It’s been in the news for the past week or so: major retailers are in a book-price war. It started With Wal-Mart lowering the price on ten bestsellers )some upcoming) to $10. Amazon matched that the next day. Wal-Mart dropped to $9. Amazon matched them again, so Wal-Mart dropped to $8.99.
Then Target entered the bidding war, offering any of six soon-to-be published books on its web site for $8.99 as well. And Wal-Mart dropped to $8.98, like a contestant on The Price is Right but in reverse.
The books include Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue”; “Under the Dome” by Stephen King; “I, Alex Cross” by James Patterson; “Pirate Latitudes” by Michael Crichton; “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver; and “Ford County,” a short-story collection by John Grisham. Amazon had not cut any pennies as of Tuesday afternoon and was sticking with $9.
It’s a contest “that has no end in sight,” said Michael Norris, an analyst with Simba Information, which provides research and advice to publishers. Mr. Norris said the price war could be particularly damaging to booksellers because they could not afford to discount that heavily, while the retailers who were slashing prices “don’t need to sell books in order to stay in business” and therefore can sell the books at a loss.
I don’t care so much about the booksellers themselves. I mean, it’s a cruel, capitalistic world. It’s easier to like booksellers than it is to like Wal-Mart (it’s easier to like just about anything than it is to like Wal-Mart), but they’re in it for the dollars just the same. There’s no real reason to show compassion or favoritism to Barnes & Noble, no matter how much I want to. They want my money, just like the rest.
Oddly enough, though, I care a little bit more about the point made by the American Booksellers Association, which represents independently owned bookstores and who has sent a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate what it describes as “predatory pricing” by Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target.
The association’s letter, which is signed by the group’s nine board members, accused the retailers of “devaluing the very concept of the book”
Furthermore, this article in the New York Times brought up some very valid points — valid to us readers, I mean. Because if you’re a reader, you care about what gets published.
Still, publishing industry veterans were worried about the potential long-term effect on the consumer mindset.
“If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over,” said David Gernert, Mr. Grisham’s literary agent. “If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s ‘Ford County’ for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.”
The immediate impact of the low prices was likely to be felt by other bookstores, including chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. As of Friday, neither of the Web sites for those companies indicated that it was matching the $9 price. At BN.com and Borders.com, the titles were generally discounted by 40 percent.
A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble declined to comment. In a statement Borders said the majority of its revenues did not come from best sellers. “Our model does not rely on being the lowest priced,” the company said in the statement. “It relies on offering our customers a true bookstore experience — the opportunity to explore a vast array of titles within a comfortable environment where shoppers can go where their interests take them.”
Independent booksellers have long struggled to compete with discounts offered by Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Wal-Mart. William Petrocelli, an owner of Book Passage, an independent company that has stores in San Francisco and suburban Corte Madera, Calif., said that for now he was relying on the loyalty of customers who valued staff recommendations and author events as much as prices. But, he said, if the low prices siphoned off too many customers and put independent stores out of business, it would ultimately affect what would get published.
“What this does is accentuate the trend towards best sellers dominating the market,” Mr. Petrocelli said. Without independents, decisions about what books to put on store shelves would reside in the hands of a few corporate executives rather than hundreds of idiosyncratic booksellers, he said.
“You have a choke point where millions of writers are trying to reach millions of readers,” Mr. Petrocelli said, “but if it all has to go through a narrow funnel where there are only four or five buyers deciding what’s going to get published, the business is in trouble.”
What do you think? Tempest in a teapot? Would deeply-discounted bestsellers have a negative impact on publishing? Or are we worrying for nothing, because serious readers are always going to want the books they want, no matter what’s on sale? I don’t know, but I will tell you that they can mark down Sarah Palin’s book, or John Grisham’s next, for that matter, to a penny, and I’m still not buying either — so does it really matter?