's comments on the previous post got me to thinking about e-books, and e-book pricing, which if you pay any attention at all to these matters you know is a hot topic right now. There's even a DOJ lawsuit
pending over allegations of price-fixing. And Amazon's e-pricing shenanigans (wholly aside from their other shenanigans) would fill a Google search
. And thinking about e-books led me to thinking about dead-tree books, because I love my hard-copy paperbacks and you will pry them from my cold dead hands after you shotgun my brain-eating zombie head off. And that got me to thinking about the last time I was in a real brick-and-mortar bookstore, and how, as I so often do these days, I left without buying any books.
Now, I don't think of myself as old (well, unless I run into one of those fannish puppies who think they invented fandom in 2002), but my bookshelves contain mass-market paperbacks with list prices of $2.95 that I bought new. Not especially skinny ones, either. I can remember when those prices suddenly spiked to $6.95, $7.95, or even $9.95 for particularly thick volumes. And the reason we book buyers were given for this sudden more-than-doubling of price was that the cost of paper was skyrocketing.
(Those who were active in media fandom at the time may remember that being the excuse for fanzines suddenly costing $20 instead of $5-$8. Those same people might also remember that print fanzines in general went into a decline shortly thereafter. The rise of the internet gets blamed for that, and it was certainly a factor, but you're not going to convince me that the same money buying ~1/3 the product didn't have something to do with it, too.)
Does anyone else remember the great paper-cost crisis? I'm going to say of the late 80s/early 90s. I'd check, but there's a dearth of discussion of it on the internet. Which is also why I can't give hard numbers on the effect on publishing profits, but I do remember that as the first time I heard serious talk of traditional mass-market publishing worrying about its long-term viability.
And now we have e-books. Which, all the arguments and price-gaming and questionably-legal maneuvering aside, seem to be settling in at around the same price as hard-copy books, give or take a buck or two. Publishers assure us that a $9.99 e-book is a fair equivalent to an $8.95* mass-market paperback. Why? Because the real cost of that book isn't the paper it's printed on; it's the editing and formatting and marketing and all the other non-tangible effort that goes into making that book worth our time and money.
But wait a minute. What was the reason that hard-copy book costs $8.95 instead of $2.95? Oh, yeah; the cost of the paper.
Again, does anyone else remember the great paper-cost crisis?
Because I'm not seeing any discussion of it, in all the considerable masses of discussion going around about e-books and their pricing. In fact, I haven't even seen a mention
of it. It's as if the frogs have been boiled to the point that just-shy-of-ten-bucks for a mass-market paperback now seems normal and reasonable, and doesn't need any justification at all.
Now, I'm not saying that all that editing and formatting and other publishing non-tangibles are without value. I'm actually a fan of traditional publishing, in theory if not in current practice. I want
there to be a middleman who checks for typos and cleans up the final product and filters out the crap. (I also want an outlet for unfiltered product, but that's what internet-based fandom is for.) And I'm willing to pay that middleman a fair price for his labor.
But I still remember when those middlemen themselves were telling us that $2.95 per book more than covered their payment. I remember being assured that the entire
difference between $2.95 and $8.95 (an increase of more than 300%) was the cost of processed wood pulp.
And now I'm supposed to believe that the entire cost of a $9.99 e-book, which contains no processed wood pulp whatsoever, is due to those same non-tangibles that made up only a fraction of the cost of its dead-tree equivalent?
Those who skipped over the previous parenthetical might want to go back and read it now. And consider this: Print fanzines jacked their prices to the point of really limiting their audience's buying power, and shortly thereafter became more of a novelty item than the backbone of the fanfic "industry". Now, mass-market publishing has been jacking their prices for years, to the point that I, with more disposable income than I used to have, am lucky if I walk out of a bookstore with one book instead of the three or five I used to.
And mass-market publishing is in trouble. There's no question about that, whether you think e-books are fantasticowonderful or a sign of the End Times. And what's mass-market publishing doing about it? Various things, but none of them include lowering prices on good old dead-tree books (especially mass-market paperbacks, which were traditionally the "cheap" option to draw in large numbers of buyers). Or even looking at lowering prices. Indeed, one of the popular trends is to put out more trade paperbacks and hardcovers, on the theory that book-buyers will respond to a "nicer" physical product -- but it's a product that's even more
Why is no one talking about price
, actual on-the-shelf retail product price, as one of the reasons traditional publishing is struggling? Why is no one considering that a reader faced with a just-shy-of-ten-bucks (or more!) cover price is not only going to be able
to buy fewer books, but is going to be a lot pickier about whether those books are worth the cover price -- and may end up walking out with no books at all?
Why does no one remember the great paper-cost crisis? And why, in all the kerfluffle over e-book pricing and the ongoing debate about whether e-books are the death-knell of traditional publishing, is no one looking at hard-copy prices and realizing that something doesn't add up?
Yes, I know, inflation, everything's more expensive now, blah, blah. I'm not claiming that we're ever going to see the $2.95 mass-market paperback again, or even that it would be a fair price if we did. But I also know that you can't use two directly-contradictory justifications for the same end result, not and keep any kind of credibility. And I recognize a pot of boiling water when I'm being asked not to jump out of it.*A quick sampling of my shelves shows that the last paperback I bought new was $7.99. But I recall $8.95 as the price of the last few paperbacks I did not buy. Think about that.