The other day as I was killing time in the library I picked up a “Poets and Writers” magazine from 2009. Along with the advertisements for MFA programs and announcements for writing contests, there was an interview with four prominent agents. One of them mentioned that it would be a Very Bad Thing if Barnes and Noble ever went out of business. “They comprise 50% of the market,” said the agent.
Oh, the times they are a changin’.
Granted, I don’t think Borders was as big as Barnes and Noble when they filed for bankruptcy last week. But the implications (presumably) are still there: big box store goes out of business, publishing tumbles. Everyone head for the lifeboats, women and children first.
In response to that article and to doom-and-gloom reports, I wanted to remind my readers that publishing did not always exist as it does today. Remember the Gutenberg Press? Before that, manuscripts were written out by hand. Talk about expensive.
But even the invention of moveable type did not automatically make books affordable for the common person. In the eighteenth century, taxes on paper priced books out of the range for most working class families. People were more likely to subscribe to a lending library that was not open to browsing. Books could be published by subscription (meaning that before a book was printed, the author had to secure a list of names of people who guaranteed they would buy the book, often providing money upfront, before the book was printed). The triple-decker novel could cost up to a guinea in Britain. Cheaper editions were sometimes issued of popular stories, and these were passed around until they were literally read to pieces.
The nineteenth century saw the establishment of public libraries in 1850. Many novels (such as those written by Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope) were published in serial publications (ie, magazines) which spread the cost of purchasing books over 12 or 24 months. Books became even more affordable in the twentieth century with the rise of mass market paperbacks and pocket editions.
It is perhaps redundant to say that with print-on-demand books, ebooks, and other forms of mass media, books are reaching more and more people in more and more formats. It’s reasonable to expect the publishing industry to experience some growing pains. I don’t think that books will go away, nor do I think physical bookstores will disappear. I do think that this is an exciting time for writers and publishers alike. Hopefully the restructuring of Borders will create an even stronger market for books. But even without big box bookstores, publishers should remain flexible and explore other ways of getting their product into the hands of customers.