Books in recession

Reading this article in the NYT about the woes of the book publishing industry not being able to make as much money off of their product due to the rise of online used booksellers seems very similar to what happened in the music industry when Napster arrived and people started sharing music instead of buying it.  Of course, people still have to buy the used books from online booksellers, but they’re able to do it often for almost nothing, a cent plus shipping and handling.  Far cheaper than the bookstore, or buying new from an online bookstore.

It’s a situation that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.  As mentioned, the music industry still hasn’t fully figured out how to make money on product that people can easily move around for free online.  A similar thing has been occurring with DVD burning, of course.  I don’t see this as a problem so much as a change, one that indicates the idea of property is changing, too.  People want their music, movies, and books, but they don’t want to pay a lot of money for them.  

I wonder sometimes if these products are priced too high by their producers.  I’m a writer and not a business person, and I understand that the point of a business is to make profits, but if your product is overpriced (a thirty dollar hardback, for example) how do you expect to sell it in great quantities?  And let’s be honest.  Making books isn’t as expensive as it once was, either. Wouldn’t it make sense to lower prices in order to sell more, and by doing so probably make an even greater profit than raising the prices on the product to be purchased by a lot fewer people?  

While Black Wednesday has hit the publishing industry recently (you have been following that event, right?), and many people have lost their jobs because of it, from news and professional blog sources it seems that one sector of the publishing industry that remains safe and still profitable are YA novels.  They’re extremely popular, and that popularity is not waning in the face of recession.  I think this may be because books are seen as a “good thing” and parents can feel good about buying books for their children even if they themselves have stopped buying books for themselves.  But also there are a great number of adult readers reading almost nothing but YA novels.  I find it odd that so many adults are reading about almost nothing but teenagers, and am not sure of what it is an indication.  I read YA stories and novels myself (and often write about young adult characters) so my uncertainty about what it indicates when adults read YA books is not one that comes from some sort of snobbery toward the genre itself so much as it stems from encountering so many adults who read nothing but YA novels.  I don’t buy the theory that YA is where it’s at for no particular reason.  It just doesn’t seem rational that adults would stop reading adult novels altogether, especially when a lot of teens read “up” about older adults and levels of maturation.  It’s a way that we tend to figure out what’s going to come next for us, what to anticipate.

I think a few factors exist in the shakiness of the adult publishing world at the moment.  One of them is expense.  For example, recently I was in the YA section of a bookstore looking for books to buy for my nephews and nieces for Christmas (Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier, Valiant by Holly Black, and Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, if you’re interested).  What I noticed (probably for the second or third time in the past year or two) is how cheap YA books are.  You can purchase a hardback YA novel for 15 or 16 dollars.  You’d pay the same amount for many adult trade paperbacks, and twice as much or more for an adult hardback.  You can purchase a trade paperback YA novel for anywhere from 5 to 10 dollars.  Because of this, I felt less restrained about buying more books, and ended up getting several more YA books for myself that day, and got a little annoyed that I couldn’t feel so unrestrained in regards to how I felt I could go about purchasing all of the adult books I want to buy.  

I’ve heard some people say that YA books are shorter than adult books, so they can be priced more cheaply.  But I see a great amount of YA books that have as many pages (and often even more pages these days) as adult books.  If they can be produced at lower cost than adult books, I’m not sure why, and as I said, I’m a writer not a business person, so if someone can explain this to me, I’ll be grateful.  Until then, I’ll continue to ponder over the large differences in pricing between adult and YA novels, and continue to buy unrestrainedly in the YA section of the bookstore while pinching pennies in the adult section.

On a potentially good end note, it seems there is a potential trend toward cheaply priced trade and quality paperbacks in motion, though perhaps not many of the larger publishing houses have caught on to it yet.  The books featured are a new line of paperbacks (Olive Editions) somewhere in between trade and mass market–trade quality cover leaning toward mass market size.  They look good, too.  I received the Olive Edition of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for Christmas.  I’d already read the book, but had exclaimed over the size, affordability, and style of its production when I saw it in a bookstore several weeks ago, and in response received it as a gift.



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7 responses to “Books in recession”

  1. Nevin Avatar

    I can think of a few explanations for why YA books could be cheaper than adult books. They’re all somewhat related, in that they deal with the difference between a high-selling market and a low-selling market:

    1) YA books sell in significantly higher quantities, so the profit margins don’t have to be as high. Mass-market products can get away with lower prices than niche products.

    2) The only people still buying adult books are hardcore enough to pay high prices for them, while the casual YA readers are going to be more price-sensitive.

    3) Since YA is “where it’s at”, there is more competition in the market. Prices have to stay low.


  2. Christopher Barzak Avatar

    I think we’re coming at it from opposite angles, Nevin. I think YA books sell in higher quantities *because* they’re more affordable. You can make a market more competitive, though, by making the product more affordable. I think if adult books lowered prices, more people could afford, more people would purchase.

    Also, it probably would help if more adult books embraced the sense of play that is more easily found in YA at this point. Michael Chabon’s line of thought.

  3. James Avatar

    The price point on my books (all YA) has been a factor in a lot of sales to older readers. Same pagecount and heft, but at $17.99 as opposed to $24.99 for a similar ‘adult’ fantasy novel, it seems price does make a difference.

  4. lucy Avatar

    I think YA books are novels are selling because they tend to be less cynical than adult novels. I sometimes prefer YA because I find the characters more likeable (Twilight, is, of course, the exception). Also, there aren’t a lot of adult novels marketed these days. Instead, we’re seeing more memoirs, biographies, self-helps, etc. Just my two bits worth.

  5. Christopher Barzak Avatar

    I think less cynical is part of it too (part of what I meant by “play”–books that are willing to love the world still, maybe because the protagonists are still so young. Maybe that’s why they’re also less cynical, hehe). And yeah, a lot of books that are marketed these days are non-fiction. I hear a lot of adult readers speak about books in ways that indicate they don’t take fiction as seriously as they do “real” stories.

  6. Nevin Avatar

    Re Comment #2:
    Most likely, the cycle feeds on itself: YA books are cheaper, so more people buy them, so they can afford to stay cheaper, and so on.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I share your optimism that there is a huge market out there that would buy adult novels if they were cheaper. Look at library circulation numbers. My understanding is that circulation in adult books is declining, while interest in YA books is staying strong. This mirrors the pattern that we see in book sales, even though the people checking out books from the library don’t have to worry about prices. That is why my original comment assumed that the size of the market was driving the book prices, instead of the other way around.

    (I would love to be proven wrong: Do you have any hard numbers for library circulation? I’m just going on anecdotal evidence here.)

  7. Christopher Barzak Avatar

    I’m not sure if I’m entirely optimistic that lowering adult book prices would be the magical remedy for selling more adult books, but I do think that it would help their numbers to some extent.

    I don’t have any numbers on library circulation, though, nor anecdotal evidence either. I have friends who work in libraries, but they only notice when a particular book becomes a bestseller, which skyrockets the circulation no matter what the category it belongs to, adult, ya, nonfiction, etc. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers on ya were higher, if for nothing else but the vast amount of copies libraries need to have of Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer books at this point. LOL

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