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.