Duke University Alumni Magazine


Reader friendly: Howard Clark and his e-book

As the age of consumerism meets the electronic era, bibliophiles and publishers may be confronting questions of content complicated by innovations in format.

utumn in New York produced some curiously conflicting statements about the state of civilization. At the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition devoted to "Fame After Photography" documented a culture consumed with fame. Among the ephemera were a newsreel of Joe Powers sitting on a flagpole for sixteen days in 1928; nine baseball cards showing Pete Rose in different baseball poses over a twenty-five- year period; a 1998 issue of The Star, featuring the double-hit of Princess Di's death ("Car was Sabotaged-French Cops") and Monica ("Shocking Sex Secrets Clinton Doesn't Dare Tell Hillary"); a clock with Elvis' face on its face; a series of color prints showing Donald Trump with the likes of Liberace, Kenny G, Malcolm Forbes, the Reagans, Muhammed Ali, and Sylvester Stallone; and political buttons with such devotionalmessages as "Ollie for President, All-American Hero."

The exhibition preserved the words of a fame-obsessed Andy Warhol. "The real news, the big thing-is the Now," declared Warhol in speaking about the famous who become the forgotten. "And as soon as their Now gets summed up, we move immediately onto another person-and another Now."

Just blocks away, the venerable Grolier Club was displaying "A Century for the Century: Fine Printed Books, 1900-1999," a hundred books from distinguished private and commercial presses of Europe and the United States. That particular exhibition was meant to celebrate "beauty and excellence in book production," including typography, illustration, layout, paper, binding, and press work. The twentieth-century fine-press movement goes back to the Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891 by the English designer and craftsman William Morris. As the show's catalogue puts it, "an insistence on quality, the devotion to excellence in every component of printing-typography, paper, ink, press work-were the elements of his revolution."

Artistic excellence was not a concept conspicuous in the thinking of Warhol-or in our post-Warhol culture. But back in the 1930s, the Nonesuch Press of another British printer and designer of books, Francis Meynell, conceived a seven-volume works of Shakespeare. Much Adoe About Nothing was part of the Grolier's celebration. Meynell's publishing formula involved "significance of subject, beauty of format, and moderation of price." Every well-designed book"is the begetter of others," he said. "And good printing is one of the graces of life even when life is ingracious."

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

But if Howard Clark is holding the future in his hands-and he may very well be-will the "graces of life" be reduced to electrons? Clark, a professor emeritus in Duke's biomedical engineering department, is an early convert to the electronic book. "I'm the least computer-smart fellow in my department, and I took satisfaction in being the first to have an e-book," he says. "My colleagues were astounded."

A year ago, Clark was a new-product tester for NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook. He tried it for a month, liked the experience, and made a purchase-at that time, for about $500-as soon as the technology became commercially available. Because of cataracts, he found reading printed books a strain. He was also confronting a space crisis: An avid reader, particularly of mystery stories, he was running out of shelf space at home; at the insistence of his wife, he got rid of a couple of hundred books last spring.

In his office at the Pratt School of Engineering, Clark produces his e-book and brings to the screen Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Owners of the Rocket eBook log on to a Barnes & Noble website, provide their user I.D. and password, and select a title. The book is downloaded in about three minutes to the personal computer's hard drive. From there, the book is transferred from the PC to the e-book device, which has been sitting in a "cradle" attached to the PC.

Linda Martinez, coordinator for the engineering and science libraries at Duke, notes that e-book readers are just purchasing "access rights." Thanks to encryption technology, the transfer from the bookseller's website works only for the owner's e-book device. So the reader can't lend the content to a friend the way he would a printed book; all he can do, a bit warily, is to have the friend borrow the rather expensive device, complete with the loaded content. At the same time, the e-book may be a boon to publishers, Martinez says, since it should enhance their production and distribution efficiencies. In 1996, it cost between $2.00 and $2.50 to distribute a hardcover book and between $1.00 and $1.50 for a softcover book. The return rate of unsold books from booksellers was between 30 and 50 percent. (Unsold books are fully returnable to publishers.) More books produced and distributed digitally should mean less paper printing, lower shipping costs, no time delays for fulfilling orders, less out-of-print material, and fewer overstocked books to be returned.

Martinez, another Rocket eBook tester, does worry about the impact of inevitable changes in technology, the sort of changes that the printed book has withstood for hundreds of centuries. "How do I know that the format of the e-book I buy today will be tomorrow's format?" she asks. "Remember those five-by-five floppy disks?"

For his part, Clark observes that the Rocket eBook was released into an unsettled environment; the major competitor, SoftBook, has a different mechanism for transmitting the book to the reading device. So the e-book revolution may produce a variation on the unhappy battle of videocassette recorders waged by VHS and Betamax formats. He also wonders about pressure-which he hopes the manufacturers will resist-to add to the e-book such non-bookish features as cell phones and personal organizers.

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

The Barnes & Noble site is limited to about 2,000 selections, many of them self-help books and titles, like Dracula, on which the copyright has expired. (Still, for Frank McCourt's Tis, 'tisn't true that a critical flop is a technological flop, and the book made its way speedily as an e-book offering.) Clark says it's likely that booksellers underestimated the complexity of formatting e-book-friendly text. They may also have underestimated the financial expectations of publishers. When he orders a title, he finds the cost cheaper than a hardback book, but "not as cheap is it ought to be."

Limitations aside, Clark is a fan of his Rocket eBook. "I'm disappointed in the content, but that's irrelevant to the concept," he says. The device is portable, about the size of a paperback; it weighs just one pound and four ounces. The reader can control contrast and

adjust type size. With a stylus, he can underline text, "bookmark" sections to which he wants to return, make his own notes, call up a dictionary definition of an obscure word, search for key phrases, and arrange the book on the screen in a horizontal or-following traditional book fashion-vertical format. Pages don't "turn," of course; the reader scrolls onto the next "page" with the push of a button. (In an e-book world, fastidious footnoters will have to adopt a new convention, like citing a reference "15 percent through the document" rather than on "page 45," he notes.) New iterations of the e-book scroll automatically, at a pace set by the reader. They also are less device-dependent. Microsoft, for example, is offering a high-resolution e-book through its Windows software.

The Rocket eBook stores text equivalent to the contents of ten paperback books and will run for twenty hours on a single battery charge. Clark can imagine the hand-held device accommodating the full set of textbooks that engineering undergraduates use over their four years-bulky books like the Elements of Materials Science and Engineering that he has on his office shelf. It's already accompanied him on a European trip. "The future is here," he says. "This is an awfully clever system. I just wish I had thought of it, or bought stock in it."

s he contemplates the intersection of books and technology, Clark probably wishes he had bought stock in Amazon.com, the on- line book seller that has evolved into an electronic superstore for books, music, and video. The new academic year brought aggressive pitches by online stores that gear themselves specifically to college students. Student Monitor, a firm that researches the student market, estimates that as many as 40 percent of students will purchase their textbooks online this year, up from just 5 percent last year. As a New York Times article puts it, "The stores are falling over themselves to get students' attention."

There are differences among the services, not only in pricing and shipping schedules, but also in whether they offer course-specific reading lists and whether they allow students to sell books back. Where the sites lack reading lists, students will have to come armed either with the authors and titles they need or with each book's unique ISBN number. That means depending on their professors to serve up a roster of readings well before the start of classes-or at least well before the first assignment is due. But even if they are prepared for advance ordering, students may confront the reality that book popularity has a price. One Duke student who probed the sites this fall found that some widely-used textbooks were out of stock.

Efollett.com, one of the largest textbook sellers, ran a $10-million advertising campaign this fall with the slogan "Get out of line." The campaign, reports The Times, included television advertisements featuring penguins in single file scooting along the ice. Ecampus. com, an online bookshop that opened last summer, embarked on its own $10-million promotion campaign, including advertisements on television, in Rolling Stone magazine, and on 8,100 movie screens around the country. Its main appeal is free shipping. Varsitybooks. com recruits students as campus representatives, and guarantees savings of up to 40 percent on new textbooks and delivery in one to three business days. It also advertises the chance to "win free stuff," ranging from a digital camera to a home theater sound system, to those who sample its site. Textbooks.com-owned by Barnes & Noble -pitches itself to professors as well as students; in a Chronicle of Higher Education ad, the company declares that "apart from offering the largest selection of textbooks, we also have the only search engine tailored specifically for educators."

The rise of the electronic upstarts "didn't surprise me at all," says Jim Wilkerson, director of the Duke Stores-which, in terms of volume, is the seventh-largest college store operation in the country. "I've been tracking this now for two or three years, and it has been a subject of significant conversation in our industry." Wilkerson compares the electronic challenge to the threat posed when a large competitor opens across the street. "That's been the norm in the retail business for decades. But it's new for many in the college-store industry. Many are very fearful of it, very frustrated by it, because college stores have operated in a type of cocoon. But you can't ever take business for granted; you can't ever take the customer for granted." He says some college-store operators have tried to deny the online companies access to their students, a gesture he thinks is counterproductive.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) created a series of anti-online ads for its 3,000-plus member stores to place in local and campus newspapers. The ads warn "Don't take the bait" and "Don't be duped by 'discounters'"; they declare that claims about online discounts are overblown and that some online services sell the wrong editions of textbooks. And late in the fall, NACS filed a lawsuit against Varsitybooks. com, accusing the online competitor of false and misleading claims.

"The bottom line, I think, is that customers want the best price and the best service and what is most convenient," Wilkerson says. "For textbook stores to survive and potentially prosper well into the future, they are going to have to be service-oriented. Operationally and financially, they are going to have to be lean and mean and very efficient."

For the past three years, the Duke textbook store has played to the convenience theme with its "Blue Devil Delivery." Over the summer, freshmen receive course-specific book lists from the store; they can pre-order their books, and the store will then assemble the orders, pack them in boxes with the students' names, and distribute them during the orientation period on East Campus. Some 800 freshmen took advantage of the service for the fall semester, thereby avoiding the unwieldy, and unwelcome, early-semester lines for book purchases. "It's actually much more costly for us to provide that type of service," Wilkerson says. "But I do think it provides us with some additional goodwill on the part of our customers. Hopefully, goodwill turns into more business."

The Duke textbook store's revenues increased this fall over the previous fall, even in the face of the online competition, Wilkerson says. The same can't be said of online merchandising, and he won't be surprised if there's a considerable shakeout in electronic commerce: "Few of these companies have yet to produce a single dime of profit; most of their efforts today are centered on garnering a larger market share. We can't operate our stores at a loss. We have to break even or produce a profit. At some point in the future, I presume these companies will have to do the same. If you don't have to break even, if you don't have to operate at a profit, you can sell at the lowest prices in the world." You can't do that forever, he suggests.

Something like 98 percent of the Duke faculty place their orders through Duke's textbook store. But the store is feeling the electronic pressure and, by next fall, plans to provide its own online ordering arrangement. It "would provide people with access to our database and to the course books required for them specifically, and we would sell the books at a competitive price," says Wilkerson. "Then we could ship the order to them or have it waiting for them here. It's a relatively simple process." There's also a possibility that the store will enter into some kind of partnership with one of the online companies.

or independent bookstores, the pressure is coming from two directions-not just the online ordering services, but also superstores like Barnes & Noble. The chains have a hold on publishers that allows them to insist on favorable financial arrangements. The independents have no such clout, meaning that cost recovery is far from certain. Since the early 1990s, the independents have experienced a steady loss of market share; reports of the closing of independents across the country have become commonplace. A year ago, Publishers Weekly listed prominent stores that had shut their doors, including three branches of twenty-seven-year-old Oxford Books in Atlanta, the nine branches of twenty-five-year-old Taylors Bookstores in Dallas, eighteen-year-old Odegard Books in St. Paul, and twenty-year-old Books & Co. in New York City. In 1991, the year after the first superstores emerged, independents accounted for 32.5 percent of book sales. Between 1991 and 1997, the independents' market share dipped from 24.9 per cent to 17 percent.

Four years ago, a Barnes & Noble superstore opened just between Durham and Chapel Hill. Beyond author readings and signings, it plays host to reading groups devoted to African-American literature, "great books of the century," Shakespeare, and the philosophy of science. The local Barnes & Noble has been marketing its ties with StoryLines Southeast, a locally-produced radio show-co-funded by Barnes & Noble-that explores the literature of the South. Charleston-based Josephine Humphreys '67 was scheduled to make a late-fall appearance to talk about her Rich in Love, one of StoryLines' featured books.

Tom Campbell '70, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, says the nearby superstore had an impact on his customers that wasn't long-lasting. "I think there may be an initial enthusiasm when a store like that opens up near you. But I also think that folks miss our personality after a while, and they're drawn back in." Since it opened in 1977, The Regulator has added staff and expanded its business hours; a year ago, it enlarged its space significantly. The store now includes the Java CafŽ, a franchised food service that tempts patrons with coffee concoctions, pastries, and quick lunches. It also added more seating areas, where those patrons can comfortably take in reading fare; especially on the weekends, Campbell says, the store becomes "a community living room." Parents grab their children, grab some books, and engage in a reading exercise-and purchases, of course, often follow.

With authors reading their own work, The Regulator's social space becomes book-appreciation space. This fall's authors have ranged from Fred Chappell '61, A.M. '64, whose Look Back All the Green Valley completes a series about a Southern family, to Erik Larson, with his best-selling Isaac's Storm, an account of America's deadliest hurricane. "We have been able to get a lot of major authors to come here," Campbell says. "It's taken a lot of work to get us to that point. Part of that work was letting people in New York know that there is a very good audience for authors in this area. This area has the largest per capita of Ph.D.s of any metropolitan area in the country. Now, that in and of itself does not necessarily mean that those folks are reading books. But it indicates a very well-educated population. And when major writers are coming, we get a lot of beyond-the-street publicity; I think it gives the store a certain cachet."

To keep that cachet, a store like The Regulator now needs to be responsive electronically. Perhaps a bit paradoxically, independent stores across the country are grouping together into "Book Sense." Book Sense's biggest project, launched this fall, allows independents to offer sophisticated Internet ordering and fulfillment services. According to the American Booksellers Association, by the beginning of August, the initiative had drawn in 1,000 members. The website offers a searchable database of every book in print, reviews, secure credit-card ordering, and shipping. Or customers can check electronically whether the book they want is on hand, have it reserved for them, and depart the virtual world for a visit to the physical store.

Book Sense is friendlier than the corporate sites, Campbell writes in a newsletter for his customers. "It will of course feature our own readings schedule, staff favorites, and bestsellers. But it will also feature books that have been selected by the recommendations of independent booksellers nationwide (rather than featuring books that have been selected solely by the availability of marketing dollars from publishers)-. We won't be holding any auctions or selling electronics, sporting goods, CDs, dog treats, hemorrhoid creams-. Everything on our site, both what we put there and what we bring in from the Book Sense network, will be about books, good books, and nothing but books. Becoming the Wal-Mart of the Internet is not a goal of ours, nor of Book Sense."

The independents will find their niche, as Campbell describes it, through a combination of "clicks and bricks," with an Internet presence and a real-world presence. "The Internet stores are fine if you really know what you want. But it's very difficult to browse on the Internet. There is just no substitute for being able to pick up the book and thumb through it and be exposed immediately to the author's words." It's also difficult to find social rewards in an electronic-ordering routine. "People still like to-need to-interact with other people, to do things other than sit in front of the computer screen. People are social creatures. Coming here, coming to Ninth Street, is a pleasant, social thing to do."


Except for gunpowder, no invention has shaped our world more than printing from movable type. Every aspect of our lives in some way depends upon it.

Historians tell us that it all began in the early 1400s in the German city of Mainz when Johannes Gutenberg, "a stone-polisher and manufacturer of spectacles," began experimenting with ink, type, and paper. And so we like to say that Gutenberg invented the printing press. But that's not quite true. A version of his press had been used for a couple of hundred years by the Dutch and the Italians to print religious pictures and playing cards. This rather common piece of equipment had been used for pressing everything from grapes to linen.

As for printing, at least five hundred years earlier the Chinese had discovered that by spreading ink on a cut stone or a piece of wood, an impression could be transferred to cloth or paper. By the year 100 A.D., the Chinese had already discovered how to make paper from the bark of the mulberry tree; by the 1400s, the Europeans had learned how to make plenty of it from linen rags.

So Gutenberg's invention was not the press, nor the paper, nor even the process. Rather, he figured out how to make metal type easily and efficiently so that the letters could be used again and again, and when broken or worn, melted down and recast. To cast the type he needed a metal that would melt at a sufficiently low temperature so that, when cooled, it would be hard enough to withstand the wear that comes with continuous re-impressions. He experimented with a number of mixtures before he hit upon the right combination of lead, tin, and antimony.

There remained, however, the problem of casting the various letter shapes. He needed a form that could be varied to accommodate the different sizes. For example, the letter "m" is three times as wide as the letter "i." He resolved that problem by making a small hand-held form that could be varied in width to accommodate the different letter sizes when he poured in the melted lead. Simply that, and not the press, changed the entire process. Multiples of the same letter could be made quickly, and the same form could be used for letters as different as the wide "m" and the long "j."

Gutenberg's invention was a distinctly mechanical achievement. His invention was not the printing press; it was the form for casting the various letter shapes.

By means of the form, he gave us movable type--the first example of completely standardized and interchangeable parts. And with the movable type, he gave us the printed sheet--the first completely standardized product, manufactured in series. And that made it truly a revolutionary invention in every way, for Gutenberg created the model for all future instruments of reproduction.

--John L. Sharpe III B.D. '65, Ph.D. '69

Sharpe, the Duke library's longtime curator of rare books and later academic librarian for research affairs, writes about and lectures internationally on the history of the book. This essay is adapted from one of his contributed commentaries to WUNC Radio.

And just as readers seek out social connections, they don't want to be steered toward books whose best aspect is the associated marketing campaign, he says. "What ends up on our shelf is a synthesis of our ideas of what we think is interesting, what we hope other people are going to think is interesting, and feedback that we get from people who walk in the door telling us what they think is interesting. And we take that every bit as seriously as a review in The New York Times, sometimes more seriously."

echnology is affecting not just bookstores and book purchasers but also authors. After publishing fifteen novels with commercial presses, Julie Tetel '72 founded her own small press in 1996. Tetel, an associate professor of English at Duke and a scholar of linguistics, writes romance novels; two of them, Swept Away and The Blue Hour, are studio-published. On her website, she solicits "talented writers to join us in our studio"; she aims for "discerning readers who are looking for fresh stories from new voices, who demand great writing, and who appreciate excellent editing and copy-editing along with top-notch design and materials." She says she is responding to those "who are looking for books that take creative risks commercial publishers can no longer afford." Her imprint for works of fiction is Madeira Books, named for an island territory of Portugal off the coast of Africa; her nonfiction imprint is Generation Books, geared to women's life experiences.

Tetel was inspired in part, she says, by the analysis of Robert Frank of Cornell and Duke public policy professor Philip Cook in their 1995 book The Winner-Take-All Society. The two scholars define today's publishing scene as "a lottery of the purest sort, with a handful of best-selling authors receiving more than $10 million per book while armies of equally talented writers earn next to nothing." Publishers have learned that "the surest way to achieve large early sales is to promote books by authors who have already written several bestsellers." Financial incentives "strongly favor sensational, lurid, and formulaic offerings; these incentives could not have been consciously designed to be more hostile to innovative, quirky, or offbeat works, whose charms generally take longer to communicate." Under such circumstances, publishers, and their writers, become driven by marketing concerns. And entrepreneurs respond by generating a "boutique movement," whereby specialty suppliers steal market share from traditional mass merchandisers.

Through technology, in Tetel's view, writers can control the production of their work for the first time since Gutenberg. "I knew that typesetters were a thing of the past, since I had been sending my manuscripts on spell-checked disks to my publisher for several years. I figured I could just as easily send my disks straight to a book manufacturer." The new economic game, as Tetel puts it, is "disintermediation," or the elimination of the middleman. "In publishing today, everybody in the middle can be disintermediated. The only groups who can't be disintermediated are the authors and the readers, precisely because neither of them is in the middle. I have come to understand the publisher as the biggest and most wasteful book manufacturing and distributional middleman of them all."

With press runs of around 2,000, Tetel is trying to limit the complexities of distribution and finances. So she's pitching the Madeira imprint's Miracle on I-40, which she describes as "a Christmas-gift novella," to truck stops--Cracker Barrel, Flying J, and others--located along, appropriately enough, Interstate 40. She has a different strategy for Generation Books' Real Birth: Women Share Their Stories; for that title, she's marketing to organizations like the National Association of Child Birthing Centers and publications like Lamaze Today. "Commercial publishers can put a lot of books out on the marketplace, can get a lot of books in Barnes & Noble and the checkouts at grocery stores. But they can't get their books in all of the birthing centers in the country; it's too expensive. For me, it's too expensive to ship thousands and thousands of books into this big distribution center, 50 percent of which will come back. I can't afford to do that. I don't even want to do that. But I can do a very targeted mailing to the birthing centers, and they all have libraries."

iterary agent Virginia Barber A.M. '60, Ph.D. '69 agrees that publishers are feeling more and more financial pressure, and that it takes greater effort to ensure that books of literary merit won't be crowded out. "Formerly you could find an editor who saw what you saw in the book and championed that book within the house, and you got a modest contract and you built up an author," she says. "Now it's much more publication by committee, which is a bad idea, because art of any kind doesn't survive a committee. Unless the editor has the power to champion a book--particularly a book that has anything quirky, troublesome, out of line, new, fresh, or not recognizable--it's more difficult. But it's not impossible. The editor has to have the fortitude, the cleverness, and the power to get it through a much trickier path than he used to have." She says the lines are increasingly blurring between the editing and business sides of publishing. Securing an author's contract now involves long delays, a tedious process of "going from desk to desk to desk; each level of management has to sign off on it."

Sitting next to a wooden coffee table in the shape of two stacked books, Barber muses on the enduring peculiarities of publishing. Among the hundred or so authors she represents are Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence), Andrew Delbanco (The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil), Anne Rivers Siddons (Peachtree Road), and Alice Munro (The Love of a Good Woman.) "It's always been a mystery to me, and a wonderful, wonderful one, that there is a business in which you can sell a million copies of an item and 5,000 copies of another item, and that 5,000-copies item comes from an author who one day is a National Book Award winner," she says. "If I were just out of Harvard Business School and I looked at the figures, I would say, what in the world are you doing publishing these little books at 5,000 copies? The 5,000-copies project is not really profitable, not in any major sense, and certainly not juxtaposed with the million-copies sale--though, of course, the million-copies author is going to have a very, very high advance the next time.

"The other problem is that the first book sells 5,000 copies, and then the author's second book sells 6,000 copies. That's not good enough, and the author is in real danger of getting dropped. The publisher who will stay with a small author, who will commit himself to that author, is a rare thing now. So you have to pray for movie rights or an Oprah or some phenomenon from the outside to help you sell faster." (The entertainer energetically recommends books on her talk show and augments those suggestions on her website.)

"I'm fascinated with the phenomenon of Oprah, because it is so difficult to get the word out to people about books," she says. "The old ways of telling people about books aren't having the same effects. For instance, we used to talk about a review-driven book; a lot of our books were review-driven books. That meant you wanted to go to publishers who garnered a lot of review attention for their lists. Those reviews still matter, but they don't count for what they used to count for. They are not driving the book in the same way. Nor is the full-page ad in The New York Times Book Review, the traditional way of publicizing books." The Oprah effect "indicates to me that people are looking for an authority that they can trust, that they feel sees the world somewhat as they see the world," she says. Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife--an "Oprah's Book Club" selection last spring--has sold more than 2 million copies in this country and Canada, she says. (Shreve is represented by Barber.) "That is absolutely breathtaking for a trade paperback." She says she wishes, though, that there were additional voices of literary authority who could stir public passions around reading.

ne steady presence in the midst of publishing flux, and one of Barber's models of that rare editor who can effectively advocate for an author, is Robert Loomis '49, senior editor and vice president of Random House. Beginning a conversation in late September, he shows a visitor a mocked-up cover of Sophie's Choice by William Styron '47, one of his authors. The book is about to be reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition as the focus of a reading campaign. Complete with posters, printed reminders on utility bills, readings over the radio, reading guides and reading groups, and a showing of the movie version with lead actor Meryl Streep in attendance, the campaign is being organized by Virginia's public-library association.

Loomis was concerned that he might be running late that morning because he wanted to stay at home to catch another of his authors on The Today Show. That author is Edmund Morris, whose Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, was creating a sensation even before anyone had taken a thoughtful plunge into its 874 pages. The book is a result of a fourteen-year effort, unparalleled access to the former president, and, reportedly, an advance of $3 million. Its reception, though, hinged not on the author's conclusions about Reagan's presumed absence of intellectual curiosity, difficulty in making human connections, or success at spurring America into an age of self-confidence. The issue with the book was that Morris had created a fictional "Edmund Morris" character, born three decades before the birth of the real memoirist; that narrative approach allowed him to be a lifelong observer and recorder of Reagan. After all, Reagan had lived his life as an actor, particularly on the political stage, and he was always playing to spectators.

Loomis--like Morris in subsequent interviews--compares the narrator in the book to the projector on which a documentary movie unreels. After a while, the reader sits back, becomes absorbed by the narrative, and forgets about the narrator. Reagan and the fictional Morris don't interact. But the narrative technique gives Morris "a very immediate voice, a voice through which he can comment," Loomis says. "It's more human."

In early October, The New York Times put Loomis on the front page. In an article headlined "Editor of the Reagan Book Overcame Qualms," The Times noted that Loomis "has wide latitude to shepherd his writers." The paper quoted Ann Godoff, the president and editor-in-chief of Random House, as saying, "I would not question Bob Loomis because he has over forty years of experience editing some of the most important pieces of literature in the late twentieth century."

Loomis' Random House is itself a reinvented entity: In 1998, the company was acquired by the German company Bertelsmann, possibly the world's biggest publisher. The fifteen largest publishing deals in 1998 totaled more than $11 billion, and "further consolidated all aspects of the industry," Publishers Weekly reported.

That same year, Barnes & Noble announced that it would acquire the nation's largest book wholesaler, Ingram. The Federal Trade Commission said it would oppose the acquisition because such a merger would slow delivery of books to independents. In what was called the greatest example ever of bookseller activism, 125,000 customer signatures were collected in a petition drive. Barnes & Noble let the deal die. Although it dropped plans to begin its own U.S. online operation, Bertelsmann went on to grab a 50 percent stake in Barnes & Noble's online subsidiary. Such steps have prompted lots of industry speculation about a new trend toward "vertical integration," or pieces of one publishing empire feeding into other pieces.

Distribution has long been a problem for publisher efficiency. But Loomis says that even a giant like Random House is showing new nimbleness in areas like printing on demand--committing books to a digital program that allows near-instant printing. He talks about an order for thirty copies of an out-of-stock paperback needed to accompany an artist's show in Princeton. "We're able to reprint almost one book at a time now and at a reasonable price. That not only allows us to keep things in print and fulfill orders, but the immediacy of it is a boon. It used to take weeks to reprint a small edition of a book, then put it in the warehouse, then get it shipped. These things can be done actually overnight." Eventually, he says, the customer may be able to walk into a bookstore, order a book, and have the book produced for him in a couple of minutes.

While he laments what he calls a "People magazine syndrome" in publishing, or a skewing toward personality-driven titles, he points to some pleasing publishing facts. More books are being published than ever before. More books are being bought. And there are more outlets to learn about books. It's no harder today than in the past to advocate for the unknown author, he says; after all, almost 3,000 novels were published last year. "That's an amazing thing to me. The problem is, of course, that most people don't know that two-thirds of them ever existed." If an acquiring editor is enthusiastic, and succeeds at conveying that enthusiasm in editorial meetings, a manuscript might see its way through publication.

A publisher needs books that may not be blockbusters but that will sell reliably, Loomis says. "A solid backlist of books that keep on selling feeds the reputations of a publishing house, and it helps you get new books." At the same time, a publisher "couldn't exist on the expectation of bestsellers. It's all a kind of gamble, and you wouldn't want to gamble everything on bestsellers." Every day, he says, publishers make deals with authors for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And a lot of those investments turn out to be less than profitable. The model he favors is cultivating authors who seem promising but who may be relatively unknown. William Styron's first book with Random House, Lie Down in Darkness, sold only modestly; it was only later, with The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice, and Darkness Visible, that he achieved best-selling status.

But even with editorial enthusiasm, it's not easy these days for publishers to buy and promote new books. Publishers increasingly find themselves in bidding wars for "name" writers. And to recover their costs, they need to find more imaginative ways to create a "buzz" around a title--not just through the usual "schlepping around the country" by authors, as Loomis puts it, but through an Oprah endorsement or interview shows like Today. "Edmund Morris is a good example. The book is so controversial now, and he's so good that you could put him anywhere." The television producer is unlikely to schedule the unknown writer or the unglamorous book subject. So publishers seek synergy through new, and sometimes expensive, arrangements. "We used to be able to get bookstores to do pretty much what we wanted. Now it's almost reversed, and they're telling us what they will do, and asking us to pay for it as well. You may think the store picked a book for window display because they liked it. They put it there because the publisher paid them to do it."

Is a book on display more a commodity than a treasure? Whether our culture is commodity-driven or treasure-enamored, it is still a reading culture. Online sellers, in fact, probably have generated interest in books in general. The New York Times reported that in 1998 the sales of adult hard-cover and trade paperback books--the top money-makers for trade publishers--rose more than 4 percent from a year earlier, to 497 million copies. Children's books also made gains. In a culture that produces so many ephemeral artifacts and that shows a fixation on the famous, the enduring book may not be a throwback; it may be what it always has been--an escape.

Loomis says that people never voluntarily throw out their books. Books have a certain standing--if not a sanctity--as physical objects. They are constant reminders of the history of ideas, and of the reader's own history. "Paper books possess a permanent thereness; they need not be switched on to exist," wrote The Times' Richard Eder in a tribute to this fall's "New York Is Book Country" book fair. "When a page is turned, the preceding pages do not vanish; they are simply obscured, as one tree obscures another on a woods walk."

Some years ago, Algonquin Books, a literary publisher in Chapel Hill, ran an essay about books and cultural taste. The newsletter mentioned a celebrated comment made by the Duke of Gloucester when Edward Gibbon presented him with one more volume of his ongoing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "Another damn'd, thick, square book! Always scribble scribble scribble! Eh? Mr. Gibbon?" Whether or not it's the thick, square book that endures, our culture needs scribblers and readers and the books that link them.

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