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Publishers Should Start Using Birth Control

We're (still) publishing a city's worth of books each year.

Twelve is a book publisher, established in 2005, with a smart, small mission:"We strive to publish the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority. Works that explain our culture; that illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain. We seek to establish communities of conversation surrounding our books. Talented authors deserve attention not only from publishers, but from readers as well. To sell the book is only the beginning of our mission. To build avid audiences of readers who are enriched by these works – that is our ultimate purpose."Why is it called Twelve? Because they publish only one book a month. Any more than that and they could not give each book the attention it deserves. Any more than that and they could not ensure quality. After, all, a book may not be a car, but it ain't easy to put one out, either.Compare that number, twelve, with this number: 173,680. That is the total number of books published in America in 2007, according to the 2008 Library & Book Trade Almanac (formerly Bowker's Annual).That's 173,680! Convert it to people and it's a medium-sized city (drive 30 miles and you can visit slightly smaller 2006, population 169,637!). Convert it to dollars and it's an upper-middle class salary. Stack them one on top of the other and they would...topple over and make a big mess.Publishing has been dying ever since I was born, but that has not stopped the industry from pumping out more books each year, in some perverse irrational economics: maybe this one will turn things around? No? Maybe this one will? We spend oodles of pixels bemoaning the loss of readers, a tenuous argument to make in a day when every email, Facebook page, and twitter screen has a reader on the other side. Let me waste just a few pixels bemoaning the fact that too many books are being pumped out in our fair land.Not very sustainable is this model either now, is it? When books go unsold, they are pulped. So too are staff. In Fall 2008, when the big wigs started cutting back, real live people lost their jobs at all the major publishing houses. The smaller presses, with fewer products and a more nimble business plan, have done better. (If Twelve had to downsize to, say, Eleven, chances are they would not have huge layoffs).During these days of increased savings and measured spending, we are all consumer advocates. We exercise options not with trades but with purchases. Each time we open our wallets we think more about who we are giving our money to. I have argued before that book buyers should always approach purchases as political acts. We need to support book publishers, yes. But selectively, so we can help the larger players in the industry, who may be too big to fail, come to their senses. Let us encourage them to print fewer, more quality titles come 2010.Below are some great presses that are careful with their dollars, and some great recent books they have published. Buy one and you get triple rewards: a great book to read, an investment in a sustainable industry model, and a statement against excessive title-pumping.Twelve, publisher of the just-released and much-praised Columbine by Dave Cullen.Dalkey Archive, a non-profit and publisher of a new edition of Manuel Puig's classic Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (20 percent off!)MIT Press, which always published with a keen eye for design, another non-profit and publisher of the brilliant Big Box Reuse by Julia Christensen, about what happens to empty Wal-Marts and KMarts.

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