There’s an argument going on around the claim in the recent authors’ letter to Amazon’s board of directors that books are “not mere consumer goods”. Obviously they are — but what the authors no doubt meant was that they deserve not to be treated like other consumer goods since they come loaded with cultural value. Gigaom’s recent post clarifies the issue perhaps, but there’s a comment following it by “Irene” which struck me. She writes:

“. . . Why is it so shocking to conceive that, in some spheres of cultural production, some aspects may not be subsumed under the logic of late capitalism? Obviously books need to be sold. Does this mean that books are like shoes? Or that shoes are like apples?  . . .

The current problem is not that books are not shoes, but that Amazon has artificially created a perception of value according to which books are worth less than the majority of goods that are consumed every day. Very often the sandwich you buy in your lunch break is more expensive than the book you buy on Amazon. Is a certain degree of courage required to state that books and culture in general will have more impact on our future as a globalised community than tuna sandwiches?

Low prices for books are not somehow ‘wrong’ in themselves; they’re just not sustainable for publishers and authors. . . .”

Well, are books special, or do we just believe they are special because we spend our (self-evidently special) lives working on them? Are they different from shoes, and are shoes different from apples? Should a book cost more than a tuna sandwich? Should some spheres of cultural production be sheltered from the laws of late capitalism? (Just ask New York City Opera about that one!)

Obviously we are hardly in a position to agree to abandon the capitalist system just because of the Hachette-Amazon debate. It is what it is. Perhaps life isn’t fair, and maybe many of us would prefer a world in which it was. But that’s not a world we can have — at least not without years and years of revolutionary planning which for all I know Irene may be assiduously engaged in. As regards their interface with the consumer, apples and Apples, oranges and Orange’s services, shoes, slippers, boots and books all behave in the same sort of way. People hand over money to acquire them. The amount they’ll be willing to spend for these goods depends to some extent on their “content” — is this a good orange? — and to some extent on market manipulation by the supply chain. How much does the orange grower get? The picker? The distributor? The wholesaler? The supermarket? Ditto of course with shoes, where the analogy perhaps works more clearly because we can see that some shoes are just better made than others. You’ll pay more for the monograph The Elements of Mechanics than you will for bodice-ripper The Love Life of Mechanics. We consumers are used to assessing the relative value of a hardback edition of Ulysses and a paperback printing of it. We haven’t yet managed to take on board the appropriate relative pricing for the e-book. And this is what the debate’s about.

I think you have to be sitting in a fairly secure spot to argue that books are more important than food. Books are important, and because the way in which they are important they will never die. There will always Keats-like authors, for whom poetry (well, actually he said love) is a religion, one they would die for; and they will always be there to write their stuff, regardless of whether the market pays them more than it will for a venti latte or not. Maybe the James Pattersons of this world with $90 million earnings will decide it’s not worth bothering — but would that be a matter of cultural preservation? And of course I should say that maybe James Patterson does believe writing is his religion, and would continue regardless of the rewards*

So I think the debate remains one about the appropriate price for e-books. I don’t really believe that this decision should be made by the retailer, though there’s no reason they shouldn’t have an opinion on the subject, or even input in the decision. Whatever they may say, that retailer isn’t always able to knock the price down. They may be right that if 100,000 copies of a James Patterson book will sell at $14.99, 174,000 would sell at $9.99. (This sort of claim is pathetically easy to make and luckily for those claiming it, impossible to test.) But take another book they offer, The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, Volume 2. This sells on Amazon’s US site for $266 in hardback, or as a Kindle edition at $144.49. I don’t see them thinking they could sell 174,000 if the Kindle edition were priced at $9.99, or even 74% more than they’ll sell at the full price. Books like this have a market which is small and relatively price-inelastic. I wonder if the sales would be much different if the Kindle price were also $266. Only they and Edinburgh University Press are in any position to test this. Books all live at some point on the distribution line from mass-appeal trade books at one end and The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland and its like at the other. Amazon has not “artificially created a perception of value” that books are worth less than the majority of goods — just bestsellers and potential bestsellers. If by pricing lower we’d sell more bestsellers, wouldn’t we be nuts not to do so? But we, as publishers, should be the ones making this decision: not our major retail outlet.

Hachette authors should of course be upset that the sales of their books are being impacted by this trade dispute. A trade book gets one shot at making it — when it’s new (maybe two shots if it comes out as a paperback a year or two later) — and to have that chance ruined by Amazon’s disrupting the sale is tragic. They don’t get the chance to go back and do it again once the dispute is settled; other new books will be pushing themselves forward by then. If one of the books affected is the genuine great American novel, one can perhaps assume that it will get its chance to rise again in due course, but most of the trade releases will just be passed over as we all move on to the next new thing. If you are a writer trying to make a living by your writing alone, this is awful; rather like having the publishing company you work for go out of business and lay off all its staff. However the world doesn’t owe publishers a living — nor authors either I fear.


*I have no idea what he believes, and can only applaud his gifts to independent bookstores, and his providing employment for his creative team.