An excerpt from The Untold Story of Books

"Recall the last time you moved. Packing, hauling, unpacking. What a hassle. Since you're reading this book, you've probably wrestled with moving boxes of books. They're so dang heavy.

Early printer-publishers faced the same problem, which made shipping pricey. Even as technological innovations reduced manufacturing costs, shipping remained cumbersome and expensive. In 1800, Boston and Philadelphia were the top book-producing cities, with more populous New York a distant third. But after 1825, almost overnight, the Big Apple became the nation's publishing capital -- thanks to the Erie Canal.

Running 363 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the Erie Canal was a technological marvel. It's thirty-six locks and elevation change of 565 feet both set world records. The Canal provided the first direct waterway from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, and dramatically reduced shipping costs to America's vast interior. Today, Boston and Philadelphia remain publishing centers, but by 1840, New York's position at the confluence of its harbor and the Hudson River with the canalonly a modest distance away made it the nation's undisputed printing and publishing powerhouse.

Despite its benefits, the Erie Canal could not avoid winter, and each year it froze. Combining this limitation with shippers' bulk discounts, publishers shipped large batches of books shortly before the freeze for fall and winter reading, then shipped again shortly after the thaw for spring and summer reading. As a result, publishers organized their catalogues into two seasons, Fall and Spring.

Two-seaon publishing became an anachronism after the Civil War when railroads offered efficient shipping year-round. But today most publishers still organize their catalogues seasonally, with titles by big-name authors released in the fall for Christmas giving."



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The Untold Story of Books: A Writer's History of Book Publishing

Making Sense of an Increasingly Disrupted Publishing Industry

I know, the old "must-read" blurb is the most overused cliché in publishing, but this book truly should be read by everyone involved in the business of books, and especially for anyone considering trying to make a living in the business of books. And I mean anyone, from the teenager applying for a summer job at the local bookstore, to the stay-at-home mom who writes romance fiction. The reason: book publishing is a constantly changing beast, and the changes that began with Gutenberg in 1450 have been accelerating faster and faster ever since. So, author Michael Castleman has done us all a great service by researching and writing this compelling book, schooling us on how it's all gone down, and shedding new light on what we might expect for the future of this "impossible business" of books.

To know where you're going you have to recall where you've been, right? Castleman breaks down where we've been in book publishing into three distinct book business eras, all defined by the evolution of the way books are created: The First Book Business (ca. 1450-1890) with hand-operated presses; The Second Book Business  (ca. 1900-2000) with industrial machine-operated presses; and The Third Book Business (ca. 2000-the present) with computers and the Internet -- this Digital Age we live in that allows pretty much anyone to publish and distribute books -- and to do it very quickly and very cheaply.

From the beginning, that's what it's always been about for publishers: how to produce more copies of more books, faster and cheaper. It all began with Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by trade, who saw how moveable metal letters were arranged to stamp a signature into a piece of gold jewelry, and imagined how it could be used for printing on paper. Combine that idea with the same hand-cranked wooden press used to squeeze oil out of olives and wine out of grapes, and you've got the beginning of a cultural revolution.

But, like so many fledgling book printers and publishers after him, Gutenberg's company went bankrupt. As is still true today, publishing a book is one thing, marketing and selling it is another. In those days not many folks could read, and even fewer could afford such a luxury. But the publishing floodgates were open, and within a hundred years the printing press had spread around the world and the number of printed books had risen from about 10,000 to about 150 million.

That may sound like a pretty big number until we fast forward to today's Third Book Business era: in 2021 there were 2.7 million titles released in the U.S. alone, which translates to five new books every minute. While the U.S. population has gained just 20 percent since 2000, book releases have increased 4,000 percent. According to Castleman, this digital publishing revolution was predicted by Benjamin Franklin, who like all printers striving for "more, faster, cheaper," said: "A method should be discovered to print a few copies of a work as cheaply per copy as when many are printed." His wish was of course granted by the development of digital files and print-on-demand. Just imagine putting a Kindle in old Ben's hands!

Reading this book is a delightful trip through publishing times gone by, filled with "fun facts" (first American million-seller blockbuster: Uncle Tom's Cabin) and bringing up many aspects of history repeating itself. Book piracy was rampant in 1800s America: hot titles by European authors were blatantly copied and printed and sold on this side of the pond. American authors battled piracy as well, fighting for decades in court to achieve copyright protection. Fast forward to today's battles over AI, which Castleman considers modern-day book piracy and has him hopping mad. How did AI developers obtain the huge amount of text to train their programs to mimic human writing? "They stole it from authors whose copyrights they ignored," says Castleman. "AI threatens all creators: authors, screenwriters, visual artists, copywriters, editors, illustrators, and on and on. Some call it a fight for the soul of humanity. Stay tuned."

That is the great thing about this book, written by a long-time working author whose career has seen all the changes, dealt with the legal battles, and faced the challenges that anyone entering the writing game today should know about. And Castleman tells it like it is: pointing to a chart that depicts average book sales showing that 79% of new releases sell less than 100 copies, he reports that "most authors' incomes have fallen off a cliff."

"The Digital Revolution has enabled authors to express themselves as never before -- while pulling the financial rug out from under the vast majority, and almost everyone else in publishing. Today, book-writing is much more apt to cost authors money than to make any."

Boom. Not very encouraging to the young, hopeful writer of the next Great American Novel. So why should an unknown author even try, knowing that the same day her book gets released, about 7,500 other, competing titles will, too?

Says Castleman: "As one would expect, reasons vary, but based on forty-five years as an author, ten years as an editor, and innumerable interactions with people involved in every aspect of publishing, one reason stands head and shoulders above all others. Book people love books."

"Yes, the book business is bittersweet. It always has been, and it looks like it always will be. But for me, the joy of writing books and seeing them published compensates for everything else."


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Michael Castleman (b. 1950) grew up in Malverne, NY, a Long Island suburb of New York City. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan (English, 1972), and earned an M.A. in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism (1979). He has written more than 2,500 magazine and Web articles, as well as 19 books selling over 2.5 million copies.


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The Untold Story of Books:
A Writer's History of Book Publishing

by Michael Castleman

Published by Unnamed Press

Paperback Original - $18.00

Available July 2024

ISBN: 9781961884083


About Unnamed Press
"The Unnamed Press is a leading independent publisher of fiction and non-fiction, based in Los Angeles and founded in 2014. Our books represent a diverse list of voices—ones that challenge conventional perspectives while appealing to a broad general audience: exciting, radical, urgent. We nurture emerging talent and partner with more established authors to help their platform grow."