18 September 2004

Price Points

Three seemingly unrelated articles in three seemingly unrelated publications should cause anyone who really worries about the fate of literature, writing, and publishing to think hard about antitrust. And that's without considering the WGA. But, of course, I'll do that later.

First on the street—largely due to time zones—is Nicholas Clee's "The Bookseller" column in the weekly Guardian book supplement. Today, he discusses certain apparent price trends in trade publishing in the UK. According to the figures that he gathered—which, given their source, are less reliable than Palm Beach County voting records—the prices paid at the bookstore counter in England on many trade books are declining:

Maybe some "price points" — the standard prices for, say, a 400-page biography or novel — are creeping up. But people are paying less for the books they buy. Graphs in the Bookseller this week show that the average price paid for a hardback novel in bookshops in 2000 was £13.50; in 2003, it was just over £12. The average price paid for a paperback novel declined from about £5.40 in 2000 to just above £5 in 2003. The graph also has further evidence of the sensitivity to prices apparent in the "books are expensive" complaints: as the prices paid have come down, the number of books sold has gone up.

This fits well with a trend that Clee does not discuss: Publishers' increasingly strident efforts to get royalties stated as a percentage of net, not a percentage of cover price. Note, too, that it says "average price" without defining "average." My gut instinct is that this average is probably a mode, not a median or a mean (arithmetic, geometric, weighted, or stochastic), and that it does not necessarily compare comparable items.

Second up—including a discussion of that "comparable items" issue—one finds Laura Miller's weekly "The Last Word" column in the NYTBR, discussing the casebound/paperbound sales divide in trade books:

From the reader's point of view, the way most books are published makes little sense. Literary fiction and nonfiction by new and emerging writers; books likely to appeal to a younger, more adventurous and less prosperous audience; and other unknown quantities that ask book buyers to take a risk — all of these are usually published according to the same hardcover now/paperback later pattern, as are new titles from established authors like Philip Roth and Robert Caro.

Riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on. As Gary Fisketjon, a vice president and editor at large at Alfred A. Knopf, who was the editor of two of the best-known paperback-original successes — Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, and The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford — put it in a telephone interview: "You're giving people the option of postponing their decision. All the attention comes when nobody wants it. I don't see any other business that works that way."

"Paperback Writer" (18 Sep 04) (typography corrected) Leaving aside her bias that the "important" books do not include category fiction (the vast majority of which consists of paperback originals in the European fashion, including some "important" books like Kristine Smith's Code of Conduct), this goes a long way toward explaining the purported drop noticed by Clee.

Third, buried in the middle of today's Post in the Education section, one finds the opposite lament: that textbook prices are spiraling upward out of control. I always found this particularly amusing. Consider, for example, a freshman physics-with-calculus text. (Or, better yet, don't.) With very, very rare exceptions, the content of introductory college-level science classes outside the life sciences changes at a geological pace. Nonetheless, the textbook that I used in (date supressed to protect the guilty)—which would serve perfectly well today in studying the basics of motion, of electricity, and of heat, light, and sound—went through four subsequent editions until discontinued. Perhaps in a faster-moving area, such as basic cell biology (which is not really an introductory course in college, although it is usually one of the first biology classes one takes—after completing analytic/general chemistry) or law, a three-to-five-year edition cycle makes sense.

One thing that makes no sense whatsoever, though, is the screenplay credit system in Hollywood. N.B. I have some professional experience with it—and it's even less pleasant and effective than one might imagine. The current union elections in the Writer's Guild of America (West)—lucky SOBs, they have an actual and real choice between distinct candidate platforms—turn largely on controversies over the credit system and those who administer (or are supposed to administer) disputes arising under it. The real problem is the union's insistance that only four credits can be given for a film. Consider the tortured history of the scripts for many of the "comic book franchise" films, particularly the first in the relevant series, as just a start. Ordinarily, at least six, and usually more, attempts at a script were made—each one building in some fashion on the preceding attempts—before the film was even green-lighted for production. If you look at the credits one sees on screen, though, there is usually only a single credit. (Even when it is more than one name, if the names have an ampersand (&) between them instead of the word "and", it's a single credit.)

There. I think that's satisfactorily disjointed. Let's just make it an exam question: "Discuss."