The Disorganization of the Book-Trade
I HAVE just come home from a delightful trip on the European Continent, in which there was never any chance to be homesick for America. America was visible everywhere! American acquaintances at every inn, and at every turn of the road, American goods strewn over every land. From the Ohio cash-register and the Connecticut typewriter and the California fruit and the Massachusetts shoe and the New York chorus-girl, down to the little devices with the United States stamp, every American product seems to welcome the traveler on the other side. There is only one thing he had better pack beforehand into his trunk if he wants ever to see it: an American book.
The American book is practically unknown on the European Continent. I went to the special bookstores of foreign literature; they had a hundred excuses in store, but never the books I wanted. I made my pilgrimage to the large libraries, and could not find such American books as no village library in America would wish to be without. I went to scholarly congresses and talked there with hard-reading men of all nations, and they spoke of the writings of American scholars as of the Rocky Mountains, which they certainly accept as existing, and which may be splendid and wonderful, but which they have never had a chance to see in the original. And on expressing my astonishment, I usually received the reply that it is too bothersome to get American books, as the booktrade of the United States seems without order and system: nobody knows where to find what is wanted. I saw it with my own eyes. An important book by a Columbia professor had appeared in New York in March; in the following August, a German bookstore wrote to the English representative of the American house, and ordered the book for a customer. I saw the reply card which laconically announced from London that the book had not yet appeared in print. I was in Berlin when a little paper of mine in a popular New York magazine stirred up some discussion in America; the discussion went over into the German papers, but the magazine did not follow over the ocean. After hunting for it in vain in the bookstores, where the English magazines were heaped up, I was almost surprised to discover at last a forlorn copy on a hotel news-stand, purchasable for about three times the regular price.
It is easy to make light of this failure of the American book abroad : what does it amount to, — we are asked, — if our latest novel is sold at home in hundreds of thousands, and if our magazines reach every village of America ? But even if the dollars and cents in the case may be a trifling matter, there is a more important issue involved. The world-influence of the American mind must suffer if the chief messengers of American thought, the books, are hampered on their way, and if the American scholar and poet and essayist and author cannot be heard in every land. The mist of prejudices against the crudeness and materialism of the New World is still thick and heavy; how can it be dispelled, if those who interpret American ideals and express American endeavors are kept in silence outside of the home boundaries ? In our times, when the civilized world has become one, and every newspaper of Europe has its long cables about the most trivial American events, it is a wrong to the world-influence of American culture if our writers are banished from the European Continent by our own carelessness.
Of course, it would seem that good translations might overcome the evil. But what a pitiful tale is made by the haphazard selections of the translators! It often seems as if the French, the German, the Italian translators had carefully chosen the least important and least significant products for their interpretative efforts. In German, for instance, it is true that Mark Twain and Bret Harte and Poe, and, to some extent Emerson, are well known by translations, but beyond that all is chaos; and among American writers of the last years, Andrew Carnegie and Helen Keller appear most often in the window of the German bookshop. The great tendencies of modern American writing do not show at all in the chance translations of the day. It must not be forgotten that the just anger of the European publisher plays an important role in this, and erects a barrier against many an American author. The European publisher sees his works practically unprotected against American pirates. He is not aware that American authors and publishers would greatly welcome acceptance by the United States of the international copyright laws of Europe, and that it is the typographical unions which are the centre of opposition. He knows only that his novels are reprinted in German-American papers, and that his text-books are published in American translations without any profit to him, and he takes his vengeance by refusing to print anything American. The Americans are hardly aware how quickly this feeling of spite is growing among European publishers.
Before me lies a beautiful German book, the first page of which contains the well-known American copyright formula. Below it the following words appear: “The United States demands the reprinting of this formula for the insufficient protection, limited to one year, which they give to foreign books; they demonstrate by it that with the majority of Americans the idea of the intellectual property of other nations is not so highly developed as with us.” Hundreds of thousands read this note, and become painfully conscious that a German book is indeed protected in America for one year, while every American book is protected in Europe for thirty years after the author’s death. It is truly not surprising that the good will of the Continental publishers towards the American author is faint, and that there is no other sure way for the propagation of American ideas abroad than the pushing forward of the American book and magazine themselves.
And yet the gloomy view of our American book-trade which I brought back from my European travels has, after all, a much more serious meaning. The failure abroad may not count for much, but the impressions in Europe brought more clearly to my mind than before that the American book to a high degree is not less a failure in our own country; here, too, it does not really reach the readers. Of course, the American buys many books, and pushes the latest novel to its third hundred thousand, but no one who watches the selection closely can doubt that haphazard methods determine the demand and supply, and that superficiality and aimlessness prevail; and the guilt for all of it lies in the disorganization of the book-trade. A change somewhat after the European example is needed, and such a change would be not simply a commercial problem, but truly a social reform. That is the reason, and the only reason, why an observer of American social traits asks for a hearing; a serious injury to the people’s mind is imminent — that it is an injury also to the publishers’ pocket is secondary.
The well-adapted book at home is, after all, the strongest agency for national culture. It is the only reliable remedy for the saloon and its miseries, and it is the only antidote to the benumbing chase for mere wealth and its pseudo pleasures and excitements. The newspaper with its sensationalism cannot stem the longings of the mind, and the chances are great that those who are not in the habit of reading good books will benefit little even from the rich treasures that the magazines put before them. They glance perhaps at the pictures, they rush through a story, they peep into an article, — they have lost the repose needed for that reading which the library at home suggests and sternly demands. Of course, we are near the truth in blaming for all this the hurry of our up-to-date life. To rush through the world in automobiles means to accustom the eye to the rapid flight of impressions, and spoils the inner eye for the fancies of repose. The woman who wastes her time with bridge whist loses the energy for the old fashioned habit of continual serious reading. But, however true that may be, is not perhaps the other side equally responsible ? Is the book defeated only because the rush of superficial life has become so wild, or has not perhaps the rush become so passionate, and the automobile and the whist so absorbing, because the book was too weak, and did not force itself sufficiently into the foreground ?
I point at once to the core of the trouble : in Europe the bookstores are the centre of the reading community, and their number increases steadily, — America’s bookstores are dying out, and their influence is insignificant; outside of the largest cities you seek them almost in vain. If I go in Germany, for instance, to a town of a hundred thousand inhabitants, I find from a dozen to a score of attractive wellsupplied bookstores. A rich assortment of books from all fields — new and older books, literary and scholarly books, popular editions and costly works — is easily accessible to the customer, and by the splendid organization of the trade, every book that is not at hand can be supplied from the central reservoirs in a day. Each store has its ample display in the windows, constantly changing; each one gladly sends to its customers for inspection all the new books which might have for him special interest. The books there come to you and attract you and tempt you and take hold on you.
The average American town of a hundred thousand inhabitants may have a dozen jewelry stores, but not a single true bookstore. Of course there are plenty of chances to buy the stories of the month, and some books on birds and on travel, a golden treasury and a book for the boy; but a full supply in all lines, as it is found next door in the grocery or the cigar or the glove or the ribbon store, is practically unknown outside of the largest cities. The books are sold either in the small stationer’s, with ink and leather goods, if not with candy, or in the huge department store, between bathing-suits and trunks. In the one case, there is no backing of capital; all is done with the narrowest means. In the other case, there is no profit, as the books are on the whole added to attract the people who might happen to buy an umbrella and shirtwaist after being drawn into the big place where the latest novel is given away below the publishers’ wholesale price. In both cases there is nothing at hand which has not the probability of pretty immediate sale, and in both cases all real interest in literature is absent; an adjustment to the subtler needs of the community is thus impossible.
You might reply: That does not matter, as we Americans order our books directly from the publisher, which saves us the profit of the middleman; the book can be sold so much cheaper because there is no local trade which adds the profit of the dealer to the price. What the publishers have to offer we know sufficiently from their advertisements in the papers, and from their pretty, attractive catalogues, and from the reviews and critical articles. And finally, there are the subscription agents, who certainly lack no patience in bringing their books to the prospective readers. We have therefore stationery shops, and department houses, and publishers’ advertisements and selling agents, and in addition the railroad counters and the hotel-stands, — what more can be desired ?
All this is granted. But what is the result ? Buying books has become to a high degree a matter of passing fashions, and these fashions are essentially determined by the advertisements of the publishers. Everybody buys the latest book which the fashion pushes forward, and the chances are great that it is just that kind of a book which five years later nobody will read, and which will be a dead weight in the home library. No publisher can afford to give equal chance to all his publications. To bring a book, only for a few weeks, to the attention of the magazine or newspaper readers is extremely expensive; it is possible only for the books which, by the name of the author or by sensational features or by special timeliness, promise unusual sale. Any other book, too, might be brought forward by extensive advertising, but it would be ruinous; it may not be difficult to sell a one-dollar book if a two-dollar bill is laid in every copy, but the publishers do not like that method. As a result, most authors complain that their publishers do not take enough trouble with the announcement of their particular writings, and that they therefore sell in unsatisfactory figures. They may well envy the German author whose books are supplied on request to every bookstore in the country free of charge for a year’s display. With us here a book that is not widely advertised, or widely criticised, does not indicate its existence to the average reader. And yet this advertising system itself makes the idea of reducing the price of books by eliminating the bookstore entirely hopeless; it is more expensive than the profit of the middleman, and serves only the few favorites.
The immediate consequence of this whole situation is the rapid disappearance of the books after their noisy appearance for a few months. Débutantes in our society are allowed to dance at least more than one winter before they withdraw; but in the catalogues which pile up on our breakfast-tables the débutante books of the season are alone admitted, the output of the foregoing year is forgotten. A book which does not win favor in the first weeks seldom has a second chance. But that is a waste of intellectual labor which no nation can afford. Europeans are often surprised to find how wasteful the American household of moderate means is: the kitchen makes use ouly of the best slices, and does not understand the art of making the less favored parts appetizing by dainty cooking, and thus serviceable to the household welfare. The literary kitchen of the nation is much more wasteful, without being rich enough to be able to afford such luxury. To live ever from new books means in this case simply underfeeding.
This hasty rhythm is all the more ruinous because America does not believe in new editions, — one of the saddest features of American bookmaking. In Germany, for instance, a book outside of fiction is usually revised by the author when one thousand copies have been sold. It is thus kept living, in steady contact with the progress of knowledge, and in steady adjustment to criticism; thoroughness demands it. In the United States I know students’ text-books sold up to more than fifty thousand copies in the last twenty years with never a word in them changed. If the book has once found favor, it goes on, by mere tradition, unchanged, however antiquated its statements may be. The European publisher in such cases would have demanded from the authors a revision at least every second year. The reason for the difference is clear. The European book is printed from type for the purpose of making new editions easy, as the type is destroyed after the printing of a limited number. The American book, on the other hand, is printed from plates, which allow an unlimited reprinting if the book is successful. If the plates are once made, it is of course much cheaper to go on with unchanged reprinting than to set up a really new edition. The publisher too often tempts the author into such superficial usage by contracts which allow increasing royalty with the growing sale, and in this way the financial advantage of both author and publisher has made the custom of new editions unusual. Yet the best chance to bring an old book to new light is in this way thrown away; in Europe each new edition is circulated and reviewed like a new book. In short, very different factors work together to make American books melt away with the “snows of yesteryear.”
The well-advertised books disappear too quickly, and the books which do not justify extensive advertisement have no chance, — but all this is the poor fate of books which have had at least the good fortune to appear. Can there be any doubt that this whole situation works from the outset against the appearance of many other books ? Not every book has the desire to be a best seller, not every book is written for large crowds, and yet if it had a chance to reach the inquiring booklovers in every home, and to remain for their perusal in the bookstores, it might slowly find a little audience, and might thus in the long run pay the publisher. But the American publisher knows that there is no long run for the book which is not expensively advertised, or which does not appeal to large circles. He cannot risk, therefore, manufacturing the plates, and the elaborate manuscript remains unprinted. The lack of good bookstores, which are just adapted for selling the slow-moving books, thus inhibits the literary production of the whole ocuntry. The young or unknown author is pushed into the newspapers and magazines, while his thoughts perhaps demand the book for adequate expression; or he is forced to keep his product unpublished if his work is unsuited to the popular channels.
Scholarship and academic activity suffer immensely from this unwillingness of the publishers to risk the publication of a modest book; and they are justified in their fears, as, under the American system, publication would indeed mean a loss to them. I feel sure that my first four German books on topics of experimental psychology would not have been published by an American publisher, or only at my own expense. In the last year there appeared in Germany, with its sixty million inhabitants, 28,703 new books; in the United States, with itseighty millions, not more than 8112. In magazines, America is far ahead of Europe; their organization is splendid, they know how to reach the American reader; as they do not need the bookstore, but live from subscriptions and news-stands, the publishers can count on success, and thus no plan need remain unrealized. With books, exactly the opposite; the channels of distribution are clogged because for them the bookstores are indispensable, and their meagreness thus works backwards on the timidity of the publishers.
At the same time the bookbuyers become disorganized too. They no longer have that delightful opportunity to spend half an hour once or twice a week in a well-supplied bookstore, and to enjoy the old friends and the new acquaintances before they are brought home for the family hearth. The reader without a bookstore becomes uncritical; with him to work upon, the silliest book can be brought up to a large edition by clever advertisements, and a smart subscription agent can lead him into any trap. The St. Louis World’s Fair published an excellent work in eight volumes as a report of its international scientific congress. This scholarly production was sold at first for twenty, later for twelve dollars, and when the interest seemed exhausted, the remaining two thousand copies were given on a small bid to a little publishing firm which was expected to sell the rest for a still smaller price. But the firm knew where our trade-methods have landed us. They took a cheap book of pictures, and distributed the photographs carelessly through the eight volumes; for instance, they had a picture of a naked woman with a crescent in her hair, — they gave it as an illustration to a scholarly report to the Congress about the moon; and so on. Finally they made a showy binding, and then they sold each set by subscription for one hundred and fifty dollars.
What can be done to bring the haphazard and hysterical methods of bookbuying to desirable conditions, from which publishers, authors, and readers may profit alike ? Nothing more ought to be necessary than a fundamental reform of the bookstores. We must have in every town large, beautiful, well-supplied bookstores, conducted with some literary instinct. The German method of bringing this about is not applicable in the United States, as here it would be construed as unallowable restraint of trade. The German law allows restrictions which American suspicion of monopolies wmuld not tolerate.
In Germany all publishers form one association, no member of which has a right to sell directly to the customer; every copy, therefore, goes through the bookseller. Yet that alone, if adopted here, would not secure any great advantage, for it would be very doublful whether a small town could have its decent bookstore, as the large stores in the big cities would evidently be able to give a high discount, and would thus secure the whole trade by mail-orders. The bookshop in the small place would then be lost. The really decisive point is, therefore, that no member of the publishers’ association should have a right to give books to a bookstore that sells below the regular retail price. The customer in a little country town in Germany can thus get his book from Berlin or Leipzig only at the same price at which the store in the neighboring street supplies it, and his neighbor can give him the further advantage of a convenient display. He trades, therefore, in his own town; and in this way even the smallest place can provide business for a solid bookstore which is a centre of literary interest.
Such an agreement, which stimulates the book-loving instinct through every county of the Fatherland, involves indeed a restraint of trade, and the Supreme Court of the United States has decided against it. The bookstore which breaks the price agreement with one publisher, and undersells its neighbor, cannot by any associative agreement lose the right to get books from other publishers; yet just on that hinges the German success. But there are other ways to secure similar results, and one especially which would be the true American way: a combination without monopoly. In every field of American activity the combinations have raised the level of demand and supply; it is high time that we get for the book-trade that improvement which even the tobacco interests have introduced for the sale of their goods. The dusty little cigar-shops of the past are crowded out by the large stores in which the united tobacco companies sell their goods under their own auspices.
It is by all means the best way. In the department stores literature will never take a dignified place, and the little bookstores, or rather half-bookstores and quarter-bookstores, which prevail to-day cannot ever be the germs for the desired development, because there is no capital behind them. Bookstores which are really to serve the ideal interests of American culture must be attractive, large halls with a rich assortment, and a display with comfort for the reader, and that means an outlay of large capital, — which, indeed, will earn more than in the dingy shops of to-day. Places like the six or eight best and finest bookstores in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia ought to be, several hundred in number, spread over the whole land. Their fimetion would be not less important than that of the public library. And all this is possible at once if the publishers themselves would unite their energies, and together create bookstores in which all products of their publishing houses should be on continuous display. They have the capital, and they would find this method ultimately cheaper than their present catalogue system; it would swell the home libraries; it would bring the quiet and modest books to a dignified sale; it would keep the good books alive longer, and would adjust the sale to the really serious needs of the public: a change which would bring a strengthening of every sound impulse in the community.
Something of this kind must be done, or the bookstores will and must dwindle away entirely, and with them the habit of reading a good personally owned book by the home fireplace, — the habit of reading with continued attention, instead of rushing spasmodically through the little cut-off pieces of the illustrated pamphlets. Otherwise, instead of leisurely wandering through the fields of literature, there will soon be only hasty automobiling through them, with a steady increase of superficiality; and, worst of all, the authors will be more and more forced to adapt themselves to such conditions. American literature will become more and more hasty and occasional, while we are all longing for that great, new, upward movement of American literature for which the time seems ripe and the gods seem willing.
[The foregoing article has been submitted to two well-known American publishers. They agree with Professor Münsterberg in deprecating the present conditions of the book-trade, but they do not share his faith in a possible reorganization along the lines suggested. The American Publishers’ Association, which has been held by the Supreme Court to be a combination in restraint of trade, was formed in order to prevent the small booksellers from being driven out of business by the department stores. Since the unexpected legal obstacle to the work of the Association has arisen, the problem of the small bookshop remains precisely what it was. For the publishers themselves to enter the field of retail bookselling, as Professor Münsterberg suggests, would not only require a vast increase in their capital, but would inevitably, in the opinion of the two publishers consulted, result in the further demoralization of the local booksellers, whom the publishers now desire to protect and encourage in every possible manner. Perhaps there is some other way out of the difficulty.— THE EDITORS.]