Polishing Wisdom


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hand to Hand Books

            What good comes of a book residing on a shelf for thirty or a hundred years? Who is served? There are answers, but readers, authors and the earth are not among them.

            As soon as the manuscript for The Trouble with Wisdom was complete, while reflecting upon the issues of books and publishing described in these posts, this venture came softly into my mind. I realized that by taking the approach of seeking maximum profit for a book—whatever the market will bear—our capitalist model eliminates many excellent possibilities. Let’s examine some corollaries.

            The wish of any writer is to communicate, to be read by as many people as possible. This is in direct conflict with a market that seeks the highest price. In this age of declining library support, the decision to purchase a book falls increasingly on the wealthier among us. (Digital press may come to reach less affluent readers.’)

            The cost of a book inspires ownership of it. One is a bit reluctant to part with something that costs so much. True, some people lend their books, but generally want them returned. So in the best scenario of capitalist cultures, a book may be read three times.

            These additional reads do not help the author, considering that she only gets paid once for the original sale and only in the range of $1 to $2.50. Writers routinely don't earn enough royalties to pay back their advances. So our current system pays all the other middle folk completely and tosses crumbs to the writer. It’s upside-down.

            Hand to Hand is an attempt to reconfigure the hierarchy. The artist should be compensated the most, so that she can carry on and write more. Particularly if no reader must shell out a substantial sum for a book, what could be wrong with the writer generating $25 (the normal hard-cover cost) from her work for each book? Or $40? Or even $60? This last figure is commensurate with sales of 20 to 30 copies in the existing paradigm and twelve ‘reads’ of The Trouble with Wisdom. The market will still bear on the process; the perfect culling mechanism for mediocre work will be poor sales. But publishers, agents and marketers do not figure in this hierarchy. Editors and printers who contribute actual work toward the art will be paid as always.

            By making books available, bookstores can also enter the action. When The Trouble with Wisdom is sold from a bookstore, the entire (first) sale of $5.00 goes to the store as profit. In this scheme, the store has no financial outlay; it has only offered shelf space. The writer is taking the risk that the purchaser will understand the instructions and pass the book on. . . and that as readers contribute, the account will be balanced. The purchasers and readers, in short, become deputies to help support, market and distribute the book. The Hand to Hand paradigm is betting that they will do it in a way that helps other readers down the line also rise to feel deputized. The real test will be if the third reader contributes and passes the book, because she will know neither the author nor the original purchaser. 

            Hand to Hand is a system of leasing the book for the sole purpose of taking the story and language into the mind-stream, which is what books are best at. And it is a system of having readers act as stewards of earth’s resources.

            Of course as the book moves from hand to hand, the copy will become worn. Some people might feel that they should not have to contribute money for a used book, as they are used to the notion that books handed to them are freebies. The paradigm shift will be underway when we begin to value content more than appearance.

            In working out this idea, cultivating the natural aspect of interaction with readers has begun to be accomplished through the sign-in page (the Readers List), through the readers becoming marketers and through this web site and its payment option. Many of you will have other and better ideas, and I look forward to them being designed into better systems for books and for every other kind of human endeavor that will thrive in this way in the hope of reinventing our society into a sustainable one.

            Readers in totalitarian countries honor printed words in any form. In that spirit, I ask that you take care of the book for others. It is very late in the history of a world perched on  the edge of unraveling that we are realizing we can’t just create wealth and ‘stuff’ ad infinitum. The earth IS the bank from which our wealth—real and imagined—is drawn. Money-wealth begins as natural resource, which has never been ours to own. We are transient here. We humans are, at best, guests. The next successful societies will be ones that understand and honor this reality.

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