Saturday, March 22, 2008

Forgotten Books and New Media

Over at The Infomercantile, I posted an ad I found in a library-industry magazine from 1968. Race relations were definitely at a head, and the ad was promoting a "forgotten" list of Negro-focused books, many of which from the 19th century (I believe they were public domain even in 1968). I found that most every book listed in the ad is still available today, many of which for free from various sources.

Back in '68, there was a firm structure for how books were published and distributed -- it left a lot of control in the publishers and distributors, and less in the hands of bookstores and customers. With the advent of the internet, two sides are benefiting most: publishers and customers. Publishing has become enormously cheap, provided you look at new technology models (eBooks, POD), and customers can ask for and receive most any publication they'd ever want. As you can see flipping through LuLu, quality is all over the board -- but that's not bad according to capitalists; you need the wide range of quality and value in order to have a truly open market. Middlemen, of course, dislike open markets because it reduces their influence over what's sold and for how much. Markets which can circumvent salespeople has a huge negative impact on those middlemen, and when publishers say the new market hurts them, it's largely because the impact on distribution has climbed the chain and they had no other plan. Distributors go under, inventory is lost or siezed, and that results in loss for the publisher.

Bookstores, as is lamented so many places, has received a large brunt of this new technology impact. People love bookstores for their cultural and social aspects -- but the ability for customers to get books from other places, the problem of how to carry sellable books out of so many available, has quashed so many sellers' operations. Figuring out how to continue to provide the societal value of a bookstore, despite diminishing value as a seller of books, is the toughest aspect for bookstores to overcome. It requires a niche, fulfilling a need.

The original ad, however, does have a purpose: there was a need in the marketplace, and the publisher saw the niche to fill and took it. They made it easy to stock African-American focused books without requiring the stereotypical white, female librarian to do much research. Publishing today has a similar need: publishers are running full-force into meeting the needs and niches they saw twenty years ago; I can't say we've been the most successful at it, but there's a need for a certain type of publishing business today...it might not be the same as the publishers remember from fifty years ago (which is good) and it might not be the same as the business model that once supported independent bookstores (which is bad), but there will be a need for books, whether it was 1968 or is today: books are here, used, and needed...somehow, a model for book distribution will evolve that will profit businesses and writers, but it's scary now and hard to believe that someday people will look back and wonder how the book business stayed afloat in the 20th century.

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