Price War Thoughts

Josie Leavitt -- October 22nd, 2009

Price wars are all over the news. In fact, unless you lived under a rock, you’d be hard-pressed to not have heard about the Amazon/Wal-Mart/Target and now Sears (yes, Sears!) ever-escalating one-upmanship (or is it one penny-upmanship) for the ten hottest books coming out in November. Everyone has been weighing about how they feel about this, so I thought I’d take a moment and address it.

It’s ridiculous. It’s maddening and once again I feel like it puts independent booksellers in the very untenable position of being the folks who cry foul and get thought of as whiney. To sell the brand new Barbara Kingsolver novel, which I personally have been waiting for, for either $8.98 or $9 is on the one hand laughable, and on the other hand, it’s a great bargain for folks who can’t afford hardcovers right now. NPR had a segment on this and a customer was quoted as saying about the new prices, "I could get used to this." I hear this and I start to cringe.

How hard is it going to be to explain to customers why we’re not offering more than our usual, very generous hardcover discounts? Do all indie booksellers have the time to explain with every transaction why it’s important to not buy books for up to 74% off their cover price? And honestly, do customers really care? Does anyone but the indie booksellers care about anti-trust laws? Can I even explain this to customers in such a way that they’ll care about it? No, no and no.

So how am I going to salvage my fourth quarter? I have no real idea, yet. So far, I don’t feel like I’m losing business to this price war from my regular customers who "get it." But we all could be losing the casual book buyer, the one who might only come in during the holidays to get books. They don’t need recommendations, they just want the new books by their favorite authors. These folks might be gone, for good.  I am being optimistic here — this trend could cause an enormous siphoning-off of customers from independent bookstores. I mean how can handselling and staffs full of book knowledge compete with 74%  off the newest Stephen King? I hate to say it, but at some point, price will win out if things remain unabated. 

It seems inherently unfair — and if you read all the blogs and listservs on the topic, possibly illegal — to sell these books at such reduced prices, yet it is allowed to happen. There seems to be no concerted effort in the independent bookselling world that I’m aware of (if your trade association is planning something, please comment. Since the publication of this post the ABA announced it was seeking an investigation into this matter by the Justice Department. ), so we’re all moaning to the choir and nothing is changing, except that some booksellers are actually buying those ten books form Walmart or Amazon and saving an additional twenty or so percent than they can get from the publishers, which is not helping the cause. I can totally understand the rationale behind this, but it seems like a very short-sighted thing to do.

I have no answers to this and that frustrates me. All I can do is what I know: I will continue to stock the hot new books as well as the backlist that makes my store unique. I will try to educate my customers as to why buying literature, art really, for such an undervalued amount diminishes our culture. I will continue the conversation about mega-stores dominating the publishing world and the effect that has on editorial content and I will do all of this while I cheerfully wrap your present and ask after your family and give your dog a biscuit.

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