Big news all over the net today: Blockbuster Video (now a sub-brand of Dish Network) is closing its last 300 corporate-owned stores, and shutting down its DVD-rental-by-mail program. 50 franchised stores will remain open for the time being, but the writing is probably on the wall for them too. Blockbuster’s @Home and On Demand services for streaming or downloaded video will also continue.
While this might not seem relevant to e-books directly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the business pressures that brought this turn of events about are basically the same pressures that did in Borders and are facing Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, and every other paper bookstore still out there. They just worked faster, because people watch TV and movies a lot more than they read, and digital movies are a lot closer to the experience of regular movies than e-books are to regular books. Why pay money to rent a movie from a store, when you can have all you can eat for a monthly fee without leaving your home? Or if you do want to rent a new-release movie those places don’t have, chances are there’s a Redbox kiosk no more than a few blocks away.
And they’ve had other effects, too. Have you checked the bargain bins for $5 DVDs or $8 Blu-rays at your local Wal-Mart or Best Buy lately? I remember when you couldn’t find anything in the discount movie bins except badly-dubbed Jackie Chan movies and other public-domain films for which people might just be willing to pay a buck or so more than they cost to crank out. But now you find classics and blockbusters just a couple of years old. I was in Best Buy the other day and found Labyrinth, The Wild Bunch, and There Will Be Blood on Blu-ray for $8 each. And I didn’t buy any of them because I knew it would be simpler to watch them online if I actually wanted to!
I wonder to what extent we might be looking at the future of the physical book? Now granted, I know those $8 Blu-rays are arguably the equivalent of the back list mass market paperback edition, which currently costs about the same amount. But most back list Blu-rays tend to cost a few dollars more than that. As times get harder for bookstores, might we see the price of paper editions fall in the interest of getting anyone to buy them at all? Of course, fear of falling prices of books in general is what led the publishers to impose agency pricing on e-book sales.
I don’t know of many other major video rental chains besides Blockbuster that are still in business. There may be a few, and there are still independent rental places for the time being, but certainly none with that level of name recognition. Blockbuster was the Barnes & Noble of video rentals, and now it’s gone. The only remaining major names in video rental are online companies or vending machine operators.
If Barnes & Noble can’t figure out some way to get its act together, in a few years we could be watching the same thing play out in the world of books.