Let Them Eat Cake (or, Great Moments in Book Pricing)

I’ve gotten a lot of reaction to my posts about the clueless way literary novels are priced. I’ve tried to establish that our industry’s practice of selling only expensive premium editions for a novel’s first year is dysfunctional and self-defeating beyond any reasonable explanation, and at least half of the people who’ve responded to my posts have told me my argument is flawed. As far as I can see, though, my conclusions remain intact.

But why argue theories and generalizations? Let’s take a stroll through our neighborhood bookstore and see what our industry’s book pricing practice looks and feels like to “the boots on the ground”.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon: $26.95

This is a quirky novel by a writer who appeals notably to a hip young audience. Assuming these hip young potential book buyers are accustomed to downloading songs for a dollar each, they’d have to expect this book to be worth twenty-seven good songs in order to take a risk on it. Way to grab those impulse buyers, HarperCollins!

New England White by Stephen L. Carter: $26.95

This is a smart literary novel that explores issues of class and African-American identity in a campus setting. The book got moderately good reviews in many newspapers, but the author is not a household name and the book will be a marginal buy for most potential readers. At $26.95, this ought to fly off the shelves!

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers: $25.00

I considered this ecological-psychological novel a masterpiece. Nearly a year after its original publication, this wise and thought-provoking book is still out of the price range of anybody who isn’t accustomed to tossing twenty-five dollars around on a book. That is, it’s still out of the price range of most normal people. Can this really be how Richard Powers wishes his book to be made available to readers?

Friends, I know I tend to get hot under the collar when I talk about “my pet peeve”. And if I come off like a know-it-all, I promise this is not my intention. I have never worked in the book publishing industry, and am only speaking from the point of view of a consumer.

However, I have worked in the media/technology industry for the last 12 years, and as Lynyrd Skynyrd says, “I know a little”. It seems pretty clear to me that our fiction publishing industry is stuck in the past, and I truly do not understand why our supposedly innovative and progressive book executives can’t find ways to dispose of an offensive and elitist publishing tradition that dates back to medieval times.

Because I’d like to understand the topic better, though, I’m planning a more organized discussion which will take place on this site next month. I’m hoping to get input from a variety of critics, bloggers, writers and publishers. Why let the Presidential candidates have all the debate fun? I don’t know what the last word on book pricing is, but maybe we can figure it out together. Stay tuned.

13 Responses

  1. Book PricingI work at a small
    Book Pricing

    I work at a small publisher doing mostly production work. You’ve addressed this a few times, and I actually wrote a long blog post regarding the book price issue. I’d love to be part of the discussion when you get it orgainized.


  2. Yes, Levi, please include
    Yes, Levi, please include Daniel. We don’t want any stacking of the deck!

  3. the commercial purpose of
    the commercial purpose of hardcovers

    Years ago, I was told by publishing industry insiders that the existence of a hardcover edition enables the publisher and agent to negotiate a large advance and a good royalty rate on the paperback sale. In other words, it’s a selling tool – not something intended to sell a lot of copies.

    I only buy hardcover books I intend to read over and over and want in my library. I’ve pre-ordered the hardcover of Richardson’s Volume III Picasso bio ($29.95 on Amazon), since I’ve been waiting for it for ten years.

    The occasional miss? I resell it on Amazon. Used bookstores are a great way to collect bargain hardcovers as well.

  4. Although I sent Levi an email
    Although I sent Levi an email saying that I’d reserve comment until the roundtable, I couldn’t stop myself from looking for Dan’s post on pricing (http://danpritch.blogspot.com/2007/07/book-prices-hardcovers-care.html). He mentions that the big houses could lower their prices on hardcovers, but they actually don’t/can’t for many, many reasons. One biggie is the wholesalers, haters of cheap books & magazines regardless of who published them.

    I’ll say no more now except that I’m looking forward to the discussion. It should be fun!

  5. That pretty much agrees with
    That pretty much agrees with what I’ve heard from industry insiders, Dan — the system is in place because the system is in place. I have yet to hear anybody argue that fiction is published in hardcover because consumers prefer it that way, which would be the only good reason.

  6. Levi, some consumers must
    Levi, some consumers must prefer hardcover books. I can’t believe the only people who buy hardcover books are people that are so anxious to read the book, they just can’t wait. But this goes back to your suggestion to release the paperback & hardcover editions at the same time, which I think is a good idea.

  7. paperbacks onlyI am year 2 of
    paperbacks only

    I am year 2 of my “no hardback” book buying policy. I was bummed when Black Swan Green came out only in hardback initially ($$$) — when Cloud Atlas came out in paperback first. The downside is that I usually have to wait a while to read “the new stuff” (if it comes out in paperback). Which is okay and all, except that a lot of the litblog conversations have all moved on to this year’s model.

    As far as I can tell, there is no reason that paperbacks shouldn’t be availble as soon (or sooner) than the hardback.

  8. Wow, Tito — I’ve thought of
    Wow, Tito — I’ve thought of instituting a “no-hardcover” policy here (and including review copies in the bargain). But I haven’t taken that step yet. I’ll have to ask you more about this in “the roundtable”.

  9. Online Pricing Of Said
    Online Pricing Of Said Titles…

    Hey Levi,

    Do these numbers figure at all into your arguement? All are for hardcovers @ Amazon.com:

    Yiddish Policeman’s Union: $16.17

    New England White: $17.79

    The Echo Maker: $16.50

    I don’t know enough about the topic to really engage in any kind of die-hard debate (although intuitively, I do agree w / you about the traditional outland price of HC books), but could part of the problem be w / online sale prices?

    I mean… $16.17 for a quality, hardcover book is NOT that far off from, let’s say, $12.95, which is what I’m going to assume Yiddish Policeman’s Union will cost when it’s released in Quality Paperback form.

    Might that play a part in it?

  10. PaperbacksIn France, all new

    In France, all new titles come out in paperback. The only hardbounds are like “Pleiades” – when your collected works are published, and people want a nice hardbound copy. That makes sense to me. But I do like a hardbound book from the durability standpoint. My paperback Beat library is just that – Beat!

  11. Yes, that definitely must
    Yes, that definitely must factor into the equation. For me personally it’s irrelevant, because I virtually never buy books online. I’m a classic “bookstore browser” — I spend hours in bookstores every week, though most often I don’t buy anything, and when I do buy a book it’s usually not pre-meditated, and I’m usually eager to start reading it right away (which means I wouldn’t want to wait three days for the book to arrive, even if I can save 7 or 8 bucks by doing so).

    But, yes, for people who make a habit of buying books online, there are deep discounts available, and this is relevant to the question, sure. There are also store discounts — for instance I understand that almost no stores sold the last Harry Potter book at its (ridiculously high) list price.

  12. That’s interesting info about
    That’s interesting info about how books are published in France — thanks!

  13. market forcesI am sure I’ve
    market forces

    I am sure I’ve written this here before: nothing changes until it is forced to by the market, viz., publishers follow the hardback published first because this formula’s worked in the past. Sunset industries aren’t known for their innovation, e.g., Sundance Film festival is where the good flicks are.

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