Here’s a post by Peter Osnos on a book about Russian state security in the post-KGB era called The New Nobility:
PublicAffairs printed 8,010 copies of the book, and to date has shipped 4,964. The total sales in the first two weeks, according to our tracking report, are 304 copies. Most brick and mortar stores — the major chains and the independents — cannot possibly have more than two or three copies on hand, and these are unlikely to be displayed in any significant way. For all the whining about those numbers, however, the important fact to point out is that The New Nobility is available to anyone with interest in the subject, even if it admittedly is geared to an audience of finite size. Not only that, the consumer can choose from a variety of formats and price points in deciding where and how to make the purchase.
Osnos concludes by saying, “But the headline is that, if you want The New Nobility or any of the similarly specialized books released each year, you should now be able to get them without mounting a major exploratory exercise to find them.” This is true, largely thanks to Amazon, but the more important point — not original with me, of course — is that if you’re buying an electronic version of a book you never have to worry about its being out of stock. It’s always in stock.
I think this point strikes home for me because, as mentioned before, I’m reading Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance, and one of Pettegree’s striking themes is the difficulty the early booksellers/printers/publishers had in acquiring the capital necessary to print books when they had no way of knowing how many they could sell. They needed to be wealthy or to find “angel investors” who would bankroll a very expensive process of printing — and then the booksellers had to be prepared to store leftover stock somewhere for, sometimes, decades before selling out a print run. If it ever sold out. Aldus Manutius certainly made beautiful books in his Venice shop, but he was also an incredibly risk-tolerant, ambitious, and innovative entrepreneur.
Obviously, modern publishing has come up with ways of handling overstock — remaindering of hardcovers and trade paperbacks, stripping and pulping of mass-market paperbacks — but e-books make this entire frustrating system completely unnecessary. That at least is a significant step forward, and the old model — guessing, printing, shipping, returning, remaindering, pulping — seems more archaic by the day.