Book Prices

Thanks to a Facebook post from Julian Chambliss, I’ve just read Onnesha Roychoudhuri’s piece about Amazon in the Boston Review.  It certainly shows the effect of unrestrained capitalist profit seeking on the book trade over the past sixteen years.  But more interesting for me at just this moment is the information about book pricing since the Kindle.

This question reminds me of the fate of artists and writers in Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward (1888).  In this time travel novel, Bellamy’s protagonist Bostonian Julian West wakes from a 113-year sleep induced by animal magnetism to find himself in the year 2000.  His host Dr. Leete introduces him to a world in which the class wars of the late nineteenth century have been solved peacefully through a transition in which all industries have been nationalized. After their education is complete at age twenty-one, all citizens perform a fixed term of twenty-four years’ service in the industrial army.  Both trade and money have been replaced with a system of direct distribution in which people pay for goods using a credit card backed by an account in which each citizen is credited at the beginning of each year with their share of the annual product of the nation (Chapter 9).

Bellamy described book publishing and the making of art in his utopia as the place in which a market similar to the world of capitalist competition continued to operate.  Authors, for example, had to furnish the funds for publication out of their own credit. “He must pay for the privilege of the public ear,” Bellamy wrote, “and if he has any message worth hearing we consider that he will be glad to do it…. The cost of an edition of an average book can be saved out of a year’s credit by the practice of economy and some sacrifices. The book, on being published, is placed on sale by the nation.”  In Bellamy’s imagined future authors set their own royalties, which were added to the cost of publication to yield the price of the book.  If the book was popular and sold enough copies to support the author, then the author would be excused from service in the industrial army for as long as the credit lasted.  A similar process in which subscriptions substituted for the price of individual copies of books provided for the publication of newspapers and magazines (Chapter 15).

What might Bellamy’s vision of an ideal post-nineteenth-century world have to tell us about our own world?  The effects of digital access on the publication of periodicals in the form of the crisis in newspaper publishing might lead us to think that Bellamy has little to say to us.  Yet the model of sites like TruthOut and Reader Supported News, which rely on reader donations, might bely that assessment.  Onnesha Roychoudhuri describes a cultural marketplace in which the author has little to say about the price of the text and popularity is affected by algorithmic and business choices made by a middleman in the form of Amazon.  Perhaps new forms of digital publication that cut out both publishers and booksellers as avatars of the past can produce a new model. Bellamy reminds us that authors will still need to eat.

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