Hard Times Lit

Like anyone in publishing, I've been thinking: With Wall Street imploding, with global markets in meltdown, how can our tenuous book culture survive? Does anyone really care about so-and-so's recent masterwork? Will readers with shrinking wallets even bother to check the shelves?

And so I was drawn to the 1929-1930 bestseller lists. To remind: People were in bread lines, bankers were diving from high places. I assumed, as any rational person might, that no one was buying books.

But I was wrong.

In 1929, Number One on the fiction list was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which made Little, Brown a bundle of money. Number Two was Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis, a book about the vapidity and excesses of the American rich.

Okay, you might say, but perhaps the true tale about book sales wasn't told until a year later, when the realities of the crash would have hit hard.

Truth was: In 1930, book publishers devised a smart scheme to sidestep the jitters. They decided that (unlike any other retail business in America) they would accept their merchandise back if stores couldn't sell it. Booksellers responded by ordering books as if there were no tomorrow, lining their shelves with new stock. The big titles in 1930? Edna Ferber's Cimarron, Andre Maurois's Byron. Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. And a precursor of Bob Woodward's blockbuster exposés, The Strange Death of President Harding.

"At first," says Michael Korda in his book Making the List, the no-returns policy was "thought of as an emergency measure, a way of keeping the stores afloat in the deepening storm of the Depression, but as the Depression wore on from year to year, the measure became permanent." The result is that the 79-year-old band-aid is still with us to this day.

Of course what this means is that, with the ongoing no-returns policy, publishing continues to be the only retail business that offers no risk to its sales outlets. John Updike's The Widows of Eastwick, which was just released last week? You'll see it in big piles at your local bookstore. Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou? Or The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly? They're all there, waiting for you to toss in the towel on that Caribbean vacation and opt for an armchair voyage instead. Unlike clothing stores or appliance outlets or knick-knack shops, the booksellers (if they still have a roof over their heads) are taking no risks by laying in titles.

Well, this is probably a little simplistic, but even so, the business may be more resilient than I think. Maybe it will weather this recession as handily as it weathered the Big One.

What's the last book you bought? I'd like hear about it. And did this economy make you think twice about shelling out the price?

--Marie Arana

* Join author Ken Follett ("World Without End") for a discussion about his works and his career tomorrow at noon ET.

By Marie Arana |  October 27, 2008; 3:42 AM ET Marie Arana
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Comments

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I don't care how bad the economy is, I'm not giving up books! I might buy from Amazon instead of Barnes and Noble, might buy used instead of new, might go to the library more, but I'll still be getting new books.

And besides, sometimes it is really nice to be able to escape this crazy world.

Posted by: jjtwo | October 27, 2008 8:36 AM

I totally agree with jjtwo, I also think that no matter how bad the economy is, if we can find good books I'm sure that you also will find people to buy it...
people who love read will read always, no matter the financial market situation.

Camilla.

Posted by: millabrazil | October 27, 2008 11:36 AM

I don't think the right years were looked at. Compare unemployment stats for 1929-30 with the rest of the next decade:

Unemployment rates:
1929: 3.2 percent.
1930: 8.7
1931: 15.9
1932: 23.6
1933: 24.9
1934: 21.7
1935: 20.1
1936: 16.9
1937: 14.3
1938: 19.0
1939: 17.2

Also, the marketplace is different. No one had tvs then. People got their news from the papers and the newsreels at the theater. No internet. The great depression did limit the availability of translations or books from overseas (mostly due to tariffs on everything). I believe the book industry did contract, ended up publishing less and earning slightly less. They survived. BOMC started in 1926 and that survived. In some form or another, some small percentage of the population will want to read.

Last book I bought: Wild Nights! by Oates. I bought it at Olsson's about a week before they closed. The economy didn't enter my mind at all. I picked up several other books too, but they don't come to mind just now... they might get stuck on the unread bookshelf for a time. But that won't stop me from buying other books I want to read eventually.

Posted by: prokaryote | October 27, 2008 2:16 PM

In keeping with the season, and in the spirit of terror inspired by the current economic meltdown, I recently bought the new Everyman's Library collection of Ghost Stories. It includes the classic tale of horror by W.W. Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw," about a talisman that grants its owner anything he wishes. Of course, every granted wish brings with it terrible consequences. The ending gave me chills. And bringing this posting full circle, it's not a bad metaphor for what happened to victims of the sub-prime crisis.

Oh, and one correction: "Dodsworth" was written by Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair.

Posted by: billbrantley | October 27, 2008 3:02 PM

Oops. Sorry about the Sinclair misquote. That's what I get for writing the blog at midnight! It's corrected now. Sinclair Lewis is the author of "Dodsworth," the 1929 bestseller about the decadent rich. Not Upton Sinclair.
Thanks to Bill Brantley for pointing that out.

--Marie Arana

Posted by: aranam1 | October 27, 2008 3:47 PM

I just picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates "The Beautiful Struggle" in hardback. For anyone who grew up listening to hiphop's golden age, it's a must-read.

I will say, though, that's the only book I bought during my last trip to the shop. I usually can't help but cop at least two books. But tough times, man.

Scott

Posted by: ScottWeaver | October 28, 2008 9:47 AM

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