A New Way to Publish Books

In the present dominant model of book publishing, a book is regarded as a single-use commodity that belong to the person who purchases it, to do with whatever one wishes, which includes leaving it languishing unread on the shelves of one’s bookcase, or in a storage box for lack of space. The great majority of books that are purchased in this manner are either not read, begun but never finished, or read once with perhaps the intention of reading it again but, with all the many activities that clutter our modern lives and vie for our divided and distracted attentions, is eventually relegated in our brains to the multitude of objects that are present but are quickly forgotten. A habit develops of seeing the cover or spine of the book from time to time, but because one never takes it up and opens it, the intention of someday reading it slowly falls into the moat of good intentions with which every human being surrounds oneself in order to preserve one’s generally positive image of oneself from the unpleasant self-accusations of sloth, disorderliness, inefficiency, deceitfulness, and other criticisms.

Furthermore, if one has a large personal library, the book becomes lost in the sea of titles, with ever new books – with their arresting appearances, brittle bindings, colourful covers, daring designs, emphatic epithets, fashionable features, germane gibberish, howling humour, informative insights, judicious juxtapositions, kaleidoscopic kitschiness, legible letters, marketing mysteries, numbered nuances, orderly orthographies, prim paragraphs, quirky quotes, ribald references, staccato sentences, tedious turpitudes, uxorious utterances, voluminous volumes, witty wisdom, yucky yearnings, and zany zitherings – that arrive, like the latest addition to an already over-numerous family, to obscure and bury the older ones, which look old, plain, and faded in comparison, being the unfashionable literary remains of a bygone age. For just as in most other things, there is a fashion in book designs and types in our present BACROE, or the Bounteous Age of the Commodification and Rapid Obsolescence of Everything.

There is, of course, a secondary market in used books, but, for a variety of different reasons, the great majority of book owners never bother to take their neglected or unused wares to this market. First, there is the association in today’s hyper-sanitary world of anything used with its being unclean, impure, non-virginal, and no-longer-immaculate. Second, there is the suggestion that if one must have recourse to selling one’s books, it is because one needs money, which is tantamount to a public declaration of poverty or need. Third, most people simply don’t have the time in their hectic and overcharged lives to spend on collecting their forgotten books and making the trip to a second-hand bookstore.

The present model of book publishing is extraordinarily inefficient, when we consider the ratio of the amount of time that a book is actually read – that is, when it is being used for the purpose for which it was made – to the time it has been in existence. There are very few other widely-produced things that suffer such an abysmally low rate of usage. One sleeps in one’s bed almost every night, one wears one’s clothes and shoes more or less regularly, one opens one’s refrigerator several times a day, one drinks out of a cup or glass whenever one is thirsty, one uses one’s toothbrush two or three times a day, one turns on the light in a room when it is dark – something that occurs on average, regardless of where one lives, twelve hours per day, one lounges on one’s chair or couch whenever one is tired or wants to rest one’s legs, one rides one’s bicycle for amusement, exercise, or transportation, and one looks intermittently at the artworks that one has bought to fill the empty spaces in one’s dwelling, in the hope, perhaps, of filling the even greater gnawing emptiness in some people’s souls and their meaningless lives. In addition, let us remember that books are made from formerly living trees that were killed, along with all the many other organisms that depended on those trees for their survival, whether for food, shelter, shade, protection, or safety, in order to manufacture books and other paper and wood products in vast quantities.

To give an example, if a book is read only once during a possession period of ten years, and if it takes the reader ten hours to read it, then the use-to-possession ratio is a mere 0.0000114, or one-one-thousandth of one percent. Since books are printed with the intention, ever hopeful but not always realized, of being read by someone, somewhere, and at some time, with delight, amusement, interest, or profit, and to the reader’s benefit, improvement, and increase in one’s understanding and store of knowledge, it is a pity that these literary children of their authors’ brains – the cherished fruits of their toils and labours, born from the figurative, if not the literal, sweat of their brows – are not treated with more consideration. For it is in the reading of a book, and not, as is mistakenly assumed, in its mere indifferent possession, that it is honoured by being treated in the manner for which it was conceived, written, revised, edited, designed, printed, marketed, distributed, and sold.

When one thinks of how many trees are callously cut down so that their innards – the vast amounts of cellulose which their progenitors slowly and laboriously produced and accumulated during the course of their silent arboreal lives – could form the pages of these books, it is truly an arboreal crime of immense proportions to think that these tree cemeteries are not accorded greater respect. Moreover, as the human population continues to increase, and as the number of writers who think they have something interesting or important to say likewise increases, there are more and more books being printed every year, with a concomitant increase in the demand for the paper on which they are printed. Surely our much-vaunted, but frequently-absent, human ingenuity can conceive of a better way of publishing books that this grossly wasteful system that makes an incredibly inefficient use of once-living organisms?

The solution to this wasteful model lies in transforming the book from a single-use to a multi-use item. Rather than trying, as is presently done, to sell as many copies of a book at a price that is only sufficiently high to cover the costs of printing and distributing, while providing an income for all the parties involved in its sale, authors and publishers should instead raise the book’s price and greatly reduce the total number of copies that are printed and sold. Then, after the copy’s first reader – and not its owner – has finished reading it, one then sells it at a slightly discounted price to the next reader, and so on, until the price drops to zero, at which point it can be donated to a public library so the library’s users can continue to read it. Of course, the books must be kept in as pristine a condition as possible, protected from tears and other damage, and its pages not stained, written on, or folded to mark one’s place.[1]

In order to encourage readers to sell the book to someone else rather than hold on to it after they have read it, they should be allowed to scan, photograph, or make copies of some of its pages for their own personal use. The standard copyright laws regarding the unlicensed sale, distribution, or reproduction of the book’s contents without the author’s permission will of course still apply. Those readers who want a copy of the book which they can keep can purchase an electronic copy, whose sales will not be restricted in this way or altered from the current sales model, or they can wait until the book’s price has gone down to just above zero, at which point there may be some copies available that are not requested by public libraries.

There are three main variables in this new model of book publishing: the book’s initial price, the total number of copies printed, and the diminishing margin, or reading fee, that is, the price that each reader pays to read the book, which will be less that the price one would have to pay to buy a copy of the book and, as is often the case, not read it for as long as one owns it.

To give a concrete example of the proposed model in action, a book could be sold initially at, say, $80, with a per-person reading fee of $5, $8, or $10. Assuming the book is kept in good condition, after 16, 10, or 8 readers, respectively, its price will drop to zero, at which point the aim should be to donate it to a library, which will be the duty of each copy’s last paying reader.[2] This gradually-diminishing pricing model makes sense, as the book’s price will go down as it is read by more and more people, and consequently it becomes more used and worn. Moreover, those who are willing and able to pay for the chance to read the book, especially the high amounts that must be paid for it initially, since there is the risk that the book may be lost, stolen, or damaged, should have earlier access to it than those who are not willing or able to pay these high initial prices.

Another option is to have a variable decrement. To return to our example, the reading fee could be set at $8 from $80 to $40, at $4 or $5 from $40 to $20, and at $2 from $20 to zero, making for a total of 20 or 21 paying readers per copy. Or it could be set at $6 from $80 to $20, and then at $3 from $20 to $2, for a total of 17 potential readers per copy. This would probably make more sense than having a fixed decrement, since later readers will have to wait a longer time than earlier readers for the chance to read the book, and the copy they receive will likely be more worn and in poorer condition. In either case, the three variables should be set so that the market of paying readers for each book will be sufficient to run the price of each copy down to zero, or close to this amount.[3]

As copies of each book gradually make their way through the various chains of readers, libraries can make online requests for a certain number of copies, which should be limited initially so that all libraries have the chance to obtain copies before any additional copies are allotted to those libraries that want them. The last paying reader of each copy can check the website to find a library in one’s vicinity that has made a request for the book. If the book must be shipped rather than delivered in person, then the library should pay the cost of shipment.

In order for this model to work, the total number of copies sold must obviously be limited so that buyers, regardless of the price they pay for the book, will be able to sell their copy to someone else once they have finished reading it.[4] And the only way to ensure this is if the author or publisher promises to buy back any copies whose readers cannot find someone else who wants to buy it from them. The buyback price for a given copy will be the price it has reached after it has been read by as many people as are willing to pay to read it.

A page at the front of the book will have spaces for each reader’s name, the price that each person paid for the book, and the date on which one purchased it from the previous reader. These entries should be written in ink so they cannot be changed in order to inflate its price, as some dishonest or desperate readers might be tempted to do. Each reader should consider oneself as the book’s temporary guardian, who will strive to protect the book before it is passed on to the next guardian. In making the transition from the single-use to the proposed multi-use model, it may be necessary to make every reader of the book promise not to sell the book at an inflated price, which could be possible due to its restricted supply, to someone who is willing to pay for the privilege of owning the book outright. This can be done by stating that, by virtue of inscribing one’s name in the list of the book’s guardians, one agrees to abide by the conditions governing this new model of book publishing. Each guardian will be responsible for making sure that the person to whom one sells the book understands the conditions of this agreement or contract between the book’s author or publisher and its successive readers. Of course, if the page with the readers’ names is missing or appears to have been altered, then the promise made by the author or publisher to buy back any copies that are no longer in demand is rendered null and void.

Not the least of the benefits of this new model is the pressure that each reader will feel to finish the book before it is sold to someone else. When one owns a book forever, there is no pressure to read the book immediately, and so many of these books remain neglected or forgotten on the owner’s shelf, until one dies or decides to rid oneself of their accusatory presence. I have found that, by borrowing books from the library instead of buying them, as I formerly did, the need to return the book by a certain date motivates me to read each borrowed book before it has to be returned.

In today’s frenetic age, people have far less time to read than people did in the past, before the inventions of photography, radio, cinema, television, and the Internet. Moreover, even if they do read a book, they are not likely to read it a second time, and so there is little or no reason for them to keep the book once they have finished reading it, unless they want to show their friends and acquaintances that they have literary aspirations or pretentions, and don’t mind carrying boxes of books with them each time they change residences.

A significant benefit for authors is that they will no longer have to spend their time signing copies of their books as an added incentive for people to buy them, since a signed copy is meant to be cherished and kept by the buyer forever, in the hope that it will be worth more than an unsigned copy, rather than simply being passed on to the next reader after one has finished reading it.

By greatly increasing the total profit per copy, this will allow both the publisher and author to earn roughly the same amounts which they currently earn on each published book, but to do so by printing a much smaller number of copies. The readers will obviously benefit by paying a lower price to read the book, not to mention the reduced clutter in their lives by not keeping it after they have finished reading it. And libraries would benefit by receiving books for free or for a nominal fee, albeit with a time lag, rather than having to pay the current higher prices they pay for books. But if this model is widely adopted, perhaps the biggest winners will be the forests where grow the trees that would have been cut down to print all the additional copies of the book, along with all the many other organisms, both great and small, that live there and depend on these trees for their survival and happiness. The principle losers will be bookstores, both of new and used books, since, with a greatly reduced number of copies of each book being bought and sold, these multi-use books can be sold directly to readers who are willing to pay the high initial price, with the understanding that they will be able to sell them at a slightly discounted price to someone else, or sell them back to the author or publisher.

In the book-publishing industry, as is true of many other industries, unbridled price competition, which the reality-challenged economists assure us is the sure and steady way to untold riches and a better life for everyone, can produce extremely wasteful outcomes, by lowering the prices of books to such low levels that the only way for publishers to remain in business and make a profit is by selling their wares at the lowest possible price to the greatest number of buyers. As we can see, by cooperating, since the successful adoption of this new system will require the cooperation and honesty of writers, publishers, and readers, it is possible to reduce, by a substantial amount, the total consumption of things like paper, which in turn will reduce the number of trees that are cut down each year, as well as reducing the pollution that is produced during the manufacture of paper, while also reducing the clutter of material possessions in many of our lives.

[1] If one does not have a bookmark, I have found that old theatre or cinema tickets, at least those that are made of more sturdy paper, make excellent bookmarks. Another possibility is to use a playing card for this purpose.

[2] Of course, rather than waiting until the price drops to zero, libraries could offer to buy books for a nominal fee, such as between $5 and $10. However, it is important that competition between different libraries not be allowed or encouraged, since this could lead to a bidding war in the case of the most popular books, which would lead to well-funded private libraries, such as those of private universities, outbidding their poorer public cousins. The aim of this proposed system is to have the private sector, specifically those readers who are willing to pay to read books, subsidize the public sector, since all people have access to, and can borrow books from, public libraries.

[3] Once the initial price and the reading fee are set, to determine the number of copies, it is probably not a good idea simply to divide the number of copies that would have been printed in the present single-use model of book publishing by the total number of potential readers per multi-use copy, for this will probably lead to too many copies being printed. One must consider the fact that many people who would have bought the book if it were a single-use item, that is, if it were available for purchase whenever they want it, will not be willing to wait – perhaps for several weeks, months, or more than a year – for the opportunity to read it in book form. More copies can always be printed later if it turns out that the number of copies in circulation is not sufficient to meet the demand.

[4] Since the initial prices paid for the books by readers will be significantly higher than they are presently, it may be necessary to incorporate features into the book to prevent counterfeiting. Whenever there are large amounts of money to be made, it is almost inevitable that cheaters, crooks, and thieves will seek to gain a portion of that money by dishonest methods.