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Jeff Jacoby

Latest battle in book price wars

By Jeff Jacoby
October 28, 2009

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THE AMERICAN Booksellers Association loves people who buy books. It loves them so much that it wants to protect them from wicked retailers who sell popular titles at affordable prices. In fact, it wants to protect them from themselves. Consumers, after all, are likely to rejoice at the chance to pick up a bestseller like Stephen King’s “Under the Dome’’ or John Grisham’s “Ford County’’ for just $9, well below their list price of $35 and $24 respectively. The ABA, a trade group for independent bookstores, is doing all it can to preserve the republic from such pernicious bargains.

In a letter to the US Department of Justice last week, the association called for an investigation into the “predatory’’ behavior of Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target - behavior it said “is damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers.’’ That “predatory’’ behavior - what the rest of the world would describe as lively competition - has taken the form of a price war, with the three retail giants offering 10 of the season’s most highly anticipated new books for as little as $8.98 each. At that price, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target are actually losing money, since books generally wholesale for about half their list price. But that’s not unusual: Merchants often promote a deeply discounted loss leader in order to attract new customers and stimulate additional sales.

To hear the American Booksellers Association tell it, however, the big online retailers are engaged not in spirited competition, but in an underhanded plot to eliminate competition.

Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target, the association claims in its letter to the Justice Department, “are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.’’ Evidence? The ABA offers none, and the proposition is hardly self-evident. Indeed, three paragraphs after accusing the big retailers of trying to monopolize book sales, the ABA’s letter acknowledges the “none of the companies involved are engaged primarily in the sale of books’’ and that they are offering such good deals on bestsellers “to attract customers to buy other . . . merchandise’’ (my italics).

More hyperbolic still is the ABA’s assertion that Amazon et al. “are devaluing the very concept of the book’’ and that “the entire book industry is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this war.’’ That is the sort of thing vendors always say when more efficient or productive competitors challenge them in the marketplace. (A decade ago the ABA said much the same thing about Barnes & Noble and Borders, when it attacked them for selling books at a discount.) As in every other industry, innovation and technology have changed the way books are bought and sold - and in the wake of change there are always winners and losers.

But if “the very concept of the book’’ is being shredded by low prices, the message hasn’t reached the millions of Americans who buy books. Even amid the recession, well over 3 billion books were sold in the United States in 2008, up from 2.3 billion five years earlier - and from less than 1 billion in 1988. The rise of discount book chains and online book sellers has certainly altered the industry, but it has only increased the appetite for books.

“While on the surface it may seem that these lower prices will encourage more reading,’’ says the booksellers association, “the reality is quite the opposite.’’ Right - just as inexpensive computers are causing the Internet to fade away. Behind the ABA’s strained logic and high-flown rhetoric is nothing but a self-interested plea for the government to hobble its competitors.

As it wrings its hands at the Amazon/Wal-Mart/Target discounts, the ABA groans that “there is simply no way for ABA members to compete.’’ Really? The big online retailers may have a price advantage, but well-managed independent bookstores have always had other advantages to play up: attentive and knowledgeable service, eye-catching displays, a reader- and author-friendly atmosphere, community involvement, the serendipitous joys of browsing.

The ABA does its members no favors by painting them as helpless victims, undone because Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target are discounting some popular books. Perhaps the ABA should remind itself that the best neighborhood booksellers inspire affection and allegiance from customers that no online superstore can match. Prices are important, but they aren’t all-important. And not everyone is looking for the latest Stephen King.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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