Two-Tier Book Pricing Has Got To Go

Fiction News Publishing

Some recent news about a move towards affordable first editions hit a nerve with me. This is a positive development, but it's at least twenty years too late, and it doesn't go far enough.

The publishing industry's basic hardcover/paperback pricing structure is a dinosaur, and it's time for this dinosaur to die. Here are a few reasons why two-tier book pricing has got to go:

It's exclusionary. It's amazing that book publishers consider themselves socially enlightened, because their basic pricing structure forces non-wealthy readers to wait a year to read new books. Is somebody going to explain to me why this doesn't amount to a gated community for literature?

Take me, for example. I'm a middle-class guy working to support myself and my kids, and because of this I'm not going to be able to read Rick Moody's Diviners for another six months. I cribbed an article about Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace while getting tripped over in a Barnes and Noble's fiction aisle. On Beauty by Zadie Smith is supposed to be a good book. I'll let you know in 2007.

I don't ever like to throw around cliched words like "elitist". But two-tier book pricing is a seven letter word that starts with 'e'.

It's aesthetically wrong. Sure, I'd be interested in reading Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta. But why the hell do I want a premium edition of a first novel that I know very little about? I'm certainly not going to buy this book in hardcover, and by the time it comes out in paperback I'll have probably forgotten about it.

There are a few books I like enough that I've chosen to buy them in hardcover, like the Complete Works of Plato, The Riverside Shakespeare, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and a facsimile edition of On The Road. But for God's sake, a book's got to earn that kind of status. What the hell am I going to do with a premium edition of Intuition by Allegra Goodman or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safrar Foer or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld? Are you even kidding me? These books may or may not turn out to be worth their weight, let alone the space they take up and the money they cost. I'd like to be able to experiment with new authors, but I'm not going to experiment at $25 a try.

It's economically questionable. The New York Times article quoted in the links above states that two-tier book pricing is here to stay because it makes business sense. I'm not buying that, any more than I'm buying a $40 book of poetry by W. S. Merwin. Every industry re-invents its pricing structure periodically. If the book industry can't find a way to better serve its customers while building profits, they may not be trying very hard. Here are two ideas: publish premium and affordable editions at the same time, or publish premium editions a year after the affordable editions. This is a question of packaging, and I think our brilliant publishing executives and author representatives can rise to the challenge.

It's inconvenient. Goddammit, I don't have time to go to libraries and fight with blue-haired little old ladies over the latest Kurt Vonnegut. I am very interested in current writing, and if there's a new book out I want to be able to buy it. I'm not looking for a keepsake or a family heirloom. Let me buy the book. Put the book in the stores and let me buy it. I don't want to wait a year, because in a year I might not care about that book anymore. Let me buy the book. Now. Because I'm getting more and more pissed off the more I think about this.

I applaud editor Morgan Entrekin, the subject of the articles linked above, and many others in the publishing industry who are championing the cause of paperback originals and affordable first editions. I'm pretty sure two-tier pricing has no future, but then I was saying that twenty years ago, and Morgan Entrekin was too.
35 Responses to "Two-Tier Book Pricing Has Got To Go"

by firecracker on

HmmmI think you should get over your fear of the library, quickly. After all, this is exactly why God created the library. Although everyone is talking about the whole paperback original phenomenon, I think the deeper issues have been lost in shuffle. Considering most of the people talking about it could and probably have fit a lot of books into their budget this year, no one seems to actually mention those in the world, especially children, who are really hurting from the lack of available, usable and affordable books ... not to minimize your fear of getting into a tussle with an old lady, of course.

by jamelah on

Exactly!I don't even like reading hardcover books. They're awkward to hold, usually impossible to stuff in my bag, and I have an intense hatred of dust jackets. I make it a point never to buy hardcovers (except I did cave and purchase Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez because I really wanted to read it, and I usually forget that I really want to read things during the wait for the paperback). The other thing is that I think hardcover books have a certain gravitas -- here they are, in a form more easily preserved for posterity -- while paperbacks seem more immediate and friendly (and dust jacket free!). Maybe that's my own perception, but beyond the pricing issue, it's why I always prefer a paperback to a hardcover book.It's not that I don't think there's room for hardcovers. They're good for archival purposes and stand up better to the wear and tear of library use. But -- and maybe now I'm being elitist -- I think a book should have to prove itself before becoming a hardcover. There are some books that nobody in the world should ever have to pay $25 for, and others that it might be nice to have an archival copy of. I guess. I mean, my own books (at least the ones that I study) go through a lot of bookmarking and note taking, and I doubt I'll ever part with the paperbacks I initially bought. I have an Adrienne Rich collection that I'm going to have to duct tape together, but it's okay, because it has years of my own observations scribbled alongside its printed poems, so it's almost like a diary.I think I've digressed.So to make a point, I pretty much entirely agree with your post, and could basically do without hardcovers because I just don't like reading them. There.

by stevadore on

Paperback writerI totally agree with this!I've bought only 2 hardcovers in the last couple of years: Eragon and Lemony Snicket Book the 1st. Both were for my kids, not me.Long live paperback first editions!All the more reason why you should go out and buy my book - a true literary paperback 1st edition - right now!

by panta rhei on

The Value of a BookAs a reader, I completely agree with what you are saying. From my time of working in a publishing house, however, I know how difficult the price calculation of a book is. There are the author's royalties, the costs of production (editing, layout, typesetting, cover, printing, etc.), 30 - 40% discount for the bookseller, the tax,and they all add up to the price of the book. And this calculation doesn't even include things like marketing, agents, free copies, the risk of not selling the book, etc.... and surely not any profit for the publisher.So, in order to make any profit (which, of course, is one of the publisher's main goals), the selling price must not be below a certain minimum price, but also not above the current sales prices of comparable books on the market.Now which common prices are higher - those of hardcovers or those of paperbacks?Yeah, right. So selling a new book as a hardcover increases the chances of making up for the inital costs of of that book quickly, plus inhering the chance for a second run in stores with a paperback... that's the main thought about it, from an economical point of view, besides the elitist viewpoint that only hard and heavy books are serious books (here, only hardcover books even get a chance to be reviewed by the main critics and in the leading papers and magazines).But of course there are not only the standing expenses of production, but also the variable costs - those that vary according to the book's run of copies. So making a cheaper book (paperback) would allow a larger run of copies (more potential buyers), and therefore also help to breaking even, and hopefully more. Yet if these books never got reviewed, who'd know about them - and buy them? Marketing campaigns of any kind are expensive.Paperback or hardcover, what the reader wishes for are cheap books, and I think that's the crux of the matter. How can a book ever be cheap if you consider all the work and risk involved in such a creation? Even if from now on only paperbacks would be sold, their prices couldn't stay low all the time. If a publisher published a new unknown author, he usually wouldn't print a very large run of copies, as he'd have no idea yet whether the book will go down well and be bought or not - so he would have to increase the book's selling price, even as a paperback - while a lot of customers still would say that they are not willing to pay that price for 'just a story', or 'this small book', or whatever.I like the thought of both Levi and Jamelah that a book should have to prove itself before becoming a hardcover, though - the idea that a book has got to "earn" the status of a premium edition sounds quite right to me. We'd need paperback originals not treated as second-rate books anymore. We'd need a serious and lively paperback critics scene. We'd need publishers who dare to leave the beaten tracks. Reputable authors who overcome themselves in regards to prestige and expected royalties. And readers who know and understand about the value of a book!

by singlemalt on

Somewhat flawedBy your logic, movies should not be exclusively in theaters but should go directly to DVD so you could pay less to watch them and because it's more convenient for you to watch a movie at home instead of in a theater.I don't go to movie theaters that much and I don't buy hardcover books that often, but that doesn't mean that others shouldn't be able to enjoy them in that form.If you have to read the book asap and don't want to buy it in hardcover go to the library or borrow the book from a friend. Just what kind of battles are you having with your local librarians anyway?Aesthetically wrong? This is purely subjective. Some people prefer hardcovers. Some don't. It's nice to have a choice on what you want to buy. The consumer never wins when you start limiting choices.Sometimes it's a noble battle when you fight the man. However, I'm not so sure the man is wrong here.

by brooklyn on

Malt, I see your point, but I don't think the movie/DVD metaphor holds up very well. First-run movies are not more expensive than DVD's, and sitting in a movie theater is also a significantly different experience than watching a DVD at home. I don't think anybody gets "priced out" of new movies. I guarantee you that many people get priced out of buying new books. You wanna hear about my library? I don't want to whine, but here's my local branch. Take a look at the hours this lollipop stand is open. It's also tiny and way underfunded, and you have to be real lucky to find a popular release on the shelves. Borrow the book from a friend? That's a real stretch -- it requires that I have a friend who has bought the book I want who is willing to lend it.About the aesthetics, I am not saying hardcovers shouldn't exist, or shouldn't be offered alongside paperbacks. But to make the expensive ones available a year before the affordable ones is simply not fair. I stand by my points, Malt ...

by Billectric on

Levi, while I agree that the movie analogy doesn't quite fit, the hours your library is open don't look so bad to me. I know you work strange hours and I don't know how far away the library is from you, so maybe I don't fully understand. I love the library near me. I have requested numerous books that they didn't have, and they get these books within 7 days, email a notice to me, and hold the books several days for pick-up before putting them on the shelf. Having said that, there are certain books I like to own because I refer back to them from time to time.Blue haired old lady, indeed.

by stevadore on

Yeah, this was a good point... but... maybe they should make all venues available at the same time, a la Steven Soderberg (in keeping with the film/DVD metaphor).Maybe that's the ticket?

by brooklyn on

Anemone, these are good points. I agree that the economics of book publishing are already tough, and it would take some real imagination and ingenuity to come up with a better pricing model for new books. It would also take time for the industry to evolve towards this model. Magazines and newspapers would have to become more open to reviewing paperbacks. Agents would have to stop pushing for the hardcover deal on behalf of their authors. Special editions might need to be published for libraries, which are a prime market for hardcover books. There are many steps ... what I'm hoping for can certainly not be achieved by a quick fix.However, I do think it's a good idea for readers to make noise about this. We shouldn't expect simple solutions, but we should expect that a few book executives have the ingenuity required to come up with better models. Morgan Entrekin and numerous others are working on it right now. In earlier decades, publishing companies like City Lights and Penguin have had great successes with affordable book pricing models. Let's do what we can as book buyers to let publishers know that we care about this and will support their efforts to make a difference.

by nybrainterrain on

Barnes and Noble, here I comeThis is where those comfy couches in Barnes and Noble come in. If I can't afford a hardcover or am not sufficiently intrigued enough to buy it, then I just read them in Barnes and Noble. I did this when the 5th Harry Potter book came out- read at the B&N cafe for two hours a day. It took me a week to get through it.Keeping with the subject of the post, though, I agree that paperbacks or more affordable first editions should be made available sooner. In fact, I believe they should be published simultaneously--publishers CAN do this (I know because I work for one of them), they simply choose not to. Why? Money. Although a paperback is cheaper, I am under the impression that paperbacks generate more sales because, let's face it, most people are on a budget and would buy a paperback over a hardback any day. I am not sure if most publishers are aware of this.

by shamatha on

Self-plagiarismWell, I wrote a post about this back in November, so I'm just going to plagiarize myself and repost it.One thing caught my eye in the NYTimes article; this quote:Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The Times Book Review, says he believes reviewing paperback originals allows the publication to highlight books from smaller publishing houses. How often do they actually highlight books from small presses?Anyway, here's my old post:This is a situation where the solution seems so obvious to me (your suggestion of ending the two-tiered pricing) that the fact that it isn't done leads me to conclude that, well, I don't have an MBA, I don't work in publishing, and since the goal is to make profits, they must have done research that leads them to believe it's more profitable to sell books in hardcover for the first 6-12 months. But then, all we hear about is how people aren't buying enough books. And like any industry, they blame it on the consumer rather than looking at their own practices.Listen, book industry. I'm a book-buyer, your target consumer. Do you want me to name the books I'd probably be buying right now if they were available in a $14 quality paperback rather than a $25 hardcover? Let's see . . . On Beauty, Shalimar the Clown, Blinding Light, Saving a Fish from Drowning. Okay, I might not have purchased all four, but I'd probably be reading one or two of them right now, rather than zero. And you know what? By the time they're out in paperback, I'll have probably forgotten about them, or I'll just wait another month or two (since I've already waited 6) for all the hardcovers you didn't sell at $25 to start appearing on the remainder tables for $6. Sure, maybe the profit margin on the hardcovers is higher. Okay, like I said, I'm not an MBA, I've only ever taken one accounting class in my life, and I've never been great at math, but (correct me if I'm wrong) when you look at a ledger, wouldn't the X real dollars for each QPB you actually sold come out to more than the higher (but imaginary) profits for each hardcover you don't sell?Have you not heard that "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush?"And sure, there are people who prefer to buy in hardcover(collectors, people buying gifts). And I've bought a few hardcover books in my time when I was too impatient to wait 6 months. But I can count the times I've done that on my fingers vs. the times I've thought, well, I'll just wait for the paperback ...I'll know you'll have your reasons for not making the switch. And I'm sure all those reasons are well-thought out and not totally based on "Well, that's the way we've always done things."I even read an article in the last couple years (possibly on Salon.com) where somebody blamed writers, saying we were the holdouts for hardcover books out of the vanity of seeing our books in hardcover. And I realize that writers are incredibly powerful forces which you in the book industry cower before and therefore can dictate the terms on which you are allowed to publish their work. (There's a traditional saying in the industry, "What the writer wants, the writer gets.") But jeez, grow some spine and stand up to those tyrants.

by shamatha on

Isn't it best though, if the wealthy brooklyns and shamathas of the world don't use the library, and rather buy the books? That way, it leaves more books in the library for the poor kids. But seriously, I love libraries, but unless (in a major city) you're convenient to the main or a regional branch, local branches just suck. I wish they didn't, I wish they were funded and had longer hours and more selection, but I wonder if they ever will be in the age of google, since kids no longer have to go use the card catologue for their research.

by anniefay on

Blue haired old lady's thoughtsViva la paperbacks! I hate hardcover books. For one thing, they are bulky, for the 2nd thing, they are heavy, for the 3rd thing... I have to sit at a table and put the damn thing down to read it(weep for me, my poor arthritic hands just don't hold on to large, heavy tomes anymore). This is just too inconvenient to be bothered with. I want to curl up in a good chair or someplace, to read... not sitting stiffly at a table. New books that come out are easy to get at my local library, albeit I live in a small community with a great library. New editions always have waiting lists, but so what! My problem is again, I don't like that big bulky book...NOW! Here's the trend in movies for you guys not in the know posting over me. Simultaneous releases will soon be made in theatres and on DVDs while also doing instant downloads via the www. So see there, movies are way out in front of the book sellers.I'm all about getting a paperback sold at the same time as the hardcover book. Paperbacks take less room on the shelf, fit easily into a purse, and can be folded over when holding to read (bad habit I guess). You have to treat hardcovers like treasures. Books are words to be shared and only with time turn into great value...So, you won't have to fight this blue haired old lady at the library to get a new release. Your welcome to it... Thanks, I'll wait for the paperback... and hope what you are suggesting catches on. I agree with you completely. There should at least be a simultaneous release with hardcovers and paperbacks. Let the buyer choose. Who knows, maybe the publisher would make more money up front...

by Billectric on

Thank you.You put it all very straightforward. The book industry IS complaining that people don't buy enough books. They should listen to your advice.

by djrob1972 on

Well statedI definitely agree with you--a book should earn its hardback status. The pricey hardback would seem to hinder the first author rather than help. Some fans of mass market fiction such as Grisham are going buy the hardback edition regardless. Why not do a simultaneous release? or least have a trade paperback option available from the get-go.

by Billectric on

My theory . . .This might be why hardback edition come out before paperbacks. Most libraries are departments of city government, like Roads & Transportation, or Parks & Recreation. Maybe libraries don't have as big a budget as the three guys it takes to put up a stop sign, but they still have budgets! Think how many libraries there are in this country. When a new book comes out, most of those libraries buy at least one copy, maybe more if it's on the best-seller list. And the ones that don't buy a copy initially, will buy one if a customer asks them to. As the people who purchase library books are not spending their own money, they are not as reluctant to wait for the paperbacks. So the publishers aren't making money as much from private citizens buying hardback editions as they are from libraries both in the United States, and foreign military bases and ships which provide books for servicemen, colleges maybe, as well as England and any English speaking place.

by brooklyn on

I think you're right, Bill. I'm sure library sales are very helpful to publishing companies trying to squeeze out a tight margin, and I wouldn't want to begrudge them that. It seems that many of us here are agreeing that hardcover books have an important place in the book ecosystem. What's offensive isn't that hardcovers exist, but that people who can't reasonably buy hardcovers have to wait so long for the alternative. Even if a publishing company would release a hardcover book a full month before the paperback, allowing them to take in library sales, etc., the problem I am talking about would be much reduced. But to make readers wait nine months to a year for an affordable edition is not right.

by brooklyn on

Jamelah, I totally agree with you. In fact I was going to write a lot of the same things you just said, but I didn't want my rant to go on too long. For myself, there are two main considerations: first, I live in a small apartment and I don't really want my books to take up a lot of space. Second, I am a pretty mobile guy, and I like a book I can shove in my pocket.I think the case for paperback originals is pretty damn clear.

by brooklyn on

Thanks for the comments, Shamatha. I'd take what you say even further in one sense. It's true that the publishing industry has found some sort of stability with the current pricing model, but that doesn't really mean that anybody in the business has exhaustively researched other possible pricing models and concluded that the currently predominant one is the most profitable, not even on spreadsheets. I'm going out on a limb here, because I don't know if this is true or not, but I'd guess there's been very little actual research in this area. The current model evolved from a hundred years ago when hardcovers were the only types of books published, and I think there's been a surprising lack of innovation since then. The music industry has reinvented its basic format (and, correspondingly, its pricing model) at least five times in the past hundred years. The book industry hasn't budged much at all.

by brooklyn on

Fair enough, Bill -- I didn't mean to engage in library-bashing here. Okay, so my branch is open 7 hours every weekend -- I don't think that's great, but I guess you're right that I could make it there on a Saturday. And then I have to make it there on a Saturday again to return the book. That's usually where the system breaks down, for me. I really don't want to borrow library books -- I just want to spend 12 or 14 bucks and buy a nice small paperback of whatever book I want to read. That's all I want.

by Billectric on

Levi, I'm actually agreeing with you. I do begrudge the book makers that revenue for this reason: It is our tax dollars paying for those bloated, price inflating fancy-ass, embossed, plastic coated, reflective material emblazoned, gimmicky fuckers.

by Billectric on

Yes, Anniefay, I heard about that, too, on NPR, re movies & dvd's being released at the same time. The reason given was, the movie companies found that they would only have to spend money promoting the film once. As it is now, they have to do a big promotion when the movie hits theatres and another one when the dvd hits. The angle I heard was that the theatres are upset now, some of them are worried about going out of business. This problem would not apply to bookstores if they had both paperback & hardback released simultaneously, so the publishers should do it!

by shamatha on

You're probably right. So many things are done just because "that's they way we've always done it." It's just hard to believe, with publishing companies now being just one small arm of multimedia conglomerates, that not much thought has gone into examining the way books are sold. Again, I know nothing about the publishing industry, but the goal of the parent companies is to make as much profit as possible. Of course I don't want to see book publishing develop even further along the lines of hollywood blockbuster mentality, movie making, where everything is banked on a blockbuster or two and the large body of books/authors gets ignored. You already see that with people like Hillary Clinton and Scott Peterson's brother's monkey's uncle getting big advances for stupid books that'll be remaindered in two months, when the same money could be saved and used to promote/nurture genuine writers that people would keep coming back to.

by anniefay on

I think, like the paperback vs hardcover, there is room for both. Some books are "forever" books and you want a good solid copy to last forever. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed in a theatre and the effect just isn't the same on a small screen. We often grade a movie by whether it can be "wait for the DVD."As a matter of fact, we have decided that on this weekend we are off to see Spike Lee's newest "The Inside Man"... just don't want to wait. I think this will always be the case. And although theatres may see some decrease in sales, I think people will always want to "go out to the movies". But that's just me.Of course, home theatres are becoming the newest have to have thing... with huge screens and surround sound right at home, so who knows? Not me.

by beatp on

comment on the comment. I read all the comments, heard and agreed with the soft desire for gratification, but for myself, I like a hard one, every once in a while. To hear it called "bloated, price inflating fancy-ass, embossed, plastic coated, reflective material emblazoned, gimmicky fuckers" hurt me somewhere. My alcott still rides a shelf,from the twin bookcase bed where I first read it, under the sheets with the stolen flashlight, rides to the box in the attic office of a fat old lady.I can lay my hand on it, the condition, poor. The hard one rides. You guys are somewhere very right, its the trip that counts, efficiency of energy, paper, weight, todays environment demands it but still the suitcase rather than the plastic bag is part of the journey. I can only hope my sentiment doesn't prevail because maybe hardbacks are too heavy for this world.

by BookFace on

OffensiveThat picture equating the two-tier system of book bindings with segregation of blacks and whites is incredibly offensive. You are trivializing decades of racial injustice to make a half-baked point about book prices.

by mtmynd on

Curious....Thruout the threads I've not seen any mention of downloadable literature which is available on this internet. I've seen it more and more available on Amazon and trust that there are more and more publishers that have this availability and a far reduced price, if price is a major concern.Business being what it is, it seems if more people supported downloads, there would be more attention given that format through advertising and promotion for authors.Or do most folks simply prefer the bouund book over loose leaf, printer copied stories? If so, why? Which is more important: the story itself or the joy of having a bound book in our hands?Just curious...

by Billectric on

Yeah, Levi, I know you and I know you are not shallow at all when it comes to issues of segregation and injustice, but I would probably remove that picture, now that I think about it.

by brooklyn on

Well, the picture expresses exactly what I'm trying to say, and I don't see why it should be offensive. I'm trying to make the point that book pricing is a serious matter and that two-tier pricing has a negative impact on the lives of eager readers who do not have the money to buy first-run books. I don't think I'm out of line in comparing this to a different and more insidious form of segregation.

by Billectric on

So you suggest that high book prices can literally keep information out of the hands of poor people. Hmmm ... that might be a valid stand.-Waffling Bill

by Billectric on

Wow! William Blake was cool. Saw angels. Right up my alley and I didn't even know it.Now, could you please explain about the lady on the ground with the spoon.

by brooklyn on

Bill -- yeah, that is what I'm saying. It's the information gap, and this practice helps keeps it wide.

by Billectric on

beatp!There was a book I loved when I was in elementary school called Minn of the Mississippi. Even before I could read very well, I used to pour over the textured illustrations on the inside of the hard covers. Sometimes I lost myself in this winding depiction of the Mississippi River twining through green inlets and mysterious lagoons, like the convolutions of my own brain. My secret world.Well, about a year ago, I found that book at Barnes & Noble and bought it. It's still a good book, but now it's in paperback and the illustrations on the inside covers are gone, reduced to much smaller reproductions on another page. So, I'm sorry I was mean toward hard cover books in a previous post.

by papermustache on

The AnswerI have heard a lot of grumbling about hardcover books lately and I understand the argument against them. The solution, or a solution, was discovered over thirty years ago when Thomas Pynchon's book, Gravity's Rainbow, was published. If my understanding is correct, the publisher was worried about the book's length and the high cost of the hardcover effecting sales, etc...The solution was to release the hardcover and paperback AT THE SAME TIME. The book was a success largely because a generation of college students could afford to buy it.Feel free to do a fact check and correct me if I am wrong about this.

by brooklyn on

Papermustache, I agree with you. This would allow libraries and book collectors to buy hardcovers while also allowing average consumers the ability to regularly check out new writers without taking out a second mortgage. Some good news on this front -- Farrar Straus and Giroux published Howl: The Poem That Changed America in hardcover/paperback just recently. Very smart move on their part.