“Blaming Amazon for problems in the industry distracts us from considering other factors: increasing conglomeration, which forces prices down; pressure from distributors to keep prices down; pressure from booksellers to keep prices down.”
Anne publishes one of my favorite newsletters, and it’s one of the few I happily pay for because she isn’t afraid to tackle thorny industry issues with an inquisitive, open mind, while also sharing candid insights about her own business, Belt Publishing
. There’s a handful of publishers who run things like I believe I would in the theoretical publishing company I refuse to ever start
, and Anne is one of them.
The idea that books should cost more is an intriguing one, but only in an alternative world where the industry hadn’t been devaluing its own content for years while pretending they weren’t competing with other media for attention and discretionary income. The main thing that’s always struck me odd about book prices is they’re the only major media I’m aware of that heavily discounts brand new releases. Movies, games, comic books, and magazines are typically full price at their initial release, discounted only after demand ebbs, never flowed, or, in ill-advised ad-supported scenarios, heavily discounted via subscriptions. Meanwhile, almost every new book hits the shelves with a sizeable discount attached, and that’s the norm.
That’s not Amazon’s fault; they just took advantage of an established business model, found the white space, and put their thumb on the scale.
Because trade book publishers have historically been terrible about communicating directly with readers about literally anything—and in attempting to correct that fault, have clumsily done things to further alienate their real customers: booksellers and librarians—trying to argue for the “true value” of books is a Sisyphean task. Books are cheap because scale demands it, and the entire supply chain is built around maximizing scale to support large corporate publishers.
Success in the margins can be found outside of the supply chain, engaging directly with specific groups of readers and serving them well, like many marginalized authors and specialty niches have done for years, long before ebooks made it easy for anyone to publish a book and help send Jeff Bezos to space. Better to focus on premium releases and adjacent experiences for your hardcore fans, sold directly or via true partners, and accept the general commodification of books as yet another thing Boomers screwed future generations on.