The Value of a Good Book



At the Leipzig Book Fair in March, Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House noted that the value of the physical book has been cheapened – and it’s partly due to certain sales practices in the publishing industry. Things like too-deep discounts, allowing vendors to buy books on credit then return what they don’t sell, and destroying books that don’t sell quickly enough, have led to a public view that books are only as valuable as the paper they are printed on.  As books have moved to the digital space, the idea that books are cheap has followed. And the internet, which was founded on the principle of free access to information, has taken the idea to new levels.

It’s not easy to create a book. Like the movies you watch and the music you hear, a lot of creative effort has gone into the making of these products. Many of a book’s best attributes, like editing and design, are invisible (and must remain so in order to be effective). Just because the finished product looks simple, doesn’t mean that it’s cheap. Books are a cultural institution as important as ballet, opera, folklore and traditional dance and they should be given a higher value, both by those who sell them and those who buy them.

It may be difficult to get people to pay more for a product that they already view as cheap, however, there is a way to raise the profile of the lowly book and get it the respect it deserves. Because buyers are much more willing to pay more when they feel that they are getting their money’s worth, I think we’ll continue to see more enhanced e-books and specialty physical books.

Like DVDs which now offer commentaries, soundtracks and deleted scenes as enhanced content, there is already a move to make ebooks that act more like applications – offering maps, music, photos and commentary that deepen readers’ experience of the worlds they encounter.

The physical book is transforming also. Even though online access is growing more ubiquitous, people still have a hunger for the physical. This gives the physical book the chance to become a curated experience – something that delights the senses in a way an ebook cannot. I see books being appreciated for their physical attributes: high-grade paper stock, textured covers of leather, vellum and canvas, and exquisitely embossed designs that readers can run their hands over.

If we as publishers can go beyond the “usual” industry models, we can ensure that readers understand the full value of what they are getting. Reading a good book is a lot like going to a museum – it’s an enriching cultural experience that takes us out of ourselves and changes us in an indefinably important way. And isn’t that worth paying for?

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