This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

April 15, 2002 — Why are book prices so high? Not just new hardcovers, which are mostly hovering — for another five minutes or so — just below $30. But have you noticed that even paperbacks, the thing that revolutionized the book business once–upon–a–time by virtue of being affordable, are now just as over–priced as everything else?

And prices climb so steadily you can see it happening from season to season. You don't have to read trade reports to know that there's a wide–spread belief in the business that "consumers" don't see much difference between, say, a $25.95 book and a $26.95 book, or even a $27.95 book. As if they didn't have us over a barrel. As if there was something we could do about it. (And as if there were any logic at all to a system that believes a dollar or two means nothing, but the difference between $26.95 and $27 will send people running out the door screaming.)

Then there are those ludicrous advances making the news more and more regularly — just this past week, Cold Mountain" author Charles Frazier got $8 million out of Random House for a one–page description of an idea he's got for a second novel. An idea.

Is it any wonder books are so expensive? And is there any question whose fault it is?

The publishers, of course, says Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio, who calls the prices publishers put on books "abominations."

What's more, he's doing something about it. A March 27 Publishers Weekly report headlined "Riggio Leans on Publishers to Lower Prices" quoted one "influential publishing executive who asked not to be named" as explaining, "The word [at B&N] has come down from Len Riggio — knuckle publishers to lower prices." PW reported that Riggio and his buyers have been "more explicit than ever in their attempts to persuade houses to lower prices" for months now — dating back, one may suppose, to November, when David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported that Riggio had issued "what sounded like a threat" to publishers, that he would take "decisive actions" if they didn't give him bigger discounts.

You get the picture: Riggio the Barbarian, taking names and kicking butt on behalf of the book buying public by forcing publishers to lower prices at the same time that they, er, give him an even greater discount than before.

Meanwhile, it seems, the "decisive actions" have begun: Have you noticed that the front of your local B&N is now crowded with oh–let's–call–them inexpensively produced versions of various classics from the royalty–free public domain. Look closely and you'll noticed that the publisher of these books isn't the expected El Cheapo Productions but rather none other than B&N itself. And in February Riggio announced B&N will increase its book publications. The message to publishers? As a report from put it: "The company can place its own titles in strategically favorable locations, while relegating competing titles to out–of–the–way shelves, or refusing to buy them at all."

Of course, that report, like the others, couldn't get any of the publishers to speak up on their own behalf. "Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins declined to comment on the record for this article," it said.

I couldn't get any to talk about it on the record, either. Off the record, however, they're pretty chatty about it. One might even say "frothing."

Here's what one don't–use–my–name insider said to me about Riggio's public comments blaming publishers for high prices: "It's complete and utter nonsense."

He said nothing about the fact that, as points out, B&N "recently settled a suit for $4.7 million claiming it coerced independent publishers into charging less." He didn't mention the current suit being brought against B&N by the bankrupt chain Intimate Bookshops that says Riggio's company strong–arms publishers into as much as a 60 percent discount off cover prices.

No, as any publisher large or small will tell you — and they are aghast that periodicals that quote Riggio's charges don't also report this — that to figure out why book prices are so high you just need to do the math. Let's say the Intimate claim of a 60 percent discount is high, and B&N only gets a 50 percent discount. That means the publisher is left to split the remaining half with the distributors, warehousers, printers, shippers, and oh yes the authors. In other words, B&N is making significantly more off a book than its creators.

And while those margins for the publishers are getting smaller and smaller, B&N, by all accounts — including its own — is demanding that its own margins be increased.

Who's responsible for high book prices?

Could it be, oh, I don't know — Satan?

Last Week’s Column: WILLAMETTE REEK A popular newsweekly holds a fiction contest, and the story the guest judges choose as a winner winds up losing. Is it because the author is black?


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.