I’m writing this on the way home from New York where I presented my company’s small line of books to field reps at our trade distributor’s semi-annual sales conference. This distributor represents more than 300 tiny to small to mid-size independent publishers. As always, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of new books coming into the world. But what was even more striking was the driving force behind these books.
As publisher after publisher stood up to present his or her new titles, the message was clear. This was not, in the end, about money. It was about getting books out that would make the world a better place. It was about books for creating social good, books for inspiring appreciation and understanding of all manner of things, books for helping people problem-solve or cope with the hard things in life, books for promoting just plain fun. In all honesty, many of these books were not deathless prose. Certainly some will have disappointing sales, and many will not survive more than a season or two. What will survive, though, is the spirit behind them.
What that spirit stems from is a passionate commitment to content. We spend a lot of time fretting about printing and bindery, about sales and returns and remainders. We even argue about the fundamental question of “What is a book?” Is it a bunch of printed pages fastened together on one side? Or is it a computer screen that displays a file of written words, or an electronic book-like device that does the same? Ten years from now, might it be a chip implanted in your brain into which an electronic file can be beamed? This is not as unlikely as it once would have sounded.
But as time goes by and the physical object that we call “book” and the processes by which it is made are transformed (as they have been continually transformed for centuries), what will surely remain constant for independent publishers is that passionate commitment to content. Yes, we’re in business, and yes, sales and profits are critical. But what keeps many of us going, really, is the joy of being caught up in the flow of human thought, feeling, and knowledge—and of being in the business of giving it tangible form. That’s it. That’s what it’s about.