You’ve Got Mail and the evolution of books

A few weeks ago I watched the 1990s Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks classic rom-com You’ve Got Mail. The basic premise, for those who’ve never seen it, is love in the age of the internet. This is how IMDb succinctly describes it: “Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the internet.” The most notable thing about the film, especially watching it almost 20 years after it was made, is its depictions of technology and the social response to it – dial-up modems, brick-like laptops, electric typewriters, and an obvious lack of mobile phones in general, let alone smartphones (a scene where Tom Hanks’ character stands up Meg Ryan’s for a date, for example, wouldn’t really have been feasible in the age of widespread mobile phone use). It was also a time when online dating was still considered a bit shameful or desperate, a tactic reserved for those who weren’t capable of getting a date in real life.

I’ve seen this film a number of times and noticed all this before, but what really struck me this time was the way the movie depicts the book industry. When IMDb says the two characters are “business rivals”, what it fails to mention is that the business they’re in is books. Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, is the multimillionaire owner of mega-chain Fox Books (clearly modelled on Borders), while Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, owns a small independent children’s book store, The Shop Around the Corner. Spoilers – a Fox Books outlet opens up across the street and eventually puts The Shop Around the Corner out of business, which is depicted as basically inevitable from the start.

I found it really interesting to reflect on this 20 years on, in light of all the massive disruptions to the publishing and bookselling industries that have occurred in the interim. In 1998, when the film was made, chains like Borders and Angus & Robertson were in their heyday. It was only logical that the small indies didn’t have a hope of survival against the huge multinational conglomerates and their ability to buy in huge amounts and offer steep discounts (as well as add-on businesses like in-store cafes). This was how the American capitalist model had worked for decades and, as far as anyone could see, this was how it was likely to continue.

Then two major things happened: Amazon and the iPhone.

It’s not overstating it to say that these two products revolutionised the way we consume media in general – not just books, of course, but they both played a major role in reshaping the book industry. When the Kindle came along it made reading digital books feasible and comfortable for the first time, and spawned a host of other e-readers and online stores in competition. The iPhone (and the iPad) gave us instant access to enormous amounts of media in our pockets. Why carry around a single hardback book when you could now have hundreds on a device far thinner and lighter than a paperback?

Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail was caught at a particularly unfortunate time in history. If she’d managed to hold on for just a few more years, Fox Books would have been the one going under (Borders finally folded in 2010 after several years of struggle) and she would have been able to be part of the indie renaissance. The development of ebooks, as well as the advent cheap hard copies from the likes of Amazon and The Book Depository, meant that the superstores were suddenly uncompetitive due to their higher running costs – but indie stores that specialise and offer premium products, as well as support for authors and other services to readers such as niche events, have managed not only to survive but thrive. A speciality children’s store like The Shop Around the Corner would probably do very well in today’s climate, with the resurgence of interest in artisan products and unique experiences.

We get so used to the small day-to-day changes in technology that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in just such a short time. When the ebook disruption first occurred, people were decrying the death of the book industry; now you regularly see reports on the resurgence of print and how the ebook was a fad – all of which, to my mind, are greatly exaggerated. As far as I’m concerned, now is an incredibly exciting time to be a reader, with all the various formats available (not just print and ebook, but audiobooks and graphic novels too, both of which are growing very fast). It’s just as exciting a time to be a writer, with the growth in accessibility and professionalisation of indie publishing and small presses meaning that we now have more options than ever beyond the traditional publishing deal. Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly could never have imagined it.