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The Wheel of Publishing History

In my spare time [sic], I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s very interesting The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, which was released by Columbia University Press earlier this year, and very thoughtfully reviewed by Richard Nash in the most recent issue of The Critical Flame. At some point, I hope to write a review of this as well—it’s a very well-done book, with a number of interesting points about the development of the book industry and the relationship between publishers, booksellers, and readers.

On the bus this morning, I read a bit about the Cheney Report (named after its author Orion Howard Cheney) that seemed very appropriate for this blog. The so-called Cheney Report was commissioned by the National Association of Book Publishers (NABP) after the stock market crash of 1929 to get a better handle on what was going on in the book industry at the time. I’ll let Striphas take it away:

After fifteen months of exhaustive research on Cheney’s part—and a comparable degree of nervous anticipation on the part of the NABP—the 150,000 word Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931 (Cheney Report) was published in early January 1932. The eminent sociologist Robert Lynd assayed it in the Saturday Review of Literature, concluding that “it blows the lid off the book industry.” Indeed, the report was incisive and unrelenting in its criticisms of every aspect of the book industry and beyond. Cheney blasted publishers and booksellers for relying on intuition to guide important business, editorial, and purchasing decision rather than operating on a scientifically sound, statistically driven “fact basis.” He disparaged editors and publishers for their lack of creativity in developing the talents of first-time authors and scolded them for “murdering” potentially successful titles by releasing them into a field already so overcrowded that they simply “cannibalized” one another. Cheney was troubled by the lack of uniformity in the size and materials of printed books, which, he believed, drove up manufacturing costs unnecessarily. He chided advertisers adn book critics for generating insufficient interest in books and consequently for failing to help readers make informed decisions about what to buy. He condemned librarians for overstocking popular fiction and (like the booksellers) for making practically no effort at systematically studying the interests and reading habits of their clientele. Cheney even lambasted “uninspiring teachers” for their “unsound teaching methods,” which, he believed, resulted in their failure to stimulate adequate interest in reading among students ranging from preschool to college.

His big beef was with distribution methods, and the long-term impact of this study (creation of ISBNs and bar codes) is pretty impressive. Although I’m the first to object to business school people implementing their “economic science” on anything artistic (or even publishing), I do love this typical publisher response to the study:

Despite Cheney’s claim to have produced the report “in a spirit of objective sympathy,” his pedantry, harsh criticism, and acerbic tone seem to have gotten the better of him. The document generated what’s best described as a mixed yet largely defensive response from book industry insiders.

The situation is more complicated these days than it was in 1932 (pre-Internet, pre-superstore, pre-decline in newspaper book coverage), it’s curious how many of these problems still plague the industry today . . .



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