Thursday, October 19, 2006


Bryan Appleyard writes about the coming of print on demand technology and the demise of the "bookshop." I share his excitement at the prospect of POD but not his disdain for we in America call bookstores. Amazon, AbeBooks or a POD station in a Starbucks are great when you know what you are looking for; they aren't so good for finding what you aren't looking for, or for discovering what you didn't even know existed. In fact, AbeBooks is a network of stores like Knoxville's Book Eddy.

Along the way he beats a dead horse that should have been buried long ago -- the impending demise of the midlist:
Publishers have been forced to take fewer risks. Their cheap-to-run backlists can survive on small sales, and the mass market will look after itself. But the middle element in the equation -- consisting of the new, the risky, the strange, the difficult, the ambitious, the non-generic, everything, in fact, one values -- has been squeezed out. As publishers repeatedly say, the number of copies of a book that now have to be sold to justify the upfront costs is getting higher and higher. New books that aren't The Wag Diet by Jordan Beckham don't stand a chance.

I have heard this many times and while it may be true in England, I doubt it is in the U.S. Benjamin Schwarz took a swing at this myth a few years back in the Atlantic when Ann Godoff was fired from Random House. "It is simply untrue that the number of worthwhile titles published has diminished with the consolidation of publishing houses, the popularity of the Oprah and Today Show Book Clubs, and the proliferation of such chain bookstores as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million." Along the way, Schwarz notes that a lot of prestige titles are crap and still get heaps of undeserved praise and publicity.

I can't judge how the industry compares to thirty or fifty years ago, but I see plenty of excellent non-blockbuster titles such as Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette from Bill Kauffman and The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie (admittedly helped by being an editor at FSG).

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