Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remind me again why this is a bad thing?

Over the last few days a price war has broken out among several national retail chains. A price war over books. It started with Wal-Mart, spread to Target, and then to Sears. is also involved, surprise surprise, but it's the brick-and-mortar discount chain stores I want to focus on. A price war among the chains where the masses of working-class people shop is driving downward the cost of hardcover new releases. Granted, the pickings are slim. Very slim: the initial list is only six books, and they feature such fine fine authors as Michael Crichton, James Patterson and John Grisham. Oddly enough, Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna, got in there somehow too.

OK, so Kingsolver aside, we're not talking literature. We're not talking art. But we are talking books, books that a lot of people like to read. Books that, thanks to this odd little price war, they're going to get a chance to buy at about one-third of the usual hardcover price.

It's hard for me to understand what might be the problem here. Books: good. Reading: good. Books getting into the hands of readers: good. Books getting into the hands of people who usually can't afford to read them: better yet. Yes? No, apparently, for much of the blogosphere and the literary world in general seems to be up in arms. They're outraged--outraged, I tell you!--that these dastardly corporations are practically handing out books to the masses. The complaints seem to focus on two points: (1) that "underpricing" books demeans them, devalues their authors' labor, creates a financial leveling effect that is unhealthy for the publishing industry; and (2) that "underpriced" books will drive ever more people into the big-box stores which in turn will drive ever more small independent bookstores out of business.

As to the first objection, I can't credit any part of it. Not the part about low retail prices implying disrespect for authors--not when the authors involved are blockbuster bestsellers, rolling in dough, and, except for Kingsolver (and, depending on your viewpoint, perhaps Stephen King), hacks--but in any case, that's not really the point. It's disingenuous to suddenly, because we're talking about books, act as though the prices of these commodities are set somehow differently than the prices of any other commodity in the market economy--that is, that book prices are based on or are somehow a reflection of the goodness of the product or its artistic excellence or some such. Profit is the sole issue, for both the retailer and the manufacturer. The workers whose labor creates the product--and in this ought to be included all the workers, not only the author, for example what about the workers in the paper mills and the binderies, why is the demeaning of their labor never mentioned, oh wait, it's because the industry already went on a union-busting spree in the 1980s and 90s and slashed their jobs, wages and benefits, why is this never mentioned and it's only ever the holy mind-work of the writers that must be protected from being besmirched in the marketplace--anyway, the workers whose labor creates the product never ever get back the value of what they created. The workers are not paid for what they create, for its value in the marketplace. They are paid the least the owner of the means of production can get away with, the mill and plant workers least of all, of course. The difference between what they're paid and the value of the product is where profit resides, in this case for the publishers. If the price is too low for the owners' profit margin to be as big as they'd like, the owners naturally cry bloody murder--and in this case they've got the lovely cover of defending the sanctity of art. It's no surprise at all to see them using hifalutin language to complain about the lowered prices. It's too bad, though, if writers get swept up in it. When writers get caught up in this folderol they're just doing the work of their own exploiters, the publishing companies. And jeez, haven't we all seen enough in the last months and years, with all the consolidation, monopolization, layoffs, shutdowns, cutbacks, all the brutal, ongoing repositioning in the publishing industry as its profit-takers do whatever's necessary to keep taking profits, to know better than to side with them?

Not that I'd side with the big retail chains either, of course. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of the dastardly chains. But I couldn't care less which union-busting multinational megacorporation, say, Wal-Mart's or Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, rakes in more dollars.

I've gone on too long and I haven't gotten to the other point I wanted to address, the worry that the chains slashing book prices will contribute to the demise of more small independent bookstores. I'll come back soon with a thought or two about this.