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This post and all other posts on our website are snippets from Firth's writings on Substack.

Why Big Publishers Have Sales Departments

“What were they like, grandpa?” They will ask as they bounce on our knees or maybe they will ask as they kneel at our graves. “They were profitable.” We will respond, either in tears or under them.   Throughout the...

My wife and I recently found ourselves swimming, drowning with purpose if I am to be honest, in a bookstore. We were on the road for our son’s birthday and I had want to feel a copy of a certain book so that I could peer through it, flip through its table of contents, and see the tone in which it was written. I was unsure of its purpose in my life and I needed to talk to it face-to-face, to look at it man-to-man.

That is the strange thing about books. They are an intangible art carried in syllabaries but also syllabaries that create and define the tangible. Sometimes, that itself feels more like often times, it is best to feel and talk to them first.

This is the historical, double-headed role of book publishers and book manufactures. While book publishers work to craft an art contained in rich syllabaries, book manufactures work to craft the syllabaries into a physical existence. Together, their offspring, a good book, opens our eyes to the real world of things and, when done finely, the soul of their offspring grow wings and flake up out of the sorry stability of our lives and force us, the reader, to our knees, kindly but ungently, and the spirits usher us startled few deep down into an ancient future, a new home hugging an already blackened hearth.

But modern books are not divorced from the modern machine that churns beauty into profit and that echoes against my writing shed’s window this morning. Loggers in machines bigger than a house and more expensive than our entire 400-acre Wildland, are felling the mountain to my southward, just a mile away. Iron harmonies echo across the valley between us. I can see, just barely over the sunrise, some trees still vertical, slightly, only for a moment more, like weeping men in an ancient battlefield. Mammoth diesel engines roaring ruts into the soft Earth, crying. Loggers transform ancient years into modern dollars and they slither, leaving a diesel colored trace in their wake.

Soon, these mountains will be naked, eroding hills and then they will be rocky knolls and our grandchildren will ask about the great Appalachians.

“What were they like, grandpa?” They will ask as they bounce on our knees or maybe they will ask as they kneel at our graves.

“They were profitable.” We will respond, either in tears or under them.


You may be seeing where this story is going and you may be wondering how in the hell is this crazy guy going to equate logging with publishing. But do not worry, as I am not going to make this comparison. For you already did.

Ol’ man Jeff Bezos admitted during an interview at the Special Library Conference in 1997 that he created Amazon when he found that “web usage in 1994 was growing at 2300% per year.” Pausing, he looked at the camera and exclaimed, “A nontrivial baseline growth at such a rate will be everywhere tomorrow.” Like diesel engines and iron harmonies that transforms the morning into profit.

Books are the first best products to sell, Bezos contended, for they are easy to warehouse, easy to organized in databases, and easy to ship. Today, Amazon sells more than 1,000,000 books a day and generates nearly $28 billion worldwide from book sales every year. On the other hand, local authors and independent bookstores sell an estimated 80,000 books a day and generate about $500 million worldwide from book sales every year.

To make this easier to understand, that is: local authors and bookshops sell 8% of books and make 1% of the revenue.

Like commercial pine forests, Amazon harvests through clear cutting and sells through under cutting. They succeed when they live everywhere. But humanity, and all life for that matter, succeeds when we live somewhere. God, what a difference.

Don’t believe me?

Today, if you buy my books directly from me, I will make $16 a book. Today, if you buy my books from a local bookshop, I will make $10 a book. Today, if you buy my books from Amazon, I will make less than $1 a book.

Historical book publishers and book manufacturers are ancient mythology today, it seems. Publishers need to make money. That is true. Good books need to wake readers up. That is also true. Sometimes, and not all the time but definitely most of the time, these two realities struggle to co-exist. In olden days, I am told, books were written to be read. Today, I fear, books are written to be sold. Is this dissimilar from trees? We used to walk under their caring canopies for medicine, harvesting their alchemy, gently, for health and for warmth. Today, we cut them all.

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