*Publishing 2010, Oops 1920

From Chapter 1, The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley:

“My name is Aubrey Gilbert,” said the young man. “I am representing the Grey-Matter Advertising Agency. I want to discuss with you the advisability of your letting us handle your advertising account, prepare snappy copy for you, and place it in large circulation mediums. Now the war’s over, you ought to prepare some constructive campaign for bigger business.”

The bookseller’s face beamed. He put down his cook-book, blew an expanding gust of smoke, and looked up brightly.

“My dear chap,” he said, “I don’t do any advertising.”

“Impossible!” cried the other, aghast as at some gratuitous indecency.

“Not in the sense you mean. Such advertising as benefits me most is done for me by the snappiest copywriters in the business.”

“I suppose you refer to Whitewash and Gilt?” said Mr. Gilbert wistfully.

“Not at all. The people who are doing my advertising are Stevenson, Browning, Conrad and Company.”

“Dear me,” said the Grey-Matter solicitor. “I don’t know that agency at all. Still, I doubt if their copy has more pep than ours.”

“I don’t think you get me. I mean that my advertising is done by the books I sell. If I sell a man a book by Stevenson or Conrad, a book that delights or terrifies him, that man and that book become my living advertisements.”

“But that word-of-mouth advertising is exploded,” said Gilbert. “You can’t get Distribution that way. You’ve got to keep your trademark before the public.”

“By the bones of Tauchnitz!” cried Mifflin. “Look here, you wouldn’t go to a doctor, a medical specialist, and tell him he ought to advertise in papers and magazines? A doctor is advertised by the bodies he cures. My business is advertised by the minds I stimulate. And let me tell you that the book business is different from other trades. People don’t know they want books. I can see just by looking at you that your mind is ill for lack of books but you are blissfully unaware of it! People don’t go to a bookseller until some serious mental accident or disease makes them aware of their danger. Then they come here. For me to advertise would be about as useful as telling people who feel perfectly well that they ought to go to the doctor. Do you know why people are reading more books now than ever before? Because the terrific catastrophe of the war has made them realize that their minds are ill. The world was suffering from all sorts of mental fevers and aches and disorders, and never knew it. Now our mental pangs are only too manifest. We are all reading, hungrily, hastily, trying to find out—after the trouble is over—what was the matter with our minds.”

The little bookseller was standing up now, and his visitor watched him with mingled amusement and alarm.

“You know,” said Mifflin, “I am interested that you should have thought it worth while to come in here. It reinforces my conviction of the amazing future ahead of the book business. But I tell you that future lies not merely in systematizing it as a trade. It lies in dignifying it as a profession. It is small use to jeer at the public for craving shoddy books, quack books, untrue books. Physician, cure thyself! Let the bookseller learn to know and revere good books, he will teach the customer. The hunger for good books is more general and more insistent than you would dream. But it is still in a way subconscious. People need books, but they don’t know they need them. Generally they are not aware that the books they need are in existence.”

“Why wouldn’t advertising be the way to let them know?” asked the young man, rather acutely.

“My dear chap, I understand the value of advertising. But in my own case it would be futile. I am not a dealer in merchandise but a specialist in adjusting the book to the human need. Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a ‘good’ book. A book is ‘good’ only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you. My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms. Some people have let their reading faculties decay so that all I can do is hold a post mortem on them. But most are still open to treatment…The world has been printing books for 450 years, and yet gunpowder still has a wider circulation. Never mind! Printer’s ink is the greater explosive: it will win.

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2 thoughts on “*Publishing 2010, Oops 1920

  1. lol! Not a lot changes, does it? I do so want to read this book – I must have another go at tracking down a copy.

    1. If you can’t find it, you can download it onto your computer from Gutenberg. It’s a short book, so probably readable on your computer.

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