American Book Blight

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"


George Alexander said...

Hi, Morris.

While I agree with much of your piece, I was surprised by this statement:

“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.”

In fact, exactly what you advocate is already happening: thousands of new, entrepreneurial publishers are launching tens of thousands of new titles. In the process, they have swamped the normal new-title statistics process at Bowker (which, as the official dispenser of ISBNs, keeps track of such things).

Here’s an extract from a Bowker press release:

“While traditional book publishing was basically flat last year, there was a staggering rise in the reported number of “On Demand” and short-run books to 134,773, pushing the grand total for projected 2007 U.S. book output to 411,422 books. To maintain the continuity of statistics, Bowker is excluding this output from its traditional reporting and has begun tracking the On Demand industry segment separately.”


I was surprised that you didn’t mention this phenomenon, since you yourself are at the heart of it. I am one of the “new crop of publishers” (with an initial book in the “proof” stage at LightningSource) who has benefited greatly from your writing. Bowker has now confirmed that there are huge numbers of us, and some of our 135,000 new titles are bound to be blight-resistant.

-- George Alexander, Publisher, Preposterous Press

Morris Rosenthal said...


Yes, there are more new titles coming out than ever, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm happy to see 100,000 new memoirs a year, and 100,000 new novels, not to mention 50,000 poetry collections (I'm guesstimating numbers here) but they aren't a business model for anybody other than the subsidy presses charging the fees to produce them. Years ago I ground the numbers and concluded that the average new title (trade-wide) sold around 200 copies. Today I doubt that number is over 100, and it takes a lot of trade bestsellers to drag the average up that high. Most new authors don't sell beyond their family and firends

It's nice authors get to see their books in print, and I encourage those authors who've written a books that aren't commercially viable to sign up with a service and get them printed for a few hundred dollars. As long as they stay away from marketing rip-offs, it's a fair deal for both sides.

But the purpose of this blog is to encourage authors (and former trade editors:-) to think about publishing as a business, which is the only way to earn a living at it. Throwing 400,000 new titles against a wall and hoping a few stick isn't a serious undertaking for anybody.

BTW, there's something screwy in those Bowker numbers, which would imply there were some 275,000 new titles from traditional trade publishers in 2007. I think the real number is less than half that, they might have the two numbers reversed, ie, 134,773 trade titles and 275,000 POD.


Zoe Winters said...

A lot of traditionally published writers seem to be almost angry about self publishing. I wasn't sure exactly why for awhile, and I'm not sure if they fully know, but I'm starting to suspect it has something to do with the fact that your average midlist trad published author has given up all control for low royalty return.

They have to market themselves and its hard to move those books, and now they have to contend with the noise created on the internet and all these "fake wannabe authors."

For some bizarre reason they seem to think that people like myself want to go indie to call ourselves authors. Pfft. I don't care about labels. I care about the fact that if I'm doing most of the marketing, I want a higher profit margin.

Unless they want to offer me real money (which I understand it isn't in their business model to do so unless I proved I could really move books), then I'd be happier running my own little show.

But being able to somehow "cut in line," "take a shortcut," or "call myself an author" isn't even on the shortlist of motivations.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I think a lot of the negative feelings that trade authors and editors have towards self publishers is due to self esteem issues. They feel they have "made it" by working for the name publishers, and to acknowledge that there are other ways of "making it" may just reduce their own accomplishments. But I'm just talking about the sillier folks.


Zoe Winters said...

hahaha Morris. Possibly so. I've noticed that self esteem is generally higher percentage wise among the self-employed. It's not to say that people who aren't self-employed don't have self esteem, but their numbers are fewer. They tend to have very limited beliefs about their potential. Probably because high self esteem usually causes one to get out of the hamster wheel.

Lots of great writers, past and present have gone indie. It's always been a valid way of "making it" it's just not an easy way.

I think though that when someone sees someone succeed in this way they assume they "cut line" somehow. Which is silly, but...yeah.