The woman behind the counter points to the wall of books on her left.
“Everything to do with the death penalty is on this wall. The rest of the shop is alphabetical by author.”
The shop, a crime fiction and true crime non-fiction bookstore, stretches, floor to ceiling, over three floors and several staircases of an old townhouse.
Even my personal library system, ludicrous though it is, makes more sense than this.
Granted, most buyers in these genres will pick up all the releases of individual authors; particularly in crime fiction; but this layout entirely destroys the ‘discoverability’ aspect of buying books from physical bookstores in the first place.
We are in Hay-on-Wye, an adorable market town at the top of the Wye Valley, called “the secondhand book capital of the world” because its few streets are home to more than fifty used bookstores. And I love it.
The town is also home to one of the world’s leading book festivals:
“A festival,” the author Matt Haig recently wrote in the Telegraph, “is a book you can walk into.” For those who have never been to the Hay Festival, it must be difficult to imagine how a village of tents – erected as if by magic in the night – can be home to so many potentially life-altering ideas. But it is.
The comedian Frank Skinner turned up, heard the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and fell in love with the stars. Jimmy Carter, the former US president, listened to Gene Robinson, a gay American bishop – both away from their home country – and began to think differently about homosexuality and the church. Hilary Mantel came last year and first had the thought that led to her eloquent and controversial assertions about the Duchess of Cambridge. Hay, in other words, is where people go to challenge and change their minds – and those of others.
Off season, the place is like some wonderful Rivendell for Luddites. Every publishing cliché is here. There is the older gay couple that I secretly hope to grow up to be, bickering adorably at the counter while their beautiful shop boy restocks the shelves. There is the nearly-destitute, overeducated, namedropping shop owner: “An antique dealer in London called me the other day. Said he had someone in trying to sell Dickens’s stuffed dog. I told him to send the guy packing because Dickens just wouldn’t do that. He just wouldn’t.” Never mind that he had a stuffed raven on his desk and that the Victorians were so obsessed with the practice that they were probably very tempted to taxiderm Victoria herself. Apparently he just wouldn’t.
And then the crime store. The woman laughs. The reason for the system is that the owner got so sick of categorising his inventory he just switched to alphabetical by author. Except for the death penalty. Which is because he got the collection from the deceased estate of some lawyer so he has loads of it.
I think about the death penalty collection and the ‘after retail’ life of ideas. The world of secondhand books in Hay is the classic example of a market before that term became synonymous with the Fed illegally pushing down gold and silver prices to keep the US dollar from tanking. (Sidebar: Buy silver, idiots. Now!)
There is a serendipity that comes with finite supply. What is on the shelves is entirely dependent on what is in the boxes of people we see showing up regularly at the counters to sell. This is the second ‘availability heuristic’ that impacts the afterlife of ideas: which are the ones people choose to discard?
The story of the book as technology—the book as revolutionary, disruptive technology—must be told honestly, without triumphalism or defeatism, without hope, without despair, just as Isak Dinesen admonished us to write. A great challenge in producing such an account, however, is the “availability heuristic.” This is a model of cognitive psychology first proposed in 1973 by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, which describes how humans make decisions based on information that is relatively easy to recall. The things that we easily recall are things that happen frequently, and so making decisions based on the samples we have at hand would seem to make sense. The sun rises every day; we infer from this that the sun rises every day. A turkey is fed every day; it infers that it will be fed every day—until, suddenly, it isn’t. Heuristics are great until they aren’t. A person sees several news stories of cats leaping out of tall trees and surviving, so he believes that cats must be robust to long falls. These kinds of news reports are far more prevalent than ones where a cat falls to its death, which is the more common event. But since it is less reported on, it is not readily available to a person for him to make judgments.
Publishing is tremendously susceptible to the availability heuristic for two significant reasons. First, prior to recent innovations, manuscripts not published were unavailable for analysis. So the universe of knowledge we have about books, literature, and publishing excludes that universe of books that were never published. It also mostly excludes those books that were commercial or critical failures. One doesn’t see books that don’t sell, not on store bookshelves or in friends’ houses, not on Top Ten lists, not on Twitter, not in the Times (London, New York, Irish), and so on.
There are books in the data set now, such as Leaves of Grass, that were self-published, and others, such as Moby-Dick, that were ignored in their time but reappeared through good luck. The novelist Paula Fox published, vanished, published again. Her reappearance is a triumph of publishing. But what about all the unrediscovered Paula Foxes? Or, for that matter, what about all the books I published at Soft Skull in the 2000s that had been rejected by ten, twenty, thirty, sixty publishers? And what about the manuscripts I rejected at Soft Skull that I would subsequently see published by prestigious publishers large and small? Is this proof of the effectiveness of the existing system for the production and dissemination of literature? It’s quite clear that while we do our best, our output is as much proof of the awfulness of the system as it is of its strengths.
In each store I make a beeline for the same sections; occult, UFOs, history, cookery. About half the titles are the same in every shop. The other half are different in every shop.
The first half represent examples of abandoned popular ideas; bestsellers deemed unworthy of keeping by their original buyers. There are, for instance, dozens of titles from the last time a ‘nut and bolts’ ancient aliens idea was popular in the mid-nineties: Gods Of Eden, The Sirius Mystery, Gods Of The New Millenium. These are ‘fat head’ titles.
The second half are the titles that were less successful, more invisible. I found Vallée’s Anatomy Of A Phenomenon, the Hynek UFO Report, The Kaikoura UFOs. These are ‘mid’ and ‘long tail’ titles… the ones most at risk from publishing’s forced economic adjustment.
Having had experience with several ‘dying’ media, first with newsprint and then television, commercial publishing is doing the exact opposite of what it should be doing. It’s selling more copies of fewer titles. (TV cooking tie-ins, sport star autobiographies, political memoirs.)
The economics of the analog reproduction of culture lead inexorably to the exhibitionist. It is far better, economically, to have the fewest number of authors, the fewest titles. Ideally, there would be one publisher with one title—let’s call it the Bible. Regardless of the fact that there would be no competition for reading material, the Bible would be maximally profitable simply because in analog manufacturing, marginal cost always declines (that is, the cost to print each additional book falls). So if the price stays the same, the more you print and sell, the more profitable you are. The most profitable print-publishing business of all would be in a society where everyone reads the same book.
Here’s an insight from a classic article on the future of media from a few years ago:
I can see the evolution of book publishing in the books on my shelves. Clearly at some point in the 1960s the big publishing houses started to ask: how cheaply can we make books before people refuse to buy them? The answer turned out to be one step short of phonebooks. As long as it isn’t floppy, consumers still perceive it as a book.
That worked as long as buying printed books was the only way to read them. If printed books are optional, publishers will have to work harder to entice people to buy them. There should be some market, but it’s hard to foresee how big, because its size will depend not on macro trends like the amount people read, but on the ingenuity of individual publishers.
Most publishers are working harder, but in the wrong direction. Like newspapers in the early noughties improving colour ink absorbency and adding glossy magazines, most commercial publishers are trying to smoke themselves free of cancer.
How many years before Hay-On-Wye is awash with Nigella cookbooks, autobiographies of comedians and little else? If you cut off the long tail at the retail window -whether purchased through amazon or a bookstore- the number of titles flowing into the secondhand market is reduced.
In the medium term, the sheer magic of Hay’s chaotic marketplace of ideas will be reduced. I find this fascinating in a detached way. Detached because I don’t especially care about the future of an analog technology business. Regardless of your personal feelings about whether the book is a ‘special object’ (it isn’t), the marketplace for ideas is inarguably better in an era of self and indy publishing.
More from the first article:
Editors are also needed to produce books, of course. But beyond their editorial skills, what has kept editors in demand is relationship skills. The skill that is commonly associated with the pinnacle of editorial talent—picking the right book—is, frankly, nonsense. Success, in terms of picking things, is a hybrid of luck with the non-self-evident and money with the self-evident, and even the self-evident often requires luck. This is not to say that people don’t work hard on those books that have gotten lucky, but all the retrospective justifications for why, say, The Da Vinci Code, or the Harry Potter series succeeded are trumped by what really was a matter of luck and network effects. Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly high and extremely infrequent success. The advent of self-publishing has rendered this ever more visible. The vast majority of the 28 million books currently in print made no money at all, and every few years one author will make more than $200 million: first Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling, now E. L. James. It is remarkable watching people fall over themselves seeking an explanation for their success—there is no explanation, no more than explaining why a particular person won the $550 million PowerBall lottery in late November of last year.
This is not a knock on publishing. There’s no evidence that stockbrokers can pick good stocks, or touts good horses. In the latter case, that’s why any honest financial advisor will tell you to invest in indexed funds, financial instruments that mirror a broad market—no one knows how to beat the market. When you do, it is simply luck, combined with an ability to tell a good ex post facto story about why you were right and the propensity in the human nature to believe in the predictive power of a good story. (Yes, another heuristic.)
Nevertheless, I embark on some metaphoric ‘pre-hurricane panic buying’. I load up on abandoned popular ideas because the very notion fascinates me and because they are so numerous that they’re close to free. (Supply and demand!) I also don’t blink twice at the prices asked for some of the rarer titles because this still is the secondhand book capital of the world. Where else am I going to get such range in the medium term? Some of them are already in pretty poor condition. Best to get them in before the shelves are swamped with Top Gear annuals and Fifty Shades of Grey. I come home with literally a shelf of new books.
A final quote from the first article:
Being yoked to the Industrial Revolution’s machines for analog reproduction, accompanied by an arbitrary process for selecting what should be reproduced, will prove to be an anomaly in the history of literature, useful as that phase was for the democratization of access to reading. The publisher is an orchestrator in the world of book culture, not a machine for sorting manuscripts and supplying a small number of those manuscripts in improved and bound form to a large number of people via a retailer-based supply chain best suited for the distribution of cornflakes, not ideas.
The image that opens this post is of Tintern Abbey, one of the many victims of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. After it was abandoned, it fell into ruin for a few centuries. Trees grew up through the cloisters, roots tore at the foundations, vines choked the buttresses. It was cleared and restored to its current preserved state in the nineteenth century. Had this not happened, it would be a pile of rocks. In between its original life as a focus of economics and religion and its current one as a focus for research and culture, it experienced a wilderness. Now it is safe for centuries and touches thousands more lives.
In a similar sense, the afterlives of ideas are currently at risk. But I have every confidence that this is a necessary adjustment on their way to achieving immortality in this one.
Until that happens, you can find me somewhere past the death penalty.