Books: Too Damn Expensive

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.

16 Responses

  1. This is whyI like classics.
    This is why

    I like classics. Many are available in Dover Thrift Editions for a dollar. I like books, and I like things that cost a dollar, so books that cost a dollar are infinitely wonderful. Except in these books, the print is rather small and the paper is cheap and rough so the pages are weirdly un-turn-able, but still, they only cost a dollar. What do I expect?

    Really though, it’s good that you bring up the $.99 and $9.99 album issue. I’ve found that being able to purchase music this cheaply has made me a much more prolific buyer, and I especially like the fact that now I don’t get stuck with all that packaging that, while nice to look at occasionally, really does nothing more than clutter up my house. I have enough clutter as it is, so anything that cuts down on it is welcome.

    I’ve agreed with you in the past about this hardcover book issue and I still agree with you. I think they’re good for libraries, but as a reader, I don’t like hardcover books. They’re big and heavy and clunky and they have those damn dust jackets, which I hate. I hate dust jackets. Hate. So my point is, other than the fact that they’re prohibitively expensive for many people (which is reason enough) they’re awkward and not easy to carry. Hardcover books annoy me, and if that’s not enough reason to have cheaper paperback originals, then I don’t know what is.

  2. MythologyThere is a mythology

    There is a mythology out there that says Publishing is in it for the money.

    This is like saying the Aztec priests who participated in ritual religious murder were in it for God.

    It has to do with culture and ritual. Not money.

    There a a zillion things they could do — if they were open to change — that would make them tons of money.

    But this is deep. It goes to relevance. Not money.

    They have become culturally irrelevant.

    Russell Simmons and hip hop are more relevant than all the NYC publishing houses combined.

    Books make waves among those of us into books. Books do not make much more than a ripple in the culture at large.

    The people who are the priests are there because the hierarchy sustains them and the corporate rituals validate them.

    Change is heresy to priests. They like things just the way they are.

  3. shop around for publisherIf
    shop around for publisher

    If you decide to publish through one of the print-on-demand companies, keep in mind that some of those publishers allow you to set your own price and some of them don’t.

  4. The mighty will fall.The
    The mighty will fall.
    The video pixel-bugs will scamper over their bodies like scabrous beetles.

  5. Whenever I return a hardback
    Whenever I return a hardback book to the library, if it has a dust jacket glued on, I slide one of my business cards that says “” under the flap.

    The idea is that one day the card will drop out when someone else is reading the book.
    “Wow,” they will say. “If this billectric fellow digs The Last Words of Dutch Schultz enough to hide his card it it, I should by all means purchase Bill’s book!”

    And if the card never falls out, perhaps some historian will peel the dust jacket off, looking for secrets and treasure. Someone will say, you won’t find anything there! But he WILL find it, and it will give him a golden glow inside. For some reason. And if my book is in the public domain, he will find a copy at the flea market and make copies and sell them. And they shall spread like scabrous beetles!

  6. airport copiesIf I “can’t
    airport copies

    If I “can’t wait” for a paperback I find the airport copies we get here in England are preferable. For some indecipherable reason ‘new’ hardbacks are available at airports in a larger (hardback) size but with paperbacks… Go figure.

    I love these copies. I just have to either wait for a friend/family member or myself to be flying somewhere to get one…

    Actually, you can buy them before security so anyone can buy them really, if you can be bothered to go to an airport without flying anywhere.

  7. I haven’t seen those in the
    I haven’t seen those in the U.S. but then, I haven’t been to the airport much. Once, though, at the airport, someone gave me a book about the Hari Krishnas.

  8. I write in airports. No one
    I write in airports. No one bothers me. And the world goes by. I only go somewhere if someone else buys the ticket. So mostly I just write in airports. They have great bars that make 100% pure alcoholic martinis (the kind they made in MASH). And they have donuts. Martinis and donuts. Don’t tell my wife.

  9. Well, I’m coming over at the
    Well, I’m coming over at the end of March into April…

    Boston, Philly then Washington.

    A jaunt one might say.

    I should probably worry about my ‘carbon footprint’ but I am on an island!

  10. Nasdijj, aren’t all martinis
    Nasdijj, aren’t all martinis 100% firewater? Vodka and a splash of vermouth, right? Unless you count the olive juice.

  11. Stop whiningSo you have to
    Stop whining

    So you have to wait a little while before you can read a book. That is no reason why the fine trade, craft, and art of making a hardcover should just disappear. For those who cherish their books, a softcover is blasphemous. The glue deteriorates, the pages yellow, stiffen and crack, and the cover gives the text no protection. It isn’t as if (as the case with music) you’ll hear the single too much on the radio before you can buy the CD. This is a book, a text, that can last for your entire life in harcover form and will not last in softcover. So buck up, go to the library, shell out the extra $8 (only a little more than aforementioned burrito you hipster snob), or wait for the cheap softcover. You get what you pay for.

  12. Duuuude … I’m all for
    Duuuude … I’m all for simultaneous hardcover/paperback publication. So relax. Nobody’s trying to take away your precious fine-glued hardcover. I just think they should sell books at a reasonable price too. Crazy, huh.

  13. I burn all my books after
    I burn all my books after reading them, and hardcovers just don’t light easily.

  14. Hardcovers aren’t glued,
    Hardcovers aren’t glued, they’re sewn to the binding on alkaline paper that doesn’t disintergrate, which is why they last and are more expensive. And the reason they can’t do both at once is (90% of the time) that printers can’t handle the volume and there aren’t enough printers (or that the next available printer is in Asia and shippind ends up doubling the cost and Asian labor is morally repugnant). I don’t have an issue with the idea, but you make it sound like the publishers are just blind. Maybe there’s more to it than your need for instant gratification.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!