By Bruce Rutledge
It seems to me that the United States is quickly becoming a country of haves and have-nots with very few of us left in the middle. That is stating the obvious, I suppose, but in the publishing industry, where the focus is on electronic reading devices and how they are going to transform reading, it seems worth repeating. Most people I hang out with are living paycheck to paycheck or having trouble imagining putting their kids through college or worried about their tenuous job prospects. A friend of mine — a bibliophile no less — just bought a digital copy of Zeitoun for 450 yen (about $5). He was almost apologetic when he admitted this to me, but it made perfect sense. He loves to read, he’s living on a tight budget and he found a cheaper way to buy a book on his must-read list. More power to him.
This is what will drive the move to digital: economic necessity and perceived convenience. This is what’s fueling Amazon’s rise. Or Wal-Mart’s. The Kindle will get cheaper. More people will buy it. More books will go digital. And beautifully designed books will get more expensive, catering to an elite few who can afford a $40 tome in four-color.
Unless we don’t let it happen that way. There’s room in our marketplace for beautiful, engaging and affordable books. Or at least that’s what we believe at Chin Music Press.
I’m not a Luddite. Or perhaps I am. Ned Lud and the machine-smashing trade unionists of the 1810s were more angry at economic oppression than the actual machines they were ruining. But that’s beside the point. I see all sorts of opportunities for digital storytelling. In fact, Chin Music has supported innovative online storytelling projects, from hitotoki to canned coffee. But my first passion is making engaging, beautiful and affordable books — books that are true objects of art with textual landscapes inside; books that can be bought for about $20. Or in the case of our latest release, Where We Know: New Orleans as Home, for $16.
I know book lovers will understand what a task it was to price this book at $16. It includes almost 300 pages of essays, art and old maps, including 24 pages of four-color images, a dustjacket, an obi and the name of every neighborhood in New Orleans subtly debossed into the front and back cover. When I tell people that we have all this and the price is just $16, they think I have my numbers wrong or that the production is slipshod. Far from it. The photo reproduction by Imprimerie Gauvin in Quebec is exquisite.
So how do we do this? While most publishers have costs per book of around 1/6th the retail price, we, on occasion, let that fraction go as high as 1/4th — after the distributor and retailer take their cuts, the author is paid his or her royalties and the transport companies get their share, the sliver of profit we work with on a typical sale can make grown men weep (really, I’ve seen it). But we believe — and sales bear this out to a certain extent — that as we get deeper into this digital age, there’s more appreciation for our books.
Where We Know gets to the heart of what Chin Music is about: making beautiful, engaging and affordable literature. The balance between affordable and beautiful is crucial. That balance is one reason art director Josh Powell probably wants to kill me at the end of every project (there are many other reasons, but those come from my character flaws, not from book production issues).
The first time becoming a publisher entered my mind was when I came across the work of Odonian Press. These were engaging political books — quick reads that cost about $7. They weren’t particularly well-designed, but they showed me that a little desktop publishing software, a small amount of cash and the gumption to call people such as Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal and ask for an interview was all you really needed to give publishing a shot.
A few years later, everyone was on the Internet. Putting your shingle out in cyberspace was an exciting proposition. Perhaps you could reach like-minded people across the world. Perhaps you could start a press with a niche focus like contemporary Japan yet use the Internet to find enough readers to sustain your operations. A previously improbable business idea seemed to flower before me as more people went online. Plus, the digital wave immediately challenged the idea of the book. What makes a book worth its paper and glue in the digital age? This was a fascinating question to me.
I’ve spent the last eight years trying to answer that question, working with gifted designers and writers and artists. But more and more, as I watch the economic meltdown here and in Japan, I feel strongly that our books need to be affordable to that twenty-year-old kid who can’t afford an ebook reader or that pensioner who can’t figure out how to turn one on. Where We Know is our ultimate statement so far about how beauty and affordability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Plus, it’s a damn good read.
If you’re in NOLA, check out some of the writers at Octavia Books tonight or Maple Street Book Shop on Friday. And if you’re looking for a gift for that bibliophile in your life, start your shopping here. We need your business — we’re done with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday (sponsored by American Express!) and Cyber Monday. How about WTF Wednesday? Buy something for the holidays directly from a small company, be it a book publisher, a local store, a rock band or a farmer’s market. They need your support. And, unless you enjoy strip malls and big box stores, you need them. So, WTF? Support what you love.