Book biz gets schooled by chain gang
The music biz and vid biz have already learned the painful lessons of loss leadering. Now it’s the book biz’s turn.
The price war that has erupted in recent weeks is particularly dramatic — and spurred by lower e-book prices — but otherwise very similar to the ones that the record biz and vid biz has dealt with for years. Big box chains and online heavyweights price big hits low to draw traffic, and, presumably, bigger ticket purchases. This discounting tends to be especially heated during the holiday season.
So I had to smile at the WSJ story about rationing of these discount hits. A Boulder, Colo., book store buyer, who planned to stock up on the discounted books from Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon expressed surprise that they were limiting the number of copies that individuals could purchase.
But he shouldn’t be surprised: The chains have done exactly that for discounted CDs and DVDs. In fact when video sales started taking off in the ’90s — during the VHS era, mind you — chains like Best Buy regularly ran disclaimers “no dealers please” in their circulars. (Of course this was when people read Sunday papers, but that’s another story.) The chains were just as infamous for discounting hit music CDs, making it hard for mid-size chains like Tower to compete.
The wildcard in all of this is the role of e-books. People don’t think they should pay as much for a e-version of a book, and, in any case, it’s not clear how many people will buy e-books as gifts, as opposed to hardcovers. Will e-book gift cards become as popular as iTunes counterparts? And will other publishers revise e-royalties the way Macmillan did this week?
Stay tuned. But don’t expect the price wars to go away any time soon. Amazon, a key player in this war, has a vested interest in printed and electronic books.