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Thursday, 19 November 2009

The price of books

Whilst browsing in W.H. Smith I overheard two women talking about the new Martina Cole book. One of the women had the tome in her hand and was about to go to the till, when her friend pointed out that she could get it for only £9.99 in Tesco. This resulted in the women returning the book to the shelves - Smith's lost a sale and Tesco, no doubt, gained one.

I wonder which business needed the sale more?

I myself am guilty of buying bargain books from Tescos and ASDA - the entire James Bond canon in a handsome box for £15, this years Beano annual for £7. And that's not to mention the box set of three Agatha Christie paperbacks for £5 and similar box sets of Bernard Cornwell, Alister Maclean and Jack Higgins. I use the word "guilty" because whilst it makes perfect financial sense to buy these bargain sets, it could be damaging the long term viability of the book industry.

In the US Walmart are in a bitter price war with Borders and Amazon. It's all great for the book loving consumer but the rewards may be simply short term. The humble old book if facing an uncertain future as it is without it being devalued so. The latest news from the US is that the Justice Department are going to look into the book price war.

"Turmoil over the book price war took a new turn today when the Justice Department was asked to investigate what a booksellers group called “illegal predatory pricing.”

The American Booksellers Association sent a letter dated Oct. 22 in which it says, “We believe that, Wal-Mart, and Target are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.”

Meanwhile here in the UK the bargains continue to tempt and not just online but in all the major supermarkets. Now cheap box sets of backlist books, that is titles where the publisher and author have already made their money, are fine and represent a better deal to the consumer. After all why should we be expected to pay top price for a paperback of a book first published decades ago? But the pricing of brand new books by big name authors to entice customers, some supermarkets even treat books as loss leaders, is damaging to the industry as a whole.

It's already difficult enough for a new author to break through and the current trend could make it impossible.

After all why take a chance on a new author when you can buy the latest Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer or John Grisham for a meagre sum?

So what do we do? Boycott these cheap books? That's not going to happen and it would be a rare book lover who would happily pay top price for a book in order to safeguard the industry. It's perplexing sure enough -I'm all for bargains and I believe that anything of such an age, no matter how popular, should be much cheaper than the original price. But not if it means that in a few short years nothing other than the biggest names will be published.

Alas what is the answer? Do we need the return of something like the NET book agreement? Or should the free market be allowed to run its course?


Laurie Powers said...

I'm not sure if I agree with some of your assumptions. Yes, I think Amazon is a huge part of this equation, but Walmart and Tesco? I'm not sure about Tesco, but here Walmart and Target only carry the top bestselling books. Amazon is the real predator here. Walmart will only carry certain books that fit their specific parameters of what is acceptable, and that's a pretty narrow field. Finally, I don't think that the majority of intelligent readers are going to gravitate to only reading those authors based on the price of a book. Call me Pollyanna, but I don't think things are THAT bad.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What I hate is to go on amazon and see books advertised as new selling at some book dealer's for half the price or less. How do they get these so-called new books at these prices?

Chap O'Keefe said...

I think we're powerless here -- the "we" being the Archive and its regular correspondents. As a thinking group who really care about the future for books and their creators, we are a minority. Our personal boycotts are unlikely to make any difference at all. The industry and its methods are incredibly inefficient and have been for years. The huge difference between manufacturing costs and recommended retail prices tell us that. There's no knowing how it will all end. The only certainty is that change will come. But who knows whether the we mentioned above will like it?

My immediate problem is whether I release a just-completed Joshua Dillard western as a regular paperback through Lulu (who set high prices), or whether I explore the e-book options.


Keith - Personally I would go for the e-book option. The format is gaining in popularity and I think the price could be much lower than a regular book. But the main advantage is that it's sale potential would be greatly improved. I'd buy one for certain and the Archive would be fully behind the marketing of a western ebook as we take the genre into a new pioneering era.

Ray said...

Being negative - a big name author doesn't mean value for money.
Think early Wilbur Smith great stuff with books like 'When The Lion Feeds' and 'Eagle In The Sky'.
But his last half dozen have been formulistic and padded out. The fact that I could buy his latest for the price of a paperback means nothing to me.
On the opposite side of the coin, when it comes to genre fiction, how do you feel when you see 'The Tarnished Star' on sale by an Ebay seller brand new for £14.99 + p&p. and has 10 copies available?
Now, if he was selling it half price would anyone feel 'guilty' about buying it.
Come to think of it - the biggest selling western and it's not on Tesco's shelves. Doesn't say much for their book buyers' savvy does it :)?

Charles Gramlich said...

The only books I ever bought at Wal-Mart were a few Louis L'Amour reissues. They typically don't have hardly any selection of stuff I want. Amazon, on the other hand. Well, I buy too much from them.