Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain
Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It almost perfectly describes my book habits. The major difference is that I carefully examine the used and new prices; if they are sufficiently close, especially given shipping charges, I go new. But they often aren’t. Read the article and note this:
And what of the woman who sold me the [used] book [over the Internet]? She told me via e-mail that her real name was Heather Mash and that she worked as a domestic violence case manager in a women’s shelter not too far from Berkeley. She didn’t set out to subvert the publishing and bookselling world, she said. Like most of us who sell online, Ms. Mash began because she had too many books and wanted to raise money to buy more. “I would rather sell a book for a penny and let someone enjoy it than keep it collecting dust,” she said.
Many of the scholarly books I own concerning Melville or Tolkien would once have been unavailable or, if they were available, ludicrously expensive, and reading them probably would’ve required a good university library. Now I can buy them relatively cheaply; instead of $20 for Jane Chance’s The Mythology of Power, I got it for $4 or $5, counting shipping. Once, such books probably wouldn’t even have been available in paperback; the only option would’ve been hardbacks costing $45 – $100.
Although the New York Times article implies this hurts the publishing industry, I wonder if it really helps: a decreasing reliance on old books (or the “catalog”) means that publishers will be forced to pay more attention to new books if they are to make any money. At the same time, the real question is the extent to which used books are substitutes or complements for real books. With some works—like the classics cited in the article—the answer seems to be substitutes. With others, though, I suspect that readers are more likely to buy more books because they can better afford it.
The article implies that Amazon is partially a problem, but I would observe that people use Amazon because Amazon is incredibly, extraordinarily easy and cheap. It’s also simple to learn, as if easy and cheap weren’t enough. And the selection is good; for example, I recently mentioned Norman Rush’s extraordinary novel Mating in a post on The Mind-Body Problem. At this Amazon link, a dozen hardcover copies are available for “$0.01,” although this is deceptive because the $3.99 in shipping means that you’re actually paying $4. Still, that’s incredibly cheap; in a Seattle used bookstore not long ago, I saw a hardcover copy for $11. Furthermore, you can’t even buy new hardcover copies of Mating, and a used hardcover will probably last longer than a new paperback. Is it any surprise that I react to this situation with self-interest?
What can or should publishers do? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it means competing with their own catalog in terms of price. Or it might mean something else; I’m reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent piece in Harper’s, Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading:
Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature—art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage. Amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other. Their definitions of what profiteth a man are too different.
And one more point, this one from The Zen of Graphics Programming by way of a Slashdot comment:
Anecdote the third: A while back, I had the good fortune to have lunch down by Seattle’s waterfront with Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (one of the best SF books I’ve come across in a long time). As he talked about the nature of networked technology and what he hoped to see emerge, he mentioned that a couple of blocks down the street was the pawn shop where Jimi Hendrix bought his first guitar. His point was that if a cheap guitar hadn’t been available, Hendrix’s unique talent would never have emerged. Similarly, he views the networking of society as a way to get affordable creative tools to many people, so as much talent as possible can be unearthed and developed.
This semester, the University of Arizona bookstore charged around $400 for class books, or around $340 used. A combination of new and used books from Amazon ran to about $250. I’ll keep the $150, thanks. But I’ll probably end up spending the rest on other books.