In America We Publish Books For Readers

I was browsing through an upscale, glossy magazine for homeowners the other day at a friend's, and came across an ad for "Decorative European leather-bound books." I've been known to refer to the slow selling books in superstores as "wallpaper" but it never occurred to me that there is actually a business in selling books to designers, interior decorators and homebuilders for the sake of filling shelf space in sheetrock castles. The ad included a photograph of twenty or so colorful leather-bound books piled up in a stack, the assertion that the seller has over 70,000 volumes in stock, and a toll-free number in America.

I don't know about you, but I found the idea of books being sold as decorations to wealthy people pretty depressing. Assuming that the majority of European books aren't published in English, the odds of their ever being read even if the TV and the Internet connection fail seem pretty low. I was getting myself pretty worked up, thinking about the sarcastic comments I could work into a post about the "true" business of publishing, and then it hit me. Maybe publishing "decorative" books is the business model of these European publishers, and they churn out out-of-copyright classics in fine tooled leather knowing they are destined to provide an inch or two of eye-candy for a shelf.

And that got me thinking about self publishing in America vs self publishing in Europe, and whether there are cultural barriers to the print-on-demand business model in the Old World. While the titles I've self published using Lightning Source in the U.K. as the printer have done well enough, they mainly sell in the U.K. I'm an indifferent cover designer (some would substitute "bad" for "indifferent") because I count on my Internet published excerpts to sell my books regardless of aesthetics. Maybe selling books on the Continent requires modern art on the cover, if not the tanned hide of some creature or another. In America, most publishers focus on pleasing readers. Maybe European publishers are more focused on the critics, and self publishers are met with scorn.

To each his own, but it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I remember visiting a cousin's home in Israel once and seeing a Hebrew translation of "Man's Search for Meaning" by Frankl. I'd read the book in English and asked my cousin's wife, a psychologist, what she thought of it. She replied to the effect of, "I haven't read it, but it was just recently translated and everybody needs to have a copy lying around for visitors to see that they have it." I don't know how serious she was. My main memory of the book was thinking he should have left for America with his wife and kids while he had the chance and said Kaddish for his parents.

I haven't marketed books to libraries for years, though they buy a reasonable number from us due to patron requests. I don't like the idea of selling a book for which there isn't a reader waiting, and one of my slim how-to titles on a library shelf could easily go unmarked until it's obsolete. While my self publishing business is clearly focused on making a living, I write books in the hope and belief that people will read them. Copyright protection runs a long, long time, but there's not much an author can do to protect his book from being republished as a decoration 100 years after he dies. I guess I'll just have to avoid writing a classic

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