Just In Time Book Buying

When we moved to Scotland a few years ago, my family arrived with a suitcase and a carry-on bag each. When we moved back to Prague two years later, I shipped back a ton and a half of books. I had far more books in storage in various places. I am a hoarder of books and an impulsive buyer of them. It used to be that if I was in a bookshop and I saw a book I thought was interesting  I would buy it. I am the sort of person who dreads being stuck with nothing to read. All of my life I have carried a book with me everywhere to avoid that terrible fate. This has necessitated a constant supply of replacements for the current volume when it was finished.

These habits were set when I was a kid. I grew up in a small town in the West of Scotland where there was one John Menzies and a few paperback racks in the local newsagents. If I saw a book I liked I needed to buy it before it disappeared. I would not get another chance. As a consequence I grew up reading lots of second books in series before I read the first and I read a lot of series  out of order.

This all set me up for impulse buying whenever I was in book shops. These habits were honed by decades of scouring second hand book stores for old books and compounded by being a long term expat in a place where English language book stores were rare. When I was in a place where I could buy books I bought them in bulk.There was always this fierce need to acquire books RIGHT NOW. As a consequence I have ended up with huge piles of books to be read and sometimes never read. There are volumes which have sat on my shelves for decades and which I still have not got round to reading.

Recently, this has changed. I blame the Kindle. I do most of my reading on it these days, pretty much all of my reading of new books. In paper I read only the stuff BL sends to me and old favourites on my shelf I feel the need to revisit. Even there, I read most of the classics like Dickens and Tolstoy in ebook form. I carry their complete works with me everywhere either on my phone or on my Kindle.

I noticed the change a few days ago. I was reading Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books which I have fond memories of from the 80’s. I was buying them one at a time, downloading them and reading them. I do the same with fantasy series now. Once, if I was on a series reading kick I would have bought all the books at once. Now I buy them as I need them. This is such a difference for me I feel the need to remark about it.

It reflects a significant change in my reading habits. For all, I know it may reflect a change in the reading habits of a good proportion of the world. The old habit was a product of the fact that books are physical artefacts, stored in physical space and purchasable only in certain locations at certain times. Now, courtesy of the Kindle I can not only read a book anywhere, I can buy it anywhere. I never have to worry about a book I like going out of stock. There is no chance of me returning to the store to find out the book is gone, snatched up by somebody else desperate to know what happened next in a series. Amazon has an infinitely sized digital warehouse of the things stored in cyberspace.

I don’t need to make a trip to the store at certain times either. If I wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden desire to read Mexico Set, I can switch on my Kindle and download it. I can do this sitting in Prague and at a price far below what I would pay locally. All of this means that I don’t need to stock up on books. I don’t need to have huge piles of them on my shelves for when I finish what I am currently reading. I can feed the addiction using what is called in manufacturing terms just in time inventory control. I buy when I need to.

For a long term book junkie, this is an enormous change, possibly the biggest change to my personal habits since I gave up smoking 20 years ago. And it has happened by stealth. I never even noticed it until just recently and such is the perversity of the human heart that now I have noticed it I am feeling nostalgic for my old book buying frenzies. There is a lot of extra room in our flat though!

9 Replies to “Just In Time Book Buying”

  1. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Yet, even as an SF writer I still cling to my dead-tree reading artefacts while making vain promises that yes, I will purge those bookshelves real soon now. Sue has made the jump to an ebook reader and enjoys it greatly, and I suspect that at some point I may slap down the moolah for some reasonably sturdy clone thereof. But books still have it, the literal aroma which is exuded regardless of the readability, of course (dont think its possible to choose a Michael Kring from a crowded shelf by smell alone!). And I have to say that it bothers me a little, the relentless digitalisation of artefacts like music and books, things which interact with our minds in ways we dont always suspect or understand, and the sheer avalanche of availability has definitely lessened their value, or at least the acquisitional aspect of their value. Aye, I know, am thinking out loud here. Shall muse further.

    1. I very strongly suspect publishers will be cashing in on our soon-to-be-nostalgia for print. I foresee a future of cheap print on demand books and expensive luxury collectables. I also suspect that ebooks will be the new mass market paperback if they are not that already. I do understand the nostalgia aspect, particularly the book smell, but that said, ebooks are more convenient in many ways (and less convenient in others). The future is here and it’s digital.

      1. I think the market for “Absolute” editions of comic books, pioneered by the Sandman collections, is more or less proving that. I’m really interested to see that Marvel have collected Walt Simoson’s run on Thor in the deluxe format, with new colouring to replace the old flat, pulp paper version.

  2. I share the background. Although, in theory, I had access to Glasgow’s wealth of bookshops, at that time the wealth consisted of John Menzies and John Smith’s. And I didn’t realise that Smith’s sold fiction until I was about 14. Once I’d read everything in the local library (thatis not an exageration, it was a small library) I had to hunt down second hand bookshops, jumble sales ( I have fond memories of a Women’s Institute bring and buy, where I bought my first Damon Runyon, and my first Doc Smith. W.I. ladies obviously led interesting inner lives, as I confirmed many years later). When I made it to Uni, I discovered Neil Craig’s shop, Future Shock, and my supply was assured.
    Since then I’ve acquired thousands of books, and holding any one of them in my hands brings back the memory of who I was when I bought it – where I was living, who I was with, what I was pre-occupied with. When I touch one of my books, I’m the best psychic reader you ever met. Scanning the bookshelves is still what I want to do most when I go into a room for the first time.
    Like you, I’ve taken to the Kindle in a big way, and I think it’s the best thing since the direct market mini-series. Late last night, I saw a Facebook entry by Lawrence Block puffing a collection of Matt Scudder stories. Of the 13 (from memory) collected, I already have 10. Yet in seconds I’d bought the collection, for a little over £2, and devoured the three I hadn’t (one reminiscence, one very brief conveying news I’d read in the latest novel, and one piece which may amount to putting the chairs on the table for the series).
    The Kindle is wonderful, but it hasn’t stopped my stockpiling books on it. All of Dickens. Why? Most of ERB. Two self help books recommended by a friend. Iain MacDonald’s new one. Bazza’s novel. All of the Conan stories. Adam Smith. The Lord of the Rings. And, as of last night, five of Block’s Bernie Rhodenbar books.

    Just in Time? Nah, Just in Case 🙂

    1. I would be exactly the same, Michael, except (and it’s a big except) I realised that the books will still be there. I will still buy them. I just don’t NEED to until I am ready. This is such a huge change for me that I felt the need to post about it :). I might make an exception if I knew I was going to be out of wireless range for a few days but that’s about it. I do actually buy more books these days and I read the ones I buy which was not always the case in the past.

      1. Bah, you have too much faith in the Cloud Gods – I trust what I can hold! (Which is why I’ll be walking to Prague, next time, or taking the train – who knows when planes will stop working?).

  3. Quote MM – “I trust what I can hold.” Ah, now I know what strand of paranoia that stems from, that post-whatever-opalypse usually running in the back of the mind of some SF readers, a kind of backbrain fear that the datasphere might crash, erasing vast swathes of online culture in one fell swoop…kinda thang.

  4. Actually, from what I have read, the ebook revolution is having the opposite effect on most people (most people being far more casual in their reading habits than you are!)

    I read somewhere that because downloading a book for the Kindle is so wonderfully simple and because there are so many books priced at $0.99-$2.99 they believe that an enormous amount of these cheap purchases are never read at all and so they are incremental sales rather than taking business away from print.

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