Fewer and Better Books

How serious and how recent is the overproduction in the book trade? ‘Of making many books there is no end’ is a plaint which has been repeated by generations of booksellers. In late years the rumblings of discontent have seemed more ominous to my ears.

At the last meeting of the American Booksellers Association, the president bitterly — and I think unjustifiedly — blamed the publishers for their ‘overproduction.’ ‘It seems,’ said he, ‘that the publisher, striving in keen competition, aims to see how many, not how worthy, books he can publish in a given period. He is responsible for that class of retail customers who now consider a book that is three or four weeks old behind the times. Nowadays and almost without exception a book that has been published three months is practically dead, forgotten, awaiting its removal to the bargain-tables. Where will the books of to-day be twenty years hence? Where is gone the slogan of “Fewer books and better”?

‘I realize, of course, that the publisher has his problems. He must keep his presses going. He must keep his organization intact. Yet, could he not concentrate still more on manuscripts which are worthy and which would meet with a more kind and responsive reception from the buying public? In the field of non-fiction, which happily since the war has been steadily winning a place for itself in the sun, many liberties are being taken by the publisher. Let a man deliver a few lectures or write a few magazine articles, these are gathered and appear between the covers of a book, published at from two dollars to five dollars, and the bookseller is expected to enthuse over these publications, generally at a short discount.’

Let us examine the statistics of American book-production, furnished by the American Publishers Association, taken, for the sake of brevity, at intervals of every five years.

Year Fiction Non-Fiction Total
1890 U. S. 1040 2493
Imp. 78 948
1118 3441 4559
1895 U. S. 876 3367
Imp. 238 998
1114 4365 5479
1900 U. S. 1112 4154
Imp. 166 924
1278 5078 6356
1905 U. S. 1306 5839
Imp. 58 909
1364 6748 8112
1910 U. S. 1339 9085
Imp. 200 2846
1539 11931 13470
1915 1 U. S. 723 6673
Imp. 196 2142
919 8815 9734
1920 U. S. 1093 6353
Imp. 61 915
1154 7268 8422
1923 U. S. 1022 6485
Imp. 58 1298
1080 7783 8863

These statistics reveal the superficiality of the cry of ‘constantly increasing production.’ We find production rising in a steady curve from 1890, reaching an apex in 1910, in which year the figures were 200 per cent greater than twenty years previous. Then a drop began; for the past ten years the figures have remained comparatively static at about 8500 titles a year, or only 63 per cent of the 1910 figure. This condition arose from many causes—no doubt chiefly from the realization of the publishers that in 1910 the market had been glutted. Undoubtedly the war and the recent high costs of book-making have aided the decrease. Indeed, according to an article by Miss Marion Humble in the June Bookman: ‘In 1920 it was found that increasing costs of labor and material were greatly affecting the number of books published. It was estimated that in one year about 4,500,000 volumes, over 400 new titles and 1200 old titles, had actually been unpublished because of increased manufacturing costs. . . . Publishers had dropped old titles from their lists because reprinting costs had become prohibitive.’

Fiction has not held its own. In 1923 there were actually 38 fewer fiction titles published than in 1890, while the non-fiction had increased from 3441 to 7783. In 1890 fiction constituted 25 per cent of the total output, and this figure has gradually decreased to about 12 per cent, with every indication of becoming lower in the future. Why? Call it a growing recognition of the dangers inherent in the publication of fiction; call it the competitive influence of the movies and the many new fiction-magazines; call it the increasing demand for ‘serious stuff,’ essays, technical books, drama, philosophy, or the like — call it this or that or the other thing, nevertheless the condition persists. What I have been trying to point out in presenting these figures, however, is that book-production today (especially fiction) is on the wane and has been since the high-water mark of 1910. Any discussion that follows must be predicated upon this realization. When we reflect, moreover, on the increase in the number of publishers (for example, four new publishing concerns were launched this summer), on the perceptible increase in new bookshops as retail outlets, on the growth in the volume of book sales, these statistics of downward production gain additional significance.


The public must recognize that the rôles played in the business game by publisher and bookseller might aptly be compared to those well-known partners, Potash and Perlmutter, who, however antagonistic they seem or wish to seem, are absolutely dependent upon each other.

The publisher — I refer specifically to the publisher of general books sold in bookshops, as opposed to a publisher of technical and scientific books — must needs be a lover of literature and a discriminating critic, a shrewd business man, and an intrepid gambler. As George H. Doran says, ‘Publishing is neither altogether commercial nor is it altogether professional. It is a curious and necessary combination of the two.’ Especially would I stress the gambling element in publishing, for this is one of the distinguishing traits of the profession. In business, in the merchandising of stable commodities such as coal, iron, grain, wool, and the like, there are fixed and arbitrary standards which can be recognized, duplicated, and graded accurately, after preliminary training. Not so in literature, that elusive, intangible, delicately beautiful product.

When a publisher decides to put his imprint on a manuscript, he wagers his capital that a sufficient public will react favorably to the book to produce a profitable sale. In other words, his mind must move with, not against, the tide of life about him. ‘He must know the currents of public opinion and the trend of thinking; he must supplement the truth of it or seek to stem the tide of error, not as a propagandist, but as a publicist. He must have courage to publish a good book in the face of a known financial loss; he must be beneficent and willing to publish first books of promise.'

Briefly, the publisher must combine in his mental equipment the qualities of the theatrical producer, the statesman, the editor, the seer, and above all the financier. Yet the statesman miscalculates and violates the laws of foreign diplomacy, the best plays fail, and the best books — in the publisher’s judgment — remain on the shelves. This involves one point that the facile critics of overproduction would seem to ignore. It is easy for an outsider to say, ‘Restrict your titles, publish fewer and better books,’ but far less easy to tell which particular titles should have been eliminated. Looking backward, one can recognize his mistakes, but at the beginning of a publishing season we have apparently invincible reasons for our choice of every title.

Publishing, then, as compared with bookselling, is a more speculative æsthetic venture, requiring larger capital and playing for larger stakes. Lest this rather broad generalization be subjected to disagreement, let me qualify it by saying, first, that it takes more capital to become a large publisher than a large retailer; secondly, that over a period of years the profits of a well-managed retail business can be foretold with fair accuracy from previous experience, while those of a well-managed publishing house fluctuate violently. The good bookseller as compared with the publisher is a veritable scholar, in the sense of being a librarian, a bookworm, a collector; a man of prodigious memory, embracing titles, authors, and editions; a man with patience for a multiplicity of details; a man who views himself as only one step removed from the college professor and the minister. Rightly so, for the good bookshop is a cultural reservoir.

The evils of overproduction are in one sense far more serious to the bookseller than to the publisher; in fact they constitute by far the greatest menace to the ultimate prosperity of retailing. A publisher need concern himself with overproduction only from two angles: how far the output of new titles published by his competitors will cut into his own sales, and how many particular titles on his own list will be found unsalable and consequently unprofitable. But the bookseller is in a far more dangerous position, for his stock is culled from the collective stock of all publishers. A single publisher has only his own errors to combat; but the errors of the whole tribe are heaped on the sagging shoulders of the retailer. He must needs carry a certain minimum stock of the so-called standard books — books such as the Boston Cooking School Book, Holt’s Care and Feeding of Children, Bartlett’s Quotations, and the like. He must carry an assortment of the classics (and many booksellers carry foreign as well as English and American classics), and added to this he must have the new books being published daily. One can imagine, for example, the money involved if a bookseller tried to stock only two copies of every new book published during one year, for our statistics would show us that this alone would cost approximately $20,000. No matter how carefully he selects his stock from the various publishers, he is bound to make mistakes. He misjudges the merits of a new book shown him and overbuys (at this point reading booksellers will probably say they are forced into overbuying by publishers’ salesmen), or the demand for a popular author suddenly wanes, or public taste changes; and the bookseller is left with new books that he cannot sell save at a fraction of their real price. Despite his diligent efforts, his stock grows like a snowball rolling down hill. Yet one cannot pay salaries, rent, bills for merchandise, let alone dividends, from an ever-increasing inventory.

Unsalable books are dangerous for both publisher and bookseller, by virtue of the very small profit in book sales. Follow for a moment the financial make-up of the average two-dollar novel from manuscript form until its eventual sale in a bookstore. The average two-dollar novel uses about a pound of paper, ranging in price from six and one-half cents to ten. Plates, by far the most expensive item, vary in price according to the number of pages, but average five to six hundred dollars. The publisher usually makes a first printing of from 2500 to 3000 copies, and endeavors to amortize the cost of the plates against this first printing. The amortized charge varies from seventeen cents to twenty-four cents a copy. Presswork — that is, the actual printing from the plates — costs four cents to five cents a copy on an edition of this size. Binding costs fourteen cents to twenty-two cents a copy, according to the style and quality used. Then there are always extras, such as jacket dies, end papers, illustrations for the jacket, printing the jacket, and the like, which come to three cents to five cents more apiece.

In other words, our finished novel costs from forty-four and one-half cents

to sixty-six cents a copy for the first edition, without royalty, which varies from 10 to 20 per cent on the retail price. The two-dollar novel, then, costs the publisher from sixty-four and one-half cents to ninety-six cents. The publisher sells these novels wholesale to the bookseller at discounts varying from 33⅓ to 40 per cent of the retail price, according to the quantity of each title ordered. The wholesale price to the trade is from $1.20 to $1.34, leaving the publisher a margin for gross profit of twenty-four cents to fifty-five and one-half cents.

Out of the gross profit, however, must come the publisher’s entire business expense. Rent, salaries, commissions, advertising, these and a hundred odd items that go to make up what is called ‘overhead,’ must be deducted before any net profit is left. The same is true, of course, in considering the retailer’s profits, for his entire expenses of conducting business must be deducted from the difference between the wholesale and retail price before he has any net profit. Ultimately the publisher or bookseller who year after year consistently makes a net profit on his total business of from 6 per cent to 10 per cent is entitled to consider himself a success. There are no profiteers on either side of the book trade.

These figures will suggest another reason for sporadic overproduction. Every publishing firm endeavors to keep its overhead at as low a figure as possible. Advertising, commissions, and certain varieties of expense fluctuate according to the number of books published and the total volume of business. But certain other expenses, such as rent and the salaries of even a skeleton staff, are fixed and remain constant, regardless of whether the firm publishes one book or fifty books.

With this in view, we can appreciate the temptation to increase one’s list. Let us suppose that a firm that has for years been publishing forty books annually discovers that without increasing its fixed business expenses it can publish sixty. Even if these extra twenty books only sell out the first printing, and make no net profit to speak of, at least each one helps pay its share of the overhead, which is correspondingly reduced in percentage, thereby increasing the percentage of net profit on the total volume of the business. The publisher has moreover the comfort ing feeling that he is spreading his risks, for surely it is a safer proposition to carry one’s eggs in sixty baskets than in forty baskets. And last, and perhaps most important, is the hope, often defeated but ever recurring, that somewhere in the additional titles taken on the lightning of public approval will strike a best seller. Of course if a publisher could cut his list from one hundred yearly publications to fifty, and have the total sales of fifty titles equal the sales of one hundred, he might attempt the experiment of reducing his list. But this experiment most publishers feel to be financial suicide.

One of the most discussed remedies for overproduction is the artificial limitation of output. Suppose, for example, that the leading American publishing firms should take an average of their total production over the last three years. Suppose they should then enter into some form of gentlemen’s agreement to restrict their novel-output for the next three years to 50 or 60 per cent of the previous total, and their non-fiction production to 75 or 80 per cent. Assuming that this could be accomplished legally, we have already seen many of the objections to such a procedure. There would be, in addition, an injustice to new authors, who would find it additionally difficult to obtain publication. The plan could not attempt to provide for new publishers who might establish their business within this three-year period, and who would not follow or enter into the agreement. Because of these and many other factors, including trade jealousy, the chances for a solution of this nature seems but slight. While a number of the publishers would undoubtedly give it a trial if ‘everyone entered,’ ‘everyone’ will not enter and the plan falls of its own weight without a trial.


Since production cannot be limited, the opposite course is to increase the demand. The adherents of this theory claim that the book-buying possibilities of this country have not been scratched, and in proof of this they cite statistics, compiled by the American Publishers Association, which show that book-purchases in the United States average about two books per family per year. Apropos of these conditions, Bruce Barton remarked that books are not sold — they are merely bought. There is no doubt that we publishers and booksellers have ourselves to thank for some of these conditions, and have allowed many lax and archaic business methods to persist. Partly owing to the personal nature of the book business and the æthetic-artistic atmosphere of the merchandise, partly because of the lack of ‘cutthroat’ competition, partly because of the small financial returns, partly because of inertia — the book business, like Topsy, has ‘just growed,’ and is far behind many other lines in business technique.

Increasing the output must take place in two ways: increasing the demand for individual titles, and increasing the number of outlets or retail bookshops. The first of these factors is almost as important as the second. If we agree on the assumption that a poor book deserves to fail, it is equally true that a good book deserves to sell. And yet, many a good book — non-fiction as well as fiction — put into competition with its eight thousand annual rivals is lost in the shuffle and fails to survive. Sometimes, years afterward chance will direct public attention to it, and a second blooming will result. John McRae, the sagacious president of E. P. Dutton and Company, rather whimsically compared this phenomenon with marriage. ‘Just as there are thousands of splendid women in the world who never meet the right man, or meet him very late in life, so we have the problem of the unmated book — the book that never meets its public or takes years to do so.’ A condition like this can never be totally eradicated, but novel methods of publicity and more intensive mail-order development, all directed to the end of introducing the right book to the right reader, should do much toward cutting the percentage of failures.

The second factor, that of more outlets, is inextricably interwoven with the first. Accurate figures on the number of legitimate bookstores are unobtainable. By a legitimate bookstore I mean a shop with a fairly representative stock that derives the major portion of its income from the sale of books. Approximately these number about three thousand five hundred, and to them can be added the unknown number of gift, stationery, and drug shops where a few popular novels may be obtained. Contrast this retail outlet with the thousands upon thousands of outlets for candy, automobiles, radio supplies, cigars, even the despised chewing-gum. Of course in one sense it is both superficial and misleading to compare an idealistic and intellectual product such as books with these other more carnal and material needs of the body. In my opinion, however, until the book-dealer is willing to sit at the feet of the chain-store grocer, the chewing-gum manufacturer, the automobile magnate, and the cigar-distributor, to learn of their modern business technique and apply it with suitable variations to his own product — until that time we cannot expect to see any sizable increase in book outlets, or profits, or distribution.

Speaking of outlets, we may well consider a suggestion made by Mr. Ben Huebsch, that publishers coöperate to establish a chain of ‘depositories’ throughout the country. These depositories would be warehouses carrying a full line of titles of all the publishers, and would be scattered geographically so that a bookshop, no matter where located, would always have access to an immense reservoir of stock not over twenty-four hours away. Mr. Huebsch believes his plan would result in the establishment of a large number of bookshops in small cities and country towns, where practically no book business is done at present because of the delay, expense, and t rouble involved to a purchaser in securing any but the most popular books of the day. I am inclined to favor this proposal, and believe it merits serious consideration, for it promises an epochal advance in book-distribution methods. It has, at least, the virtue of freshness and novelty, two unknown words in the vocabulary of the bookman.


There are many who believe that the reason books do not sell well is because of their high prices. These same people, however, probably do not trouble to compare book prices with those of theatre tickets or other cultural luxuries; and I have tried in this article to show that, proportionately, book prices are very reasonable. Daily, however, publishers and booksellers are deluged with this complaint, together with many suggestions to remedy it. Most frequent among these hints is that of the paper-bound book. ‘Take your two-dollar novels,’ say our critics, ‘bind them like the French novels, in paper, and sell them for fifty cents or seventy-five cents.’ The suggestion is made without considering the difference in royalties paid to French authors and to American and English authors, and the vast difference in labor prices in France, Germany, and other Continental countries. Moreover, when a purchaser wishes to keep one of these books he must have it bound in cloth or leather for himself. Under our manufacturing system in the United States — and the law requires a book to be manufactured in this country in order to secure an American copyright — the only difference in price saved by a publisher on a paper-bound book is six cents or seven cents, the actual difference between the price of good paper and cloth.

No, this is not our solution; the only means of effectively reducing book prices is by quantity production, thus cheapening the cost of each unit. I am really arguing in a circle, because quantity production demands quantity sales, and quantity sales demand a great increase in outlets. Yet, unless some totally unforeseen invention is made or a new process originated, we must sell books like Fords to lessen book prices.

So far we have not considered the many interferences and obstacles with which the book trade has to contend. The great requisite for book-reading is leisure, and leisure to-day is an elusive will-o’-the-wisp. With automobiles, movies, radio, weekly magazines, and hourly newspapers, we are living in a hectic age, an age that appeals in many ways to the senses rather than to the mind, a distracting age that woos book-lovers from the library. This last is indeed a figure of speech, for in our apartmentized existence the library has vanished, or at best has been replaced by a five-foot shelf. Many believe that the book business has seen its best days, that no efficiency or energy can sell people a product they do not want or have not time to use. Despite this, new publishers are appearing, there is a perceptible increase in the number of bookshops, public and circulating libraries are more used than ever, and the total volume of book sales is on the increase. ‘Yes,’ say the pessimists, ‘but consider the increase in our total population. Then, if you analyze truly, you will see that the sales per capita are actually decreasing.’

Personally I agree with the pessimists, that all these things, especially the overproduction of magazines and newspapers filled with trivial and cheap contents, injure the book business. Human beings have only a certain maximum of leisure, and if they spend an evening reading a sex magazine and listening to the radio there is no time left for a good book. But there is a brighter aspect to the matter. Books are the great spiritual, eternal product of the race, and so long as the race persists the demand for them cannot die out. Ultimately I believe all of these so-called obstacles will redound to our advantage, for surely automobiles and radios and movies, yea, even sex magazines, stimulate the mind, and eventually, when the mind is sufficiently stimulated and in the right direction, we have a new book-reader.


There are, it seems to me, remedies more certain and tangible than any I have so far mentioned, partial solutions that can be effected by an insistence upon a more vigorous and higher code of trade ethics. We must aim at once at eliminating all publications of ‘border’ books, of books in the editorial fringe of doubt and indecision, of books that are mediocre and published by reason of trade jealousy or a fancied expediency. ‘Trade jealousy,’ you say, ‘affecting the publication of books!’ How will you describe the process by which a reputable author writes a book so poor that his usual publisher rejects it, only to have it taken by a competing publisher, who also recognizes its inferiority, but accepts it to control the author’s future books? ‘Expediency!’ you say! Surely, for how else will you describe the publication in book form of a magazine ‘potboiler’ because the publisher thinks it is a fashion which might catch on? Witness, for example, the absurd craze for etiquette books and Outlines of Everything and Nothing.

Let me submit on this point a few informal jottings on a publisher’s creed which I believe would lessen the burden of overproduction: First, I pledge myself never to steal a competitor’s author, or subtly to influence such an author to dissatisfaction with his present publisher in the hope that after a divorce he will come to me. Second, I pledge myself not to publish the book of an author who has left his previous publisher until I know the reason for this departure, and if his book has been rejected because of its workmanship I will be sincere in my own editorial verdict and not deliberately publish a poor book to secure a good author. Third, I pledge myself never to publish more than one book a year of any one author, because a book worth publishing demands at least that time for breadth and maturity. Fourth, I pledge myself, wherever possible, to discriminate against authors who have previously had magazine syndication, especially in fiction, because there is a growing divergence in the requirements of good magazine and book work, and an author writing with both in view is too apt to produce a machine-made book. Fifth, I pledge myself to forbid my salesmen to nag or bulldoze a bookseller into overordering, for I realize that an overstocked customer is a liability spiritually and financially. Sixth, I pledge myself never to pay an author a royalty above 20 per cent, and seldom that, because if I do so there is insufficient margin left to market the book properly, and either I make a failure of distribution or I lose money on the book. Lastly, I pledge myself, above all, to be sincere to myself and my public in my editorial judgments and not to put my imprint on a book unless I believe the book a valid and authentic contribution to American publishing.

Let us assume a garden of Paradise in which all the members of the Publishers Association meet and swear to uphold this creed. I say all, because a few publishers attempting to follow such a golden creed would bankrupt themselves to the profit of their more greedy brothers. No, it is either all or nothing. Yet I wish to emphasize that I do not regard these as altruistic visionings, too good for this world, but as hard-headed, practical, workable proposals to eliminate existing evils that are detrimental to every firm.

The booksellers, too, must subscribe to a creed to uphold their end of the bargain. For example: First, I will refrain from ordering in advance everything new offered by a publisher’s salesman; I will say to the representative, in many cases, ‘ I have enough new books, and will buy more only when my present stock is reduced.’ Second, I will not be overgreedy for the extra discount and buy more than I can sell on this account. Third, I will spend at least 3 per cent of my total sales-income on advertising and not thrust the entire advertising burden on the publisher. Fourth, I will attempt to make my bookstore a true community centre, and will try by lectures, mail-order propaganda, circularization, and every method I can devise, to introduce my bookstore to every inhabitant of the community. I will acquaint myself with the best business practice of the day, as evidenced in successful businesses in lines outside my own, and see if I cannot profit from their methods. Lastly, I pledge myself, both in buying and in selling, to exercise more discrimination. I will buy more critically and refuse absolutely to purchase seemingly mediocre books—I will blacklist the line of any publisher whose books are steadily poor in content. I will train my clerks to know something of the contents of the books they are selling, to instill in them a pride in ‘pushing’ any book of merit, and to frown on their pushing nothing but the ‘six best sellers.'

I am vain enough to feel that until these creeds are formally adopted, although unconsciously they are daily becoming the practice of alert publishers and booksellers, our present haphazard system will continue. The only final, all-embracing solution of our present order, or of any order, for that matter, is the universal economic law of supply and demand. Unsound currency will drive out a sound one, and if the publishers persist, over a period of years, in bringing out too many mediocre books they will so antagonize the buying public as to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. If, however, the booksellers realize the power that is in their hands and coöperate to eliminate ‘ fly-by-night’ publishers and publications, these will soon be driven to the wall.

In other words, I feel that the only intelligent basis for the limitation of production is to kill off the admittedly weak and worthless titles, together with their sponsors, and then by every means within our power to concentrate on everything left. At a rough guess, I should say that the residue would amount to 6500 or 7000 titles a year. Below this I do not think we can safely go, for below this would be economic underproduction. Above all, we must increase the demand for good books. We can do this only by coöperation, for there can be no greater fallacy than that one branch of the book trade can be exploited at the expense of the other.

  1. From 1915 on these figures include pamphlets.