Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Marginal Note: Books by Kilogram

or The Weight of the Printed Word 

The other day the book shop where I pass by every time I need to buy groceries put on sale a large number of shelf warmers. They do that every so often to get room for new stock, thus it wouldn’t be worth writing about it on my blog except that this time they sold the books by kilogram. I was downright shocked when I saw the poster: 1 kg at only 3 €! It’s not unusual that shops give away books at very low price as soon as they are no longer in the system of retail price control for books on the German-language market, but so far I had seen only used books sold by kilogram and that in charity bazaars or second hand shops not specialised in books. The unexpected change of sales method of my most frequented book shop set me thinking. 

What’s the message of a good book shop deciding to sell outdated stock by kilogram? I admit that there are quite some publications which I consider as rubbish not really worth the paper and ink that are needed to print them and just good enough to beat up the author for wasting my time, but this is different. Shelf warmers aren’t necessarily the poorest products of literary creativity. In fact, who can spare a moment to search thoroughly will always find true gems between the trivial works of would-be writing geniuses and imitators of bestselling authors. Sometimes those works are just too highbrow for the average reader or they are ahead of their time as were Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (»»» read my review) and her earlier novels for instance. 

Certainly the constant rise of popularity of e-books has turned upside down the book market and it has reduced the market value of paper editions while production costs have remained the same or increased. Even I read e-books occasionally although I find it horrible to rely on yet another electronic gadget that could break down any time and in the worst case destroy an entire virtual library unless I’m ready to store it – George Orwell’s Big Brother sends his compliments! – in a cloud which even as a word has the notion of the uncertain and short-lived against it. Mind you, I never lost a paper book yet, while I can’t say the same about computer files! However, for books which are otherwise inaccessible (out of print or not sold in the region) e-books can be a blessing. 

Of course, publishers love e-books because they spare them a lot of money for storage, production and delivery which should make it less risky to place a new book on the market. It isn’t even necessary to fix in advance a number of copies because the file can be downloaded any time by an unlimited number of people. Also book sellers aren’t in danger to run out of stock when sales turn out better than expected which would annoy buyers. To survive publishers and book shops need to run both product lines, though, and the tricky part is to correctly estimate the sales shares of print editions and e-books respectively. As it seems, they are often mistaken and many books remain in shop shelves and stores for much longer than they were thought to. 

The growing flood of dead stock has brought the scales into play. If the printed word still has weight, it should be priced accordingly people say. And what better way to prove the economical reader that s/he gets something for her money than to sell them books by kilogram? After all everybody knows that good quality literature uses to be heavier than cheap novels – in the figurative as well as in the narrow sense. It’s quite convenient, isn’t it? No need to still have a look at the blurb or even into the book. Just grab whatever you can and see if it weighs well in the hand. I wonder how many of the books bought during the sale by kilogram went straight into the rubbish bin as soon as the reader finally became aware of the contents. Miserliness is seldom a good adviser.

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