Sunday, September 21, 2008

books are like cigarettes in a prison

Went "booking" yesterday and came back with a small load of stuff. Some interesting finds, like the 1930 The Collected Tales of Pierre Louys, illustrated by John Austen - a brilliantly done book published by Argus Books of Chicago. As well as The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson (greatly influenced by the books of Nick Bantock) which was published by Chronicle Books in 1995. A fantastically visual book.

But the title of this entry has to do with the glut that is also out there. The glut of books. In the universe of publishing and booksellers, there is a principle of scarcity that is in play when a book is published. One wants to sell as many copies of a book as they can, of course, as that is part of the deal with printing to begin with. However, after a certain point in time, the book becomes something other : something else. It becomes a commodity. They become cigarettes in a prison, an item of exchange. The words means less that the "thing" of it. Books are traded, swapped out at coffeehouses or the like. Used bookstores exchange store credit for brought in books, and occasionally actual cash is exchanged in the transaction.

Book scouts make their living finding books that sellers want to have on their shelves for customers who request or demand them. The rarer the book, the greater the value. The more prized the find. However, quite often, there are some within this chain who are literally counting books as items in a bulk lot rather carefully examining individual books. To these persons, a book is nothing more than a "unit", they look at books the way bean-counters at the multinational corporations that primarily OWN the publishing industry at the present time do.

And there we come back to the glut. The publishers who, for whatever reason, overreached and printed THOUSANDS more copies than would ever sell. (like the Conrad Hilton book above) For example there are 543 copies of Be My Guest on Amazon alone. Multiple that number by the number of places in America where books might be found; used bookstores, libraries, thrift shops, the street.....and you quickly can appreciate the problem. The greater the number of books, the less valuable it is, the less its worth, the cheaper it is to get ahold of.

As a book seeker, I like books selling for $ .50 but as a publisher I want the books that I publish to retain their worth. It's a dilemma not easily resolved. Especially when say, an Oprah blesses a book that turns out to be a fraud, for example.

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