Bookselling in the 21st Century

by Craig Stark

4 January 2010

Part VII: Insulated Niches - Signed Hypermoderns

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I'd like you to take a look at a recently published book - The Humbling. The author, Philip Roth, is one of our most esteemed novelists, and he sports a list of awards as long as your arm, including a Pulitzer Prize. And a Nobel could be looming. Not surprisingly, he's collected.

This book, of course, is available in e-text format, but I'm more interested in its manifestation in print. Here are some photos. Look very closely at the last one:

As you may already know, this is what is referred to in the trade as a "perfect binding" - glued, in other words, like most paperbacks. The life-expectancy of this book, such as it is, is drastically lower than it would've been had the publisher opted for a sewn binding. And the thin, paper-covered boards, which are only marginally more durable than wraps, certainly won't help the cause.

Presently, in a signed state, it should bring about $100, and those of you who purchased signed copies at the $22 cover price or thereabouts will do well with them. Of course, values may increase or decrease short term depending on how many copies Mr. Roth ultimately signs, but long-term, especially post-mortem, it's quite likely to enjoy a considerable elevation in value over retail.

Now, let's look at two facts: In case you hadn't noticed, despite the digital revolution being well underway, collectors still collect - they want to hold things in their hands, put things on shelves, etc. - and, given Roth's prominence, a signed copy of The Humbling would naturally be sought after as a collectible object; conversely, an e-text would mean nothing in this context.

Another fact - the abundantly obvious one that print books are going away. They may not be totally gone anytime soon, but numbers will diminish significantly as we trot along.

So, put these two facts together: Fewer and fewer books are being printed, and major publishing houses, looking for anything and everything to shore up profits, are cutting production costs, i.e., printing books with horrifyingly degraded durability. We have two forces conspiring to create ... what?


What does this mean for booksellers?