No magic in Harry Potter sales at the indies

Excellent book industry article by Jeannie Kever in the Houston Chronicle yesterday. In "The tricky web woven around discount books: Selling Potter at a lower-than-list price hurts small book dealers", Kever examines morality, duality, and causality swirling around the fastest selling book in history.
Consider the screwy economics of publishing, where selling 150 books might be more profitable than selling millions. And where personal service occasionally trumps price.

"The retail book business is sort of unusual," explains Dan Neale of Brazos Bookstore. "If a book becomes real popular, the major retailers cut the price."

Brazos Bookstore, like many other independents, did not discount Deathly Hallows, charging the list price of $34.99.

"There's no way we could have (discounted)," says Lillie Woodard of Katy Budget Books. "In order to afford the (book release) party, we couldn't discount the book."

Kever reports that the big chains weren't even pretending they were going to make a profit on HP #7. For stores like Barnes & Noble, it was a loss leader to get people into the store. For Amazon, it was the mother of all publicity ops, where they proved they could ship when and where promised and staged a donation of $5,000 to the town that bought the most copies of Deathly Hallows. (A donation which pales in comparison to the millions of dollars in sales tax lost to cities and states, as one local bookseller points out.)
"Amazon was selling the book cheaper than we could buy it," Neale says. "I guess they chose to do that in the hope that folks will maybe buy something else. But we're not in the refrigerator business or the wide-screen TV business. We're in the book business."

The book business. Oy. An online Chronicle reader responded, "Who goes to a 'Specialty' book store to buy a major-release book anyway? Half-Price books buys for pennies on the dollar and usualy sells for 1/2 retail...if their model doesn't work, boo-friggin-hoo." And therein lies the problem.

The model did work as long as people bought books at bookstores. The Rowlings and the Grishams and the Kings were the rising tides that floated all the little midlist boats. People just don't clap on to the larger notion that they are trading a culture which values books -- and the people who create, love, and sell books -- for the price of a Caesar wrap and waffle fries at Chick-fil-A. There's no concern about the fact that entities like WalMart can influence what gets published and what doesn't.

The problem is not Amazon. Amazon is an animal following its natural feeding instinct like a great white shark. The problem is a culture in which most people genuinely think saving a buck-seventy on a pair of Levi's at WalMart is more important than having a Levi's factory in their community, and if that puts their neighbors out of jobs and erodes the national economy, friggin' hoo.

The world we live in is created by a zillion little decisions a day. Kever's article offers a reminder that at the very least, we should be more conscious about the book-buying decisions we make. If the few bucks we save is truly worth what we lose, we need to own up to having made that choice.


Great post. I read this article in yesterday's Chronicle, too, and it saddened me. My local independent bookseller doesn't even carry the HP books because they can't compete on price. I make a point of buying a number of books there because I love the hand-selling -- but I have to admit I turned to Amazon for HP for both the convenience and the price.
Jennifer Ashley said…
I have to say the entire hype about HP7 turned me off in a big way. The parties, the donations, the competition for getting people into the stories--it made the whole thing cheesy. I actually became nauseous after receiving the umpteenth bulletin from a big chain bookstore about the HP events.

I of course *did* eventually buy Harry Potter, for full price at a local indy. The store has been very supportive of me during my short career, so I try to be supportive of them. I dropped about $70 at the store that day (what, I was going to buy only one book??), but I could, so why not?

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