Gresham’s Law Doesn’t Ultimately Apply to Books

“The main difficulty with the book business is that a book is two kinds of objects. You have, one the one hand, a thing that a reasonable and prudent man might decide is a book. You have on the other hand an object which looks very much like a book, feels very much like a book, but is in actuality a bucket of peanut butter covered with a thin layer of chocolate sauce. These things are sold in the same way. The latter seems to sell better, for some mysterious reason, than the former. A good example of this that I ran into recently is a book called The First Time, which apparently has to do with accounts of initial sexual experiences of either eminent or reasonably well-known people.” -- Donald Barthelme in 1975

I found this in Hiding Man, Tracy Daughterty's biography of Barthelme. Barthelme was restating the old idea that Gresham's Law applies to books. Gresham's Law – discovered by Tudor financier Sir Thomas Gresham -- says that good money drives out bad, when the two are legally equivalent. Good money is here defined as money whose nominal value – e.g. the face value of the coin – is similar to its commodity value – e.g. the value of the metal the coin is made of. Applied to books, the prediction is that books with spurious content will drive out the ones with substantial content – see Alfred Jay Nock's essay, “The Dangers of Literacy:”

“The average literate person being devoid of reflective power but capable of sensation, his literacy creates a demand for a large volume of printed matter addressed to sensation; and this form of literature, being the worst in circulation, fixes the value of all the rest and tends to drive it out.”

Nock wrote that in 1934, so we needn't take it too personally.

One reason the analogy with Gresham's Law doesn't work is that it's easier today to find a volume of stories by Barthelme than a copy of The First Time. We often forget that a “bestseller” is defined, not as a book that sells a lot of copies period, but as a book that sells a lot of copies quickly. Here's literary agent Andrew Wylie on the marketing of literary authors --

"Literary authors, historians of quality, sublime poets, good books... are good business because they sell over time; and the longer and more broadly they sell, the lower the risk for the publisher, the higher the return, the more valuable the property for all involved."

"Thirty-one years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, 16 years after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls -- but only one year before the first publication of Calvino's Il Barone rampante and Faulkner's The Town -- in 1956, in the United States, the bestselling writer by far was Grace Metalious. Her name is now barely known. She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless. Her publisher has disappeared."

"The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide. Who made the better investment?"

In an interview Wylie said, "the key point in the business is that the investment is made in the wrong areas in the business, and I think that quality -- which is more valuable over time -- has been undervalued, and quantity -- which is less valuable over time -- has been overvalued."

Can one compare the traditional publishing industry's increasing focus on blockbusters to the growing obsession with short-term returns that led to the crash of the financial industry?

1 thought on “Gresham’s Law Doesn’t Ultimately Apply to Books”

  1. Yes I think you can compare it, in fact they are pretty much analogous any way you look at it. Writing has never been about money anyway, none of the great writers ever made any as far as I can tell, though as you say their books do endure. As to what it(writing) is about? Obession maybe in the cases of the Joyces, Melvilles, Prousts etc. That seems about it.

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