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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part XI: How to Identify Insulated Niches

by Craig Stark

#142 22 March 2010

In the course of this series I've suggested a number of what I'm calling insulated niches - bookselling niches that will likely continue to be productive in spite of the ongoing digital revolution that will, to some extent, supplant print media. What I haven't done is offer a method for identifying additional niches. I'll attempt to explain one "method" I use today.

About a year ago I went to an estate sale that featured a collection of antique typewriters and related reference books. I didn't know much about collectible typewriters, so I passed on them, but I grabbed the books immediately, partly because they had a look to them that suggested that only limited numbers had been printed - more specifically, I didn't recognize the publisher, and the bindings were unlike what one typically encounters from large publishing houses.

There were six of these books, and inside of a few months all had sold in the $50 to $150 price range.

But there was another reason I grabbed them. For years now I've been keeping a mental list of tangible things that people establish unusually strong bonds with, then extrapolating these things into bookselling.

Think about this in terms of typewriters. When the personal computer burst onto the scene a few decades ago, it's no secret that many of us, especially authors, were slow to convert from typewriters to computers. Some eventually did, grudgingly, and some never did - or have. I could cite many notable examples, but Cormac McCarthy is an especially interesting case. He purchased an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter in a pawn shop in 1963 and, over the ensuing decades, wrote most of his novels and screenplays on it. In December of last year it sold at Christie's for $254,500! Bookseller Glenn Horowitz, who expedited the auction for McCarthy, told The New York Times: "When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac's typewriter. It's as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife." One of McCarthy's friends obtained a replacement typewriter for $20, and on he goes.

I'm sure most of us have a clear sense of what the fuss is about. Relationships with typewriters were and, to the extent that they're used today, still are primal. One's hands are in intimate contact with the keys for hours at a time, and sometimes amazing things flow out of an author, into the machine, boldly transferring to paper. It's easy to understand why a writer might bond so strongly with a typewriter that the typewriter itself would be perceived not only as a mere go-between, a tool for composition, but a source of inspiration in its own right. A friend. In this context, why would anybody want to trade this in for a computer? For that matter, we see many typewriters owned by famous authors in museums, but has anybody seen a comparable computer? When we upgrade our computers, it's not like our hearts are getting ripped out, is it? No, with few exceptions, we genuinely look forward to a more powerful, more feature-rich computer and are only too glad to see the former one go.

So, this same passion is understandably transferred to an interest in books about typewriters. And perhaps there's something more in play here too: Given a choice between reading a print book about typewriters and accessing similar content in digitized form, which do you think our passionate, hands-on typist would prefer?

Look for more things like this, and you'll open up additional opportunities for yourself.

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