No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

We're firmly into the end zone of fall. Next weekend the clocks get turned back, Halloween candy goes on sale half price to make room for Christmas gear, and the extraordinary fall publishing season really and truly winds down. It was a hell of a run, and I have the intimidating stack of books to prove it. There are a few left for the wish list, though, as Kat Warren reminds us in her Review Redux for the week. Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna is particularly tempting, especially because I'm in the middle of a seriously happy reread of William Boyd's Any Human Heart and the idea of historical characters on parade sounds good. (Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Richard Nixon? I'm in.) As Kat reports, the book has been deeply discounted at Amazon—$9.00 for a book that would cost you $26.99 straight out of the publisher's catalog. Or you could take a trip to Wal-Mart and save another two cents.

PriceOn the surface that seems like good news, and certainly for the casual consumer it is. But the implications for the publishing industry as a whole are more dismal. This is price-gouging, with the big-box stores (and yes, Amazon) taking losses on a selection of the season's big hardcovers in order to encourage shoppers to spend their savings elsewhere, and in the process squeezing out independent booksellers who can't afford those kinds of losses on each book. As HarperStudio breaks it down:

Retailers pay publishers roughly 50% of the suggested retail price for books. For instance, when Wal-Mart buys a $35.00 book from Scribner, they pay Scribner about $17.50. If Wal-Mart then chooses to sell that book for $10.00, they are losing about $7.50 per copy sold. So, the “P&L” doesn’t look so good in this case for Wal-Mart, but clearly there are larger agendas involved for these companies, who are willing to use these books as “loss leaders” to establish their predominance on the retailing landscape. Their behavior is not illegal or anticompetitive; in fact, it would be illegal for publishers to tell any American retailer what to charge for a book; that’s why it’s called a “suggested” retail price.

(Apparently not in Canada, though. But as the price on any dustjacket will tell you, books are always more expensive there.)

As usual, Kassia Kroszer at Booksquare has a good overview of the situation—including a link to an interesting discussion of why some guerilla indies are buying from Target instead of the publishers, and what's wrong with that picture—as well as some other recent developments in the busy book industry that are worth clicking through and reading. And remember: Independent Booksellers Week kicks off on November 15. That gives you 2-1/2 weeks to save your change in a jar, pack your own lunch for a couple of days, and give your local indie that extra $18.00 for the end-of-the-year blockbuster you can't live without.

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4 Comments to No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    October 27, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Loss leaders — Wal-Mart, Target et al. are betting they’ll lead you to their stores/sites with the cheap book offer and you’ll buy other stuff whilst you’re there. Regret to say this marketing tactic often works.
    >some guerilla indies are buying from Target instead of the publishers
    Okay, I’m sure there’s a reason not to love this, probably half a dozen (especially for authors), but … I do.
    By the way, I loved “Any Human Heart” and just about every other novel Boyd has written. He’s sterling.

  2. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    October 28, 2009 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I hate to say it, Lisa, but I think indies are doomed. I’m just being pragmatic here. Unless it’s located in a major metropolitan area, there’s just no way for them to compete… especially in this economy. I certainly can’t afford their prices.
    My best suggestion to them would be to stop trying to compete with Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon. If they want to survive, establish a LARGE used book section at the back of the store. If I could browse among a great selection of used books, I’d definitely visit your store, and maybe buy a new one here and there.
    I live in an area where I have to travel at least 1 1/2 hours to get to an indie bookstore (and that’s being kind, the really good ones are closer to Miami and Orlando). I also live in an area with an awful library system, but I can’t stand reading books with a time limit, anyway. I don’t know what I’d do without Amazon, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people like me.
    It’s a sad reflection of the times, but you better be financially well off if you want to start an indie bookstore, and you better be prepared for it to be more of a philanthropic adventure, than a moneymaker, nowadays. All small businesses (not just indie bookstores) are feeling the effects of big corporate America. It’s a runaway train.

  3. Karen Wall's Gravatar Karen Wall
    October 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Julie Carter and I were discussing this at the DFW F2F the other night. We live in one of the largest metro areas in the country and there are basically no independent bookstores here. I did a search on Indie Bound, the only two I found for new books were one for religious books, one for children’s books. There is one independent in Plano, which is over 20 miles from my house. It’s sad. When I moved here in 1996, this wasn’t the case.

  4. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    October 28, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    You could substiture the Indie Bookstores for Indie Running Stores… (my family owns one) – The only way we still are opening the doors is by way of offering one on one service, advice and fellowship. And while there is no Independent Running Store week, I hope that the customers with some insight into what is really going on will save a couple bucks to give to their local {fill the blank} store. Let it be the bookstore first – at least there is no way to download the running shoes to use on your Kindle. But yes, mind and body go together in the long run (pun intended). The independents of all kinds depend on the intelligent life out there to stay open and make the community something other than a drab strip mall. Thanks for the post.

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