CULTURE

Small is beautiful in book trade

Traditionally, producing and selling books in Greece and many other countries has been carried out by small businesses – small publishing houses, small bookstores, a relatively small printer’s (linotype or electronic), or a small bookbinder’s. In all these small businesses, the boss is a devotee who may be from a variety of backgrounds, and who at some time and for some reason has become personally involved with books, printing, or bookbinding. One never knows if such people exercise their profession to make a living or for the fun of it or as a hobby. Personal relationship Sometimes they have had very little education or are completely illiterate though they work in and for the world of letters. Formed at some point in time, their personal relationship with books is often unfathomable. Each case is unique. Publishers and booksellers are often former printers, commercial salesmen, stationers, proof-readers or bookbinders, although they may come from other occupations. Rarely are they members of the intelligentsia. And never are they capitalists, that is, people who possess or have amassed a certain amount of capital and decided to invest it in books in the expectation of deriving a profit. And even if they do acquire capital, they do not feel or think or act as if they have any. A typical capitalist does not choose to invest in books, because of the delicate and uncertain cost-benefit relationship. The more books printed, the lower the unit cost, and the more books sold, the higher the profit. However, since it is never possible to know how many copies will be sold, it is not possible to know how many should be printed in order to maximize profit. For the same reason, recouping an investment is slow and often tortuous. Many believe that modern marketing rules (such as standardization, advertising, and promoting goods to particular networks) can overcome this inherent difficulty. In short, book production and distribution have hitherto manifested the hallmarks of a small-scale industry – a personal relationship between the entrepreneur and the profession, small, disorganized production (i.e. not standardized), and limited profits. Nonetheless, within one or two generations, publishing houses that managed to survive in this manner accumulated significant material and intellectual capital which yields large profits when it is not left inert but is actively used. An example frequently cited is that of Costas Eleftheroudakis, who found himself in a very difficult position when he published the Encyclopedia and «The History of the Greek Nation,» by Constantinopoulos Paparrigopoulos. In the following generation, those two volumes constituted significant intellectual and material capital. Fragmented public It is an interesting question whether the fragmentation of book production and sales is simply a phase whose time is over, or if it is a natural state that corresponds to the division of customers into many categories of needs and interests. In fact, each book title is not directed at the public in general, as many other products are, but to its own public, to readers who have some reason for buying and reading it, who expect the book to tell them something they don’t know and have sensed they don’t know. Readers are not quite as chaotic and disorganized a public as they seem. The first crucial question is whether this fragmented public would be better served by a few large businesses with standardized output or by many small ones, each of which tailors its production to the size and concerns of the readers that choose its books. The 1960s and ’70s saw the emergence of large publishers with standardized products – chiefly encyclopedias and other sets of books – directed at the anonymous general public. This was when the older generation had begun to prosper and, lacking education themselves, thought that an encyclopedia would help educate the next generation. This kind of publishing activity soon adopted advertising and door-to-door sales in installments to a special network of customers. The endeavor had great financial success, though it did not change the nature of the small-scale industry of multidimensional book production and sales. But it did leave behind many traces, such as the tendency to issue books in matching sets (of novels and essays, for instance), without paying particular attention to the value of each individual title. The idea was successful at first: Some large publishing houses and large, supermarket-style bookstores opened, production boomed, and some books sold record numbers of copies. Soon, however, the system showed signs of crisis. The average shelf life of a title and its appearance in store windows shortened dramatically and huge stocks of books piled up in publishers’ and booksellers’ storerooms, among which were buried worthwhile books that had not managed to find their readership in the short time allowed. The cost-to-profit ratio had probably deteriorated badly, more so for the big players than the small ones. Pluralism Another crucial question has to do with guaranteeing freedom and pluralism in the dissemination of ideas, of which books and the printed word in general are significant bearers. In tough times – of persecution, suppression of human rights and restriction of democratic freedoms – protest, opposition and resistance have found expression though many smaller publishers and booksellers. Non-conformism suits the latter, just as conformism suits the larger players. We are not suggesting in ethical terms that this is a reason for retaining the multidimensional small-industry style of producing and selling books. But it would be difficult, next to impossible, for that side of the book trade to die out, because the readership is just as multidimensional, multivoiced and concerned, sometimes even as non-conformist, as ever.