Monday, May 18, 2009

Books vs the Book Business

Okay, I take the May 17th edition of The Sunday Times and look for clues that publishing is not completely comatose. I come across a Motoko Rich 'think' piece about the Kindle's $9.99 price point. As usual, it doesn't say much of anything, and it certainly ain't reassuring. Does anyone outside the book industry even care about the book industry? I doubt it. Maybe that's why the press coverage is so poor.

I could just hear the publishers wheezing. Jeepers, what
are we gonna do about these artificially low price-points that Amazon is using to entice customers to buy their Kindles? Imagine -- only $9.99 for a commercial thriller! This could wreak havoc on all our P & Ls if it catches on.

I'm thinking most books are barely worth seven, eight bucks. The price of a mass market paperback. David Baldacci oughta be thankful that someone is willing to pay Kindle prices for his novels. In the old days, they would've come out as mass market originals. When it was an entirely honorable thing to be a journeyman author churning out entertaining reads in a popular format. Then we had three decades of corporate bloat. Inflated advances, inflated reputations, inflated staffing, inflated formats, and inflated prices that favored discounters.

Your mass market became a $27.99 hardcover. A year later the same book sat in a remainder bin at $6.98. Tell me -- what was it really worth? Most books published these days should probably be released as e-book originals. Those who want companionable books sitting on their shelves at home for decoration can go buy a pretty hardcover edition.

Of course, Ms. Rich sprinkles a bunch of silly quotes throughout her piece -- amazing how reporters can make intelligent people sound lightweight -- about how publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place, and their business model can't be sustained by the $9.99 price point.
Did an effin light bulb pop over somebody's head? But wait -- some professor from Yale doesn't think publishers will have to relent on pricing because of potential competition from other e-book manufacturers. A Free Market Professor who calls publishers "content providers." I never heard a real publisher refer to themselves that way.

The piece ends with some lady lying in bed at 1 AM ordering a book from Amazon via her Kindle. I think to myself, I'm often looking for instant gratification at 1 AM, but not from a book. I say take a sleeping pill.

Meanwhile, over in the
Book Review I spy a longish review of an FSG novel called How To Sell. The reviewer is Tom McCarthy (whose wonderfully clever novel, Remainder, I recommend to anyone interested in fiction) and his review is brilliant. Why? Because he plainly states that while he likes the book -- "I found Hard to Sell very enjoyable." -- he thinks its publication exemplifies a lot that's wrong with publishing today. The exaggerated claims made for modest books. The touting of every other novel that comes along as The Next Big Thing. The embarrassing back-scratching quote apparatus that adorns the dustjacket of every 'literary sensation' out there. And the over-reaching on the part of the author, who interlards his narrative with philosophical hooey.

Is no one satisfied with being a really good entertainer? Can't narrative craftsmanship and energetic prose be admired and enjoyed in and of themselves? As Mr. McCarthy makes clear, not everybody can be William Faulkner or Gustave Flaubert, nor need be. His terrific review is a bracing corrective to so much of what passes for acceptable literary journalism these days. Everybody in the business should read it and learn from it
before they tackle the unsustainable Kindle pricing controversy.

Meanwhile, I'm heading over to iTunes, pick up the latest Jeff "Tain" Watts album. It costs $9.90.

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