In the era of the Kindle, a book costs the same price as a sandwich. Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher, says that “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value—it’s a widget.”
That was the quote that headed the article in the New Yorker Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books? This is a fantastic question. Books are cheaper than coffee and magazines are even cheaper still. (I just subscribed to Wired for a dollar an issue – with postage). In Sweden cheap books at the train station cost less than magazines but there seems to be a general trend. Without markets being regulated (like for example Norway) the price of books is sinking fast.
Is this a bad thing?
The New Yorker does a good job of comparing Amazon to Walmart and showing how their lack of social support and care for their employees hurts the employees, community and, in the long run, society. The low paying employers are relying on the government to ensure that their profits will be maintained by keeping their workers alive.
Wal-Mart’s poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps.
It’s not only Amazon. Other have to follow or die. Second hand bookshops, these piles of culture and delight are now struggling. Books cost less than their postage.
But what does this cheapness mean for books? With all the discussions about access to knowledge, the decline of reading and the rise of digital devices surely the cheap book is a necessity. But something happens when prices for consumer goods go down. Luxury is what we cannot afford, discounted is what we desire, affordable is the necessity, cheap is suspicious and less than that is without value.
Everyone wants a bargain, by lowering the costs of books we are getting a bargain. But then the price falls even further and we no longer appreciate the book. When I switched from physical CDs to digital music my collection was still valuable and attractive. When I couldn’t bring all my books with me across the Atlantic… nobody wanted them. The music stored in plastic cannot be played without a device, the books could be read by anyone.
Cheap books have made books worthless.