30 March 2010

Ecology and Economy

National Poetry Month is upon us, and the number of books we have to get through the press and out to events, launches and bookstores generally in the next few weeks is a bit overwhelming. We’ve always run a bit of a ‘just in time’ approach to manufacturing, though it sometimes gets the better of us. For small firms, it’s just not really possible to print books months in advance of their release dates (particularly when the big retailers can take months and months to pay for the wares once they get them). We simply can’t tie up the capital, or the labour, too far in advance of the sale. So it’s a constant balancing act.

While all the necessary parts to make a book are usually designed and printed together – sheets, cover, jacket, wrapper – we may only assemble 100 or so books at any one time; whatever is required to meet the demand. The rest of the parts are stored until orders merit producing more books. There are pros and cons to this approach. Every once in a while we get caught with a big order on a backlist book and find ourselves low on salable stock with no openings in the press or bindery schedule for several weeks running.

When this happens, I envy the mainstream publisher who has 1000 finished copies of a book stockpiled in some warehouse outside Toronto, ready to ship in an instant. But that sort of system has problems as well, namely that it is wasteful, expensive, wrongheaded, and, ultimately, destructive.

Think about it like this: A west coast publisher has 2500 copies of a hardcover book printed and bound and ships them to a distributor in the east. The distributor ships them to wholesalers and retail stores all over the country. Over 18 months, perhaps half the copies are sold and the rest are returned to the warehouse. The returned books are often damaged or otherwise unsalable. They may be remaindered and reshipped to retailers to be sold at a lower price. Or they might be stripped of their cases and rebound as paperbacks, or simply pulped. No matter how you look at it, its a wasteful system both economically and ecologically. It relies on high volume to maintain a profit. The only people who seem to do the best by it are the shippers.

These problems are hidden from the consumer, of course, who only knows that they can order a book through a major online storefront and get it quickly. What they don’t understand is that the distribution and wholesale system of mainstream publishing privileges the instant gratification of the consumer over sustainable economics and ecology.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve no interest in thwarting anyone’s desire to purchase a book. I want to get as many books into as many hands as is practicaly possible. But what does it cost society to have millions of books produced and standing at the ready each year, many of which will never be purchased? And what sort of reader will not wait a few weeks for the book he or she truly desires to read?

We are not an assembly line producing consumer goods or a fast-food drive-thru. As literary printers and publishers, we are cultural agents, purveyors of complex, hazardous, and often subversive goods. Our manufacturing process ought match the cultural and intellectual integrity of our wares. Commerce is a by-product of our activities, not its motivating force or guiding principle, and we employ the mechanisms of capitalism where they will assist us in our objectives, and bristle and baulk otherwise.

These are the sorts of things you think about when you are putting in a double shift, racing the clock to assemble books in time for the last courier pick-up of the day. I’m not a contrarian or an ideologue. I’m simply interested in understanding how a small literary publisher – manufacturing on a craft level but thinking and marketing on a global one – can evolve business practices that efficiently work within the broader world of commerce without being subsumed by its problems. These questions are every bit as interesting and every bit as tricky to resolve as the ideal proportions of a book page. At least it’s good to know that we did not enter a field where every problem has already been fixed.


1 comment:

Kevin said...

You've convinced me: eBooks from the big publishers, while continuing to buy print from the small literary publishers.