“The publishing business has always been rather stable. It doesn't soar when things are going crazy and people with a lot of money are spending it. . . By the same token, when everything goes to hell, books become one of the cheapest forms of pleasure.” Like most people in BookLand, I'd like to take comfort from these words, written by legendary publisher Bennett Cerf in his 1977 memoir, At Random. He was talking about the 1930s, a time that's starting to sound frighteningly familiar: the stock market crashing, banks collapsing, alarming unemployment and formerly reasonably solvent people, well, not so solvent. But Cerf, by luck or genius, fared better than most: while many of his lists took beatings—and other houses, like Little, Brown, which had its first profitless year in almost a century since its founding, were hurting—his Modern Library was “sitting in clover.” The list made money, he says, and even grew by 10 or 12 titles a year throughout the depressed decade.
What was his secret? He doesn't say, exactly, but he does suggest that part of Modern Library's longevity had to do with its books being considerably cheaper than the frontlist books published at the time—good literature in lean times. In addition, publishing across the board reduced the size of lists and print runs. Little, Brown's president, Alfred McIntyre, in an article in this very magazine, on December 26, 1931, argued on behalf of “birth control for books”; his house practiced what he preached, publishing only 67 books in 1931, down from 93 in 1930. According to Little, Brown's corporate history, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing, in 1933 only 111 million copies of new books were printed in this country, as compared to the 214 million printed in 1929. The Depression also saw the popularization of the even-then-controversial “returns” system; publishers clearly believed cash-strapped booksellers would take more of a chance on new or difficult titles if they weren't going to be stuck with the bill for unsold leftovers.
As I write, neither the book business nor the country is in quite as bad shape as we were almost 80 years ago. We're still making hits—The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which, partly thanks to Oprah, now has almost a million copies in print—and smart, solid hires. (See last week's piece on Marjorie Braman at Holt.) But you can't spend 20 minutes in BookLand these days without somebody worrying about sales (“the worst retail environment in 30 years” is how B&N's Joe Lombardi characterized it) and jobs as well. “Something's gotta give,” one veteran Random House editor told me late last week.
Something does, indeed, and while I'm neither Bennett Cerf nor a Great Depression scholar, it seems to me there are pages to take from that old 1930s playbook. Maybe, for example, we should publish fewer books, charge less for them (therefore: paperbacks) and keep control of print runs (POD can help). (I can't speak out in favor of the returns system, however. It doesn't seem to be helping anybody much these days. But I would be happy to have it forever seen as a relic left over from the Great Depression.) Let the Internet be today's cheapest form of pleasure, I still believe people will buy books if we publish good ones in formats they can afford.
So what if this is not a “new” idea; history has shown it's one that might just work.
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