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There is a trend now to dramatically slash retail prices of books, particularly bestselling hardcover titles. Wal-Mart recently got into a price war with Amazon, and at the end of the day, each was offering bestsellers for $9.

Of course, such convulsions in the market elicit strong response, pro and con. While many booksellers rub their hands together in worry, some are nonplussed.

“Unless those massive chains start discounting all hardcover books, the independents will be fine,” said Liz Murphy, of The Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, Ohio. “We’ll just stop selling the New York Times bestsellers, and sell more of the books we love.”

How wonderful that there are still booksellers like Murphy, who evidently see the free-market system as the better alternative to price controls. People can complain all day long about Wal-Mart, but I recall an excellent point my mother made, when remembering the pre-Wal-Mart days:

“People say they are too big and impersonal,” she said, “but I remember the days when our local mercantile was also the biggest kid on the block and could charge whatever they wanted for jeans or shoes.”

She was saying in essence that competition is good. I concur. Specifically, I’ll tell you what I think about dramatic discounts and pricing wars among book producers and sellers:

I love it.

I applaud people who disseminate information, or, better yet, worldview, and don’t let greed get in the way of it.

If WND is making a new title available for download for $1.99, wow, that’s awesome. They understand that they can sell in volume, anyway. And if books can be downloaded onto computers or phones, how cool is that?

Besides, such low prices can somewhat make up for inflated print book prices that have been charged for a long time. To some degree, a retail price for a book is arbitrary. I once asked a major publisher why he charged stiff prices for hardcover book (I know it cost the company about $1.25 per unit to print, and the retail was nearly $30).

Like some character from “The Front Page,” he bit on his cigar and replied, “Because I want to.”

Of course, the publisher has all sorts of costs himself: advances, production, order fulfillment. Still, one gets the feeling that really high retail prices are gouging book buyers.

So there you have it; in those old days – not so long ago – the big, bad publisher was not so different from the small-town mercantile owner: He could charge whatever he wanted because he was the only game in town.

Now we have this delicious situation for books in which huge New York houses are now in competition with a whole host of independents, from individuals to organizations. Quality, price … everything is better because of the capitalist system.

Still, there are booksellers who will go out of business, and unfortunately the new lower prices will be scapegoated as the main cause. In fact, a variety of factors have been forcing smaller independents out of business for quite some time. For these booksellers, competitors’ low prices are quite costly for the smaller independent. How sad they don’t have Liz Murphy’s American spirit.

According to Book Business, we could be on the verge of an “E-book explosion.”

Andrew Savikas, of O’Reilly Media, had this to say: “The market for digital books … has been roughly doubling every 18 months. Follow that line out, and in less than a decade it’s 64 times the size it is now.”

Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit from the Book Business article is the fact that 12 million e-books “have been downloaded by the Stanza e-reader iPhone app, which turned one year old in July.”

Publishers who are able to absorb short-term loss-leaders will likely find themselves racing across the new digital frontier. They will be able to stake out territory in publishing and offer bold new titles at a fraction of the cost demanded just a few years before. Consumers are all about $2 new editions.

If a Vook costs under $10, and a marketing juggernaut like WND can sell something for two bucks … we book readers win.

This is one example of wealth redistribution that even Rush Limbaugh could endorse.


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