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We will take it for granted that writers will write books that they hope will be read, and that readers will read books when they become available. In between the writing and the reading, however, for a long, long time, a great many things had to happen.

For a long, long time there has been a book trade, comprising mainly publishers and booksellers. (It is also true that there was an earlier time when there were no publishers or booksellers, but that was a time so long ago and far away that we will not consider it.) It has been the business of the publishers to take books written by writers, turn them into many copies of the books, persuade people that these are the books they want to read, and make them available so that they will eventually be read. Thus the fundamental activities of the book trade are writing, buying and editing the writers’ texts to turn them into books, printing and distributing the books, and marketing so that people will buy the published books.

First the writer’s text is read, bought (at a price determined largely by the publisher) and edited. Then the text of the book is set into (metal or digital) type, ink is pressed to paper in print runs of thousands, the paper cut into pages, the pages bound into books, and the books taken to a warehouse and stored for a while. After a time, the books are taken from the warehouse and delivered to booksellers and libraries, who have more warehouses of their own, but (more importantly to readers) also have shops and libraries in which books are both stored and displayed until people eventually come to buy and read them. And while the books themselves move along this chain, people are writing reviews and advertising blurbs, organising sales events and turning up at signing sessions and chat shows in order to persuade readers to buy, borrow and read the books.

In order for all of these activities to take place, trees are grown, felled, pulped and turned into paper. Chemicals are processed into ink. Machines are bought and maintained to print and bind books, and vehicles to transport materials and the books themselves. People are employed, and taxes paid. Buildings are built, furnished, maintained, heated and lit to provide workspaces for the people and storage and display spaces for the printed books.

The book trade as we have known it is shaped by the fact that the costs of printing and distribution fall primarily to the publishers and the booksellers, while the benefits of selling the books are shared between these, the authors and the readers. All this activity is ultimately paid for when the book finally passes the book to its ultimate customer, and not otherwise. And for a long time we have taken all of this activity and all of these costs for granted, because readers and writers needed publishers and booksellers, and publishers and booksellers needed facilities to print, transport and store books.

Before we move on, note some significant (not to mention obvious) consequences of this system for writers and their readers:

The price and availability of books to readers is strongly influenced by the high fixed costs entailed in printing and distribution, because it is these costs that are least under publishers’ control.

The price and availability of books to readers is strongly influenced by the decisions of publishers, booksellers and librarians, the intermediaries in the supply chain between writers and their readers, who are not necessarily (or even usually) the books’ actual intended readers.

The decisions made by these intermediaries that actually buy books from writers and attempt to sell books to readers are strongly influenced by the necessities of these first two.

So what happens when the digital revolution removes some or all of the need for intermediaries to print and distribute printed books? What happens when the educational revolution increasingly throws up writers willing to write whether or not they are paid?

Consider what now needs to happen to get the book from the writer to the reader? The writer needs a computer and a website; the reader needs a computer and an internet connection; and computers and the internet are cheaply available to many people. When there is no need to involve an intermediary in printing and distributing printed books, how much of the book trade is still needed?

In practice we are seeing the activities of the book trade changing as people and businesses pose these questions and come up with a wide variety of different answers.

Does the writer need a publisher? Some say no, the writer can present and market their own work direct to readers, and some are doing so. Others say yes, the publisher still provides vital services in editing and marketing the book.

Does the book need to be typeset, printed in thousands, bound, stored, distributed? The answers are various: some books are now designed to be read on screens and may never be committed to paper at all; others may exist primarily in digital form, but be printed in small numbers as and when and where they can be sold; still others continue to be printed and distributed in large numbers.

Does the book need a publisher and a bookseller or librarian to bring it from the writer to the reader? Ah, now there’s a question!

There will continue to be many answers.


Caroline M

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February 2019