Do You Care If Your Books Are Bought, But Not Read?

After reading Richard Nash’s review I felt compelled (compelled!) to read Ted Striphas’ The Late Age of Print. I’ll post a longer review once I finish the book, but at 90 pages in I wanted to discuss one particular question.

Striphas talks about previous crises in the publishing industry, when the major houses felt their alleged cultural hegemony threatened. Unsurprisingly, the great depression was one such time. In 1930 the majors hired Edward Bernays as a PR consultant to help them establish books as commodities of high value and signifiers of intellectual accomplishment. He reasoned that where they are bookshelves, there will be books – and implored architects and interior decorators to build them into their plans. (This is a highly reductive summary, see Striphas’ explanation for more.)

One of the effects? The “books by the yard” industry, for lower- and middle-class families to affect an air of cultivation. None of these books were read, of course. Most were fake spines over boards. Devoted readers will likely see this as pernicious; the major houses who hired Bernays (Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace among them) certainly didn’t. And why should they? They were making money, surviving the depression.

Then something similar happens in the 1980s. As Barnes & Noble expanded its academic market to general trade, one of their early retail experiments was to price books by the pound. The bookseller didn’t care which titles were sold, only that they sold. It worked well. (Shopping carts were another innovation, to encourage buying more books than you could carry.)

Striphas further investigates this tension between the book as commodity vs. token of intellectual wonder, but I want to address an implicit question: Would an author rather sell 60,000 unread books, or 20,000 books to readers?

Because that’s where we’re heading. The publishing industry has long had the luxury of aligning the point of sale with the first few pages of the book. I.e., however much you can browse in the store determines your purchase. In the coming years we’ll have the opposite problem. There will be more available content than you can ever read (or wish to sluice and financially support). Getting people to read your specific content at all will be the battle. You may have 100,000 readers of your text, but only 10,000 paying customers. I’m not saying it’s “better” or “worse.” It’s just the way it will be. (From the Dept. of Obvious Precedents: Indie bands, blogs, newspapers, Cory Doctorow.)

I personally think it’s thrilling that authors now have the tools and capabilities to easily identify their most dedicated readers. Publishers will become locators, editors, and cultivators;  the best of them will be able to take a debut author and turn her into Scott Sigler. Which is not to say authors have to be marketers, far from it. But the guessing game, which made publishers money while telling us nothing about readers’ reactions to the book itself, will soon be over.*

*Or you could go the complete other way and infer that all people want is to look smart. In which case, I’ll be gutting 19th century leather-bounds and selling them as Kindle covers. Only $99!

Related: The Late Age of Print Site

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Filed under industry, reading

3 responses to “Do You Care If Your Books Are Bought, But Not Read?

  1. It’s also good to point you that the 10,000 sales/100,000 readers model isn’t terribly new. Libraries have allowed hundreds of people to read a few copies of books for decades now.

  2. As an author, I’m happy for either. I have a few people who happily buy a copy of every book I put out & admit they haven’t read the last couple (yet – they always say they haven’t read them “yet”), but want to continue supporting me as an author. I know they aren’t reading them, but their loyalty helps put food on my table (and their intentions are good!), so I consider it a good thing.

    At the same time I podcast my novels for free and have tens of thousands of people who have listened to the books (or at least downloaded whole books; the number of people who dl only 1 episode is much higher) and none of whom pay at all. I also give away eBooks under CC & they’ve been downloaded tens of thousands of times for free that way. In reality, while being able to buy groceries is nice, I’m greatly prefer being read/listened-to over commerce; I’m a creator, I want to share my creations with the people who love them.

    People who buy but don’t read my books: okay, because they’re supporting independent creation.

    People who read but don’t pay for my books: okay, because I’m writing to be read more than for a paycheck.

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