Starting around 100 years ago, American Chestnut trees were infected by an imported blight which apparently originated in Japan or China. With no native resistance, the American Chestnuts, estimated at four billion strong, were wiped out. However, their root systems proved so resilient that they continue a shadowy existence under the canopy, throughout their native range. After sprouting from old roots, they out-compete the other young trees of the forest until they near maturity, when they contract the blight and die. Since they rarely mature sufficiently to flower and produce nuts, Darwinian mechanics has yet to produce a solution. While inspecting a property this morning near the Quabbin reservoir Massachusetts, I came upon a whole grove of young American Chestnuts, distinguishable primarily by their leaves:
One of the trees in the grove was surprisingly mature, I'd estimate the diameter nearly six inches, though you can see the blight cankers stretching vertically on the bark.
American Book Blight came along much later than the Chestnut Blight, and there's no blaming foreigners for this one. I'd suggest American Book Blight took off in the 1970's, grew steadily until the early 1990's, and then took a huge jump as book superstores, discount chains and Amazon changed the economics of the book business. Instead of tens of thousands of new titles reaching maturity each year from a hundred thousand seedlings, only a few thousand titles grow to maturity these days. The sales of those mature titles have become super-sized, with bestsellers routinely going over a million copies, but what's lacking are the tens of thousands of new mid-list or back-list titles selling in commercial quantities. Trade publishing is more of a lottery, winner-take-all game than it was a few decades ago, though part of this may be due to the decreasing influence of the library market.
My first solution for the American book blight was given in my last post about trade publishing lay-offs. A new crop of publishers is what it will take to nurture and grow the next generation of blight resistant titles to a modest maturity. Large trades can't make a profit planning new titles that will sell on the order of a thousand copies a year, but a long-lived grove of such titles will keep a self publisher in nuts for the cold winters ahead. New independent publishers who adopt print-on-demand economics may need to sell a several times that number unless they charge astronomical cover prices, but a modest list averaging three or four thousand units per title per year can pay a couple salaries.
Scientists have been working for years to breed a blight resistant American Chestnut hybrid, hoping that a tree that is 15/16ths American (and 1/16th Chinese) may prove blight resistant enough to repopulate the East Coast range. I think a similar hybrid approach is key to beating American Book Blight, but I'd suggest more than a 16th of non-paper revenues in the mix. I'm currently trying to move my own publishing business to a 50/50 model, 50% paper books printed on demand and 50% electronic, from Ebooks or web revenue. If I can get there, it will be a model that allows even smaller market books to mature, flower and provide the publisher with enough nuts to last year-round. And remember, if you ever get into a conversation with a forestry type who gets on the subject of the chestnut blight, and you want to make a bad impression, interrupt with , "Oh yes, American Chestnuts. Them's good burning"