Complaining About Babel
ALMOST ALL BOOKS sell thousands of copies, not dozens or hundreds of thousands, let alone millions. It is said unthinkingly that this is a bad thing.
A film requires hundreds of thousands of viewers to justify the investment. What is the fate of films that could never attract such large audiences? They aren't made. As a result, the number of films produced worldwide is not even 1 percent of the number of books published. If books were to cost as much as films to produce and distribute (as some do, like encyclopedias), an audience of hundreds of thousands would be requireda Hollywood-size audience. And what would happen to the 99 percent of books that could never sell hundreds of thousands of copies? No one would publish them.
Books are so cheap that, unlike newspapers, radio, or television, they can be published advertisement-free for a few thousand interested readers. To finance almost any book, it is enough to find three thousand readers willing to pay ten hours worth of minimum-wage salary*. Naturally, if thirty thousand readers could be reached, it would be possible to lower the priceby half, say. But it isn't easy to reach thirty thousand readers. Not because the lower price is still too high, but for a reason we prefer to ignore: the majority of titles published are of no interest to thirty thousand peopleyou couldn't even give away that many copies.
(*BookBrowse note: Presumably Zaid's calculation here is based on the minimum wage in his own country, Mexico; as it would take a great deal less than 10 hours of minimum-wage salary to buy an average book in the USA and most other 'industrialized countries').
Book people (authors and readers, publishers and booksellers, librarians and teachers) have a habit of feeling sorry for themselves, a tendency to complain even when all is well. This makes them see as a failure something that is actually a blessing: The book business, unlike newspapers, films, or television, is viable on a small scale. In the case of books, the economic threshold, or the minimum investment required to gain access to the market, is very low, which encourages the proliferation of titles and publishing houses, the flourishing of various and disparate initiatives, and an abundance of cultural richness. If the threshold of viability were as high as it is for the mass media, there would be less diversity, as is true of mass media. Let us suppose that only one of every hundred titles were published, but for readerships the size of film audiences. What advantage would that scenario offer? None at all, because those titles are already being published today: they're our bestsellers. On the other hand, the ninety-nine books not of interest to a huge public would be lost. The film business requires the elimination of perhaps as many as 99 percent of all possible films. The book business doesn't. If the book is appropriate for a broader public, it can reach a broader public. If it isn't, it may still be viable, as long as it is of interest to a few thousand readers.
What reasons are there for demanding that all books sell millions of copies? Vanity (the author's, the publisher's) or national pride? If a book, as compared to a film, is commercially viable even if it doesn't interest more than a few people, why not publish it? It is natural that a more populous, richer, better-educated society should fuel demand for certain titles, but it doesn't follow that such a society should therefore stop publishing books that sell fewer copies. On the contrary, as the population of a country increases and it becomes richer and better educated, it paradoxically publishes more titles with lower sales: the variety of specialties and interests grows, and it becomes easier to attract a few thousand readers interested in something very specific. The number of titles that are viable in printings of a few thousand copies rises.
From So Many Books: Reading & Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, chapter 3, pages 25-33. Copyright Gabriel Zaid 2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Paul Dry Books.
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