Thursday, July 23, 2009

Where does the other $9 go?

I am holding in my hand a copy of Norbert Wiener's excellent book, The Human Use of Human Beings, an introduction to the science of cybernetics aimed at the non-scientist. I've always been a fan of Wiener's -- his two volumes of autobiography, Ex-Prodigy and I Am a Mathematician, made splendid reading, especially for a nerdy boy who liked to play with numbers. I saw him as an avuncular figure, wide-girthed, jolly, a brilliant polymath, of course, the good scientist, as opposed to his nemesis, the suave and amoral Johnny von Neumann. Wiener had the knack of placing science in a moral context, always cautioning against the potentially negative ramifications of the very technology he helped invent. This was important for an atomic age baby.

The book I am holding is a rack-sized Anchor paperback published and printed in 1954. I know when my father bought it, because there's a dated bus ticket sticking up between two of its pages. Ticket stubs have always made good bookmarks. Doubleday Anchor Books A 34, the second edition, revised, 75¢ (90¢ Canada). The book fits nicely in my hand, the easily readable type is well set, and the paper has hardly yellowed at all. Apparently publishers used decent materials back then. It's a
used book, in that my father, my brother, and I have all used it, and this morning I'm using it again.

Today you can buy a new copy of
The Human Use of Human Beings. Somehow it's gotten to be published by Da Capo Press, a division of the Perseus Book Group. The suggested retail price is $15.00, for a fifty-five year-old book that likely sells only a few copies per year.

If one goes to the U. S. Government's Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, one finds that 75¢ in 1954 is worth $6.01 today. So why is Da Capo pricing it at $15.00? To support their bloated infrastructure and debt, undoubtedly. The Free Market Boys at work.

Interesting that many rack-sized paperbacks (almost exclusively strip-cover mass markets these days) are in the $5.99 - $7.99 range, which seems to make them fairly priced, based on the rate of inflation. Unfortunately, you won't find any Norbert Wiener in mass market. In fact, it's unlikely you'll find anything but romance, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/suspense, and blockbuster bestseller reprints in mass market. A sure sign that publishers today don't give a shite about making the best, most important, writing -- fiction or non-fiction -- available to the widest possible audience. Hey, it's not just Perseus -- all big publishers these days are overcharging for backlist to support "overhead." I love euphemisms, don't you?

Oh by the way,
The Human Use of Human Beings is also available in a $9.99 Kindle edition. No joke, Jeff. What kind of value is that? It's not even an effin book, it's just digitized text residing on a corporate server. You gotta feel for the savants -- they're taking this format seriously.

Hey, poot, if you wanna to read this wonderful book, here's my advice: go to the library and check it out for free, or find a
used copy. Those fifty-year old pages, with their inky words, hold up pretty good. And the ideas? The ideas still shine.

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