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