Low Expectations: The Ishmael Beah Phenomenon

I spent a half hour with Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and a venti coffee at a Starbucks recently. I didn’t feel like plunking down $22 for the hardcover book, but I figure I can read most or all of it during the next few weeks (yeah, I’m a cliche and I go to Starbucks a lot). It’s a captivating memoir by a former foot soldier in the civil war that raged across Sierra Leone several years ago, and I think Starbucks is doing an honorable thing in pushing their customers to buy this book.

When the narrative begins, Ishmael is a happy 12-year-old with a loving family, good friends and a taste for old-school American hiphop (Eric B. and Rakim is cited as a favorite, proving the young author’s good taste). When his village is suddenly raided by a vengeful army, it comes as a complete surprise to him and everyone he knows. One minute he’s playing with friends, and the next minute he’s watching a distraught mother hugging the bullet-riddled dead baby she was just carrying on her back. Beah describes a shocking and sudden descent from peaceful calm to total carnage, and while his narrative voice offers nothing remarkable, the immediacy of his tale will move many readers. And it looks like they’re buying it, as Starbucks has proudly announced big sales of 62,000 copies of A Long Way Gone, accounting for the two-thirds of the total 92,000 copies this book has sold.

This sounds great, until you put this news story into perspective with this one. While Starbucks has sold 62,000 copies of a worthy book, it has sold over 3 million copies of a Ray Charles CD. Starbucks’ CD sales are strong enough to motivate the chain to create its own music division, and once you compare the book and music sales figures it becomes clear that Ishmael Beah’s book is basically a goodwill gesture from the Seattle company, whereas music sales are an actual business. Even a CD by Antigone Rising has sold 70,000 copies at Starbucks, more than A Long Way Gone.

Maybe this is because Starbucks sells CDs for $12.95 to $15.95, while Beah’s book costs $22 (of which $2 goes to UNICEF). Twelve to fifteen bucks is the right price point for a book like this, whereas most people will consider $22 out of the range for a quickie impulse buy.

With a price like this, in fact, it’s a testament to the appeal of the book and to the curiosity of the Starbucks customer base that they’ve even managed five-figure sales of this book (a promotional tour by the author certainly helped as well). Like I said, I balked at the price and didn’t buy the book (and I have bought several CDs at Starbucks in the last few years). I would have bought it for $14 (even $16 with an extra two dollars to charity). For $22, though, I’d rather just read it at the store while I drink my coffee and put it back when I’m done.

I’m impressed by this book and by the positive sales reports, but if music sales are regularly measured in millions of units and the whole book industry is getting excited about book sales in five figures, maybe this just proves how low our expectations are. If Starbucks can find the right packaging/price point for book sales, they might actually be able to turn books into a meaningful profit generator for the company. They should sell paperbacks instead of hardcovers, and they should price books at the same level as CDs and DVDs.

Until they do this, the Starbucks/Ishmael Beah phenomenon represents a minor success and a frustrating tease, a great idea marred by our beloved book industry’s legendary cluelessness about how much people are willing to pay for books.

9 Responses

  1. As a Discerning Reader…As a
    As a Discerning Reader…

    As a discerning reader, I’m not too anxious to read tales of misery, e.g., I gave up on Tobacco Road and didn’t pick up the Sarajevo memoir at the Faulk library. I do read a lot of unhappy stuff such as Dead Cat Bounce, because I need to learn to do the fictional narrative better. I hope that I can sell the 10 copies of my book promised by lulu.com for my work at SXSW. I bet Starbucks could sell a better book with more success. An undiscovered autobiography by Anna Nicole Smith would sell ten million copies at Starbucks. You got to give the public what they want and remember who the customers are. More than half the people that buy books are middle-aged women.

  2. Paperback ReaderI totally
    Paperback Reader

    I totally agree with you about this hardcover/paperback business…it’s absolutely asinine.

    The last time I purchased a hardcover was about 3 years ago and it was a special gift for my son. Wasn’t even for me. I’ve purchased 2 hardcovers in the last 5 years and I read about 15 books a year.

    Don’t get me wrong, hardcovers have their place… like libraries. (Which I frequent often). But how cool would it be to have a nice, compact, simultaneously-released paperback! (Besides, I have this really cool beach chair that has a book holder cutout in the arm, and it’s only big enough for paperbacks).

    Give us the choice, you publishing giant morons!

    Here’s to hoping your (dis)missives will produced their desired result, someday!

  3. Glad to hear you agree,
    Glad to hear you agree, Steve. Now I wish some representative of the publishing industry who actually thinks this asinine and antique pricing strategy makes sense would step up and offer to debate me. Maybe I’ll get you on my debate team.

    Any takers out there?

  4. I’m thinking of going the
    I’m thinking of going the other way

    I will fashion my book’s cover from inch-thick polished mahogany, inlaid with gold flake designs. The pages shall be of the finest silk. When you open the front cover, a small, spring-loaded reading lamp will pop up from a recess in the wood.

    I will inscribe the title page of each copy with an ink pen formerly used on an actual NASA space mission.

    Each book will go for $1,985.98 + tax.
    If you order it by mail, God knows it will almost double the cost, as Wells Fargo will be involved in the transfer.

    The Starbucks edition will include a CD by Perry Como.

  5. Might I suggest some sort of
    Might I suggest some sort of vibrating massage mechanism along the outer edge of the cover that would start up every half-hour, lest your hands cramp from holding the book too long?

    And what’s with the mail-order? Come on man, think big – each copy hand-delivered by the author himself, arriving in your home while a mobile orchestra plays the Triumphal March from Aida. Please allow 10-12 months for delivery.

    But you’re right. If we’re to allow reading to become an elitist activity, we should take it all the way.

  6. Caution: Depressing
    Caution: Depressing Information ….

    In his memoir, Gore Vidal relates what his editor at Random House told him: ‘With literary fiction, we consider that if we sell 5000 (hardcover) copies of a book, we have sold a copy to every potential buyer in the US.’

    Who reads? I’m told that most US books are bought by Jewish women in their 30s. This info comes from book marketing people, who presumably have a stake in getting accurate sales information.

    (straight, non-Jewish male over 40 who reads a *lot*)

  7. Let me suggest the Imperial
    Let me suggest the Imperial March from Star Wars instead…

  8. There must be some examples
    There must be some examples of cross-over, meaning literary fiction that appeals to the masses. That is my Quixotic quest.

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