2009-10-28 / Columns

Price war could change the look of your library

Coda

Coda • GREG BEAN
When I was a kid, there weren't many bookstores in our town.

 
There were a couple of places where you could pick up paperbacks, but because they doubled as pool halls, cigar shops and betting parlors, we weren't allowed to go in them. There was a store downtown that carried a small selection of hardbacks, but it mostly special-ordered for loyal clients who already knew what they wanted. There was also Ralph's bookstore, which carried a grand selection of paperbacks, but getting there was an hour by bike, and impossible once the snow started to fall. Sometimes, Ralph would give us the copies of books he didn't sell, with the covers cut off, but we didn't care. A bag full of maimed paperbacks was like money in the bank.

Still, we kids had few options. There was the public library, but it was several miles away and difficult to get to if it was winter and you didn't drive. And there was a program through Weekly Reader that would send out a list of paperbacks aimed at young people a couple times of year.

When the list of available titles came out, I studied it with the intensity that bordered on mania, because I didn't have that much to spend on books and I wanted books with meat on their bones.

Once we'd placed the order, we waited on pins and needles until delivery day, when the teacher would place a box of new books on our desks. I loved the way those books smelled when you opened the box. The smell of paper and glue and printer's ink. I'd put my whole face in the box and nearly swoon from the intoxicating aroma.

I know it sounds a little weird, but I've always loved the way ink smells, and I think that had more than a little to do with my choice of profession. To me, a library smells like heaven must smell, and the smell of a newspaper press when it's running makes me weak at the knees. When the latest National Geographic comes every month, I sniff every page before I read it. That magazine has the best-smelling ink in the entire industry.

I could hardly wait to get home and start reading those wonderful books. One memorable winter, I remember reading "Big Red" and "White Fang" and "Call of the Wild," and a book that troubled my dreams for months, "The Diary of Anne Frank."

I've carried that love of books throughout my life, and even wrote a few of them. I figure I read at least a book a week. And because I can now afford first-edition hardbacks and hate to part with them, our home has so many bookshelves I sometimes worry whether the old foundation can hold them.

Books on hand-held electronic devices like the Kindle hold little appeal for me, and I sometimes enjoy listening to a book on CD when I'm on a long car trip — but I'm sort of a snobbish purist. For me, there nothing that can equal the joy and sense of anticipation of putting my feet up, brewing a fresh pot of coffee, and cracking the latest hardback from one of my favorite authors.

But like everything else, that may be changing.

Serious readers know that there have been massive changes in the book-publishing industry in the last decade or so. In the old days, the days of the corner bookstore, owners might order a few copies of a new author's work, but they'd keep them around for a while. They'd give them a chance to catch on.

Then the mega bookstores came along and the game changed. It was great for readers because they stocked a bazillion titles, but it wasn't so great for authors, except for the men and women who wrote blockbusters.

The mega stores might order a lot of copies from niche or mid-list authors when they came out, but because they turn their stock quickly, they started discounting, remaindering and returning them if they didn't sell almost immediately. In other words, many authors didn't get the time they needed to develop an audience.

That's why some of your favorite writers aren't publishing anymore. It's not because they don't want to write; it's because their publishing houses dropped them because they sold 5,000 or 10,000 copies instead of 100,000.

It's a sad fact that many of my favorite authors, like James Lee Burke, who writes grand regional fiction, might not have made it had he not had time to develop an audience before the game changed.

And there's another game changer on the horizon that may have an even bigger impact.

Recently Wal-Mart, in a battle for book sales with sellers like Target and Amazon. com, shocked the publishing world by cutting prices on a large number of first-edition hardbacks to $9. At this point, those sales are a loss-leader for the company.

If a new hardback book has a cover price of $24, the retailer generally pays about 47 percent of that price. In other words, they pay the publishing company about $12.72 and make about $11.28 if they sell the book for full price. The author only gets about 1 percent of that, by the way, if his or her agent has negotiated a decent contract.

Selling that $24 book for $9 means Wal- Mart is taking at least a $3.72 loss on each copy sold, but if they can grab enough market share away from the big booksellers, they can demand to negotiate lower prices from the publishing houses.

In the short run, that might be good for readers because the big chains will undoubtedly lower their own prices to remain competitive. But I worry about the long run. If prices go too low, authors won't get paid enough to make writing worthwhile, unless they write blockbusters. And I'm afraid that it will eventually reach a point that publishing houses can no longer profit from printing hardback books, even mega sellers, and will stop printing them. There are already lots of people in the industry who share that concern.

That's just competition and the law of the jungle, I suppose. But I won't be buying any cut-rate hardbacks from Wal-Mart.

Call it my small effort to save the books I love.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.

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