Tuesday, November 11, 2008

varying perspective

I'd like to personally thank Anonymous 12:22, who made the following comment on my post about how publishing is a returnable industry and why the economic downturn hurt us so much:

Um, no. Unprofitable industries need to fold. The bookstores need to fold. Book publishers need to fold. And editors need to fold, too. They need to fold someone else's undies at the laundromat.

There have been millions of books published in centuries past. We don't need any more.

Anon, while I do not profess to be talented at folding laundry (my own or others'), I have to admit you do make one point I agree with. Unprofitable industries need to adapt. If they can't, they deserve to fail.

But I think you will find there are a number of people who don't want the publishing industry to fold, for their own reasons as well as for anything you might say about free speech and/or available media. That's why people like us want to help bridge the gap. (Also, seriously--does anyone who reads this not buy tons of books anyway?)

So what can the industry do to make sure your help is more than just a last-ditch effort? Hopefully this scare will help them (us) revise The System.

Some ideas for you, publishers: (Several of you also commented to this affect, which leads me to believe it must have some sense about it.)

-Lower print runs.
Print closer. Don't count on huge laydowns. Sure, it means books are less likely to be bestsellers. But how many books become best sellers anyway?

(which leads to)

-Higher prices. Sure, you've kept prices low, because you wanted to get out as many copies as possible. Instead, be a little more conservative--put a slightly higher price on your book, sell only to the people who want it a little more than average, and make a little more money per copy.

(Besides, higher prices will lead customers to...)

-More online retail.
The discount per cover price is steeper on online vendors; if consumers know they can save 30% by buying online instead of buying at a chain store, what's to stop them? Things are going to move in this direction, anyway, so we have to stop counting as much on the physical stores.

(And, dare I say it?)

-Look into solutions to the awful returnable system.
Sure, retailers aren't going to jump at the chance to forfeit their sweet returns deal, but how about a percentage cap? Eg you can only return up to 40% of the stock you buy from us per title, or something along those lines. Retailers will order more conservatively, maybe even a lot more conservatively, but the system is so flawed that at the moment they are costing us money and making us none. So really, is it that terrible a solution?

Some of my thoughts.

63 comments:

Laura D said...

As an aspiring author, I totally agree. I am also, of course, a reader and no matter how much content is out there already, I love something new. So, the answer is not to stop publishing altogether. The system must be revised. The big chains take no risk when they can send everything back when they want to. I tend to order over the internet, not because it's cheaper, but because I can get more titles there of authors the big chains don't stock.
I write for my enjoyment (yes, I have a day job), but I would also like to work within a system that at least allows me to make a profit.

Kimberly Derting said...

Your suggestions make a lot more sense than just letting an entire industry "fold". How many great titles would we have missed if the industry had completely disappeared even ten years ago? I would hate to have missed some of those magnificent works just because the industry was unwilling to adapt to "hard times". Of course publishing will go on, and of course it will change...that's not always such a bad thing!

Great post!!!

Anna the Piper said...

The world absolutely needs new books, and I say this even aside from trying to add my own books to the world supply.

Y'all pardon me while I figure out what I'm going to read next off my three shelves of Stuff I Haven't Read Yet. ;)

Katiek patrianoceu said...

Moonie, when you made your suggestion about going out and buying a book, I admit it made me cringe. For a reason that I haven't seen mentioned yet on this or any other publishing-related blogs I follow. Environmentalism. I know that one little book is not doing the same amount of damage as the SUV in which its purchaser drove to B&N to buy it. But still... if I can treat a book as a RE-usable resource, that seems good. That's why I always borrow books from friends or the libraries.

But you make a good point about the economic ramifications. It's not fair to the author or to the publisher or to anyone else in the chain of people who put effort into producing the book. Oh, if only there were a solution as simple as book-rental-agencies. Blockbuster for books.

So I'm thrilled about the appearance of Kindles and the like in the world, to provide me with a way out. Personally, I'm not on that wave yet, but hope to land there soon. Are there any other options anyone out there knows of to get the appropriate remittances to the author et al, without adding to the 'clutter'?

Marie said...

I'm curious, too, to see how the industry starts to adapt to electronic publishing. I think there is potential there--to stop thinking of a book as a thing requiring a printing press, but as the words unfolding as narrative, whether on a page, or on a Kindle (or cell phone, etc.).

And, to say that editors ought to fold laundry, well, everyone ought to fold their own laundry. At least once. But it's honestly an unhelpful suggestion (and rather cowardly since the comment was left anonymously) for people who supposedly love good books. And if you don't love good books, what on earth are you doing on an editor's site?

Jeanie W said...

Hmm. I must have missed that comment when I read your "returnable industry" post. How'd that guy end up wandering into your blog?

"We don't need any more [books]." So what's s/he think? Everything possible has been said already? Stories are an essential element of human culture and have been since the dawn of history (and most likely before as well). They help us make sense of ourselves and each other. We need stories to change and grow as society changes and grows. And stories can't just be told through movies. Besides being less expensive and less time-consuming to produce, books give us clearer access to the author's thoughts and exercise readers' imaginations.

Crimogenic said...

Moonie, very reasonable suggestions for improving the system. For anon, the publishing industry is not going to fold. Readers will continue to buy books. And aspiring writers will continue to write...maybe there's not room enough for all of us, but we'll keep trying and as long as books are written there will be an avenue to publish them whether paper or electronic.

Kat J. Meyer said...

another great post! I especially appreciate the suggestion that books should be priced higher. Many minds working together will come up with working solutions - you might be interested in comments/discussion over at BookSquare re: royalties, and the broken system in general (Mark Bertils and Richard Nash) make some excellent points.
Thanks again for the post.

Linda said...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes... I vote Moonie for President. Now, do you have some good, commonsense ideas for saving our financial institutions? ;^) Peace, Linda

Kerry said...

wow Anonymous 12:22... just... wow.

Sprizouse said...

Capitalism -- as Anon 12:22 seems to believe -- is not the be-all and end-all of the world. Capitalism sometimes creates wonderful progress but more often than not, it just calculates a price for everything. But literature and the arts are not things we should be so quick to price. A world deprived of Shakespeare is a world less robust, less meaningful and less enjoyable than a world deprived of Milton Friedman.

Don’t believe me?

Okay, let’s examine Capitalism... pharmaceutical companies have concentrated on profitability recently, but now that profits are front-and-center, who is conducting orphan drug research? If you don’t know, orphan drugs are drugs that treat or cure extremely rare diseases.

Let’s imagine Anon 12:22 is suddenly struck with some horrible disease that causes intense and searing pain and has no cure. Let’s imagine the disease is a rarity, one that only affected only 2,000 people in the world. Would Anon 12:22 be so quick to praise capitalism if she was struck with this disease? If Orphan Drug researchers suddenly discovered a miraculous pain medication for the disease, the company would still have to close since revenue from drug sales to 2,000 people would most certainly be unprofitable.

But Anon 12:22 said, “All unprofitable industries need to fold.” So Anon 12:22 will suffer her disease and be happy to recognize that her suffering is deserved since Capitalism has proven she isn’t worth treatment? I doubt she’d believe that if it happened to her. But that’s not the only example of Capitalism’s flaws and failures.

NASA, by Anon 12:22’s statement has been a colossal failure. But without NASA’s devotion to furthering space research, the world would not have GPS, Google Maps or even satellite television (which broadcasts freedom around the world). NASA has reaped no profits from their continuing missions and nobody in the 1960s could have foreseen how profitable and important satellites and satellite technology would become to the world in the 1990s and 2000s, but that didn’t stop NASA from sending men and equipment into space year after year (and what wonders will the Hadron Collider hold? Should we shutter that as well since we don’t know what it’s going to reveal, or if we’ll ever make a profit from it?).

Okay, maybe NASA and medicine more directly benefit society than the arts, so perhaps Anon 12:22 wants to take a more jaded view of books and book publishing. Perhaps Anon 12:22 sees them purely as entertainment and purely as an entertainment “industry” rather than the precarious balance between art and businesses that books and book publishing actually represent. Maybe Anon 12:22 thinks book publishing’s unprofitability will mean the world will finally rid itself of Danielle Steel novels and the rest of the schlocky romance industry. But what Anon 12:22 doesn’t realize is that Steel will be the last to go. The first to go will be the literary works that Danielle Steel’s success subsidizes – the Philip Roths, John Updikes and Toni Morrisons.

Perhaps Anon 12:22 views news the same way as she views book publishing and thinks, in the world of commercialization, we’d all be better off with the enormously profitable FoxNews. But FoxNews achieves its profitability by pandering to the lowest common denominator and by cutting newsroom staff and by cutting the in-depth, expensive journalistic work required to accurately report the news. FoxNews has eschewed all this in favor of cheaper and more profitable editorializing. With profits falling across nearly every news medium, I’m guessing Anon 12:22 thinks a world with FoxNews as the only source of journalism is unqualified proof of Capitalism’s success.

But I hope she doesn’t. I hope she sees that Capitalism, for all its progressive potential, is also fraught with inherent dangers if left unchecked, or if Capitalism doesn’t help subsidize non-profitable arts and sciences that further humanity. Most liberals understand that there needs to be a balance, and nearly every great thinker from Aristotle to Adam Smith and from George Bernard Shaw to John Maynard Keynes have understood that the best result for humanity and society is a balance between capitalism and social good. It wasn’t until Milton Friedman and the rise of Libertarianism in the 80s that people began to celebrate Capitalism and profit as the holy grail of progress.

In the current economic climate, it’s become obvious that capitalism is fundamentally flawed. Companies and businesses don’t act rationally to keep themselves afloat in the long term if the potential for short-term gain is large. Therefore Friedman’s entire philosophy has been thrown out the window as so much garbage. Unchecked Capitalism results, inevitably, in extreme wealth for a privileged few and the starkest poverty for all the rest. One only needs look at the recent Libertarian experiments in Saipan and South Africa to recognize this.

But this isn’t a call for Socialism, nor is it an angry leftist rebuke of Capitalism in its entirety. It’s a call for Capitalism’s fanatics to realize Capitalism needs a balance. Conservatives rarely support the arts, and rarely support the furthering of science, and they do this in the favor of profits and the claim that Capitalism leads to freedom and will cure the world’s ills. Their argument (which is the same as Anon’s) is always; “If people don’t support it financially then the world doesn’t need it.”

With literacy rates in the 1600s at 15% or less, Shakespeare wasn’t something the world “needed” when he penned his works. But the world has benefited from Shakespeare’s work much more so after his death than during his life (just as the world has benefited from NASA four decades after the program began). Who’s to say the unread author today won’t resonate with later generations and won’t provide some insight in the human heart, or shed some light on philosophy, relationships, spirituality or the meaning of life?

Moonrat should take a critical eye to Anon 12:22’s comment and realize that yes, publishers, agents and authors do occasionally need to eat, so the pursuit of profit is,unfortunately, a necessity. But Moonie should also reject Anon 12:22’s strident faith in Capitalism and pray that the rest of the world doesn’t believe the same way Anon 12:22 does.

I, for one, don’t want to live in a world without support of the arts and sciences. I don’t want to live in a world without Shakespeare; a world that offers none of the emotional and spiritual support the arts have provided for humanity; a world without artistic insight into the human mind; a world without authors like William Blake, who never achieved success but whose works called for equality, freedom, love, faith and happiness, and who was just as successful in helping humanity secure those things, as Capitalism has been.

I close by saying, keep doing what you’re doing Moonrat. Remember that you didn’t get into the industry for money, that you could have been a lawyer or a CEO if you’d wanted financial success. Book publishing is something you love and book publishing will always struggle to turn a profit (not just today, not just this year, not just during this economic slump, but ALWAYS).

You have shouldered the challenging task of bringing light to the world and it’s a selfless and thankless job (more thankless even than for the author who pens the work). The world (and Anon 12:22 and her friends) have ruled against you and ruled against the value of the arts. Don’t listen. They’re wrong.

The world is unquestionably NOT better off without the arts. And if that’s the world Anon 12:22 lives in then I pity her. My world and yours, Moonrat, are much better.

Ben-M said...

Regarding the Environmental argument that suggests things like the Kindle as a solution - Given the natural resources that are consumed in manufacturing electronics goods and then powering them, the way the technology industry builds in obsolescence in order to force people to upgrade regularly, and the fact books can be printed largely on recycled paper, I can only assume that the books in your bookshelf at home are a far better investment on behalf of the planet.

If you really want to limit the environmental impact of the publishing industry then reconsider Moonie's #1 and #4 suggestions: Limit the number of returned books.

moonrat said...

Sprizouse, I love you.

Pamala Knight said...

Okay, at first my ticket for the 2012 presidential ticket was going to Moonrat plus Rally Monkey as First Primate, but now I think the ticket should absolutely be Moonie and Sprizouse. Let's see that budget deficit try and deal with that combo.

Really though, excellent and thoughtful post which is not only erudite but timely as well. Let's hope that someone in the publishing industry listens for the sake of us all.

Sprizouse said...

I love you too Moonrat.

Anya said...

I definitely like your suggestions, Moonie. Why can't the publishing industry and its associates make some slight tweaks to become more efficient? My husband, who is published, can't get a quick and concrete answer from his publisher on who has how many books, how many have been sold, how many returned, etc. without chatting up multiple people and hitting multiple systems/services. He wants to know where the central program is that could more efficiently handle distribution and better estimate print runs (can you tell the man is a computer programmer and engineer?).

Just a question, how did it ever come about that bookstores could return books (stripped books at that that are then unsellable)?

I hope the industry doesn't fold in any part, but can see the need for change and innovation. I also don't want to see bookstores go away, there is nothing quite as soothing as cruising the aisles for something new (and a coffee, scone and cushy armchair are added bonuses).

Cakespy said...

I like how you addressed the returnable system. Having worked at a wholesale gift / stationery company, I know that comparable deals are really stressing out all sorts of other industries too--it may have gotten out of hand, with retailers not ordering carefully because they have the attitude of "Oh, I can just return it".

Kristin Dodge said...

I, like katiek, cringe at buying books, especially when a $19.99 hardcover could fill a quarter of my gas tank.

Solution: borrow books, but buy the books you love. Support the authors you adore.

That said, is there a way for publishers to market more to libraries, as well as lower press runs?

Your incredible post made me sneak out from lurking, but I'll return to my former station now. ;)

rlshoff said...

These ideas may make sense, but I admit that when I see the bit about higher book prices, I want to cry. I can barely afford books as it is.

Of course, some of that is being an ex-pat in a smallish city (5 mil) in China, where my family and I live reasonably comfortably (except in the matter of books). The local foreign language bookstore is not adequate, and though the prices there are discounted off the US or British prices, I can still feed my family of four for a couple of days for what I pay there on new(ish) releases. And most things I want to read aren't there. I ship my favorites over m-bag rate(for printed material--it's discounted, but still not cheap), and ask for books for us for birthdays and Christmas, and borrow from friends--and read the same things again and again. When I buy books, it's online, and carefully considered. After the post this last weekend, I even looked at Kindle prices. Nope. That's not going to happen anytime soon--it's more than I get paid some months.

It's as much as most of my local colleagues ever make in a month. The thing is, they're anxious for English reading materials. They'd love to see some modern stuff (especially chapter books and YA with older themes, but easier writing.) But most of them aren't willing to go hungry to get it.

Now, I know China is a nightmare with copyright protections. And some kind of solution has to be worked out before publishers feel comfortable working here. But it's a big market, full of people who are learning, or who have learned English. But to do well in this kind of market (or even with ex-pats, like me--many of whom are serious readers), book prices need to go down, not up. Otherwise people can't afford to buy new material, even though they may want to. (And I'm sure this is also true in countries that aren't doing as well economically as we are here.)

In a global world, companies need to think about global, not just local, realities, I think.

giobelladonna said...

How about making a move away from hardcover editions to trade paperbacks? It seems that hardcovers are more of a vanity thing; a way to please the author especially. I admit I was disappointed when my book was released as an original trade but once I held it, I really fell for the glossy cover and the fact that it was easier to read in the bath than some heavy, unwieldy hardcover. Plus how often does a person shell out the extra $10-15 bucks just because they simply cannot wait for the book to come out in paperback? I am a rabid reader and I have my must-read-at-once authors but it's a pretty small list.

jalexissmith said...

I hear the whole environmental argument. I get the poor student thing too (I am one). That's why I won't be buying extra books willy nilly (jeeze, I don't have the money for that... or the space to put them... or the time to read them, for that matter). But I am going to buy books for my family for the holidays- money that I would have otherwise spent on scarves or bath products or chocolate.

Word Verification: annesses

huh??

Jonathan Dozier-Ezell said...

Of course the publishing industry isn't going away and neither should it. The difficulty today in publishing is the same as it always has been. The publisher must choose titles that navigate the razor-thin space cut by books that are both easily mass marketable and well-written (subjectivity of this term aside). In many respects, the pub industry is lucky. After all, there's no need to tear down factories and refit them to modern, enviro-friendly specs in order to please consumers like the auto industries must do. Pubs only have to figure out what readers want to read. Simple. Out with one trend and in with another. No government-mandated MPG required.

And I know that deciphering trends isn't the easiest thing to do. But, my question is are they even really trying to do it? How much of publishing lately has not been a blind, shot-in-the-dark prayer clinging to what sold in the past? How many of you have been asked by a major publisher what you'd like to read this holiday season? If ten people here have been asked for their opinions, I'll fold all of your delicates.

Anonymous said...

re: initial comment on the comment string -

What a neanderthal! Or does that give neanderthals a bad name?

AAACK! What is s/he doing reading your wonderful blog?

Anonymous said...

ps by that I mean Anon 12:22

Merry Monteleone said...

What an interesting discussion, especially from a comment that, when I first read it, I took as sarcasm with too much time on its hands. If anon actually meant that, he/she must have stumbled in here on accident - I can't see a regular blog reader believing that...

I wouldn't say that the comment was a rally cry of capitalism, either, nor am I completely on board with the analogies because they completely discount the fact that there is choice and such a thing as niche markets - plus I don't feel that there's anything evil in wanting to earn income from the work you love.

Do I agree that artistic works are important and the arts are more important than money? Yes, actually. But it doesn't change the fact that they have to be financed and the bottom line is, a lot of us out here who adore the written word, don't spend our money on it. We complain when the mom and pop bookstore closes down, even though we haven't made time to shop there in months. (actually janet reid just did a great post on this at the dead guys today)

I wonder if there's a way for the publishers to get together and decide not to accept returns - it's a stupid system and the only industry that allows it. Meanwhile the bookstores can put these books on display stands and use them to boost their sales and then return damaged books at no cost...

I think if one publisher decided not to do it, they'd get frozen out, but if they all got together, well, the bookstores would have to give in, wouldn't they?

And, just a side note but I thought it was funny. After 9/11, we all, myself included, rolled our eyes that President Bush would say something as stupid as "Go Shop." But aren't we essentially saying the same thing here?

Katiek patrianoceu said...

Thanks to those of you who are helping me think through how to reconcile my desire to conserve with my desire to support the world of literature. I didn't think about the environmental mess kindles make. Maybe I won't get one after all. But that leaves me back with borrowing books. So that leaves me wondering, does anyone know of any ideas, or have any ideas, about how revenues could return to publishers in a more fair way through the library system?

Bowleserised said...

I hate these people who think editors are some kind of useless appendage. I shudder to think of a world of unedited books...

Merry Monteleone said...

Katiek,

While I admire the want to conserve, I don't think book buying is the most harmful thing you can do to the environment - especially if you're not just chucking books in the garbage when you're done with them - you can donate them to the library, and support both the library system and authors. You can donate them to AmVets, or Goodwill - you can send them overseas to soldiers, you can sell them second hand, but you can definitely pass them on in some form or fashion.

There isn't, as far as I can see, a way that using the library pays the authors you read - the author was paid for the library's original purchases of the books and having your book in a library is a great way to gain readership.

Colorado Writer said...

Books are only cluttering up the environment if you are throwing them away.

nancydrew212 said...

Hi moonrat,
I actually work in finance and everyone in my world is trying to reinvent themselves, get a piece of the pie and keep their job. So nothing's immune these days, and publishing is just in the same boat as everything else. I think of it this way -- are we really going to have a world without banks? without automakers? nope. and in the same vein, we won't have a world without books. that said, i do agree that the book medium has to change, possibly with ebooks being super affordable, widely available, and in a good userformat w/revenues based on download - just like itunes, netflix... BUT printed books will also likely continue to exist the same way cds and dvds do, though likely in smaller batches and at higher prices for all the reasons you cite. Times are a changin' and publishing will just keep up...

Katiek patrianoceu said...

Dear Merry,

You're absolutely right, and I love your suggestions. I get no bigger thrill than passing on a book I've read and enjoyed to a friend who I think will appreciate it, too.

But, back to Moonrat's original advice, I'm still troubled. Because isn't it more fair to the publishing industry (financially-speaking) to buy a copy for my friend? But now I'm back where I started, seeing so many copies of the same thing in print when many of us almost always only read a book once.

As you can see, this is an issue that, while minor, deeply bugs me. But I've had my say, and I thank my fellow blog-followers for listening and for all and any good advice.

Charles Gramlich said...

At risk of sounding snarky, I might say to anonymous that there have been billions of people born in the world. We don't need any more. So please don't have kids.

Kelly Maher said...

Moonrat, your suggestion regarding the returns system greatly resonated with me as it's something I've been wondering about for quite a while. Retailers have return policies for us consumers. Why shouldn't they adhere to return policies from their suppliers?

JES said...

Sprizouse, I agree with others: that was a terrific comment.

BUT it does seem a little out of synch with the most recent post at your blog.

Can you reconcile the misalignment fairly, er, concisely? :)

Sprizouse said...

JES, I'm not sure what's at odds about that post... it fits in perfectly with what I left here on Moonrat's blog, but I'll try to be as concise as possible in explaining:

The Austrian School of Economic Theory states that unchecked, unbalanced Capitalism increases wealth at the top and suppresses the other classes. In the 1920s this is exactly what occurred (the same as the 2000s). What happens is that the top become intensely materialistic and that materialism trickles down.

In response, the middle class begins to envy the vast accumulation of wealth at the top and begins to emulate the top’s materialism. But since the middle class income is not increasing at all while the top’s is increasing hand-over-fist, then the middle instead turns to credit to fund their dreams.

But funding lifestyles with credit is a piper that must eventually be paid.

Mortgage equity withdrawals through most of the 2000s constituted almost 6% of United States GDP. If that’s not living on credit then I don’t know what is.

In short, Rothbard (and the other Austrian Economists) said the Great Depression was caused by everything that happened prior to the crash, i.e. too much loose and easy credit and the envious people in the roaring twenties' middle class attempting to live the same lifestyle as the capitalists at the top of the food chain.

John Maynard Keynes, Ben Bernanke and others believe the Depression could have been avoided by monetary policy or fiscal policy. Rothbard says it only could have been avoided by raising interest rates in the 1920s and reining in credit before the crash.

Does that help?

Merry Monteleone said...

Sprizouse,

I'm not an economist, so consider this a quest for more information rather than an argument - first, I suppose we should put this squarely in the United States' current economic policy, even though publishing is obviously not relegated to within its borders... But we're not purely unchecked captilist. That would suggest that our entire economic system hinges on supply and demand with no interference from Government or policy.

So, what we have in actuality is a capitalist based system - which you suggest works so long as it doesn't go unchecked. Okay, I'm on board so far - and I'd venture to concur that one of the contributing factors to the Great Depression was in fact a great many of the lower and middle class extending credit and living beyond their means... but I'm not quite getting the solution to this without diminishing personal responsibility.

I think there are a few contributing factors to our current economic turmoil, one of which is certainly the extension of credit to people who then defaulted, which could have been avoided if there were more stringent criteria to gain that credit in the first place. It's not the only factor, but it is a solid one... except in this case, those standards were not lowered by conservative capitalists, those initiatives were spearheaded by liberal groups and efforts to add regulations to the housing markets over the decade were rebuked by many democrats... so I don't think we can exactly lay blame squarely on either political party - this being an odd situation because normally the conservative side is the one asking for less or no regulation.

As I said, I think there are a great many factors that contribute here, but I would agree with you that this situation can't happen if individuals take personal responisiblity for their spending and debts. THere were, in this case, also some rather shady lending practices at play, too, including the subprime loans. I also think there was a false raise in home values right before the crash - value raised too fast by too wide a percentage without much increase in income... you'll note these values raised right on the tail of interest rates plummeting, which lead a great many home owners and soon to be homeowners to believe they could afford homes that were not reasonably within their income or budget.

That's all I've got so far, as I said, I'm not an economist - but I do think there's more in this than one factor or another... as far as publishing is concerned, books will continue to be written and consumed. What form that takes in the future might be up for debate, but I don't think it will fold - I do think it will lose some houses and brick and mortar stores before the crisis is over.

Julie Weathers said...

Environmentalism. I know that one little book is not doing the same amount of damage as the SUV in which its purchaser drove to B&N to buy it. But still... if I can treat a book as a RE-usable resource, that seems good. That's why I always borrow books from friends or the libraries.

I assume you are interested in writing. I wonder if your environmentally responsible stance will be as popular when you publish.

I'm going to say something very unpopular here, but so be it.

Montana is undergoing a forest disaster. No, not from greedy lumber companies. Entire mountain ranges of forests have been destroyed by beetles. Mountains that were once covered with lush green trees are now rust colored blights. There are enough dead trees to build thousands of houses, but our environmental policies prohibit harvesting timber in national forests.

What does this mean? It means there are nearly half a million acres of tinder boxes in the west waiting for a lightning strike to ignite them. The dead trees are also fuel for more diseases and insects. Young growth is hampered by the dead trees which still take up the room and sunlight.

It's already a disaster and it's going to be a bigger disaster.

Yellowstone National Park. Massive amounts of lumber allowed to rot after the fire. Beetles moved in to a prime breeding ground, damaged trees, and then spread to healthy trees.

Sometimes common sense is also a good thing.

I'm not saying we should deforest the mountains, but we should care for our natural resources responsibly, not emotionally.

Back to the original topic, yes, buy more books.

"Conservatives rarely support the arts, and rarely support the furthering of science, and they do this in the favor of profits and the claim that Capitalism leads to freedom and will cure the world’s ills. Their argument (which is the same as Anon’s) is always; “If people don’t support it financially then the world doesn’t need it.”

I'm a little surprised at the rhetoric about a group of people, say conservatives, being anti-art and science in an otherwise very interesting statement.

Whirlochre said...

What's the worst that could happen?

The recession beats nuclear holocaust and invasion by aliens to the prize of Humanity's Ragged Homeless Future Huddled Round Fires In The Wilderness Till 2089?

And there won't be stories?

Julie Weathers said...

Merry,

Amen.

I predicted this mess years ago. We did the same thing in the 80's and apparently learned nothing.

Not everyone needs to buy a house or should buy a house, but some powers seem to think it's the government's job to make sure everyone can have one whether they can afford it or not.

If you can't afford it, don't buy it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Julie,

"Conservatives rarely support the arts, and rarely support the furthering of science, and they do this in the favor of profits and the claim that Capitalism leads to freedom and will cure the world’s ills. Their argument (which is the same as Anon’s) is always; “If people don’t support it financially then the world doesn’t need it.”

I'm a little surprised at the rhetoric about a group of people, say conservatives, being anti-art and science in an otherwise very interesting statement.


I didn't touch this statement when I first saw it, and if you read my original comment you'll see that the I didn't take the comment moonie posted about originally as seriously as a lot of people did - though I think it's expanded a really interesting topic.

What I notice is fundamentally different in a liberal and conservative mindset is that the liberal mindset tends to believe that society as a whole (therefore the Government) needs to fund things and the conservative believes it's the individual's choice how to fund and support things. It's a difference of ideologies that often spins to a lack of fundamental understanding on a personal level.

Generally, a conservative's argument against government financing is based on their want for individual liberties rather than an opposition to the thing itself.

Government funding often goes hand in hand with government regulations and control. I don't want either involved in the arts, I think that's an easy way to breed censorship and quash our rights. The fact that conservatives don't want the government funding things, though, doesn't negate the private citizen's ability to fund these same things - through outright purchase or charitable endeavors.

I don't take this view as, “If people don’t support it financially then the world doesn’t need it.” I take it as, if you believe in something, support it - the government shouldn't hinder you in this.

And I see why you were a bit taken aback... people who aren't liberal do have the capacity to read.

Andrew said...

I'm a consultant, in the distribution world, and although I don't work with book distributors, many of my clients have similar issues with returns. Their customers expect to return anything, sans penalty, because it's the industry standard and all the other distributors allow it.

The situation's more dire in publishing for a number of reasons, which I'll just ignore for now. The solution, in my view, is no different.

It is this: stop allowing it.

But we can't, the distributors wail.

Yes, you can. Your customers don't buy widgets from you because you allow returns without penalty, but because you can deliver the right widget at the right time. If you can compete at distribution, they won't care so much about returns.

That doesn't apply perfectly to publishing for several reasons:
1 - most sales are through a small number of very large retailers, which gives more power to the retailers,
2 - sales are much more difficult to predict, so risks are higher,
3 - returns are much more important to the retailers' cash flow.

So you would expect the retailers to respond by saying, very well, we will not stock your books. But on the other hand, books are not commodities in the sense that, say, copper pipe fittings are. Each title is unique. You can't tell the kid who's trying to buy the new Harry Potter equivalent that something else is just as good. More copies of title A to compensate for a lack of title B is just more pending returns of title A. So by refusing to stock books from a given (large) publisher, the retailer shoots himself in the foot.

Retailers don't stock titles because they can return them. They do it because people want to read them.

I'm not suggesting you can stop returns outright, but policies have to change. Restocking fees should become standard, so some of the risk of returns is on the retailer. A cap on total returns is reasonable.

The plain fact is that if the relatively small number of large publishers all push for these changes, the retailers will have to cave in. Especially now, when people can order direct from the publisher.

Big-box book retailing, not publishing, is the unsustainable business here. Big boxes over-order to create the appearance of plenty for the consumer. They can't survive if their suppliers die -- it's a symbiotic relationship. So they have to be prepared to change.

That'll be $200, by the way. Consultants have to eat, too. :)

Sprizouse said...

Julie and Merry, I'm sorry if I offended. I do not mean that conservative individuals do not support the arts, what I meant was that conservative governments never support the arts.

Sprizouse said...

Merry,

I’ll attempt my best in the short comments space of Moonrat’s blog to say a few things in response to you.

First of all, you are absolutely right that there are a huge number of factors that have led to the recession (and possibly depression).

We can look at deregulation, lenders, homebuyers, speculative homebuyers and even China (had the Chinese not pegged the Renminbi to the dollar then it would have floated, and everything Chinese-made in this country would have been a dollar or two more expensive which would have limited the amount of money Americans had available to spend on housing).

Secondly, the Murray Rothbard theory on the Great Depression is exactly that, a theory. Just as the Keynesian theory, the Bernanke theory and what used to be the Milton Friedman theory (which seems to have been disproved at this point) are all unproven theories at this point.

I was merely trying to illustrate the Austrian theory to JES and, honestly, the post on my blog about Rothbard’s theory is my hope that Rothbard is incorrect about the causes of the Great Depression.

After all, if he’s correct, then we are indeed headed for another Great Depression, which I’m on my hand and knees praying this country avoids.

Finally, I do not believe we can lay the blame entirely on either political party, but the Bush administration does bear a lot of the blame for the financial crisis and for part of the recession.
Conservatives in this country have recently splintered into a number of differing groups (social conservatives, free-market, laissez-faire Libertarian conservatives and even big government conservatives like Ron Paul).

I do not mean to lump anyone reading this blog into ANY of those categories. I can, however, unquestioningly put Bush and the Bushies in the Libertarian camp. The Bushies have come into power and done everything they can to systematically destroy the government. This isn’t conspiracy theory but Libertarian dogma. This movement began in the 1980s with Reagan who realized that by wrecking the government, he could turn around, point at it and say, “Look the Government doesn’t work, let’s privatize everything!”

Bush followed the groundwork Reagan laid and appointed incompetent people at the top of every agency. He put oil tycoons in charge of the EPA, and logging industry lobbyists in charge of forestry and conservation services. He put incompetent men in charge of FEMA and outsourced the rebuilding of New Orleans to private companies (the ninth ward is almost completely rebuilt after only four years...ummm, maybe not).

Finally, Bush put Hank Paulson, a man so incompetent he doesn’t understand the basics of balance sheets, in charge of the Treasury.

Paulson, by the way, is the man who lobbied to have looser ibanking regulations (net capital rule) and the right to leverage through the roof.

The result of this deregulation is what caused the housing bubble, a lot more so than the housing bill Democrats passed in 1999. A prospective homebuyer still needs the cash to buy the home and the deregulated ibanks, flush with cash from a 1% fed funds rate were happy to lend it. Almost none of the subprime lending was done within the regulatory framework of the housing bill.

But the easiest measure of seeing how unregulated the American economy has become over the last 20 years is to look at the rising level of income inequality over the last 20 years (increases in income inequality is the most obvious sign of unchecked Capitalism).

CEO compensation, corporate bonuses and ridiculous pay have been going on for so long (20 years) that we’ve come to accept it as normal, when in fact it’s not.

While the rest of us have risen slightly in the same time frame it hasn’t helped. Human beings, invariably, do not measure their well being against their pasts, but rather against the rest of society.

And, like I said, if people at the top are accumulating vast amounts of wealth, it will spawn imitation down the chain. That has certainly been a macro-economic lead-up to where we are, but let’s hope Rothbard and the Austrians don’t have the final say on the matter or else the next few years will be especially gruesome.

Merry Monteleone said...

Moonie,

Really sorry if the political end of this is at all blog hijacking.

Sprizouse,

This is really interesting to me, but maybe off point for the post... I get that they're all theories - generally more fun than statistics or facts as you get to actually ponder them rather than accept or reject. You also don't need to study the economist's theories in order to understand the issues or their reasoning, but it is both interesting and informative.

And I get that you meant conservative governments don't support the arts and I go back to the original difference in ideology - one set believing Government should mandate the other believing people should have independent choice.

This particularly struck me:

This movement began in the 1980s with Reagan who realized that by wrecking the government, he could turn around, point at it and say, “Look the Government doesn’t work, let’s privatize everything!”

See, you go this far over one way or the other and you lose credibility with all but those who already agree with you. It's just as disheartening to see conservatives boast that the Liberal Left wants to get rid of all freedom and turn the country communist.

I think what we have here, on a political level, is a country of people who are so open-minded and inventive that every political, and economic ideology is on the table - parties change priorities, and neither is perfect or always right for the greater good of the country.

All things considered, I do agree that a portion of this is due to many of the middle and lower class living beyond their means, but you seem to blame the entire schism in wealth on capitalism itself, and I think that discrepancy also has multiple causes. (which would be really too lengthy to get into here)

I said, I haven't studied the economists' theories, but thanks for the links, I'm going to dig around and see what I can find on them. It is very interesting.

I do think we might be heading toward another depression, in fact, I would bet on it. History has a habit of repeating itself and if you don't learn from it the first time, you'll just wind up with the same problems again. So far, all of the economic plans and policies I've heard being talked up sound eerily familiar, and they didn't work the first time.

I'm also praying that outcome is the wrong one, that I'm missing something, and we skate through this a little bruised but okay. But getting back to Moonie's post, we got through the Great Depression once before, and people are still reading.

Nice talking to you.

Cynthia Shannon said...

ooooh, I love this conversation! look at all those smart posts, you make me so happy.

personally I think that books should be priced LOWER, not higher, especially in this economic climate, and the fact that it costs the publisher only like, 5 bucks for ppb.

lower print run, definitely, to eliminate returns. less stock available, less the booksellers can order, and since the books will be cheap, they will fly off the shelves as impulse buys, as opposed to shopping for deals online.

get the printers to print faster. why do i have to wait a year after ms submission for the book to hit shelves? that just seems wrong in a world of internets.

and all this hooey over fold the industry entirely - forget it. telling stories is part of our human nature.

also don't forget that the medium is the message. electronic publishing might be cool and convenient, but a book is a commitment, where you can tell how far along you are. you also have to read the entire thing, as opposed to clicking on links that distract you. add anyone?

mmmm, i think that's it for now.

writtenwyrdd said...

That anon is an idiot, but your response is a very good one. It seems like sound business practices and calm heads can fix things. Now, where do we find those?

writtenwyrdd said...

"if I can treat a book as a RE-usable resource, that seems good. "

If you are really bothered about buying a book because of the ecological impact, then why don't you buy e-books? Then you can contribute to the industry, own your own copy of the work, and also not cause any trees to die.

Joe Iriarte said...

"There have been millions of books published in centuries past. We don't need any more."

*blink*

I recognize each of those words as being in English, but strung together like that . . . nada.

superwench83 said...

Like cynthia shannon, I'm wondering if it would be better for books to be priced lower, not higher. Granted, I don't know how much it costs to make a book vs. how much profit it gets currently, so I might be totally off. But the way I see it now, sure, if a book costs more, the publisher will make more money per book. But if books are priced lower, more people might be willing to buy them, increasing profit in the long run.

Kat J. Meyer said...

Most important comment I have is that, I'm really excited to see so much interest in the topic of book publishing. It's heart-warming, life-affirming, and perhaps, one of the most hopeful signs for the industry we've had in weeks.
Less important comment goes out to Cynthia Shannon and is just my own little chip on shoulder or axe to grind. The cost of the printed book to the publisher is one thing - the cost of acquiring, editing, producing, printing, marketing, distributing and selling the book - that's another thing. Yes, there are ways to trim fat, and these will happen, but if you like your books to make sense, be spelled correctly, look pretty, show up online and in stores so you can buy them, be publicized and advertised so you know they are out there -- well, those things are done by people. very talented people who work hard to make books worth your while. Don't you think maybe books are worth more than the cost of printing?

moonrat said...

wow, guys. thanks everyone for the energetic discussion. i'll make some points separately now.

moonrat said...

re: lowering book prices: it's really, really impossible. thank you, Kat, for making the point about overhead (and editors and other publishing professionals are paid almost nothing, I promise, especially relative to their required education/experience). but there are other reasons.

First, book prices are already artificially low. I know it doesn't seem like it, since it's hard to imagine what's costing us so much, but the fact is that on 75% of books we're not even breaking even on the print costs, never mind the print costs plus overhead. Can you imagine? That means just a tiny percentage of books published are making enough money to float the rest of the industry.

Also, look back--compare the price of, say, a popular first edition hardcover in 1989 (like LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--$21.95 is marked on mine) and one now (Toni Morrison's new novel, A MERCY, is $23.95). Do some quick math to account for inflation in 20 years. Maybe, if you want, think about the gas crisis and how other prices have inflated recently, but you don't even have to. 20 years should mean a LOT more than $2. The fact is book cover prices are going up really, really slowly compared to all other prices. So our profit margins go down even farther.

But also, Cynthia, another problem is that if the print runs are decreased, the cost per producing each book goes up... a LOT. Elements of the plant cost, which is a production expense involved in setting the book and inking pages, etc, have to be paid every time the book reprints, which means that small print runs become exponentially more expensive.

(Also, I have to mention that there is plant cost incurred even for ebooks; the book still has to be copy edited and typeset, even if there are never physical pages generated. So even relying on ebooks doesn't entirely do away with plant.)

Book prices are going to have to go up sooner or later. I just don't think it will be a huge tragedy if that makes the buying market smaller. Maybe it will increase the lending market.

moonrat said...

Re: the conversation about borrowing or reusing books instead of buying new: Thanks to all the die-hards to vote for supporting the industry--I love you. But I have a confession--I lend or give my dearly beloved books to people at the drop of a hat. I also buy TONS of used books--literally, tons. Most new books I read on someone else's rec I buy used, so the loss incurred is relatively low.

I justify this because a) I read a lot; b) I don't make a lot of money, and c) when I love a book, the author ends up making royalties and then some. When I read a book and love it, I blog about it; then I buy copies for my friends. If the author does a signing, I go to the signing and re-buy the book new. All because I took the first chance for free.

I'm also a big believer in the idea that giving away free samples is the best kind of publicity. If I didn't buy used books, I would have to buy fewer books, because I barely make enough money to feed myself, never mind buy three new books a week every week for myself.

Please! reuse books. Give, lend, share, sell, buy, whatever. Books are books and deserve to be loved and circulated; I love reading the notes other people have written in second-hand books and realizing that they HAVE been circulated. But, you know. Buy new books too, judiciously.

If you can't afford new books or don't believe in them, you can still act as a proponent of everything we're talking about by going to your library and borrowing (the library buys books!!! from me!!!) or blogging about books you love and creating media hits.

Kat J. Meyer said...

go, moonie! I hereby promise to let this discussion go where it will, with one last comment. regarding the illustrious world of the ebook. I am a true advocate of the ebook. But, I do not believe the ebook is the be all end all.i believe in different formats for different content. I also really want to stress a point about price and ebooks -- maybe, right now ebooks appear to have a completely arbitrary pricing model (thank you, Kindle), but in reality - if a publisher does what they really should with the kind of books best suited for ebook format (ie: create hyperlinks, detailed cross-referencing,indexing, include illustrations and other images; allow for user connotations and sharing thereof (see if:book}) --- that is the sort of thing that is very, very expensive to produce.it's one thing to just generate a text file, but if you want to have books that include complex tables or illustrations or images or indexes - the kinds of books that would be nice to have as ebooks -- there is going to be a lot of formatting, plus complicated rights sharing work involved. and probably more that I'm forgetting.
My overall point is: printed and even e-books in the US are currently very underpriced. we are one of the few nations that enjoy the luxury of under priced books, and this is most likely not going to last.
Mainstream, commercial and indie Publishers have a responsibility to publish that which they believe in, not just that which they believe will sell.
And readers have a responsibility to buy, borrow and lend those books that THEY believe in and want to see more of.

moonrat said...

nicely said, Kat.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm not going to get into the political debate because, frankly, it's like arguing the bible. Anyone can prove anything they want to support their views by cranking out the right "experts."

I'm also pretty much sick of politics.

As for the lending books.

I loaned one of Diana Gabaldon's books to a friend at work. She loved it, so I loaned her the next two. A twister took off the roof to my barn and most of my household things I had in there, including books, got ruined. So, I didn't have the rest of the books.

September was going through some difficult times because her husband had been injured and they were down to one check, but her husband insisted she finish buying the books. Not only did she buy the remaining books, but she also went back and bought the first ones. Now, she is planning on ordering a hardcover set so she can get them autographed.

When I find an author I like, I often pick up all of their books until they disappoint me. Many times that initial read comes from a loaned book or a highly recommended book. I'll pick up remainder books just to try someone new and then find someone I love.

Yes, my dream home will have a lovely library I intend to fill with books my children will groan about when I die.

Until then, I will continue to support writers and publishers not because I am altruistic, but because I am selfish and love books.

Jane Smith said...

Snowbooks is one of the UK's leading independent publishers and Emma Barnes, one of its co-founders, has a background in retail (I think in FMCG). She's blogged a couple of times about the problem with returns, and she came up with a few very interesting solutions: you can find her posts in the links below.

Meanwhile, I'm still pondering Anon's comment... amazing.

http://www.snowbooks.com/weblog/2008/07/running_to_stand_still.html

http://www.snowbooks.com/weblog/2008/07/a_more_positive_approach_to_re.html

jnantz said...

I think the percentage cap is a great idea, moonie. The brick-and-mortars have got to realize that they are a dying breed at this point anyway, so sooner or later (my money's on later, those stubborn bastages!) they will have to make a compromise, and I'd say that sounds like a good start.

Heidi the Hick said...

Much smarter people than me have commented, and I'll get time to read all the smartness later, but I have to say something.

While online shopping is incredibly convenient, I will always love the experience of THE BOOKSTORE. I can wander around, pick up each book, page through it, decide if I'm willing to spend my hard-earned on it.

Especially in my favourite store, a small town independent run by a young woman who wears horn rimmed specs and lights up when she sees me, cuz she knows what I like to read, and has a few ideas picked out for me. We have discussions about books.

I won't get that online!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Lower print runs could work. I think higher prices could be a problem. The day a paperback goes over the price of a movie is a dark day. (So far they're close, but not quite there yet--at least here in CO.)

When I worked in the design industry, we were charged restocking fees. I think it's high time the book industry introduced restocking fees on every single book they ship. 25% ought to do it. Put everyone in the position of thinking very carefully on how to market better. Also, retailers: get all those huge Famous Author book stands out of the way (the books I already knew about anyway) so I can find the midlist. And while you're at it, group like books according to specific genre (other than: Literary, Sci Fi/Fantasy, Horror/Thriller/Mystery, etc.)

BuffySquirrel said...

Oh, I don't know. I think we can apply anon's argument to lots of other industries.

Music. There's already tons of that. Just look at YouTube.
Internet sites--millions of those. Far more than one person can ever visit, so what need for more?
Cars. Looking at the state of our roads tells me the market must be pretty near to saturated.

Heck, all we really need are clothes and food.

(*looks at today's pile o'books: 7*)

Cynthia Shannon said...

Kat and Moonrat, you're both right; I forgot how overhead and advances are actually the biggest expenses for publishers.

PPB would go up if smaller print runs are done, but if the returns system would be eliminated (which ironically was installed during the Great Depression as an incentive for book sellers to buy books), then book sellers wouldn't order as many and publishers needn't print as many AND THERE you would have your environmental argument too, since what do you think happens to all those returned or hurt books? They get smushed and thrown in the garbage (really. I've seen it and it is the saddest thing ever).

Books are a great investment. Books get handed down and have sentimental value and make great gifts and heck, they're just friggin' cool.

mmmmm, I'm going to read through the rest of these posts now. Just had to throw my two cents in there before I got distracted...

This conversation is so

M said...

I don't know about your raising prices suggestion, though. If anything I think current high prices discourage the casual readers that publishing needs to supplement its base of die-hards. $18 for a paperback? Here is my response: http://myyouthfulexuberance.blogspot.com/2008/11/terrible-confession.html