Given the recent fallout between Amazon and Macmillan over book pricing, here are some timely thoughts on book pricing and readership from Alaskan author Marybeth Holleman.
My college roommate stayed in Chapel Hill after getting her BA in English, and for many years made a living cleaning houses. Then one day, out walking her dog near campus, she saw a University press employee dump boxes full of books into a dumpster. Toby pulled out one of the books, a textbook still in shrinkwrap. She brought it home, and looked up its retail price online--it sold for well over $200. So she did some dumpster diving, and started selling the books on eBay. For years she visited that dumpster and helped to get new books into the hands of grateful students, while making enough money that she cut back on housecleaning to a couple of days a week. Now she’s the self-proclaimed eBay Queen of Chapel Hill.
While I’m glad for her success, her story makes the writer in me groan. Many of us fortunate enough to have books published have also realized that the high price of our books keep readers from us—and keep bookstores from carrying many of our books. (I admit, I stopped frequenting one local bookstore after they hosted a reading of Crosscurrents North, and failed to have copies of The Heart of the Sound there as well—even with six weeks’ notice. Fortunately, I’m used to screwups enough to have brought a couple copies myself. But still. It’s a bookstore.)
Sometimes the problem is in the number printed. Ever since I heard that Alaska Northwest Books filed for bankruptcy, I’ve been imagining the boxes of my book, Alaska’s Prince William Sound: A Traveler’s Guide, sitting in their warehouse, on dumpster death row. It’s a slim book, one of their pocket guides, but they printed 10,000, and it hasn’t sold even half that many. Compare that to Crosscurrents North which quickly went into its second printing –but only because the print run was less than 1000.
Sometimes it’s the hardcover vs. softcover dilemma. I was happy that University of Utah Press decided to print The Heart of the Sound in hardcover, in part because I hoped for a larger press to pick up paperback rights. After all, it happened to the previous two authors in the series. But it didn’t happen to me (sigh), and instead I had to wince whenever someone at a reading would say, "I can’t afford hardcovers. When does the paperback come out?" (Better late than never, I guess: the paperback of The Heart of the Sound will be out next fall. Hurray.)
And wouldn’t it seem that online publications would be less expensive, given that there’s no paper costs? Well, while Alaska's own Cirque is free, it's not always true that online is less expensive. A new electronic journal, The Motherhood Muse, posts its inaugural issue at $4.00 a copy, about the same as a hard copy journal. (It looks like fun, though, I’ll buy it—just the cost of a latte, after all.)
So, as I send out a book proposal into the crazed world of book publishing, I’m hoping for a small print run of a nicely done paperback. Perhaps something with those French flaps, like Wild Moments, or a new anthology I’ve got an essay in, To Everything on Earth.
O.K. I’ll be honest. I’ll be happy if it’s printed, period. On anything. Napkins. Just please don’t let it end up in the dumpster.