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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Price War - Who Really Pays?

Per The Wall Street Journal there's a war raging between Amazon and Walmart right now.
     Walmart recently had the bright idea of selling the top-selling blockbuster books for just $10 each. Amazon decided to compete and went to $9, then Walmart went to $8.99. Sounds good for buyers, right?
     No. Not good for buyers.
     See, neither of the big chains is making a profit on these books at those prices. In fact, they're selling them at a loss. They're hoping that while you're buying your $9 book, you'll buy other things too.
     Problem is, there is not an indie bookstore in this country who can compete with those prices. There is not a publisher who can support selling their books so low. There is not a writer alive who can make a living without decent advances and royalties (which are MUCH lower than you think for most of us) - compensation can't be made when books are sold at a loss. Those are the hard reasons. Now for the more subtle.
     What happens when buyers change their thinking? Why buy a $25 novel from a new author when you can buy a $9 novel from somebody well-known? Unknown writers lose the already small window they have to break into this industry. Obviously that means me too. But worse, it means eventually readers won't have choices. They will have the top ten best-selling authors to choose from and little else.
     Some people don't read. Some don't care. But some do. And I'm betting you're one of them. I'm betting you, a reader, want and need variety.
     So, I'm appealing to you. If you want fair business in America, start with your own pocket book. Buy books for what they are really worth. And y'know who has them marked appropriately? Your local independent bookseller, that's who. And y'know what else? There will be somebody working there who can point you to a book by an author you may never have heard of, but who's writing you may love.
     I'm not just talking about fair trade, which is important, I'm talking fair value for Americans. Here's a great video by Annie Leonard about how consumerism has changed in America since the 1950's - The Story of Stuff. It takes a while to watch, but it's a real wake-up call. And while it doesn't directly relate to books, it gives you a better understanding of the issue as a whole.

     If we want to continue to have creative and valuable choices in all things, we need to support the creators by paying fair prices for what we buy. We've lived in a land of discounts for so long, it's a definite shift in thinking, but it's time. Do you really want to travel the country and see the same identical things for sale everywhere you go? I know I don't, but that's what's happened. And now it's happening to books too. Do you really want to read the same ten books everybody else has read, because those are the only choices you have?
     I avoid politics on my blog, always have, until something comes up that directly affects me and my ability to do what I do. This is one of those things.
     America - let's keep it real, shall we?

Update: Target has joined the fray now too. And Walmart is down to $8.98. Geesh.

Update 2: Letters are pouring into Shelf Awareness on the topic. The latest argument? Independent booksellers are suggesting they might buy their stock from the big box stores because they could get the books cheaper (and in lower quantities) than from the publishers. You tell me that won't kill the book industry as we know it.


Update 3 (10-22-09) - Per Publishers Weekly:
In a letter sent to the antitrust division of the Department of Justice Thursday, the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association requested that the government begin an investigation into what the organization believes is the illegal predatory pricing policies being carried out by Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target in selling 10 hardcover titles for as low as $8.98. The ABA requested a meeting with officials as soon as possible, arguing that left unchecked, the predatory pricing policies “will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to remain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public.”
Click here to read more.

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