Sports Illustrated vs. the Kindle

Sports Illustrated logo on baseball magazine cover

Today is the first day of baseball season. And perhaps fittingly, CNN’s web site just ran a very strange article complaining about the Kindle and e-books — by a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated.

It headline? “My Bookstore is on Death Row.” Author Jeff Pearlman continues the morbid theme by writing “I just just returned from the morgue… It is dark inside. Smells stale. The walls are decayed, the echo resounding.” But he’s describing a recently-closed bookstore — his local Borders in Scarsdale — which was “adjacent to a Starbucks and a gym and a couple of overpriced clothing shops…”

Even writing later on his personal blog, Pearlman still seems deeply moved. “It’s an odd thing,” he writes in a new blog post. “Five years ago I would have never imagined feeling glum over a Borders or B&N shutting down. Nowadays, however, it symbolizes a shifting tide. Technologically. Culturally.”


Pearlman has a special fondness for this particular bookstore, because it was where he wrote his third book, “at a rickety wood table inside the store’s small cafe.” He fondly remembers all the people he met there — like “the clerk with tattoos running down his arm who, one day, left to join the army and fight in Iraq…” But more than that, he remembers the feeling of the bookstore. “Borders was cozy; safe; easy…

“Now, the shop is next up on death row.”

It’s a fairly traditional argument against e-books — though the personal details make it feel more poignant. Flashing forward to the present, Pearlman notes the deep discounts at the closing Borders, where “people pick at the remains like vultures atop a rotting calf.” Then he looks ahead to the future, and writes sadly about the “seemingly inevitable extinction of print.” (” “Look on the bright side,” my sister-in-law recently said. “More people will read. The Kindle books are cheaper, so they’re going to be more widely embraced. This will work in your favor.”)

“I just don’t know. …” Pearlman writes glumly.

“At the risk of sounding like my great aunt, I love books. I love holding books. I love thumbing through books. I love marking up pages, I love perusing bookshelves, I love feeling the paper between my fingers.

As a boy growing up in Mahopac, New York, I used to rush to Waldenbooks at the nearby Jefferson Valley Mall for the start of every sports season. My mission was to pick up “Zander Hollander’s The Complete Handbook of (fill in the league)” annuals. Upon making the $6 purchase, I’d rush home, lie on my bed, stare at the mug shots of Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and Steve Kemp, read the bios, imagine myself one day joining their ranks. Those books — all 27 of them — remain inside my home, yellowed and tattered and beautiful. I turn to them often. For nostalgia. For joy.

He concludes by saying that he’d still prefer a book. But there may be more to the story. It turns out that Pearlman has already written four different printed books over the last six years — three of them about baseball, and two of which became New York Times best-sellers. And all four of them are already available as e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store.

In fact, each one has achieved an impressive rank in one of the Kindle store’s special sub-categories. (For example, “The Bad Boys Won” is the 10th best-selling baseball biography in the sports section, and “Boys Will Be Boys” is the section’s third best-selling football biography.) And meanwhile, Zander Hollander’s “Complete Handbook” series of sports annuals apparently stopped publishing long ago. Even before Amazon invented their Kindle, one beloved childhood book had already fallen a victim to the high costs of traditional printing.

So when Pearlman’s sister-in-law says more e-book readers will simply mean more sales for his book — she’s probably right. (Pearlman’s best response is an ambiguous “I just don’t know…”) I e-mailed Pearlman through his web page to ask how he feels about the new readers he may be finding on the Kindle? (And whether he’s worried he’ll earn less money through e-book sales than he will in print.) But so far, I haven’t heard a response.

I’m a little surprised that Sports Illustrated isn’t available on the Kindle yet — though that’s true for nearly every sports magazine. (In fact, currently there’s only one magazine available in the Sports magazine section of the Kindle Store — “Winding Road Weekly”, a magazine about cars). But maybe it’s also because sports writers prefer a sunny stadium outdoors to exploring all the technical specs of a new electronic gadget. Taking another look at his article, I realized that most of Pearlman’s understanding is based on a sports writer’s gut instinct.

For example, printed books still represent a large majority of all books that are sold, but Pearlman already feels that books are old news. Why? “[J]ust ride a train and glance around. Everyone — everyone — is holding a Kindle. Or a Nook. Or an iPad.” But the biggest “tell” comes from his statement that he’s not interested in a reader like the Kindle because “Come day’s end, I’m tired of staring at a screen. I do it all day, I do it through much of the night.”

I just think he’d change his mind if he’d actually tried reading on the Kindle’s e-ink screen — mainly because I also spend a lot of my day staring at a screen. Once I discovered the Kindle’s screen, it was such a wonderful relief to discover it didn’t have any of the glare that usually comes from a back-lit screen. And for me, the most interesting part of the article was where Pearlman inadvertently revealed that real-world bookstores had their own unique disadvantages. “When nobody was looking, I’d do the ol’ author two-step and relocate my books from the bottom of the sports shelves to the ‘Must Read’ sections,” he writes.

“If you think I’m the only writer who does this, you’re on crack.”

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