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Up POD Creek Without a Paddle

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I just read another
disturbing report on the explosive growth of new books published every year in
the United States, and my conscience will no longer let me keep silent.

 

It’s my fault.

 

For many years it has been
apparent to literary publishers that we are a nation of 50 million poets but
only 50,000 poetry buyers. The same trend seems to be shaping up across all
categories, with almost 200,000 new titles published in 2004, while overall
book sales are reportedly flat or even declining in some categories,
particularly literature and serious nonfiction.

 

Not even Barnes &
Noble—publishers themselves now—can sell enough coffee to sustain
this pace. At this rate, the book industry will end up as a giant swap meet
where authors gather to sell their books to each other. There will be no more
readers, just fellow writers.

 

This realization comes after 16
years spent editing, designing, and publishing more than 300 books, mostly
serious works of Southern literature, history, and culture.

 

Over that recent and relatively
brief career in independent entrepreneurial publishing, I’ve watched as the
retail end of the industry consolidated into the big boxes and online
discounters; as promotion opportunities became ever more scarce for
nonblockbusters or noncelebrity titles; and as every year brought more ways for
people to spend their time not reading. One result has been that the industry
now has more megasellers, but also more sales disappointments, particularly
among the so-called midlist, which is where many independent publishers have
always thrived.

 

These trends appear to have
intensified, and the tsunami of new titles seems to have broken over publishing
shores soon after my partner, Suzanne La Rosa, and I put in our own
print-on-demand publishing system. This move was part of our startup of
NewSouth Books as the successor to Black Belt Press in 2000.

 

We deeply regret any inconvenience
we may have caused. We never meant to screw up the entire industry.

Different Decisions

 

That POD system is the best and
worst thing we’ve done at NewSouth.

 

The system has been a godsend in
helping us promote the 20 titles a year that we publish through traditional
manufacturing. Installed for less than $50,000, it has saved us money and allowed
us to do a far better job of publishing than we otherwise could have. We use it
to print bound galleys for proofreading to send to prospective blurbers,
subrights scouts, and prepub reviewers. The perfect-bound books with four-color
covers look great and cost a fraction of what we used to pay for photocopies
bound in black-and-white covers. We also make postcards, bookmarks, author
business cards, and posters for most of our titles. We print these items
whenever we need them in whatever quantities we need, quickly and efficiently.
(See “On the Plus Side,” below.)

 

But, as the Gospel of St. Lucas
teaches, the Force has a dark side.

 

With a printing press and bindery
in the back room, and always needing cash flow, we began publishing some titles
that we would not have gambled on if we’d had to commit to a conventional press
run. Some have been local-interest titles with high merit but low sales
potential. Some have been personal memoirs and family or church histories
published without ISBNs and not entered into the retail channel. These are good
uses of the technology and are a service we’re glad to offer our community.
Ditto with reprints to keep good but slow-selling titles in print.

 

But some were books that simply
shouldn’t have been published, because they weren’t good enough or didn’t add
anything to the culture.

 

My humbler but wiser self now
agrees with the wit who quipped, “They say every person has a book inside them,
and I say that’s where most of them should stay.”

 

This is not an argument that sales
or circulation is the only measure of worth. To the contrary, many masterpieces
have had small sales or at least started slowly, yet because they were
masterpieces, someone believed in them and risked the investment to get them
into print. POD has simply lowered the price of risk and more or less
eliminated the old equation, “Well, it may not sell, but it deserves to be
published.”

 

When the Financial Bar
Falls

 

In 1985, Macintosh, Postscript,
and PageMaker drastically lowered the financial bar for entering publishing.
For under $10,000, a would-be publisher could get the power of a typesetting
and layout system that previously would have cost 10 to 100 times as much.

 

Over the past decade,
digital-print and bind systems from Xerox, IBM, and others have similarly
opened up the printing end of book publishing. Lightning Source, iUniverse,
Xlibris, PublishAmerica, et al., are the result. And, as the POD operation of
NewSouth Books proves, you don’t have to spend a million bucks for a system to
do it.

 

Here’s the problem: Never before
in publishing history have so many been able to publish so much crap so easily.
And never has the role of editors and publishers as gatekeepers and guides to
the culture been more needed, although there’s little evidence that anyone
cares.

 

The surplus of new books that no
one is going to read is analogous to the online cacophony of the so-called
blogosphere: I’m busy posting to my blog, I won’t have time to read yours.

 

Of the 200,000 new titles coming
in 2005, only a discerningly selected 2,000 to 5,000 will be shelved in the
typical independent bookstore, according to several managers I queried on this
point. Spokespersons for Borders and B&N told me that most of the titles
“presented” to them every year do get displayed in at least some of their
stores, although neither company could or would say how many new titles they
order per year. All independent publishers know from experience how hard it is
to get penetration within the chains, and it’s a reasonable assumption that every
POD title that does elbow its way in the door crowds out a traditionally
published title.

 

This is a growing problem for even
the biggest New York houses, but it’s a deadly scenario for independent
publishers. Some cope by drilling further down into niche publishing, which
also lends itself to focused selling outside the trade sales channels. That
doesn’t work for NewSouth, however, because we’re a general trade publisher. As
the static in the trade channel increases, we have a harder and harder time being
heard.

 

People have always written bad
books. It used to be harder to get them published. That was a good thing.

 

Randall Williams is
co-founder and editor-in-chief of NewSouth Books in Montgomery, AL. A former
journalist and civil rights activist, he was the founding director of the
Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch Project.

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