A Not Entirely Off-Topic Letter to the Publishing Industry

Dear Publishing Industry:

Your sales are down not because people don’t like to read anymore but because  you’re pricing your products too high!! I read a lot. I subscribe to at least a dozen different magazines, and I run through as few as one and as many as four books in a week. I don’t buy hardbacks though. Not new hardbacks, at any rate. Too pricey. I don’t know if you know the guys over in the music industry, but keeping CD prices high doesn’t seem to have been a great strategy for them. It’s been a boon to Apple and i-Tunes though.

I hardly even buy new paperbacks these days, because the cost of a slim volume is too high when I consider the hourly cost given the speed at which I read. These days, I’m making good use of the public library and free books available on line, but for a brief shining moment when Amazon offered Kindle books for a maximum $9.99, I had all kinds of fun reading old favorites and new offerings. I was like a book junky, buying something new (or new to me) on a weekly basis, or even more often. At $10 or less per book, I had plans to rebuild my permanent collection in electronic format.

You guys put a stop to that. Letting Apple skim more off the top as part of your Kindle comeback – that’s just low! People who read aren’t stupid. We know when something isn’t in our best interests. Do you know how many e-books I’ve purchased since Amazon’s pricing policy was overturned a year or two ago? Four, maybe five. I’m certainly not going to rebuild my permanent collection electronically any time soon. At a cost of more than $10, books move from being an impulse buy into an expense that needs to be considered within the context of my broader entertainment budget. Books lose out in that context, because given the cost, I’d rather use scarce entertainment dollars doing something with friends.

This isn’t an off-topic rant entirely, however, since literacy plays an important role in economic development in general and poverty reduction more specifically. When books are expensive, those who are poor or less well off are going to opt out of consumption. As these individuals spend less time reading, their literacy skills are unlikely to improve, which affects their employment prospects. Given the growing popularity of online education, it is worth noting that the poor will still need to read to participate in distance education too. Anything we can do to make it easier and more entertaining for the poor to improve their literacy skills is a good thing.

I once spent a couple of months in Cuba researching small farmer agriculture on a Ford Foundation grant. The beauty of a state-controlled publishing industry was that books were readily affordable and offered for sale in many locations. A wide range of books were available too, including classics, languages, technical books, Soviet science fiction, all kinds of stuff. Censorship had its ugly side too, but I bought books that summer because I could afford to – and honestly, there wasn’t a lot else to do.

The next year in Brazil, I noticed that a range of venues, including the ever present newsstand, sold inexpensive paperbacks. These included best sellers, yester-year’s best-sellers and classics out of copyright protection (reissued with jazzy new covers and descriptions). For the middle class, these low-cost titles were definitely impulse buys – but the poor could afford them too. Although tele-novelas are probably the most popular story-telling form, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much reading was going on.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the publishing industry, it’s not too late to rethink your model. E-books will change the readership market – but it’s also starting to change the forms and formats in which we read. I love holding a book in my hands, but the ability to click on a hyperlink and check a reference source without putting the “book” down is compelling professionally.

Other features of purpose built e-books are intriguing personally. You can ignore these changes and keep publishing $30 hardbacks with ever diminishing sales volumes, or you can test alternate business models. Publishers don’t just promote books, they edit and curate them, seek out new titles etc. There’s value in those functions that can be preserved. Ultimately, however, crowdsourcing and social media could replace all of this. Wake up and smell the coffee! Selling a lot of $5 books can be just as profitable as selling a very few $30 books. Take a look at commercial microfinance before you claim that publishing is different. If volume can make financial services for the poor a reality, it could certainly do the same for book sale

Lauren Burnhill – @LaurenOPV


One response to “A Not Entirely Off-Topic Letter to the Publishing Industry

  1. Hi Lauren,

    I apologize for the off-topic comment. My name is Judith Ohikuare and I’m a reporter with Inc. magazine. I’m trying to get in touch with you for a story. We’re on a very tight publication deadline, so please email me at johikuare@inc.com.


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