As I struggle to understand the book world today, occasionally ramming my head into a corner because of wrong premises and insufficient evidence, I see two forces -- maybe three -- as massive to the point of controlling what happens: capitalism, manufacturing, and passive distribution. So, in sequence, let’s see if I can explain.
Capitalism is something I never understood until I owned this little problematic house, which attracts lenders. In the US capital assets control “class” and access to advantages more than education, which is meant to be a key to acquiring capital. The idea is that if you have “capital,” meaning disposable income either in the form of cash credits or possessions against which money can be borrowed, then that “capital” gives you a place at the economic table where money is made through the use of money. Access to a lovely lifestyle has nothing to do with it. Can you borrow money? Can you loan money for interest? Can you control the terms?
The trouble with capitalism -- unlike wages -- is that it quickly becomes predatory: that is, the people who have capital make money by preying on those who don’t have much, so must borrow, and today’s capitalists feel no obligation to compensate by putting their assets into good schools, charity hospitals, or the arts in any form. These are seen as government functions.
The difference between land owners in England some years ago and land owners in the US today, is the idea of noblesse oblige. (Wikipedia: 1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.. and 2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms with one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility." Being a noble meant that you had responsibilities to lead, manage, etc. You were not to simply spend your time in idle pursuits.) This ethic no longer exists, neither among the super-wealthy nor among government officials.
Still the extremely rich DO want to acquire markers of their importance and sometimes books can do that through fine or antique volumes worthy of purchase -- but also by the subsidized production of books pushing themselves, either directly or through their interests. The middle classes, who aspire to be wealthy, also use books as markers. This explains why they buy books but never read them -- leaving them around for others to see, always hardbacks with flashy covers, and hopefully signed by the writer in hopes that people will be impressed by their connections. The ideas contained in the books, the skill with which the writing is done, the implication of the book in the larger dialogue of ideas on the planet, are simply invisible to them. Occasionally they worry about resale value, which also discourages reading, since carrying a book around, writing in it, risking coffee stains and whatnot, would presumably lessen the value. Things must be protected even if the protection defeats the purpose of the thing, because the REAL purpose is the preservation of capital.
Capitalism, the use of money to make more money, is the basis of what we’ve understood to be publishing. It is a reservoir system for writers who have no capital -- that is, the publisher has funds which it uses to subsidize promising writers. It is quite like a “patron” in the old system where those with money (the king, the pope) keep artists on retainer while the latter compose music or paint. In those days the accomplishments of the writers reflected well on the publishers as patrons. But now publishing is run as a business: many major houses have been bought by corporations who expect the same kind of returns from books as they get from soup: 10% profit or more. The exception is publishing arms of universities, which do not expect to make a profit, but because they don’t, the universities (themselves starved for cash except for those programs subsidized by corporations in hopes of research and development they can use, which spares the corporation the expense and expertise necessary) have no capital. So university presses have become an arm of salary work, certifying employees (professors) for continuing employment and earning a living for the in-house employees. Writers are compensated by the stamp of virtue, though the academic presses are no more likely to have inspired editors than any other press.
Manufacturing books, after salaries, used to be the bulk of the cost of a book because they were normally printed in large numbers to save money. Much of the cost was setting up the printing machinery, rather than in the paper, buckram and ink. Also, much of the cost was in the provision of warehousing that protected the books from damage. Two ways of losing money were printing too many books so that profits are eaten up by storage cost, or not printing enough books so that a new press run was necessary. Repeated press runs became a marker for success, but unless the new printing were out before the popularity or usefulness of the book was over, then more expense had to be levied against profits.
The cheapest part of the manufacturing was the actual writing -- the payment to the author. But because not many writers have the stamina to hold a regular wage job or enjoy capital of their own, publishers invested with payments up front, estimated according to what they guess sales will be. The author received no actual profit until after “sell through,” that is when the publisher made enough money to have some profit. I’ve never been clear about what happens if the advance is never equaled by the publishing profits. Of course, the publisher determines what the costs are, which leads authors to accuse them of padding costs to avoid showing any profit.
The cheapest way to store books is to ship them out to bookstores who put them on their shelves. The agreement is that if they don’t sell, the bookstore can return them. In short, bookstores sell books on consignment and do not invest their own assets in buying books, even if they believe in them. Neither are they much interested in the physical condition of the books they return. The only real cost of a bookstore is rent on the physical premises and salaried employees. Bookstores do not advertise but rather sell advertising to the publisher in the form of display in advantageous spots and so on. Yet books are often most successfully sold by clerks who love books and recommend favorites.
Which brings us conveniently to the third point: passive distribution. A bookstore must request books when customers ask for them or if the manager sees the likelihood if it selling. But mostly sales are either conducted through discount deal-making at the top of a franchise in the case of a chain like Borders and the Big Box stores like Wal-Mart, or by distributing salesmen who take responsibility for a particular area, or (increasingly) by the author traveling with copies of the books to leave on consignment. In short, books arrive on the assurance of others, are on consignment anyway, and are sold at the demand of readers responding to the mass media advertising paid for by the publisher.
These three forces have “reduced” (I mean this to be pejorative) books to objects, useful mostly as markers for prestige and success. Even the flood of transgressively titillating books are meant to make a profit and to provide an opportunity for the kind of repentance scenario so beloved to mock Christians. The word is “ignoble.” Look it up yourself.