The Not So Good Old Days
I’ve often wondered why people wax romantic about the good old days of publishing, so take a look at this:
Apparently the profits of booksellers and publishers should be enormous. And it is true that they are great, but only in the case of books that have a wide sale. For they are largely consumed in the publication of good and bad books–chiefly the latter–that have no sale whatever.
This is the explanation of the high prices that prevail in the literary business. When we buy a novel for $2.50, we are paying perhaps a dollar as an indemnity to publishers and booksellers for not buying their other novels. We are paying for the twenty-five copies of a travel book that are standing unsold on the shelves of the bookstore. We are paying the publisher for ten thousand copies of a widely advertised biography that are now gathering dust in his warehouse, before being “remaindered” for thirty cents apiece. We are paying for the ineffectiveness of his advertising. We are paying a bounty for the publication of the good books that nobody buys, the immature novels that nobody buys, and the failures of authors who are trying vainly to repeat themselves. We are paying an excessive price for our novel because the literary business, like the show business, is largely a game of chance.
Malcolm Cowley, writing in 1929 for The New Republic, where he served as literary editor.