March 10, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Should books cost less than a cup of coffee?


Topics discussed: book prices, publishing brands, 80 p., $.99, $2.99, 4:20, $9,99, The Apple Watch, technology addiction, price point, Tim Cook, Bob Marley, Penguin, Penguin Classics, Penguin Little Black Classics, Penguin Random House, the unfathomable size of Penguin Random House, the even more unfathomable size of Penguin Random House’s parent company Bertelsmann, Michael Schaub, David Axelrod, Alex’s mustache, Jacob Silverman, Wim Wenders, Steve Marriott, The Troggs. 

Mark: Hi Alex! Should we talk about watches? I’m so excited about watches! And especially excited that most of our press corps is excited about watches! Yesterday was a glorious day for watches–and for America.

Alex: I have a Timex Weekender. It’s a nice watch. I got it so I wouldn’t look at my phone so often, which has sort of worked.

Mark: It has absolutely not worked. You look at your phone more than anyone in the world looks at his or her phone. You look at your phone when you’re walking to the water cooler, and also while you’re at the water cooler. Which is why you’re always getting your phone wet. You’re actually looking at your phone right now. The Timex hasn’t helped.

Alex. You’re still looking at your phone. Here’s a picture of you looking at your phone:

Alex loves his phone.

Alex loves his phone.

Alex: I was looking at an Instagram I took of the Post-It on my desk that says “FUCK,” which is my prize possession. It didn’t get as many likes as it should have. Anyway, I don’t care about that watch at all, though I will probably own it eight months from now.

You know what I do care about? Tim Cook wakes up at 4:20AM every day. That fucking RULES. Love that, Tim. Nice job. How long will they kill our prophets?

Mark: It’s pretty impressive. I can’t wait for Apple to move into their enormous and very stupid round headquarters. Tim Cook will be able to wake up at 4:20AM and run laps around his giant corporate headquarters and ponder the futility of existence. And his watch will tell him how long he has to live.

Okay, before we start overtly plagiarizing (and somehow, simultaneously, ruining) large portions of Anil Dash and Paul Ford’s typically brilliant Apple liveblog, let’s talk about our favorite industry, other than watchmaking: book publishing! I wrote a post last week about cigarettes that also touched on a new line of Penguin Classics, which were released a few weeks ago and cost eighty pence, which is equivalent to $1.50, or $5.00, or $150. (Honestly, I don’t understand British currency, and I refuse to research the exchange rate. So I’m not sure what those books actually cost.) I like when books are incredibly cheap, though you have to publish nearly infinite quantities to make those kinds of costs work. But other than affordability, Penguin’s Little Black Classics are an interesting phenomenon for a number of reasons. Would you like to discuss some of those reasons?

Alex: No, I want to keep talking about the watch. What does it do? Does it have a thing you can pull out to choke people? Are there apps on the watch? Is it part of the cloud? Does it tell time?

I don’t understand the watch, but I suppose that’s my problem—I’m sure there are hundreds of articles I can read to get a handle on this thing I don’t care about at all. Anyway, Penguin’s Little Black Classics gambit is interesting! It has a very low price point, a startlingly low price point! 80 pence is not very much money at all, even for a 64 page book, even if you are British, which means you are probably making 80 pence a day cleaning chimneys.

For many in publishing, short books make sense because the margins are high—the production costs are much lower, so if it works, it works much better. (This is especially true with public domain titles.) The idea is obviously to sell in volume and I think that Penguin is banking on people buying tons of these at a time—both as collectibles and as gifts—and I have a sense that people are buying a ton of these at a time.

Which I guess gets to what excites me about the Little Black Classics. I am, at my deepest, darkest core, nothing more than a humble book marketer and I like what Penguin has done here very much! When Penguin and Random House merged back in 2012 one of the dominant narratives was that it made sense for Penguin because they were allying themselves with a goddamn sales behemoth and it made sense for Random House because they were acquiring the robust Penguin brand.

That kind of analysis was publishing punditry at its absolute worst—it literally made no sense; the merger was all about gaining market share and making investors happy (It was more like an acquisition than a merger, anyway! Sorry Penguin!) —but it was right about one point. Penguin, unlike its Big Six brethren, had (and still has!) a recognizable brand. That brand is Penguin Classics, sexy inexpensive paperbacks—and I don’t think it extends much further than that—but I like Penguin Little Black Classics because it’s using that advantage. One thing I don’t like? The name “Little Black Classics,” which grosses me out for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Mark: It is a gross name. At best, it sounds like . . . actually, there is no “at best.” Just a number of terrible interpretations that I won’t share for fear of offending some of our more chaste and modest readers, like Michael Schaub, of Austin, Texas.

I find publishers’ fascination with branding . . . fascinating. Mostly because it usually amounts to misplaced effort. But of course in the case of Penguin, the world’s most recognizable publishing brand, it is almost never a misplaced effort. Once upon a time, I had an interview at Penguin, and during said interview, I gushed at length about the Penguin brand and its merits–not because I was trying to suck up, but because I genuinely think that it’s a uniquely valuable thing. (I did not get the job.) Think about the totebags, the special displays at what seems like (and probably is) every Barnes & Noble in the country, and on and on.

That said, when I read about the Little Black Classics, my first thought was that Penguin UK had overthought this one a bit. Yes, a special line of cheap paperbacks is a great idea, and yes, eighty pence makes rhetorical sense because of the line’s eightieth anniversary. But ultimately, people don’t usually buy books for reasons of branding–they buy them because they want to read them, or give them as gifts, or show off to their friends and enemies. (That’s why you have David Axelrod’s memoir so prominently displayed on your desk–you want our colleagues to know that you’re the kind of guy who reads David Axelrod’s memoir.)

But then! Then I thought about it some more, and I decided that this wasn’t overthought at all, and that it’s just a pretty great idea. The price point will surely attract readers, but so will the novelty. And once they’re hooked, those readers will be likely to buy more than one book, which will mean that they may buy something by one of the lesser-known authors on the list, which is a good thing. I can also imagine this initiative helping independent bookstores (many of whom will display the books in a set), and, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, reminding book buyers that there is an institution and a legacy behind these books. The price point may be a gimmick–and it may be a dangerous gimmick!–but it’s also doing exactly what you and I are always talking about: making the publisher visible, and thus, implicitly, suggesting that publishers have worth.

Alex: I’m less generous, though I also think I’m generally more hard-headed when it comes to price point and generally more terrified of the slow devaluation of commercial art in the 21st century. Everything involved is an 80th anniversary gimmick (80 books! 80 pence!), but those gimmicks strike me as weirdly unnecessary and widely unsustainable, which I am always against. You could sell these for two pounds or five pounds (Still a good deal! Even with the garbage money that is imperial British currency!) and make out like bandits—the implicit idea here seems to be that these are books with no inherent value, so you should only have to pay for the “added value” of them being printed and bound and made to look handsome (if uniform). That’s the kind of thing you hear about publishing from the cheap seats, but it strikes me as a particularly bad business model, if an (arguably) fairer one. But production value means something, and most books benefit from it.

Mostly, these kinds of moves worry me—they remind me of the 99 cent hysteria regarding ebooks, which thankfully seems to have dissipated (though $2.99 may be here to stay, even though it shouldn’t because it’s dumb as shit)—because they play into some very bad ideas about elasticity that are out there, largely in self-publishing circles. These ideas are pretty simple: books are too expensive, and if you price them significantly lower, you will sell a lot more of them and make a lot more money. That makes sense if you are the kind of person whose entire experience with economics was sleeping through 60% of Home Ec, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you actually devote a lot of time and effort (and, most importantly, money) to book production (or if you stayed awake in a more substantial economics class).

It’s possible that some books should be priced slightly lower, but arguing for radical price decreases, as many in self-publishing circles do, would likely be incredibly destructive, which I think is the whole point! Most of the people arguing for cheaper books are people that want the publishing industry to be destroyed for their own personal gain—and at the loss of thousands of jobs, the loss of the livelihoods of people who care deeply about making books better and making them available to as many people as possible. Elasticity works best when you’re charging the highest possible amount you can while not discouraging people to buy—one big problem with the book argument is that books aren’t just an economic investment, but a temporal one as well—it doesn’t work when you make every book $2.99 or $9.99 or whatever for broad, pretty generic reasons. Beacusee books take time to consume, you, as a publisher, probably want someone reading (and then hopefully talking about!) a book with a higher price point—the time they spend on a staggeringly undervalued $2.99 book is time they’re not spending buying, reading, and talking about a book at a higher price point.  You may pay $14 for a two-and-a-half-hour movie but you’re often paying $25 or $30 for a book that will take ten times that.

You want people to buy books and then read them (and then talk to other people about them), and that can be very hard work indeed—I’d rather have people spending an hour or two reading a 220 page book they bought for $15.99 than a 64 page book they bought for $1.50, but that’s just me. The biggest problem is that price point is something that the publishing industry doesn’t understand well enough—weirdly it’s the only thing I think Big Data might be remotely helpful for—and I’m skeptical of how useful these radical experiments are. There seem to be more potential down-sides than upsides.

I’m getting somewhat off-topic though. The other reason why I’m less optimistic about this whole thing is that I don’t know if these books will get people hooked on anything other than other Little Black Classics? The bet is certainly that they’ll drive readers into the more lucrative arms of Penguin Classics, where the margins are much better, but I’m not so certain.

I agree completely about the power of the Penguin brand, but I’m not sure it needs a lift in the form of a stunt involving super cheap books—especially because Penguin Little Black Classics are a great idea that should stick around for a long time! Maybe the plan is to raise the price eventually, which they should do that! But that leads me to a much bigger question, and one that I should probably have firmer ideas about, considering that I play a publishing brand on Twitter: do publishing brands have value? Do some and not others? Do none? I’m having an existential crisis, Mark.

Mark: One of the things I find most annoying about you is when you’re right. It’s really frustrating, and I don’t like it. Fortunately, it happens very rarely, but unfortunately, I think you’re broadly right, and I’m . . . well, not wrong, but I suppose I should have mitigated my enthusiasm a bit.

I’m with you on the topic of elasticity for all of the reasons you cited, and also because while there are plenty of readers who will buy way more books if all of them cost $0.99, I’m not at all convinced that those readers will actually read those books.

Still, I’m not sure that the Little Black Classics are really going to have the damaging impact you describe. It’s generally right, of course, that every price decrease, every extreme discount, and every argument for a book on economic grounds contributes to the devaluation of the book as a concept. This is a kind of discursive argument, and a valid one. That said, isn’t it possible that readers will see the Little Black Classics thing as a one-off? That they won’t be inclined to rethink their assumptions about book pricing and that, instead, they’ll simply treat this as the anomalous event that it is?

But Alex, don’t have an existential crisis! Or, do, because you’ve made some questionable life choices recently (mostly: shaving your mustache just as I was getting used to it), but don’t on account of publishing brands. Because the answer is simple: some publishing brands have value, and some don’t. Ours does, which is cool. And Penguin Classics has value. And there are quite a few others! But there are just as many fine publishing brands that really have no value of any kind, and whose appeal is tied exclusively to what they produce. Publishers–especially big publishers–need to be okay with this fact, but they’re rarely okay with this fact, because it seems much cooler to say that you work for a brand that means something, rather than for a brand that publishes a great variety of diverse books.

We should distinguish, though, the different audiences for publishing brands. Even a very big and diffuse and corporate brand will be valuable and knowable to reviewers who might know about the books it has published, say, or to booksellers who have stocked many of its books in the past. But for the larger community of readers, I’d say that the amount of truly legible, recognizable, distinct publishing brands with any kind of impact is . . . miniscule.

Alex: Yeah, I guess I should back-off a bit and make one important clarification: I don’t think that Penguin’s Little Black Classics spell doom for the industry or that they’ll have a destructive impact in any way! But one thing I encounter a lot as I obsessively (and self-destructively) read self-publishing blogs is a very strong drive to devalue book production—there are many out there who are arguing very forcefully (often with completely meaningless but seemingly persuasive data about author earnings) that publishers actually decrease the value of books, and that is a very dangerous idea: it’s not accurate at all, but its driven by technolibertarian hatred for the culture industry. These people don’t want our jobs to exist, and they won’t want them to exist because they don’t understand the value of production itself—and they have no interest in trying to understand production. They subscribe to a world where content producers are King—a world that Jacob Silverman skewers in his excellent forthcoming book Terms of Service—but one that would be completely destructive to creative work if it was enacted.

Corporate publishing isn’t doing itself any favors though. Most publishers don’t have very strong brand identities these days and that’s largely because most publishers don’t have very strong identities these days. That’s been another casualty of corporate publishing—of mergers, or shareholders, of the move from focusing on maintaining a profitable backlist to hitting big in any way possible. Penguin Random House, for instance, is a very big company that very much dominates the book trade, but they don’t have a “brand identity” as such because, well, they embody publishing itself (because they are 50% of the industry).

Mark: Penguin Random House’s brand identity is “We are really fucking huge.”

Alex: They really are! They are so big. They are also our distributor, I should add, and they are a good distributor! Still, I think that there’s a lot of value in brand identity—in curating lists, in focusing on your mission, on thinking about things beyond profit—and I think the industry in general has moved away from that, largely because its become increasingly beholden to the whims of much larger corporations! I always obsess over how big Penguin Random House is, but I often forget that they’re part of Bertelsmann, a way, bigger corporation. Follow the money, Mark! Follow the publishing money! There are publishers making way more than 80 pence/year , though those publishers aren’t based in Brooklyn.

Also, I am reluctantly ceding music-choosing privileges to you, which means Steve Marriott is being kept from his Rightful Throne as Spiritual Overseer and Lord of Two for Tuesday. Sigh.

Mark: Oh, I didn’t tell you about our new line of 80-pence publications? We’re selling individual pages of some of history’s greatest literary works. We’re calling them: Melville House Pages. They’re gonna be extremely successful.

Speaking of extremely successful, on Sunday, I went to see Wim Wenders’s 1975 movie WRONG MOVE for the first time. I imagine that that movie–a free adaptation of a Goethe bildungsroman featuring ruminations on writing and long, languid shots of housing projects–was a big blockbuster in its day. Another thing about WRONG MOVE is that it opens with a great Troggs song called “Just Sing.” So here’s that song, along with “Mona.”