When I began my career in the book biz as a retail bookseller, among our busiest months were May and June–graduation season–when young people were often gifted with dictionaries, atlases, books of quotations, and other works of popular reference. The gift book buyers at this time of year seemed to want to say by their selections, “I want you to have a useful book, a pragmatic book of practical instruction that will aid you as you embark on your life’s journey.” To me, this was one of the most ennobling duties of being a bookseller–helping a gift purchaser pay an implicit compliment to their recipient, investing them with an expectation that they would soon be going places in their still-young lives. At Undercover Books, when we gift-wrapped and shipped out or hand-delivered a book selected as a result of this process, I felt it was forcefully communicated to the recipient that their benefactor really cared about them, and believed they would amount to something. Here on the first day of June in 2012, thirty-four years after opening that bookstore–and twenty-six after I became an editor and publisher–I find that while my new vocation yielded many new and unexpected satisfactions, the sacred exchange of helping customers choose gift books like this was one of the things I still miss most.
As e-reading has taken hold, with new models of digital publishing emerging every month, I have often wondered how, and whether, booksellers can find some way to lend the presentation of a free download some of the nobility of the process I always relished. Music doesn’t offer much of a model, where say the presentation of an ITunes gift card lacks appeal. It may well be that giving something insubstantial like a download is just not the same as a gift that has some heft.
I thought of all this today after reading an article at geekwire.com which reports as in so many things related to e-commerce, Amazon.com has already spent some time and corporate brainpower thinking about the gift-buying process, even going to the extent of filing for and now receiving “a patent on what has become a common method of giving presents—a system for selecting digital gifts such as movies, music or e-books, sending an electronic notification to a recipient, and allowing them to download the gift.”
Well, Amazon has the patent they sought, but there’s no sign in the article that they’ve discovered any way of imbuing the purchase and presentation of a download with any special significance. For that, we’ll have to wait for another day, if indeed it ever arrives at all.