Books Are Forever

Antique Books
Antique books on my shelf.

“The publisher often faces a situation where speed in the production of a book is almost as essential to its success as is ‘fast freight’ to the saving of perishable food stuffs. For some books, and frequently very profitable books, are perishable. A matter of days, almost of hours, influences sales.” Showing the Plant and Product Together With Useful Information for Those Engaged in the Making of Books by Quinn Boden Company

The above paragraph was written in 1922. On my shelves, I have books dating from the late 1800’s, including some that may be illegally pirated…well, that’s another story. So obviously the concept here isn’t that books are physically going to spoil, like a head of lettuce that’s been on the truck for too long.

The idea is that books are only viable for so long judging by the content. No-one knows, despite many attempts to create predictive algorithms, what the next big hit will be. Twilight hit, and the market was flooded within months by read-alikes. This isn’t perishable, this is attempting to ride the wave. Styles of writing change, as anyone who has picked up a Jules Verne, unabridged, and a modern tale to try and read both side by side will tell you. Which still doesn’t mean the book is perishable.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes: “Remember now, traditional publishing’s business model is based on velocity, and no long-term thinking at all. All of its marketing is geared toward that fierce urgency of now which I mentioned last week, because to traditional publishers, books spoil. They leave the shelf within a few weeks or a few months and then become (smelly) backlist titles that are taking up warehouse space. It’s tough for traditional publishers to realize that e-books never spoil; it’s hard for publishers to change their thinking.”

Publishers will tell you that books are perishable, if they don’t sell as soon as they hit the shelf there is a period of perhaps weeks before that title will never sell, and the covers are stripped, the books returned or remaindered, and they have moved on in search of the next big thing. However, how many of us as readers have discovered a book that we really enjoyed in a used book store, and gone in search of the rest of the series or author’s works? Until very recently, I’d look at it sadly, make a mental note to seek out that author in used book stores while shopping (I had quite a mental list!) and move on with my life.

Amazon changed that for me. Now, if I want, say, a copy of Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, I do a quick search, pop a used copy in the virtual shopping cart (and oh, let’s pick up the High Crusade while we’re here…) and a few days later, I have it in my hands. With e-books, that satisfaction can happen even more quickly. Books are no longer perishable, in the sense of the 1920’s quote above. Now, a steady seller can be profitable to author and publisher alike for a very long time, and physical copies are no longer a hindrance.

I’m not saying they need only be e-books. POD, the Expresso Book Machine, other options lingering in the wings, all mean that if you’d prefer to hold a book that was published a century ago, you can. Or a book published four years ago, and abandoned by the publisher as not selling enough. The technology exists, and there is no reason it won’t become even more widespread and affordable, just like, say, the cell phone.

As a writer, I look at the titles I have in print now, and know that in 30 years, my readers will still be able to find them, and the many others that will have joined them in time. A title that wasn’t popular on it’s release may find an audience over a long time-span, and I have the time to make that happen. Patience will be rewarded, something that traditional publishers don’t have any inclination towards. The publishers continue to treat books and writers like a spoiled kid with their toys. If they throw this one away, or break it, there will be another one along in a minute.

Oh, and the illegal antique books? Well, they aren’t illegal for me to own, but at one point had I sailed back across the Atlantic with my novels for reading material, they might have been confiscated by British Customs on my arrival in England. “In the 19th century publishing battles raged between Britain and the United States. A loophole in American copyright law enabled publishers to reprint British books at will. Until 1891, the intellectual property of non-citizens was up for grabs.” Ever wonder why the Big Six Five are so callous toward writers? They’ve been pirates since the beginning, and only the legal efforts of Dickens and other major authors forced them into paying royalties back then, why would they have changed now?

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  1. Some really interesting points you make, Cedar. On the cynical side, publishers exist to make money, that’s all. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as writers understand that is the case. I wonder, too, if the industry has a somewhat cynical view of readers, that they only want the new, shiny thing and aren’t interested in anything published before, say 1 January 2014. On the other hand, bookshop shelves are full enough as it is, and of course they will get incentives from publishers to showcase particular titles (again, in it for the money).

    On the other hand, just because its new doesn’t mean it’s good. Conversely, just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Case in point, I showed my 15-17 year old Bulgarian students, to whom I teach creative writing in English, the 1960s Twilight Zone episode of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and shared extracts from the original Ambrose Bierce story. The majority of them loved it even though 1) it was in black and white; 2) it was slow paced; and 3) it was a French production of an American story. Many of them preferred the Bierce story, in fact, in spite of some archaic language here and there.

    In the end it has to be about the exposure and availability of a broad range of reading material. And electronic publishing makes that possible. And, as for remaindered and second hand books, Michael Moorcock, no less, is on record as saying something to the effect that “I knew I’d finally made it when my books started appearing in the Woolworth bargain bins).

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