By Steve Donoghue
Every book critic and Books editor ought to spend some time working as a clerk in a retail bookstore; it’ll remind them very quickly of the impossibilities of their trade. I loved my own time as a book clerk, loved the daily chats with old customers and new friends about everything they’re reading or dreaming of reading. I could have done without the kind of little ten-cent dictators retail bookstores sometimes attracted to their management staff, but talking books all day with passionate readers was a priceless experience.
It was a priceless experience about a very pricey hobby, and that fact became more sobering in the 1990s. Generally speaking, for most decades of the 20th century, the old saying applied: the way to make a small fortune in publishing was to start out with a large fortune. Most bookstores made the kinds of profits that one old bookman used to refer to as “largely theoretical.” Of course there could be the occasional bestseller, and some titles or kinds of books consistently sold well. But nobody – not clerks, not shop owners, not writers, and certainly not publishers – expected anything more than a genial, slightly ramshackle experience.
One result of this that would strike time-travelers as downright bizarre: books weren’t insanely, cripplingly expensive. On normal wages, you could go to the retail bookstore on a regular basis, chat with me about what was interesting you, and actually buy things – maybe a hardcover and a couple of paperbacks, all without taking out a second mortgage.
That all changed in the 1990s. In 1997, the huge conglomerate Pearson backed the Penguin Group in its acquisition of the Putnam Berkley Publishing Group. In 1998, chunks of Simon & Schuster, which had spent years gobbling up smaller publishers with the backing of the huge conglomerate Paramount Communications, were themselves gobbled up by Pearson for several billion dollars. And all the while this was going on, the massive German conglomerate Bertelsmann was also gobbling up major publishers like Random House.
Suddenly, what felt like overnight, the tweedy, slightly daffy world of publishing was a wholly-owned subsidiary of a small handful of gigantic international corporations. And those corporations weren’t interested in business as usual; they didn’t understand anything about an editor floating an author $150 off the books (or bailing an errant author out of jail after a fractious summer weekend). What they understood was profit.
Publishing became Big Business, and it started catching the weird insanities of the business world. Managers at stores ostensibly devoted to the artful use of English started using corporate neologisms like “efforting” unironically. C-suite executives started competing with each other to see who could take the most expensive and least-justifiable gambles, sometimes giving fad-of-the-moment books advances the size of the GNP of a small nation-state. Writers became “earning assets” on quarterly spreadsheets.
The inevitable result? Books got much, much more expensive.
Now, in 2023, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that trend has only continued. Book critics and Books section editors are largely shielded from this, since their daily mail is full of review copies of books that are going to show up in bookstores in a few months’ time. But readers who aren’t part of the industry in some way or other have been confronted for two decades by the increasingly ridiculous price tag on new books.
Publishers quickly began singing from the same hymnbook when it came to those higher prices, telling the public that paper, printing, ink, and shipping had all mysteriously quintupled in price, making books much more expensive to produce. And even if you believed that, there was a brief flicker of hope when e-books came along, since they don’t involve any of those material factors. Surely they’d be far, far less expensive?
Nope. I just recently received a big thousand-page work on the history of Chinese thought, for instance; the price tag? In print, it’s $75, which is roughly $55 more than it cost to make. And the e-book? It’s $71, which is roughly $70 more than it cost to make. If there were any remaining doubt that this situation is ultimately due to simple corporate greed, nonsense like this should put it to rest.
So, for avid readers, what’s the solution? Bargain-hunting, of course! There are still second-hand bookstores all across the country, and wholesale box-stores like Walmart routinely offer plenty of titles at sharp discounts. And when it comes to e-books, there are bargain aggregators like BookBub or Red Roses Romance or Early Bird Books, services that will send you daily email notices of bargains on dozens of titles, everything from “The World According to Garp” or “Cold Mountain” or “The Haunting of Hill House,” most for no more than $2.
But retail bookstores, for print-and-paper books? Best to take out that second mortgage.