What Booksquare Says About Book Pricing

It’s a funny thing that when I write articles about book pricing inanities that plague our publishing industry, readers invariably think I’m just blowing off steam. They tell me how awful it is that I can’t afford the books I want to read, and they ask if I live near a library, or they offer to buy me books, or they tell me about obscure used bookshops where I can find great bargains. I guess they consider it beyond the realm of imagination that I could be writing these articles because I think I can actually make a difference.

In fact, I know that we — industry observers who are angry about the various ways our publishing conglomerates fail to innovate — will eventually make a difference. I wish more of my blogger compatriots would speak out about dysfunctional book pricing practices, and I’m glad that Kassia Krozser of Booksquare has written an article about the Harry Potter phenomenon that neatly exposes the flawed logic behind hardcover-first book pricing:

Do not assume that customers creating shopping lists. “Okay, hardcover spotted. Check. Make note to purchase this in paperback one year from today.”

Staggered release windows are so last century. We want it all now, baby, we want it today. Why, as books are competing with so many other forms of media, would the publishing industry want to create a vacuum where one needs not exist?

That’s exactly right. Look at it this way: we live in an age when great new songs cost one dollar each. And our book industry is still pushing $30 books (or else you can cool your heels and wait a year for the paperback).

Modern book production techniques can easily — easily — handle simultaneous first edition printings, and this is the way all important books should be released to the public: hardcover premium editions for libraries, collectors and anyone else who wants them, and affordable editions for regular consumers at the same time.

The current hardcover-first model is self-destructive and prima facie just plain wrong. If somebody would like to defend the hardcover-first model, please do, but I don’t think a reasonable defense can be made.

So I’m glad too see Kassia’s article, and I hope other bloggers and vocal book readers will speak up about this as well. We are all so often so indignant, but here is something worth being indignant about.

16 Responses

  1. Special Offer!My book only
    Special Offer!

    My book only comes in paperback, but for $29.95 extra, I will glue a wooden plaque with one of those singing fish to the front cover. Batteries not included.

  2. and another thingBuying books
    and another thing

    Buying books in hardcover warps my impressions of those books. As much as I hate the pricing system, there are certain authors that I HAVE to buy as soon as they’ve released something new (recently, Murakami and DeLillo forced me into such dire straits). But when I pay $30 for a book, I expect big things. Subconsciously, I almost expect the books I buy in hardcover to be that much better than the ones I buy in paperback – after all, these are going to last me a lifetime, right? While paperbacks I might just pass on when I’m done. Rarely do I not feel cheated by the investment.

    Anyone else feel me on this? In DeLillo’s case, “Falling Man” was far better than some of his more recent efforts, but it was in hardback, so anything less than “Underworld” or “White Noise” (those cheap, expendable paperbacks!) feels like a bit of a rip-off. And that’s not fair to him, either.

  3. Good point. I know exactly
    Good point. I know exactly what you mean. I’m more willing to take a chance on a paperback.

  4. publishers and publishingI’m
    publishers and publishing

    I’m not very familiar with the world of the blogs; it seems to me that literary blogs constitute a tiny world that cannot make an impression on publishers any more than a small group of protesters in my town will move Bush in a different direction. Am I wrong about litblogs?

    Publishers are in the same business as art galleries: money, and lots of it. If you can convince their accountants that a different publishing strategy will create bigger profits, they will go for it. Otherwise, no.

    (I’m not a cynic; I’m a realist.)

  5. Dan — regarding a little
    Dan — regarding a little litblog’s ability to make a difference, well, I am an incurable optimist and I’m just going to keep trying.

    And yes, of course the publishers are trying to earn money, and I would never want or expect them to do anything but that. I don’t think the hardcover-first model is working out too well for them, though. It’s a model that suffers with high expenditure and high return rate in the hope of finding the next “Da Vinci Code” or “Harry Potter”. There are a few (very few) big success stories, and beyond that there’s an absolute glut of failures. This business/pricing model is overly aggressive and high-risk, and it ignores the needs of customers.

    That’s why I want customers to speak up and make our power felt (to the extent that we can have any power in such an ailing business sector). When you hear a publishing executive explain why hardcover-first $30 books make sense, he’ll talk a lot about stores and chains and distributors and agents, but the one group he won’t mention at all is book buyers. A business model that ignores its customer is a business model gone rotten.

  6. Levi, a publisher talks about
    Levi, a publisher talks about “stores and chains and distributors” when it comes to product pricing because those are their customers. The book buyer is the customer of the publishers’ customers. It’s wholesale vs. retail, and, traditionally, publishers have preferred leaving the happiness of the book buyer in the hands of retailers.

  7. But, Marydell, isn’t the big
    But, Marydell, isn’t the big story of the “You” age that they’re cutting out the middlemen? It seems to me that the procedures currently in place are a bit stale, wouldn’t you agree?

    If they aren’t serving the end customer, the customer that converts non-book money into book money — the reader — then the entire industry will remain financially stagnant.

  8. Did you read an article
    Did you read an article somewhere that says the industry is financially stagnant? Fiction publishing might be stagnant, but not the entire industry. Despite all of the press regarding the “death of the novel,” publishers do make money…and lots of it. The bigger, shrewder publishers have diverse holdings and fingers in plenty of pies. When one line of profit slows down, another picks up.

    In terms of cutting out middlemen (wholesalers & retailers), I seriously doubt most publishers would want this to happen. For those with their own warehouses, nothing pisses them off more than picking & packing a bunch of orders for onesies. Their systems are set up for shipping by the case, so selling direct to the reader at list price is actually less profitable than selling 500 books to Costco at 60% off. Smaller publishers who get orders for fewer copies will often outsource distribution (like to PGW) because it saves them money over the long-run.

    I agree that hardcover pricing seems ridiculous, but list prices are set at what the market will bear. I won’t spend the money for a hardcover because I buy lots of books, upwards of 100 each year. However, the casual book buyer tends to be someone with a fair amount of disposable income. A handful of hardcover books each year doesn’t phase them as much, and they actually believe they’re getting a deal when they pick up a bestseller at B&N for 40% off.

    And don’t believe all of the recent pissing and moaning some retailers have done regarding the new Harry Potter. A smart independent would know how to make money off it, even if they have to cut their profit margin on the book itself by selling it at a discount to compete with the big boxes.

  9. Interesting points, Marydell.
    Interesting points, Marydell. I have some particular responses, but maybe we’ll have to hash all of this out in a panel discussion sometime!

    It seems to me — tell me if I’m right — that your main conclusion is that there’s no point criticizing the way our major publishing companies set book prices because they are doing this as well as they possibly could. If so, I find this a surprising conclusion, but I know you know a bit about the subject and I’ll ponder your responses a while rather than offer a knee-jerk rebuttal right now.

  10. Levi, criticize away. The
    Levi, criticize away. The publishing industry is incredibly dysfunctional and needs shaking up. My aim in explaining stuff like distribution and pricing is to let people know that there’s so much more to it than literature.

    A lot of decisions (like setting print run numbers or determining when to release a paperback) are made by looking into a Magic 8-Ball; some end badly while others result in runaway blockbusters. Publishers are gamblers, and no one can really predict how the next hand will turn out. Understanding how they operate is the first step toward coming up with viable ideas for changing the industry to more benefit the reader.

    As it stands now, publishing isn’t about literature. We feel passionately about it because we’re readers; our connection to books is emotional and intellectual. For publishers, though, books are a product and they need to get that product into the hands of as many people as possible. If they don’t make money by making shrewd business decisions, we readers won’t have access to the literature that we love. It’s a catch 22, don’t you think?

  11. Marydell, I’m just so glad
    Marydell, I’m just so glad you showed up to engage me on this debate, because I’ve been writing about this for a while and getting barely any response at all. I definitely understand your points. First, you are pointing out that while literary book publishing (fiction, poetry) is struggling right now, book publishing in general is not, and so it’s important to differentiate between book publishing and literary book publishing. My remarks above are meant to address literary book publishing, and I agree with you that this is an important distinction to make. I really couldn’t care less how much anybody charges for a cookbook or a sports biography or a movie tie-in. It’s contemporary fiction that I think prices itself out of the typical customer’s range.

    I think your other underlying point is that my original comments don’t show any understanding of how the book industry works, of the details of distribution and chain sales, etc., and that this weakens my ability to present a convincing argument that book pricing for contemporary novels is way out of whack. On this point, Marydell, I have to take exception to your argument, and I’d like to quote here the email I sent you to explain this. Here’s what I wrote in that email:

    Imagine there’s a hot dog factory that turns out hot dogs that taste terrible. And I am standing outside the factory saying “these hot dogs taste terrible”. And then somebody comes out and says “dude, you are arguing from a point of ignorance. The reason these hot dogs taste this way is that they use a certain type of equipment which is less expensive and therefore more practical than the other type, and if they used the other type they would have to cut back their budget on hot dog advertising and then other hot dog companies would steal their customers, etc. etc”. And then I would look this person in the face
    and say “these hot dogs taste terrible.”

    My point is, as a book consumer, I don’t have to care what the reasons are for the fact that new books are overpriced. All the reasons in the world don’t make the books any less overpriced, just like all the reasons in the world don’t make a bad hot dog taste good.

    The other thing I wrote in that email, which I’d like to share with everybody else who reads this, is that I really would like to discuss this further, and I’m thinking that a blog “roundtable” on book pricing would be a fruitful way to proceed. Marydell, I am looking forward to continuing this discussion there!

  12. Levi, I have to disagree with
    Levi, I have to disagree with your hotdog metaphor. The quality of the product is not the price of the product. You’re comparing apples & oranges.

    You said, “As a book consumer, I don’t have to care what the reasons are for the fact that new books are overpriced…” but, in fact, Marydell was explaining why book companies do what they do.

  13. Bill, you could replace
    Bill, you could replace “these hot dogs taste terrible” with “these hot dogs are overpriced”, and my story works the exact same way.

    Here’s where I’m coming from: I don’t believe it’s ever a good idea to automatically assume that the business executives who run the companies that affect our lives are either smart or honest. I hope they are. But I’ve been around America’s “corporate elite” long enough (remember, I’ve had a long career in the financial and media sectors) to know that mismanagement and incompetence runs rampant — absolutely rampant — among our corporate leaders. This is simply what I’ve observed while working for various major corporations for the past fifteen years.

    Because of this, I always want to subject business executives to scrutiny. Luckily, it’s the American way that we are allowed to inspect, criticize, question the management of our publicly-owned corporations. I am going to use that right to question whether or not our book conglomerates are making smart decisions every chance I get. When it comes to book pricing for popular fiction, I am quite sure that they are not making smart decisions.

  14. I guess I shouldn’t be
    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In my years with state government, I saw rampant mismanagement and incompetence, too. I suppose it’s a symptom of being cushioned inside so large an apparatus that one’s decisions don’t immediately effect them. It’s a hell of a thing.

  15. Absofrickinlutelyand glad to

    and glad to know that others are thinking the same thing. Because I was definitely feeling like the lone wolf when I wrote this post about it: http://minusspine.wordpress.com/2007/02/23/big-and-mighty-books/

    And yet, what can be done? The publishing industry changes at the same rate that the Vatican does. Do you know of some indie presses that are doing this already? It’d be great to know about them.

  16. Hey Snacky — good to find
    Hey Snacky — good to find you (and your blog) on the bandwagon.

    Yes, happily, many indie booksellers definitely do have a clue. One example of many is Akashic, based here in New York City, which has recently published a few worthy original novels in paperback.

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