The commoditization of books: Monographer visits a remainders fair
Today to London the visit a trade fair for remainders dealers, organised by CIANA. There are two such fairs a year, one in September and one in January, and I’d never been to either before. I went in part in search of some specific information, but also out of curiosity: the trade in remainders represents a part of the industry supply chain I knew little about.
In truth, I found it vaguely depressing – though really only for sentimental reasons. All trade in books through the supply chain represents a commoditization of books, but here the process is least discriminating – at the furthest remove from the experience of readers or the ambitions of authors. One art book (there are a lot of art books) becomes virtually identical to another – and not very different from any other illustrated book. I was struck by just how many titles were available. Evidently the days of truly inventory-free publishing, heralded supposedly by print-on-demand, are some way off.
There are those who see the very existence of remainders – which in effect requires publishers to sell below unit cost – as, along with returns, evidence of great irrationality in the industry. The problem with that argument is that nobody ever prints excessive numbers of a book: it’s just that, when one orders print, one doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight. When I hear commentators lament the irrationality that they claim to detect, I always ask them what method they have for ensuring perfect foresight (a method that would, I am sure, be much in demand): none has ever provided such a method.
Next year I wonder whether I should offer to bring a party of authors with me. In my experience, authors hate seeing their books in remainders shops, interpreting such a fate in terms of failure and rejection. Many times I’ve explained that being remaindered need not imply any such judgment: remaindering is a sign that the publisher sold less than it forecast – that is all. Yet even when authors accept the logic of that argument, the emotional dissatisfaction persists.
If they could see the remainders trade in action, they might feel differently: there’s an awful lot of it and the very process of commoditization removes any suggestion of stigma.