Books are Hard to Sell, do Texts Want to be Free?

Managing the toys-and-books stand at my daughter’s school carnival, I noticed that hardly anyone, children or adults, even looked at the books. There were many excellent books on display, and many bestsellers, all at bargain prices, and the parents at the school in question are a bohemian bunch, and most everything else on display was a plastic toy of minimal intrinsic value… yet about the only book I sold was one set of three Cormac McCarthy novels, for a dollar. A used bookstore might have given me two or three dollars. For purposes of comparison, I sold plenty of Pokémon cards.

As an undergraduate back in the old country, I was rather puzzled that not every shop was a bookshop – I wondered what besides books anyone would voluntarily spend money on? Nowadays I’m less naïve, but it’s still a sobering thought that, by selling an excellent-condition, beautifully-illustrated edition of The Origin of Species, one of the fundamental classics produced by our civilization, to a reputable bookseller, one can barely bring in enough cash for a cheap Chinese meal. And trying to unload books on eBay, I’ve learned that even the most hyped of bestsellers can barely be sold for a price that covers the cost of shipping it to the highest bidder, plus fees.

What makes an object valuable is its rarity, and the authors of books do not, on the whole, want them to become rare. This is from Thomas M. Disch’s The Castle of Indolence — “A poet’s relation to the marketplace is full of ironies, none crueler than the fact that the less one is read, the higher the prices one’s books may command. Perhaps in the computer age now dawning that cruelty can be diminished, for with the technology already existing it should be able to create a central data bank of out-of-print poetry, thereby liberating the art from its present subjection to antiquarian booksellers and literary estates that possess copyright whose value is comparable to Confederate money.”

The Castle of Indolence was published in 1995, a year before Google was founded — it’s noteworthy that Disch saw the prospect of a central data bank of out-of-print works as a liberation. Were texts simply never meant to be trapped inside books?

In his novel Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski touches on the practice of kula among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, as studied by Bronislaw Malinowski. Kula is the ritualized and seemingly pointless exchange of highly-prized necklaces and armbands. Berlinski compares this to the collecting of rare books, noting the existence of “editions so precious they cannot be touched or read” and “books valuable precisely because the pages have never been cut and therefore cannot be read.”

Should e-publishing be touted as a way of drawing attention away from the fetishistic qualities of a book, and towards the redemptive properties of its content?
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