Lowered book prices not really a good deal

Published 7:37 am Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I am a consumer. In many ways I am the poster child of American consumerism. My credit card statements are monthly reminders of that.

I like deals. Total sucker for the word clearance. I like the way it rolls off the tongue. Say it out loud with me once.


Email newsletter signup

OK, one more time. Some of you didn’t say it out loud. That’s part of the activity.


It’s been some years since I attended a preppy private college in Texas, but when I did I felt the need to max out my Dayton’s (dating myself) charge card. But most of the items I purchased were from the clearance rack. You see, at some point I figured out I could get more items for my borrowed money if I waded through the clearance. It helped that I had eccentric (some would “lack of”) taste. It worked in my favor that I was clueless on what did and didn’t match. As you can see, I had a lot going for me.

Fast forward 15 years and I still have a propensity to spend, just not so much on clothes. One of my current interests is books, which couples well with my day job teaching English. Now all I need to peruse the clearance racks for are cardigans. So it’d be a natural assumption that I’d be an ecstatic consumer when talking about the recent fire sale on books started by Walmart and ignited by Amazon.com and Target. Walmart recently put some of the publishing world’s marquee authors’ hard cover editions on sale for $10. Amazon matched that. Walmart retaliated by going to $9. Amazon matched that. Walmart then went to $8.99. Shortly after that Target jumped into the mix.

These are hard-cover books that used to sell for upward of $25. Granted, I almost never buy the hard-cover edition when it comes out. In fact, it’s a silly tradition that I think needs to go away. Get rid of hard cover altogether and debut the book in paperback. In the age of Kindle, they both sound a bit antiquated.

And while this all looks like a great thing for consumers, it’s not. Clearance pricing on non-clearance items is not great, especially when it’s regarding books.

According to an article in Entertainment Weekly magazine (“Bookselling Blues”), the publishing industry has had a disappointing year. Some A-list authors such as Dan Brown (“Da Vinci Code” series) and Mitch Albom (“Tuesdays With Morrie” and “Five People You Meet In Heaven”) are not selling like they should.

Interestingly, my anecdotal evidence shows the contrary happening. High school students seem to be doing more leisure book reading, at least in my class when they’re supposed to be focused on the lesson. The “Twilight” series was huge.

But, alas, teenagers are not the publishing industry’s primary consumer. Apparently, they are not reading the new John Grisham and Stephen King books, nor the new Sarah Palin book — “Going Rogue: An American Life” — nor the newest book mocking Sarah Palin — “Going Rouge: An American Life.”

Just as the “big box” companies are not the answer for so many things, they are not the answer to the publishing industry’s woes now. By slashing prices on the mainstays, such as Grisham, Barbara Kingsolver and Jon Krakauer, it’s doing two things:

1. Making it nearly impossible for independent book stores to compete for debuting book business

2. Making consumers believe that $9 and $10 is the only price we should pay for debuting books.

I’m no economist, but by altering the market so severely, it’s clear the long-range future of publishing will be altered. According to an Associated Press story, the American Booksellers Association recently notified the U.S. Department of Justice, asking for an investigation into the antics of Amazon, Walmart and Target.

How are publishing companies supposed to take risks on first-time authors if they don’t have the financial cushion usually provided them by the mainstays? Cheaper prices for big-name authors may eventually hurt the big names. But they’ve already made millions off advances, book sales and movie rights. It’s the as-yet-unheard-of authors that will be most impacted by ridiculously cheap prices.

Who knows? One of those as-yet-unheard-of authors may be sitting in my class right now reading a book instead of paying attention to the lesson. But we’ll never know if the price of books is forever devalued and book publishers cannot take the risk on a new author.

Riley Worth can be reached at rileyworth@gmail.com.