Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Facing extinction

What do Belgium, daily newspapers, one-color book printers and book readers all have in common?

Extinction.

For the last decade, Belgium has been periodically threatened with extinction. Here is a nation that figured prominently in both World War I and II that just might unravel, just as Czechoslovakia did in the nineties. A hundred years from now when students read about the World Wars and the battles Belgium endured, the students will wonder where the hell it was. Why? Because Belgium is divided into the Flemish, Dutch speaking, north and the Walloon, French speaking, south. There is supposedly only one Belgian in the whole world, the king. The Flemish north is now more prosperous than the Walloon south and the Flems are tired of picking up the deficits of the south. Stay tuned.

Daily newspapers have been under assault by radio and television news for decades, and survived. Now Internet news is driving newspapers out of business. Or driving them into the Internet news business themselves. You're probably like me. I read the New York Times Web Site daily, but almost never actually buy the paper. Why should I? Why should you? Remember in the old days if you found an article that interested you, you'd get the scissors to cut it out. A laborious process compared to highlighting the article and copying it onto your computer for printing later at your convenience. Newspaper circulations dropped 2.1 and 2.8 percent in the last two six-month periods. Trees are very happy about this development, however.

I had a phone call last Friday from a book printer salesman looking for business. I had previously used them three times: once to print a book jacket at their plant A; once to print a full color, hardcover children's book at their plant B; and once for them to print a hardcover black and white book with a color jacket at their plant C. Plant C is gone. I used a competitor of plant C to print 10 black and white hardcover books with color jackets between 1999 and 2004. It's now a parking lot for a hospital. There simply wasn't the business to sustain them. Too much capacity as one executive explained to me.

How could there be too much unused capacity in book printers? Besides the fact that even one- color books are increasingly being printed overseas, in Canada for example (yes, that is overseas), Americans are reading less and less books. Book readers may become extinct! In 2006, one in four American adults had read no books at all. The typical American claimed on the average to have read four books in 2006. If you eliminate the 25% who read no books, the usual number read was seven. Now seven may be a lucky number for many of us, but in this case it does not bode well for the American book industry and the American public at large. Southfarm Press, my book publishing firm, is located in Middletown, Connecticut. We noticed something right away back in the eighties. People in New England read less than people in the south, midwest and far west. We had a sign up in our office for years claiming we sold more books in Guam than Connecticut! Do you know where Guam is? It's north of New Guinea.--Walter Haan, www.war-books.com

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