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Today, there aren't 50 independent retailers in the United States that stock 100,000 titles or more. By the mid-1960s, the new retail market, based largely on suburban malls where the dominant bookstore chains were paying the same rent as the shoe stores next door, could not afford to stock their costly shelves with slow-moving backlist inventories. Turnover was important to these chain outlets. Heavily promoted books by television celebrities and by well-known writers of formulaic thrillers and romances were what the chains wanted. Very soon, thousands of backlist titles were going out of print every year.

The effect of these new marketing conditions was to turn the industry upside down. Where previously publishers had depended on their backlists, now most of them survived precariously (if they survived at all) by scrambling after bestsellers.

Celebrity ephemera were auctioned by their agents for dizzying guarantees, while the powerful retail chains demanded ever more discounts from publishers, forcing the smaller houses to merge with and be subsumed by the conglomerates that dominate the industry today.

In 1958, I left Doubleday for Random House.... I began to look for ways to bypass the marketing forces that were eroding publishers' backlists. In 1986, with this problem in mind, I conceived the Readers Catalog, a directory of some 40,000 backlist titles that could be ordered through an 800 number (the Internet had not yet been commercialized). The idea was to re-create a medium-sized independent bookstore in the form of a printed catalogue the size of a big-city telephone directory. Sales were brisk - but my business plan was flawed. The average revenue per order was about $35, plus shipping and handling, but the cost of handling small orders was more than could be recouped.

It was in the aftermath of the failure of the Readers Catalog that I saw the solution to the prohibitive expense of physically handling thousands of low-cost items. Books, like music, are among the few commercial products that can be reduced to digital files, stored, located, and transmitted electronically at virtually no cost. Publishers had been trying to sell electronic versions of their titles online since the early 1990s. They had failed because the programs were poorly designed and because most readers resisted the idea of reading books on their computer screens or on handheld gadgets. Imprinted paper, folded, gathered, and bound within covers, is still the most durable, readable, portable, and economic medium for books that are meant to be kept. It must be possible, I reasoned, to reconstitute a digital file in the form of a library-quality paperback. What I imagined was the functional equivalent of an ATM - a device that would quickly print a book from a digital file, bind it, trim it, and deliver it to the reader at low cost.

- "The Future of Books," Jason Epstein, TechnologyReview.com (an MIT enterprise), January, 2005

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Post Date: December 28, 2004 at 9:20 PM CST; December 29, 2004 at 0320 GMT