Last month, the online arms of several US chain stores — WalMart.com and Target.com — engaged in a price war with Amazon.com over ten upcoming or recently released hardcover books. Each of the ten books was written by a proven bestselling author – John Grisham, Stephen King, Michael Crichton among them – or otherwise expected to become a bestselling book due to the prominence/notoriety of the author (Sarah Palin, I’m looking at you).
The sequence of events and the reactions of the American publishing industry and independent booksellers have already been well-documented on other sites: see this New York Times article for an overview of the price wars, and this Huffington Post article for one perspective on the eventual consequences of the book discounting battle.
Last week, the 2009 Giller Prize for fiction – a very prestigious Canadian literary award – was awarded to Linden MacIntyre for his novel The Bishop’s Man. Shortly thereafter, the following tweet appeared from @IndigoDeals, the twitter account of Chapters.Indigo.ca:
This troubled me, and set me to thinking about the potential pros and cons of discounting books based on their critical success (which is not always the same thing as being a ‘bestseller’):
- Pros: discounting The Bishop’s Man may make it more accessible to a mass audience. The book’s regular retail price is $32 CAD, so the combination of the 40% off and the publicity of the award may entice new fans who wouldn’t typically pick up a full-price hardcover book or literary fiction.
- Cons: readers are already becoming conditioned to not pay full price for “bestsellers”, and by now discounting award-winners as well, it may take away some of the prestige that accompanies that honour. The book may sell more copies at the discounted price, but the author’s royalty rate per copy will go down as well.
Which leads me to ask: what other industries discount based on success? I’m not referring to economies of scale here, or the natural lowering of costs based on increased volume of sales. Books are cultural products, not mass-produced consumer goods, and the effort and talent it takes to write a good novel doesn’t decrease because it may (eventually) sell more copies in the long run.
When an actress wins an Oscar, the price of the movie ticket remains the same. But when an author wins an award or receives critical acclaim, and stores immediately discount their books, the underlying message seems to be “Congratulations, you’re popular – so now your work is worth less.”