Prince Books’ Holly Wielkoszewski writes on the devaluation of books, the price war between Amazon.com and Walmart from which it sprang, and why it really matters.
What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
Did you gobble up Dan Brown’s latest, or maybe Katherine Stockett’s The Help? Maybe you chose a new book by an old favorite like Stephen King, or a newcomer on the literary scene like Nami Mun, shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for new authors.
Regardless of your choice, you selected from diverse titles, by authors both untested and acclaimed, and hopefully enjoyed the way you were temporarily transported by the story. You read for many reasons: to learn, to laugh, to escape, to relax. And you, the reader, are supported in your reading choices by an extensive industry, ranging from the writer scribbling in her favorite coffeeshop, to the publisher taking a chance on an unknown, through numerous supplier steps, and finally to you via your favorite bookstore.
How would it impact you if a link in this chain were to break?
Recently, one of the links has begun to crumble. In October, Amazon.com and Walmart began a so-called “price war,” selling 10 titles by perennial bestsellers such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton for under $10. Why is this a problem, you might ask? If you can put your hands on King’s Under the Dome at under a penny a page, isn’t that a win?
Well in the short run, and for your pocketbook, the answer is likely yes. But in the long term, this type of devaluation of books, and the creative process that inspires them, threatens to undermine the variety of the industry, and ultimately, the books that you can choose to read.
Publishing is an industry that is broad in scope. This very breadth allows the industry to depend on the sales of its big hitters and, in doing so, take risks on new writers, more obscure subjects, and controversial titles. But in recent years, the shift in influence has moved away from established publishing houses and towards large commercial entities like Walmart, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, who collectively now share approximately 75% of the booksales market. These companies frequently sell books at a loss, offsetting the financial impact via sales of other products, or depend on big name books to sell at a volume sufficient to offset other losses.
It is certainly within the purview of a business to determine its own profit/loss ratio. But this behavior cannot persist indefinitely without severely impacting what gets published and set out on shelves. The possible impact is twofold: reducing the actual number of books published by new authors; and reducing the availability of controversial or questionable books at all.
As former Random House CEO Peter Olsen explained earlier this year, in the first case, publishers are likely to “continue to overbid for potential bestsellers…This means bad news for other writers, as the willingness of publishers to invest time and money in developing new projects and of retailers to risk stockpiling unknown authors may drop precipitously.” As publishing houses must devote more and more of their revenue to treading water, possible gems will go overlooked, at the reading public’s loss.
In the second case, the consolidation of publishing control in a few hands threatens censorship by proxy. Some retailers are beginning to publish books themselves in order to remove a step in the cost chain. In theory, this delivers less expensive books to the buyer. However, it also gives much more control over what you purchase and read to the company who sells your books. If Walmart takes over as one of the largest publishers and booksellers, what will happen to books they deem inappropriate or incompatible with their values, such as recent books by comedians Jon Stewart and George Carlin?
We don’t yet know what the future of the bookselling industry will be. Between electronic readers, e-books and price wars, it’s clear that the next decade will redefine how, where, and what we read. Don’t let your voice be silent. Here’s how you can fight against silent censorship:
- Get involved in your local literary community. Find an independent bookstore (www.indiebound.org is a great tool). Talk to your bookseller or staff – they have their fingers on the pulse of what people want to read, as well as what’s coming soon from the publishers. Go to author signings. Read. Ask questions.
- Support publisher independence and fair pricing standards. The American Booksellers Association has asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the Price Wars, arguing that it constitutes illegal predatory pricing. Write to your congressman to ask them to support an investigation.
- Exercise your right to choose – choose indie.