Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2009 Issue

Book Prices Tumble Amid Cutthroat Competition

Walmart898books

Wal-Mart places new titles on sale for $8.98 online.


By Michael Stillman

We are at a moment of momentous change in the book industry. Where it all will play out remains anyone's guess. All we know is that it will soon be very different from what we have known before. Elsewhere in this month's issue of AE Monthly we tackle the court battle of Google vs. Amazon, Microsoft and others over the selling of digital copies of copyrighted books, and the plunging prices of and growing demand for electronic book readers. Here are three more book stories, two involving printed books. In one, Wal-Mart has slashed the price of some new, printed books to amounts so low they are below cost, while HP, the large computer manufacturer, has jumped into the business of print-on-demand books. Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble, the largest bricks and mortar printed book retailer, announced the introduction of their own electronic reader, the Nook, as they try to muscle in on the ebook field. Why all of this interest in the book business? For all the talk of books being in decline, there are a lot of very large companies making big bets on the business. Perhaps they know something?

One of the greatest price wars the book industry has seen broke out when Wal-Mart, tired of watching Amazon sell $10 ebooks, countered by offering selected, popular new titles through Walmart.com for $9.99. These are not ebooks, but hardcover copies, hundreds of pages of ink and paper at less than the price of an ebook. Amazon matched the deal, and Target jumped into the fray announcing they too would offer selected titles at comparable prices. Wal-Mart quickly upped the ante, dropping the price to $8.99, clearly below cost. Amazon matched them. The last we saw, Wal-Mart had inched their price down another penny, to $8.98. Among the new releases offered at this incredible price are books by Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, Barbara Kinsolver, and - oh my gosh - Sarah Palin.

One can only wonder where this is going. Wal-Mart has the money and the nerves to crush just about anyone on price. However, Amazon is in the midst of enjoying unparalleled prosperity. Optimistic forecasts sent their stock soaring a week ago. Amazon's stock leapt by 26%, reaching an all-time high, finally eclipsing its high water mark of a decade ago at the peak of the internet bubble. However, one group that may not be able to withstand this fierce competition is the independent bookseller. The American Booksellers Association, their voice, has asked the Justice Department to investigate what it considers predatory pricing. Wal-Mart and Amazon may have the deep pockets to sustain this war, but independent sellers, already struggling through this difficult economy, do not have such leeway.

While cutting the price so low might sound like a positive for the printed book, there is a great risk here. Books cannot be sold below cost forever. The large retailers may push publishers for lower costs. Meanwhile, readers may become accustomed to $9 books. Long term, the only way publishers may be able to cut prices, and buyers continue to get books for $9, will be through electronic copies, with no costs for paper and printing. Crazily cheap pricing could prove to be a dagger in the heart of printed books, even if short term it boosts sales.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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