A battle over what you read

If you’ve been paying attention to book news lately (aka, the stuff I haven’t been reporting on…lazy), you will have seen the recent price wars between Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target concerning next season’s upcoming bestsellers.  As a bit of a recap, it was Oct. 15 and Wal-Mart.com drastically dropped its prices for several bestseller’s.  Amazon and Target quickly followed suit, publishers and authors went crazy, and everything we hold dear was in a danger of being lost forever.

Or, something like that.  You see, I followed the price battle with mild interest but resisted joining in the blogging fray, unsure how I felt about all these new developments.  I mean, I do work for a company that sells books at half the publisher’s price; I certainly didn’t have any room to talk.  Plus, I stopped buying books at Barnes & Noble and Borders years ago, and so a book’s “list price” was something I didn’t care much about.  Of course, they drilled these things into our heads at the Summer Publishing Institute, but still.  I knew I would still shop at Half-Price, no matter how troubled the publishing industry was.  I do have my wallet to worry about, after all.

But this article from the Huffington Post by William Petrocelli jarred me from my apathy, and made me think about the pricing war in a different light.  For these big-box retailers aren’t just engaging in healthy competition, they’re endangering the future of publishing as we know it.  I know, that sounds awfully apocalyptic, but hear me out.

Big-box retailers, like Wal-Mart and Target, only purchase around 100 or so titles for sale in their stores.  These are titles that MUST appeal to the masses, and so are comprised of big-name authors and everyone’s favorite pop-lit (The Lost Symbol anyone?).  Up and coming writers, and books from smaller independent presses do not make this list; they are too much of a risk with the Wal-Mart shoppers of the world.

Normally, this isn’t a problem.  Barnes & Noble and Borders, for all their corporate-ness, stocks thousands of titles.  Even more important, small independent booksellers can afford to take the risk on unknown titles, spend time handselling them and promoting the good ones until they do finally make a splash in the cultural consciousness.  It’s easy to think all bestsellers are predictable–you can’t go wrong with the new James Patterson or Audrey Niffenegger novel–but even these super-famous authors had to publish their first book.  They had to build their reputation slowly, book by book, over a lengthy amount of time.  The Time Traveler’s Wife was out for YEARS before it became a bestseller, but despite its quiet beginnings, Niffenegger reached the height of her popularity because someone took a risk for her.  Independent booksellers loved her work, and promoted it within the industry until it became the phenomenon we know today.

Unfortunately, Wal-Mart and Target aren’t there to help the new novelist–they’re there to make a buck.  And if they keep dropping their prices, these retailers are going to take over the bookselling industry.  No one can compete.  Forget independent bookstores, they’re going to drive Borders and B&N into bankruptcy as well.  Therefore, when publishers receive a manuscript from a new author, their first thought won’t be the quality of the content, but “can this sell at Wal-Mart?”  The answer is nearly always going to be no; no matter how brilliant the novel may be, Wal-Mart shoppers aren’t going to take a chance on an author they’ve never heard of.  The result of all this: the novel won’t be published, and the reading public is mis-served.

What can we do about this?  I have no idea.  Even Half-Price is impacted by this debate: a large part of our inventory is determined by what people sell to us.  Most people first purchase these books at regular bookstores.  If Half-Price is to continue recieving the variety of books that we do, it is necessary that there be some variety in booksellers as well.  What worries me the most, however, is the “next great American author.”  Who are they, and will they have the chance to be published in this new landscape?  Who knows.


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