The Shame of Literary Price Wars

It is hard in the current economic twist not to dive for the lowest prices.  With our pockets painfully aware of rising costs and the question of job stability, it seems that books wouldn’t top the list of concerns. However, being a lover of literature, the latest Predatory Price Wars have become a matter not only of concern for me, but also a matter of pride.

I was not born with a head for business. The upside of this simple fact is:  if presented with enough repetitive information, I can at least give a layman’s interpretation of certain business operations. What follows is my take on the current “Price War” in the retail market, and why it is relevant to anyone who shares a common concern and dignity in American literary culture.

It started a few weeks ago when Wal-Mart launched a price war with Inc.  With their new online book site, Wal-Mart announced it would carry select new hardcover titles for under $10; a price that is truly unheard of. Unable to take this lying down, Amazon shot back with a competitive price, ultimately bringing the price to a staggering $9. Somewhere in this game, Target jumped in with similar pricing.

Shouldn’t I be happy?  Initially I thought this a dream come true, but as a knot began to form in my gut, I realized that this corporate competition was an outrageous bastardization of literary culture and a damaging hit to many fine book outlets already reeling from the recession.

Why not go with the flow? Ultimately, this corporate contest will leave me at the mercy of these sparring money-mongers. My understanding is that Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target have projected a financial loss for themselves in order to corner the market and bring other book retailers to their knees. For Indie stores as well as big chains like Borders, this will be the end of the road. The shame of it is, once cornered, these corporations can then SLAP any price on a title because they will have no competitors.

I love independent bookstores for their enduring authenticity, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying a browse around Borders or Barnes and Noble with a hot cup of joe in my hand as well. Features, author appearances, and mere literary conversation are an integral part of the book buying experience. How embarrassing that it has come to this tagging of the titles.

Not everyone puts a price on culture. In fact, some countries enact laws to prevent it. According to The New York Times, France prohibits book retailers from pricing books below cost, thus preserving the spirit of the art while leveling the playing field.  Shouldn’t we do the same for the mere preservation of our own dwindling offline retail institutions? Who will expose us to new authors? Who will contribute to the proliferation of genre and composition?  Ultimately, who will lift the chins of burgeoning authors doomed to be held by the confines and parameters of writing for mere mass-market appeal? What a sacrifice. What a shame.

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