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Spending a penny

posted on 25 Jan 2017

Spending a penny

I have recently been compiling reading lists for students who will be starting modules I teach in the coming semester. For many of our students access to books is a real issue – they often don’t have the income to buy recommended editions at full price, our university library is always stretched for funds and so can only buy limited hardcopy numbers and electronic copies are so unpopular with students that many don’t see them as an option. My university continues to invest in ebooks despite feedback from students that clearly shows they dislike the format and find them hard to use – but, as far as college is concerned, they are relatively cheap and don’t clutter the shelves.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I am also pretty relaxed about which editions of books students use. In the world of textbooks in particular new and updated versions of textbooks command large cover prices even when the ‘updating’ is marginal and peripheral to the core of the topic. So, whether students have the 6th edition or the brand new 7th is most often neither here nor there in terms of the information they need to know at an undergraduate level. Quite often just getting them to read any book is something of a triumph.

However, I have found that telling students that there are books they should be reading available on Amazon for as little as 1p plus postage and packing can sometimes convince them that owning books they need isn’t beyond their reach. But the fact that books can be offered so cheaply has often puzzled students who have assumed this means that they must be worthless and of no use to them. And, it’s also made me think about what must be the economics behind the 1p book phenomenon.

It seems to me that the more you think about this part of the book market, the more bizarre and Alice in Wonderland-like it becomes. If a dealer advertises a book at 1p and adds on postage and packing costs of £2.80 – a total value of £2.81 – by the time they have deducted Amazon’s commission and the actual cost of the p&p, there can only be, literally, a few pence left in the profit column. So, in order, to make anything at all from this process you have to assume two or three other factors are in place:

·         They must be confident of shifting HUGE numbers of these cheap books

·         They must be able to source the books for nothing (or as close to nothing as makes no difference)

·         They must be able to make marginal savings on postage and packing through shifting stuff in bulk

All of which, it seems to me, presupposes that to operate in Amazon’s 1p universe you have to be a pretty considerable outfit with all the logistics in place.

For me at least I guess the key question is where the books are sourced from. If they have to be picked up for literally next to nothing I find it hard to imagine where on Earth they come from. Are these books that have already been packed up to be sent for pulverising – copies discarded by institutions or individuals that no longer see any need for them? Are they the books rejected by charity shops who seem to have become increasingly picky about what goes on their shelves?  I have no idea.

At one level you could make a case for this 1p book trade as an example of green recycling –helping the hard-pressed students I mentioned at the beginning of this piece and preventing even more landfill being generated. While I can applaud this it’s a version of bookselling that feels a bit like ‘bottom-feeding’  - hard work and constantly at the (probably literally) grubby end of the trade. What impact all this has on those further up the bookselling chain I have no idea but it must have an effect and I suspect it isn’t marginal.

It’s not the sort of bookselling most of us dream about. When we daydream of our bookshops we see only the choicest volumes and the most beautiful bindings on our shelves and we imagine the delightful conversations these will generate with our customers. The 1p world of bookselling is the industrial factory farming version of the bookselling world rather than the Arcadian free-range alternative most of us would rather be associated with. Whether it’s a good or bad thing probably depends on where you are in the marketplace – for consumers it has to be a good deal but for book dealers these lowest of the low prices must be a continuing headache.

 

Terry Potter

January 2017