Publishing and Book Scarcity

In this world of on-demand printing and e-books, one might hope that we would no longer have to deal with issues of scarcity with published books – alas this is not the case. I was just corresponding with an author today who wrote a high-quality book on a very niche subject (I don’t want to include a name because I don’t want this to be interpreted as something personal; it’s not)  several years ago and only printed 100 copies. They are all long sold out now, and I just now found out about it.

In the past, that would be unfortunate but understandable. In the world of professional printing, you must run a significant number of books to make a printing economical, and in the case of technical works written for small audiences (like really good technical gun references) only a few publishers are willing to finance such a project (Collector Grade is one such example, but even they are turning towards more popular guns in recognition that books on this like the Chauchat just don’t move). So the author must pay up front for all the books and then sell them individually over years before they can recoup their investment. Quality doesn’t make a book profitable; volume does. A friend of mine is another such author, who has stacks of boxes of his book that will take years to all sell. It’s an excellent book, with both great production quality and a massive amount of information available nowhere else. But it’s expensive (by necessity) and on a subject of interest to a pretty small number of dedicated enthusiasts.

One might think that on-demand printing like the service offered by Amazon would offer a perfect solution, removing the up-front cost to an author. I suggested this specifically to the fellow I was corresponding with today. His reaction? Nope, the printing is not good enough quality and he would rather have it unavailable than printed below his standards. Truly a shame, but he’s not entirely wrong. On-demand books right now are rather lackluster in my (albeit limited) experience. Not a big deal for works of text, but books with a lot of really good photos are a different matter. Will this technology improve in time? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Another alternative that might seem obvious is the e-book. While I love having a big library of physical books, electronic copies have some really significant advantages – like being able to do text searches and being able to transport an entire archive in a drive the size of your thumb. When I am traveling, being able to bring all my books along with me for reference is a really handy option. Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of gut-level objection to e-books on the part of authors. For one thing, they are worried about piracy – won’t the work just be stolen by everyone after the first paid purchase? Well, for technical niche works like scholarly gun references, I think that is not a substantial threat. I think the more significant issue is that (with zero hard evidence to support my theory) the kind of people willing to pour years of their lives into researching these sorts of books, knowing that they will never make any truly substantial money on them, are the sort of people who place a high psychological value on old-fashioned wood pulp and that wonderful new (or old!) book smell. I think they find the very concept of e-books subconsciously offensive, a sign of the death of true culture.

Ultimately, the root of the problem is that there is no money to be made writing the sort of books that a person like me really wants to have in my library. As the quality and value of such a book increases, the potential market decreases and the time investment required for research and writing increases. It’s a vicious tradeoff, and the result is that books are only written by the people who are most passionate about the subject and willing to do the work for basically no return. It should not be surprising that once you get to that point, maximizing distribution and accessibility is not longer their prime concern. I suspect many of these folks are writing for specific individual friends or collecting groups, and consider their work done once those people are satisfied.

Solutions? I don’t know. The best solution would be patronage like the aristocracy of yore might have practiced, where an interested wealthy individual could hire a researcher (well, not “hire”, but rather support on a grant or fellowship) to guarantee them an income and a return on the work being done. Today, that patron could then sell the book in electronic form or in a traditional or on-demand physical printing as they liked. Or simply release it into the public domain, for that matter. A crowd-sourced funding model would not work, because there just aren’t enough people interested in a Treatise on Development of the 5,5mm Bergmann Cartridge or the History of the Dovitiis Mauser Conversions of Uruguay. Nope, it would take a person like the late Henk Visser to both see the value in having those books written and be willing to pay for them with no expectation of making the money back.

I suppose the immediate lesson to be learned here is that when you see that obscure book released, buy a copy even if the price makes you cringe. Because once they are all gone (and there are never very many printed in the first place) the price will triple AND you won’t be able to find a copy even if you’re willing to pay (ref: The Grand Old Lady of No Man’s Land by Dolf Goldsmith). This is why I just bought a copy of the MBA Gyrojet book and Vol III of the History of US Small Arms Ammo