Two of my non-professional book interests collided last week sort of unexpectedly.
#1: I had the opportunity last weekend to attend a seminar held by Daniel Traister, Curator of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater). The session was titled, “What Good is an Old Book in the Age of Google?”
#2: I ran the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ elementary school, not for the first time. One of the biggest aspects of the job (besides steering kids away from $5 pens!) is of course helping them select books that are a. appropriate and b. they can afford.
Here’s where the collision fits in.
During the Penn session, the attendees were treated to a glimpse of two editions of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, a phenomenal specimen. The book has a rich history in art and literature and much has been written about it….but what struck me was Professor Traister’s reminder that the book was never intended to be read. It was intended to be owned. It’s large, unwieldy, heavy, not particularly well-written, and the material isn’t all that exciting. But if you could afford to display it in your house? Well, then…
Fast forward 516 years to present day, where the same principles are applied (loosely) on a small scale at my book fair. Magic Tree House: $4.99 paperback. Displayed next to $11.99 hardcover of the newest book. Jan Brett’s Gingerbread Friends: hardcover, $17.99. Softcover school edition, also available, with fold-out insert: $4.99.
I understand the economics of publishing: hardcovers are more profitable. But where is the value to the consumer? How can I, in good conscience, direct any child to purchase the same product in different binding for 3 times more when the reading experience will be exactly the same (maybe better for the softcover if you consider the fold-out insert)? We didn’t. We directed kids away from the $17+ hardcovers and to the softcover editions, where they could spend the same amount of money and walk away with triple the number of books to love and enjoy.
It’s not that the $17.99 by itself is too much (that’s another debate). It’s the additional cost for the hardcover when the content is the same. Particularly–and why don’t more people say this?–when there are just too many quality books available out there.
Certain formats will always demand to be owned rather than consumed, it’s true (see this video from HarperStudio about the Art of Bookmaking). But I’d like to suggest that for most books this simply isn’t the case, especially as ebooks continue to push prices lower and there is a larger gap between the hardcover and “other format” prices. Timing, too: as the time between hardcover, paperback and ebook releases shorten, there is a greater incentive for consumers to just wait it out until the less expensive version is available. Particularly when–and why don’t more people say this!–there are just too many quality books available out there.
In many ways, the pricing model for books was established over 500 years ago, when the physical format of the book clearly denoted its worth and purpose. Though many publishers continue to experiment with formats and release schedules, now seems to be the time for publishers to veer dramatically away from the traditional process to consider at the manuscript stage: What format provides the best value for the consumer? Is it useful content, format-agnostic? Maybe best as a website or iphone app or ebook, then. Is it for entertainment and a one-time use? Perhaps the hardcover version is eliminated, or published after the paperback, as a “collector’s edition” the way DVD collections of TV shows are (ie, when the book’s saleability warrants the hardcover edition.)
Although price is set by the publisher (or retailer), value is of course determined by the consumer. It’s anecdotal, but what I hear from regular old consumers, at book fairs, shopping for birthday gifts, on the playground, is that book pricing is confusing, too expensive and even a little manipulative. In a frugal economy with an abundance of options for information consumption and entertainment, where consumers can compare prices nearly anywhere, are we getting it right for our readers?