May 21, 2013

What does it mean that the New York Times Book Review is no longer listing bestseller prices?


Imagine how much we’d read into it if the Times made this a single word.

Having recently taken the helm of the New York Times Book ReviewPamela Paul recently charted her first series of course corrections. Most curious among them: book prices are no longer to be printed in the Book Review‘s bestseller lists.

Paul has made two other changes. She’s put in place a new column called Open Book that will cover news from book events and the like. This feels natural, given the increasing profile of many book events, particularly in New York.

Ebook besteller lists will now appear only online, not in print. The reasoning behind this is a bit more tenuous, given the documented overlap between print and digital readers. Heavy readers, the kind likely to bother even glancing at bestseller lists, are reading in both formats. The real thought steering this might be that the digital bestsellers are so driven by pricing whims—99 cent ebooks feature heavily—that they have little bearing on literary culture outside of those lists. Or maybe the Review just wanted the column inches back.

And then there are the prices, or rather their newly instituted absence. “Given the fluid variety of pricing in today’s marketplace, we have also stopped including cover prices on the lists,” Paul writes.

This is, to be certain, an exceedingly small change. The combined lists already lacked prices, as did the digital lists. Digital prices are so fluid, swinging so wildly at the whims of retailers and those retailers so few, that to talk about a digital list price set by the publisher is almost oxymoronic at this point. Of course, prices set by the publisher so as to be able to continue to afford, you know, publishing, is exactly what the Department of Justice is currently in court with Apple about, having already already successfully bullied a settlement out of the publishers themselves.

Whatever the Review’s reason’s for foregoing prices in the list—again, it may be something as simple as an effort to save space in a time when such information can easily be looked up by the curious—it does convey some striking changes in attitude.

First, as with ebooks, it’s a nod to a retail environment in which price suggestions from publishers are so broadly ignored by the most powerful vendors as to have no real meaning any longer. It’s an indication of a move away from the thought that a book is discounted from a list price on Amazon, to the thought that the price on Amazon is the correct price, or at least a price with the same validity.

Of course Amazon already essentially dictates the discounts they want from publishers, but the shift in that perceptual frame would be a dangerous development for publishers.

Second, it’s a flag that the format of a given book is of less importance now. List price is an important indicator of how a book is packaged. Now that we are able to rid our books of anything so cumbersome as different types of binding, why bother differentiating between them any longer? All editions of a book are the same, this change seems to say, and if you are fool enough to want to hold one in your hand you can deal with questions of price, but for the rest of us it is no longer relevant.

Third, and perhaps most tragically—though this is also a somewhat tenuous reading—it is an indicator that books are fully a luxury good now. As with those most unbearable of white tablecloth restaurants, if you have to ask the price, you shouldn’t be partaking.

Again, I’m not saying that any of these thoughts went into the small decision to withdraw the price listings, merely that they might be taken from it. Regardless, I find the change interesting indeed.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.