Where We Buy Our Books Matters — Chris and Carole Respond

This conversation is in response to the recent news story story "Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It" (New York Times, December 27, 2008), in which David Streitfeld asserts, "What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers" who increasingly rely on "resellers" for their book buying needs.

Chris Said....

As I read New York Times reporter David Streitfeld's excellent article, I cringed. So far this week, all of my book purchases have been from what can generously be called "alternative resources." I frequent two local thrift shops with great book selections and great prices. Both support the community — proceeds benefit local welfare organizations — so I feel my $12 has been well-spent.

Now, that's not where I get my current bestsellers. For that, I go to my local Borders — where I will pick up the latest Stephen King short story collection as soon as I obtain a 40 percent off coupon. (Many books are automatically discounted, and other require coupons for discount purchases. Just After Sunset is not discounted at Borders as I type.)

I do not begrudge the manufacturers or sellers their cut of the sale. I want to support authors. I prefer to purchase a book from Borders (though receiving a package at work from Amazon has its appeal). I will pay the price for what I wish to purchase. However, I seek the lowest prices for everything I purchase, including groceries.

I am sure I share my late father's Depression-era shock at the cost of — well, nearly everything. I know there's no such thing as a free lunch, and I am sure many of the "sale" prices are not the deal they purport to be. However, when I spend money, I choose carefully.

I attend only select concerts or movies because ticket prices are so high. I purchase only compact discs or movies I know I want and only when they are on sale; I'm wont to risk $20-$30 (or more) on a lark. I do not attend most "major league" sporting events because exorbitant cost of these activities. The sticker shock is not just for tickets: when a soda costs $5 because they can charge that much, I have to rethink the intelligence of the purchase.

Recent financial news has spotlighted the salaries and bonuses of upper management, company presidents, celebrities and company owners — and has soured consumers on the "cost of doing business." Do I want to spend $10 for a movie ticket or $100 to watch a ballgame when the money is going toward Dan Snyder's private jet, Angelina Jolie's new French mansion or Bill Gates' coffers? People deserve to make a living, but at what cost to me? I don't know enough about the publishing industry to make a direct accusation, but it makes me wonder.

So, when it comes to books, I am loathe to spend $25 or more on a novel I might not like. (The Somnambulist was a recent full-price purchase, and quite a disappointment.) I turn to those who can provide quality books at affordable prices. I want my neighborhood bookstores, but I also want to afford the books I wish to buy.

Perhaps I should stand on my principles and purchase only the books I can afford from a brick and mortar bookseller. And maybe that will be my 2009 resolution. However, I assure you, the number of books I would purchase from said booksellers would not increase — not at today's retail prices.

Carole Said....
I found this New York Times article quite interesting. I'm fascinated by unintended consequences. In pursuit of thrift, most people feel virtuous — they are not spending to excess, they have that penny saved-penny earned thing going on, and they feel like they've scored a victory somehow in buying something for less. But I bet they generally don't think, "Who am I hurting by doing this?"

After reading the article, I see that there are unintended consequences for my book-buying actions. My intent for pursuing a bargain is not to take money out of anyone's pocket, but rather to leave some in mine. Chris makes the point that she would rather not make the rich richer, but I don't present a coupon for a book thinking that I've really stuck it to the CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I've never really given it a thought.

I decided to look at my book-buying habits as represented by the books I read in 2008. I read 62 books; I paid full price for 33 of them. The remaining 29 books were loaned to me or were purchased used. None that I purchased were ordered from Amazon. I have no idea whether slightly more than half is a good percentage or not. I've never looked at my list in this manner before.

The NYT article doesn't give us any guidelines for what kind of behavior we should pursue if we want to avoid the lack of any brick-and-mortar bookstores in the future. Chris' 2009 resolution to buy onsite has merit. Or does it? For instance, I keep hearing that Borders is on the ropes, a very distant second to the behemoth Barnes & Noble. So, when Chris buys her books at Borders, that's a good thing, right? But if she uses a 40 percent off coupon, is that another nail in Borders' coffin? I mean a reduced-price sale is better than no sale, right?

The article raised other questions for me. For instance, what about libraries? I can get the books I want for free there. Who does that hurt? I've never heard about authors hating libraries, but how is one of their books being loaned out again and again good for them? Other than exposing new readers to their work, how does it profit them? Or the publisher? While I'm sure that authors are thrilled to know that readers are discovering their works, the bloom has to come off the rose when it is consistently done for free, right?

I don't sell my books when I get rid of them. I give them away. Is that a bad thing? So I'm not taking money out of the author/publisher's pocket and putting it into mine, but I'm not helping them make any money either. In that sense, I'm sort of like the public library, only you don't ever have to give it back, there are no late fees, and the selection is limited to what I happen to be getting rid of at the time.

I've worked in a niche part of publishing for most of my career, and this article pointed out to me that I have NO idea how much of this stuff works. What I do know is that I have a finite amount of money to spend on fun things. Books are a big part of my fun. After reading the article, I do feel sheepish about shopping for some bargains, but I'm not sure why or what I should do instead.

The book business is in trouble because the book-selling model is changing. Publishers used to make their money by having healthy backlists from which to sell. The online ordering world means that they can't make their money that way anymore; that means that they'll have to figure out new ways to make book selling profitable or go under. The NYT article suggests that maybe that means no real bookstores to browse or fewer authors being published. I find it hard to believe that either of those is really the solution.

In the meantime, I'm going to take my sheepish self home to finish my book club book, for which I paid top dollar, so that I can start on the next Pulitzer book on my list, which Chris loaned me. A break-even scenario. In the grand scheme of things, maybe that is as good as it gets.

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