Did you hear that the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah CD costs $28? But that’s only during the first year, after which the CD will be re-issued in a less expensive package for $15.95.
No, you didn’t hear that, because the music industry isn’t dumb enough to sabotage their profits by making audiences wait a year to buy new releases (that’s right, even the music industry isn’t that dumb). The book publishing industry, on the other hand, is that dumb.
I wrote last year in these pages that two-tier book pricing has got to go. Many people agreed with me that the common practice of publishing new books in expensive hardcover editions for the first year is archaic and elitist as well as an obvious buzz-kill for curious potential readers. But some people close to the industry explained to me why we are stuck with two-tier pricing despite the system’s obvious flaws: publishers are addicted to the sugar rush of automatic library and book club sales, and they won’t sacrifice the hardcover profit margin even if it means missing the chance to connect a great new book with an eager buying audience.
I think the “addiction theory” explains a lot, and I wonder if it’s time for an intervention. For now, let me just state an obvious fact as simply as I can: $28 for a book is absolutely ridiculous. We live in an age where hit singles cost $.99 and new albums cost $9.99. Publishers wish that literary authors could be as popular as top bands, but they price their best talents out of that market.
I see it happen over and over: promising new writers who should be marketed directly to collegiate and alternative audiences are instead forced to cool their heels on the “rich people shelves” for a full year (the year in which the book might be getting great reviews and endorsements). By the time the paperback comes out, nobody remembers that it got great reviews. It really doesn’t take a genius to see that this system doesn’t work for either readers or writers, and it doesn’t seem to work very well for publishers either.
Here’s the good news: many publishers do get it, and we’re seeing more and more literary paperback originals (like Scarlett Thomas’s compelling The End of Mr. Y, which I am enjoying now). Some books are also being published in simultaneous hardcover/paperback arrangements (like Jason Shinder’s Howl: The Poem that Changed America), a smart move that allows the best of both formats: sturdy premium editions for libraries and collectors and affordable editions for eager readers, both available at the same time. This is a solution that works.
But change isn’t coming fast enough. Maybe it’s the writers themselves who need to speak up and request affordable pricing (but this won’t work for many of the first novelists who would most benefit from inexpensive books, because they are least likely to demand control over packaging and pricing). I hope more and more writers will speak up about this, and maybe some bloggers like me can make some noise about the issue and make a difference too.