Wednesday, September 02, 2009


More than a few of us continue to think about how what used to be the “publishing of books” has changed in the last decades after millennia of being lines of ink hand-written on paper. We started out, after all, with something like the “street of books” journalists located in Baghdad, where the shops sold handwriting on parchment fragments alongside modern machine printed and bound leaves of paper. The newest did not eliminate the oldest. They are all commodities, objects to be acquired, stored, used and resold.

There are two kinds of readers: those who go looking for the writing they want, whether it is scraps from the Dead Sea Scrolls or the latest novel or a science reference. They are usually specialists of some kind, participate in a network of people interested in roughly the same thing, and value what they find. These folks are often more willing than most to use the internet to search for books or to read digital documents which only exist as code until they are screened or printed. Virtual objects cannot be owned because they have no physical being, but access to them can be controlled, so merchants must move their attention to virtual password gates instead of actual padlocked storerooms. Those who have custody of the access “have” the documents. Be nice to your reference librarian.

The other kind of reader doesn’t read anything unless it’s more or less pushed at him or her. Best seller lists, media, critics, previews, big displays at the book stores, cut rates, and what they call “hand selling” (a clerk approaches you, asks what you like, offers specific books) are what work here. These are all aimed at books as objects, commodities. One leaves popular and impressive books around the house where visitors will notice them. One buys such books and somehow has no time to read them. One loads the shelves. In movie sets the libraries are packed with impressive sets of books that have only spines of leather and gilt, no pages. They are prestige markers, like fake jewels.

Once in a while, like the recent flurry of political books, one had to at least skim a book to participate intelligently in water cooler discussion, but the truth is that many of us just read the reviews or some blog opinion, which saves a lot of time and effort. This explains why so many books are labeled wonderful or hoaxes or important -- but when investigated turn out to be entirely different. At the other extreme is the kid enthralled by a book, reading it over and over.

So now let’s “turn the page” and consider two kinds of writers. One kind produces books to sell, as commodities. Layers of secondary workers exist to serve that end. Publicists, editors, researchers, indexers, graphic artists, designers, agents, acquiring editors, and so on weave a network of what we call publishers. They likely contract out the actual printing, so we won’t mention people who make paper and ink or bind books. These are done commercially, though any object can be bound artistically: fine paper, special ink, custom binding. This takes the book into a different part of the commodity market.

In some circles it’s customary to separate a hundred or so “collectible” versions of the print run of a book by providing special bindings and maybe slip-cases, then sell them for a much higher price. Bob Scriver custom-designed a slipcase for the collectible version of his self-published book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains,” so that it had a compartment on the front that held a branch of annual prairie sage. A publisher collaborated with him. He did not set up a printing press in the foundry. This kind of market is likely untouched by the internet revolution except that one can buy and sell with ease, so long as the “hand-selling” factor isn’t necessarily needed. These are still books made and sold for profit.

The other kind of writer is simply driven to write, whether or not anyone ever reads it. Emily Dickinson, for instance, scribbling her poetry and stashing it in a trunk. Until she was gone, no one saw it except selected and respected persons she sought out. Because the writing was her. It wasn’t BY her, it was HER. I mean, SHE. People do it all the time and the majority of it is as unremarkable and and misguided as they are. We’re highly aware of this when we read blogs. Mostly blogs are not beautiful writing.

But some of the people who write only for themselves have very high standards, much training, and a willingness to self-edit until the piece becomes worth sharing, possibly in the way that letters used to be literate and reflective thought made accessible to a reader. One has to be a bit of an obsessive ego-maniac to do it that way, but we’ve got lots of them underfoot and online.

There are some people who really want to read that sort of thing, either because of the content or because of the quality of the work. Publishers were once interested in capturing such readers and pairing them with writers, but this dimension devolved to the bookstore and has now migrated to the internet via Google et al. But both readers and writers are out there in such numbers that the search engines use algorithms designed by people who are usually not readers.

Algorithm-based match-making can be pretty hilarious, the very definition of incongruous. I often giggle over the ads on my gmail or even the ones that will pop up between my prairiemary posts. I hope no one thinks that if some ironic word in my blog prompts a recommendation for something it means that I endorse or even know the thing advertised.

The closest I can think of to “hand-selling” is Dave Lull and a few others who assiduously read and forward articles, reviews, remarks, in his role as a librarian. Somehow he keeps track of what people care about and relays the information. He does it for free.

The only other method of finding the right books is to constantly monitor the bibs and footnotes of the books one already is reading, looking to see what that author read, which probably doesn’t include anyone with whom he disagrees or competes. Likewise, one learns to keep track of who publishes what, though publishers are changing shape with incredible speed, eliminating whole imprints and dismissing editors overnight. Many are no longer in Manhattan or even on the East Coast.

A problem is an opportunity. I believe that. But the knocking on the door is a little muted. In the meantime, if I may quote myself, be nice to your reference librarian.

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