Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book burning is back in vogue. What is the reason this time?

Prospero's Books is a used book store in Kansas City, Missouri. Tom Wayne is an owner there and he doesn’t have room in his warehouse for all his books so he tried to give them away but no one wanted them. So he tried to burn them. But he didn’t have a permit so the police made him stop. I love this country.

In 1953 Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, whose title reflects the temperature at which books ignite and burn, and whose story is about a future US where people are entertained by in-the-ear radio and interactive TV. Now that’s a little spooky.

But I’m confused. The Book Industry Study Group says the used-book market is exploding, with used-book sales over $2.2 billion in 2004 up 11 percent over 2003. Oh – I forgot – the Internet. Sales at used books stores are flat or going down, as folks do their shopping online. Who knew that not censorship but the Internet would be responsible for book burning in the 21st century!

Tom gets my vote for marketer of the year. With the press he’s generated, people are now paying him $1 per book plus postage, which he says he will put towards, in his own words, “publishing new books” (I guess he’s had enough of the old ones!). And if enough book lovers pony up he’s going to save the expense and hassle of procuring that book burning permit.

Tom may be going from the frying pan into the, well, fire: publishers release over 100,000 new titles a year, including 10,000 novels. Two issues here: only 10% of new books get reviewed, and there are 30% fewer independent bookstores carrying them. The numbers point to a tough environment for book stores like Tom’s.

Still I hope Prospero’s Books lives up to its name. And I’m glad Kansas City has a police force that stops book burning without a permit.

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