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How To Save Book Publishing

An article in today’s New York Times reports on the “new austerity” that has descended upon the formerly cushy world of book publishing, known for its long lunches and splashy holiday parties. What with the turmoil at some of the major houses – the reorganization of the Random House group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s freezing of acquisitions – “editors with Four Seasons taste are being asked to scale back on their lunch tabs.” But buried among the sob stories of parties canceled and sales conferences conducted by webcam rather than at tropical resorts is an intriguing – if inadvertent -- proposal to salvage the industry:

[Agent Amanda] Urban said some of the more lavish practices could not be sustained by a slow-growth, low-margin industry that can't charge luxury prices. "Books can only support a certain retail price," she said. "It's not like you have books that can be Manolo Blahniks and books that can be Cole Haan. Books are books. A book by James Patterson costs the same as a book by some poet."

Now there’s a fascinating new idea for a price model. Why do we discount for best-sellers? The logic is all wrong. Instead of a uniform price of around $30 for all hardcovers, why not price them according to what the market will bear? Charge $50 for James Patterson; charge $5 for “some poet.” A book that gets Oprah’s imprimatur could automatically double. But for god’s sake, quit giving those poets such high advances!

--Ruth Franklin