Books, books, books! The American Booksellers Association, a trade group that represents small bookstores (not Barnes and Noble and the other big guys), has asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether or not Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target have “[devalued] the very concept of the book” with their ongoing price war. Well, they’re actually asking for an investigation into their selling practices. That is, because Amazon wants to outsell Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart wants to outsell Amazon, they both sell the latest book (think Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.) for some really low price, like $10. When you consider that the average hardcover “should” cost something like $20-$30, just based on the wildly outdated economics of book-selling, then you understand why the ABA is so upset.
Here’s what the ABA is thinking: it represents The Little Guy, the indie bookstore on Main Street, USA that doesn’t have the clout of Barnes and Noble or Borders. If these big guys keep trying to undercut each other, it lowers the price Main Street can set for a book. Why would someone pay $30 for a book when they can buy it for $10 from Wal-Mart? The problem becomes, after Main Street goes out of business, that limits the amount of information (books) out there. And what if some author releases a crazy book about some controversial topic, one that Wal-Mart refuses to carry because it doesn’t want to “offend” its customers or whatever? Now there’s no Main Street bookstore to turn to, and that information never gets out there. Then the marketplace of ideas suffers, and we’re all worse off. That’s the ABA’s thinking, at least, and it’s not entirely unreasonable, I don’t think.
If you want, this topic could easily balloon into a much deeper, philosophical discussion on the entire book industry—remember, Barnes and Noble said the other day that the book industry is still bigger than Hollywood, video games, etc.—but other, better people have already begun to tackle that debate.
And why is this on CrunchGear? Yup, e-books. You can make the argument, and the ABA has done just that, that it was the initial release of the Kindle that got this whole dangerous price war started. Amazon needed to jumpstart the public’s acceptance of e-books, so they did the inverse of what game companies do when they release a new system: game companies make money on the software and lose money on the hardware (at least initially), while Amazon was selling these e-books for something like one-third their “actual” value. Gotta get those Kindles out there!
So that’s basically it. The ABA is concerned that a price war, started by the introduction of the Kindle, will eventually limit the number and quality of ideas available to y’all. You’re free to disagree, and I get the feeling that many of you will.