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A Publishing Nightmare

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I woke up a few mornings ago with an appalling thought running through my mind. The thought was this: Books will almost certainly soon be filled with advertisements, just like magazines, network TV, and the Internet. Is there any reason to take such a thought seriously? There are a number of reasons.

Trade book sales have been flat in terms of unit volume for a decade, even while retail sales in general have grown. Cheaper (some would say better, but that is a different issue) sources of information or entertainment are widely available. It may be that books are simply too expensive to compete. The inclusion of advertising would certainly lower the price.

And if advertising is acceptable in magazines and on TV and the Internet, why should books be different? It is perfectly clear that consumers will put up with almost any amount of it, no matter how shrill, in exchange for a lower price. The Internet is a special case in point. Apparently almost no one is willing to pay much of anything for content on the Web, and we now all understand that the Web is the future.

The top management at Barnes & Noble certainly thinks books are too expensive (not that B&N is in any way advocating ads in books at this point). For the last year or so they have simply declined to stock titles they believe do not offer good value.

Chicago Review Press recently published a title called Cuba and Its Music (clothbound, 600 pages, $36) to rave reviews in The New York Times, The Los Angles Times, and many other places. B&N initially ordered no copies at all, then ordered only 80 copies, after the publicity started, to handle the special orders. The buyer flatly stated to our rep that the book was too expensive.

The Persistent Price Problem

Unhappy as I am with this very low buy on a terrific book, I have to admit the general validity of B&N’s policy. They (and I too) want the consumption of books to be, if not exactly a mass activity, then at least a very broadly based one. If reading books becomes an esoteric taste, there will be no need for those huge stores, or for most publishers either.

The middle class buys most of the books. It used to be that buying books was one of the most important ways of showing that you had made it into the middle class. Now there are other more conspicuous ways of sending that message; and of course middle-class incomes, like unit sales in trade books, have not been growing. It keeps coming back to price. Why not put in some advertising to bring the price down?

Amazon now actively encourages its customers to sell back the books they have purchased. In the near future it may be that each copy produced will be bought in turn by two or thee different readers. This will lower the average price to the consumer, but the publisher (and the author) will benefit only from the sale of the new copies, not the used ones. This inevitably means lower print runs and higher unit costs. To stay in business publishers will have to raise list prices, not lower them. How can we deal with this dilemma?

Advertising! The fact that each copy will go through more hands increases the value of a book as an advertising vehicle: more hands, more impressions. Publishers could sell ads in their books to make up for the higher unit costs and the reduced sales of new copies.

There is, however, one problem with advertising. It inexorably corrupts content. The supposed wall between the two is always at some level honored in the breach. Much of the content of TV, magazines, and the Internet is tainted by the necessity of attracting advertising dollars. The book is nearly the last source of information or entertainment provided for its own sake instead of for the sake of marketing something else.

To finish my nightmare: I am nearing the tragic climax of Anna Karenina. Anna is about to throw herself in front of the train. I turn the page and see an advertisement for Prozac.

Curt Matthews is CEO of Independent Publishers Group, and of Chicago Review Press.

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