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Publishing Trends of Futures Past

Forecasting publishing industry trends for the new year and the new decade is an irresistible and ubiquitous exercise these days. Perhaps it's only natural, then, that I honor my habit of glancing out the back window of the digital express caboose (Shelf Awareness, June 19, 2009) and offer, courtesy of the archives at Harper's magazine, my own list of a half-dozen publishing trends of futures past:

1. January 1850 Harper's featured an excerpt from the North British Review on a "common complaint that the publishers make large fortunes and leave the authors to starve--that they are, in fact, a kind of moral vampire, sucking the best blood of genius, and destroying others to support themselves."

2. May 1883
George William Curtis observed that "one-half of the books published each year in the United States fail to return their cost, and that one-half of the remainder bring no profit, leaving the cost of supporting the publishing machinery of the country to be borne by the publishers' share of the profits of one-fourth of the books issued."

3. June 1948 In "The Book Club Controversy," Merle Miller wrote about the recent appearance of "a smoothly designed advertisement announcing the formation of still another book club" even though were already "more than fifty clubs" in competition. This particular organization, however, was called the Blue Sky Book Club and hoped to lure members with an offer that may sound familiar to e-book enthusiasts: "You may now receive all the books published... over 10,000 a year FREE." These books weren't the only lure, however, because members would also receive "in compact digest form, the synopses, plot analyses, and YOUR OWN OPINION of these books." It was, of course, a gag with satiric bite.

4. October 1959 The anonymous author of a "Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing" cautioned that even though "you want to go into publishing because you love good books and would like to help produce them... the first thing you should know about is the curious attitude of the American reader."

Strong evidence was then presented, including Edward Weeks, writing in the Atlantic Monthly's that there were about a million "discriminating readers" in the U.S., and "this number has not increased with the population; it has not increased appreciably since 1920." The London Economist suggested "even before television, Americans had not acquired the habit of reading good books. It has been estimated that since 1946, spending on books and maps has declined from 15 to only 10% of total outlays on recreation." And Dan Lacy of the American Book Publishers Council observed that the "basic nature of the trade-book audience is well known; it is largely urban; somewhat more women than men buy books; a dominant proportion of the reading public is in the higher professional and economic brackets; perhaps about 2% of the people account for a vital percentage of trade-book purchases."

5. July 1963 An article noted that Geoffrey Wagner, a British novelist living in the U.S., believed American publishing had become big business and this was a "calamity," since "most small publishers of interest... are being swallowed up by a few big firms. The survivors, he claims, are adopting a 'blockbuster technique' which has 'resulted in astronomical pre-publication deals, movie tie-ins, etc.'"

6. August 1985 Harper's offered a forum--"Will the Book Survive?"--based on a discussion that had been held at the ABA convention in San Francisco, and noted that in the previous year, American publishers had released "40,000 new titles, the vast majority of them, ignored by the great spotlight of publicity, were seen by almost nobody but the author and his twelve closest friends."

One of the panelists, William P. Edwards, v-p for new business development at B. Dalton Bookseller, observed: "Today there are new customers out there--the baby boomers, who fueled the dramatic growth of the bookstore chains and the large trade publishing houses. These younger customers have different views about format. They grew up with paperbacks; they give them as gifts. It's inevitable that during the next ten years bookstores will extend their franchise. Sure, we sell information and education; but the vast majority of books are bought as entertainment. Virtually the whole mass-market industry is devoted to entertainment. We are going to see bookstores moving heavily into audio cassettes--in effect, books one can 'read' while riding a bike or driving a car--and into videotapes as well, exercise 'books,' 'cookbooks,' whatever. It's already happening. After all, in buying a book, people are making an entertainment choice, and if we ignore that and stubbornly deny that these other forms belong in bookstores, we're going to drive away the younger customers. Diversity in format is important, and these products belong in bookstores."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1087.


When Scrooge Met Cratchit

One of my favorite cartoons by Charles Addams appeared in the December 23, 1950, issue of the New Yorker. The Addams family has gathered round a cold hearth, where stockings are hung without care on the cobwebbed mantlepiece beneath a cracked mirror, and Gomez shares his mischievously edited version of a beloved and ghoulish holiday classic, saying, "Then good old Scrooge, bless his heart, turned to Bob Cratchit and snarled, 'Let me hear another sound from you and you'll keep Christmas by losing your situation.'"

This is not the first year that I've found myself sympathizing a little more than is probably good for me with Ebenezer. I do understand the generous spirit of that final, redemptive chapter in the Dickens tale, but I also get the gnarly, anxious businessman in Scrooge--the short-tempered SOB who confronts holiday well-wishers with a snarl.

Hey, it's a down economy, the weather has been disruptive and who knows what the future will bring? And the fuel prices? Put down that lump of coal, Cratchit! If you're lucky, it'll be in your stocking on Christmas Day.

So this week I went looking for redemptive holiday messages among booksellers, my comrades in arms for many years and people who truly understand how to balance on that highwire stretched between holiday business and holiday cheer because they must walk it without a net each December.

I've collected a bagful of good wishes, including a few that nestled snugly in the bookstore e-mail newsletters that have been stacking up like digital gifts in my Shelf Awareness inbox.

Cornerstone Books, Salem, Mass., acknowledges that this has been "a challenging year for all of us, and so we want to wish all of you a very peaceful holiday with your friends and families. As we look forward to 2010, we do so with the optimism, joy and renewal that each New Year brings."

From Tom Campbell at the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C.: "Thanks once more for being part of the Regulator community. Thanks for another great year. Thanks for supporting local independent businesses. Thank you in more ways than we can name. And 'God bless us every one!' Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year."

Susan Weis and Jenn Northington of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., "wish you all the warmest, sweetest holiday and we thank you so much for including thoughtfully chosen presents from breathe books in your bounty! This year it means more to us than ever. A deep, deep bow and namaste to you all."

"I hope this finds all of you out there in bookland happy and healthy and enjoying the season with a hearty Ho Ho Ho," writes Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass., on behalf of her "Merry Bookworkers."

Among the blogging booksellers, Hans Weyandt of Micawber's bookstore, St. Paul, Minn., notes that although this can be a frantic season for people, "we get to see some of the best that this season and its spirit can bring. Shoppers are calm and enjoy their time browsing and frequently help one another and give suggestions. The books are whirling in and out of hands. It is fantastic fun. 2009 has been a challenging year for small businesses, retail in general and the world of books. Yet we've made it thanks to the support we get from loyal customers who've decided to put their money into stores they believe in. For that, and much more, we send our best to all of you."

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., is celebrating its first holiday season and co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo's message to patrons is: "Here's wishing you and yours the holidays you most wish for--whether it's partying or relaxing, being sociable or spending time on your own, feasting or cleansing, traveling or staying home. And of course, happy holiday reading!"

In celebration of the season, Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise, Idaho, exclaims: "We are truly spoiled by amazing customers. One of our oh-so-awesome customers made us a present! She hand knit us a pillow with our logo on it. Isn't that adorable? Chaucer is thoroughly enjoying it. We really do love how amazing our customers are, and we all hope you guys have a great holiday season. Thanks for making my job the best job ever!"

Now I feel better. Here's to indie booksellers--and everyone in the book trade--who continue to sustain a Bob Cratchit spirit and focused, Scroogey business plan in the face of ghostly, ghastly visitations year after year.

Bless us, every one.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1082.


Between the Pages--Collecting Bookmarks

What is the common link between Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave and an exhibition of Renoir paintings at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; between Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and Vanessa Redgrave's performance in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway?

As I fanned through the pages of my books while researching a recent column on bookmarks, I noticed a startling number of sheltered ticket stubs to theater, art and music performances. I'm not a collector by nature, but apparently I am a hoarder of bookmark stubs.

Lauren Roberts, on the other hand, is a genuine collector of bookmarks. The founder of BiblioBuffet, where she co-writes a column, "On Marking Books," with Laine Farley, Lauren has also teamed with Alan Irwin of the Bookmark Collector blog to organize the first Bookmark Collectors Virtual Convention, a 24-hour online event scheduled to begin next February 20.

"I collect them, and I love discovering the stories behind them, or at least about them. My collection actually began with a clump of hair that had been acting as a bookmark in a book for so long it had left its own mark," Lauren recalled. "Currently I own more than 1,300 bookmarks. Most but not all are antiques that are past their days of work. Too heavy for today's book paper or too fragile to risk, they sit either on display or in their own special acid-free albums."

Among her collection's prizes are "two silk bookmarks from the 1936 Olympics; a brass one whose top is in the shape of a lobster claw, one side being a lovely stone, the other brass; a die-cut vase with flower bookmarks that can be removed from it (and which has no indication of who made it, why or what it's purpose was); a World War II propaganda bookmark; an old typewriter bookmark; government bookmarks; women's suffrage (my research indicates to me this might--might--be Carrie Chapman's mother); a hero who had been unknown to me before I acquired this bookmark; stockings; Paisley flour; gloves; commemorations of the death of Prince Albert; the opening of the Cabanne Public Library; a bookmark to mark a theatre production; and tea (I especially like the older woman)."

In the U.S., the bookmark collecting field was "so small it was nearly non-existent" until a few years ago," Lauren observed. "Now, however, interest in them has increased. That's good in one way--more antique ones are being saved--and less so in another because the better ones are increasing in price."

I wondered whether she is a bookmark watcher in public places, as most of us check out what other people are reading. "Oh yes," Lauren admitted. "I am curious about what people are reading and what, if anything, they are using for bookmarks. Thankfully, I haven't seen any physical bookmark that gives me the willies. Most people, at least in public, seem to use either the book jacket's flap, a Post-it, a business card or a piece of newspaper ripped out from their morning's read. I don't consider dog-earing a page as a bookmark, though some use it for that reason, but I do see that. It makes me shudder."

Naturally I couldn't resist asking her what a bookmark collector uses to mark her own place when reading. She confessed that while she now primarily uses BiblioBuffet bookmarks, she "used to go through my collection, when it was a lot smaller, and choose a bookmark for each book I read. I tried to tie it to the book. I can't remember most of them, but I do remember choosing a red maple leaf for Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. (Now a maple leaf is not a bookmark per se, but it had been part of a large bookmark collection I bought on eBay so it became one of mine.

"What I found though, especially as I bought more expensive ones, was that they were not suited to today's books. Many of the metal ones that were so common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were heavy by today's standards and would damage modern books. Many of the paper or silk ones were fragile too. Generally they weren't treated all that well--they are, after all, ephemera--and by the time they get to the collectors' hands today they have been through a lot."

My favorite bit of ephemera from my bookmark search turned up in a first edition of Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom, where I found the ticket stub for a soccer game I attended in 1966 between Santos of Brazil and Inter Milan of Italy at Yankee Stadium. That one marks a book, a place and a time.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1078.


Marking Books, Marking Time

There are few objects in a reader's life that are more ubiquitous yet personal than the common bookmark. This realization was reinforced last week as I read Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's story, "The Bookmark," from his wonderful collection, Memories of the Future (translated by Joanne Turnbull for NYRB Classics).

When the story's narrator rediscovers a favored bookmark with "a flat body of faded blue silk and needlepoint designs trailing a swallowtail train," he recalls, "We hadn't seen each other in a long time: my bookmark and I."

Books had crossed his path in the interim, but "they did not need bookmarks. . . . One consumed these texts posthaste, without reflecting or delectating: both books and two-wheeled carts were needed then strictly to supply words and ammunition. The one with the silk train had no business here."

He thinks fondly of "all the voyages we had taken together--from meanings to meanings, from this set of signatures to that." Now, he resolves, it is time again to "include my old friend in my next reading; instead of a series of memories, I should offer my guest another bundle of books."

Despite the fact that you can mark your place in a novel with Post-its, scraps of paper, napkins, template letters addressed "Dear bookseller or reviewer," dog-eared pages or repositioned end flaps, traditional bookmarks persist.

They must have been among the first sideline items ever sold in bookshops and still hold a place of honor for reliable inventory turns, especially during the holiday season. Bookmarks are a gift that keeps one--especially if the one in question is a hard-to-buy-for reading relative--literally in one's place.

And what other item is both sold and given away free in the same retail environment? Many, if not most, bookshops offer their patrons complimentary bookmarks with the store's logo, contact information and sometimes a pithy quote (perennial favorite: "So many books, so little time") as a promotional tool.

And though computer programmers have attempted to co-opt the term ("Bookmark this page," "Bookmark this item," "Organize Bookmarks," "Bookmarks Toolbar"), the simple act of slipping a flat piece of cardboard or leather or even silk between the pages of a book to save our place remains an important ceremony for readers.

Included among the features on the website for Mirage Bookmarks are a history lesson, bookmark exhibition, link to a Flickr group for vintage bookmarks, as well as a collection of relevant quotations. Two of my favorites:

  • Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?--Steven Spielberg
  • I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark.--Steven Wright

Clearly bookmarks have been on my mind lately. Krzhizhanovsky's story inspired a journey round my office. Moving from shelf to shelf, I ran my fingers along the tops of volumes as I scanned for the presence of my "old friends" and quickly found one marking my place in Fusion Kitsch: Poems from the Chinese of Hsia Yu (translated by Steve Bradbury), a recent acquisition from the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, Mass. The store's bookmark features a blurb from Robert Creeley: "Poetry is our final human language and resource. The Grolier is where poetry still lives, still talks, still makes the only sense that ever matters."

Hidden in an old, broken down Modern Library edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden was a bookmark from the Hartford Bookshop, Rutland, Vt. Although the bookmark reassured me that the shop was "est. 1835," the sad truth is that the Hartford did not make it beyond the 1970s.

A 17-year-old copy of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient preserved a black bookmark from Vintage International promoting Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières by linking it back to back with the Booker Prize winner. I must have kept it because I was a handselling fool for both books.

M.J. Rose's The Reincarnationist sheltered a bookmark from Partners & Crime mystery booksellers in Greenwich Village, where I'd attended a signing. Dava Sobel's Longitude had a glossy bookmark featuring color photos of "John Harrison's Timekeepers" from his 18th century pursuit of the longitude prize. There was an Adelphi University bookmark in my copy of Graham Greene: A Life in Letters and a beautifully understated Archipelago Books card resting in the pages of Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury.

Each one reminded me of "voyages we had taken together." So I invite you to take a journey round your shelves and see what ancient bookmark treasures are hidden there. Let me know what you find.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1067.


Remembrance of Black Fridays Past

With apologies to Proust (as I imagine myself nibbling turkey-shaped madeleines), I'm in a retrospective mood as Black Friday approaches this year. I guess I'm still not used to the idea that I won't be immersed in the BF handselling hustle after working 15 crazy busy Black Fridays (beginning in 1992) at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt. For such a long time, it was part of my holiday DNA.

I was already contemplating this fact when I read a Facebook message posted by author Connie May Fowler yesterday: "Want to avoid Black Friday? Easy! Pre-order How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly for everyone on your holiday list. Send me names and addresses and I'll write them a lovely holiday note, notifying them of Clarissa's April arrival. I'll also send a signed bookplate. And I'll send you, via e-mail, my knock your socks off recipe for baked Parmesan cheese grits. Even my most hardcore beloved Yankee friends ask for seconds."

I liked that, and asked Connie if I could share her offer with my readers. She said yes, adding, "If anyone pre-orders through Northshire, I'll be very happy to send the recipient a note, signed bookplate, and recipe." And your bookstore's customers are invited, too, I'm sure.

Her offer is a small indicator of how social networking is changing the rules, but we already knew that. I mention it because Connie's novels were among my handselling staples through many Black Fridays going back to the mid-1990s, so she is part of my Proustian recollection here.

Adrenaline is the word that comes to mind when I recall those Black Friday experiences--bookseller adrenaline in the preparation and execution of a perfect retail battle plan; and customer adrenaline in the instinctive human drive to shop on the one day of the year when everybody else is in stores. "I can't believe I'm shopping today" is a familiar refrain from the Black Friday choral ensemble.

I wrote my first Black Friday blog post at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal in 2004, asking: "Is anybody ever ready for Black Friday. Ready is not the word. It's more a kind of constructive paranoia--generously mixed with terror--that propels us to take every precaution we can think of to insure success. The bean counters upstairs will hold their breath because so much is riding on this day and so many things can go wrong. They can't prepare. They can only add up the damage afterward."

The adrenaline rush began in the weeks leading to BF. We built up key inventory. Work schedules were meticulously gridded to make sure there was adequate floor coverage for every minute of the day. Sections and displays were given the "dress right dress" treatment. A "soup kitchen" was organized so staff wouldn't have to brave the crowded cafes and sandwich shops downtown.

In Vermont, even weather patterns were closely tracked because a bad storm could wipe out everything. The perfect retail weather pattern here was a nice snowstorm on Monday, roads cleared by Tuesday and cold, sunny weather from Wednesday (travel day) through Sunday. This combo drew both the relatives (who have to come) and the more elusive ski/snowboard contingent to Vermont's mountains.

And while that tense half-hour before a Black Friday opening might not have the anticipatory terror of a Wal-Mart door-bashing stampede, it was still a time to take a deep breath and put on your bookish game face. 

Dennis Johnson's MobyLives Radio interviewed me on Black Friday, 2005, while I was working the sales floor. "Every now and then you'll see someone who actually has a sane expression on their face," I said, "who has found a quiet corner in fiction and is just thumbing through a book, but for the most part it's engulf and devour. . . . It doesn't feel like the image of a bookshop where the bell rings over the door and the cat wakes up. That's just not happening today."

I wrote my first Black Friday column for Shelf Awareness in 2006, and noted: "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this post-holiday retail holy day is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can be part of the action, too, and that books can be quietly handsold in the swarm of bodies and cacophony of voices."

Because again and again, in the midst of that controlled chaos that was and is Black Friday, someone would say: "Excuse me, I know you're busy, but I was wondering if you'd recommend a book. I just need a great read for the weekend." And that sparked adrenaline of another kind.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1062.