From the Content Director: Disappearing Acts
I just read about a new book printed in disappearing ink. Published by Argentinean publisher Eterna Cadencia, “El libro que no puede esperar,” or “The Book That Can’t Wait,” features a selection of new Latin American authors, and is printed in ink that fades when exposed to light and air. Two months after you buy the book, it’s gone.
My own bookselling experience began in 1998 at at Barnes & Noble. I had been working in the book publishing industry for many years as an editor in both professional and trade publishing, and was at this point running my own independent literary agency. I was, and am still, always curious to learn more about how this business works from all points of view, and when B&N announced they would be opening their first Brooklyn superstore just blocks away from my Park Slope home, I decided it was an opportunity to learn something about the retail side of the industry and signed on as a part-time bookseller.
At the time, the independent bookselling community very much viewed Barnes & Noble as the evil corporate empire. This particular superstore was ten blocks or so down the main shopping street of Seventh Avenue from the long-time beloved local indie, Community Bookstore.
The neighborhood was awash in righteous indignation. Chain store opponents printed up tiny slips of paper on which was written a diatribe about how Barnes & Noble was out to destroy the community, and how no one should patronize the new store. Supporters of Community Bookstore would bring these slips of paper with them into our store and surreptitiously tuck them inside books when we weren’t looking. A customer would pull a book off the shelf and rifle through it and one these slips would fall out and flutter to ground. Soon the floor was littered with them.
Other than pick up the slips and throw them out, however, we didn’t do anything to protest the protests, other than try to provide friendly and helpful service to our customers, who were plentiful. Once in a while someone would come to me for help locating a book and angrily announce: “Well, I really need this book right away and Community Bookstore didn’t have it so I had to come here!” After time, the anger calmed, and people came to believe, or at least to hope, that the two stores could co-exist and meet different needs.
The story didn’t quite play out the way we hoped. It was around this time the numbers of independent bookstores began what has been a slow and sad decline. And in the role of the big bad corporate giant, we seem to have exchanged one bogeyman for another. Barnes & Noble these days seems to many to be part of a solution rather than the cause of a problem, that problem being Amazon’s influence on ebook pricing. Some of us debate DRM (an issue that’s thoughtfully covered on page 12 of this issue), and some of us castigate Amazon as the evil corporate giant du jour. The Department of Justice has become an actor in the story as it tangles with some major publishers (a topic we’ll address, along with DRM, in our Publishing Business Virtual Conference & Expo on Sept. 13). And some of us, whether in print or digitally, just duck our heads and keep on keepin’ on writing, publishing and reading new books.
Back in the days when I carried heavy boxes of new titles, wiped dusty shelves and helped customers find what they wanted amidst a vast array of stacks, I would survey the store’s immense display of merchandise, running my eyes across rows and rows of spines, and realize how daunting was the challenge to any one book to break out of the pack. There was not only immense competition to surmount, but the hungry superstores’ new need to turn over merchandise at a rapid rate, giving books something we never knew they had: a shelf life and an expiration date.
Eterna Cadencia’s new publication truly does have an expiration date. I see it as the literary equivalent of my mother telling me to eat my dinner before it gets cold. “Read your book before it disappears,” they’re saying. I hear them; we all hear them. You may call it a gimmick, but if it makes someone buy and read more books before they fade away, I support it.
End note: I’m so pleased to join Book Business as Content Director and look forward to hearing feedback from our readers. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments, questions and news items.