be in a position to profit from it - was behind Barnes & Noble's bid to buy Ingram, the nation's largest book distributor. Last week the book chain backed off its buyout plan, after the Federal Trade Commission signaled its disapproval.

If the deal had gone through, analysts say, the consolidation of power in both wholesaling and retailing would have further jeopardized the already precarious standing of mom-and-pop stores.

Indeed, the demise of independent booksellers - who struggle to compete with the Barnes & Noble-type superstore - is the greatest concern for those who worry about the future of literature in America.

The concern is that without independent booksellers, the power of deciding which books make it onto retail shelves would rest with just a handful of people employed by a few big chains.

Independent booksellers have a tradition of "putting the right book into the hands of the right consumer," says Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which represents 3,300 bookstores - down from 5,400 in the mid-1990s. Such handselling has made bestsellers of literary works like "Cold Mountain" and "Angela's Ashes."

Without a network of independents, "I'm really concerned about the survival of books with big ideas in them that have small press runs," says Reg Gibbons, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and founder of Triquarterly Books.

Independent bookstores now control less than 17 percent of the market. In an effort to recapture readers, 1,000 ABA members have united in a marketing campaign, and later this summer are launching Booksense.com, an independent answer to Amazon.com and b&n.com.

While online purchases accounted for only 2 percent of book sales last year, the fast-growing trend is what's driving many of the changes in the industry. Amazon.com's sales are expected to reach $1 billion this year. "It's about to explode," says Mr. Crutcher.

Already, online booksellers have given readers access to more books than ever before - and new technology is about to allow access to get even broader by putting printing presses right in bookstores.

Last week, Borders Group, the second-largest US book chain, announced it had purchased a minority stake in Sprout Inc., allowing it to print paperback copies of titles it doesn't stock. Under that scenario, a customer in search of a history of British cooking or a text on Roman aqueducts could place an order, and in 15 minutes, presto, a new book.

"That way, you never have to hear, 'I'm sorry, that's not available,' " says Ashley Gordon, marketing director for Sprout, an Atlanta-based startup.

In theory, the digital technology would give readers access to all 22 million books that have been published since the United States was founded - as opposed to the 1.8 million in print. (Right now, Sprout has 1,300 titles in its database.)

"We are in the renaissance of book technology," says Frank Romano, professor of digital publishing at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He and others believe the technology, as well as growth in online sales, will lead to a boom in books by "authors who never had a chance under the existing system."

But some experts wonder how readers will navigate through this wealth of information.

"How will people know what to ask for?" asks Northwestern's Mr. Gibbons. "Unless there's some way to let people know the books exist, there won't be that much demand for the on-demand publishing." Experts estimate it will be one to five years before on-demand publishing takes off.

The fierce competition, meanwhile, has caused prices to drop to the point where it is possible to buy a hardcover for the price of a trade paperback. Last month, online booksellers slashed in half the price of New York Times bestsellers, essentially treating the country's most popular books as loss leaders. Free software like clickthebutton.com will even comparison shop the six largest online stores, to ensure customers get the lowest price.

Analysts believe publishers may eventually join booksellers online, putting their books directly in the hands of readers. One such publisher, London-based tobypress.com, plans to open its site this fall.

While the deep discounts make it easy for customers to add to their libraries, small booksellers, which typically operate on paper-thin profit margins, are being pushed aside. "Independent stores are like family farms: You expect a certain number to disappear every year," says Gibbons.

Among this year's number is Caroline and Bill Banks's Market Bookshop on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, which closed May 9 after almost 30 years. "You can get the same book at any book store," says Mrs. Banks. What's irreplaceable, she says, is the feeling of community a corner bookstore provides. "It was a meeting place ... a place people could come spend an afternoon."

While all the change may mean "almost limitless options" for consumers, booksellers are finding they may have a limited number of readers. Sales were flat last year. Mrs. Banks says that while a combination of factors forced her to close her store, she sees one underlying cause: "Young people don't read as much."

Electronic books may be one way to capture their attention, though most analysts don't see them taking off in the short term. "Paper is too democratic, too universal," says Mr. Romano. "You don't need technology to read a book."

Nor does anyone see brick-and-mortar stores vanishing from the retail landscape. "There are times when you want to go and physically browse through books," says Mr. Vachani.

No matter which way readers want to buy, "options are almost limitless on ways to purchase. And your selection is almost limitless," says Gerrold Jenkins, owner of Independent Publisher magazine in Travers City, Mich.

The greater variety will probably always be there, Vachani says. But he's not certain about the low prices. "Even though the honeymoon may be long, eventually [prices will go up]," he says. "Five years from now, as a customer, I may be getting less of a discount from [superstores], and the local place I used to go was blown away. What that may do in the long run isn't clear."

That's not likely to stop serious bookworms. "I'd spend my last nickel on books," says Marianne Carlson, a Lexington, Mass., teacher. "I just think they're big beautiful bargains."

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