The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Keep Calm and Carry On?


There is nothing quite like pricing to get book people’s pulses racing and the recent price war in the US — and the American Booksellers Association’s open letter to the Department of Justice — certainly has everyone and their mother all aflutter.

We have plenty of pricing issues of own in Canada. The unique challenges of publishing here (big geography + small population) and the fluctuating US dollar make Canadian pricing particularly fraught. But we haven’t really seen the same kind of problems as the US or the supermarket price wars that have plagued the UK.

As The Toronto Star helpfully points out, Canada is different. But it is not simply a matter of being more polite than Americans (or nicer than the British) — what makes us different is that we are a small book market dominated by a single retailer. Dropping the gloves with Canada’s Chief Booklover hardly seems worth the effort.

Nevertheless, Canadian consumers keep a keen eye on the US and a sustained price war south of the border would inevitably put pressure on bookstores in Canada (including Chapters-Indigo). It would be foolish to ignore what is going on.

The most emotive issue is, of course, the detrimental impact of price wars on already struggling independent bookstores. As HarperStudio’s Bob Miller notes:

The short-term results of this price war are some losses for Wal-Mart and Amazon, and some brisk sales for the publishers whose books have been chosen. But the “road kill” here are the accounts who can’t afford to participate in the race—traditional booksellers.

Clearly though, publishers like Miller are worried too. It has been a particularly difficult 18 months in US publishing, and the thought of additional pressure on prices and discounts is, for many, terrifying. We seem to be lurching from one crisis to the next.

But, is this really anything more than another storm in the tempestuous book industry teacup?

To some extent I agree with Mark and The New Yorker that twitchy book people are exaggerating the effects of this price war. We are, after all, only talking about ten books. This isn’t going to wreck publishing just yet. In the short term it will be good for sales, and as long as Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target are willing to take the losses, the publishers will be laughing all the way to the bank.

But there will clearly be problems down the road if this continues, and I think Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, is on to something when he suggests that the strategy behind the price war is actually damaging for everyone publishers, authors, booksellers, mass retailers, and consumers (although Dennis Johnson at Moby Lives isn’t totally convinced by Hyatt’s solutions).

If there are going to be ‘winners’ in this, it is only going to be the big retailers and it will not be long before they demand more books and deeper discounts. Publishers will have to run the risk of crippling returns if the discounted books don’t sell, and will be increasingly reluctant to bet on creative projects. Corners will be cut in the effort to produce cheaper books that are short-term ‘sure things’.

Without over-stating it, I am also troubled that such discounts set the expectation that all books should be less than $10 (and if you’re skeptical about setting expectations with arbitrary numbers, you might want to read Nudge).

In the end, you get what you pay for. Books — good books — take time and they take money, whether they are printed or distributed digitally. If a book costs less than $10, then you can expect publishers  — and self-publishers for that matter — to churn out a lot of poorly researched, quickly written, hurriedly edited, badly designed and cheaply produced books. And, as Don Linn, former Senior VP and Publisher at Taunton Books, points out, this will certainly hurt authors first:

When content’s price and value is pushed below a sustainable level for publishers… writers will suffer. They will be forced to make the economic choice to write less to finance their careers. It’s not enough to say glibly that ‘writers have to write so they will’ or that self-publishing will be their salvation. When content’s value drops, self-published content’s value drops as well.

Of course, publishers need to take responsibility here. Too often publishers dump bad books into stores in pursuit of a fast-buck, and they only have themselves to blame when stores demand big discounts up front and readers don’t actually want to pay full price for them.

And I think it is too easy to say that books (paper or digital) need to be cheaper and more ‘timely’. Sure. But I’m willing to bet that readers are also willing to seek out and to pay for books that surprise and delight (and that format isn’t the real issue).

It is difficult for publishers to think about the long-term (especially if shareholders are involved), but if we are seriously worried about pricing, then perhaps the place to start is publish books that are worth the price tag?

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  1. Hmm, very interesting and oosh, what a true quagmire! Dan, this is a super overview… very well put, providing plenty of food for thought. Thank you so much for your perspective and taking the time to author this!

    An exceptionally polite & nice American :~)

  2. Pingback: Keep Calm and Carry On: Roundup « Keep Calm and Carry On and other Second World War Posters

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